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 barriers.
"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 Adams 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 sensitivity.
Fact is All About My Mother 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 Flesh 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.
Clipped A 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 better.