Pedro Almodóvar’s lockdown diary pt 3: Book and film recommendations

In the third entry of the Spanish director’s Covid-19 quarantine journal, Almodóvar divulges all the reading and watching keeping his melancholy and sadness at bay during self-isolation – including 11 recommended films for quarantine cheer.

Updated: 29 March 2021

By Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar © El Deseo D.A. S.L.U., photos by Nico Bustos
Sight and Sound

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These last few days I’ve woken up lacking energy; it seems the confinement will stay in place for several more weeks. The novel 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.

Las bieuty queens (The Biuty Queens)

Las Biuty Queens book cover

Yesterday I got my day sorted with the collection of stories Las 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 – 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 humour 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 neighbours, when she went to live back in her hometown during her last years. The neighbours took care of her much better than we would have. The solidarity and care amongst the neighbouring widows on 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 neighbours in his films. Neighbours are sacred, in the full meaning of that word.

Pedro Almodóvar on set of Pain and Glory with Julieta Serrano and Antonio Banderas

They’re not similar – they show very different human landscapes and social surroundings – but Las biuty reminds me of my book of stories about Patty Diphusa [Patty Diphusa and other writings, 1990]. 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.

Desierto sonoro (Lost Children Archive)

Lost Children Archive book cover

But speaking of Latin Americans – victims of Trump’s laws on migration – I must recommend you a gorgeous and thrilling book, Desierto sonoro by the Mexican author Valeria Luiselli. It is the opposite of the above 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 their parents, all crystallises in an innovative novel with a beautiful style and narrative. The New York Times included this book in their 20 best of 2019.

La madre de Frankenstein (Frankenstein’s Mother)

La Madre de Frankenstein book cover

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’s latest novel, La madre de Frankenstein: Episodios de una guerra interminable. Grandes is the 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 tends to obscure from us.

This time, the writer travels to the 1950s. Grandes’s 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. Amongst other subjects Almudena talks about psychiatry in 1950s Spain – a moment in time when our country wanted to extol its more civilised 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 1940s 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 provoked in me the desire to develop it, now that I have time to grant myself literary treats.

In La madre de Frankenstein Grandes 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”. She 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.

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’s novel as the best antidote for the tedium and worry of these days. Right now I should be rewriting my drafts 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 – a treatment I wrote a few years back, inspired by a newspaper article by Rodolfo Serrano, titled In Search of the ‘Red Gene’. It tells about another real-life eugenicist like Doña Aurora: a Spanish psychiatrist from the Francoist regime who, during the last years of the 1930s 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 did read that 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 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 humour 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.

Back then I was thinking of a neorealist treatment, but when I tried to develop it I found myself incapable. After these years of hibernation, I think I’ve found the appropriate tone, 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. 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.

Here’s my job for the Easter break.

11 films for quarantine cheer

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 US comedies in general, screwball comedies, crazy comedies, a genre the Americans are dab hands at.

Here they are:

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1959)
  • Rich and Famous (Cukor)
  • I Was a Male War Bride (Hawks)
  • A Star Is Born (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)
  • and 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.

  • Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido

Also in this series

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 14 April 2020