Cholula

It’s Not a Hill: It’s the World’s Largest Pyramid

Where is the world’s largest pyramid located? You’re looking at it, in this photograph of the pyramid at Cholula near Puebla, Mexico. You can walk up to the pyramid, and it just looks like a hill, on top of which the Spanish built the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Cholula is just a few minutes west of Puebla and is famous for the number of churches in a city of its size. The legend is that there are 365 churches in the city of approximately 100,000, one for each day of the year. Actually, there are about 37, which is quite enough.

As I recall, there are some very claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that cut through the pyramid, which I decided to skip. They were used by archeologists to determine how many layers of pyramid there were on the inside.

The Death of a Bookstore

Sam Johnson’s Bookstore in Mar Vista in Happier Times

This is the story of a bookstore which I frequented for more than forty years before it went belly up two and a half years ago. I started spending time and money there back in the 1970s, when it was located on Santa Monica Boulevard between Colby and Federal. At that point, I was working at Santa Monica and Barry, and the bookstore was on my way to the post office, where I did a daily noontime mail pickup.

Later, the two partners, Bob and Larry, purchased a building on Venice Boulevard near Centinela (see above photo)—and I continued to patronize the store.

But there is something inherently problematical about partnerships. Sooner or later, one of the partners goes off the rails, and their business venture goes to the demnition bow-wows. That’s what happened to Sam Johnson’s. Larry Klein published three books, all of which were excellent, but as he aged, his life took a darker turn. He complained about his health; and he no longer went on strenuous weekend hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains. His worsening health also had an effect on his mind.

The upshot was that his partner Larry Myers somehow received the short end of the stick. And suddenly his milk also soured. When Bob suddenly died, it seems the bookstore was to be put up for sale, with Bob’s estate getting the store. The bookstore had good friends, chief among them David Benesty, who manned the desk when Bob was gone and Larry was beginning to fade away.

Well, Sam Johnson’s is no more, leaving me with nowhere to turn for top condition used books but the Internet. Don’t feel sorry for me: I have some 6,000 books. But the West Los Angeles area is now poorer. And the bookstore is shuttered, with no one taking over the premises. I saw it just the day before yesterday, when I went to Santouka at the Mitsuwa Marketplace for some Japanese ramen soup.

Sam Johnson’s had a formative part to play in my literary tastes. That’s where I became a die-hard fan of the works of G. K. Chesterton,

The Dreamer

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)

Here are sixteen poems from Roberto Bolaño’s collection entitled Tres. The poetic fragments have no titles, but they are striking in their variety and suggestiveness.

31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only 
human being to contemplate the end was Franz 
Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the 
death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, 
Kafka was watching the world burn.

32. I dreamt I was dreaming and I came home 
too late. In my bed I found Mário de Sá-Carneiro 
sleeping with my first love. When I uncovered them 
I found they were dead and, biting my lips till they 
bled, I went back to the streets.

33. I dreamt that Anacreon was building his castle 
on the top of a barren hill and then destroying it. 
 
34. I dreamt I was a really old Latin American 
detective. I lived in New York and Mark Twain 
was hiring me to save the life of someone without 
a face. “It’s going to be a damn tough case, Mr. 
Twain,” I told him.

35. I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon. 
She didn’t want me. So I tried getting myself killed 
on three continents. Years passed. Finally, when I 
was really old, she appeared on the other end of the 
promenade in New York and with signals (like the 
ones they use on aircraft carriers to help the pilots 
land) she told me she’d always loved me.

36. I dreamt I was 69ing with Anaïs Nin on an 
enormous basaltic flagstone.

37. I dreamt I was fucking Carson McCullers in a 
dim-lit room in the spring of 1981. And we both felt 
irrationally happy.

38. I dreamt I was back at my old high school 
and Alphonse Daudet was my French teacher. 
Something imperceptible made us realize we were 
dreaming. Daudet kept looking out the window 
and smoking Tartarin’s pipe

39. I dreamt I kept sleeping while my classmates 
tried to liberate Robert Desnos from the Terezín 
concentration camp. When I woke a voice was 
telling me to get moving. “Quick, Bolaño, quick, 
there’s no time to lose.” When I got there, all I 
found was an old detective picking through the 
smoking ruins of the attack.

40. I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was 
the only thing left of human beings three billion 
years after Earth ceased to exist.

41. I dreamt I was dreaming and in the dream 
tunnels I found Roque Dalton’s dream: the dream 
of the brave ones who died for a fucking chimera.

42. I dreamt I was 18 and saw my best friend at 
the time, who was also 18, making love to Walt 
Whitman. They did it in an armchair, contemplating 
the stormy Civitavecchia sunset.

43. I dreamt I was a prisoner and Boethius was 
my cellmate. “look, Bolaño,” he said, extending 
his hand and his pen in the shadows: 
“they’re not trembling! they’re not 
trembling!” (after a while, 
he added in a calm voice: “but they’ll tremble when 
they recognize that bastard Theodoric.”)

44. I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade 
with axe blows. I’d gone crazy and was living in the 
woods.

45. I dreamt that Pascal was talking about fear with 
crystal clear words at a tavern in Civitavecchia: 
Miracles don’t convert, they condemn, he said.

46. I dreamt I was an old Latin American detective 
and a mysterious Foundation hired me to find the 
death certificates of the Flying Spics. I was traveling 
all around the world: hospitals, battlefields, pulque 
bars, abandoned schools.

Twelve Silents

Scene from Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters

As promised, here are an even dozen great American silent films. Left out are the great comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—mostly because people are pretty familiar with them. Below are films that are mostly dramatic, including one drama that Chaplin directed, but did not star in. The films are arranged by year of release:

  • D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), probably my favorite among his films
  • Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino
  • Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doone (1922), a real diamond in the rough
  • Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), his tribute to the lovely Edna Purviance
  • Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney Senior, based on a Leonid Andreyev play
  • Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925), the director’s first American film
  • Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), based on the Oscar Wilde play
  • Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), with profanity for proficient lip-readers
  • F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a real masterpiece
  • Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on a Victor Hugo novel
  • Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), with Lillian Gish going mad on the prairies of 19th century America
  • Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928), produced by Joseph P. Kennedy and starring Gloria Swanson

Rudolph Valentino Dancing the Tango in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I think it is worth the effort to see these films if you’re interested in silent films of the period. If you’re not, they very well might make you interested.

NOTE: The 1920s were pretty racist, so I would advise you to remember that our great-grandparents did not hold the same political views that we do.

We Had Faces

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928)

The title comes from a quote by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), after viewing a silent film that starred her:

Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore. Maybe one—Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles. Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them! I’ll be up there again, so help me!

Over the last four days, I have been watching a whole slew of silent films, including both shorts and features, aired by Cinecon from their website at Cinecon.Org.

Originally, I didn’t much care for silent films. They didn’t look sharp on the screen; they were too sentimental; they were too slow; and there were all kinds of problems with the nitrate stock on which they were printed. But I changed my mind, owing primarily to two reasons. First was my friendship with the late John Dorr, who convinced me to give them a second chance. Second was a phenomenal book that came out while I was at UCLA Graduate School, Kevin Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By.

Also, I had the opportunity to see many silent films that were simply phenomenal, and not just fractured flickers. One of them, I just saw a couple of hours ago from Cinecon’s website, Penrod and Sam (1923), directed by William Beaudine for First National Pictures (which morphed into Warner Brothers). It was a gorgeous print, filmed by a director whom I regarded as a nonentity, with no recognizable stars, but so funny withal that my guffaws disturbed Martine, who was napping in the bedroom.

Poster Announcing a Screening of Penrod and Sam

I cannot help but think this film was a major influence on the Our Gang Comedies of the 1930s, which were a major influence on my youth.

Looking back, I think my original feelings about silent films had mostly to do with the hundred or so years that separated me from them. The 1910s and 1920s were a far different time. The population of the country was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. It was, for all intents and purposes, a different America. Now, it no longer bothers me so much viewing these films of a bygone era, one with which I was not altogether in sympathy.

Within a few days, I intend to present a list of the greatest silent films made in the United States, and perhaps follow it up with a similar European list.

Rendezvous with Cinecon

Lynch Mob Scene from The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

Labor Day Weekend. It was Cinecon time once again, where I view old and rare films looking for diamonds in the rough, Like last year, however, this year’s Cinecon meet was changed into an online event because of the Covid-19 resurgence.

I have seen the first two days’ programs and am looking forward to the next two days. So far, I have seen four features:

  • Dynamite Dan (1924), directed by H. Bruce Mitchell, a typical Horatio Alger type story involving boxing
  • Rendezvous with Annie (1946), directed by Allan Dwan, one of the cinema’s most underrated directors, here treating a Preston Sturges-like script
  • Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), directed by and starring William S. Hart, which I had seen before, set in the Pacific Northwest in a lumberjack camp
  • The Conquest of Canaan (1921), directed by Roy William Neill—who gave us the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films

A Brilliant Comedy by an Underrated Filmmaker

By far the best of the four films were The Conquest of Canaan and Rendezvous with Annie. The older film was shot on location in Asheville, NC, and dealt with a community run by a hypocritical judge and newspaper publisher that persecutes a young man and even sends a mob against him—though the young man triumphs in the end. The other film is about a corporal in WW2 London who goes AWOL for a weekend to visit his wife and impregnate her, only to be shocked when he has difficulty proving the child is his.

Allan Dwan had a long, distinguished career directing films from all the way back in 1911 and ending fifty years later in 1961. Perhaps my favorites among his films are Brewster’s Millions (1945), Silver Lode (1954), and his greatest, Slightly Scarlet (1956). To date I have seen only a small sliver of his output: 32 films from the silent and sound eras.

I won’t pretend that the films shown by Cinecon are among the greatest ever made, but they are almost all rarely seen and worthy productions. Each year, there are some great surprises in the pictures screened. For more info, click here. Be sure to check out the schedule page.

A Plague of Fruit Flies

I Kill Dozens Every Day, But They Keep Coming

Even as I sit here writing this, I am being buzz-bombed by tiny fruit flies that land on my head, my arm, my computer screen, and pieces of paper atop my desk. keep throwing out food that has been infested with them, but they keep finding other comestibles that suit their fancy. I suspect that I have to set traps in my kitchen, while still continuing to inspect my food storage area and ruthlessly toss everything I don’t need.

Excuse me while I get up and kill the flies perched on the light fixture above my head ….

Aah, that was satisfying. But I know there will be several more on the light fixture within the next ten minutes. I feel like the Heinrich Himmler of the insect world.

After Apple-Picking

The Mailbox at Robert Frost’s Franconia, NH House

I attended a Robert Frost poetry reading at Dartmouth College shortly before he died in 1963. Although he was just short of ninety years old, the impression I got was of a wily octogenarian who knew what he was doing. The auditorium in Hopkins Center was filled to overflowing with an appreciative audience. After all, Frost had studied at Dartmouth for a while before he listened to the call of his muse and dropped out.

Although he was almost the quintessential New Englander, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. I think that was all part of his wiliness. I had the feeling he could fit in almost anywhere.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his:

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep. 

Space Aliens

Space Aliens at the Roswell, NM, UFO Museum

Let’s face it: Real space aliens—if they exist and they probably do—are probably nothing like this. We have gotten used to these skinny attenuated bipedal creatures who look vaguely humanoid. Life can take many possible forms, especially on planets that are significantly different from Earth.

I have just finished reading a book by Stanisław Lem called The Invincible. I have long thought that the best sci-fi comes from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Russia. In the West, we tend to think too much along the same lines; but novels from writers like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers give us a whiff of the alien that is not necessarily tied down to traditional forms.

My Edition of Lem’s The Invincible

For another look at what might be out there, I strongly recommend you read Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and see the great film that was based on it: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1982).

Sci-fi that tries to imagine the really alien can be a little frightening, but it can be great!

Chullpas

Funerary Tower (Chullpa) on the Shores of Peru’s Lake Umayo

In the lands around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, the native cultures believed in building funerary towers called chullpas to house their dead. Even under Incan rule, the Aymara-speaking Colla people continued this practice.

In 2015, I visited Sillustani, which contained the most impressive collections of chullpas situated on a nearby hill. Unfortunately, one cannot always guarantee good weather on a vacation outing, and the weather at Sillustani was vile that day. Consequently, I not only took no pictures but decided not to climb the hill in the rain (and at 12,000 feet or 3,700 meters altitude). So I took none of the pictures shown on this page.

Funerary Towers at Sillustani

I paid dearly for my trip to Sillustani, which included sampling some quinoa soup at a local resident’s kitchen. The next day, I was struck with a horrible need to go to the bathroom while on a lancha plying Lake Titicaca. I must have looked green in the face as I soldiered on in search of some toilet somewhere. Finally, on Isla Taquile, I found one; though I can’t say I got much from that day’s journey other than incredible discomfort.

Some days just are like that.