Teeming with beautiful people who routinely burn beds or weep openly out on its streets, Pedro Almodóvar’s Madrid is a strange and magical place. Exploding in color, it is a city subjected to a constant torrent of emotion and deceit churned up by outrageous women and handsome but impotent men. The Spanish capital—where all his movies save his newest are set—is a place that makes the real world seem destitute by comparison. Watch one of his films and then ask yourself: Why aren’t Almodóvar’s people wandering our streets? Where are the transsexual whores who mingle with the city’s top actresses? The paraplegic cops who sleep with and marry heroin addicts? The babies who are born on city buses, squalling while midwives bite their umbilical cords free? Almodóvar might say that they are everywhere we can come under the spell of a movie. Like the aged Don Quixote transformed into madness by his romances, his coterie of oddballs is enriched by films, even as they try to live up to cinema’s impossible fantasy.

Almodóvar grew up in the Castilian/La Mancha region of southern Spain, in the rural town of Calzada de Calatrava, the son of a muleteer father and a beloved mother who wouldn’t take any grief from anyone. Calzada had no cinema, but when Almodóvar was eight his family moved to the only slightly more prosperous hamlet of Caceres, where the school and the movie house shared a street. Like most aspiring filmmakers, he watched his favorite pictures again and again, memorizing the names of directors, cinematographers, editors. His diet included the wacky sixties comedies like The Glass Bottom Boat, one of Frank Tashlin’s Doris Day vehicles that feature Day-Glo sets, as well as headier fare, including Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk.

In an effort to get his eldest boy an education, Almodóvar’s father sent Pedro to a Catholic school, where he was almost immediately abused by the priests. Finally, at sixteen, he ran away to Madrid, ignoring his father’s threats to call the police. This was not a light warning, as the cops under Franco were notoriously brutal, especially to homosexuals, and the headstrong Almodóvar was just coming out of the closet.

His early career was bizarre, to say the least. Almodóvar sported fishnet stockings and fronted a punk rock band. He wrote a novel about a tampon magnate who is involved in a love triangle. Working with underground magazines and comics led to his job at a major magazine, where, pretending to be a female porn star, he wrote a weekly column.

All the while, he toiled at the national telephone company, saving money to buy his first Super-8 camera. Then he hit the streets of Madrid, making clandestine shorts until the new constitution, passed in 1978 after Franco’s death, allowed filmmakers to express themselves in public. As if to flaunt this freedom, Almodóvar named his first feature-length film, made that same year, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck Me Tim! It tells the story of a blind guitarist whose girlfriend, once he becomes famous, also loses her sight.

By now, Almodóvar’s career as anything but a filmmaker was over. “Cinema is a vampire lover,” he told an interviewer in 1988. “It doesn’t let you do other things.” His devotion to this vampire lover proved to be more fruitful than anyone could have imagined, as he produced eight films in the next ten years that were enormously successful, in Spain and abroad.

In the early years, critics did their best to pigeonhole Almodóvar, lumping him in with the likes of Fassbinder, John Waters, and, unbelievably, Russ Meyer. To a Spain coming out from under the oppression of the Franco regime, Almodóvar’s eccentric films were refreshing. As other Spanish filmmakers did, Almodóvar could have spent his career trying to expunge the memory of the dictatorship, but, to the dismay of some critics, he chose to make films that “den[y] the memory of Franco” by being utterly apolitical. In fact, as Almodóvar matured, his movies became powerful emotional vehicles about dreamers struggling against the weight of the world—and often using a love of film to transform their wretched lives.

It is not hard to imagine how he would end up taking this route. Even mediocre movies can engage the spirit, mesmerizing viewers (including, especially, budding directors) with a host of media, encompassing writing, music, dance, photography, and, of course, acting and directing. Explaining the intense use of color in his films, Almodóvar has said that it “is my way of fighting the austerity of my origins.” Anyone from a lugubrious small town lacking in culture and even actual color knows that a mediocre picture like The Glass Bottom Boat can be a profound joy. How often do small-town nobodies recreate the dance steps of Singin’ in the Rain or, perhaps more pathetically, the longbow techniques of an elf in Lord of the Rings? Almodóvar, like too many of us, trusts film implicitly, believing that the stories unfolding before him were ones that could change a person’s life. They certainly changed his.

And so, armed with a camera, Almodóvar set out to show the world a life informed by film. 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which established the filmmaker’s reputation in America, not only references some of Billy Wilder’s comedies of the sixties, like One, Two, Three!, but also Rear Window in many of its shots as well as its story (in fact, a voyeuristic shot of a woman dancing is a direct copy of one from the Hitchcock film).

But Almodóvar is not content simply to borrow from his masters: Pepa (played by original Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura) meets her lover dubbing films in Spanish, most notably Joan Crawford’s voice in the western Johnny Guitar. Her paramour’s jealous and psychotic wife comes out of a decade-long trance when she hears her husband’s dubbing the voice of Crawford co-star Sterling Hayden—and with that, the fun begins. What is considered perhaps the most over-the-top melodramatic western in history is a catalyst for the characters in an over-the-top melodramatic comedy.

In an early scene in All About My Mother (1999), the filmmaker’s tribute to the Almodóvar matriarch, the titular mother and her doomed son watch All About Eve. The film draws out a telling conversation that will inform the rest of the movie—which becomes in many ways a remake, albeit a very sweet one, of the catty Bette Davis vehicle.

Mother is, then, both homage and remake. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a play within the film: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, a piece of drama so dominated by its cinematic double that its Stanley Kowalski is forever judged by Marlon Brando’s performance. Here, though, Almodóvar seems intent on returning Streetcar to its rightful place as a vehicle for Blanche—and his own female characters in All About My Mother.

Classics like All About Eve, Vertigo, Rear Window, Johnny Guitar—to name but a few—are invoked like saints in Almodóvar’s films. But these are not just sly references from a precocious cinema-studies wonk (Almodóvar was self-taught, anyway); rather, they offer clues to his characters’ motivations, or serve as outright plot devices used to move the story forward. Unlike the Coen brothers in their weak moments, Almodóvar never references a movie merely for homage. Like a mobius strip circling back upon itself, this is a cinematic world under the influence of a director god, whose characters, at the same moment, watch movies in this little world—and act, often tragically, upon them.

His characters are condemned to live, as many of us do, encircled by clouds of Hollywood fantasy that can enrich lives as much as they can destroy them. Almodóvar’s people watch movies obsessively, act out fantasies, try to look like other people, are filmmakers, dancers, and musicians themselves, lost in their art. But there is an honesty to them, because Almodóvar recognizes that their dreams are a necessary part of a cruel world. These people may not have anything else going for them besides their attempts to live up to impossible fantasies—but the world is a better place for those attempts. “All I have that’s real are my feelings,” admits a transsexual whore in <em>All About My Mother</em>. Could anything be more real?

In his masterpiece Talk to Her (2002), Almodóvar borrows from Vertigo in a manner that directly propels his own story and makes it meaningful. Noticing his nod to Hitchcock’s most uneasy thriller will reward the viewer, who can then see that the protagonist, Benigno, will take a path eerily similar to that of Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie Ferguson.

But you can ignore the reference to the Master of Suspense and still be fulfilled—whereas the Coens’ nod to Night of the Hunter in The Man Who Wasn’t There has no value whatsoever, except to elicit knowing looks on the part of film buffs. And Talk to Her’s most intense scene is hidden by the film-within-a-film (a wildly erotic silent film called The Shrinking Lover, one of Almodóvar’s own short films), which not only inspires the protagonist to rape his comatose charge, but also allows Almodóvar to hide this depraved act by showing us the silent picture.

Almodóvar’s work over the last dozen years has attained a level of emotional maturity that virtually no other director today has achieved. Put simply, he makes us care deeply for people who commit revolting acts or who are utterly self-destructive. We watch in awe as they take whatever anodyne can soothe the cruelty meted out to them in (often short) lifetimes. That Almodóvar does this without hovering over the pain and sorrow, and instead offers restraint and respect—no matter what the crime or moral decision—makes his films unique.

For this reason, attempting to summarize one of his plots can seem like an invitation for abuse. Could you really convince someone alien to Almodóvar that Talk to Her, the story of two men who love two respective comatose women, one to the extent that he impregnates his and wishes to marry her, would be anything other than exploitive? At best, this sounds like a sick comedy instead of searing melodrama (and also the best film of its year).

One has to wonder: Did poverty and a life in the wastelands of Spain push Almodóvar to these heights? Did the combination of his abuse and his intensely loving family somehow help him to create a world without loathsome characters? Almodóvar adores his rapists, his drug addicts and transsexuals, loves the brutish men who demand blow jobs at inopportune moments; he loves the sinner nearly as much as the sin, and possesses a cunning instinct for family, for those who are lost, for the underclass, and for the rich. Growing up in small Catholic towns, it is unlikely that he encountered too many transvestites and criminals—the movies would prove, then, to be his first window into the sordid, and often sympathetic, world of the big city: the place that would become his Madrid.

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