This is a tale of two directors.
It begins in 1949, in a small village in provincial Spain: a country languishing creatively and spiritually under fascism. A boy is born into poverty. His father is illiterate, and pulls a mule to support his family, and the town has no cinema. Yet somehow this precocious boy, remarkably empathetic towards his mother, and enamoured with Hollywood’s Golden Age, trading cards of leading ladies, grows up to become arguably the world’s greatest filmmaker. He becomes an icon of Spain’s cultural resurrection after the death of Franco: his films — queer, uninhibited and brilliant, saturated with a nostalgic technicolour palette — are every bit as lively as the years under Franco were drab and stifling.
This is Pedro Almodóvar.
Flash forward to Los Angeles in 1963, where, despite his birth to a single mother working in an unglamourous occupation as a nurse, a boy still spends his formative years in the epicentre of filmmaking. Movies and movie-making is all around him, albeit separated by a class divide. He has access to films from all over the world, a passion and curiosity he cultivates by working in a video store. And at 28, he manages to write a script that attracts a $1.5 million budget and a stunning cast, going on to forge a career as one of a handful of ‘name’ directors around the world.
And good thing it’s such a memorable name – Quentin Tarantino.
Now, in 2019, for just the fourth time in their careers, Almodóvar and Tarantino have new films out, respectively Pain and Glory and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Both of their films reflect on the art form itself — perhaps inevitable given their parallel journeys as once-impetuous filmmakers. Now in their twilight years, intoxicated by a potent nostalgia, the directors revisit the milieu of their youth.
These are two directors with seemingly little in common, but as someone who has followed and studied their respective bodies of work intently, I am always struck by their similarities; both superficial and deep, personal and stylistic. Perhaps at first glance they are connected only by their flamboyant names and auteur status. Almodóvar’s films are associated with a thoroughly European sensibility – candid, unselfconscious sexuality, with minimal violence, and a focus on the domestic sphere. Tarantino’s films exude American chutzpah, with stylised, almost cartoonish violence and minimal sex. Almodóvar and his films are as emblematic of Madrid and Spain as Tarantino is of LA and America.
But going deeper, similarities between the two become apparent. Both were incredibly bright working class boys who were close to their mothers, disillusioned with their shitty, emotionally or otherwise unavailable fathers, and enamoured with storytelling – themes beautifully explored in both of their most recent films, where leading ladies are incandescent and macho men are disappointing (Salvador Gallo’s simple, brutish father, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth being dashing and handsome, but also likely a wife-killer.).
Both developed an obsession with cinema and, crucially, neither of them went to film school, preferring to learn by doing, and informed by a pure, unpretentious, voracious love of the craft. And, in the diametrically opposed industries of Spain and America, both carved out enviable careers as auteurs with near total creative control, which they have used to make bold, ambitious, visionary, and brazenly audacious films.
Almodóvar returns with the deeply erotic and provocative Pain and Glory, where Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Gallo — a barely concealed avatar for the film’s 69-year-old director — who in his old age is struggling with writers’ block, and a lifetime of past regret and fallings out catching up with him. Gallo is mentally and spiritually bereft due to severe chronic illness, and it’s hinted that this chronic illness is a physical manifestation of the burden accumulated from a lifetime of genius and isolating precociousness — the mortal consequence of everyone close to him, both professionally and personally, depending on and profiting from his talents. Salvador frequently daydreams about the rural Spain of his — and Almodóvar’s — childhood. Voluptuous village women, unmistakably drawn from the same universe as Almodovar’s Volver, are the main source of company for young Salvador. He’s shipped away to a Catholic boarding school to become a priest, the only option for a gifted boy from a poor family to receive an education, in scenes that could have been lifted directly from Almodovar’s earlier foray into troubled Catholic school, Bad Education (2004). Ironically, it was at school that the iconoclasm and rebelliousness that informed his/Salvador’s body of work was inculcated in him forever.
Paralleling this, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a sweeping, lush, re-imagining of the dying days of the swinging 60s in LA, coloured with details drawn from his own memory, and refracted through historical details about the Manson family, the death of the TV Western and the archetype of the TV stuntman. Tarantino has made two other historical revisionist films, which present an alternate course of events to horrific moments in history, from slavery in Django Unchained, to the Holocaust in Inglorious Basterds  — films cathartic and bittersweet. Once Upon a Time… feels painfully personal — a self-conscious reflection on the day the movies died, on the moment where the flickering frames of impossible beauty and the vinyl soundtracks of Simon and Garfunkel that accompanied them were proven to be nothing more than sad fantasies. If only real life for those living in Hollywood could be as beguiling as the films the city produces, where the good guys always win and the bad guys get their asses kicked in style.
With their latest films, both directors have made films about filmmaking: contemplations on memory, subjectivity and the medium’s slippery relationship with the truth. In one of Pain and Glory’s first scenes, Salvador has a chance encounter with Zulema (Cecila Roth), an actress he once worked with. They discuss a film from 30 years ago that is being restored — a sensitive subject given that Salvador famously fell out with his leading actor and disavowed the film after feeling betrayed by the actor’s interpretation of the role. When Salvador reflects that it has in fact aged well with time, Zulema purrs: “It’s your eyes that have changed, darling. The film is the same.”
So it goes that Pain and Glory and Once Upon A Time… are unlikely companion pieces, from two of the world’s most renowned auteurs.
As a filmmaker, I am often asked about my favourite directors. When I say Pedro Almodóvar, I’m often greeted with a nod — perhaps people see this as a natural, stereotypical fit for an urbane, stylishly-dressed, female director from a minority background. But when I’m asked ‘who else?’ and I answer every time with ‘Quentin Tarantino’ — my second favourite — I am always met with some surprise. It has somewhat become fashionable in film circles to begin ‘cancelling’ Tarantino, who was once the darling renegade of indie cinema, but is now routinely criticised for being outdated, anachronistic, violent, misogynistic, megalomaniacal, and well, a bit much. The Guardian ran a piece called ‘End the Affair: Why its Time to Cancel Tarantino’, citing violence against women, the revelations of his on-set treatment of Uma Thurman where he physically endagered her and his apparent ‘revelling in the abuse of women’ in his films as a deal-breaker. A mean-spirited piece from McSweeney’s, ‘An Oral History Of Quentin Tarantino As Told To Me By Men I’ve Dated’, poked fun of the director’s cachet among heterosexual men, and did the rounds on social media.
Almodóvar, by comparison, has carved out a name for himself as a director who nearly exclusively centres his films on women and queer men; he and his films are gay culture canon. Conversely, Tarantino is as heterosexual as they come, stereotypically considered the domain of teenage boys (although I could argue that the homoeroticism in Reservoir Dogs is precisely what makes it my favourite). And yet they’re connected in an unlikely way: Tarantino has expressed on many occasions his love and reverence for Almodóvar’s films, and his filmography as one “to beat.”
There’s also a parallel in their filmmaking styles, of panache and zest. Their films are founded upon an impeccably built house of cards of genre and cinematic grammar, tempered with discipline and self-reflection. They are both truly postmodern filmmakers, blurring the boundaries of high and low culture, showing equal reverence for films of all genres and styles, from crime fiction (Live Flesh , Jackie Brown ), to horror (The Skin I Live In ), screwball comedy (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown , Kika ) to Westerns (Django Unchained ) — playfully drawing upon them or subverting them when necessary. Unsurprisingly, both have worked with composer Ennio Morricone — the unquestioned sound of operatic, grandiose genre cinema.
Almodóvar and Tarantino make films with a confidence and lack of inhibition that’s hard to find among other directors. To make a great film, a filmmaker needs to be honest with themselves about what they like, their tastes, without trying to intellectualise them or give them a highbrow edit.
Film criticism is sometimes preoccupied with class-based codes of what is a ‘good’ film and what is a ‘problematic’ film. But film, as a medium, doesn’t have to be cerebral. It can be visceral, and luminous, and joyful. It can be gaudy — and embrace genre! Almodóvar adores melodrama and the films of Douglas Sirk, so he deploys rhapsodic storylines about matadors, ballerinas and pregnant nuns with HIV. He finds womens’ lives and work interesting, so feels no qualms about making a film like Volver, which sets up the audience within thriller genre conventions only to later turn them on their head. Tarantino is fond of violent movies and women’s feet, so they appear in his films even though they threaten to alienate a more erudite crowd. He likes Blaxploitation, so he cast Pam Greer in Jackie Brown. His epic closing credits to Kill Bill is a sumptuous, if superfluous, recap of the preceding two films and four hours, and he thinks nothing of presenting the audience with a smorgasbord of his brand of Asian-genre-fusion eye candy, unironically set to Tex-Mex Mariachi music.
In fact, Tarantino is never given enough credit for how truly international his perspective is. His films show a natural expression of his interest in world cinema — the storyline of Reservoir Dogs was loosely based on the film City of Fire (1987), a point his detractors love to use as proof that he is a thief and a charlatan — but, more deeply, invokes the Japanese Samurai tradition of wakashudō, where an older Samurai would take a younger man to be his apprentice and lover, just like Mr White takes Mr Orange. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino gives a wry, self-deprecating portrayal of Americans as useless beyond possessing sheer brute force, inept at navigating their way through other cultures.
But perhaps the fates of both ‘outsider’ filmmakers will change this year, with Pain and Glory and Once Upon a Time… not only performing well at the box office, but also receiving serious festival buzz and Oscar predictions. Maybe they will be friendly rivals for Best Director. Maybe, with their latest offerings, after decades of falling in and out of fashion, they will finally cement their achievements as master directors with full command of their craft, at peace with their first, most enduring, truest love and muse — cinema itself.
Bina Bhattacharya is an award-winning filmmaker from Western Sydney. She is a co-writer for Co-Curious’ upcoming screen project “Behind Closed Doors” and was selected in 2018 as a director for Australia’s inaugural screen diversity showcase. You can watch her films and hear her talk more about camp, all things Almodóvar and high and low culture on Vimeo or on her website.