Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pedro Almodóvar, Dan Allender, and Me.
Part II of III.

Almodóvar's Broken Embraces (2009)

Almodóvar's Volver (2006)

I've been able to sit with Pedro Almodóvar's two most recent films in the last week. Both lead the viewer on an exciting trip to unexpected places, and I'd quickly recommend either to cinephiles unfamiliar with his work.

Both star Penélope Cruz in amazing lead roles. I'm really growing to admire Ms. Cruz as a tough, talented actress, surprisingly more than just a pretty face. She's capable of turning your emotions on a dime, inciting you to both hate and love, and sometimes she can incite that mysterious feeling of confliction between the two extremes.

If I had to choose only one to recommend it would be difficult. By a slight notch, Volver is my favorite of the two. There's a friendly, surprising twist that balances all the scales in the latter third of Volver. It takes the viewer out of the realm of the trip we originally thought we were on, but to a better, much more care-oriented and grace-filled place. I love it for its final few moments of serenity. The last scene is nothing less than beautifully penetrating: Something that was lost is now found -- a feeling of home, if not hope, for the brokenhearted.

However, I had such a good time with Broken Embraces, which I actually got to watch on the big screen, that I almost wish I could simply recommend my experience over and above the film itself. Not that the film isn't good, because it's actually quite fantastic. But my experience at the theater that night was very personal, and happy, and my wonderful moment was as good to me as the film itself. 

While I won't recommend the impossible, and that is for you to have my same experience, I will say just a bit more about mine: It rushed over me in the presence of my sister, the first film we've been to alone in many years. We had a great time together trying to piece together its broken chronology. We had fun going back over the darker, more noirish atmospheres present in the shadows. We both loved Cruz, and the approach with which Almodóvar related the story, and we loved the fact that in Broken Embraces there are actually two films within the film.

We took it in with a mostly gay crowd, and it was fun to share in that, too. At a certain point I realized Almodóvar is probably also a favorite for many in that crowd. It's not really my crowd, as I don't share many of the same needs or views that they have, but I loved the commonality in sharing a love for this director and the experience as a whole. We all had a great night together. It was like getting dressed up as individuals and ending up as a small community at Babette's Feast.

I loved hearing my sister gasp at a certain point in the story, and later how she explained that this isn't something she normally does at the movies. She was very engrossed in it, and for me this was quite a bit of fun to watch. When later she raved on and on about how great she found Ms. Cruz, I was relieved. I felt vindicated -- that it wasn't just my preoccupation with Penélope's beauty and my attachment to her as a man, but there is real talent in her bones, and it was good to have my sister verify my thinking.

So I ain't. just. seeing. things. Cruz is pretty, but she's also pretty darn talented in her skill.

I haven't searched around the internet, but I know this can't be a new thought: There hasn't been a director and muse that have bonded so well since the French New Wave of Godard and Anna Karina. Godard was as much as, and maybe even more of a genius in his day; Karina's beauty sometimes overshadowed her true acting talent. Forty years and tons of genre shifts later we remember them well in the Spanish chemistry between Almodóvar and Cruz.

In both films, Almodóvar once again follows the Allender priciples of Story. There is Shalom. There is the backward gaze into the painful past. There is tension in dealing with hurts that are still present, and there is the brave act of dealing with and surrendering to these tensions, and continuing to write the Story as you journey ahead. In both Broken Embraces and Volver, Penélope Cruz is the character who has to deal with the writing of her own story, even as its characters shift and change around her, causing her to react and refine herself within a constant changing paradigm.

The way I see it, film is the highest calling for a Storyteller. I'm fascinated at how Almodóvar deals with Story not only in terms of plot and narrative structure, but he adds to that: the direction of the acting, the best ways to capture light and sound, and the editing of the parts into a whole as the coup d'état in the storytelling process. It's simply fun to watch a master at his craft.

I was telling my friend Blake how much I've enjoyed the first hundred pages of the Allender book he recommended, and how I was doing something different with it. Instead of relating to Allender's suggestions of Story as a figurative way to live, that I'd already been in the mode of desiring to churn out the words of my own unique experience onto paper, or in this case by a keyboard. It was at this point that Blake told me that Allender is only warming up -- that he actually intends for the reader to sit down and write. It's not simply figurative after all. Allender literally wants us to do what I'd already set out to do. To write, with God as our co-author, the story of our lives, and to write into existence where our Story with our co-author is going. I decided to keep reading.

(To really let the book sink in, it has to be read slowly. OK, that's my Excuse For Slow Reading # 323.)

Allender had a friend drop by who basically told him that he loved the idea of the "Story of our lives," up until the point where he realized Allender really wanted the reader to take up a pen and write stuff down. At that point, a fear seemed to seize him. He didn't want to actually write out the hardships, or the trials he'd faced down, the horrors amidst the joy. He didn't want to invest the time and tackle writer's block and frustrations at dealing with self. He didn't know how to find his own voice in regard to his own unique Story.

Allender went on to explain the importance of actually sitting down and writing, and he shared -- right there in the middle of the book -- the Story of one of the greatest horrors that he's faced. And it is wrenching. Right there in a published work, he shares the punch in his stomach that altered the course of a good portion of his life. It isn't nice, it isn't fun, and it isn't pretty.

He has shared this story not only with the masses in this published book, but he's also shared and asked for help and opinions from the friends and loved ones closest to him. Their reactions and guidance have lifted him in times of despair; their prayer his continual comfort.

The importance of writing, then, isn't simply getting the words down and looking at them and thinking, "I'm a survivor!" The importance isn't even the fact that someone else may read it and try to figure out if it means anything to them. The importance is to the writer himself, when he sits down with his friends, his companions -- his editors -- and tries to piece together the subconscious reality weaving in and out of the written words. Life isn't only understood in the events themselves, nor in the subjective interpretation of the events. It is best understood when shared with close, careful observers. Those who are friend enough to announcing a blessing upon the Storyteller, and cry "Foul!" when the tale goes astray.

This subconscious reality is what I'm trying to understand when I sweep away where film grips me. There's always something left after experiencing another's story. There's such beauty in creative expression alone. The fingerprints of God are revealed in creation. Some see vapors of their Creator in engineering or in science, some in religion or in sound theology. I guess I've always been dusting at the fingerprints of the Creator behind the created work of art.

I'll never sit down and write anything like the auteur Pedro Almodóvar or the writer Dan Allender. They're not me. I am not like them or their character or their approach at their work and craft. But God has given me a unique voice in this world, and I'm still taking the advice of Allender to heart. I'm still inching day by day at little words on a double-monitor that begin to paint where I came from, where I went, where I went astray, how I'm trying not to continue that, and where I think we intend to head together.

I hope to find friends and editors who will help as I co-author this work with God.

I pray I grow closer to my Creator as I launch out on this creative endeavor. The greats have gone before me. I have no one to impress but myself. I know that with a co-author as big as mine, I really can't go wrong. The worst that can happen is that we get to know each other just a little bit better.

There are five films and a bit of time needed to let the ending of Allender's book sink in, before I can post Part III of the Almodóvar/Allender series. Regular posting will now continue, and Part III will post in a few weeks.

Also - as an aside, I do not know why I cannot respond to the comments at the blog. I never considered that this would be a place for correspondence as much as I thought it would be a place to organize my thoughts. Rest assured, I have been humbled and overjoyed at the comments, and when I figure out what I'm doing wrong here, I will immediately respond. I've also looked at, and quite enjoyed, the blogs of those who have commented here. Good to get to know you.