Pedro Almodovar Explains What’s Keeping Him From Finishing His Next Script In His Latest Quarantine Essay
Art and Experience: Editor’s note: Like much of the world, Madrid is currently engaged in social distancing practices and self-isolation. That includes the city’s most celebrated filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar, who been writing essays documenting his experiences and the memories that have come up as a result. This is the first installment, provided to IndieWire by the filmmaker and translated into English by Mar Diestro-Dópido. For reasons that will soon be obvious, this essay was written prior to Easter Sunday.
These last few days I’ve woken up lacking energy. It seems the confinement will stay in place for several more weeks. The novelty feeling of the first few days, where one would experience new sensations, has already disappeared. I suppose that is one of the dangers, to give yourself to routine as one day follows another, and so on.
I start writing with no faith and no direction, with the slight hope that this exercise helps me flee from melancholy and sadness, or at least that passive sadness that reduces you to the most comfortable corner of the sofa. Today I feel like the house absorbs all of my energy, it sucks me dry like a vampire, and leaves me too exhausted to face up to day and night.
I always have reading and DVDs. I’ve abandoned writing my scripts for now, I’m letting them rest. Fictions also need a rest, it is a natural way of letting them settle so they can mature.
Yesterday I got my day sorted with the collection of stories “Las Biuty Queens” (“The Biuty Queens”) by Iván Monalisa Ojeda. It sounds like a book about transvestites and trans people, and that’s what it is, but it’s not only that. Monalisa is Chilean and in these stories he narrates the day to day, or rather, the night to night, of a group of Latin-American trans people and transvestites who work the streets, prostituting themselves in bars and in little recommended back alleys in New York City. The American dream seen from the height of a good pair of heels which turns into a nightmare instead, an everyday nightmare. For these biuty queens, violent death comes with the territory. The stories could be very sordid, but Iván Monalisa has the talent to endow his characters with vitality and grace, he tells you about their misery as something inevitable, with humor and without turning them into victims. They are stories about survival in the face of Trump’s migration policies, with characters who skirt all urban dangers with humour and a lot of solidarity amongst them. They share drugs, pimps, beauty awards, syndromes and delirium, but they are a very close-knit community.
They remind me of my mother’s neighbors, when she went to live back in her hometown during her last years. The neighbors took care of her much better than we would have. The solidarity and care amongst the neighbour widows who lived in my mother’s street is one of the most beautiful things I remember of my hometown. It is not strange that Julieta Serrano told her son that she didn’t want him to include her neighbors in his films. Neighbors are sacred, in the full meaning of that word.
They’re not similar, but Las biuty reminds me of my book of stories about Patty Diphusa — they show very different human landscapes and social surroundings. Mine is all hedonist fiction, and the stories in Las biuty queens radiate realism in every sentence.
I recommend both, if you have nothing better to do. I assure you it’ll be fun and light.
But speaking of Latin Americans, victims of Trump’s laws on migration, I must recommend you a gorgeous and thrilling book. “Desierto sonoro”/”Lost Children Archive,” by the Mexican Valeria Luiselli. It is the opposite of the other two books; it isn’t a light read, but I have been moved by its originality and the beauty of its prose. In addition to the story being told, it’s like a road movie about a married couple of sound documentarists who go around recording sounds, and who take a trip from New York to Arizona accompanied by their small children.
I don’t want to spoil the plot. With the desert and the motels as background, their marriage is crumbling. He is looking for the tracks left by the last Apache group to surrender to American military power, and she wants to document the groups of children who cross the desert and arrive at the country’s southern border looking for asylum. The collapse of the documentarists’ marriage, together with the way their children understand the stories they hear from them, all crystallises in an innovative novel, with a beautiful style and narrative. The New York Times included this book in its 20 best of the year.
Without getting them mixed up, as each of them have their own moment during the day or at night, I am also finishing Almudena Grandes’ latest novel. Grandes is a writer and beacon of light for all of us who want to know about our current history and therefore where we come from; those very important details that the Official History in capital letters tends to obscure from us. This time, the writer travels to the ‘50s. Grandes’ novels are very generous when creating secondary characters and subplots, which, after all, are as important as the main plots and protagonists, hence creating an exhaustive tableau vivant of the historical and social moment at hand. As I was saying, amongst other subjects, Almudena talks about psychiatry in ‘50s Spain; a moment in time when our country wanted to extol its more civilized and normal side. The reality was, naturally, very different.
Aside from the pleasure of reading a great novel where you can identify with the author and the protagonists, I’m especially interested in the subject of child psychiatry in the ‘40s and ‘50s; in fact, I have taken a copious amount of notes to put together a possible script for a film I won’t make about the subject. Almudena Grandes provides the reader with a lot of documentation in her novel, and reading it has reminded me of my own about the subject, and has provoked in me the desire to develop it, now that I have time to grant myself literary treats.
In her novel “La madre de Frankenstein”/”Frankenstein’s Mother,” the author tracks a real case that happened in Madrid in 1933. Doña Aurora Rodríguez Carballeira killed her 18-year-old daughter Hildegart with four gunshots to the head. Up to that point the young woman had been her mother’s pride, but as she was growing up Hildegart started having ideas and plans of her own, and her mother couldn’t stand it; according to her own confession, she had to kill her because of that.
The expert’s report prior to the trial declared Aurora to be a complete paranoiac and a supporter of eugenics. When she explained, with a complete lack of emotion, the reasons why she killed her daughter, Doña Aurora said, according to the words in the novel, “I killed her in order to save her. I made her and I have destroyed her, it was my prerogative, my right… Hildegart was my work and she didn’t come out right”.
Eugenics is a criminal ideology whose adherents believe they have the right to eliminate part of the population by killing them or preventing them from reproducing. I recommend Almudena Grandes’ novel as the best antidote for the tedium and worry of these days.
The murderer spends the rest of her life in an asylum and the novel revolves around the psychiatrists, boyfriends, girlfriends, family members, nurses, nuns, and the other mad women. As well as recommending it, Almudena Grandes’ novel, as I’ve already mentioned, has made me remember a treatment I wrote a few years back, inspired by an article I read in a newspaper, In search of the “red gene”, by Rodolfo Serrano.
Right now I should be rewriting the draft for “A Manual For Cleaning Women and/or “The Human Voice,” and yet I betray myself as I succumb to another story I have to delve for in the depths of my computer, also inspired by this article. As I’ve already mentioned, the text speaks about another eugenicist, someone who, like Doña Aurora, also existed, a Spanish psychiatrist from the Francoist regime, who, during the last years of the ‘30s and the beginning of the post-war era, carried out studies and experiments in order to figure out what the “red gene” consisted of; i.e. what psychic or physical malformations motivated a man or a woman to embrace Marxism as an ideology. Yes. You are reading correctly. Aside from the revolution that this would have brought to pass in the world of psychiatry, the Francoist psychiatrist aimed to eradicate the illness in the carriers, the reds, who were then filling up the prisons.
Since I read the article, I have been wanting to develop this story about the Spanish psychiatrist whose research aimed to find the red gene in the form of a scientific fiction, but I had never found the right tone, because the reality as told is so horrific that it proves difficult to be ironic about it; and, on the other hand, in 2020, it is impossible to deal with the subject matter and the character without using the distancing that humor allows. There’s a lot of documentation available because the whole issue is dealt with in detail, under the generic title “Biopsychism of Marxist Fanaticism,” in the science journals of the time, in the Revista española de medicina y cirugía de Guerra [Spanish Journal of War Medicine and Surgery], for example. After the discovery of such mind-boggling material, I invented a number of fictional characters and deliberately set aside the real ones, in order to focus on the scientific adventure and make that prevail. The psychiatrist’s family and colleagues will be invented based on the types in Spanish society at the time.
At that moment, I was thinking of a neorealist story but when I tried to develop the treatment I found myself incapable of doing it. After these years of hibernation, I think I’ve found the appropriate tone for this material, the comic. The Francoist psychiatrist is the typical Mad Doctor who investigates the Marxist gene and is prepared to sacrifice everyone who has it. Eugenesis. That type of character I can only address from the standpoint of total fiction, with a style that is the furthest from naturalism. Here’s my job for the Easter break. Needless to say that this psychiatrist had a name, but I have no intention of using it so I don’t hurt his family, and thus I can write it with freedom.
And to wrap up in style and cheerfully, here are a few film recommendations that will obliterate any trace of melancholy, boredom or tedium this week, sure to be one of the most difficult. They are extraordinary U.S. comedies in general, screwball comedies, crazy comedies, a genre the Americans are dab hands at.
Here they are:
“Monkey Business” (Howard Hawks)
“Philadelphia Stories” (George Cukor)
“Midnight” (Mitchell Leisen. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, cinephile and critic, as well as an exquisite writer, told me that this is his favorite comedy ever)
“To Be or Not to Be” (Ernst Lubitsch)
“The Front Page” (Billy Wilder. There’s also an earlier version, “His Girl Friday” with Rosalind Russell, equally hilarious)
“Some Like It Hot” (Billy Wilder)
“Rich and Famous” (George Cukor)
“I Was a Male War Bride” (Howard Hawks)
“A Star Is Born” (George Cukor’s version with Judy Garland; it’s a drama, but so monumental that I would recommend it under any circumstances)
“Design for Living” (Ernst Lubitsch, based on the delightful play by Noël Coward with a script by Ben Hecht)
“Casa Flora” (Ramón Fernández with Lola Flores; I don’t know if it’s a good or bad film, but if I had to describe it I’d say it’s a “Dadaist comedy,” except it’s way more insane than that. And it is always a source of happiness to see and hear Lola Flores sporting a ‘70s look.)
With this set of battery-charging gems, all you need to do is stay at home, walk up and down the corridors between films, speak to friends, family members and lovers on the phone and Skype, in order to enjoy a wonderful Easter break without religious processions, saetas [sacred songs] or mantillas.