All About All About My Mother directed by …

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Still, it ain’t all
that. Almodovar’s manifesto takes the predictable form of a deluxe soap-comedy
about sexual confusion and romantic travail. Cecilia Roth plays Manuela, whose
son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) is killed on his 17th birthday after attending a performance
of A Streetcar Named Desire. She journeys back to Barcelona where he
was conceived to confront his father–a transsexual lothario gone from Esteban
Sr. to Lola (Toni Canto). More transformations occur when Manuela’s old
friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), another transsexual hustler, introduces her
to Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a pregnant novitiate unable to warm to her own
mother (Rosa Maria Sarda). Mid-farce, Manuela re-encounters Huma Rojo (Marisa
Paredes), the stage star of that sad Streetcar production who is anguished
over her lesbian lover Nina (Candela Peña). Almodovar gets up close to
these actresses’ faces, presenting a grand, warm message of love.

The letdown comes from how
All About My Mother’s more conventional, straight-friendly approach
expropriates his former bold vision. Why, after all the plot’s slapstick
tragic twists and revelations (Almodovar’s salute to alternative lifestyles),
does this film appease the mainstream more than a trailblazing movie like Almodovar’s
Live Flesh or Patrice Chereau’s great Those Who Love Me Can Take
the Train
? Well, there are fewer rebellious males on view. But, obviously,
with a more fluid style and greater expertise, Almodovar has gotten past the
showy agitation of his lesser 90s films. Now status-quo critics warm to him
because he doesn’t challenge the way they live. Satisfactory as All
About My Mother
is–it has subliminal links to Hollywood camp–it’s
an example of how insidiously pop culture inures us to the unfairness of the
status quo, the facts of living Almodovar’s characters once railed against.

More than his 1988 masterpiece
Women on the Verge (a heterosexual farce), the new film (an omnisexual
farce) settles into romantic uplift. The subtext of Women on the Verge’s
pop artifices was unnerving–it put heterosexual farce in quotation marks,
not as disguise but as boulevard critique. Here Almodovar’s surface sexual
content shows how revanchist pop culture becomes–only movies about middle
class, affluence or female ambiguity win approval. All About My Mother’s
soothing view of passion lacks any underlying subversive propulsion. It glides
on hard-won wisdom. What Almodovar knows about men and women’s role-playing–the
sexual ideologies that inflame and scorch–gets comfortably assimilated.

Nothing here is as striking
as the image in Women on the Verge of Carmen Maura accidentally-on-purpose
burning her bed. The ambivalence of that moment has been continued in Vincent
Perez’s transsexual performance in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.
But All About My Mother domesticates Almodovar’s outrageous genius;
this film’s most startling moment is purely formal: a rightward pan across
a rippling red-velvet stage curtain punctuated by the blast of a white spotlight.
What follows, Agrado’s autobiographical monologue, is more homiletic than
provocative ( "You are more authentic the more you resemble what you dream
you are"). Agrado’s speech explains much of this cross-sexual identification.
It’s a line choreographer Mark Morris has used but its sense was active
in Women on the Verge. That entire film was an act of Almodovar’s
sympathetic imagination whereas this one comes close to showing off different
sexuality–nature’s complexity–as a glib freakshow. Only that
curtain/spotlight trick exhibits Almodovar’s instinct for ecstatically
subverting the way audiences see and think.

Almodovar himself rethinks
the cultural forms that construct his sense of romance, fantasy, sexual identification.
He choreographs endless patterns of red, yellow and flesh tones (a huge poster
of Huma deconstructs her features into red, blue, black Benday dots), raising
flamboyance to art. The key scene–when Huma, Manuela, Rosa and Agrado have
an impromptu coffee klatch–is a ballet of intercut closeups and group shots;
it vibrates a warmth of female interaction unlike any movie since Dreyer’s
Master of the House. But Dreyer’s observation conveyed heterosexual
appreciation while Almodovar conveys identification. Like Manuela’s son,
he disappears into the film, giving it such innocent, open-faced fascination
you can’t quite believe it.

But you catch the drift
of this infatuation even before the epigraph saluting Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands,
Romy Schneider and Almodovar’s own mother. Almodovar’s cult of the
goddess works to dispel the myth of gay male misogyny. First, he clarifies his
emotional identification with women using several characters’ reverence
for Bette Davis in All About Eve and Tennessee Williams’ great drama–but
without any distorted, camp readings. Almodovar knows the difference between
camp appreciation and the artistic value of past art that contributed to gay
enlightenment and self-worth. This is a confused issue in contemporary gay culture.
In an interview with Time Out New York’s Maitland McDonagh, filmmaker
Rose Troche foolishly admitted a desire to do an all-lesbian version of Who’s
Afraid of Virginia Woolf
–seemingly a bold ambition, yet totally against
Albee’s repeated wishes and intent. It misunderstands art and empathy.
All About Eve and Streetcar inspire Almodovar without him diminishing
their universality (the same can be said for Cocteau’s The Human Voice
featured in 1987’s Law of Desire). Almodovar’s interpretation
of art’s humanist legacy and his sophisticated view of human experience
manifests in empathy. As much as Wayne Wang in Anywhere But Here and
The Joy Luck Club
, he loves the drama of female fortitude. It’s the
way he defines humanity. And yet he enjoys the freedom to express his own difference.
(Characters like Agrado and the barely defined Lola desire to be women yet are
the film’s least successful characters–perhaps because Almodovar is
shoehorning them into his construct, perhaps because they are not greatly empathetic
performers as was Carmen Maura.) Almodovar isn’t being more forthright
than Williams but running smack into the imaginative necessity that made Williams
great–the sympathetic imagination of desire across gender


"Streetcar has
marked my life," Manuela sighs. This identification defines Manuela’s
longings but it rings true to a significant moment in gay males’ passage–when
an artistic sensibility converges with an innate political sensibility that
must, perforce, be called feminism. Connecting with, then interpreting, art
for both its private and public meanings has a poignancy that most definitions
of camp (a sometimes specious gay virtue) don’t allow. But this is as much
a modern condition as it is gay (cf. the films of Jean-Luc Godard,
Jacques Demy, Brian De Palma, Terence Davies). Almodovar explores it vividly.
Manuela, who works in a hospital’s organ transplant department, even acts
in training tapes that (when real-life tragedy happens) reflect on her personal
melodrama. At that point Almodovar’s gay exegesis is complete–cross-sexual
and metaphysical. ("I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives
and now it’s happening in mine," Morrissey sang in "That Joke
Isn’t Funny Anymore"–his adaptation of dialogue from Alice
into his own sensitive melodrama.)

Almodovar understands that
Williams identifies with the plight of women as well as their ardor. (Manuela
sees herself not as Blanche, but Stella, loving cruel Stanley and carrying his
child.) This insight is remarkable, and All About My Mother is extraordinary
for its many scenes of women’s casual reactions to outrageousness and acceptance
of disaster–they fuse male understanding with feminine empathy. Manuela’s
exasperated response to Lola’s latest affront–"How could someone
be a machista with such tits!"–is one with the male insights
of such mother- love plays as Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo
and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds that explore
a woman’s romantic life, to show compassion for the ways the world abuses

Fact is All About My
displaces female experience–and that’s okay. So did Ingmar
Bergman’s About These Women. But the media’s uncritical celebration
of All About My Mother may prevent people from examining the complex
strategies of Almodovar’s sexual humanism or realizing how the gay male
identification with women frees him to do his best work: the unimpeded recognition
of sexual drive. Almodovar’s previous film Live Flesh (the Spanish
title Carne Tremula most surely suggests Quivering Flesh) has
a homosexual spark, a rare male sexual intensity like Those Who Love Me–plus
more. Almodovar crossed both men and women’s live-wire sexuality without
separating it. Live Flesh wasn’t a masculine companion piece to
All About My Mother; it was hotter. It was equal to Tennessee Williams
whereas this new film is post-Williams. All About My Mother retreats
(pleasantly) from sexual tumultuousness. Women on the Verge and Live
were fascinating for expressing women’s rage (and much better
than tripe like The Rage: Carrie 2) and men’s frustration.

"How does it feel to
be adored?" I asked the woman sitting next to me when the end credits materialized.
Honoring women as iconographic ideals suits me and may be less mawkish than
outright autobiography/idolatry, but the egalitarian Almodovar was better.

villain asks, "What’s your concern, Mr. Bond, the preservation
of capital?" As the terrific title The World Is Not Enough makes
clear, the James Bond series has devolved into a nakedly commercial enterprise.
Now there’s only a semi-critical attitude toward swank, greed and nationalist
aggression, though at its 60s high point, the series was somewhat satirical
with then-naive innuendo and popular fascination with automobiles and luxe–the
latter cleverly parodied in Ken Adam’s ingenious, toylike set designs.
(In my neighborhood the sets were as sexy as the cars and girls.)

In World (Bond XIX),
Pierce Brosnan goes from Bilbao to London, Azerbaijan to Baku tracking a terrorist’s
plot on a Eurasian oil pipeline. After David O. Russell’s Three Kings
proved entertainment could carry global political commentary, World’s
plot seems promising. It is self-conscious enough to chide penurious Swiss Banks;
there’s even a Russell-worthy line debunking the "bright, starry,
oil-driven future of the West." Yet none of this deepens or intensifies
the action as happens in Three Kings. Director Michael Apted and the
team of screenwriters cannot make the Bond franchise (itself a preserve of Western
capitalism) do anything more than placate the capitalist audience.

Does this work out some
guilt complex? The last Bond film parodied Rupert Murdoch-Robert Maxwell empires,
this one pits Bond and his institution of Western interests against an international
oil tycoon’s vengeful daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), and a cartoon
Russian terrorist (Robert Carlyle)–a plain, if superficial, political standoff.
But this may, actually, be more Anglocentric and xenophobic than earlier installments.
Unlike George Clooney’s rabble-rousing speech in Three Kings, World
doesn’t clarify how acquisitiveness genuinely replaces politics in contemporary
ideology. Elektra’s cry "To the glory of my people"–a hollow
concern with national pride and ethnic indignation–could be shouted by
the filmmakers themselves. M (Judi Dench, better in the two previous films for
her suggestion of a dykey Margaret Thatcher) watches Bond in a moment of heartless
murder. But adding this self-consciousness to the series doesn’t add enough.
Three Kings, The Peacekeeper and the last Indiana Jones movie
were smarter about the wages of fun in global economics. World gets no
better than offering an Uzi-toting caviar importer who quips, "I’m
a slave to the free-market economy." This is a series by people who should
know better, designed with minimal imagination for audiences who should know