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Friday, March 16, 2007

Daniel Mendelsohn on Pedro Almodovar

I've been meaning to mention a wonderful review of Volver in the New York Review of Books by Daniel Mendelsohn, who Alice and I both love. He is the author of the family history/nonfiction detective story The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which I bet is great since his movie reviews glow with introspection.

See Alice, I'm not just spiteful towards writers whose jobs I wish I had! (E.g. & i.e., New Yorker film critic David Denby.) And there's another that Alice and I both like, we realized last week: the rascally Terrence Rafferty, formerly of the New Yorker and GQ (Alice directed me to his latest, a review in the NY Times of Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, where Rafferty is typically witty and sexy), who gets as ecstatic as Denby does but leaves me knowing and seeing more than before, as opposed to sucking my brain out with a straw.

Mendelsohn's review (called "The Women of Pedro Almodovar") discusses the trends in Almodovar's filmmaking, especially his move from camp to sincere drama. But it also mentions several surprises in the plot of Volver and (though less so) other Amodovar films, FYI. From the essay:
In the 1995 Almodóvar film The Flower of My Secret—a work that stands at the chronological midpoint between the director's earliest movies, with their DayGlo emotions and Benzedrine-driven plots, and the technically smoother and emotionally subtler films of the past few years—a successful middle-aged writer called Leocadia (Leo) Macìas... is an author of a series of very popular novelas rosa, romance novels (literally, "pink novels"), but her life of late has been so tortured—her handsome army officer husband is leaving her, very likely for another woman; her impossible mother is driving her and her put-upon sister nuts—that, as she tells her bemused editor, whatever she writes comes out not pink, but black.

This wry pun is meant by Leo to explain the manuscript she's just submitted, to which the editor, Alicia, has reacted not at all well. As Alicia points out to a weary Leo, the new novel... [is] about
a mother who discovers her daughter has killed her father, who had tried to rape her. And so that no one finds out, she hides the body in the cold storage room of a neighbor's restaurant...!
When Leo, defending the artistry of The Cold Storage Room, gently protests that "reality is like that," Alicia launches into an outburst about "reality":
Reality! We all have enough reality in our homes! Reality is for newspapers and TV. Look at the result! With so much reality, the country's ready to explode. Reality should be banned!
Since [The Flower of My Secret], too, there's been an emphasis in the films on intense feelings that somehow do not lead to seduction, murder, and suicide. (The will to survive, the desire to nurture, and the need to commemorate, for instance.) If the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, like Matador sixteen years earlier, is about bullfighters and gorings, the tone of the movie, the passions that animate it—that of a journalist for the torera, and of the great torero who is his rival for her affections—are restrained, almost somber.
Looking back at the complex evolution of Almodóvar's style over the past two decades allows you, among other things, to see a secret and symbolic irony at play in Leo's argument with her editor in The Flower of My Secret. For Leo, greater artistic seriousness was represented by a commitment to subjects that seemed to her more grittily real, more violent, more working-class—more noir, in every sense—than the rose-colored fantasy world of her romance novels, with (presumably) their reveries about intense attentions of men to the erotic and emotional needs of women. And yet the director's own progress to greater depth and maturity has moved, if anything, in the opposite direction.