Saturday, February 26, 2005

My first Almodovar movie was probably in college and it was probably Labyrinth of Passion, starring a young Antonio Banderas. My personal early favorite film of his is Matador, with its odd take on the cultures of sex and death.

Almodovar has a set of themes that I like to look for and then discover in each of his films. He may or may not have put them there consciously but they have come to define him. I dont mean obvious things like transgendered characters, strong women who draw others in around them or plots about the cruelty and disappointment of love. The themes I have in mind are more in the background and sometimes peripheral to the main story, like an Almodovar-esque wallpaper.

The Lives of Strangers

In idle moments, when we are waiting for something to appear, the camera will catch a peek of other people's lives. A woman sits by herself in a car. Strange shadows in a distant window. Receptionists, when approached, quickly close a drawer. Every character, no matter how minor, has a rich inner life, briefly glimpsed.


Nostalgia. An emotional catastrophe. Everybody is ready to cry. Often with sweeping music rising in the background. And everybody carries a handkercheif which they can quickly pull out to dry the tears of a stranger.

Characters from the fringes of Society

There is one scene in the movie All About My Mother where the protagonist is looking for her old prostitute friends. She arrives at some area where cars are slowly driving around in a sort of procession. The headlights of the cars look like stage lights. The brightly dressed prostitutes prance slowly around.

Before we leave this scene, we see two prostitutes who are off to themselves, idly playing the childrens game of patty-cake. The entire sequence seems as if it was lifted from a Fellini movie, as if any moment 8-1/2's La Saraghina herself, with her painted eyes and toothy smile will walk by and do her dance.

Almodovar films include characters with a hint of unreality, like refugees from a dream. But the characters are not surreal nor carnivalesque. They are real but exist at the edges of the everyday life:suicidal lovers, terrorists and pregnant nuns, people who are both unfamiliar and yet share the same capacity for emotional tragedy and mischief.

Voyage into the Underworld

In many movies, there is a search for a missing person or someone who bears something vital. There is an inevitable scene where the searcher, like a modern Orpheus, must make a descent into the Underworld. In Almodovar, this is a modern underworld, a street world of drugs and prostitution, with men and women who cast our hero an unsavory look.


Its the movie Labyrinth of Passion (I think) where Almodovar himself, dressed in a black leather jacket with his bare legs showing, makes an appearance as the lead singer in a band. The song was'nt much but it was catchy: Gran Ganga, which translates roughly as Big Party.

I've bought a few albums based on nothing more than hearing a song in an Almodovar film. Here's two songs I'll make available:

1. Paloma by Caetano Veloso from the film Talk to Her
2. Puro Teatro by La Lupe (the Queen of Latin Soul) from the film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The surgery room itself was bathed in a luminescence so radiant that I could count the particles of dust in the air. It stood somehow apart, stark and inviolate. And there in the center of the room lay the Countess Kifune, focus of concern for both those outside the room and those inside, who were closely observing her. Wrapped in a spotless white hospital gown, she lay on the operating table as if a corpse - face drained of color, nose pointing upward, chin narrow and frail, and her arms and legs seeming too fragile to bear even the weight of fine silk. Her teeth were slightly visible between pale lips. Here eyes were tightly closed, and her eyebrows drawn with worry. Loosely bound, her hair fell lightly across her pillow and spilled down the operating table.

-from Kyoka Izumi's Japanese Gothic Tales. So lavish and attentive.

Is it possible to imagine a fusion of the Japanese and Gothic aesthetic? The bare surfaces upon which events unfold, the subtle chill in the narrators voice as if the story is being carefully spoken and not just read.

Reading different books I'm always struck that I'd like to combine the voice of one narrator with the scenery of another, the prose of one with the compact storyline of yet another. What would a literary mutant read like that combined the lush scenes of Peakes' Ghormenghast with the ascetic cruelty of say Lautreamont's Chants of Maldoror?

Izumi has drawn parallels with Edgar Allan Poe. His stories are short-ish but memorable episodes usually with some haunting fact that lurks in the background. Also, Izumi's prose is less spare than Poe's; His prose is much more visual and sometimes confusing in its attempt to casually disregard Time and try to present the story all at once.

Izumi's Japanese contemporary, Rampo, author of Japanese Tales of Mystery and imagination has not only drawn comparisons with Poe, Rampo has adopted Poe's name and wrapped it in Japan. What do I mean? Rampo's full name is: Edogawa Rampo

I haven't read Rampo yet but he is next.

I've also been reading pulpish things lately. Like the adventures of Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard.The story She for example is one of those kinds of stories that begins with a breathless narrator. See what I mean:

In giving to the world the record of what, looked at as an adventure only, is I suppose one of the most wonderful and mysterious experiences ever undergone by mortal men, I feel it incumbent on me to explain what my exact connection with it is. And so I may as well say at once that I am not the narrator but only the editor of this extraordinary history, and then go on to tell how it found its way into my hands.

Some years ago...

Sunday, February 20, 2005


And so he was telling me all about this traumatic event, that that moment was like a pivot upon which his life had swung around.

He seemed to me to be like a man who had just returned from a long voyage. He was surrounding himself now with a new set of friends and ideas, both like trinkets or adornments which he brought out eagerly to show to others.

He explained that the human need after trauma is to either run away into isolation or to try and create a new small society. He had taken the latter route. We talked about the immediacy of life, the deceptive sense of order we keep rebuilding in our own mind even as we know that most events are chaotic and impermanent.


Can the autobiography also be a novel? What if you depict your life as seen from above? I've been re-reading Louis-RenĂ© des ForĂȘts' ostinato and admiring how he has thrown his life onto the page. Here is himself as a young child:

"Without anything of his own, without a place to flee the gaze of others, hurling himself into with the confused ardor of a young animal penned up, with a right only to an iron bed, hiding away in it until the cruel surprise of dawn"

"The complicitous vocabulary by which we designate the most natural places, the peculiar smells, the familiar objects, like a barbarous chronicle in which we are addressed in a babble without rhyme or reason by invented characters with haughty manners...laughing together under the stupid eye of the parents excluded by their prudent forgetting of the past from this theater of madness until its time to draw its curtain and send all these seraphic princes with their barnyard language off to bed"

It was no surprise from Nathan Spoor

Saturday, February 19, 2005

trapezetreasure island view

Last week I was invited to a birthday party on Treasure island. Treasure island sits halfway between San Francisco and Oakland, right off of the Bay bridge. Its a flat man-made island and with its small size you feel as if you are walking on the deck of a ship.

One of the highlights was an entire circus trapeze setup. All the guests were given basic lessons and then climbed a narrow ladder, grabbed onto a tiny trapeze and swung out into the void.

The picture on the left is of A. in mid-swing. The picture on the right was taken later in the evening, a view of the city from Treasure island.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The roofers came today. Like trained soldiers assaulting a castle, they threw up their ladders, scurried up to the rooftop and fired up their tar roofing engines.

The owner told me they were doing several roofs that day. From the top of my roof you can see the entire downtown of san francisco, stacked up like a toy city. As they hop from roof to roof, walking through fumes thick as veils, I wondered, do they take time to appreciate the views?

"Ah yes. You and your sardines" a friend of mine used to say, and shake her head.
I have to admit that my love for sardines is visceral, almost savage.

I can trace this back to a hiking expedition in the mountains of Mexico. We were unprepared and had become at first disoriented and then, more clearly, lost. This was in a tropical area and so we fed our thirst by cupping our hands and drinking from springs, lapping up the water like dogs. The only food we had was a small can of sardines that one of us had brought, admittedly, as an afterthought.

I had never had sardines before but we opened up the can and carefully alloted one or two tiny fish to everyone. This was my first experience with sardines, then being presented as a precious delicacy. The smell, the texture of the fish, the fat and fragrance of the oil, and the saltiness produced such a euphoric feeling that I must have closed my eyes and moaned.

Perhaps this is how all food should be first experienced, from hunger, in a moment of desperation.

These days, I don't eat sardines that often because I do not want to dilute that sense of pleasure. When I do buy them it is as a treat, a gift. Each time I do, I get to re-experience that sense of a savage desire being sated.
Musicians in a Graveyard. Exquisite Corpses.

Humor is so innate to culture and language and I have to keep re-learning this.

Idly flipping TV channels with A. and we stop on a Mexican variety show. There's a short skit playing out. I watch the skit and laugh. A. turns to me and asks me to explain it, to translate it for her. So, I start to explain it and as I do so I begin to realize just how completely bizarre it all sounds. "Thats so morbid!" she says and looks at me, incredulously.

Here is the skit:

Destitute man stops well-dressed woman and points his gun at her.
Woman: Oh my God, please don't hurt me!

Man holds out his hat with his other hand.
Man: I'm collecting money for my funeral!
Woman: Your funeral?? I don't understand...

The man then points the gun at his head and pulls the trigger. Only the click of an empty barrel is heard.
The man holds his hat out again to the stunned looking woman.

Man (sheepishly): Actually, I guess I'm first collecting enough money for bullets...
[Audience laughs. Skit ends]

Mexican humor is dark yet elicits a light-hearted laugh. The topic of Death is more apt to appear suddenly in conversations in Mexico than in conversations in the U.S. It is something I've noticed and is also central to what Octavio Paz is saying in his book The Labyrinth of Solitude.

"The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love"

The embrace of death can be seen in the Mexican Day of the Dead which I've written about before. A band of musicians plays in a graveyard. Children point and laugh at skeletons, run and tumble over tombstones. An old woman laughs and tells stories. Another sits silently near a grave, muttering to herself. Everyone eats candy skulls and exchanges small figurines. There are colorful scenes of the world of the Dead. The world of the Dead is just like this world, if not brighter and more colorful, vivid and real, at least for this night. Skeletons dance and get married and sing each other songs of love.


When I was a kid, my friend Matt and I would play something that was like an Exquisite Corpse. But, it went like this: One of us would speak a Noun. The other person then had three seconds to utter another Noun that was unrelated to the first (or lose the game). Now, the first person continued OR he could name a word that united the two previous nouns and win the game. And so on.

So, if I said "fish" you could say "icicle" then I would say "train" then you would say "scissors" and I would say "graveyard" and you would say "paper" and I would say "cannon" and you would say "fire" and then I would say "cannonfire" pointing out your mistake and I would win. Its harder than it sounds since by default your mind makes associations, however subtle and when forced to say another word quickly you will often make an association that even you might not be aware of at first.

We also would play a game of questions not unlike that of the two main players in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask questions.
Guildenstern: Statement, one love.

Rosencrantz: Cheating.
Guildenstern: How?
Rosencrantz: I hadn't started yet.
Guildenstern: Statement, two love.

Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: Foul, no repetition, three love and game.

Rosencrantz: I'm not going to play if you're going to be like that.