Monday, March 30, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Two Lovers

James Gray's mesmerising film is set in Brooklyn, but it's unmistakeably Eastern European in its sensibility. The influence of Kieslowski (A Short Film About Love and other pieces from the Dekalog) is palpable.

Gray's grandparents were Russian immigrants. His protagonist here, Leonard Kraditor, is the son of middle-class Jewish immigrants whose cultural level extends beyond their socio-economic clout.

Leonard is on heavy meds after his fiancee's parents called off their engagement after they had both tested positive for the gene underlying Tay-Sachs disease. Incidents of self-harm and hospitalisation had followed, and at the start of the film he's living back in his old bedroom and flirting with suicide.

Two romantic exits from these physically and mentally cramped circumstances then present themselves. First there's Sandra, the nice Jewish girl Leonard's parents are plugging for, who also happens to be the daughter of the man about to merge with the family dry-cleaning business.

In spite of the fact that she cites The Sound of Music as her favourite movie, Sandra has an aura of deep sensitivity. But rather than being looked after Leonard would like to be the looker-afterer, and has just met the perfect foil for these inclinations in his neighbour Michelle, a drug-using ADHD sufferer with a wealthy married boyfriend who pays for her apartment.

In the latter role Gwyneth Paltrow is good, but not quite as good as Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw are as Leonard and Sandra respectively. (Phoenix's handling of Leonard's body posture and his different moods in different company is especially acute.)

Perhaps the problem is less her acting ability than the fact that Michelle is clearly more of an archetype, but then so is the meddlesome Jewish mother played by Isabella Rossellini and the script seems to have been more discriminating in the realisation of that character.

While Gray deploys a neat visual trick to quickly communicate how Leonard and Sandra's relationship has deepened over the course of a few weeks, we both felt that the bond of confidence between Leonard and Michelle was being fast-tracked somewhat.

But there's no denying that this is an extremely adept piece of film-making. The narrative is deeply serious but there are multiple moments of implicit comedy, always a sign in my view of skillful writing. And on three occasions Leonard is left alone with another character and on each of them the writers confounded our expectations about what that character was about to say to him.

How could this have missed out on award nominations?

Grade: A (-)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"We know in actuality, there is really no such thing as "Atheism." So in fact, "real Atheists" can also be indistinguishable from "fake Atheists" because there are people and organizations who claim to be Atheist, while we know that is quite impossible, since there is no such thing as a real Atheist. All sane and rational people believe in God, whether they deny it or not. The Bible says that people who say there is "no God" are "'ivveleth (ihv-vel-LETH)" which translates to "mentally insane" (Psalm 14:1) Thus, people who claim to be Atheists are suffering from a mental delusion that can be cured in many cases by steadfast prayer, and/or mild electro-shock therapy coupled with approved medications prescribed by an authorized Christian Psychiatrist or experienced Pastor."
Landover Baptist Church website

"I don't recall doing that"

On Thursday night we watched the Lo Nuestro Premios, broadcast live from Miami.

There were so many categories — and most contended by the same puño of artistas — that everyone had a good chance of going home with a gong; though Alexis & Fido and perma-teen Enrique Iglesias managed to win two.

Yet the most eagerly awaited — even if un-nominated — artist on the red carpet was merenguero Elvis Crespo, shooting star of that afternoon's Primer Impacto, whose flight to Miami had been less than uneventful.

Indeed, the host Eugenio Derbez introduced Crespo referring to the 'problemita' that the singer had had on "el vuelo de las 5"...lifting up a flat palm with five fingers for emphasis.

For it seems that crew members had been briefed by a fellow passenger certain of having witnessed Crespo indulging in a discreet tommy tank in the next seat. The incident was serious enough for the captain to report it to the control tower at Miami International, but there were no handcuffs awaiting at the gate. The matter remains under investigation however.

Crespo has promised to clear up the goings on beneath his first class frazada asap on his MySpace page. Meanwhile the chistes are proliferating...

e.g. Hispanosphere: "Some things are not meant to be done in public, not even suavemente."

Further commentary:

(Another high point was when the group AK-7 won an award and were hailed as "AK-47" by the rather dim chap at the podium.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Crazy people who still think the government brought down the Twin Towers in a controlled explosion have to stop pretending that I'm the one who's being naïve. How big a lunatic do you have to be to watch two giant airliners packed with jet fuel slam into buildings on live TV, igniting a massive inferno that burned for two hours, and then think, 'well, if you believe that was the cause."
Bill Maher on the 9-11 conspiracy theories

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Paul Blart Mall Cop

A game one can play while watching this movie — which might help prevent slumber — is to try to spot the difference between the moments that were meant to be funny and the ones which weren't...and the ones which are just plain embarrassing.

This is American lumpen comedy at it's most bizarre. Is it in fact a comedy or just some lame, semi-serious, family-friendly Die Hard spoof in which all the hostage-takers have only one gun between them?

It falls short on almost every level, laughs, action, character, except perhaps predictable formula. And Kevin James usually comes up with such likeable on-screen underdogs. Not here.

Grade: C

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Baudrillard's Amérique (1)

Is one of the funniest books I have in my library. Published in 1986, it's a work you can laugh at and with in almost equal measure.

The snippet below sprung to mind recently when V told me she wasn't enjoying Two and a Half Men so much these days because the risas enlatadas are becoming too distracting:

"Laughter on American television has taken the place of the chorus in Greek tragedy. It is unrelenting; the news, the stock exchange reports, and the weather forecast are about the only things spared. But so obsessive is it that you go on hearing it behind the voice of Reagan or the Marines disaster in Beirut. Even behind the adverts. It is the monster from Alien prowling around in the corridors of the spaceship. It is the sarcastic exhilaration of a puritan culture. In other countries the business of laughing is left to the viewers. Here, their laughter is put on screen, integrated into the show. It is the screen that is laughing and having a good time. You are simply left alone with your consternation."

History Gobbet

At the start of the Second Triumvirate Octavian, Mark Anthony (...and Lepidus) needed to raise money quickly, so they came up with the plan of 'prescribing' 2500 of their political enemies, a process which involved both execution and a seizure of funds.

Unfortunately this brutal coup flooded the market with expensive villas, crashing it badly and leaving the Triumvirs with a collection of rather toxic-looking assets. In the end they had to resort to stealing from the Vestal Virgins and then, the even more unthinkable, taxing the up to then fiscally-exempt citizens of Italy.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Sólo entonces caí en la cuenta de que los vecinos de asiento en los aviones, igual que los matrimonios viejos, no se dan los buenos días al despertar."
Gabriel García Márquez, El Avión de la Bella Durmiente

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning."
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

No Mires Para Abajo (Don't Look Down)

A complete hinchazón de pelotas of a movie. Which is a shame, because I used to have a great deal of time for Eliseo Subiela, whimsy and all.

Last Images of the Shipwreck ('89) and The Dark Side of the Heart ('92) still rank amongst my favourite films in the Spanish language, even if their idiosyncratic magical realist poetics are a bit hit and miss at times. He'd always periodically dazzle you with one of those singular conceits, such as the character who has been deliberately learning to expunge a new word from his vocabulary every morning.

And I always felt it was an injustice that the writers of K-Pax had ripped off Hombre Mirando al Sudeste ('86) apparently without so much as crediting Subiela.

The location of this narrative in left-field kook-land is quickly established. Eloy is a young man who walks around on stilts as a hobby, but earns his keep by dressing up as an empanada and by delivering tomb-stones within the citradel-like cemetery La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

Shortly after the death of his father Eloy starts sleep-walking and accidentally falls through a skylight, landing on the bed of a designer called Elvira who is on holiday visiting her grand-mother from Barcelona.

Elvira is played by the lovely Italian-born actress Antonella Costa. The role calls for her to be completely uninhibited about her nakedness; it also calls for her to bring an erotic (but largely un-pornographic) charge to her tantric didactics, something she only really manages in small bursts. The rest of the time - and there's quite a lot of it, given that about 70% of this film takes place in Elvira's bedroom - you just feel like rolling over and falling asleep.

Claiming to be something of a sexual savant, Elvira explains to the callow pibe how she wants him to become the best lover in BA, setting him the seemingly unrealistic goal of 81 impulsos before 'eshaculashon'.

As he approaches this target Eloy inexplicably begins to experience brief mental vacations in the far-flung places that Elvira has visited on her travels. This, she informs him, is the oracular moment of 'ejaculation without orgasm', a phrase which in many ways encapsulates the imaginative compass of this movie.

It is all preceded by a quotation from André Breton, which is no doubt intended to provide a profounder context for the frolics which follow:

"Como ocurre siempre en las epocas en que socialmente la vida no vale nada, es preciso saber ver por medios de los ojos de Eros. En el tiempo que está por llegar, a Eros le incumbe reestablecer el equilibrio roto en provecho de la muerte."

Grade: B(-)

Winner of Best Picture at the 2008 Latin American Film Festival, Best Latin American Film at the 2008 Montreal World Film Festival.)

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day


"From the director of Borat," but much funnier, much cleverer...and ultimately a little bit more compassionate towards its targets.

Maher also takes sceptical outrage beyond Richard Dawkins's characteristic eye-rolling disdain, though he does stigmatise an adherence to bronze age beliefs as a form of neurological disorder.

My suspicion is that even those afflicted by a certain degree of certainty when it comes to metaphysics, will find it hard not to be amused, and perhaps even stimulated, by parts of this movie.

It is topped and tailed with a very serious message: that God used to be the only person who could bring the world to a sudden end, but we have failed to grow out of this silly notion before we ourselves acquired not one, but several ways of enacting Armageddon.

I'm not even going to begin to try to describe the bulk of the the chokingly funny moments, because Maher's talent is largely a matter of slick logical sleights combined with adroit timing.

Catholicism, on the whole, gets off rather lightly. Not so Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas who Maher traps into admitting that there's no IQ test for high political office in the States. Later a maverick Vatican priest laughs at what Senator Pryor referred to as the "literacy" of the Bible stories, before informing Maher that when Italians were polled to discover who was the first person they would pray to in a crisis, Jesus came in sixth.

Maher himself walked out of an interview with Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who had approvingly attended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial conference.

His Muslim dialoguees generally denied any connection between the Koran and violent intolerance. The two that gave him the Islamic stinky eye were on paper perhaps the least likely to do so: the only patrons of a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam, who visibly recoiled at Maher's jibe: "I hope you guys find each other attractive, because otherwise ..."

Another rather sinister interlocuter was Devil-denying José Luis de Jesús Miranda, the self-styled Antichrist who was banned from entering Guatemala in 2007. Having heard the religious leader's account of how Christ's blood line made it to Puerto Rico, Maher asked if he had more evidence for this than the fact that he was also called Jesús, because Miranda was also part of his name, which might indicate that he was descended from Carmen Miranda too...though instead of having fruit on his head he had it in his head. Fortunately for Maher this gag seemed to go over the head in question.

Grade: A-

Quote of the Day

"It is as important to see others as they see themselves as to see ourselves as others see us."
Elizabeth Bibesco, in Haven (1951)

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV Viewing Diary - Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Andrew Marr was recently described by Ed West in Spiked! as a "libertine". Unless I'm missing something, I think he meant libertarian!

Anyway, this three-parter was the take on the legacy of On the Origin of Species from the walking embodiment of the BBC's cultural-liberal bias, and in my view it was the best of the multiplicity of programmes the Beeb has put out to mark the anniversary of Darwin's birth 150 years ago. (Though I did really enjoy Armand Marie Leroi's film on BBC4 too.)

I've sent off for my free tree of life poster.

Marr lifted the title for his series from Dan Dennett's more intellectual (and more polemical) book of the same name. Whilst he does seem to broadly agree with Dennett's assertion that...

"If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else."

...he apparently reckons that the 'dangerousness' of Darwin's idea stems not from its inevitable tendency to redefine what we mean by the meaning of life, but rather the way it leant itself to combinations of bad science and bad politics during the twentieth century, and in the manner that it clearly points to the very alarming ecological circumstances of the present time.

It was indeed unnerving to think that the Nazis had founded heir 'final solution' on the bizarre Darwinian logic that any Jews that had survived the work camps would be stronger and more ready to 'rebound' after the war unless drastic measures were taken.

I liked the way Marr dallied on lesser-known aspects of the subject, such as Darwin's cheerless experience of the native 'Fuegans' of Chile on his Beagle voyage, and Dr Vernon Kellogg's run in with the beserk darwinistic attitudes of the WWI German high command.

Marr had himself DNA tested only to discover that he has the ancestral (and more African) variant of the gene currently being associated with higher intelligence .

The series had its silly moments, such as the extended footage of Marr circling around the Bosphorus in a speed boat (why exactly?) and his attempts to pass off the botanical garden in St Lucia as a bona fide rain forest. For these jungle scenes he had however carelessly neglected to change out of the kind of clothes one might wear to lunch at a Notting Hill organic diner.

Quote of the Day

"John Locke invented common sense and only Englishmen have had it ever since."
Bertrand Russell

Mesomamerican Thingamajig of the Day

The Savage Detectives - Impressions (1)

A novel as fragmentary as this, is possibly deserving of the more unsystematic sort of critique.

One finds on Wikipedia the statement from Ignacio Echevarría * (El Pais) that this is "the novel that Borges would have written."

Considering that the essence of Borges is brevity, this is a bit like saying that 'this is the charitable foundation for the handicapped that Hitler would have set up'. But there are worthwhile comparisons to be made between these two writers, and Bolaño came out pretty strongly as a fanboy of the Argentine master.

If the latter's fictions are concise and complete and yet connected like nodes in a network, the manifold testimonies within this novel are perhaps more like satellites orbiting a giant gaseous planet, whose core you can at once sense will remain pretty well concealed.

Borgesian absurdity is somehow neater than Bolaño's. His principal concern was always metaphysics and the majority of his tales are finely polished philosophical gems.

In constrast the interviewees of The Savage Detectives are like ciegos fumbling around the flanks of an elephant, their ambiguity therefore altogether less poised, their accounts that much more impressionistic. What you don't have is quite the same startling condensation of profound meaning that you tend to get with a Borges tale.

It is said that Borges overcame his fictional block in middle age by writing short stories in which it was often presumed that the longer tomes he had in his head had been published by someone else. Imaginary writers and their imaginary (and generally overlooked) works are certainly also part of Bolaño's literary tackle, but they are made more explicit use of in another of his late works — Nazi Literature in the Americas — which I have yet to read.

*In the novel Arturo Belano, the novelist's alter-ego, challenges a Spanish literary critic named Iñaki Echavarne to a sabre duel on a nudist beach located somewhere on the Costa Brava.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A path to justice?

A landmark case of belated punidad has been widely reported in Guatemala these last few weeks. Using documents unearthed in the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional two men have been arrested for the abduction (and presumed extrajudicial murder) of union activist Fernando García 25 years ago.

One of the accused is Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos, a police officer with 28 years of service. On Feb 18, 1984 he and a younger colleague called Abraham Lancerio Gómez were supposedly 'attacked by subversives' in the Mercado de la Guarda, a place and date which concur with the known circumstances of García's sudden disappearance.

The dead man's wife at the time, Nineth Montenegro (Pictured), now sits in congress (WINAQ) and has dedicated her life to the fight for justice. She considers that the arrests indicate that not everything is 'descompuesto' in the state of Guatemala, and hopes that the two men will now spill the beans on the location of her former husband's burial place, and name some more senior figures involved in the crime.

Matter in Motion

Consider for a moment one of life's fundamental philosophical questions: Which came first, mind or matter?

For all human history before Darwin there appeared to be only one sensible way to answer it. For how could Thought have emerged from incogitative matter?

Yet Darwin's theory decisively swung the balance in favour of the other, neglected answer to this conundrum. The probabilities weren't just adjusted, they were inverted.

If you accept natural selection, but still wish to retain some sort of Divine presence within your cosmogony, you are surely going to have to put up with the fact that He will never be a completely comfortable presence within it: for the rather obvious reason that His mind is going to have to have a completely different explanation.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"You know the rule of departure queues: the longer the line, the better natured and politer the queue. Economy disappears into the distance, made up of passive people chatting quietly and reading books. Business class is 15 snappy irked souls, hissing at stroppily overdressed toddlers and kicking too much matched suede luggage with a pursed fury. The first-class desk, with its vase of real flowers, has a queue of one: a woman carrying a £4,000 handbag, venting a tantrum that would shame a dyspraxic two-year-old in Hamleys...Martin Amis pointed out that if you walk the length of a plane, you’ll notice that the quality of the literature is in inverse relationship to the legroom. At the back, by the bogs, it’s Penguin Classics and new translations of Finnish magic realism. You travel up through television adaptations, historical fiction, romances, chick lit, molester childhoods, until you get to the beds in first, where it’s Hello! and Jeffrey Archer."
AA Gill on airports and airplanes

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Oh really?

This week, thanks to newly declassified documents, we learned that the Reagan administration was fully up-to-speed with the extent of human rights violations in 80s Guatemala, even as the actor-turned-president overturned Carter's military embargo against the military regimes down here.

In December 1982, Reagan had a meeting with Efrain Ríos Montt and described him as like, "totally dedicated to democracy." (Doesn't that usually involve elections?) Reagan dismissed reports that Ríos Montt's regime was ruthlessly violating human rights with his infamous remark that the General had been getting a "bum rap."

Whilst publicly blaming insurgents for the majority of the violence a State Department report in February '84 observed that "Government security services have employed assassination to eliminate persons suspected of involvement with the guerrillas or who are otherwise left-wing in orientation." Two years later another State Department document, marked 'Secret' acknowledged that "there is a gap between the rhetoric of justice and the reality of violence in Guatemalan society."

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Friday, March 20, 2009

Prometheus - The Media Revolution (2)

Googlezon sounds a bit sinister...

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Toda máquina está en proceso de extinción."(Machines are always on the verge of extinction.)
Adolfo Bioy Casares

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mamma Mia!

Levels of kitsch and all round vacuum-headedness were predictably choking. But the songs themselves and maybe also Meryl Streep's performance, prevented me from going under completely.

I think it was probably healthier to have watched this sitting next to someone who hates Abba with a passion (V). I'm not sure that my mental health would have survived being in a cinema surrounded by the singalong types.

Fresh in my mind too was an essay by Umberto Eco on Casablanca and what makes a cult movie:

"The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that it's fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were the fans sectarian private world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect can recognise each other through a shared experience."

Casablanca has archetypal appeal, he argues, but acquired it almost by accident: Michael Curtiz's production was to some extent improvised from the start, packed with what Eco calls 'intertextual frames' (deja-vu inducing archetypes or universals) because when you have no idea where your story is heading you tend to fill it with stereotypes that you know have worked elsewhere:

"I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole. A movie..must be already ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself. A perfect movie..remains in our head as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion; only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should also display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on because of its glorious ricketiness."

So how does this theory hold up with Mamma Mia!? It certainly 'lacks a coherent philosophy of composition' in as much as the plot is an excuse to string together a stack of Abba hits. (Apparently the story idea for both musical and movie adaptation was snatched from a 1968 screenplay co-written by my father's old partner Denis Norden: Buona Sera Mrs Campbell.)

I'm not sure it can support a pub quiz though. It's main claim to 'quotability' is the fact it is itself laying on the nostalgia by quoting 70s pop culture in a context which might be described as a modern female slacker fantasy.

Eco also suggests that the deployment of archetypes is a bit of minefield.

"When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch [Pretty much was happened here...] But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is architecture like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia: the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius." [But what of chirmolazos like The Unborn?]

Comparing Casablanca to the Indiana Jones movies, he admits that the archetypes that are 'semiotically interesting' are the ones that sneek in almost unconsciously.

The setting of Mamma Mia, even the structure of its tatty storyline, actually took me back to Shakespearean archetypes such as Kenneth Brannagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Less high-brow instants of deja-vu were also delivered by recollections of Shirley Valentine (another female slacker fantasy located on the Aegean) and Captain Correlli's Mandolin...which could have done with a chorus of singing and dancing Greek peasants itself. As for the overall gay-ness of the experience one possibly has to cast one's mind back to Cliff Richard's 60s oeuvre.

Grade: I really have no idea. Mostly C--- but with occasional B+ sparks of affirmation.

Prometheus - The Media Revolution (1)

"Experience is the new reality..."

The what-osaurus? I'd like to see him try "Worcestershire Sauce". I think the Fill'eep K. Deek accent really adds to this piece though.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Monday, March 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Maybe we come across as a bit arrogant. According to Rowland White’s amazing new book Phoenix Squadron, when the first four Brits were sent to the new Top Gun academy in California, they didn’t much care for the “Maverick” and “Iceman” style of call sign adopted by their American counterparts. But their hosts insisted, so they came up with “Cholmondley”, “Dogbreath”, “Alien” and “Spastic”."
Jeremy Clarkson

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You’d think they’d get it. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that when the world falls on your head, you might do something different. It’s like Moses. Comes down from the mountain, still smelling of burning bush, eyes revolving, levitating with the true believer’s va-va-voom, and he bellows: “God, the God — Mr God to you — just gave me these instructions, written in sodding marble, and it's going to get us out of here. After 40 years in this hole, we’re going home. Milk and honey, vineyards, fedoras. Listen up.” Then a bloke at the back says: “Well now, hold on. Hold on. Maybe we shouldn’t be hasty in discarding the golden calf. Granted, it’s been a bit tricky recently, but it just needs a bit of tweaking. Have you ever thought that perhaps what we need is a bigger golden calf?”

"...What is it that restaurants don’t get about their customers? Seeing as customers are poorer than they were last year, their suppliers are being straitened, their manufacturers are shuffling to the edge. What is it about restaurants that makes them think the normal rules don’t apply? I’ve lost count of the number of managers and owners who’ve taken me aside and said, “Touch wood, the times don’t really seem to be affecting us.” Which bit of the global economy do they imagine doesn’t apply to them or their customers? Even if all you feed are bailiffs and accountants, that’s not the point. This is a moment when you need to look at yourself in the mirror of what you do, and realise it isn’t good enough. It might have been all right then, but it’s not all right now. You can’t go on selling squander and snobbery. Customers want to be fed from a different menu; they want to feel differently about themselves."

AA Gill in today's Sunday Times

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"The English live with the turmoil of two incompatible passions: a strange appetite for adventure and a strange appetite for legality."
Borges in The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Billionaire #701

It looks like Forbes magazine committed a bit of a boo boo when they included Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, capo of the Sinaloa drugs cartel at #701 in their billionaires list this week.

"I will never accept that a criminal could or would be recognized, even by a magazine like Forbes," Mexico's Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora griped yesterday. (Surely there are a few bankers on that list?)

Guzmán survived an assassination attempt in May '93 thanks to a bizarre case of mistaken identity: Gunmen from the rival Tijuana cartel accidentally pumped 14 bullets into the prominent Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo when his car was parked at Guadalajara's international airport. Six others were also killed.

Guzmán was captured down here in Guatemala later that year and spent 8 years in a Mexican high security jail before bribing his guards to let him escape in a laundry truck.

The pic shows Gabriel Cardona, a $500-a week cartel sicario with eyes tattooed on his eyelids.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guatemala Tourism on the up....

Kind of.

INGUAT has reported that total revenues from tourism in the first two months of 2009 were up 2.9% on the same period last year. But the February figures were actually down 3.2%, so it was January that came on strong.

Meanwhile remittances are down 9%, which I calculate represents an annualised drop of $300m.

The Mirror and the Mask

There's a story by Jorge Luis Borges called El Espejo y la Máscara in which a victorious Dark Age king gives a poet a one-year deadline to mint his deeds in words. After the resulting panegyric has been sung to much critical acclaim, the king makes the following observations:

"All that is well, and yet nothing has happened. In our veins the blood has beat no faster. Our hands have gone not for our bows. No one's cheeks have paled. No one has bellowed out a battle cry, no one has stood to meet the Viking attack. In one year, poet, we shall gather to apppalud another poem. As a sign of our thanks please take this mirror, which is of silver."

The next year the poet returns and gives a shakier performance, "visibly unsure, omitting certain passges as though he himself did not entirely understand them, or did not wish to profane them...The prepositions were foreign to common usage. Harsheness vied with sweetness. The metaphors were arbitrary, or so they seeemed."

The king however, is even more pleased with the piece:

"This poem surpasses all that has gone before and obliterates it. It holds one in thrall, it thrills, it dazzles. It will pass over the heads of the ignorant, and their praises will not be yours..."

Presenting the poet with a mask of gold in token of his gratitude, the king goes on to commission a third work, for "in fables the number three is first above all others."

Twelve months on and the wordsmith is back, visibly troubled. He tells the king that he has indeed composed the ode as requested, but wishes that Christ himself had forbidden it, and now feels that he dare not recite it before the court. Yet at his ruler's insistence the poet speaks a single line. Together they then mouth it several times more in a state of awe. The king then provides the following critical review:

"In the year's of my youth...I sailed towards the setting sun. On an island there, I saw silver greyhounds that hunted golden boars to their death. On another we were feted with the fragrance of magic apples. On yet another I saw walls of fire. On the most remote of all, there was a vaulted river that hung from the sky, and in its waters swam fish and sailing ships. Those were marvels but they do not compare with your poem, which somehow contains them all."

His final gift is a dagger.

For me, these three poems are representative of the three paradigmatic streams within modern Latin American Literature and one can amuse onself by attempting to locate each of the region's great authors in their proper place along this continuum.

García Márquez
, perhaps uniquely, has made a career from consciously straddling all three. Fuentes and Vargas Llosa are occasional experimenters bobbling on the second stream, though both periodically slip back towards the populism of the first.

himself, and Roberto Bolaño, strive beyond them towards the fateful third way. But no writer really belongs to the ultimate category of pure genius as securely as say Isabel Allende belongs to the first, happily commercial and unchallenging. Cortázar, Borges and Bolaño are linked by the use of a fragmentary and episodic literature to catch glimpses of forbidden wisdom. And every tale told by the wily old Argentine, this one included, is like a node in a network of literary transcendence.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

In The Electric Mist

I've yet to make my mind up about Dave Robicheaux. Before heading off to Mexico I listened to an audio-book version of The Tin Roof Blowdown, which featured a whodunnit plot as convoluted and ultimately unproductive as this one. Yet made it completely compelling was its setting in the chronically-apocalyptic conditions of Katrina-ravaged Louisianna.

These stories seem to work best if you spare little thought for the 'victims' and focus on the character (and voice) of meandering detective Robicheaux, the atmosphere of Iberia Parish and the uniquely American eschatology which underlies their confection. (Blake's tiger is Robicheaux's chosen metaphor for prowling evil.)

In The Electric Mist has a great cast and nobody does the backwoods lawman better these days than Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps the stand-out performance though comes from John Goodman as colourful local hood Julie 'Baby Feet' Balboni. Given that many of the characters have evolved across a series of novels, veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier has done a fine job of establishing them here.

And the Kromolowskis' screenplay has constained some of Lee Burke's tendency to over-blow both dialogue and description (the narrator's lines are not especially purple for instance.) However, "...with confederate soldiers" might have been from the title, Robicheaux's surreal encounters with the rather grubby rebel General John Bell Hood have been retained and my suspicion is that they would work a little better on paper.

Although the ending was a little flaccid, and the final scene less of a nod to The Shining than face-first dive into a bowl of gumbo to The Shining, I was oddly enough left with a desire to watch the whole thing through from start to finish again.

Grade: B+

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Red Hot Chilli Peppers

There was a piece in the Times today about how cops in the southwestern Chongqing region of China (the nation with the world's worst traffic accident record) have been serving drivers dried chilli peppers to prevent them falling asleep at the wheel. Each has been asked to consume 1.5kg (3lb) of this unique anti-sedative.

I cast my mind back to another recent article in Guatemala's own Prensa Libre which claimed that the chapines aren't doing enough — and certainly not as much as their northern neighbours, whose chillis are seen here — to promote their extensive natural resources in terms of the genus capiscum.

The mother of all chillis is thought to have originated in Brazil, close to the point at which it intersects with Bolivia and Paraguay, though 'the mother of all chillis' in terms of calooooooor is undoubtedly the Bhut Jolokia chilli from Thailand, aka the Chile Fantasma.

Guatemala produces 2000 metric tons of chillis annually, compared to 1, 855,610 in Mexico and 11,534,871 in China. The country can claim 32 varieties (which reminds me of the chilli-flavoured ice-cream in Oaxaca), the most famous of which is the Chile Cahabonero, commonly known as the Cobanero. The industry also provides work for almost 300,000 jornaleros here.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day


"No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same."
Borges, 'Utopia de un Hombre Cansado'

The landscape of generic mind-bending flatness is provided by Saskatchewan here, but we are supposed to be somehere in the drive-through USA. A pair of off-the-peg FBI agents arrive at a small-town police station in order to conduct recorded interviews with the survivors of a gruesome highway incident in which the occupants of two stricken vehicles and a patrol car became a recreation stop for some itinerant psychos.

Director Jennifer Lynch has not been allowed near the director's chair since 1993's Boxing Helena — which V saw and appreciated for its "unexpectedness" — but which is generally ranked as one of the worst movies ever made.

David Lynch has allowed his daughter to raid his larder and she's knocked up a dark dish — palatable if not unflawed — from some of his signature ingredients. It's not so much Lynch-lite as Lynch-lucid.

I can't make comparisons to Lost Highway which I haven't seen, but I was reminded of other, out of the family works, such as U-Turn and Little Miss Sunshine (bizarrely).

Grade: B++

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

American archaeologist Richard Hansen revealed his latest find at El Mirador yesterday: a stucco sculpture dating back to 300BC depicting the 'hero' twins Ixbalanqué and Hunapú recovering the severed head of their father. The frieze is 4m long and 3m tall and decorates a wall which incorporates a series of basins served by a hydraulic system.

With this discovery Mayanists can have no further doubt now that the myths contained in the Popol Vuh are of ancient heritage.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Unborn

V's niece Amy has different-coloured irises: a rare heterochromia that I have always taken as a charmingly unusual trait, and not indicative of anything nefarious.

Here we're told that it often means that an individual swapped genetic material with another fetus in utero, and that in this case the twin that got itself strangled on its sibling's umbilical cord wants both revenge for that particular misadventure and a chance of life for himself.

The story hits the ground running with this fairly simple premise, but around a third of the way in we learn that this stifled being has a whole load of additional issues it needs to work off.

It's as if the film has suddenly gone down with horror-genre AIDS and becomes infected with every unpleasant Western and Asian chiller meme that's out there. The result, a complete chirmolazo, with a damnable tale of vile Nazi experiments at Aushwitz at its dark and kitschy heart.

When the basketball-playing black reverend turns up you are half expecting it to be one of those Wayans dudes from In Living Color, thus confirming the whole thing as an overlaboured spoof. In the end the best laugh I got from The Unborn was at the moment Gary Oldman's Rabbi makes an unexpected reappearance having miraculously gathered together all the scattered pages of his copy of The Bluffer's Guide to Jewish Exorcisms.

Odette Yustman, herself a medley of Latin ancestries, should be lovely on paper at least, but on celluloid she is smoulderless, experiencing the loss of most of her friends and family (her father does well to keep away after the half hour mark) with a more or less fixed huelepedo.

Grade: C+

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Quote of the Day

"By far the most hallucinatory element in The Savage Detectives (and in 2666) is its bizarre, exquisite prose. Having spent years studying linguistic varieties across the Americas, I've never come across a chameleon talent like Bolaño's. He writes in a Mexican Spanish with an Iberian twist but an impostor's accent. How ironic that the best Mexican novel of the last 50 years should have been written by a Chilean."
Ilan Stavans

Friday, March 06, 2009

Ojo de Culebra

A little bit of Zapotec-Flamenco fusion here from Oaxaca's Lila Downs and La Mari from Chambao:

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day


In as much that one's first thought on going blind rather unexpectedly would no doubt be 'WTF?', Fernando Meirelles's film is an authentic representation of this experience.

Saramago's novel was certainly heavy going in places, but never as chillingly dull as parts of this adaptation. I think even I could have done a better job of adapting the novel for the screen, especially in terms of the dialogue.

In its creative greed the international movie business has appropriated landmark novel after landmark novel without any regard for the fact that the best modern authors remain ardently uncinematic in their storytelling tenor. And if you take away the narrative voice from a Saramago allegory, you take away its humanity.

I'm convinced there's a dingbat out there somewhere who's going to try to bring Cien Años de Soledad to the silver screen in my lifetime. (Or is anyone yet up for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?)

In Saramago's stories something tends to occur in a small country (which may or may not be Portugal) which temporarily changes the fundamental rules of the game: people stop seeing, people stop voting, people stop dying. In As Intermitências da Morte the way to carry on dying is to head for the border. These are not global apocalypses; yet this is exactly what the 'white plague' has become in Blindness, which Meirelles shot in Canada and Brazil with a quaintly international cast. (Alice Braga is in the mix, last seen in the equally post-cataclysmic I am Legend...BSing Will Smith about God as he in turn BS'd her about Bob Marley.)

And when someone says 'We're starving to death here' they need to look a bit more like Christian Bale in El Maquinista. A few turds in the corridor do not an authentic concentration camp make.

There are certainly parts of this film which are striking, beautiful even. I caught blurred glimpses of what had moved me in the book. But you can also sense the director flailing around for arresting visual metaphors, as if to compensate for the poetic truncations implicit in Don McKellar's screenplay.

It's odd how talented film-makers such as Meirelles get themselves roped into these projects. The whole thing smacks of a Hollywood remake which has bypassed the unnecessary intermediate stage of the subtitled foreign flick.

Grade: B -

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat

(Thanks to Surfer for reminding me why this was always my favourite Python sketch.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Man on Wire

On August 7, 1974 Phillipe Petit crossed the space between WTC1 and WTC2 eight times...wearing flares.

Last week he came charging down the aisle to share in Oscar glory, and didn't leave the stage before balancing the statuette on his chin.

Not once is the fate of the towers mentioned in James Marsh's award-winning Storyville documentary, but there's no doubt that they have added their enduring visual poignancy to Petit's glorious moment, saving it from evanescence, and perhaps even locking it down as an uplifting counterpart to Bin Laden's furiously nihilistic piece of theatre.

Particularly striking are the 'inverted ground zero' sequences showing the towers as two deep-set square troughs in the Manhattan soil, as the first steel girders are set in place.

Petit had had them marked down as the future scene of his pièce de résistance, from the time they were little more than a sketch in a French newspaper.

Even without the shadow of 9-11 it's already a very moving story; the emotions still surprisingly raw after so many years. Marsh milks this for all he can, burnishing archive footage with bittersweet pieces from Eric Satie and Vaughan Williams. There are parts too which outdo Danny Ocean's capers for sheer excitement.

Must read the book now...

Grade: A

Quote of the Day

"Tantas cosas que uno no hace por miedo y cuando dejas de tener miedo, ya no tienes cosas que hacer."
Alberto Fuguet in Santiago

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Trip Pic of the Day

Approaching Mexico along Guatemala's Pacific plain, one can hardly fail to notice that almost every highway-fronting structure has been comprehensively stained with the colours of one the three local cellphone networks, Tigo, Claro and Movistar. But as soon as you are over the border the branding saturation becomes far more subdued. All your base are belong to Carlos Slim, I suppose. But it doesn't even look like Coke and Pepsi ever really got it on up here either.

The competition is fierce however amongst the mobile marimba units. Pairs of players lug their instrument from restaurant to restaurant, and at an al fresco table one is likely to find onself at the cacaphonic intersection of several tapped out tunes.

In Chiapas one also finds oneself back in rum territory. The local stuff is called Fandango and I felt like dancing one when I discovered that a 940ml bottle costs just 35 pesos. (approx. $2.5).

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Monday, March 02, 2009

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

This one is made with unfired clay...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Trip Pic of the Day

It was lure of the Cañón del Sumidero that had drawn me up into Chiapas originally, though it ended up being my final stop. This particular view of it features on the state escudo (shield).

I'd arrived at Tuxtla Gutiérrez just before dawn and wasn't due to catch my next bus until 22:15, so a boat tour along the Rio Grijalva - through the canyon and up to the Manuel Moreno Torres hydroelectric dam, and then back again - was a fine way to burn up some of those hours.

There were still quite a few left when I got back to the terminal, so I was pleased to discover that it backed onto a smart new mall. This isn't a side to Mexico that the Rough Guide encourages its readers to look for. A temple of generic international consumerism comprising Starbucks clones, endless casual-wear emporia and fast food outlets galore, plus a multiplex cinema, where I took myself off to see Operación Valkyrie.

I imagine that this place might be more than a little disconcerting for a certain type of gringo visitor — a world turned upside down, where the duskier underclasses have been mysteriously afflicted with a chronic strain of affluenza. Think perhaps of a gun-totin' Charlton Heston as astronaut Taylor, stressing about how long it will be before they come to wrench the pizza slice out of his cold, dead hand.

After the movie I was gripped by a powerful Cheesey Bread antojo, and after presenting my last few pesos I was presented with a little device featuring a picture of my order which vibrated enthusiastically when it was time for me to return to the Domino's counter to pick it up.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day