HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Pop Zeitgeist (Page 2 of 3)

Coming of Age - The Long Journey

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In the summer of 1995, I was 19 years old, living on my own a few blocks from the sea in Isla Vista, a suburb of Santa Barbara, adjunct to the city’s university. Though I had summer school classes and a job, it was a good time for me. Romantically, I was unattached, my bout with teenaged acne had finally cleared up, my hair had grown hippie brave and so had my fashion style. I was riding my bike to Sands Beach on sunny days and listening to classic rock all the time— Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Byrds. My closest friend that summer was a dude we called The Gripper, who was like a guru to me in what we called the art of jibbing (sic)— encountering beautiful girls and charming them into giving awkward young men a chance. That summer, on the 31st of August, I turned twenty years old. For the first time in my young adult life I knew exactly who I was and I was all right with that. To paraphrase, I was my own man now and have been ever since.

Of course, for Americans, the big birthday isn’t 20, but 21, when you’ve reached the legal drinking age (turning 18 gives you the right to smoke tobacco, vote in your political representatives and die for your country but that doesn’t have the same cachet as a six-pack for most of us). Personally twenty-one was a bit of an anticlimax— I’d had a fake ID for several years, and moreover had landed in Paris on the morning of my 21st birthday, where if you’re old enough to see over the counter, you’re old enough to order a drink.

There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. Click To Tweet

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In Japan, all the aforementioned privileges of adulthood are granted at twenty. There is even a holiday for it, the second Monday of January, known as Seijin no Hi, literally ‘Coming of Age Day,’ in which everybody who’s just turned twenty over the previous year gets dressed up and attends a (reputedly) dull ceremony at the local assembly hall, where they are at once congratulated on their calendar years and reminded that they are now citizens with the responsibilities of adulthood to consider.

These admonishments mostly fall on deaf ears. The real action is just outside, where several hundred young men and women loiter, either waiting to go inside or coming out, or else just rallying noisily over a bottle of shochu, or, conspiratorially, huddling over a smoke. Most of the men wear suits—their boy-next-door hair is neatly trimmed and carefully combed. A significant minority wears the hakama, and it being January, the haori, a hip-length kimono jacket. But we aren’t speaking of the formal-wear you’d wear to your grandmother’s machiya for green tea— the haori du jour is flamboyantly colorful, some featuring fierce animals (the tiger being a popular motif). Many of these youthful specimens have notable piercings and gratuitous tattoos; on not a few is an aura of aerosol, testified by a blonde, spiky haircut advocated by some trendy, tasteless youth mag. These young men might be adults now but their Japanese falls somewhere between uncouth and impolite and their communal laughter is shriller than a company of hyenas. Whatever you might think about Japanese men being shy, circumspect, and abstract in their indirectness would be dispelled by such theatrical yelling and falling over one other.

There is not a single young woman not wearing the fabled kimono and the foreigner (me) wonders how beautiful life in Japan might be if it had never been overrun by The Gap, Levi’s, and blouses from Donna Karan. The girls’ kimono are sometimes conservative, occasionally tempestuous, starbursting with enigmatic patterns and chic colors, their collared furs turned up against the winter wind; the devil is always in the details and the bolder blossoms are blowing all of our collective minds with deliriously manicured nails, half-inch eyelash extensions, vivid cheeks blush, and that sparkle stuff that only girls can ever remember the name of. They wobble in zori sandals to and fro, shrieking at each other’s comeliness. Hyper-aware of their adorability, nearly every woman is being photographed dozens of times by dozens of smartphones. I don’t even have to ask when I hold my camera up between us.

There is some hot rodding, but this being Japan, there are teen idols and Mickey Mouse paraphernalia painted on the sides of the vehicles, compromising the sinisterness of degenerate youth. Gunning their engines at five miles an hour, honking and heehawing noisily, the drivers are desperate to seen but on this day, narcissism levels being what they are, the babes in their daydreams are busy with their poses, so that only some members of the gauntlet of traffic cops glare indignantly.

I mill around, occasionally chatting up the young ones with well wishes and my compliments. I am there to take pictures, along with a small gaggle of Japanese retirees with big digital cameras. They move in packs, often piggybacking my shots, overwhelming the more extravagant peacocks, who pose grudgingly for rapid-fire shutter release shooting with a beautiful artifice of a smile. It’s only 1pm but already the drinking games are getting out of hand. There’s broken glass on the sidewalk and wanna-be hot shots with cornrows and platinum yellow braids are pounding beer cans and shochu bottles as their friends whinny in peer-pressurized chorus. There are some bad hangovers developing— you can see it in their eyes— that look in a twenty-year-old’s face, incomprehensible and insensitive to a body and soul’s limits. A dude one sip of sake away from tumbling, takes that sip and staggers—the crowd giving him a wide berth as many of the kimonos are rentals and anyways it would be embarrassing explaining the puke chunks to the dry cleaners. Some of the more inebriated “adults” are beginning to get really careless and I need to remove myself from the hullabaloo for a bit of air and perspective.

In the quieter environs of nearby Heian-jingu, a large shrine complex painted in bright, orange colors, I struggle reluctantly with introspective questions: wasn’t it so metaphorically tragic that the ceremony of becoming an adult entailed binge drinking and narcissistic posturing? Was this what Japanese men and women had a lifetime to look forward to? Humans: we’d come a long way since slaying a lion was our initiation into adulthood. But the questions engendered by this raucous setting were of a personal nature as well. For one, had I been something of an asshole myself at twenty? Did I know and respect my limits and the space of others when I danced with the elixir of youth? It was true that I had unique cultural values but I had my share of wild nights, and once I’d really known what a heady experience it was to abdicate control and give in to purely id proclivities. But had I handled myself mostly gracefully? There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. ‘It’s okay,’ I thought, hearing in the distance the ejaculatory shrieking of another drinking game going awry. Someday in the shockingly fast-creeping future, these presently intoxicated twenty-year-olds will come to this very same ceremony with their own kids. They’ll survey the drunken tomfoolery, wondering if they too had drunk one too many, and reflecting that if they had, what a long way they’ve come in the meantime.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama - We Guess

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama – We Guess…

Who's Listening in on the President's Conference Call? Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Who’s Listening in on the President’s Conference Call? Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Though we at Heso Magazine are practicing secular-agnostics, we are inclined to believe that Hurricane Sandy making landfall on the U.S. on the eve of the election is hardly coincidence. Not that this tempest is an Act of God, mind you, but a manifestation of a furious Gaia, the Earth goddess howling brimstone at a national farce now almost beyond contempt. Though they have competed for bragging rights on who would be better at exploiting natural resources, neither the incumbent, President Barack Obama, nor his challenger, Mitt Romney, have acknowledged the obvious, urgent crises engendered by global warming (typical for a GOP candidate, glaring for a Democratic one). The most important difference is that one of the candidates (Romney) believes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is too expensive and should be discontinued, leaving bankrupt states to manage the inevitable environmental catastrophes on their own. That this is emblematic of so much other nonsense espoused by the GOP means that we at the magazine will in fact endorse Barack Obama for President, but with many caveats and some total absence of enthusiasm.

Romney, a flip-flopping hybridized Richie Rich-Gordon Gekko twit representing the worst aspects of modern corporate culture. Click To Tweet

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama – We Guess…

It is hard to imagine an election less engaging for its activists’ bases. The conservatives don’t trust Romney, a flip-flopping hybridized Richie Rich-Gordon Gekko twit representing the worst aspects of modern corporate culture. They don’t like him for his Mormonism and his record as the Governor of Massachusetts, particularly, his health care reform. Besides pimping for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as Fortune 500 companies Mitt Romney represents almost no one, but the Republican base will probably vote for him anyway, in total opposition to their self-interest, simply because he’s a white male.

On the other side of the spectrum, progressives are equally disengaged from Obama, who has either ignored or backtracked on nearly every campaign pledge from 2008, including respecting habeas corpus, renegotiating NAFTA, rejecting sweeping claims of “inherent” presidential power, protecting whistle-blowers, expanding labor rights, and diversifying media to name but a few. The propaganda on talk radio and Fox News is as spurious as it comes; a “socialist” Obama is not. On some issues, such as gay rights, he has proven progressive. But unless you’re for same sex marriage or a member of the nation’s financial elite it’s unlikely you have more opportunity or freedom than you did four years ago.

Running a country as multi-faceted, complex and dangerous as the United States requires responsibility not only for present crises but also for the long-term future of the republic and its citizens. With Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the two Company Men will work to comprehensively dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamp and financial aid programs, and any other public “entitlement” that any way at all aids the dispossessed and downtrodden. They will do it in the name of austerity, the hypocrites, all the while, continuing massive defense spending and supporting tax cuts and tax shelters for corporations. As perilous as life is in America today, it would be more capricious, uncertain and altogether hopeless under a Romney administration. For the wealthy elites in the GOP, the Bush tax cuts and TARP are mere Prelude to the Class War they will engage once they have the capacity to direct the national conversation on the economy. Once the purge is on it will make us nearly wistful for the days of ‘compassionate conservatism.’

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama - We Guess

Big Bird offers Romney something for him to hold onto in the cold, lonely unemployed nights ahead

Romney and everything he and the GOP stand for then must be dismissed outright as antithetical to our democratic traditions. Well, what do we have then? Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate was arrested when she tried to gain access to the Town Hall debate. Third Party candidates have almost no momentum this year (mostly due to media blackout and unfair playing rules.) That leaves voters with Obama, who arguably governed as Bush might have had he a third term, but who articulated the abridgements of civil liberties better than the Texan Bumpkin. Otherwise how could one explain how Democrats have gone from condemning waterboarding as torture to condoning executive-ordered drone assassinations? Keep in mind that a vote for Obama is essentially a vote for The Surveillance State of which our president has come to be one of its principle architects. It is important to note that Obama did not bother much with the ‘hope’ thing this time around. He might respect our intelligence, even if he doesn’t honor our privacy.

So what has he promised in this endlessly dull, insipid, uninspired, misanthropic election cycle? Well, so much as we can tell, he’s pledged that he wouldn’t be as bad as Romney and we at Heso agree. Thus, a vote then for Obama is a vote for competence. He probably won’t privatize Social Security and it’s unlikely with him as Commander-in-Chief, we’ll hear dispatches of G.I. Joe from the Gates of Tehran. We’ll get the status quo, which isn’t that great if you’re living day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck but it beats the heck out of the Made in the USA dystopian disaster the GOP might engineer should they have their childish hands on The War Machine’s joystick.

Because the GOP is out of touch with Americans (by virtue of its leadership and talking heads demonstrating unhinged sociopathic behavior) we at the magazine don’t much believe in the hype of a close election. The mainstream media has Ford Explorers, Big Macs and Verizon phone plans to sell so they need us turning in to the election cycle, which often feels like it’s 10% content, 90% poll tracking. The President will likely win this election, but that doesn’t mean we can look forward to good times. Though Obama had once been a community organizer and constitutional lawyer, he has really come into his own as a cold-blooded technocrat, legitimizing the worst of Bush’s abuses (illegal detention, runaway defense spending, obsequiousness to Wall Street). It seems that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has benefited the President as much as the venture capitalist, the corporations having hedged their bets equally. Nearly a billion dollars has been raised and spent by each candidate.

We at Heso think what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” is bunk. We can do better. The Scandinavian Model is proof of that. It might not be possible in such a large heterogeneous country with a militaristic background but we have already done better in the recent past, namely the fifty years of relative middle class parity between the elections of FDR and Ronald Reagan. While we take Churchill’s cynicism with a grain of salt, we take Martin Luther King Jr.’s words more seriously, especially, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We might be wrong but we believe the GOP, with its characteristic racist nativism, hateful misogyny, religious fundamentalism and class war agenda, has no future in the increasingly tolerant, secularized, cultural plurality that is Tomorrow’s America. In spite of the evidence, we are optimists, even if once more, the lesser of two evils is still, well, somewhat evil. ‘Change’ is gonna come, but we don’t believe it will necessarily come from D.C. It’s gonna be us, grass roots, after the tempest, one community at a time. Even the worst storms are temporary. And in the afterglow amid tomorrow’s beautiful light, some rebuilding will begin.

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

Taking the Nature out of the Society is a fast way down the toilet

Although globalization has accelerated the process that colonialism began— integrating and importing different cultures and people into foreign lands— America remains foremost among the world as a nation of immigrants. The indigenous excepted of course, all Americans come from somewhere else. The ancestors that founded our American lines thus once upon a time endured a very brave journey to be here. There is no shortage of mythologizing these romantic origins and my family is no different. Collecting and adding up various stories of apocrypha, my great grandfather and progenitor of the American Lotmans was born in the Ukraine port city of Odessa. An army captain stationed in the Black Sea during the First World War, when the Russian empire collapsed into revolution, civil war and a pogrom against Jews, Captain Lotman went AWOL, gathering his wife and his brother’s family and fleeing the violence. It took nearly three years for them to walk across Europe—a Europe at the time devastated by war, revolution and the Spanish influenza— three years sleeping in barns and stealing chickens before they made it to the South of France where there was a little money and a ship to take them to New York and beyond, to Chicago, where they found refuge with a cousin running a tailor shop. Was this really how my American line was born or was it much more ordinary, bureaucratic, sanitized? I prefer to celebrate my great grandfather’s adventure regardless of disputations. As the famous line from the John Ford western advocates, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in Click To Tweet

Even the most hard-line, bigoted nativist waxes starry-eyed fables about the time his or her ancestors came over, glossing over the fact they were once aliens, maybe illegal, probably culturally and linguistically confused and likely despised for their efforts in trying to make a better life. The hatred reserved for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians and the bulk of our South-of-the-border neighbors was once reserved for Wops, Micks, and Polacks. Immigration is one of those issues that will never go away. In 2010, the Arizona state government passed Arizona SB1070, legislation also known by its Orwellian double untruth, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The bill proposes police activism in interrogating suspected aliens regarding their papers and facilitating punitive measures for those in violation. Boosters of the bill deny any kind of racial profiling involved but it’s hard to imagine a white guy driving a Lexus being asked to provide proof of citizenship. Since then, five states, including Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, have introduced copycat legislation. A popular wedge issue among phony populists, anti-immigration, remains one of the preferred methods of maintaining an invented us-and-them dichotomy.

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Viking Press, 1995)

Even those sympathetic to our melting pot heritage have precarious loyalties in moments of national crisis. Just look at attitudes towards Germans during the First World War, the Japanese at Manzanar, and Middle Easterners and South Asians after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In normal times as well fear has been the catalyzing agent for the proclamation of draconian measures. While it may be true that immigrants commit crimes, you could argue just as exhaustively that it is poverty, more than culture, that is the criminal’s genesis. What is nearly always missing from the talking heads bloviating from their bully pulpits is some compassion and desire to understand the roots of the problem. It does not require tremendous common sense to realize that a human being will seek out his best opportunities for food, shelter, and work. What’s a thinking man with a strong body to do when his country suffers forty percent unemployment and his country’s largest slice of GNP is work remittances from the United States? It’s a problem, all right, and always it seems the solution is the reflexive ‘kick ‘em out, build a wall,’ answer. Never mind that California and the whole Southwest was once Mexican territory until an imperialistic war of the 1840s saw it ceded to the U.S. for a paltry sum. Never mind that we’ve damned the Colorado River and built so many aqueducts that by the time the river reaches Mexico, it’s so small and insignificant farmers are going bankrupt by the thousands (leading, obviously, to mass emigration). Never mind that without illegals picking lettuce out in San Bernardino farms for three dollars an hour, we couldn’t enjoy the very cheap produce we love drenching our low-fat Ranch dressing over. Never mind all that. It’s their fault, not ours, that people are scared, starving and killing each other.

It is not the artist’s responsibility to put the issue in perspective, but he or she can dramatize it in such a way that creates a sense of powerful empathy. T.C. Boyle does this admirably in his novel, The Tortilla Curtain. Published in 1995, it feels as contemporary, relevant and urgent today as it did then. Compared favorably with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a similar story of migrants, prejudice and their tragic trajectory, Boyle quotes Steinbeck’s character in the lead-in to his novel, “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”

Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk… Click To Tweet

Dehumanization is omnipresent in Boyle’s story, beginning when Delaney, a liberal white naturalist, runs over Cándido, an illegal alien crossing Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon road at an inauspicious moment. Delaney doesn’t speak Spanish, the injured Cándido knows no English, and the unfortunate action is resolved by Delaney’s handing over twenty dollars to the battered Cándido. Explaining the resolution to his incredulous wife, Kyra, later, Delaney says, “I told you, he was Mexican,” as if that reduces the transaction into its simplest terms.

Nevertheless, their lives are herein interwoven and Boyle adroitly switches chapters between his characters without ever losing momentum. Delaney and Kyra represent the wealthy liberal’s contradictions. They live in a gorgeous, secluded enclave named Arroyo Blanco. The neighborhood (which owes its name and architectural style–Spanish Mission–to the culture of the undesirables it aspires to keep out) decides to put up a security checkpoint and when that doesn’t seem far-reaching enough, a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in. Kyra, a hotshot realtor, is particularly sensitive to the clustering of Mexican day laborers in certain convenience store parking lots and its inverse relation to property values. Although she must be aware such an action will have dire repercussions for those doing what they can to eke a living, she makes a phone call to immigration to “clean up” the streets. She doesn’t even feel guilty about this nor does she appreciate the choice of language. For Delaney, whose sympathies are always with the natural world he writes about, it doesn’t take much— a stolen car, a piece of graffiti, a low rider with tinted windows and rumbling bass speakers ominously encountered— before his feelings towards illegals are destabilized so that a personal vendetta develops in his mind between himself and the man he hit to a degree that violence becomes a rational solution.

As interesting as his psychological descent may be, what makes Tortilla Curtain so powerful is Boyle’s compassionate portrayal of Cándido and his young, pregnant wife, América. Cándido has been coming to El Norte for years to do backbreaking work, from Idaho’s potato fields to West Hills landscaping, never managing to secure that elusive tarjeta verde. América has come with him on the premise of a better life, which in her estimation is as little as a small apartment and three meals a day, not the stuff of Horatio Alger riches, but then Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk of deportation and the loss of everything accumulated and saved.

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

Cándido is a victim of bad luck and the capacity of human beings for greed, thoughtlessness, and self-absorption. Promising América a better life, he is ripped off in Tijuana, humiliated at the border, reduced to squatting homeless in a creek bed, hit by a car, robbed in Canoga Park, and when things are finally beginning to improve for him and his pregnant wife, Cándido unwittingly sets off a catastrophe that not only ruins everything he’s worked for but nearly kills him. It is not for a lack of effort that prevents Cándido from getting ahead but a complex social structure that despises him for his efforts:

“Cándido was a sinner like any other man, sure, but no worse. And here he was, half-starved and crippled by their infernal machines, bounced from one to another of them like a pinball, first the big jerk with the Elvis hair and then the pelirrojo who’d run him down in the road, the very one, and his gangling tall awkward pendejo of a son who’d hiked all the way down into the canyon to violate a poor man’s few pitiful possessions. It was too much. He needed to go to confession, do penance, shrive himself somehow. Even Job would have broken down under an assault like this.”

Of course, there is some symbolism suggested in the choosing of a character’s name such as Cándido; a point is being made, an apologue being wrought and an interesting one at that. His namesake, a character created by a secularist in pre-Revolution France, leaves his native village behind in order to discover if it is true as his mentor Dr. Pangloss teaches, that this is the best of all possible words. Like Job, like Cándido, he discovers it to be a violent, soul-stricken place. In the end, the Candide of the French imagination returns home reassured that though the world may be horrible one can run a clean, lovely garden— your joys and ambitions will not fail you if they remain small scale. The big difference between the Candide of French literature and the Cándido in America is that our Cándido doesn’t need philosophy or its gratuitous hypotheses—his goals have always been a small home, food, maybe some house plants, and a woman and children to love. Of course these humble dreams are not uniquely Cándido’s own but remain a universal value to nearly every brave, hardscrabble immigrant who has ever strode boldly into the unknown world.

Empire Folly

Empire Folly

“Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?

Who could shake the foundation of heaven…?”


It is the winter of 1519 and there is much ado in Old Worlds and New: the Roman Papacy, led by Leo X is doing its best to suppress a renegade heretic named Martin Luther from spreading his blasphemies; Ferdinand Magellan is outfitting a crew of sailors in Seville with plans to circumnavigate the world; Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor has died, setting off arrangements to coronate his grandson, King Charles of Spain, as heir; meanwhile thousands of miles across the great seas, a little-known conquistador named Hernán Cortés lands in the Yucatan peninsula with eleven ships, 500 men, thirteen horses, and some cannon, dreaming of wealth and glory.

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas’ history of the adventures of Cortés, appropriately titled Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (Simon & Schuster, 1993) is an enormous undertaking. Thoroughly researched and meticulously told, as much biography as it is history, Thomas describes a force of personality so intelligent, cunning, and audacious, as to be a nearly mythical figure of history. It was one thing for the Europeans to dominate an archipelago of scattered, benign tribes— wholly another for them to subdue an enormous empire run with an efficiency as sophisticated as its cousin kingdoms on the European continent. Cortés succeeds by utilizing leadership, diplomacy, strength of character and some Machiavellian technique. But this is not a hagiography— contemporary historical hindsight does not take kindly to what in the end became wholesale destruction of a flourishing, vibrant culture.

Empire Folly

Conquest is a massive book difficult to summarize even in a long essay, so interesting and detailed is the story. At the back end more than 160 pages are devoted to chapter notes and sources, while the appendices include a glossary of the Nahuatl language, a summary of Montezuma’s tribute, Mexican calendars, a table of Spanish currency, a list of Cores’ mistresses, and genealogical diagrams of the emperors of Mexico, the Imperial Spanish family, Cortés’ ancestry, and the transformation of the post-conquest Mexican imperial family. This is preceded by well over six hundred pages of text that reads alternately academic and the best of adventure narrative.

The story begins in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka) ruled a vast empire (Thomas disavows the word “Aztec,” a malapropism popularized in the 18th century). They had a centralized government similar to feudal Europe. Also like Europe was Mexico’s pyramidal social structure, divided between nobles, craftsmen, peasants, and slaves. This was no garden of eden but a complex hierarchy uninterested in the issue of inequity. Priests, as ambassadors to the gods, were highly influential and whom emperors turned to for all divine guidance. Montezuma, the Mexican emperor in 1519, was particularly superstitious and susceptible to portents.

Because of elaborate pomp and ritual, the Mexica required enormous quantities of tribute from the provinces it ruled (some examples from the appendix: loads of lime: 16,800; gold-mounted crystal lip plugs: forty; live eagles: two). Tax collectors roamed the valleys to the coasts collecting for the emperor, causing considerable resentment among the smaller tribes. Moreover, the Mexica often staged phony wars with rivals in order to guarantee prisoners for human sacrifice.

Dressed in ostentatious costumes mimicking the wardrobe of gods and given peyote or mushrooms or even pulque (the mother of tequila) to quell anxieties, captives were led to the top of the great pyramids, where, “the normal procedure was for the victim to be held down on a stone block by four priests. His heart would be plucked out professionally by a chief priest or even the monarch…the heart would be burned in a brazier. The head would be cut off and held up. The limbs would be ritually eaten, with maize or chili, by noblemen…the torso would be thrown away, or given to animals in one of the zoos.”

It sounds gruesome but according to Mexican belief, death by “the obsidian knife” entailed a beautiful afterlife in “the paradise of the sun.” In the end, human sacrifice would be the most important argument for Spain’s superior civilization (never mind the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition!) But to the Mexica, if they did not sacrifice to Huitzilopochtili, the sun would not shine and if they did not give to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and maize, the staple of their diet, would not grow.

Montezuma, Cortes, Malinche Meeting in Tenochtitlan (Mexican National Archive)

Mural of Montezuma greeting Cortes upon his arrival to Tenochtitlan, with La Malinche acting as translator (Mexican National Archive)

Who were these Spanish adventurers confronting a society with such unpronounceable gods? Mostly they were men “of an experience as long as their reputation was dubious.” The first tide of explorers originally came to the New World with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, a “company of gentlemen” descended from powerful Castilian families (the historian is forgiven for his occasionally tedious layouts of pedigree). They established great encomiendas (agricultural estates tended by Indian slaves) in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica. Explorations were privately funded, which meant they needed to return profit on their (costly) investment. They weren’t interested in Christianizing (and therefore humanizing) the natives, whom they needed as a labor force. The Spanish did not play fair: entering a new land and subduing resistance, the Requerimiento was read out in an unfamiliar language affirming that the territory was now in Royal Spanish hands. The tipping point for European arrogance was Alexander VI’s Papal Bull formally dividing the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms, to which effrontery the Cenu Indians suggested, “The pope must be drunk.”

Once the first generation of settlers arrived, the Caribbean experienced a demographic crisis: there was no longer enough indigenous to operate the encomiendas since many had died from overwork looking for gold or malnutrition after the introduction of wild cattle devastated crop yield. Something had to be done about this labor shortage.

Enter Hernán Cortés. Like many conquistadores he came of age in a golden age of violence and glory. In the late 15th Century, the Moors were expelled from Spain and many Jews forced into conversion (and those that didn’t were handled by Torquemada and his inquisitors). Between religious cleansing, Columbus’ discoveries and the unification of the Spanish crown, much opportunity existed for ambitious, courageous men.

Cortés, of a minor noble family in Medellín, Extremadura, arrived in Cuba via Salamanca and Seville, when he was eighteen. Displaying wit, foresight, and intelligence, he became a favorite of Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, working up the ranks as a notary, secretary, treasurer, and magistrate, then as an encomienda lord and mine baron. He could read and quote Latin as well as popular ballads. A physical, intellectual, and engaging presence, Cortés rose to power on the strength of his Renaissance Man qualities, which is why Governor Valesquez named him caudillo of a commercial expedition to the Yucatan.

But it quickly became clear to the Governor that the caudillo was exceeding his authority. In bringing horses and cannon it seemed to all Cortés had long-term plans to establish a colony. A messenger sent to relieve Cortés of authority was murdered en route and all of a certain port city’s meat taken by Cortés at gunpoint. This flagrant disrespect made a lifelong enemy out of Valesquez.

Cortés’ was the not first fleet captained to explore what was beginning to be called New Spain: Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva had made exploratory maneuvers the year before, antagonizing the Mayans, who now challenged Cortés upon arrival. Attack dogs and artillery took care of the first wave of Indians and cannon and horses (the Mayans mistook the equine for dragons) took care of the second. The Mayans were slaughtered because their swords were made from obsidian rather than metal—built to wound, not kill (the Mexica would have the same problem). The Spanish reliance on artillery was anathema to the Indians, who believed it dishonorable to strike from a distance. Thus both technology and the playbook were to the Spanish advantage.

Slowly, Cortés and his men moved up the coast, reading out the Requerimiento to perplexed audiences, building settlements and demanding gold (which they received when available in exchange for beads, looking glasses, pins, needles, and scissors— obviously the events at hand antecede the concept of fair trade).

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Meanwhile, Cortés’ troublemaking was beginning to freak out the Mexican emperor, Montezuma. It was bad enough that this foreign army had cannon that “deafened the Indians and made trees vanish,” as well as “‘deer’ which bore the visitors on their backs” and dogs with “great hanging jowls and blazing yellow eyes.” The worst of it was the possibility the visitor might have been an “immortal… sent from heaven.” This foreign leader dressed in black resembled Quetzalcoatl, a bearded god, “the warrior of the dawn,” a morning star, the one deity philosophically opposed to human sacrifice. The fact that that year in the Mexican calendar, “I-Reed,” Quetzalcoatl was ascendant, suggested a very bad portent indeed.

Nevertheless, unlike many conquistadores, Cortés was not out for blood. War exhausted his men, caused casualties and desertions, and depleted his harquebusier’s gunpowder and his crossbow men’s arrows. Cortés preferred allies to enemies and was able to make friends via his interpreters (Geronimo de Aguilar, who had shipwrecked on the coast ten years earlier spoke Spanish and Mayan, while a concubine Cortés received in the victors’ spoils, La Malinche (who would be Cortés’ mistress and give birth to one of the first mestizos), spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Valley of Mexico). Cortés learned early on that while his army intimidated the locals, they seemed to hate the Mexica more than the Spanish. The native kings fed Cortés’ men and, crucially, supplied him with porters and guides.

But not all Indians were so accommodating, as the journey to Tenochtitlan became a Spanish Heart of Darkness. Some testified later, “The Castilians perpetrated many unnecessary cruelties, such as cutting off noses, ears, arms, feet and testicles, as well as throwing priests down from the tops of the temples” and that “arms were weary from killing Indians.” Sixteenth century shock and awe entailed wholesale massacres and pillaging, tactics Cortés might have learned from previous pacification programs in Cuba.

In spite of a first encounter battle, the rogue kingdom of Tlaxcala offered hospitality to Cortés and his men. Later, the Tlaxcalans would prove more instrumental than any other tribe in defeating the hated Mexica and bringing down the traditional culture preceding Cortés’ invasion. They would even exceed the Castilians in their savage destruction of rivals, soon proving themselves “good vassals of King Charles” in a confrontation at the kingdom of Cholula, a tribe sympathetic to the Mexica and refusing hospitality to the Spanish. The slaughter was horrendous. The town was sacked with “much stabbing, slaying, and beating.” As was the pattern in the Caudillo’s conquests, temples were whitewashed and pagan idolatry was replaced with crosses and pictures of the Virgin.

Tailing the expedition now were emissaries from Montezuma, who were beginning to doubt that Cortés could be Quetzalcoatl— for one thing, Cholula was dedicated to this deity; for another, it was doubtful a god— any god— could be so murderous. The Mexican emissaries showered Cortés with many gifts, begging him not to come to Tenochtitlan. However, after the massacre at Cholula, Cortés and his forces were able to march into the capitol unopposed on November 9th.

This is an historic event of two powerful cultures coming into contact for the first time and should be described with some detail: “The Castilian expedition made an immense impression… the horses kept turning, moving back and forth, their riders looking at everything on every side with the greatest attention… great dogs ran ahead, panting… the standard-bearer walked by himself, waving his banner back and forth… The Mexica were much impressed by the steel swords and lances, both of which flashed brightly. The crossbowmen and harquebusiers were wielding their weapons and making as if to test them. Behind Cortés, the Indian allies made noises as if preparing for war, shrieking, hitting their mouths with their hands, whistling, and shouting…”

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

The Castilians were equally in awe, for at the time only Constantinople rivaled Tenochtitlan in size. The city of Tenochtitlan was on a lake connected by four causeways. Vast numbers of canoes made from hollowed tree trunks approached the Castilians to observe these strange white, dirty, bearded men from the water. The pyramids of the city emerged as “castellated fortresses, splendid monuments… glorious heights!” Happy to have arrived in the capitol without incident, the harquebusiers fired volleys into the air, the thunder of which astonished the Mexica.

Receiving an audience with Montezuma was just as dazzling: “None of the Castilians would have admired the polished stone labret with on it the blue figure of a humming bird which the Emperor wore on his lower lip. Nor would they have approved his large earplugs and turquoise nose-ornament. But they could not fail to have been awed by the fine feather headdresses which both the Emperor and the nobles wore, as by the jaguar costumes of the senior warriors, with the animals’ heads over their own.”

Montezuma and Cortés greeted each other with a hug and then Montezuma escorted the Castilians to their lodgings at the Palace of Axayacatl. What happened later that night set the tone for what Cortés believed became his legal authority over the Mexican people. Montezuma, as is custom with good hospitality, probably expressed his obedience to King Charles in meaningless but polite language germane to the formal occasion, which Cortés assumed to mean that Montezuma had ceded authority to the European monarch. This meant that any defiance on the part of the Mexica could now be construed as rebellion, a treason punishable by death.

It’s hard to know for certain what happened— his words were doubly translated, from Nahuatl to Mayan to Spanish— omissions and enhancements might have been made in the process and nuance lost. Montezuma was both intimidated and curious of the caudillo but it’s unlikely he could begin to contemplate the duplicity and avarice of European conquerors. Right away he was taken into “custody” by the Spanish, a strategic coup for Cortés , as it amounted to severing the head of a very hierarchical society.

At first, nothing much happened and life in Tenochtitlan went on as before. For the conquistadores, the marketplace was inevitably a place of fascination: “All goods were sold by number and size rather than weight—for weights were unknown in old Mexico: gold dust, for example, was sold in goose quills. Many sections of the market provided services, like haircutting. There was another department where slaves were sold, tied to poles by collars…prices varied: if the slave was not highly skilled as a dancer, his price was thirty large cloaks; but if he danced well his price was forty. Canoes full of human excrement were disposed of to tan skins. The market at Tlatelolco, like most great markets, was a haunt of prostitutes and gamblers.”

But as time passed and the Mexicans grew weary of feeding a motley crew of gold-diggers, Montezuma’s cooperative imprisonment was beginning to adversely affect the structure of Mexican life. The emperor was “the heart of the city,” whose words were “precious jades,” and who spoke on behalf of the gods, of whom he was “the seat, the flute, the jaws, the ears,” who not only governed Mexico but kept alive the universe itself. His helplessness was all the more magnified when Cortés took violent reprisals against rebels, executing them in an auto de fe. Montezuma was compelled to reaffirm his vassalage to King Charles, which he did, weeping. Of course, it wasn’t enough Cortés had Montezuma’s state— he had to have his soul too: “Believe in our God who made heaven and earth, and, by His works, you will know who the Master is.”

Meanwhile, conditions in the Caribbean had deteriorated the past year when a smallpox epidemic wiped out whatever Indians not yet fatally claimed from overwork. Governor Valesquez, incensed at the rumors of Cortés’ success, commissioned a large force, headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was charged with relieving Cortés of his command. But shortly after the flotilla arrived on the coast, Cortés, utilizing diplomacy, bribery, and a bold nighttime ambush, captured Narváez, put him in chains and conscripted Valesquez’ police force into his own ranks.

While Cortés was at the coast, in Tenochtitlan there was a festival with much music and dance. Dance, integral to Mexican spiritual culture, was not just amusement but a religious rite, a service of gods, “calling upon them with one’s whole body,” to provide with peace, children, health, and wisdom. In command of Tenochtitlan during Cortés’ absence, his favorite lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, exercised remarkably bad temper. Feeling threatened by the communality of the festival, Alvarado and his men slaughtered the participants in mid-celebration: “They surrounded those who danced… struck off the arms of the one who beat the drums… his neck and his head flew off… They pierced them all with their iron lances… Of some they slashed open the back and there their entrails fell out. Of some, they split the head, they hacked their heads to pieces…” And so on.

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

This bloodbath was the breaking point. When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan he found it under siege. For all of Cortés’ shortcomings, he did not want a war. He ordered Montezuma to reestablish normalcy but by now Montezuma was a groveling wreck. It seems that he might have been a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. When an insurgency finally took shape under the leadership of his brother, Cuitlahuac, Montezuma pled with his countrymen to make peace with the occupiers. During one such overture to his subjects, he was assaulted with stones, dying from injuries shortly thereafter.

Montezuma’s disgrace in death is one of the great tragedies in a tale built with tears. Had he been more decisive, he might have defeated the Spanish. As stated before, an emperor’s leadership is everything, so his passiveness infected Mexican society, enabling the Castilians to gain the decisive upper hand.

However, at that point, nothing yet was inevitable. Now determined to fight, the Mexica cut off all access to food and water in the palace. Cortés decided to lead his men out of the city on the night of June 30th, remembered now as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). The Mexica overwhelmed the Castilians on the causeway— two thirds of Cortés’ men were lost as well as most of the horses and nearly all the gold. Many were captured, sacrificed and later eaten. Cortés retreated across the mountains to Tlaxcala where he was given sanctuary.

I should note that although this reader knew the outcome of this story, it was impossible not to root for the Mexica. The arrogance, avarice, prejudice, and ruthlessness of the Castilians was despicable. This is not 20/20 hindsight: many in Cortés’ time were horrified at the treatment of the Indians, including members of the Crown and the Church. Had the authorities understood the atrocities being perpetrated in their name, they would have been ashamed. Territory claimed and souls saved— the ends don’t always justify the means.

La Noche Triste was a turning point in the campaign. From then on the conflict became total war. Unfortunately for the Mexica, they were unable to secure any alliances. Either out of a desire for revenge, a fear of the Spanish, or sense that the empire was experiencing a paradigm shift, tens of thousands of natives allied themselves with the Spanish, feeding them, carrying their equipment, and killing for them. Those that didn’t fall in line were “pacified.” Worse, smallpox had arrived in New Spain with the Narváez expedition, decimating the indigenous population. Only the Spanish proved immune, further demoralizing the Mexica who interpreted the disease as divine punishment. There weren’t enough people to harvest and ground the maize. Famine ensued.

The situation for the Mexica continued to worsen. Spanish reinforcements with troops, horses, artillery and foodstuffs arrived from the coast. Cuitlahuac perished in the epidemic, succeeded by his cousin, Cuauhtémoc, Unfortunate for superstitious types, Cuauhtémoc’s name translated as “Setting Sun.”

Nothing so well demonstrates the different martial methodology of the two war parties than the weeks leading to the final confrontation. Cortés was preparing to siege Tenochtitlan by constructing thirteen brigantines that would give him control of the lake. Doing so, he could totally isolate the Mexica from access to food and water. While full-scale construction of the ships was underway, across the lake the Mexica were celebrating the festival of Etzalqualiztli. Priests would bathe continuously in the lake, the spiritual leader announcing: “This is the place of the serpents’ anger, the flight of the wild duck, the murmur of the white rushes.” Priests leapt, splashed and cavorted in the water mimicking birdsong: “some spoke like ducks babbling…some imitated water ravens… some like kingfishers.”

Nevertheless, when Cortés finally attacked, the Mexica gave everything they had to save their civilization. Though his brigantines and divisions cut off the Mexica at the causeways, in the war of attrition the Mexica fought bravely with obsidian knives and stones against artillery, crossbows, and Toledo steel. In spite of the superiority in technology and tactics, taking Tenochtitlan was a game of inches, not dissimilar to urban house-to-house fighting witnessed in Stalingrad in the last century. It had been Cortés’ desire to hand a jeweled city to his King but by the time the Spanish took the capitol it was a pile of smoking rubble. Cortés had won a pyrrhic victory.

Though Cortés had promised to treat the fallen monarch with dignity, Cuauhtémoc was tortured into providing the whereabouts of more gold. Natives throughout the land quickly learned they had made a deal with the devil once it became clear Spanish demands for tribute would exceed the Mexica. Whatever beautifully crafted work was recovered was burned down to make gold bars, the better for distribution. However, the conquistadores, who had suffered so many privations over the past two years, were astonished when Cortés paid them a pittance. They reacted to this injustice by perpetuating it on the natives in more expeditions to the frontier. Amazed by Spanish gold lust, the chief of the Tarascans concluded “they must eat it if they like it so much.” Inevitably most indigenous became human chattel in encomiendas partitioned by the new foreign government. Not long after, Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived, baptizing millions. The gods were the last to go of the old ways.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Cortés succeeded an improbable victory by improvising against numerous calamities. A creative leader, he’d organized a complex siege, inspired the brigantines, and forged a unique alliance with rival tribes. Against tens of thousands of Indians killed, he had experienced modest losses. The Crown eventually recognized him for his achievements, naming him Captain-General of New Spain. It was the apex of his career. Twenty years and some unsuccessful exploratory trips later he died in his homeland, in debt and disregarded by a new generation of forward-thinking adventurers.

Five centuries onward, we struggle for an appropriate moral for this story. We can draw some conclusions. It’s arguable that the Mexican empire fell to the Spanish not because of the latter’s edge in ruthlessness or aggression but because of these same faults in themselves. The other tribes in the Valley of Mexico should have sided against the Spanish: with the Mexica they shared the same language and religion, yet for all this shared culture, they committed their fate with the invaders— a caveat for contemporary empires who misappraise the extent of their power and influence.

It’s so easy to see inevitabilities when looking back at history. If not Cortés, then some other conquistador… But in disagreeing, the historian, Thomas, makes a fascinating assertion: “The conquest required Cortés’ capacity and determination to win over the Indians. Had it not been for their help, as porters, as quartermasters, and in providing a sanctuary, the expedition would have foundered. Had that occurred, who is to say that the Mexica under Cuauhtémoc might not have acquired the use of Spanish weapons, and perhaps learned to use horses? Even allowing for the onslaught of smallpox, they might have maintained a determined opposition until Spain became weary of conquering. Perhaps they would have embarked upon their own version of the Meiji era in Japan.”

Though there is a certain delight in revisionist speculation, that pleasure remains the property of fictionists. The historian’s role is to make sense of the past. Whether you respect or loathe his accomplishments, you must acknowledge Cortés is one of the godfathers of our modern world, begetting us his proselytizing spirit, adventurous bravery, and hypocritical violence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A Separation - Just Like Us

A Separation – Just Like Us

A Separation - Just Like Us

Leila Hatami stars as Simin in Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation (2011)

Consider this situation: a woman wants to leave her country to live abroad, only her husband refuses to go along with the plan. He wants to stay put in the big city they live in, most importantly because his ailing father suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. This point of difference being irreconcilable, they decide on a separation, the woman going to live with her parents, while her husband hires help to watch over his helpless father when he’s on his job at the bank. Meanwhile the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter decides to stay with the father, hoping that in doing so, she might influence her mother not to take the separation any further. The family residence is a spacious, modern apartment with a large bookcase, an entertainment system, and a foosball table. Have I mentioned this is a film about a family in Iran?

A Separation – Just Like Us

The film is called A Separation, and its arrival in our American pop life is timely and important. This is not because A Separation is a great film. It is great—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011, A Separation has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy—but the film’s extraordinary importance lies in its humanizing of the Iranian experience for an America audience. For lately we’ve been proselytized to support a probable preemptive war launched by Israel against Iran due to the latter’s suspected nuclear program. Once more, propaganda conflating an entire nation’s people with terrorism and monstrousness is being pressured on an American psyche susceptible to boogieman psychosis. A Separation is an artistic counterpoint to the idea of an Iranian menace. What it suggests more than anything else is they’re just like us. Of course, “us” being us, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The couple’s situation should seem culturally familiar enough—marriages in America crumble all the time because individual personalities are stronger than the relationship itself. This is true enough in the case of Simin, an opinionated, fiery redhead and Nader, her stubborn husband. Although Simin and her daughter, Termeh, use headdresses, they don’t wear the traditional chador or burqa. Their apartment has modern conveniences, including an oxygen tank for Nader’s father. There are no portraits of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, or any martyrs particular to the Shiite variety of Iran’s Islamic faith. Termeh has a tutor for her studies. Nader admonishes her to work on her English, but doesn’t ever mention the importance of memorizing the Qur’an.

They couldn’t be more different from Razieh, the woman hired to take care of Nader’s father. Wearing a black chador, Razieh, and her six-year-old daughter commute from one of Tehran’s distant, impoverished suburbs. She is devout but does not communicate her fundamentalism to her secular employers. That’s revealed when she struggles to take care of the old man in her charge: he wets himself and she has to wash and change him. He is so old and incapable as to be virtually asexual; nevertheless, Razieh calls an Islamic hotline to ascertain that cleaning him would not be considered “a sin.”

A Separation - Just Like Us

Peyman Moadi as Nader in "A Separation.''

It’s hard work and Nader can’t pay Razieh what she wants but she takes the job anyways because she needs the money. She’s pregnant and her husband, Houjat, is hounded by creditors. But Razieh is quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility, especially when Nader’s father escapes out the front door. Frantic, she finds him in confusion on the edge of a busy street in his pajamas.

The following afternoon, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment early, horrified to find the old man lying on the floor, his arm tethered to the bedpost. Nader manages to revive him. “Scum,” he mutters sotto voce, discovering money missing as well. When Razieh and her daughter creep quietly into the house, Nader confronts her on her conduct. They argue and he fires her. She wants to be paid but he calls her a thief, infuriating her moral pride. Razieh persists at the front door and Nader shoves her out. When the neighbors come down they find her on the stairwell. Retuning to take care of his father, Nader breaks down and cries.

Later in the evening, when Nader is dropping off his daughter at his in-laws, Simin asks to see him. She says that Razieh is in the hospital. When they visit, they learn Razieh had a miscarriage. Are they at the hospital out of courtesy or culpability? Houjat, Razieh’s hot-tempered husband, believes the latter, that Nader is guilty of killing his unborn child. In the ensuing quarrel, Houjat throws the first punch.

The next day finds both parties at the police station. Houjat and Razieh accuse Nader of precipitating her miscarriage. Nader admits he was a bit rough with her but denies knowing she was pregnant. He also counters that Razieh was negligent with his father, nearly causing his death. However, the bigger problem is the death of the fetus. Since it was four months developed, Nader stands accused of murder. If convicted, he is liable to face a three-year sentence. Simin’s family posts his bail.

Nader may be accused of the greater crime but he is wealthier and more pragmatic than his accusers, causing Houjat to become increasingly unstable and a potential threat to his family. Simin desperately wants Nader to pay them off with “blood money” so they can move on but Nader is determined to guarantee his innocence.

A Separation - Just Like UsWhat we have is a nasty case of ‘He said… She said…’ In fairness to the film, it would be wrong to reveal any more of the storyline. Needless to say, the director, Asghar Farhadi, while leaving inconspicuous clues to the players’ guilt, keeps our sympathies unbalanced throughout. Had Nader’s shoving Razieh precipitated her miscarriage? Was he telling the truth when he said he was unaware of her pregnancy? Their troubles envelop Nader’s neighbors as well as the family tutor. No one is truly innocent. Judgment fails them at the wrong moments and mistakes are made.

I’ve never been to Iran but the cultural divide feels familiar enough. Nader and Simin represent an urban, secular, liberal bourgeois while Houjat and Razieh are part of a larger underclass denied educational and career opportunities, falling back on religion to protect themselves from the melancholy of poverty. It’s blue state/ red state dressed up in different clothes, spoken with Farsi in place of English. They go through their days eating meals, studying for exams, taking care of loved ones, bearing a long commute, cursing bureaucracy, worrying about debt, struggling with relationships in decline, overwhelmed by life. These people have much more important concerns than parroting the worst of state-run propaganda. No one is cheering, “Death to Israel.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the two families in the event of a war: if Tehran were to be bombed by Israeli jets with American-made missiles and later partitioned with checkpoints guarded by armed foreigners. If an insurgency were to develop similar to what happened in Iraq, a dead fetus and a disabled grandfather, tragic as their circumstances may be, would pale to greater catastrophes at large.

I lost interest in the Oscars and their self-congratulatory saccharine aesthetic a long time ago. But I am rooting for A Separation to win at least one award. Because millions of people tuning in will be introduced to this film for the first time. Because of the free publicity the film will receive. Because Americans need to know Iranians, with their fanatical stubbornness, incessant quarreling, questionable judgment, self-destructive tendencies, familial loyalties, and emotional breakdowns are just like us.

Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.”
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Of all the major metropolitan cities in America, none deserve the misanthrope’s fury more than Los Angeles. After all, what urban area better represents the false promises of contemporary American Dreams than the one that declares you’re special and deserve your own TV show, only to exchange that dangling carrot for a dishwasher’s rag or a chauffeur’s hat? Los Angeles is no stranger to national decay: poor infrastructure, class war, race ghettos, illegal immigration, and economic inequality are some of the more serious problems unlikely to be addressed by a recession-era government more sympathetic to austerity than investment measures. On the other hand, the winters are terrific and even you, you fat slob, can be a star too.

What’s amazing is that it has always been like this and when we think of golden era yesterdays, it’s probably because we haven’t read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, the novel presents a world that seems to have changed little in seventy years: Prom Queens from Ohio slinging sex appeal at shitty Sunset Strip bars for tips and whose days’ highlight is some drunk with a money clip saying, “Hey, you look like that movie star…”

Day of the Locust

Nathahael West knew the type. He worked in Hollywood as a scenario writer on B-movie scripts because nobody would read his books (the 1930s was a golden era of literary luminaries slumming for the studios— among West’s drinking buddies were F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner). When a novelist makes ten times the money writing knucklehead dialogue than he is able to make with his personal work, it’s probably a given he might bite the hand that feeds him but in West’s case, he lunges for the groin and castrates the beast mercilessly.

The Day of the Locust is a story of outcasts, losers, and never-wills, centered generally on an apartment called the San Bernardino Arms, and specifically on a femme fatale blonde named Faye Greener, a wannabe starlet obsessed with fame, raised by a vaudevillian father. Members of her coterie include an Ivy League artist working as an illustrator for the studios named Tod Hackett, a profane dwarf named Abe Kusich, a taciturn rodeo cowboy named Earle Shoop, his Mexican sidekick, Miguel, and finally, Homer Simpson, a shy, feckless newcomer from small-town Iowa too innocent to survive a city as culturally psychotic as Los Angeles.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Film still from "The Day of the Locust"

Because he is educated in arts and culture Tod Hackett can see through the social veneer. For all the sunshine and apparent opportunity, many of the people on the street “were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.” Tod is inspired by these failures that “had come to California to die.” To his studio peers he seems the mild-mannered type but he’s working secretly on his masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a large painting about an apocalyptic fire that consumes the city. Tod doesn’t have to travel very far in Hollywood to find ruined souls perfect as subject matter.

Meanwhile, he lusts madly for Faye. Although he understands what Faye is after and that she would sell her soul in a second for matinee idolatry, he obsesses over her nonetheless. Flirtatiously, she uses him when she needs him but never lets him through the threshold as “he had nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod was a ‘good-hearted man,’ and she liked ‘good-hearted men,’ but only as friends.” But perhaps he’s not as “good-hearted” as she was led to believe because her games aggravate Tod so much he gets to the point that he wishes he “had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” Disney fare, this ain’t.

The other major figure in Faye’s life is Homer, who takes care of her after her father dies. Homer is generous, ingenuous, stupid, empty: “whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Tod hates the way Faye uses him, spending his money and having him put up her lovers, Earl and Miguel and their cockfighting birds in the garage. But he doesn’t feel much sympathy for Homer, mostly because Hollywood life and all its artifice seems to have numbed his capacity for true human warmth.

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom. Click To Tweet

West’s Los Angeles is an artifice camouflaging a wasteland. A building is “a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers.” Another one is “a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of Arabian Nights.” On set actors eat “cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall.” In one humorous scene in which Tod traverses the studio looking for Faye, he crosses through great ersatz villages: “The only bit of shade he could find was under am ocean liner made of painted canvas with real life boats hanging from the davits. He stood in its narrow shadow for a while, then went on toward a great forty-foot papier-mâché sphinx that loomed up in the distance. He had to cross a desert to reach it, a desert that was continually being made larger by a fleet of trucks dumping white sand.”

It’s not just background that does not seem quite real. Mrs. Schwartzen, a woman at a party, “had a pretty eighteen-year-old face and a thirty-five-year old neck that was veined and sinewy.” West’s description of Harry Greener, Faye’s father, a lifelong entertainer, is particularly caustic: Harry “was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.”

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom.

This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Click To Tweet

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Japanese version of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

“I’m going to be a star someday,” Faye tells Homer when she meets him. “If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide.” The character of Faye Greener is West’s caveat to all the pretty girls in the USA, the tens of thousands who come to Los Angeles every day with absurd celluloid hopes only to wind up financially destitute, physically compromised, spiritually null. The main problem with his warning, of course, is that nice, pretty girls don’t usually read Nathanael West.

If Faye is nuts then the city is an asylum and it’s very hard to tell the patients from the rest. And in modern times with Reality TV, tumblr, American Idol, among other narcissistic apotheoses it’s only getting worse. When West was fuming over the wannabe culture of 1930s Los Angeles, America was still a manufacturing economy rather than an information one. Nowadays, how can a person feel important when he or she does not have a personal wikipedia page explaining our accomplishments just so? Of course, a leisure society can only watch one channel at a time. Worse, fifteen minutes don’t go as long as they did in Andy Warhol’s time. And how are we to feel special in aftermath?

You know a story like The Day of the Locust can only end brutally. Those lacking the megalomaniacal mettle to make it are the story’s most tragic casualties. You know Faye Greener and Tod Hackett will come out of it all right because they’ve got their respective ambitions. Better, they understand that other people are tools that can be picked up, used, and discarded as needed. Someone like Homer Simpson from Iowa, unaccustomed to such cynical posturing, is doomed. Leaving Los Angeles is the only way he can save himself and when he finally attempts to do so, it’s the night of a large movie premier.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

A portrait of Nathanael West

By this time, Homer has become a pet project for Tod, desperate to do some good deed now that his own moral thread had unraveled. Tod is trying to help a dazed and confused Homer when the monstrous crowd around them surges violently. They are enveloped in its claustrophobic grip, pulled along much like a terrible wave drags the swimmer over gravel. This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves.

West captures the modern man then in crisp, horrific prose: “Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

The frightening question: From 1939 to 2011, what has really changed? This mob has burned Los Angeles twice, in 1965 and 1992. So long as man is not nourished and loved nor provided with something to nourish and love, he is liable to implode again. It’s not a great stretch. Consumers can only consume so much before they participate in a less constructive fashion.

You could say Nathanael West was a prophet. Or maybe he is one of those people who doesn’t need smoke to spot a fire.

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