12 October 2009

Notes on Almodóvar's History of Cinema


This past weekend I attended a talk with Pedro Almodóvar hosted by Richard Peña titled "Pedro Almodóvar's History of Cinema" as part of NYFF. While the details on the event were somewhat vague -- will he talk about the history of cinema? about all of this films? about his favorite films? -- I thought it'd be interesting nonetheless, as Almodóvar is one of my favorite contemporary directors, and I generally love hearing outspoken directors (Scorsese, Tarantino, e.g.) talk movies with pure cinephile enthusiasm. I took the liberty of taking some notes on what clips were shown and what was discussed to give you an idea of the event.

The night opened with a clip from John Cassavete's Opening Night. I found a YouTube clip. If you click on the 7:50 mark and play it to the end, you'd get the scene we were shown.

What is particularly attractive to Almodóvar in this sequence is the dynamic of the relationship between director and problematic actor. Almodóvar mentions that a director must be everything for an actor -- friend, father, lover, psychiatrist, etc -- but sometimes he must also be the executioner, meaning he must know when the actor needs tough love or a bit of a slap on the cheek. Almodóvar goes on to mention that this sequence perfectly demonstrates the idea that the actress must overcome her demons by herself through the metaphor of the white, empty walls through which Gena Rowlands's character stumbles.

Peña then brings up a story about Dreyer's cruelty of Falconetti in the making of Passion of Joan of Arc for the sake of getting the right emotion and right shot for the film, asking Almodóvar if he thought sometimes cruelty is necessary to make great art. Almodóvar replies by saying no, that a director shouldn't be purposefully cruel or play God in a way that abuses power, but then goes on to say that such cruelty is often the result of a director's intense obsession with getting the right shots and completing the film according to his vision. He goes on to mention how it was not uncommon for stuntmen to die for the sake of some shots Howard Hawks wanted ("and he wouldn't even wait a minute after the stuntman died to get on with the next shot if it was finished") . He then goes on to mention how the director will seek revenge through cinema, citing how Hitchcock had Tippi Hedren attacked on screen for a shot in The Birds with such severity that she had to be taken to the hospital, suggesting he let it go that far because she wouldn't sleep with him.

Opening Night is especially present in Almodóvar's All About My Mother, as is All About Eve. The next clip shown is of a beginning scene in All About My Mother when Manuela and her son sit down to watch All About Eve. Almodóvar goes on to speak about the dressing room for an actress being a "holy asylum for the feminine world," much in the same way a kitchen is for a mother or a bathroom is at a party. These are places in which there can be no lies, in which women are completely themselves and have no time or patience for pleasant formalities. This idea was inspired by All About Eve and found its way into All About My Mother through Huma Rojo. Almodóvar then went on to speak a little bit about Joseph Mankiewicz and his theory that Mankiewicz wanted to create a perfect film through All About Eve in his attempt to outdo his brother Herman Mankiewicz, particularly after Citizen Kane. I don't exactly remember if this was Almodóvar's own idea or an echo of urban legend. Either way, first time I heard of it.

Almodóvar goes on to explain that All About My Mother is Opening Night and All About Eve put together and injected with the idea of motherhood, which is very important for him. Another clip from Opening Night was played in which Gena Rowlands's character's fan gets hit by a car in the rain, a scene which Almodóvar almost directly lifted for All About My Mother. The primary contrast is that Almodóvar heightens the tragedy for his film by making it a son who is killed and his mother made witness to the scene. Almodóvar goes on to explain how the decision to shoot that scene the way he did, through the son's POV falling gently, was a spontaneous decision and one which he is very pleased with.

The next clip shown was from Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata. If you start from the 1:40 mark in the clip below and play it through the end you'd get what we were shown.

The main idea that Almodóvar extracts from this film, particularly this sequence, is the way in which films can often express our deepest feelings better than we can articulate them. He uses this idea in his film High Heels, which was shown next. I couldn't find a clip on the internet, which is too bad. For those who've seen the movie (unlike me) it is a confrontation between a daughter and mother in which the daughter cites Autumn Sonata to express how she feels about her mother's treatment of her. It is an overly dramatic scene with screaming set in an empty building.

Peña goes on to say how Almodóvar's scene is like the acted-out subtext of Bergman's scene, to which Almodóvar agrees. Almodóvar talks a bit about his love of Bergman, mentioning that one dream of his is to film one of Bergman's abandoned scripts. The first Bergman film Almodóvar saw was The Virgin Spring, which he saw as a child of 10 years. Almodóvar points out that Bergman, like Cassavetes, wrote great roles for women. He suggests that perhaps this comes out of the fact that both of them made films using women they've had relationships and children with. Almodóvar feels the biggest influences Bergman has on him are theatricality and use of long monologues within his films, which the High Heels clip particularly demonstrates. Also, Bergman's affection for extreme close-ups of the face in long take, which he says is absent from mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and editing nowadays.

The second biggest influence in High Heels is Douglas Sirk, whose boldly colored melodramas are always cited as a source of Almodóvar's art. Almodóvar mentions that what he particularly takes from Sirk in High Heels is his use of Lana Turner, by which I guess he means Imitation of Life. The relationship between the mother and daughter characters in High Heels is inspired by Lana Turner and her daughter Cheryl Crane. Not only is the mother in High Heels a diva and neglectful mother, but her daughter also kills a man for her mother's attention and love, to free the person she loves most. Lastly, Almodóvar says the third influence in High Heels is the black humor of fellow countryman Luis Buñuel, though I missed notes on this.

The last part of the evening was centered around the idea of men within Almodóvar's films, or at least it was supposed to be. Almodóvar refers to Talk to Her, since his protagonists in that film are men, though the subject becomes very mixed after screening a clip from The Incredible Shrinking Man. The clip shown was of the man within the dollhouse being terrorized by the cat, I think for the first time. Here is something close:

Almodóvar says he loves this film and thinks it did a lot to convey the American psyche during the period, much more than 'A' Hollywood pictures. I don't remember exactly what the discussion was about after that -- I think Roman Polanski was brought up, as well as the French Cultural Minister. Anyway, then a clip from Talk to Her was shown, which is the film within the film The Shrinking Lover, which is used in Talk to Her as a suggestion of Benigno's rape of his patient. I couldn't find a whole clip, but here's the beginning part (from Mr. Skin no less).

Following that clip Almodóvar gave what is probably the best short anecdote I've heard all year. He starts explaining how everything had to be made in a studio, including the huge prop vagina (which the tiny man enters in the film), then he says that Warren Beatty asked him where he was keeping it. Hahaha. "It's true!" he says. And with that, the night ended.

Overall it was a nice experience, though hardly as comprehensive as I would have liked, since only three films were really talked about of Almodóvar's and only three other films had clips shown. I know that Almodóvar has a lot more movie love to share (for example, in his latest Broken Embraces Fritz Lang, Louis Malle and Romy Schneider are mentioned), but I suppose that would have extended the night much too long (for some people).

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