NYFF 99: Fest Opens with Almodovar Fiesta
by Anthony Kaufman
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar was the toast of New York's indie filmerati on Friday night, opening the 37th New York Film Festival with his thirteenth movie, "All About My Mother," the humorous, tender story of a mother overcoming the death of her son. Hundreds of guests in formal wear gathered at the twin Lincoln Center venues of Alice Tully and Avery Fisher Halls, kicking off the prestigious festival in style.
"This is a celebration of the 11th anniversary of our marriage," said Almodovar, whose international hit "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" opened the NY fest in 1988. "You can't imagine how happy I am," he told an audience pre-screening. "11 years more, I hope I'll still be here. In the middle, I'll keep making movies and still come -- it's one of my habits -- I quit smoking," he joked.
Before the screening got under way, Almodovar praised the Film Society of Lincoln Center who organizes the annual film event: "They are part of my family," he said. "I really love them," finally dedicating the screening to exiting Film Society member Wendy Keyes and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Marcie Bloom. (To a round of applause, it was noted that "All About My Mother" is the 7th New York Film Festival opener for the team of Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom.)
At the black-tie after-party at Central Park's Tavern on the Green, the Sony Classics team -- Co-presidents Barker and Bernard, key executives and staff -- were joined by hundreds of their colleagues in the independent film community to celebrate Almodovar, his film, the festival, and of course, eat, drink and be merry. The fare included pot roast, salmon, various kinds of pasta, and a mouth-watering array of deserts.
Other attendees included usual industry suspects like October Films co-founder Bingham Ray, USA Films' Peter Kalmbach, Lions Gate's Mark Urman, Open City's Jason Kliot and Joanna Vicente, producers Scott Macaulay ("Joe the King") and Dolly Hall ("High Art") Shooting Gallery pres Eamonn Bowles, the Good Machine team of James Schamus, Ted Hope, and David Linde, Sloss Special Projects' John Sloss and Joy Newhouse, and Redeemable Features' Ira Deutchman. Also making the scene were filmmakers Kevin Smith, Michael Almereyda, Tim Burton, Alison Maclean and John Waters, as well as performers David Byrne, Henry Thomas, Julianne Moore with hubby director Bart Freundlich ("The Myth of Fingerprints") and the still glamorous Lauren Bacall. But Almodovar was the star of the night, and fittingly given this fiesta on his own birthday -- he turned 48 after midnight-- along with a big, candle-lit cake.
Almodovar remains a beloved figure at the New York Film Festival; his "Live Flesh" took the closing night spot in 1997. But it's with "All About My Mother" that many critics are saying the director has reached a pinnacle in his career. "I'm too young to make the best movie of my career," said Almodovar. "I don't know if it's my best, but it's very special to me."
At a press conference last Wednesday, that special quality came through as Almodovar was joined by the film's female stars, legendary Spanish diva Marisa Paredes, Argentine-born Cecilia Roth, international starlet Penelope Cruz, and comic newcomer Antonia San Juan, in a round of questions and answers filled with the same warmth and mutual respect found in the movie.
"It has been an incredible experience for all of us," Almodovar said, going on to explain his work with his feminine family of actors. "Among other things, this film deals with pain, and that pain had to be represented by them," he said. "That would have been impossible without [the actors'] collaboration. They were generous enough to give me exactly in the way I was asking for it. I am not only grateful to them for that, but you can't imagine what a pleasure it was for me to watch every day what Cecilia, Marisa, Penelope and Antonia were doing, because I was the first spectator and it was a wonderful experience."
The actors shared similar complements for their director. For Parades' fourth collaboration with Almodovar, she said, "For me, it is an experience that is more gratifying each time, because he's more intelligent, more fun, and more profound each time. It's just a pleasure."
Even more impassioned was Penelope Cruz, who confessed that working with Almodovar was "always an obsession." "I wanted to be an actress since I was very young," she said, "and I was always thinking about him, every day of my life. I was completely obsessed with him. And now that I know him, I am even more obsessed with him. It's a very big privilege, not only to work with him, but to be his friend and to know him," she said, followed by a warm-hearted kiss with her director.
From his early campy work like 1980's "Pepi, Lucy, Bom and Other Girls on The Heap," to 1984's "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and "Women on the Verge. . .," to his more mature "Flower of My Secret" (1995) and this year's "Mother," Almodovar's affection for the comic escapades and melodramatic situations of women have always been a major part of his work. When asked how this could be possible in a Spanish culture so dominated by machismo, Almodovar replied, "Fortunately, those macho-oriented men in our culture are not the ones who are writing the films."
"Although, it is true that these cultures are machista," Almodovar explained, "they are also matriarchal -- it is the woman who have the power. The real power, not the power that is shown, but the power that is held. It is the woman who makes the decisions. In my village, a lot of the older women are widows. When their husbands die, they survive for 20 years, when it's the opposite situation, when the women die first, the men die one month after. They can't survive without them." (In a sad coincidence, Almodovar said his own mother died just two weeks before the festival.)
However women-focused many of his films are, Almodovar made clear his interest in both sexes. "I should say 'Live Flesh,' for example, was a film made completely about men and I would say not just about men, but made from a particular testicular point of view." Almodovar said his next film will, in fact, focus on men. Though he's got a number of projects on the burner, he hopes to tackle his first English-language production, an adaptation of Pete Dexter's novel, "The Paperboy" about a young delivery boy and his older brother's investigation into a Florida murder case.
For more Almodovarrama, New York's American Museum of the Moving Image will host a 3-week retrospective of the director's work beginning this weekend. The New York Film Festival continues through October 10th, closing with the U.S. premiere of Atom Egoyan's "Felicia's Journey."