Favorite Films: King Kong (1933)

Who Can Resist That Mug?

I must have seen the original King Kong (1933) over twenty times by now, and I never seem to grow tired of it. One of the reasons I love it is that it is Pre-Code. As such, it gets away with many scenes that a few scant years later would have received the kibosh from the censors at the Hays Office. In one of my favorites, Kong employs Fay Wray as a scratch-n-sniff toy, stripping away her outer garments as if they were onionskins and holding his fingers up to his nose. You can see the scene on YouTube here.

A few years before he died, I happened to meet the producer and co-director of the film, Merian C. Cooper. He spoke to a film class at UCLA for which I was the graduate teaching assistant. During that class, he gave his own interpretation of what Kong was really about. Now I don’t necessarily take his word for it, but he says that the ape was a symbol of the downtrodden black race which did not know its own power. Maybe, but there are too many vignettes of the giant gorilla munching on black natives or crushing them like insects under his feet for that reasoning to be altogether convincing.

While I liked the big gorilla, I went ape for Fay Wray. After seeing countless movies of the period with goldilocks-looking blondes wearing those stupid cloche hats, like cloth helmets, it was refreshing to see a healthy young woman who would be considered a knockout today—without having to squint your eyes. Oh, and she was also a pretty good screamer.

Fay Wray in the Notorious Scratch-N-Sniff Scene

There have been numrous remakes and near look-alikes, but I still think the only ones worth considering were done by Ernest B. Schoedsack with or without Merian C. Cooper. I am specifically referring to Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the age of CGI, Kong just ceases to be interesting. The model work in the Schoedsack/Cooper films was nothing less than superb.

 

The Thunder Horse

What Happened When Cortés Left a Horse Behind at Tayasal

In 1525, Hernan Cortés visited Tayasal in Guatemala—where some 172 years later, the last Mayan were conquered by the Spanish—he left behind a horse that became, for a while, a god in the Maya pantheon. Here is how Robert J. Sharer tells it in The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition:

[In 1618, Fathers Bartolomé de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita] were shown a large idol in the form of a horse, called Tizimin Chak, the “yhunder horse.” When Cortés had visited Tayasal in 1525 he had left behind a lame horse with the Kan Ek’ of that day, promising to return for it himself or to send for it. After Cortés’s departure, the Itza treated the horse as a god, offering it fowl, other meats, and flowers, but the horse soon died. The Itza later made a stone idol of the horse. When Father Orbita saw this image, the idolatry so enraged him that he smashed the image to bits. The Itza, outraged at this sacrilege, tried to kill the missionaries, but Father Fuensalida seized the occasion to preach a sermon of such eloquence that the tumult subsided and the missionaries’ lives were spared.

On the island of Flores in Lago de Petén, the site once occupied by Tayasal, there is today a stone statue of a horse commemorating the poor thunder horse.

 

Handsome Devil

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541), One of the Cruelest of Cortés’s Lieutenants

Even his enemies were impressed with him. The Indians of New Spain (Mexico and Guatemala) called him, in Nahuatl, “Toniatuh,” meaning “sun.” In Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s scholarly study, The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition describes the depredations wrought by this cruelest of conquistadores:

[Fray Bartolomé] Las Casas goes on to itemize the atrocities committed by Alvarado during the conquest of what became known as Guatemala. There is no reason to reject Las Casas’s account, for Alvarado’s own letters, which provide the best history of the conquest of Guatemala, allude to the terror tactics he employed against the defenseless populace.

About his campaign in the Valley of Quetzaltenango, Alvarado writes:

We commenced to crush them and scattered them in all directions and followed them in pursuit for two leagues and a half until all of them were routed and nobody was left in front of us. Later we returned against them, and our friends [the Mexican allies] and the infantry made the greatest destruction in the world at a river. We surrounded a bare mountain where they had taken refuge, and pursued them to the top, and took all that had gone up there. That day we killed and imprisoned many people, many of whom were captains and chiefs and people of importance.

One of the victims was Tecun Uman, a K’iche commander, now considered a hero to the Maya people, and after whom a city bordering Mexico has been named.

Monument to Tecun Uman, One of Alvarado’s Victims

There was no way the Maya could withstand the force of firearms, horses (which the Maya had never before encountered), and the ruthless military intelligence of Pedro de Alvarado.

Below is a mask of Alvarado used in Highland Maya processions and ceremonies in Guatemala to commemorate the losses sustained by the Maya:

Guatemalan Dance Mask of Pedro de Alvarado Used in Maya Ceremonies

 

I Finally Commit

The Airline I Will Be Taking on My Vacation

I have been talking long enough about my upcoming trip to Guatemala, but I finally took steps to reserve my flight to Guatemala City and back and reserve accommodations for the first part of my trip in the highlands. These include the Antigua and Santiago Atitlán. Within the next few days, I will also reserve single-night stays in Panajachel and Chichicastenango.

The second part of the trip—to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copan, and Quirigua—will remain fluid because of lingering transportation concerns. Right now, the plans for the second half of the trip appear to be a bit complicated:

  • Take a shuttle bus from Antigua or Guatemala City to Copan, just over the border into Honduras
  • Take “chicken buses” from Copan to Rio Dulce in Guatemala via El Florido and Chiquimula
  • Hire a car and driver to take to from Rio Dulce to Quirigua and back
  • Take a first-class bus from Rio Dulce to Flores and then to El Remate
  • Take a minibus from El Remate to Tikal
  • Return via bus to Flores
  • Fly back to Guatemala City, or take a 12-hour first class bus back if I haven’t burned up too many days by the above

My airline of choice for this trip is Colombian-based Avianca. If you are not familiar with the airline, it is the oldest commercial carrier in the Western Hemisphere—older than any of the U.S. carriers with their money-grubbing extra fees. The plane may have Taca or Lacsa livery, because Avianca purchased these two Central American airlines a few years back. The only airline in the world that is older is KLM in the Netherlands.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I am prejudiced against U.S. carriers. The last time I flew to South America, I had to take American to São Paolo, Brazil. I ordered a cup of hot tea. They gave me coffee instead. I spit it out (being the coffee-hater that I am) and complained bitterly to the stewardess, who insisted it was tea. Until she tasted it. Oh! So sorry! (And so typical.) On Avianca, they know the difference between coffee and tea.

A Nostalgia for Evil Empires?

Ruins at Mayapan in Yucatán

You can see the prejudice even in the naming of the archeological periods of Maya civilization. There is Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Classic Period ended around AD 800, while the English were struggling with Viking invaders, and while Charlemagne ruled in France. The Classic period was when most of  the big pyramids and temples were built—some 700 years before Cortés and the Spanish decided to muscle in on the action.

When we travel in Yucatán or the jungles of Petén, what we marvel at are the Classic ruins of places like Tikal, Copan, Calakmul, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. In our simple way of admiring the wrong things. The Classic period was great for the divine kings who wasted their subjects in massive construction projects and endless wars.

After the Classic period, the Maya actually improved their lot: In place of pharaonic dictates to abject slaves and massive tragedies when one of their divine kings bit the dust, the new emphasis was on trade and multiple sources of power. Of course, there were no more huge pyramids, but the Maya could spend more time on agriculture, trade, and a slightly less domineering religion.

When the Grijalvas and Alvarados began attacking the Maya, the Maya resisted. The Aztecs lasted only a couple of years under the onslaught of the Conquistadores, whereas the Maya held out until 1697, some 175 years after the Aztecs fell. Today, there are about a million speakers of Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztecs. The Maya today number about six million in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and they speak some 28 dialects of the Mayan language! While the Aztecs went down in flames, the Maya survived in greater strength despite multiple attempts to curtail their numbers and their power.

 

“The Hostility of Life Outdoors”

Gustave Moreau’s “Triumph of Alexander the Great”

This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is based on the above painting. I thought it was interesting to match a poem with a painting, especially when the poet is as interesting a writer as Bolaño. The title of this poem is “The Outsider Ape.”

Remember the Triumph of Alexander the Great, by Gustave Moreau?
The beauty and terror, the crystal moment when
all breathing stops. But you wouldn’t stand still under that dome
in dim shadows, under that dome lit by ferocious
rays of harmony. And it didn’t take your breath away.
You walked like a tireless ape among the gods,
For you knew—or maybe not—that the Triumph was unfurling
its weapons inside Plato’s cavern: images,
shadows without substance, sovereignty of emptiness. You wanted
to reach the tree and the bird, the leftovers
from a humble backyard fiesta, the desert land
watered with blood, the scene of the crime where
statues of photographers and police are grazing, and the hostility of life
outdoors. Ah, the hostility of life outdoors!

 

Chilehead

These Used To Be the Hottest Chiles on Record, But Things Have Changed

It was several years ago, when my brother was living in Paso Robles near California’s Central Coast. When I would go to visit him, we usually went shopping together at the farmers’ market at nearby Templeton. Once, one vendor selling olives stuffed with chile habaneros (see photo above) offered Dan and me the opportunity to taste one, all the while grinning as if he expected us to spit them out. We ate the proffered olives, smiled, and asked for more. The vendor looked at us as if we were from the hot side of Mercury.

My brother and I are bona fide chiliheads. It’s one of the things we enjoy most about getting together, because both of us are surrounded by people who blanch at the thought of biting into a sliver of jalapeño, and who carefully remove all pepperoncinis from their salads. We came by this through our mother, Sophie, who used to cook a Hungarian dish called lecso (pronounced LETCH-o), a kind of Hungarian adaptation of Spanish rice seasoned with hot Hungarian banana peppers. When I was growing up, I thought that lecso was altogether too spicy for me. Now I rather like it. (My father, however, did not: He was one of the digestively challenged.)

There is a means of measuring the hotness of chiles called the Scoville Heat Scale. Here is a summary of relative hotness of chiles:

Mexi-Bells, New Mexica, New Mexico, Anaheim, Big Jim, Peperonicini, Santa Fe Grande, El Paso, Cherry     1 100-1,000
Coronado, Mumex Big Jim, Sangria, Anaheim     2 1,000-1,500
Pasilla, Mulato, Ancho, Poblano, Espanola, Pulla     3 1,500-2,500
Hatch Green     4 2,000-5,000
Rocotillo     5 2,500-5,000
Yellow Wax, Serrano, Jalapeno, Guajillo, Mirasol     6 5,000-15,000
Hidalgo, Puya, Hot Wax, Chipotle     7 15,000-30,000
Chile De Arbol, Manzano     8 30,000-50,000
Santaka, Pequin, Super Chile, Santaka, Cayenne, Tobasco, Aji, Jaloro     9 50,000-100,000
Bohemian, Tabiche, Tepin, Haimen, Chiltepin, Thai, Yatsufusa    10 100,000-350,000
Red Savina Habanero, Chocolate Habanero, Indian Tezpur, Scotch Bonnet, Orange Habanero, Fatali, Devil Toung, Kumataka, Datili, Birds Eye, Jamaican Hot    11 350,000-855,000
Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia, a.k.a. Naga Jolokia), Naga Viper, 7 Pot Primo, 7 Pot Douglah, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Carolina Reaper    12 855,000-2,200,000

I can eat chiles up to about half a million Scoville units, namely the habaneros or Scotch Bonnets. If I were to make a large pot of soup, I could put half a chopped habanero in the pot—but no more! As for the superhot chiles such as the Carolina Reaper or Ghost Chiles, they are really too hot for comfortable human consumption, even by chiliheads. I have had powdered ghost chiles on occasion, but only in m-o-d-e-r-a-t-i-o-n.