Trans-Chiquitano

A Bolivian Passenger Train Between Santa Cruz and Quijarro

As I sit here in L.A. in the middle of a heat wave—and getting no younger in the process—a new vacation trip emerges from the depths of my mind. I have already written about the 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions in South America. The anti-clerical Voltaire in his Candide appeared to be impressed by the enlightened rule of the Jesuits who controlled Paraguay.

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.

Back then, before the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) and the Chaco War (1932-1935), Paraguay included territory which now belongs to Argentina (Misiones Province) and Bolivia (Santa Cruz Province). There are ruins of Jesuit communities in all three countries.

This set my mind to thinking. There is a famous train route called the Trans-Chiquitano—still in existence as of a year or two ago—between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and Quijarro, just before the border with Brazil. Midway between the two termini and somewhat to the north are the ruins of Jesuit missions. I was thinking of touring the missions in Bolivia, then busing from Corumbá, Brazil (just across the border from Quijarro, Bolivia) to Asunción, Paraguay. There I could hook up with a tour to the Jesuit missions east of Asunción (if such a tour exists). Thereafter, it is a short up across the border to Argentina, where there are well-organized tours of the Jesuit missions such as San Ignacio Mini. From there, it is an easy bus ride to Buenos Aires, from which I can return to the States.

It would be a wild trip, with a long, comfortable train ride and easy stays in Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. Asunción is a different story, but still quite doable.

 

Favorite Films: Some Came Running

Opening Scene from Some Came Running

We are so conditioned to thinking of the years after the Second World War as some kind of golden age that it is refreshing to see how American films dealt with the era. Some prominent examples include William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of James Jones’s Some Came Running (1958). In both pictures, the GIs come home to find that the guys with flat feet who stayed behind had all the jobs, money, and women.

From the opening credit sequence with its urban jazz music track as we see Frank Sinatra asleep on a Greyhound bus as the Indiana landscape rolls past, we feel we are in for something different. On the same bus is Shirley MacLaine as a good-time girl Frank had met in Chicago. Both had been drunk and were put on the bus by friends who specified Parkman, Indiana as the destination.

We see Frank at the beginning in his army uniform, though he has also written two books and spent time on a tramp steamer and as an oil rig worker. In Parkman, he is pursued by Shirley while he falls in love with Martha Hyer, a college writing instructor who is impressed with his writing ability but appalled by his lifestyle. Every time he is repulsed by Martha, Frank draws closer to Shirley MacLaine with her ridiculous doggie purse and showy bad-taste clothing, with an intellect to match.

Frank at Smitty’s Bar with Dean Martin

After his first encounter with Martha Hyer, Sinatra runs into Dean Martin as a southern gambler who uses Parkman as a base as he travels around playing poker in the surrounding Indiana cities. The initial scene at Smitty’s with its loud jazz track is my favorite in the film: It shows the bar with its lowlifes right in the middle of the ultra-respectable small town. It even appears that the bar is next door to Sinatra’s brother’s jewelry shop. (The role of the brother, played by Arthur Kennedy, is his smarmiest and most hypocritical role in a long career of playing villains.)

There are a number of significant divergences between the James Jones novel and the Minnelli film. As I have not yet read James Jones, I cannot say which I prefer. But one thing I can say is that Minnelli’s film is even better than The Best Years of Our Lives at portraying the sick soul of America coterminous with its postwar glory, even though the two films are more than ten years apart.

 

 

 

Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.

 

At The Mall

The Westfield Mall in Culver City

As the heat of summer has descended on Los Angeles, I have increasingly been spending more time at the air-conditioned Westfield Mall in Culver City. There are places to sit and read, plenty of perfectly acceptable restaurants, and—very important to me—not a large number of smelly bums. Oh, did I sound not too terribly Progressive with that last line? Perhaps it’s because I¹m not 100% Progressive.(Especially as there is a bum encampment across the street from my apartment.)

If you think I should be ever so much more understanding than I appear to be, I urge you to see a 1932 French film director by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A used bookseller played by Charles Granval rescues a tramp (played by the great Michel Simon) from drowning in the Seine. Out of a total lack of gratitude, Boudu opens a rare edition of Honoré de Balzac, spits in it, closes the book, and returns it to the shelf. If someone were to spit in one of my Balzacs, I would gladly perforate his spleen and any adjacent internal organs.

One interesting thing about sitting in a mall is the variety of people who pass by. It is incredible to me how many Americans are grossly overweight. Also, since the mall is located in Culver City, I am amazed by how many drop-dead gorgeous young African-American women there are. Also, at least during the day, people are unusually nice to one another.

Among the restaurants, there are some interesting Asian choices, such as Bibigo (Korean), Dot Saigon (Vietnamese), 101 Noodle Express (pan-Asian), and Panda Express (Gringo Chinese). If I wanted to go more upscale, there is an Oliver Garden and a Wokcano at the ground level.

Next week, the temperature is supposed to be particularly heinous (with temps going up as high as 108° F in the interior, probably higher given the unusual Southern California conservatism in predicting high heat).

 

Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.

 

Farewell to Icon

On His Last Full Day

On Sunday, I drove to Altadena to visit Bill and Kathy Korn. Also to see Icon on his last full day in this life. Icon was Kathy Korn’s seeing-eye dog, who, in his thirteenth year,had developed a serious shortage of red-blood cells. He had trouble digesting food, and his breathing was alarmingly shallow.

Although I have had no pets since my elementary school days in Cleveland in the 1950s, I have always developed friendly relationships with my friends’ pets. I can have no animals in my apartment because (1) it would be a violation of my lease and (2) I am allergic—sometimes more, sometimes less.

Whenever I visited the Korns, I looked forward to Icon’s onslaught, in which recently he has been joined by Duchess, Kathy’s current seeing-eye dog. (Icon has been retired for upwards of a year.)

Icon’s “Diploma” from the Seeing-Eye Dog Program


I got a little teary-eyed as I petted Icon for the last time on Sunday evening. I mentioned that we would see each other again in the next life. Who knows?

Capitale de la Douleur

The Poet Paul Éluard’s Most Famous Collection of Poetry

Yesterday, I wrote about Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965), one of my favorites. In it, Eddie Constantine carries with him a 1926 collection of poems by Paul Éluard called Capitale de la douleur. In several of his scenes with Anna Karina, he quotes from it to remind her of concepts about love and tenderness that are forbidden in her society in Alphaville. Here is one of my favorite poems from this collection entitled “The Word”:

I am fortunate: mine is an easy beauty
I slide over the roof of the winds
I slide over the roof of the seas
I’m sentimental these days
I no longer know who’s in charge
I no longer move silk over ice
I am ill laughter and pebbles
I nakedly love whatever is most Chinese
I love what’s most naked the darting of birds
I am old but here I’m beautiful
And the shadow coming down from the depths of the windows
Every evening spares the dark heart of my eyes

Here is the same poem in the original French, where it is called “La parole”:

J’ai la beauté facile et c’est heureux
Je glisse sur les toits des vents
Je glisse sur le toit des mers
Je suis devenue sentimentale
Je ne connais plus le conducteur
Je ne bouge plus soie sur les glaces
Je suis malade fleurs et cailloux
J’aime le plus chinois aux nues
J’aime la plus nue aux écarts d’oiseau
Je suis vieille mais ici je suis belle
Et l’ombre qui descend des fenêtres profondes
Épargne chaque soir le cœur noir de mes yeux.