La Loma de los Vientos

Silent Cowboy Star William S. Hart

William S. Hart (1864-1946) was one of the great early cowboy stars. A scant year after Cecil B. DeMille traveled to Hollywood to shoot The Squaw Man (1913), Bill Hart teamed up with Thomas H. Ince to shoot a series of Western two-reelers, many of which hold up well today. There was a sense of moral compass about Hart’s roles that registered with silent film audiences—that is, until flashier actors like Tom Mix started eating into his popularity in the 1920s. By the time that happened, Hart was in his sixties and getting a little long in the tooth.

Today, Martine and I made our annual pilgrimage to the William S. Hart Museum in Santa Clarita, which we had been doing for upwards of seventeen years. There is something about La Loma de los Vientos (“The Hill of the Winds”) that has always appealed to us. Part of it is the attraction of Hart himself. Part of it is that I knew William S. Hart, Jr., who used me on several occasions as a guest lecturer in tools for site location in his classes in real estate at California State University at Northridge. And part of it is that the house is a beauty.

Façade of La Loma de los Vientos

Living at his hillside retreat in Santa Clarita, Hart made friends with Western legends like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. He also knew Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Marion Russell, and other notables of the day. After his marriage to actress Winifred Westover fizzled after a few short months, Hart lived alone with his sister Mary-Ellen, his son William Jr. being raised by the estranged mother. I got the feeling that, in his last years, Hart lived mostly on the second floor of his comfortable house, where, after his film career, he wrote Western-themed books.

The Second-Floor Living Room of the Hart House

I love the second-floor living room/screening room in the museum. Ther’s a 35mm projection booth in the back, capable of filling a large screen that one one time hung from the horizontal rafter by the two south windows.

 

Holding the Gods to Account

A Rare (and Forbidden) Interior Shot of the Chamula Religious Observances

My brother and I visited the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula in 1979. We stood in the back of a stake truck from San Cristóbal de las Casas along with dozens of Chamulas. In the village, we requested permission to visit the church, which was at one time Catholic until the Tzotzil threw the priests out and took over the churches for their own syncretic observances. In the alcalde’s office, we had to sign a promise that we would not take any photographs inside under pain of the severest punishment. (During the 1980s, at least European tourist was killed by an angry mob for just such a transgression).

I found the following description in Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, which I have just finished reading:

On the way to Oventic I stopped at the town of Chamula, famous for its weird church observances, where the interior of the basilica of San Juan Bautista was ablaze with flames. Worshipers crouched on the floor arranging candles, fifty or a hundred in symmetrical patterns, then lighting them and, in the candlelight, drinking Coca-Cola and ritually burping—eructation believed to be salutary—and splashing libations of Coke on the church floor, which was covered with sand.

The Church at San Juan Chamula

There were no pews, there were no priests, there was no Mass or formal service. It was a gathering of curanderos—medicine men—and those wishing to be cured. Other solemn groups were chanting, passing hens’ eggs around the the faces and bodies of prayerful pilgrims in a limpia—a purification—or holding a squawking chicken near a kneeling devotee, and a moment later the chicken’s neck was wrung, and the softened, drooping carcase placed near the candles.

As I watched, a man approached me holding a bottle and a glass. He said, “Mezcal,” and poured me a slug and offered it. I drank it, blinked away the dazzle in my eyes, thanked him, and kept looking.

It was a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian dogma, the result an observance involving a mass of candles, throttled chickens, and soda pop. (But sheep are sacred, never harmed or eaten: the town of Chamula is full of grazing sheep.) Added to these rituals was a chance for retribution, because if the chosen saint did not grant the supplicant’s wish, the deity could be punished, just as the Zapotecs and mayans punished their gods and saints, lashing their images with whips. In this church, the statues of saints, which had been ceremonially draped, with an uttered prayer, could be stripped of their robe if the prayer was not answered.

Check out the above YouTube video, which gives a you a feeling of life in this Tzotzil village.

The Art of Francisco Toledo

Mexican Painter Francisco Toledo (1940-2019)

Reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, I was intrigued by the writer’s interview in Oaxaca with artist Francisco Benjamín López Toledo. Looking up his work, I was chagrined to see that he had died just three months ago. It is a pity, because I have not followed Mexican art and artists since the classical trio of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros.

Toledo paintings have a uniquely Mexican feel to them, as if they sprang up from the soil like the prickly agave from which tequila and mezcal are distilled.

Self-Portrait of the Artist

Toledo’s textures are nothing short of amazing. Yet he remains faithful to the forms his work represents. There is no escape in the unadorned, unrepresenting abstract.

Goat (Chivo)

Born in Juchitán, which was recently leveled by several major earthquakes, Toledo was a social activist who threatened to protest naked against the construction of a McDonald’s at the zócalo in Oaxaca. Apparently, the hamburger chain wanted no part of that.

 

Bad Ass Drivers

Typically, the Bad Ass American Is Most Readily Found on the Road

A few days ago, I wondered why Americans were so intent on playing the role of the bad ass. Of course, the great theater of bad ass behavior is to be found on the streets and roads of your neighborhood. And you don’t have to go very far to find them.

Everybody is familiar with the over-aggressive goon who cuts you off in your lane with inches to spare. You can beep your horn at him, but that will only give him a warm glow that he not only got away with it, but succeeded in annoying you in the process. You can catch up with the louse and give him the finger or verbal abuse, but that could place you at risk. These are not nice people. Being not nice is a way of life with them and affords them some form of satisfaction.

On the other side of the spectrum is the (mostly) woman drivers who in their minds see stop signs at every residential intersection, even when there is none. Although there are hyper-aggressive women drivers as well, intent on proving their status as bad ass malefactors, most women do not fall into this category. Texting and otherwise driving distracted is not so much an instance of bad ass driving as it is an invitation to disaster.

Ultimately, the only way to deal with real bad ass drivers is to see them the way a Buddhist monk views venial sins: with complete equanimity. By reacting at all, you are in danger of allowing yourself to be distracted.

It would be nice if there were more police enforcement of moving violations, but I suspect that the highways of America will become choked with gory bodies before the men in blue could be lured from their coffee and doughnuts.

Getting Ready for Yucatán

A Mérida Taxi Receipt from a November 1982 Trip

I finally settled on my date of departure for Mexico to take place around the middle of next month, though Volaris still has not confirmed my reservation. I will be flying to Mérida via Guadalajara both ways. I could have elected to transfer in Mexico City, but I have memories of a flight some thirty years ago while the passengers waited for hours for a well-connected wife of a politician to be boarded ever so fashionably late.

But then, when one travels in Mexico, one travels by Mexican rules. This involves an expectation of the unexpected, and a sharp attention paid to current circumstances, despite conflicting information from supposedly authoritative sources.

In preparation, I have been reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Ever since running into his book of a series of railroad journeys from Boston to Argentina entitled The Old Patagonian Express, I have been deeply influenced by his writings on travel. Theroux is profoundly cynical, though perhaps not so much as Tobias Smollett, whose journey of a trip to France and Italy earned him the nickname of Smelfungus by no less than Laurence Sterne.

Theroux provides a nice summary in his book about the land I am about to visit:

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects.

When my best and oldest friend talks about Mexico—usually disparagingly—he really means the border regions, where the drug cartels, police, and army are the major players.  I myself have visited several Mexicos:

  • Border Mexico (Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, and Cabo San Lucas)
  • Pacific Beach Resort Mexico (Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta)
  • Colonial Mexico (Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Querétaro)
  • Canyon Mexico (Copper Canyon)
  • Capital Mexico (Mexico City—a world in itself)
  • Gulf Mexico (Puebla, Papantla, Veracruz, Jalápa, Villahermosa)
  • Zapotec and Mixtec Mexico (Oaxaca)
  • Caribbean Mexico (Cozumel)
  • Mayan Mexico

My favorite is the last category, which can be further subdivided into Highland Maya (San Cristóbal de las Casas), Jungle Maya (Palenque), and Yucatec Maya (Mérida, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Campeche).

A Light Goes Out

Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE (1965). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures

I keep returning to a transitional point in my life that followed my pituitary tumor operation and my moving to Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966 to begin the rest of my life. My hero during that period was French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who was married to the lovely Anna Karina. In all, she acted in seven of Godard’s features, most notably Pierrot le Fou and Alphaville (both 1965).

The latter film, one of my favorites, could only be described as Science Fiction Film Noir. In it, she plays Natacha von Braun, daughter of the notorious Leonard Nosferatu (alias Professor von Braun), chief administrator of Alpha 60, the all-powerful computer that rules the city of Alphaville.

On December 14, the Danish/French film actress died of cancer in a Paris hospital. It was hard to see an actress whose loveliness I revered when I was young come to an end.

Jean-Paul Belmondo Kisses Karina in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I have several of the Godard/Karina films on DVD and will probably be viewing them again in the weeks to come. Somewhere, in those almond eyes, my own past is looking back at me. The most apt expression? The lines Karina says in Alphaville:: “Joli sphinx.”

It would be nice if all the people we have loved from near or afar can continue on with us as if in a cloud around our persons. But it is not to be.

 

Bad-Ass Nation

Is This Really the Way We See Ourselves?

Take a look at our recent movie heroes. Instead of John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, we have violent, muscle-bound clods like Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”), Samuel L. Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a tendency for young men to shave their heads, cover themselves with tattoos, and even dress like big-time bad asses.

Even women are not immune to mthis effect, starting with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 (1991). This was taken all the way to the top by Quentin Tarantino with Uma Thurman as Beatrice Kiddo in Kill Bill 1 (2003) and Kill Bill 2 (2004).

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

I wonder why we have to look so tough. If we ask ourselves what do we gain by looking tough, I would have to answer, “Practically nothing.” You may choose to shave your head, grow a scraggly beard, get tattooed like a Maori warrior, wear a hoodie, and practice your scowls in a mirror. Will that really protect you if you get caught by someone who really is tough and sees through to your marshmallow-like interior? Will you be able to convince your fellow inmates at San Quentin that you can successfully protect your ass if you drop your soap in the shower?

No, I am not being facetious. These are existential questions. And they relate to the way that America is faring in the world today.

Let’s say you’re a Navy Seal or a Ranger. What is your record of success when military decisions are being made by a draft-dodger with a terminal case of bone spurs? Our tough guys abandoned Syria to the real bad guys when the Trumpster decided to pull out. (Were his bone spurs bothering him?)

A Real Bad Ass Car, for People with Tiny Dicks

Well, I suppose if you’re so fortunate as to avoid someone who is willing to face you down, you can drive around in your Tesla or Hummer and make yourself the envy of pouting teenagers.