Tag: Sean Lotman (Page 2 of 3)
I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.
–The poet Ghalib quoted in Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: a Novel
It was almost ten years ago but I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the first time I arrived in Delhi. This was back in the day before they opened the modern, antiseptic terminal that handles international traffic. My flight had landed at three in the morning–I remember broken windows, shitty lighting and bad vibes. And being mobbed coming out of customs by desperate taxi drivers, winding up in a 3-wheeler tuktuk and the long drive into the city, indigents burning campfires on the roadside, farm animals wandering in the traffic lanes, and even in this witching hour, an incessant noise, the undisciplined application of vehicular horns. After checking into my hotel, I can recall my deep reluctance to leave the room, burning with regret over my decision to travel India for six weeks.
The Delhi on the Corner
In the last decade, I’ve flown into Delhi six times. Delhi is not the destination, of course; India is. For many of us, Delhi is more of a way station or a bazaar; it’s where the traveler stocks up on the necessities overlooked in his haste packing his bags. Most of us pick up our ongoing rail tickets on the day of arrival. No one loves Delhi but deep down, I think most of us like it. Because it’s where we say “Hello, India,” and when we’re done, “Farewell.”Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version? Click To Tweet
Unfortunately for the city, if one googles “Delhi” the autofill names “Delhi gang rape” as its first search suggestion. This is not accidental. Delhi’s history goes back a thousand years to when it was known as Qila Rai Pithora. It has experienced many incarnations, eight cities, through the centuries: Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Purana Qila, and Shahjahanabad. Prior to New Delhi being built by the British Raj, Turks, Afghans, and Mongol hordes crisscrossing the continents in search of blood and booty laid waste to Delhi, starving its citizens, purging its enemies, torching its temples. The thing about the city today is that outside the wealthy suburbs and the business-leisure downtown district of Connaught Place, much of the Delhi’s crumbling architecture appears lately pillaged, though this ‘rustic’ aesthetic is more to do with neglect than the barbarians’ wake.
Most travelers enter India via Delhi and its airport and the transition is startling, even for the seasoned hand. Of course this is what you’re in for: different cultures play by different rules and you’re supposed to be learning about yourself in this (mis)adventure. When dealing with the insufferable crowds, traffic, shysters, bureaucracy, your character is tested. Moreover, you can’t help but think hey, for all the snafus at home, it’s not the disarray Delhi labors under. One is reminded that things in your real life aren’t so bad. At the same time, you try not to die here, as this is a city of djinns, and you really don’t want your own ghost marooned in such a sloppy megalopolis.
But we should be little bit fair to Delhi. It has its sites. To name but a few: the Red Fort, Shah Jahan’s magnificent sandstone citadel; the Jama Masjid a beautiful seventeenth century mosque located in the medieval atmosphere of Old Delhi; the crooked, phallic 12th century Qutub Minar; not to mention the many museums (including one for toilets) and bazaars.
Having spent so much time in Delhi over the years, I don’t often go sightseeing. Instead I wander Paharganj, the main bazaar near New Delhi Train Station. It’s where I always stay when I’m in town and though it has its share of backpackers there are enough gray-haired hippies who remember the old days, trumping us young ones with their acid-laced anecdotes. In Paharganj, I have my restaurants, food stands, chai stalls, and rooftop lounge patios that I patronize. First meal whenever I’m in town is a rava onion masala dosa at Sonu Chat House, a no-frills joint where you share your tables with strangers and the food is cheap, good, and safe. If it’s dusk I like to go to the rooftop of the Hare Krishna restaurant. I don’t go for the fare (terrible except the ginger-honey-lemon tea) but the city looks beautiful in the gloaming light. Sometimes there are birds-of-prey hovering over the mess. The decay looks poetic and beautiful in magic hour light—I’d take a sunset over Delhi than Geneva anytime. There is a sense of relief as night falls. That those of us appreciating the coming darkness have survived. Because that’s what most of us do in Delhi, residents and visitors, we just try to make it through the day in one piece.
I’ve been going to India for ten years and in that time I’ve seen Delhi undergo some significant change. Much of it still looks like the aftermath of a catastrophe, but no question emerging middle-class wealth has led to some gentrification downtown. There are more cars and motorbikes on the road, more cameras and mobiles in people’s hands. A lot of the changes, including the new airport terminal, were done when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games a few years back. In my own Delhi world, they paved the road in the main bazaar and kicked the street merchants and mendicants out of Connaught. India is learning well from us in its process of Westernization: it’s not just transitioning to a hyper-consumerist society, but filtering the underclass out of its presentation of a competent, happy place. I could be wrong and many Indians are ascending socio-economic ladders, but in this country cynicism is a survivor’s tool. Or maybe it’s mostly the same as it ever was and it’s my memory playing tricks on me. Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version?
This past month I came to India to visit Gujarat, specifically the Kutch region, in the dusty, desert frontier near southern Pakistan. For all my time spent in India it was a challenging experience and though I managed to stay active and accomplish what I’d set out to do I was debilitated by all sorts of physical complaints. Some threshold was breached halfway through the journey. In the midst of an agonizing health crisis I asked myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” I vowed that this was it, the last hurrah.
A week later, when I returned to Delhi on an overnight train from Ahmedabad, among the many unions striking that day were the taxi and tuktuk workers and I was stuck taking a cycle-rickshaw to Paharganj. The pockmarked road was a disgrace. “India!” I cursed. I’d planned some excursions into the city, but with the strike going I decided to remain in the New Delhi area until my flight left that night. I had my dosa at Sonu Chat House and read my novel in the park in Connaught Place. At dusk, I went to the roof of the Hare Krishna and had my tea and watched the sun fall beyond the serrated edge of my sight and I realized that my resolution of moving on would come to naught. Like a family member or a difficult friend you’ve known for years, I love India even if I don’t like it very much. Sooner or later, I’d stand on this same Delhi rooftop, feeling grateful to be alive, asking myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” My tea finished, I would once more begin the long process answering this incomprehensible question.
I first met Michael Nguyen on a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, the flowers in bloom. We were in a Shibuya park on Meiji Dori, where an anti-nuke rally climaxed in a costumed hippie drum offensive, bursting in the dappled light. If I remember correctly, Mike had a can of beer and a cigarette (he likes his tobacco, lights it with a Zippo with a dazzling flair that would make a seamus smile). It didn’t take long to establish friendship: he was a Gaucho and so was I, alumni of University of California at Santa Barbara, meaning we’d both known Paradise as younger men and that this heady knowledge acquired as twenty-year-olds had affected our lifelong trajectories. I’ve only known Mike for about two years but judging by his photography, I can see he’s never discarded the pleasures introduced in Santa Barbara. It’s nice to see that he’s still trailing after beautiful manifestations, glad he sees fit to share his gleaning with the rest of us. Mike’s wonderfully eccentric street tableaux aside, he’s well-known among his peers for his bathing beauties—what has been called his “babe in the onsen” motif, but really that is simplifying and involves not a little envy. There is an element in fantasy in such an intimate, sensual image. After all, most of us photographers are not Lothario types, and an attractive woman will not be seduced by the size of our lens. Something more is at work, something mysterious, which I suppose is a secret, and a well-guarded one.
We at HESO then are proud to present a sample of Michael’s work—his women, and because it’s spring, his flowers, for what better way to illustrate the ephemeral beauty that breaks our hearts, then to complement these lithe, youthful figures with the ambassadors of spring, in which we are reminded we have yet another chance to set things right.
A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen
Michael Nguyen: If you have ever heard me at karaoke then you would know why not music. Photography and painting do not necessarily really differ in terms of how we experience time and space, but the creation phase is different. Painting starts out in the light and develops gradually, but remains visible the entire time. A photo captures a scene all at once and is then developed over time in a dark laboratory. Digital is changing all of that, but that’s another story. Photography for me is the best means of expressing and hanging on to those little fleeting splinters of life we experience each day.
HESO: How did you get into photography? I believe you majored in it at UC Santa Barbara. Do you think studying the subject at university has made you a better photographer?
MN: I was a graphic design major actually. I started taking photography classes in college and fell in love with the zen state of mind in the darkroom. I can’t say I really learned much in college, nothing I couldn’t have learned by going to galleries myself and looking at books and hanging out with other photographers.
HESO: Which cameras do you prefer? And why? Does shooting with film matter?
MN: Ah, the obligatory gear porn question. I suppose it depends on what I shoot. For street photography I have my Leica M6 with a 50mm Sumicron, which is good for much single-subject shots. For portraits and landscape I have my Rolleiflex Sl66 for the slower process and higher film resolution, basically a Hassy with bellows that allows me to play around with the focal plane. I haven’t seen anyone else using one. To keep the film vs digital debate succinct, I’m of the opinion that from a personal expression point-of-view, the process does matter and the process of shooting film slows things down and allows one to think with deeper clarity. It doesn’t help that I’m a sentimental motherfucker who clings to bygone things. The well-worn cliche here being if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There was nothing wrong with film photography when digital came along. Which isn’t to say that digital is bad or anything per se–it makes commercial work more efficient and streamlined, but it hasn’t added anything to the art form.
HESO: Though we are featuring a series of flowers and feminine beauty, you’re a bit of a street photographer as well. What is it you’re looking for on the street?
MN: Other than the typical “I wanna capture the fleeting moments of life” schpiel, street photography is my way of sticking it to the man so to speak. Like poker, the house always wins. Every now and then the perfect hand comes and you happen to bet big and take down the house. Most of the time we take shitty snapshots of mundane objects, but when that perfect moment comes where you’re at the right place at the right time and had the right settings on your camera, and, well, that time is beautiful.
HESO: Do you enjoy shooting in Japan better than elsewhere? How is it different than shooting in the States?
MN: Difficult to answer really. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I took it seriously. So I can’t say I’ve had a good attempt at really shooting in other places. I did recently go to Spain however and found the light there to feel harsh and low, quite challenging.
MN: Coming up with something groundbreaking and new since everything seems like its been done. Cliche is the enemy.
HESO: So much good photography in my experience is due the serendipitous moment. Share with us a story of accidental good fortune.
MN: In life anyway, accidental is the only kind of good fortune I get. As far as photography, I can’t go as far as to say I’ve had any true serendipitous moments. You always try to be in the place with the best possibility of seeing something interesting and be prepared as best as you can. Photography isn’t a terrible John Cusack movie.
HESO: Flowers, youth, the elegant form of the female nude… what else do you find beautiful in this world?
MN: That’s just about it! Haha. With the sensory overload in this day and age I’ve become so jaded and numb that anything that stimulates any kind of emotion, good or bad, is beautiful in this world. Being rather immature for my age however, beauty remains a superficial thing unfortunately…
HESO: Your photos presented herein are just lovely. Any chance they’ll become part and parcel of a more comprehensive project on beauty?
MN: Ideally yes. but again like I mentioned earlier its really hard not to do cliche and redundant things, so who knows. I’m torn between just getting out there or hold out till I have something mind blowing. waiting for that epiphany.
HESO: You are somewhat notorious among your friends for the ‘babe in the onsen’ motif, but a lot of the ribbing is just jealousy. They would love to imitate you if only they could! Any tips for guys on making their beautiful girlfriends comfortable enough to pose in such intimate circumstances?
MN: Lots of booze! Seriously though, women tend to be insecure creatures. Reassuring them of how sexy they are and showing your passion in having them as such an integral part of your vision is key. Everyone just wants to feel needed and loved.
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 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:
pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet
“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.”
“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.”
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 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.”
“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.
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.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.”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.
In the old days, when a man was building his credibility as an artist, he did so rather anonymously. There might be a break here or there in this or that magazine or fashion catalogue but it would be difficult for this person to build a public name outside the small circle of his metropolitan environs. There was no forum for strangers to witness the flourishing of an individual’s sensibility. The support network could be minimal, the journey, lonely.
I’ve never met the man who goes by the mysterious name of Ontoshiki but that doesn’t mean I don’t know him. I first discovered him a little more than a year ago on flickr. I can’t remember exactly what shot it was but I think it might have been from his Tohoku series, which Ontoshiki visited shortly after the devastating March 11th quake. Amidst the destruction are solitary shots of people. What are they doing here? Looking through the ruins? Contemplating how life could ever be the same again? I learned quickly his Tohoku work is in no way emblematic of his oeuvre— Ontoshiki is not a photojournalist— but is consistent with his strong feelings regarding mood and emotion.
I am of the camp that the photos we take are like the results of a Rorschach test, giving ourselves away, what we feel about love, humanity, even political and spiritual viewpoints. You can tell from a man’s photographs whether you’d like the man himself. After all, it’s not just the way he sees the world— every photograph is an appreciation of a certain moment that is then publicized to express selfhood. A photo then is not just saying, “Look at this!” but is whispering in your ear, “This is me…”
That said I know I’d like Ontoshiki the man. Beyond technical commonalities (like me he seems to shoot mostly in color with film cameras) it’s his unmistakable interest in beauty and humanism that makes him simpatico. Yes, he photographs beautiful women but he is careful to allow them their sense of mystery. When I peruse his many photos of women I’m not just looking at their finery and appreciating their feminine charms; I’m also sensing their autonomy (as opposed to being mere sex objects). All too often fashion photography feels reductive (it is after all selling something) but Ontoshiki allows his subjects their vulnerability. Moodiness has precedence over glamour. This emphasis is something you rarely find in photos of beautiful women.
I suppose it works here because Ontoshiki is coming at photography with his dual interest in self-expression and aesthetic appreciation. Some people want to make perfectly abstract photos of buildings. Others find their eye in war zones. And then some just adore beautiful women. In his own words, Ontoshiki writes that sensuality “in photography is tantamount to having an intimate dance with a woman; timing, technique, intricate body movements…shooting someone for an extended period gives me a feeling of palpable intimacy.” It’s not a job then, it’s a life.
HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?
Ontoshiki: I’ve been shooting since I was a teen. I was born in Malaysia but my ancestor’s roots are from China. When I was 9 years old, my family immigrated to Australia so I was raised and educated there. In 2005, I made a big decision to quit a decent job (in the Australian government) and I eventually arrived in Tokyo. With a constant stream of culture, interesting faces and beautiful scenes happening right in front of my eyes, I felt like I needed something with a little more control in order to document these fascinating visuals. A year later, after being inspired by film photographers I came across, I ventured into film photography and immediately fell in love with the Pentacon 6 and a cheap plastic Holga. I eventually opted for the 6×6 format Hasselblad and the 35mm format Minolta. I don’t have any formal education but I will be going to Paris, France to study at SPEOS school of photography to eventually to work on meaningful long-term documentary projects which focus on community and inherent social issues.
HESO: You get up in the morning, look out the window, what do you see?
Ontoshiki: I’m not a morning person so maybe I see the world a little differently, moving in time-lapse. I feel like I’m a goldfish swimming around in a fishbowl watching the world go by. Going back in history, the last 50 years has changed more significantly than the last 1000 years. This phenomenon is known as “the quickening” and I believe this is a sign that the world is on the verge of major social, economic, political and spiritual change. We are living in an upside-down world full of misinformation. I used to be nihilistic and live in a world of existential ennui, but photography has given me meaning. When I quit my job many years ago and moved to Japan, I wasn’t sure what I was doing: perhaps it was to escape the my life back then. Picking up photography has given me a tool to explore my inner and outer Universes for truth, connect the dots of life and to understand the synchronicities that has led me to this point.HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, full of color and ranging across a variety of subject matter, from classic traditional to edgy counterculture. There is a sense of discipline and order underlying many of your images, yet, strictly speaking, they are not all in focus. What is your main objective in photographing something?
Ontoshiki: Quite the contrary, I really think my portfolio lacks order or discipline. If there were elements of any, perhaps the discipline and order may have come from the educational system in Malaysia. In Australia, the education system was free-flowing, interactive and students were allowed their own voice.
In terms of what I shoot, as with any rookie photographer or painter, I started out shooting scenes from daily life, flowers, stills, people but nothing out of the ordinary. To draw an analogy, it was akin to being born but without your vocal chords developed. You are but a newborn watching and observing, listening and learning but once you are ready, you gradually develop a voice. Now that I am ready, I want to communicate to people the way I see the world and the sights and sounds that have influenced and inspired me.
Lately, I’m sometimes paid to shoot things I/m not particularly interested in. but I do it in order to financially support my other photographic endeavors. Photography is not a “cheap thrill” but I’ll try not to sell myself out and focus on the subjects that interest me.
HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa? Or is it not important? Explain.
Ontoshiki: For personal work, portraiture, street and documentary, I definitely prefer shooting film especially in black and white — the tones and highlights are incomparable to a straight digital black and white conversion which is often flat, lacks contrast and depth. I shoot digital for assignments and editorials due to cost, speed and convenience.HESO: You possess a knack for extracting color out of a scene. Yet you also have a very large, and quite masterful collection of black and white photographs. What do you feel is the main difference between the two and how do you approach shooting color as opposed to shooting black and white?
Ontoshiki: I love the masters of paintings: van Gogh, Monet, Degas; film: Wong Kar Wai, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton; contemporary photographers: Eugenio Recuenco, Damon Loble, Michelangelo di Battista, Elizaveta Porodina. Their colors are punchy, mood strong, voyeuristic, mysterious, yet the look is still dreamy and organic. If I can get anywhere close to a combination of their styles, I will be on the right track.
If I honestly critique myself, I am not afraid to admit that my digital work “sucks”. I am an amateur with artificial lighting and photoshop post-processing. On the other hand, I feel that my black and white film work is closer to where I want to be. I remember the story of the Master sushi chef who’s been making the same sushi for over 25 years and when asked if he were happy with his sushi, he promptly replied “My sushi is still not good.” On that timeline, I am only in my 3rd to 4th year since I was reborn photographically.
HESO: You have many photos of far-off people in some kind of cityscape. Do you prefer to shoot landscapes or vistas or people? A combination of both? Are these scenes candid or contrived? Do you use models or random strangers? If the latter, do you ask permission?
Ontoshiki: Initially, when I started photographing the streets and people, I would shoot them in the distance. Over the years, I learnt how to get closer and fill the frame and I think that is very much also a reflection of how I am a little less afraid of making the commitment to get closer to someone on a personal level. I suppose you could say that photography has granted me a sort of quasi-intimate relationship with the people I shoot.
Do I ask permission? I do a bit of both, obviously with my street photos they are all random strangers sometimes I stop to ask but most times I shoot them going about their daily business. I recently try to venture into places and go to events where I can likely meet interesting personalities but sometimes I am lucky enough to meet people and subjects serendipitously. In fact, one of the most interesting shoots Ive had done in my life I unexpectedly met at a bar in Shibuya. He is a prominent franchise owner in the U.S. who was in Japan to franchise his business but he was also here to learn the art of “kinbaku” which is the art of rope tying bondage. We got to talking, agreed on a price and I ended up doing a photoshoot for him at the studio of infamous “shibari” rope master, Steve Osada. On another day, I did a photoshoot of him, his girlfriend and two other guys having a four-some. Needless to say, that was the weirdest shooting experiences I’ve ever been involved with and Im not sure if Id do it again to be honest 😉 …oh, just for the record, I didn’t participate.
HESO: Hah! Who are your favorite photographers? Any images in particular stick out to you?
Ontoshiki: I’d like to pay homage to the masters: Helmut Newton, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey, Daido Moriyama.
A few years ago around the time I started on my photography journey my good friend Mika who’s a professional photographer took me to an exhibition at a small gallery in Ginza to see the work of fetish photographer “Yasuji Watanabe”. It’s hard to explain but at the time, I was rather stoic about the experience. I know looking back, that deep down inside the images really grabbed me, yet I didn’t know how to react or what I wanted to do with it because I was still in my photographic womb. I realize now a seed was planted within me and a few years on, I am taking my first steps on the path to photographing themes of beauty, sensualism, fetishism and erotica. I would say that I have found the voice resonating deep within me which lay dormant at the time.HESO: What do you do when you are not working?
Ontoshiki: I’ve been occupied with…spirituality, yoga, street photography, mixed martial arts, urban exploration, blogging, working on my website and venturing to places in order to meet new people for my photography projects.
HESO: How has the tragedy of 3/11 affected you? Those around you? Friends and family? What do you feel you have done to help? What needs to be done?
Ontoshiki: What have I done to help? Not enough. I was lucky enough to join the crew of JTI Foundation and Fukushima Future on their projects in Tohoku and Fukushima. I really wish I had more time, money and resources but what I did documenting the tragedy was for very selfish reasons. However, through this experience I was able to communicate my voice and viewers who came across my photos could feel hope and compassion among all the devastation. I would definitely like to go up there again if I have a chance to see the positive progress and to document happier moments.
As tragic as it was, it really helped me to understand myself better as a person. I am a selfish and complicated person by nature yet I feel theres a compassionate humanitarian part of me which is dying to be released from its shackles. I know one day I will find that altruistic part of me and pull him out of that deep, dark abyss.
My family and friends, much like everyone else were obviously concerned about what was happening in Japan. Watching the situation unfold on TV where “bad news is good news” is never easy on the families of people affected. At the same time, I don’t thing it was a stretch to say that Fukushima was minutes from the worst nuclear disaster in history.
HESO: Ontoshiki, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here.
This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.
“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.
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.
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.
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).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…”
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.
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.
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.