Volver

13 July 2013

Today I found notes for something I was going to write about Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Looking at unfinished pieces is terrifying: you start to wonder whether you’ll finish anything; you don’t recognize this stranger who’s writing; you begin to worry about the continuity of the self, mortality, etc.; worst of all you usually wind up deciding that even if you’d finished it when you still remembered what you were thinking the idea wasn’t all that great to begin with. So. I’m going to try to write this one. It’s more for my benefit than for yours.

almodovar

The third time I saw Volver (2006) I checked it out from the Casco Viejo branch of the municipal library in Bilbao. This would have been three years ago, sometime in the spring: the fifth floor of an apartment with a balcony overlooking the river, grey-green light, lots of vermouth. There was a director’s commentary. Almodóvar, kind of using Penelope Cruz as a sounding board, started to talk about patios: “En La Mancha,” he said, “los patios son esenciales. Un gran parte de la vida se lleva a cabo en estos patios. … Son patios mucho menos alegres que los andaluzes, mucho más austeros, porque la vida de allí es una de interiores. Las calles … son calles vacios.” And a little later he repeats himself: “Otra vez: Esto es la típica que lleva manchega. No tiene nada que ver con la andaluza: blanca, con zócanos, aspiras en flores, sin ningún adorno.”

Back when it was in theaters Stateside I’d enjoyed the film in the same way as, I imagine, most cinephile international audiences: as another archetypical extrusion from Mundo Almodóvar, all eyepopping reds and darkhaired women with wild eyes and gazpacho and Madrid Madrid Madrid, the same kind of aesthetic place as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). You know, Spain. (Here’s A.O. Scott for the Times: “The action in Volver moves back and forth between a workaday neighborhood in Madrid and a windswept village in the Spanish countryside. Really, though, the movie takes place in a familiar, enchanted land—Almodóvaria, you might call it, or maybe Pedrostan—where every room and street corner is saturated with bright color and vivid feeling…”)

And while I don’t want to suggest that this was a misreading, exactly, it occurred to me that day that Almodóvar was talking about a film that was much more particular and regional than the one I’d watched, full of signals that I wasn’t equipped to decode.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, Ciudad Real, “un pueblo de pocos ricos y muchos pobres.” [1] His mother wrote poems and read to him at night. She made extra money by writing letters for her illiterate neighbors. His father was an arreiro, a mule driver; he made wine at home and would haul barrels of it to market. Trucks and highways put an end to mules, and the family moved to a town outside of Cáceres, one of the two provincial capitals in Extremadura. None of these are places you want to be from: goats, high arid plains, hot as shit in the summer, cold as fuck in the winter, at the edge of all things. They call places like this (and places like Jaén) España profunda: “deep Spain.” But Cáceres had a cinema. Pedro watched movies, remade them in his head. When he was 18 he left for Madrid and never looked back.

Penelope Cruz’s Raimundo is, in fact, a kind of biographical stand-in for Almodóvar— she grows up in a baroquely-named pueblito in La Mancha, flees it for Madrid, severs ties with her past, estranges herself from her mother, who is literally a living ghost. Her escape from it mirrors his; so, too, her eventual reconciliation with her origins. The film basically dramatizes Almodóvar’s coming to terms with his own past. (Also it’s a Technicolor domestic pulp, a multigenerational family saga played for laughs, and a ghost story.) Almodóvar, as it happens, makes this explicit in interview after interview: “He vuelto a mis propias raíces y a la memoria de mi madre. Me baso absolutamente en mi vida, mis recuerdos, y los de mi familia.” And: “Este película me reconcilió con mi infancia.” [2,3]

This autobiographical trajectory, La Mancha to Extremadura to Madrid, intersects with no Spain I ever became fluent in. The center is a blank page; I lived in peripheries. When Volver travels from Madrid to Alcanfor de las Infantas, fictional wind-scoured pueblo with the highest rate of insanity in the country (literally: ‘mothballs of the princesses’) the dialogue suddenly starts picking up manchego inflections. I can just about perceive it, but I don’t actually understand. At one point in the commentary Almodóvar starts laughing with Cruz about how typical of La Mancha something Sole has just said is—está en mala cojónada— which is so colloquially rural I can’t even find an internet reference. It’s something like watching Fargo with no sense of Minnesota as a discrete place, a setting where regionalisms are being faithfully rendered and occasionally parodied. This film isn’t set in Spain, because Spain doesn’t exist; it’s set in La Mancha. What’s La Mancha? I have no idea.

When you’re foreign—and n.b., maybe this is only true or surprising if you’re in your early twenties and abroad for the first time in your life, maybe I’m naïvely stating the obvious, but this is how it was for me, back then—you’re suddenly blind to a thousand internal signifiers, coded images meant to be apprehended in an instant. They’re too obvious to articulate. (Here’s Barthes, in Mythologies: “For the Blue Guide, men only exist as ‘types.’ In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a highlander.”) Stereotypes are characters in the stories that cultures tell.

And it becomes important to be fluent in your local stereotypes—quick, show me Cantabria on a map—even if there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down quality to how typologies, more and more specifically-targeted, end up demonstrating their own incoherence. (Spaniards are like this, sure, but then Basques are like that and Andalucíans like the other, and then in Andalucía of course nothing could be more different than the sevillanos, who are all pijos riding like white stallions to the fería and swilling manzanilla and never leaving the capital, and the jiennenses, who are bent over backwards from spending all day in the olive groves and drink beer and…)

Accents display class and status: On mainstream Spanish sitcoms Andalucíans are country bumpkins, the comic relief. To speak in andaluz dialect is actually to already be setting up the joke. And because it’s (surprisingly?) tricky to hear accents in a language you’re learning—certainly almost impossible to notice, in a film with subtitles in a language you don’t speak at all, the different ways that characters sound—you’re blind to this signaling, to the joke being set up. You wonder why everyone in the audience is laughing. Which opacity can be interesting, in and of itself—you know something’s being communicated, but can’t see quite what it is…

(I’m reminded, though no good example comes to mind, of novels of a certain age or cultural remove—you get what’s clearly meant to be a telling detail, but have to kind of guess at what it’s supposed to signify.)

Almodóvar filmed in a pueblo in Ciudad Real fifteen miles from the one he’d grown up in. I’ve gone back to my roots, he said, and to the memory of my mother. And: In La Mancha, the patios are essential. Most of life takes place in them. They’re much less joyful than those of Andalucía, much more austere, because life there is one of interiors. The streets are deserted. Again, he said: This is typical of La Mancha. Nothing to do with Andalucía: white, with zócanos, you breath in flowers, without a single decoration.

When he was a child he’d sit with the women of his family in the patio—really more of a enclosed courtyard? is that the better translation?—of their home, like the Fellini alter-ego in 8 1/2. Pueblos in La Mancha seem as closed as fists. The film opens in a graveyard on Día de Todos los Santos, dozens of women shrouded in black frantically cleaning gravestones while the insane-making wind blows and the dust settles everywhere—something there, I suppose, about the nature of women’s work: domestic, undervalued, endless, like so many of the details of the murder of Penelope Cruz’s abusive rapist husband, which have to do with once again cleaning up after him. I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find, what on earth a zócano is— some kind of stock or wooden stand for a loom, I think.

This film reconciled me with my childhood, he said.

How much do you miss? How much does it matter? All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the me who watched this in college & liked it & ended up going to Spain & had to reconcile the actual country with the myth of that country he’d built in his head, he was getting a very different enjoyment out of it, seeing very different things, than a Madrid theater audience, or again the audience Almodóvar screened it for in his former hometown, or indeed Almodóvar himself, the resonance of language & gesture, the nostalgia, the reasons he’d made it in the first place. Perfect transmission is of course a fantasy. I like the bit in Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text where he asks rhetorically whether anyone has ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word. “Proust’s good fortune,” he adds in parenthesis: “from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.”

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