All About My Mother
This flagrant mixing of genres and film references has been seen as a central facet of Almodóvar’s postmodernism. Celestino Deleyto has sensitively explored the implications of the postmodern in relation to Almodóvar’s films, noting how “postmodernism manifests a more overt self-referentiality in art [than Modernism]—the artist not only doubts the ability to represent reality but also mistrusts the existence of anything that can be called reality and chooses art … as the most immediate form of reference … Signification, in the postmodernist text, comes from a relationship of text to text, rather than one of signifier to signified” (Deleyto, 50).
It’s easy to see how this definition might be applied to Almodóvar’s cinema. His work continually puts diverse films into dialogue and derives much of its meaning from the “relationship of text to text”. On the other hand, Almodóvar’s work, especially his more recent films, can scarcely be accused of giving up on reality as emphatically as does some postmodernist fiction. “Cinema,” Almodóvar has said, “speaks of reality, of things which are true, but must become a representation of reality in order to be recognizable” (Strauss, 14). Cinema referencing thus allows Almodóvar to acknowledge film as a part of life, and to explore the connections and divergences between cinematic representation and everyday experience, between performance and “real” emotion.
As such, the subversive fun of Almodóvar’s early movies and the rich emotional texture of his later ones, would be diminished without the range of cultural allusions which they contain. For Arroyo, Almodóvar’s best work succeeds in combining “a quasi-classical Hollywood narrative structure (which facilitates audience identification) [with] a very self-conscious narration (which normally produces an alienation effect). This results in dialectical moments in which the absurd can be imbued with emotional resonance…, the emotional can be checked with cheek without disrupting identification…, and camp can be imbued with depth without losing its wit… Almodóvar drills a heart into the postmodern and fills it with an operatic range of feeling”. Such comments endorse Pauline Kael’s famous description of Almodóvar as “Godard with a human face—a happy face”.
Certainly cinema plays a crucial role in the way in which Almodóvar’s characters experience and construct the world. The films that his protagonists see have a profoundly emotional effect on them, impacting upon their behavior in ways that cannot always be described as positive. Think of Matador’s lovers finding the model for their destructive passion in the images of Duel in the Sun; Law of Desire’s Antonio heading to the bathroom to masturbate after the screening of “The Paradigm of the Mussel”; Women on the Verge’s Pepa finding her own romantic entanglement reflected as she dubs Johnny Guitar; High Heels’s Rebeca explaining her relationship with her mother by referencing Autumn Sonata; Talk To Her’s Beningo motivated to sexual assault after seeing “The Shrinking Lover”; the boys in Bad Education discovering their (queer) sexuality as they watch Sara Montiel in That Woman. Movie-going in Almodóvar is embodied, sensual and experiential; the director recognises film as an important prism through which the viewer apprehends the world, and through which they may discover new possibilities of experience and identity beyond those offered in their everyday “reality”.
Almodóvar’s awareness of film’s ability to form part of the fabric of the spectator’s existence gives his work a special kind of resonance for movie-lovers. As the director himself has stated: “For me seeing a good film is like meeting someone who is going to have an influence on me. It happens less and less often but it’s something from which I derive greater and greater pleasure … Seeing a good film … is like a love affair. It’s what gives my life delight, hope” (Strauss, 227-228). Almodóvar here provides a touching definition of the kind of experience that his own work consistently offers for his fans.
Commenting on his childhood cinema-going, Almodóvar reports how he would return from the cinema and tell his friends and siblings the story of the film he’d just seen—often changing or adapting details in order to “improve” upon or embellish the movie. In a sense, this kind of creative retelling of cinematic narratives has continued throughout Almodóvar’s own work, in which the director incorporates references to other films as a way of developing and (re-)contextualising his own stories. Demonstrating the extent to which his characters live through and by film, Almodóvar synthesises pop and punk, Hollywood and European traditions, mainstream and the avant garde, kitsch and classicism. His films collapse these categories in order to create a distinctive world on screen, a richly inclusive mosaic made up of diverse cultural sources. In this way, referencing cinema becomes, paradoxically enough, one of the elements that makes Almodóvar’s work fresh, original and unique.