Monday, February 27, 2012

"Luis Buñuel: The Red Years," by Gubern and Hammond"

Ah science! Could you not have revealed that Luis Buñuel was no 1930s Stalinist, but rather as he remembered, a whimsical surrealist who casually meandered into filmmaking history?

No, of course not.

Instead, "Luis Buñuel, "The Red Years," straightens out the timeline put forth in the Oscar-winning director's (Best Foreign Film) endearing autobiography, "My Last Sigh," dismissing anecdotes as impossible given the evidence, blowing holes in his very memory.

Which is kind of fun when one considers how "My Last Sigh," opens with a meditation on memory:

"You have to begin to lose your memory," says the director, "if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing."

Even with it, "The Red Years," implies, we may not be who we remember ourselves to be.

Authors Roman Gubern and Paul Hammond get excited when their investigation has marked a discrepancy between the story of his life, as Buñuel told it, and what some document they pulled out of the French Embassy or the checka files confirms to the contrary.

But they're not malicious about it, just doing their jobs, demythologizing the heck out of another romantic epoch.

The text begins as a typical filmography and this is because Buñuel's earliest years comprised his efforts as a surrealist and maker of films guided by the dictates of that artistic credo.

There is a detailing of the group's internal strife as it first rushed to embrace the French Communist Party, and then split when a goodly portion found the reds petty and obsessed with rules. It is an old story of factionalism over the finer points, personalism, resentment and political cannibalism that consumed the hopes of leftists the world over.

The High Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, broke in the name of intellectual independence. Buñuel, by contrast, joined the Spanish Communist Party and, well, enslaved himself, for a time at least, to the hard and cruel rules of Stalinism.

In "My Last Sigh," Buñuel portrays his time in '20s Hollywood as a kind of lark during which he disdained the big studio process and acted scandalously before being asked to leave.

But "The Red Years," proposes a more ambitious and careerist Buñuel picking up something of the industrial studio's techniques, because he returned to Madrid and became an all-purpose producer, set handyman, and anonymous director for Spain's first legitimate commercial enterprise, Filmófono.

In making that production house's few and popular folkloric melodramas (long tarried over here), Buñuel often pushed the director aside in order to meet his own strict deadlines and slim budgets.

The films made good money, and Buñuel kept his name out of the credits. He wanted to maintain his cachet as the "avant" creator of "Un Chien Andalou," and "L'Age D'or."

Upon the outset of the Spanish Civil War, the title "The Red Years," begins to impose itself and, while the book's latter third may clear up certain questions haunting Buñuel scholars, the turn towards a more turgid and technical read is undeniable.

Aligned with the ascendant communists in the war time Spanish Republic, the director enlisted in the espionage game while coordinating film propaganda from Paris.

The authors spend an inordinate amount of time disentangling oral and written accounts, receipts, records, letters etc., to determine the director's role in two propaganda films telling Republican Spain's story to the world, "España '36," and "España '37."

Why? Presumably because it's "The Red Years," and, once again, one can comprehend why Breton made his break, rather than get involved in this gray world of apparatchiks and quirky little dictators.

It is not without interest to see what Buñuel and his fellow travelers were thinking during tumultuous times that put the average European in harm's way.

Buñuel could have been killed at any time. The business of propaganda and serving as a conduit for money and documents in favor of the Republic was not so much a choice as an imposed duty.

Clearly, radical films purchased with the money of cosmopolitan French aristocrats were not the order of the day and so the actual Red years present thin pickings for filmophiles.

This is small-bore stuff that assumes prior reading on Eurocommunism and a deep interest in the director's political activities.

"Ugly to Start With," John David Cummings

We have before us, as the title "ugly to start with," might suggest, poetry of the ramshackle.

John Michael Cummings offers 13 slices from the life of a Harpers Ferry, West Virginia teen named Jason.

The West Virginia we have stereotyped into our national conscience is much in evidence in this collection of loosely linked short stories.

We get bits and pieces of Jason life, but not a narrative with arc, resolution, denouement, and all that stuff.

Cummings plays it a beat behind the bass in the events he chooses to depict. His view of the place is not built around milestones and national holidays.

For him the real action occurs in life's interstices, its waiting rooms, in the liminal world where the handful of responses we normally apply are useless.

If the people in these stories (this story?) are poor and quirky, their outlooks premodern, homes corroded and moldy, Cummings renders them, not so much lovingly, as in a straightforward fashion, nothing to be ashamed of and attention worthy.

It's grim. The kid lacks esteem, his brothers are idiots, he gets no love from his father and basically bounds about with other boys lacking the polish and discipline he does. His is an unforgiving universe and real joys are few and far between.

Jason is not an unfamiliar character in American literature: the teen weirdo who wants to be an artist and get the hell out of whatever small town it is they are living in.

His curiosity outstrips the ability of his surroundings to satisfy it, and he gets into things he knows he shouldn't, because there's nothing else to do and loserism is woven into the local fabric.

He is his own light in a dank world, carries hope through the moist and decadent land of mountain hollows the author so skillfully conveys.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Queen of America," by Luis Alberto Urrea

"She could not remember when she had last put her feet in free running water. She had not pulled a fruit off a tree or ridden a horse or prayed in a sacred spot. Were there sacred spots in New York? Wouldn't people just laugh at her if they found her talking to trees? Collecting seeds from plants with her old apron? Where was her apron? Huila's apron. Where was it?"

In the street, where a lazy, ne'er-do-well, drink-soppin', money-burning gringo dandy cowboy left it, that's where.

This clash between Yaqui mysticism and Anglo rationality is at the heart of Luis Alberto Urrea's "Queen of America."

The book is sequel to "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which this reviewer has not read, but would appear to have covered the true-to-life Saint Teresa of Cabora's days in Mexico, where she became the object of mass pilgrimages and inspiration for an ill-fated rebellion in Tomochic.

Having stoked the ire of The Porfiriato, a belle epoque Mexican dictatorship, Teresa, her father Tomas, and a loose tribe of characters Mexican, Indian and "yanqui" that follow the saint, take refuge north of the border.

A native naif, "Teresita" is still healing legions of believers in both the Mexican-American community and beyond. As the family moves from rural Arizona to El Paso, and back to Arizona, Teresa and her father, Don Tomas, struggle with their relationship.

Once a wealthy "hacendado" with cattle and an indigenous labor force, he resents Teresita's notoriety (importance?) for the exile and danger to which it has subjected him.

Don Tomas, his friends and acolytes such as Segundo and Don Lauro Aguirre, are men out to pasture with little to move them but liquor and a tepid revolutionary movement in their homeland. They are rendered here in buffa style, over-the-top, silly Mexican machos.

Teresa, pure of spirit, and held to a higher standard of conduct than your usual Indian girl, looks for a love to fill the hole her father's retreat as left in her life.

It doesn't work out too well, although we are treated to neither background or flashback for an explaining of why Guadalupe did what he did or what happened to him.

Urrea's a skilled writer, so it wasn't lack of it that may leave you dissatisfied. He's going in for whimsy, timelessness, and magic, but it can come off as unstructured and leave a reader feeling like they're floating in a bubble, directionless, things just happening to characters without us knowing why.

Yes, life is like that, but literature less so, because try as the latter might to reflect the former, they are inherently different.

When Teresita's bumpkin husband dubs her "Queen of America," he doesn't mean it nicely. He means that the commercialization of her life and powers - encouraged by him - have divested the saint of what Jack Kerouac would have called her "fellaheen" self, her spirit origin, her attachment to the earth beneath Manhattan's concrete, the buried Manahatta she ignores.

This process of deracination is promoted by more clownish characters, pin-striped American businessmen dealing in exploitation, thuggery, and bad manners.

They lodge Teresita in San Francisco and then St. Louis where she meets Geronimo and sees the World's Fair. Next is New York where she becomes an exotic to the Vanderbilts and others. Signposts of the time and places are served up to she and to us.

Because of how deeply engrained it is in the national psyche, it is unlikely Mexican literature will cease to remind itself, Mexicans, and those of us in el norte, about the ironic burden of coexistence with these "pinche" gringos; to need them yet loathe them, to eat their carrot, but feel their stick, etc. etc. etc.

And that familiar meme is a strong part of the message here: the identity-robbing realities of modernity, which are thrown into relief by a simple border crossing (northward).

Teresita goes home to complete a kind of universal circle and close a book that is a long road show, that loses in dramatic tension what it gains in ambient flavor.

This is an exile's journey through the late nineteenth century United States, with all that seeing it through a Mexican Indian's eyes might signify, a carnival show rolling before our eyes, some things related, foreseen or foreshadowed, others fragmented in the way scenes from a sojourn can be fragmented.