A Vanished Arcadia

Historical site of Encarnacion and Jesuit ruins in Paraguay, South America

The following is a lightly edited repeat of a post I made back in March 2013.

It is interesting to me that, for the first time in its history, the papacy is in the hands of a Jesuit, from South America no less. In southeastern Paraguay and in the Argentinean state of Misiones, there are numerous ruins attesting to the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions—missions that were so powerful that they were, in effect, the government of Paraguay. If you ever saw Roland Joffe’s 1986 movie, The Mission, with Robert DeNiro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons, you have some idea of what this Jesuit government was like.

You can find out even more by reading the forgotten classic history by R. B. Cunninghame Graham entitled A Vanished Arcadia: Being Some Account of the Jesuits in Paraguay 1607 to 1767.

It even finds its way into Voltaire’s Candide, but its author being such an anticlerical cuss, he has his hero kill the Jesuit commandant of one of the missions. Yet he writes in Histoire Politique et Philosophique des Indes:

When in 1768 the missions of Paraguay left the hands of the Jesuits, they had arrived at perhaps the highest degree of civilization to which it is possible to conduct a young people, and certainly at a far superior state than that which existed in the rest of the new hemisphere. The laws were respected there, morals were pure, a happy brotherhood united every heart, all the useful arts were in a flourishing state, and even some of the more agreeable sciences: plenty was universal.

Poster for Roland Joffe’s Film The Mission (1986)

I have long thought that, if my thoughts had ever taken a turn toward the Catholic priesthood, I would have become a Jesuit. My teachers at St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, wanted me to become one of them, a Marist. But, in the end, I became neither.

So now Pope Francis is a Jesuit from Argentina. He, I am sure, is quite aware of the history of the Jesuits in the southern cone of South America. It would be nice if he did for the Catholic Church what the Jesuits did for the Guarani in Paraguay and Argentina. Benedict XVI was a good man, but not strong enough for the task of making his faith relevant to a world that is falling away from the Church.

Hard-Boiled

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s Masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946)

I’ve written before about American film noir, which includes many of my favorite films, such as The Big Sleep, High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Big Heat (1953)—not to mention several hundred other likely prospects.

Today I would like to say a few words about the literary genre that spawned these films. Although it was not until 1945 that the French publishing house Gallimard introduced its Serie Noir editions that gave birth the the genre’s name, noir novels had been written for years. There was even an early noir film by D. W. Griffith entitled The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1913).

What is it about the United States that produced this genre of hard-boiled urban crime fiction? It probably has something to do with our fascination with hard-boiled dicks, cigarettes, hard-luck losers, cheap booze, hot floozies, and guns. Here are just a few mileposts in the genre, alphabetically ordered:

  • W. R. Burnett: High Sierra (1941)
  • James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
  • Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953), probably my favorite of all the noir writers.
  • James Ellroy: L.A. Confidential (1990)
  • Kenneth Fearing: The Big Clock (1946)
  • David Goodis: The Moon in the Gutter (1953), which I’m reading now.
  • William Lindsay Gresham: Nightmare Alley (1946)
  • Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
  • Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train (1950)
  • Chester Himes: The Real Cool Killers (1959)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)
  • Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me (1952)
  • Cornell Woolrich: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945)

I think I’ll stop at thirteen writers—a most appropriate number for this list. Not coincidentally, all have been made into classic films, both in the U.S. and France. Without straining my mind too much, I could probably double the size of the list. What’s interesting is that this list includes women (Highsmith and Hughes) and one African-American (Himes).

While none of the above names fit in with Beckett, Joyce, Faulkner, and the other literary heavyweights of the last hundred years, I would not be surprised if their works could be found on their night-stands.

Serendipity: The Acorn Woodpecker

Sometimes There Just Doesn’t Seem To Be Any Rhyme or Reason …

I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of stories and poems entitled Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1990) with the usual rapture that goes with reading her work. The following is from an introduction to a group of “Seven Bird and Beast Poems” followed by the relevant bird poem. Enjoy!

The first [poem] is a joke about one of my favorite kinds of bird, the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus in Latin, boso in Kesh). They are handsome little woodpeckers, still common in Northern California, splendidly marked, with a red cap, and a white circle around the eye giving them a clown’s mad stare. They talk all the time—the loud yacka-yacka-yacka call, and all kinds of mutters, whirs, purrs, comments, criticisms, and gossip going on constantly among the foraging or housekeeping group. They are familial or tribal. Cousins and aunts help a mated pair feed and bring up the babies. Why they make holes and drop acorns into them when they can’t get the acorns back out of the holes is still a question (to ornithologists—not to acorn woodpeckers). When we removed the wasp- and woodpecker-riddled outer wall of an old California farmhouse last year, about a ton of acorns fell out, all worm-hollowed husks; they had never been accessible to the generations of Bosos who had been diligently dropping them since 1870 or so. But in the walls of the barn are neat rows of little holes, each one with a long Valley Oak acorn stuck in, a perfect fit, almost like rivets in sheet iron. These, presumably, are winter supply.On the other hand, they might be a woodpecker art form. Another funny thing they do is in spring, very early in the morning, when a male wants to assert the tribal territory and/or impress the hell out of some redhead. He finds a tree that makes a really loud sound, and drums on it. The loudest tree these days—a fine example of the interfacing of human and woodpecker cultures—is a metal chimney sticking up from a farmhouse roof. A woodpecker doing the kettledrum reveille on the stovepipe is a really good way to start the day at attention.

What Is Going On in the Oaks Around the Barn

The Acorn Woodpeckers
are constructing an Implacable
Pecking Machine to attack oaks
and whack holes to stack acorns in.

They have not perfected
it yet. They keep cranking
it up ratchet by ratchet
by ratchet each morning
till a Bluejay yells, “SCRAP!”
and it all collapses
into black-and-white flaps and flutters
and redheads muttering curses
in the big, protecting branches.

God, how I miss Ursula and her keen insights!

 

 

The Allergy Sufferer

Yup, That’s Me, All Right!

I was first made conscious of it in high school. I sneezed a lot, and my scalp was full of flakes. My doctor concluded that I had allergies. Consequently, I was sent to an allergist around Cleveland’s University Circle. He produced a rectangular network of scratches on my arm, each one representing a known allergen. The upshot: I was allergic to cats (that one I already knew), tomatoes, and oats. I did not believe in those last two.

Nevertheless, I was in the doctor’s office every Saturday morning for the next year or so getting a shot to fight my allergies. The results were imperceptible: Every time we visited my uncle’s house, my eyes watered, I sneezed, and my face was essentially an ugly red splotch. My parents rightly decided that this therapy was taking me nowhere.

Then, when I came to Los Angeles, I discovered I had asthma. I suspect that was the result of sleeping on the floor with all the dust mites and other nasty biota. I had a bed, but I liked the idea of sleeping on a firm surface. I still do, but I sleep in bed on an extra-firm mattress instead.

This spring has been a bad time for my allergies. It started with two months of blepharitis, an annoying allergy to the dandruff in my eyelashes?! Then there was the inevitable nose-blowing and lava-flows of thin mucus. My super-power in this time of year? I become Mucus Man. I slime all evil-doers.

To top it all off, I occasionally get a light spell of asthmatic wheezing. Yuck!

 

Post-Production Blues: Major Dundee

Scene from Major Dundee (1965)

Hollywood is full of stories of battles between the director and the producers. One of the most tragic occurred between Sam Peckinpah and the money men behind Major Dundee. It was only Peckinpah’s third outing as a director of feature films, and he was given a budget of $4.5 million to shoot the film in Mexico. The original director’s cut came in at 4 hours and 38 minutes, and several million dollars over budget. Producer Jerry Bresler promptly denied the director any decision in the post-production process.

He had the film edited down to 123 minutes, which was the version I originally saw at a downtown L.A. theater around 1970. Today, I watched a 136 minute version, which calls itself “The Extended Version,” though is still a bit rough around the edges.

Director Sam Peckinpah

It is a pity that men of no artistic ability like Bresler have such an ability to mar a major work of art. Even with all its jagged edges, Major Dundee is a captivating film. Set in the final years of the Civil War, it tells of a Union officer (Charlton Heston) stationed to New Mexico Territory putting together a unit to revenge a massacre of men, women, and children by Apaches led by one Sierra Chariba. With few regulars on hand at Fort Benlin, he recruits a squad of black Buffalo Soldiers, a few cowboys and outlaws and the usual reprobates, and a group of Confederate prisoners led by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). When the Apaches cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, Dundee and his men follow them and come into conflict with French troops which then controlled Mexico under the Emperor Maximilian.

Peckinpah always had a special feeling for Mexico. During the shooting of Major Dundee, he fell in love with one of his actresses, Begoña Palacios, and married her. Shown below is a Mexican fan magazine of the period with her picture on the cover.

Begoña Palacios

I will never forget when I saw the rough cut of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) at Warner Brothers Studios. There was a scene of Bill Holden and his men leaving a Mexican village that seemed to go forever. There is a similar scene in Major Dundee, where Charlton Heston captures a small French garrison and finds that the villages does not have enough food to survive. He immediately orders that two of his mules be butchered. There is a long fiesta scene. When Heston and his men leave, the whole village comes out to see him off.

I rather like the special feeling that the director had for Mexico. It gives his films set there a certain glow. It is a pity that Peckinpah died at the age of 59 in 1984. He had indulged in booze and drugs, and they greatly weakened him at a time when he still had a lot to give as one of the greatest artists in the genre of the American Western.

 

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum

 

 

“A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion”

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Image of a Wild Man and His Family (ca. 1526)

Today Martine and I went to the Getty Center and spent an afternoon viewing the art. Above is one of those late Medieval paintings whose backgrounds are almost as interesting as their foregrounds. In the background of this particular painting is a mountainous rock with a castle perched on top. It seems as if the painting were divided vertically in two equal parts. In the darker half of the painting, the male faun sits on a rock with splayed toes beside the lion he has just killed. He wields a thick quarterstaff and has large pointed ears. He looks slightly haggard.

On the right hand side, we have his wife and two children—on the same side of the painting as the castle, lake,village, and mountains in the background. All three are gentle looking and seem to belong more to the world of civilization on the right hand side of the painting than to the husband and his prey.

I love paintings like this, because one could go on forever analyzing them and trying to understand their inner meaning.