Stephen Frears, Jean-Paul Gaultier and others honor Pedro Almodóvar at Academy tribute

Posted by · 6:20 pm · December 16th, 2012

LONDON — It scarcely needs to be stated that, in terms of professional arduousness, film journalism is not exactly coal-mining — so I understand when our occasional complaints about the wearying nature of the circuit rankle with some readers. Too many festivals. Too many parties. Too many canapés. How your hearts must bleed.  

Still, the truth is that when attending such events becomes a key part of one’s job — and compared to my across-the-pond colleagues, it’s a far smaller component of mine — not everything is an unqualified pleasure. So when an invitation drops in your inbox that gets you even half as excited as a “Twilight”-bound tween, it must be for a rather special occasion. Such was the case when I was asked if I’d like to attend AMPAS’s intimate tribute to one of our most essential living auteurs, Pedro Almodóvar, in London — and that was before I knew Grace Jones and Kristin Scott Thomas were also on the guest list.

Neither Jones — resplendently intimidating in skyscraper heels and enormous fur hat — nor Scott Thomas were called upon to participate in an evening that featured verbal tributes from a host of the director’s collaborators, from fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to Oscar-nominated composer Alberto Iglesias, as well as unaffiliated British admirers Stephen Frears, Sally Potter and Peter Morgan. It says much for Almodóvar’s cultural currency that several such A-listers were there silently to support a beloved peer and enjoy the show. 

Though not official accolades in the vein of the far more grandiose Governors’ Awards back in Los Angeles, these low-key but high-class Academy tribute events have taken place in London for several years, not least to demonstrate the international presence of AMPAS as an organization (neither of those A’s stands for ‘America,’ after all). The beneficiaries have usually been British, like last year’s honoree Vanessa Redgrave; this year, it was decided to extend a hand to the Continent, and who better to receive it than one of the few filmmakers to have won both a major-category Oscar and the Best Foreign Language Film award? 

Where Redgrave’s tribute last year was perhaps tacitly tied into a (sadly unsuccessful) Oscar campaign for her work in “Coriolanus,” Almodóvar’s had no such immediate relevance — beyond providing a handy occasion for the first-ever screening of the chirpy new teaser trailer for his upcoming 2013 feature “I’m So Excited!.” (Greg shared the clip on Friday.) In any case, what occasion is needed to celebrate one of the richest, most singular filmographies of the last 30 years?

The erstwhile enfant terrible‘s Best Original Screenplay win for “Talk to Her” a decade ago sealed his ascent to the degree of crossover arthouse respectability that, I would suggest, now permits such an Academy tribute in the first place. (Not that the film itself offered much in the way of dumbed-down compromise.)

But across the evening’s handpicked selection of 12 clips — covering two-thirds of his feature-length work — there were several healthy reminders of just how far his work has veered from Oscar territory, be it the kinky, oddly prescient reality-TV satire of 1993’s “Kika,” the darkly elusive post-Oscar gamble of “Bad Education” or, only last year, the coolly warped genre gymnastics of “The Skin I Live In.” The audience’s simultaneously bewildered and delighted response to the campy, context-free “I’m So Excited!” teaser, meanwhile, proved he still has the power to surprise us.    

The evening’s first speaker was also the most affecting: Almodóvar’s younger brother and longtime producer Agustin, who filled us in on the director’s childhood experiences in rural Spain, as a precocious exception to a largely illiterate community, before a formative period in religious boarding school. (Spot the film connection there.)

Almodóvar’s passion for cinematic storytelling, he explained developed at an early age, where he’d follow trips to the movies with his sisters by retelling alternative, elaborate versions of the stories they’d just seen. As an anecdote, it tied into a first-hand recollection from the director later in the evening, as he remembered his mother’s practice of romantically embellishing letters to local farm labourers, for whom she’d read them aloud. “My mother was talking about the need we have for fiction in order to survive,” he said; the young man felt the same need, shooting ambitious short films in friends’ houses and screening them independently, relating in voiceover the content of the scenes he hadn’t the resources to film.

Next it was Oscar-nominated writer and playwright Peter Morgan’s turn to sing Almodóvar’s praises, and specifically those of his under-seen 1991 comedy-thriller “High Heels” — a TV-industry study that, in Morgan’s opinion, makes Paddy Chafesky’s “Network” its “bitch.” Though his recent forays into fiction, “360” and “Hereafter,” have suggested Morgan aspires to melodrama, but all the same, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the studious scribe behind “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” to be such a devoted fan: “I don’t just wish I’d written several of Pedro’s films,” Morgan said. “I wish I’d lived all of them.”

Morgan’s dedication was neatly shadowed by that of “The Queen” director Stephen Frears, who recalled first encountering Almodóvar around the time Frears was promoting his gay-themed social drama “My Beautiful Launderette.” Frears describes himself as an “imposter” on that well-received 1985 film, “released into transgressive behavior by [writer] Hanif Kureishi”; in contrast, he said, the Spaniard “was the real thing,” and has remained so. “I’m really jealous and it makes me spit,” he concluded, in as affectionate a tone as those words can bear.

There were words from avant-garde UK director Sally Potter and a sweetly shy Alberto Igesias (plus a dude-ish video valentine from Quentin Tarantino), before a trio of the director’s regular ensemble players, Rossy De Palma, Leonor Watling and Javier Camara took to the stage to introduce the new clip — its bouncy Pointers Sisters backing indicating, accord toCamara, “a film of crazy, sexy turbulences.”

Then it was Almodóvar’s turn for a lively Q&A, and my notes don’t really do justice to his conversational, freewheeling chat, in which he described his directorial career as “an anthology of frustration: I’ve been a frustrated actor, a failed musician, a failed architect, a failed sex symbol.” On another note, he doesn’t seem to find it any easier than we would to pin down his style: “Jack Cardiff mixed with the colors of Pop art, mixed with Caravaggio, Mondrian, Hopper, mixed the Impressionists, with the Caribbean, Mexico… and Spain, but not La Mancha.” He’s not afraid of artifice, he added: his films, he said, aim to improve on reality: “Try to make life more liveable: that’s the homework of any kind of artistic expression.”   

It’s fascinating to contemplate what his improved take on reality might have brought to alternative film adaptations of “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Hours” and “The Human Stain,” three novels to which, as he told us, he pursued the rights before they were brought to the screen. (He was also linked at one point to “The Paperboy.”) Perhaps they’d have translated as fluently into Almodovarian as Ruth Rendell’s “Live Flesh” — one great film not spotlighted at the event. He admitted once considering a move into English-language cinema, but now feels “too old for that.” In any event, the Academy tribute suggested he needn’t trade in his identity to be one of them: when Iglesias stammered that “we are proud to be close to you in your revolution,” he evidently spoke for the room.

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