Melodrama and Masochism in Almodovar

(note: I apologize if parts of this post merely rehash what was already said in class!)

“I started writing when I was eight. I didn’t know that I had chained myself for live to a noble but merciless master. When G-d hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended only for self-flagellation.”

This passage from Capote’s Music for Chameleons reminds us that creation is painful, and suggests that any art worth making is a mode of chastening ourselves. S&M has already come up a number of times in our discussions. In this post, I’d like to think about the relationship between melodrama and masochism in Todo Sobre Mi Madre—a title which the very opening scene of the movie declares to be ridiculous (as Esteban remarks that All About Eve has been translated incorrectly, and Manuela explains that a literal translation would sound awkward). The impropriety of the Spanish translation of  All About Eve is our first clue to the film’s preoccupation with trans issues; as the Linda Craig article makes clear, the movie concerns not only gender fluidity, but also national and cultural fluidity—it emphasizes both the awkwardness and the elegance of translations from one medium, gender, or locale to another, and vacillates on the question of whether we are meant to translate/duplicate/pay homage or to reinvent. But if repetition and variation thematically pervade the movie, we might take a moment to consider why it is that Almodovar opens the movie with a faithful and uncomfortable repetition—he uses the “todo sobre” format rather than its more elegant (in Manuela’s opinion) counterpart. We might expect that a movie concerned with shattering norms and blurring boundaries might favor a translation that embraces the idiosyncrasy of a language by eschewing the fetishization of “literal” translation. Instead, Almodovar realigns our aesthetic expectations; Almodovar has favored this title precisely because of its awkwardness. (Perhaps Rosa’s mother’s copying of Chagalls also points out deliberate awkwardness; Chagall was known for being the master of a childlike, unmasterful style, so the secrecy and skill required to copy him is ironic.) Not only, then, do we enter the movie expecting it to deliberately discomfit us; we also note that the movie criticizes itself, has preemptively wounded and undercut itself, as so many do. The movie appears both to perform masochism and to indulge it in its viewers.

Last Monday, the idea of catharsis came up; as Professor D-T explained in class, catharsis makes sense of our draw to the tragic by arguing that the second-hand experience of pain is actually a form of healing—we purge our emotions by letting them freely manifest themselves during the experience of art. For Aristotle, the tragedy is neither schadenfreude (sadism) nor didactic or sanctimonious pedantry (masochism); essentially it’s therapy, the identification of a story with oneself and the subsequent breaking of a cycle set in motion by one’s inability to articulate the fears, wishes, and traumas that a tragedy makes explicit. To my mind, Almodovar is re-queering (i.e., decommissioning, making “useless”) the genre of drama by casting its cathartic utility in doubt. The shocking, relentless unhappiness of Streetcar, the movie’s most obvious intertext, similarly seems to indulge tragedy for its own sake, with its impressive collection of dysfunctional protagonists and utter lack of resolution. In Almodovar, cleansing may ultimately be achieved—after all, the baby is miraculously cured, and in Almodovar’s version of the play the abused Stella finally escapes—but the number of repetitions of abuse and dysfunction required to complete that cleansing is unclear. Perpetuating and breaking the cycle are equally powerful forces, such that reliving a trauma may or may not result in a therapeutic acceptance thereof. In some cases, wallowing in misery—as, for example, in the case of Manuela tracking down the recipient of her son’s heart and attending Streetcar obsessively—might serve no cathartic purpose at all. Agrado explains the preference thus: “I like to say goodbye to the people I love, even if it’s only to cry my eyes out, bitch.”

Gender, of course, is one way of marking sadists and masochists. Traditionally, women are associated with the masochistic role (see: Stella), so the near-universal femininity in the film may be a commentary on the pervasive masochism. As Sylvia Plath famously wrote, “Every woman adores a fascist / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (“Daddy”). Stanely in Streetcar says something similar:

“Listen, baby, when we first met – you and me – you thought I was common. Well, how right you was. I was common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’. And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all okay till she showed here? And wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all OK? Till she showed here. Hoity-toity, describin’ me like a ape.”

The translation of this speech offered in Todo Sobre Mi Madre is, “Brute? I was a brute when we met. But I’d remind you that it was never a problem for you…” In both cases, Stanely points out that his commonness was attractive to Stella; but in Almodovar’s version, the emphasis is on his brutality rather than his socioeconomic lowliness. In the film, this moment in the play is more explicitly a moment of outed sadomasochism. And, after all, most of Almodovar’s characters do seem to deliberately put themselves in painful positions. Watching Todo Sobre, one is inclined to think that the women’s repeated choice of dangerous and selfish mates is deliberate. As Manuela yells at Rosa after she gets her test results back, “Why the hell did you screw Lola? Don’t you know she’s been shooting up for 15 years?” It’s a good question.

To sum up, then: there’s a punishing cyclicality at work in Todo Sobre that makes one wonder whether catharsis is a white lie, whether “catharsis,” like Foucault’s idea of confession or therapy, isn’t actually a way to repeat over and over the very thing it claims to cure. The three Estebans illustrate this strange desire to recreate tragedy. If Manuela is running away from Esteban, why did she name her child after him? Why does Rosa do the same? Manuela says, “A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life.” But it’s just as much the other way around—she has marked her life with Streetcar. Why does Rosa want to live with another woman who has been mistreated by Lola, and why does Manuela accept Rosa into her home without explaining the connection? Indeed, why is Manuela on this hunt for Esteban’s father after Esteban’s death? Perhaps melodrama—and not “healing”—is the ultimate point. Perhaps the dramatic witnessing of pain is, in this trans universe in which authenticity and reality are endlessly confounded, pain itself. As Linda Williams explains in her article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” the “lowly” forms of art are those that inspire a mimetic reaction in their viewers: in melodrama, the perpetual weeping on-screen is mirrored by the viewer’s tears off-screen. If pints of silicone are authentic (and why not? Can’t we see them, feel them, taste them?), our vicarious tears are, too.



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