Master of the Outrageous : For Spain's Pedro Almodovar, Life Is Just a Bowl of the Offbeat

In Pedro Almodovar's world, life always seems to slyly mimic art.

The colorful Spanish film director has been waiting for a call all day, the same fate that bedevils the heroine of his stylish new farce, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

In "Women on the Verge," his leading lady rips the phone out of the wall and tosses it through a window. Anxiously bouncing on a couch in his West Hollywood hotel room, Almodovar simply slid the phone under a table, like a fat man resisting an eclair.

"I have a very bad relationship with the telephone," he admitted, eyeing the receiver with thinly disguised disdain. "I know it's an invention of progress, but it doesn't help you communicate. It only hides you. The only real advantage of the telephone is gossip."

It turns out that Almodovar toiled at the phone company for 10 years before turning to film. "For me, it's become a device for all the crazy people who want to call me or leave messages in the darkness. Crazy people call my home all the time. They say everything. Love me! Hate me! Kiss me! Kill me! They even masturbate over the phone!"

He nervously fished for a cigarette. "It's because I've come to symbolize something important for them. But they don't exist for me. So there's a terrible imbalance. I don't mind crazy people who paint or write or make movies. But I get the crazy people who just want to talk to me on the phone!"

Almodovar laughed when a visitor suggested changing his number. "I've tried," he said mournfully, lighting a Marlboro. "But in Madrid, the bureaucracy is crazy--you wait forever for a new line. And you must have your name on the phone number. So even if you have--how do you say?--a secret line, they can still call the public one."

He shrugged. "I wanted to bring the officials my answering machine tapes so they could hear people sighing and masturbating. But what's the use? Everybody calls to tell me why I must make a movie about their life. They all think their life is special."

Almodovar blew smoke to the ceiling. "We are all such exhibitionists, aren't we?"

If Almodovar lived in Los Angeles, you'd bet his phone number would be 976-PEDRO. Spain's cinema superstar of the '80s, the chubby, chain-smoking 37-year-old director's reputation rests on a series of hilariously scandalous melodramas stoked with the impish spirit of John Waters and the stylish eroticism of Vincent Minnelli. Updating the slyly subversive vision of Luis Bunuel, Almodovar veers wildly between wiggy camp and wicked satire.

Almodovar's "Dark Habits" offers a convent whose occupants frequent seedy night clubs, score drugs and pen soft-porn novels (under assumed names). "Matador" features a gored bullfighter who arouses himself by watching snuff films. "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" gives a comic feminist slant to the life of a speed-freak cleaning lady who kills her boorish husband by walloping him over the head with a ham bone (which she cooks after he dies).

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," which arrives here Wednesday with a bouquet of film festival awards, cements Almodovar's reputation as a master of the outrageous farce. It stars Carmen Maura as Pepa, a distraught actress who's been jilted--via the telephone--by her longtime lover, an actor whose specialty is romantic movie voice-overs.

As is his custom, Almodovar peppers the film with an oddball contingent of characters (Pepa has a girlfriend who falls for a Shiite terrorist), overlapping layers of erotic entanglements and a jumble of deliciously glossy sets that look as if they were lifted from a stack of 1950s Vogue covers.

Raving about "Women on the Verge" in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called Almodovar "the most original pop writer-director of the '80s: he's Jean-Luc Godard with a human face--a happy face." Stephen Schiff of Vanity Fair added: "Almodovar has made the most tantalizing, original and altogether invigorating film I've seen since 'Blue Velvet.' "

In town recently to promote the movie, Almodovar wore a flamboyant wardrobe only a strobe light could love, sporting deep burgundy slacks topped with a purple polka-dot shirt. An eager advocate of Spain's hedonistic, post-Franco spirit ("I admire Fassbinder--we both are fat and like cocaine"), the ever-quotable director spoke freely in English, but relied on a translator when spinning more complicated theories about his directorial style.

He began the interview by paying homage to old Hollywood: "When I was a child, I felt that if you wanted to survive, you had to be as strong as Bette Davis."

The loopy characters in his films endure so many emotional binges that it hardly comes as a shock to discover Almodovar dreamed up "Women" sitting on a window ledge, waiting to throw himself out.

"I'm not kidding," he said gently. "It did happen. I just tried to take a sad moment--a sentiment from my life--and develop it into something positive for my film. You see, success makes you feel pessimistic. It condemns you to loneliness and makes you feel apart from the world. Talking so much about my films sometimes makes me depressed. I think dwelling on yourself makes you emotionally starved."

He also acknowledged borrowing from Cocteau's "The Human Voice," a famous telephone monologue where a woman tries to win back the lover who's leaving her. "I began to invent a new situation--and as Cocteau began to disappear, my script began to appear."

Almodovar frowned. He'd been dwelling too much on negative thoughts. "Tragedy and comedy are very closely related in my films--they are almost simultaneous," he said, switching to Spanish. "It's because life is like that. It's very much a part of our Spanish culture, that tragedy and comedy happen at the same time--not a second later."

He grinned. "Who knows? Maybe in Spain we use comedy to absorb the pain."

As a youth, living in a country town, Almodovar was hardly a likely candidate for such a colorful career. In religious school he won an essay contest for a treatise on the Immaculate Conception. But his ardor soon faded. "I was very fascinated by religion," he said. "But I soon discovered it didn't mean anything."

He lit another cigarette. "I became an agnostic. At 10, I talked with God and said, 'If you exist, sir, please let me know.' Then at 11, when I didn't notice anything new, I decided he wasn't there. So I put my energy into living."

Studying with an order of priests, Almodovar was an indifferent student. "They were brilliant when it came to teaching alternatives to sex, but geography or history--they had nothing to say."

In his teens, he fell under the influence of the American underground. Moving to Madrid, he began writing comic strips and stories for "forbidden" newspapers, performing as a singer and shooting Super 8mm films--all while working at the phone company.

He credits his fondness for the absurd to the bizarre censorship of the Franco years. "Censorship is always very irrational," he explained, returning to Spanish. "It forces you as an artist to say things between the lines, because you never know what disturbs the censor or whether they understand the implications of it. After a while you become so oblique that it becomes a style in itself."

Always fond of American films, Almodovar said he particularly relished Tennessee Williams plays and "big social melodramas" like "Splendor in the Grass" and "The Little Foxes." "I always loved the artificiality of Hollywood," he said. "In my own films, I try to find the artifice which works best with the story I'm telling. It doesn't take away from the film. In fact, the more artificial it is, the more the emotions of the characters can shine through."

Almodovar is not so enraptured by America today. "I enjoy the people, but your society is so conformist, especially with smoking," he said, cheerfully waving a fresh cigarette. "When I was flying here, I was in the wrong section, so I had to stand in the smoking area--with the sinners and criminals! Even then, the stewardess wouldn't let me smoke because I was standing up. What a law!"

Don't be surprised if the incident pops up in a future film. Almodovar says he enjoys "mixing up" fantasy with actual events from his life. Waving a hefty script, he gave a spirited account of his next project, "Toxic Woman," which focuses on a beautiful Gypsy girl who moves to the big city and becomes involved with pimps and gangsters.

One key scene shows the girl using her Gypsy knowledge to cure an ailing mule with a potent brew of exotic herbs. "When I was little, my father ran a gas station, but all the local folks would bring their sickly horses to him--rather than the vet--for him to cure," Almodovar explained. "I even have the ingredients here in the script. 'Take off the horseshoe. Add a mixture of vinegar and wheat byproduct into a sack around the horse's hoof . . . . '

Almodovar bounced the script on his knee. "When I finished writing the scene, I had to call my mother to ask if the ingredients were correct," he said with a sheepish grin. "If you don't disinfect the solution it could cause gangrene. The last thing I want to do when I make the movie is kill the mule!"

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