Authors: Paul Duncan, Bárbara Peiró
Taschen’s film archive series has already produced lavish studies of Bergman and Kubrick but it’s with their latest offering, The Pedro Almodóvar Archives, that the form really comes alive. The book is part biography, part journal and part anthology while it’s also an expansive photo album. Each of Almodóvar’s 18 films, from the raucous comedy Pepi, Luci, Bom to the recently released and extravagant psychodrama The Skin I Live In, has its own chapter where stills from each film are displayed alongside behind-the-scenes photos of the shoot. The accompanying text is taken from the writings of various critics along with Almodóvar’s reflections on his work charting his rise, from the artistic explosion of The Movida to the glossy halls of the international awards circuit.
The suspiciously generous tone of the book’s critical writing sometimes falls flat in the 400+ pages. But the vibrant colour and sensuality of the images – which also define the man’s films – really make this a collection worth having for any Almodóvar enthusiast. They serve to bring the richness of the films to life both on the page and in the memory, despite all the gushing and sometimes distracting explanation.
Having said that, this collection is much more than just an opulent (and expensive) super-magazine destined for the Bauhaus coffee tables of those who have such things. To say that the quality of the writing is generally secondary to the photography undermines the book’s major and most enthralling asset – Almodóvar himself. His presence – and his wit and his passion – pervade both the photography and the text. He writes with all the humour, fluency and splendour that we’ve come to expect from his films. At times, and especially in the later, more contemplative pieces, his self-deprecation, anecdotes and the passion he possesses for spontaneity, his casts and cinema came to remind me of Luis Buñuel (the director Almodóvar refers to as “maestro”) and his fantastic autobiography “My Last Sigh,” which is one of many features Almodóvar’s writing shares with his films.
The director is endlessly interesting and incisive, drawing on both his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of cinema (everyone from FW Murnau and Michael Powell to John Waters and George Lucas gets a mention) to his intimate knowledge and belief in his craft. He comments on every conceivable aspect of each film without ever explaining away the motives or ideas that colour each movie. Instead he fleshes them out, revealing new angles and textures to the plots of his intricate films whilst being incredibly candid about his fears, apprehensions and struggles with each shoot. It’s a real testament to his meticulous attention to detail that he’s able to do this – he constantly shows himself to be an artist with vision and grace without ever seeming arrogant or calculated, which is yet again something the director shares with his work.
This constant doubling of the man’s voice or writing with that of his movies shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Almodóvar’s body of work. This work represents some of the most heavily stylised examples of cinema to come out of Europe in the past few decades. The Skin I Live In, for example, is a stylistic tour-de-force that showcases the lush aesthetic, colour and narrative whirlwinds that Almodóvar has made his signature. His writing and awareness of his films’ dynamics show that he’s extremely conscious of his iconoclasm as a stylist and auteur, but also shows that – like all artists that are masters of style – he’s obviously well aware of his own myth. This is an extremely dangerous thing for an artist to broadcast so openly in our cynical, image obsessed age because it can make the figure in question seem like they’re relying on their own persona and the stylised surfaces of their films instead of the real meat and bones of their work (see any interview with Tarantino or a video of von Trier’s latest public escapade to see what I mean by this).
In a world of hype and perennial advertising it seems like an extremely rare gift to find an artist who’s genuinely as interesting as their work. For anyone interested in Almodóvar and his legacy as a filmmaker, this collection is an essential companion, and so it should be: one quick search on Amazon showed that for the book’s £72.90 price tag I could buy volumes one, two and three of the director’s collected films whilst still having enough cash left over to get one of the later films. But it’s really only the exorbitant price that leaves something to be desired here and I suppose that’s one thing that’s out of Pedro’s hands.