Spaces of creativity and/as care in the films of Pedro Almodóvar (SLSA 2016)

I’m excited to be heading home to Atlanta this week for the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference. I’ll be presenting some work in progress on Pedro Almodóvar’s “brain-dead trilogy” on a panel on Film as Art and Science on Saturday, November 5 at 1:30. Here’s my rather hopeful abstract (I don’t think I’ll be able to cover everything in my presentation that I say I will here!):

In Homo Sacer,[1] Agamben develops Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, exploring biopower in relation to, and as produced by, sovereign power. Agamben argues that the concentration camp is the paradigmatic location for the exercise of biopolitics and also identifies the refugee as a modern figure of bare life. What is less frequently noted is that Agamben discusses as well the phenomenon of “coma dépassé” (a phrase he suggests might be rendered as “overcoma”), a newly emergent postmodern condition in which the threshold between life and death is redefined in the spaces of the hospital through technologies that maintain the patient as not simply alive or dead, but as living when dead. Agamben, then, like Foucault, takes medicine as an exemplary domain in and through which life and death become politicized. In this paper, I explore the emergence of this new threshold condition in medicine through an analysis of the figure of the overcomatose or brain dead patient in the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

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Brain death features in three Almodóvar films made on the threshold of the millennium—The Flower of My Secret (1995), All About My Mother (1999), and Talk to Her (2002). Film critic Marsha Kinder has called this series of films Almodóvar’s “brain-dead trilogy,” and she describes the brain-dead figure as functioning to provide a “new way of refiguring the crucial link between intertextuality and changing subjectivity” that is a theme across all of Almodóvar’s work.[2] While I appreciate critical work like Kinder’s that has sought to understand brain death as metaphor in Almodóvar, in this paper I want to suggest a more literal interpretation by discussing the historical emergence of the category “brain death” and the performance of that category in clinical practices. After setting the historical and clinical scene of brain death, I will then explore how Almodóvar stages overcoma-ness as a kind of biopolitical experience and event that produces transitional figure and spaces in which new forms of creativity and care are enacted. In The Flower of My Secret, Almodóvar introduces the topic of brain death through a scene of clinical simulation that opens the film but isn’t incorporated into the film’s overall narrative. This scene is then “transplanted,” as Kinder puts it, into All About My Mother, where Almodóvar offers the practice of clinical simulation as a doctor-centered pedagogy of care that facilitates organ procurement and transplantation, a process that is made a key element of the story in All About My Mother. In contrast to this focus on the importance of simulation, Talk to Her offers what I would call modes of stimulation—through practices of affective labor, including talking, touching, and sexual healing—as a patient-centered pedagogy of care that facilitates recovery from coma. I will also show how Almodóvar’s films link the clinic with film and theater as transitional spaces of creativity and/as care.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[2] Marsha Kinder, “Reinventing the Motherland: Almodóvar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy,” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 5, no. 3 (October 2004), 254. The three films are not sequential in Almodóvar’s oeuvre—he made Live Flesh in 1997 in between The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother.

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