In the first part of his journal of Covid-19 quarantine, written on 23 March, the Spanish director details how he is coping with self-isolation and the films he has found solace in, from Goldfinger to 1950s American B-movies.
I had refused to write till now. I didn’t want to leave written proof of the feelings that these first few days of isolation are provoking in me. Perhaps the reason is because the first thing that I’ve discovered is that the situation is not so different to my daily routine – I am used to living on my own and being in a state of alarm; a not so happy discovery. The first nine days I refused to make one note. But this morning there was a headline in the news that sounded more like one found in a magazine devoted to black humour: “Madrid’s ice rink becomes makeshift morgue”. It sounds like an Italian giallo but it’s happening in Madrid, it’s “One of the Sinister News Items of the Day”.
Today is my 11th day in isolation; I started on Friday 13 March. Since then I organise myself in order to face up to the night, the darkness, because I live as if I were in the wild, following the rhythm marked by the light coming through the windows and the balcony. It’s spring and the weather is truly spring-like! It is one of those wonderful everyday feelings, something I’d forgotten existed. Daylight and its wide-ranging voyage till night-time. The long journey to the night, not as something terrible, but joyful instead. (Or that is what I fixate on, turning my back on the agony of the data coming in.)
I’ve stopped checking my watch, I only look at it in order to count the steps I walk down the long side corridor in my home, the corridor where Julieta Serrano reproached Antonio Banderas for not being a good son, referring to me. The darkness outside tells me that it’s already night-time, but both day and night have no timetables. I’ve stopped being in a rush. Of all days, today, 23 March, my senses tell me that the days are now longer. I can enjoy daylight for longer.
I am not cheerful enough to start writing fiction – everything happens in due time – although I can think of a number of plots, some of a more intimate nature. (I am sure that there’ll be a baby boom at the end of all this, but I’m equally sure there’ll also be lots of separations: hell is other people, said Sartre. Some couples will have to face the two situations simultaneously, breakup and the arrival of a new member into the newly broken family.)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
The current reality is easier to understand as a fantasy fiction than as a realist story. The new global and viral situation seems to come out of a 50s sci-fi story, the Cold War years. Horror films with the crudest anti-Communist propaganda. American B films, generally superb (especially those based on Richard Matheson’s novels: The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, The Twilight Zone) despite the wicked intentions of their producers. As well as the abovementioned, I’m also thinking about The Day the Earth Stood Still, D.O.A., Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and any other film with Martians in it.
Evil always came from the outside (communists, refugees, Martians) and it served as an argument for the crudest populism (nevertheless I ardently recommend all the films I’ve mentioned, they are still excellent). In fact, Trump already makes sure that the situation we are enduring sounds like a 50s horror film, calling the virus “the Chinese virus”. Trump, another of the great illnesses of our times.
Pain and Glory (2019)
I decide to seek entertainment. I normally improvise (but this is not a weekend, my usual days of solitude and isolation), so now I put together a programme of films, news bulletins and reading to fill different slots during the day. My home is an institution and I its sole resident. I also include some home exercise of late. I was too dispirited till now and the only exercise I was doing was walking up and down the long corridor, the same one with Julieta Serrano and Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory.
I choose my afternoon film, a Melville flic (Dirty Money/Un flic), and I surprise myself with my choice for the evening as I decide to go for a James Bond film, Goldfinger. On days like these, I thought, the best thing is pure entertainment, pure escapism.
Honor Blackman and Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964)
As I’m watching Goldfinger I feel happy about my choice; rather than me choosing it, it was the film that chose me. I met Sean Connery, we were sat side by side at dinner in Cannes, and I was surprised by his film knowledge, and in particular by the fact that he could have any interest in my work. He no longer lived in Marbella, but he still adored Spain. We parted as friends and exchanged phone numbers – which I was sure neither of us would ever use.
And yet a few months later – it was 2001 or 2002 – he phoned me as he was coming out of a screening of Talk to Her. I am not a fetishist, nor a mythomaniac, but hearing him talking about my film left me overwhelmed. As did listening to his deep voice, that of a good actor and an attractive man. I was thinking about all this whilst watching Goldfinger that evening. The quarantine, the night, Sean Connery and I, racing thoughts and interruptions included.
I switch on the TV for a second between films and learn that Lucia Bosé has been taken away by this tornado of which we only know its name. And I shed the first tears of the day. I was fascinated by Lucia, both as an actress and as a person. I remember her in Antonioni’s Story of a Love Affair, a woman of unprecedented beauty, strange for the times, and that way of walking, androgynous and animal, that her son Miguel Bosé inherited, amongst other things. I will programme Antonioni’s film for tomorrow.
Lucia Bosé in Story of a Love Affair (1950)
I was one of many of Miguel’s friends awestruck and under the spell of this powerful woman who seemed eternal. Like Jeanne Moreau, Chavela Vargas, Pina Bausch and Lauren Bacall, Lucia was part of the Olympus/Podium of the modern woman, free, independent, all of them more manly than the men surrounding them. I apologise for the cascade of ‘names’ but I was lucky to meet them all and become close to them. It’s the downside of being stranded at home, one is easy prey for nostalgia.
I get through to Miguel in Mexico City and we talk for a long time. It’s been years since we last had a chat and in spite of the tragic situation, I wanted to thank him for the white orchids he’s been sending me for my birthdays throughout the last three decades. Regardless of where I was – almost always outside Madrid – each 25 September I’d receive a pot of white orchids that lasted for months, together with a big card from MB [Miguel Bosé].
The good thing about not having a timetable during the confinement is that rushing disappears. As do pressure and stress. I am naturally anxious, and I’ve never felt less anxious than now. Yes, I know that the reality outside my windows is terrible and uncertain, that’s why I’m surprised I’m not worried, and I hold on tight to this new feeling of overcoming my fear and paranoia. I don’t think about death, or the dead.
My main task – something new for me too as, in general, I have the bad habit of not answering messages, or just a few – is answering all of those who write to me asking about me and my family. Because for the first time, they are not banal conversations and words do have a meaning. I take answering very seriously and each night I do a round to find out how my family and friends are doing.
When there’s no longer light coming through the window I start watching Goldfinger. I am once more fascinated by Shirley Bassey, and the brief appearance of another Shirley, Shirley Eaton, the beautiful actress who paid a very high price for falling into Bond’s arms. Her body painted in gold, lying on the bed, with not one pore left able to breath, is still one of the most powerful images created by the franchise in order to portray desire / greed / eroticism and the madness of super-powerful villains whose only ambition is to destroy the world, with only their vassals surviving.
Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger (1964)
I have to stop watching to answer the phone to my sister Chus, who tells me that she’s watching me in a documentary on La 2 [Spanish State Television’s second channel]. It’s already half-way through. I jump from the video to TV’s second channel and I find a documentary about Chavela, by Daresha Kyi and Catherine Gund.
All I see and hear moves me to tears. It’s caught me by surprise, although I’d already watched the documentary back in the day. But this moment is different to anything I’ve ever lived; I cannot establish any comparisons. All I know is that I’m locked in and breaking out at the same time. I watch the news less and less each day. I try to keep panic and anxiety at bay. The getaway I’m referring to (through entertainment and escapism) is anything but monotonous. Even if I’ve already watched the documentary on Chavela, it hits me with such an emotion that I cannot control it, nor do I want to. I cry till the very last frame. I am overwhelmed by memories of all those nights I introduced her at the Sala Caracol or the Albéniz Theatre (the first theatre she stepped on as a singer; damned Mexican sexism didn’t allow her to be on a stage dressed in trousers and a poncho, because somebody wearing that outfit could not be a real woman).
I introduced her at the Olympia in Paris. It was difficult, but we managed to fill up the theatre. In the morning, during the sound-check, Chavela asked one of the employees where Madame Piaf used to place herself when she was performing at the venue. And she sang from that very position. From that evening on, as part of my very own ritual, in which Chavela was my Piaf, I would start the show by kissing the few centimetres of stage onto which Chavela would place herself afterwards.
Coming straight from the entertaining James Bond I wasn’t ready to listen once more to the voice of the Great Shaman, singing or talking, nor was I ready to see myself singing Vámonos with her and sharing so many moments of her life in Madrid and Mexico.
I remember I phoned her from Tangier during Christmas 2007; her voice, the articulation of the few words she spoke, scared me. One of Chavela’s many traits was her wonderful Castilian pronunciation, the words sounded complete in her mouth, not one letter missing. On the phone she only managed to articulate “I love you very much” and “time goes by”. I was worried and two weeks later I turned up at Quinta La Monina in Tepoztlán, where she had been sheltered by a friend from her youth. I was ready for the worst, I knew she had been hospitalised three days earlier. But when she’d heard that I was coming to see her, she’d demanded to be discharged the previous night – there was no way you could say no to Chavela – and there she was, receiving us in her little home in Tepoztlán like one of those poinsettia, radiant, polished and with the same voice as always, which didn’t stop talking for the three hours we were visiting.
Pedro Almodóvar and Mexican singer Chavela Vargas
We parted in the afternoon, and she was left on her own, confined to herself. An indigenous woman was attending her till five in the afternoon. Then she was left alone till the next day, since Chavela didn’t allow anybody to be employed to take care of her at night. My mum was the same during the years prior to her death – for some incomprehensible reason strong women become stingy and irrational, there’s no way of warning them about the long nights, mainly because amongst other things they do know them well enough, but they do have a superhuman capability for endurance.
We talked about her illness and death, and she told me, as a good shaman would, “I am not afraid of death, Pedro, we shamans don’t die, we transcend.” I was absolutely certain she was right. She also told me, “I am calm.” And continued: “One night I will stop, slowly, alone and I will enjoy it.”
The next day she received us standing and looking forward to be taken out for lunch. Chavela was a woman expert in resurrections. Completely recovered, she gladly offered to show us around Tepoztlán, beginning with the Chachiptl hill, right opposite the house where she was living (John Sturges had filmed The Magnificent Seven in that area). Legend has it that the hill will open its doors, hidden among the rocks and the weeds, when the next apocalypse arrives, and only those who succeed in entering its womb will be saved. I look at her, surprised once more. She was already getting ready for the next apocalypse, and I cannot help but think about the one we are currently inhabiting.
With tears still on my cheeks, I take a breather before I go back to James Bond, but tonight, RTVE’s La 2 is relentless. After Chavela they air another documentary whose title also includes light: La luz de Antonio/Dream of Light. Antonio is a painter from La Mancha, Antonio López, and the light of his eyes is his wife, María Moreno, the great realist painter who always remained at the margins, behind Antonio and the group of giant realist painters of the 50s. I strongly recommend the documentary and, while I’m at it, La 2, for its exquisite programming.
María Moreno died a few weeks ago. I remember her as an angel, the opposite of Chavela; her work oozes a kind, pleasant, mysterious atmosphere, so different to Antonio López’s paintings, with whom she shared the same themes, only a few steps behind. The documentary also addresses her work as an improvised producer for Víctor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun – another film, perhaps the best one, dealing with the miracle of natural light on the objects that shape our world. The light, always the light, in the long journey towards the night, experiencing the different annual seasons.
The Quince Tree Sun (1992)
In Erice’s masterpiece we can see Antonio López in his studio, sweeping it and preparing the canvas on which he will tackle his new work. It is a gorgeous ritual. Antonio comes out to his home’s humble patio, holding a glass of wine, and we see him enraptured by the quince tree’s yellow fruit, a scraggy tree, completely unassuming and a bit shabby. The quinces are bright yellow, surrounded by dark green leaves.
In the morning, Antonio goes around the tree and focuses on the quinces’ rough skin, looks at it fascinated, enchanted. And he decides to paint it, albeit knowing that the image that he’s studying is impossible to transfer to a canvas because the fruit is alive and will carry on changing each day, and the light will not be the same either. The film speaks about the artist’s battle to capture the sunlight on the quince, a battle already lost.
In 1992, Erice’s film played at Cannes Film Festival and I was part of the jury. The film was very justly awarded the Special Jury Prize. I almost got into a fight with Gérard Depardieu, president of the jury, because he didn’t like the film at all and he branded it a documentary. Fortunately, I got the support of the rest of the jury members.
It is already very late when I switch off La 2, but it’s okay: time in confinement is circular, and I don’t want to disappoint James Bond, I don’t want to go to bed till Sean Connery has thwarted the plans of the Machiavellian and fat Goldfinger, and saved us all.
Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido