Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Year in Reading

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”
--Gustave Flaubert

Bookworm sighting
Years ago, I’d read somewhere that Art Garfunkel kept a record of every book he’d read since the 1960s, a list now going on nearly forty-five years. Though I thought that was a grand idea, it didn’t spur my own compilation lists until just recently. How to explain the lull in executing what seems like a very interesting snapshot of one’s reading habits in a given time? Is there an air of pretentiousness in broadcasting one’s bookishness, especially as the modern individual is expected to lead a kinetic existence? The act of reading, especially the slow perusal of books composed out of pulp, is lately regarded as a luxury. Bibliophilia is a casualty of our contemporary zeitgeist, in which timeliness, rather than timelessness, matters most.  
            But the truth is people have been saying for years, “Reading! Who has the time anymore?” Well, that depends on priorities. This dude might be a product of Southern California and all its guaranteed sunshine, but I never took to surfing. Or rollerblading. Or golf. I haven’t followed professional or collegiate sports since High School, which is about the same time I gave up on video games forever. I haven’t owned a television set for twelve years. When I have any free time, I read. It is one of the things I do well and I do take some pride in being “well-read.”
            A bookworm is not much different from a foodie: an element of snobbery persists in both passions.  They have a high regard for a certain quality of product and thus can be a somewhat disappointed when others don’t share the same levels of expectation. They know what they like— their palates are so developed in well-earned prejudices that when something doesn’t feel right, they know right away what is wrong and why it’s not worth their attention. We do not have so much a democratic society as we do a leisure one, which is where democratic choice is most self-evident. To play with a tired aphorism for our purposes: you are what you read. 
            And like many who truly love the practice of certain rituals, I worry about the future of reading. It’s not so much the proliferation of e-Books (I am yet to read one but this might change that once I pick up an iPad2 later next year) as it is the pattern of publishing houses being picked up by media conglomerates more concerned with profits than prose. I am not one of those literacy enthusiasts who believe the act of reading warrants praise. What matters more is what you read. Publishing has gone the route of the Hollywood blockbuster, hyping certain phenomenons (50 Shades of Grey), B-grade genre superstars (James Patterson), faux-spirituality (anything by Paulo Coelho), self-help books (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and ghostwritten memoirs (Sarah Palin), at the expense of Midlist literature, both today’s and yesteryear’s. I can understand that reading Harry Potter gives someone a sense of fitting in with popular culture. But many of these readers, who might only get through a few books a year (if that) see reading as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.
It’s arguable that mass literacy should have led us to a social utopia—nearly everything beautiful, hopeful, and poetic in life has been imagined and transcribed by geniuses, artists, and prophets. Yet we are still mired in political, economic, and social mediocrity.  You can blame the pedagogues or you can blame the politicians but really, we must take some blame for watching the Kardashian sisters rather than reading The Brothers Karamazov. 
Though counterintuitive by today's championing of utilitarianism, it does a person well to challenge himself with books that have no ostensible impact on his life. There are no useless facts; rather, from reading develops the accumulation of human interestingness. This is an intangible quality, not always there but which flourishes in the right company.

The author giving his eyes a rest from Dostoyevsky (circa 2006)
The following list is what I read this year. It reads chronologically. Some notes and observations follow below.

  1. Greasy Lake by TC Boyle
  2. Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas
  3. After Dark by Haruki Murakami
  4. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera
  5. Collapse by Jared Diamond
  6. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
  7. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  8. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  9. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  10. Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys by Will Self
  11. Dreaming War by Gore Vidal
  12. Of Human Bondage by Somersest Maugham
  13. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipul
  14. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  15. Mary by Vladimir Nabhokov
  16. Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  17. What Uncle Sam Really Wants by Noam Chomsky
  18. Secrets, Lies & Democracy by Noam Chomsky
  19. The Science of the Everyday by Jay Ingam
  20. Mating by Norman Rush
  21. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  22. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  23. Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami
  24. We the Animals by Justin Torres
  25. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Lawrence Bergreen
  26. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  27. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
  28. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerborn
  29. Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty by Dennis McDougal
  30. River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
  31. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  32. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David R. Goldfield
  33. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
  34. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose
  35. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
  36. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
  37. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
  38. Dispatches by Michael Herr
  39. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  40. The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong
  41. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  42. Whites by Norman Rush

Forty-two books might sound like an awful lot but it averages out to a book read every 8.5 days, which doesn’t sound too rushed. Twenty-seven of the books were fiction, three of which were story collections. I am on a quixotic quest to read The Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century (I’ve read about sixty-five of them) and this year read seven (and, no, American Psycho was not on the list— a side note, all three books I abandoned reading after fifty pages of frustration were from the said collection, including Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Henry Green’s Loving). Two of the books were loans from friends, five from the library. The rest I own.
My favorite reading experiences in fiction were Chandler’s Marlowe shamus noir, Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era, Rush’s Mating, Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Fox’s Desperate Characters, and Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.  Through Haruki’s Murakami’s After Dark, Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, and Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, I suffered various moments of mediocrity, boredom and very bad prose. Torres’s We the Animals was so precious and niched (gay Puerto Rican-American) it felt nearly like a satire of calculated and maudlin MFA writing (too many young writers are trying to be Toni Morrison but there is some ethereal quality to Morrison that cannot be apprehended, only imitated).  Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Greene’s A Quiet American were the only rereads.
I have a thing for historical accounts of the lives and adventures of explorers. It was a pleasure then to read in depth on Cortes and Montezuma, Lewis & Clark, Ferdinand Magellan, and Teddy Roosevelt’s charting of Brazil's mysterious Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). But the best nonfiction I read was David Goldfield’s America Aflame, a fifty-year history of America before, during, and after the Civil War. The sweep, the prose, the presentation lent a well-known history some newfound urgency. Equally pleasurable was Dennis McDougal’s Privileged Son, a biography of the Chandler dynasty, the familial empire that controlled the Los Angeles Times for more than a hundred years and whose story is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles itself.
            The first book to read in the coming year will be JG Ballard’s High Rise…

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bumming the Dharma

Lately I've been revisiting Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums," a monumental influence in my young adult life. I don't connect with Kerouac as I once did on the cusp of adulthood but his prose has moments of glory and humor and are worth setting down here for some appreciation.

Both passages are excerpted from climbing California's Matterhorn: Kerouac reflecting on the woods in the first, Gary Snyder's (as Japhy Rhyder) metaphor of the Buddha as a mountain quoted in the second. I always try to read his sentences in Jack's peculiar, passionate spoken voice.

"The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling. Ecstasy, even, I felt with flashes of sudden remembrance, and feeling sweaty and drowsy I felt like sleeping and dreaming in the grass.

"Yeah man, you know to me a mountain is a Buddha. Think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waitin for us to stop all our frettin and foolin."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Political Thing

Reprinted below is my endorsement for Barack Obama, originally published in  Heso Magazine

Though we at Heso Magazine are practicing secular-agnostics, we are inclined to believe that Hurricane Sandy making landfall on the U.S. on the eve of the election is hardly coincidence. Not that this tempest is an Act of God, mind you, but a manifestation of a furious Gaia, the Earth goddess howling brimstone at a national farce now almost beyond contempt. Though they have competed for bragging rights on who would be better at exploiting natural resources, neither the incumbent, President Barack Obama, nor his challenger, Mitt Romney, have acknowledged the obvious, urgent crises engendered by global warming (typical for a GOP candidate, glaring for a Democratic one). The most important difference is that one of the candidates (Romney) believes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is too expensive and should be discontinued, leaving bankrupt states to manage the inevitable environmental catastrophes on their own. That this is emblematic of so much other nonsense espoused by the GOP means that we at the magazine will in fact endorse Barack Obama for President, but with many caveats and some total absence of enthusiasm.

It is hard to imagine an election less engaging for its activists’ bases. The conservatives don’t trust Romney, a flip-flopping hybridized Richie Rich-Gordon Gekko twit representing the worst aspects of modern corporate culture. They don’t like him for his Mormonism and his record as the Governor of Massachusetts, particularly, his health care reform. Besides pimping for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as Fortune 500 companies Mitt Romney represents almost no one, but the Republican base will probably vote for him anyway, in total opposition to their self-interest, simply because he’s a white male.

On the other side of the spectrum, progressives are equally disengaged from Obama, who has either ignored or backtracked on nearly every campaign pledge from 2008, including respecting habeas corpus, renegotiating NAFTA, rejecting sweeping claims of “inherent” presidential power, protecting whistle-blowers, expanding labor rights, and diversifying media to name but a few. The propaganda on talk radio and Fox News is as spurious as it comes; a “socialist” Obama is not. On some issues, such as gay rights, he has proven progressive. But unless you’re for same sex marriage or a member of the nation’s financial elite it’s unlikely you have more opportunity or freedom than you did four years ago.

Running a country as multi-faceted, complex and dangerous as the United States requires responsibility not only for present crises but also for the long-term future of the republic and its citizens. With Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the two Company Men will work to comprehensively dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamp and financial aid programs, and any other public “entitlement” that any way at all aids the dispossessed and downtrodden. They will do it in the name of austerity, the hypocrites, all the while, continuing massive defense spending and supporting tax cuts and tax shelters for corporations. As perilous as life is in America today, it would be more capricious, uncertain and altogether hopeless under a Romney administration. For the wealthy elites in the GOP, the Bush tax cuts and TARP are mere Prelude to the Class War they will engage once they have the capacity to direct the national conversation on the economy. Once the purge is on it will make us nearly wistful for the days of ‘compassionate conservatism.

Romney and everything he and the GOP stand for then must be dismissed outright as antithetical to our democratic traditions. Well, what do we have then? Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate was arrested when she tried to gain access to the Town Hall debate. Third Party candidates have almost no momentum this year (mostly due to media blackout and unfair playing rules.) That leaves voters with Obama, who arguably governed as Bush might have had he a third term, but who articulated the abridgements of civil liberties better than the Texan Bumpkin. Otherwise how could one explain how Democrats have gone from condemning waterboarding as torture to condoning executive-ordered drone assassinations? Keep in mind that a vote for Obama is essentially a vote for The Surveillance State of which our president has come to be one of its principle architects. It is important to note that Obama did not bother much with the ‘hope’ thing this time around. He might respect our intelligence, even if he doesn’t honor our privacy.

So what has he promised in this endlessly dull, insipid, uninspired, misanthropic election cycle? Well, so much as we can tell, he’s pledged that he wouldn’t be as bad as Romney and we at Heso agree. Thus, a vote then for Obama is a vote for competence. He probably won’t privatize Social Security and it’s unlikely with him as Commander-in-Chief, we’ll hear dispatches of G.I. Joe from the Gates of Tehran. We’ll get the status quo, which isn’t that great if you’re living day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck but it beats the heck out of the Made in the USA dystopian disaster the GOP might engineer should they have their childish hands on The War Machine’s joystick.

Because the GOP is out of touch with Americans (by virtue of its leadership and talking heads demonstrating unhinged sociopathic behavior) we at the magazine don’t much believe in the hype of a close election. The mainstream media has Ford Explorers, Big Macs and Verizon phone plans to sell so they need us turning in to the election cycle, which often feels like it’s 10% content, 90% poll tracking. The President will likely win this election, but that doesn’t mean we can look forward to good times. Though Obama had once been a community organizer and constitutional lawyer, he has really come into his own as a cold-blooded technocrat, legitimizing the worst of Bush’s abuses (illegal detention, runaway defense spending, obsequiousness to Wall Street). It seems that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has benefited the President as much as the venture capitalist, the corporations having hedged their bets equally. Nearly a billion dollars has been raised and spent by each candidate.

We at Heso think what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” is bunk. We can do better. The Scandinavian Model is proof of that. It might not be possible in such a large heterogeneous country with a militaristic background but we have already done better in the recent past, namely the fifty years of relative middle class parity between the elections of FDR and Ronald Reagan.

While we take Churchill’s cynicism with a grain of salt, we take Martin Luther King’s words more seriously, especially, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We might be wrong but we believe the GOP, with its characteristic racist nativism, hateful misogyny, religious fundamentalism and class war agenda, has no future in the increasingly tolerant, secularized, cultural plurality that is Tomorrow’s America. In spite of the evidence, we are optimists, even if once more, the lesser of two evils is still, well, somewhat evil.

‘Change’ is gonna come, but we don’t believe it will necessarily come from D.C. It’s gonna be us, grass roots, after the tempest, one community at a time. Even the worst storms are temporary. And in the afterglow amid tomorrow’s beautiful light, some rebuilding will begin. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Top 50 Films that Made Me

“Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire.”
Slavoj Zizek

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes after his involuntary "nosejob"

Is there a better way to understand a man than looking at his favorite films? Originally, that was my inspiration but not only was it impossible to rank movies, I found it a rather conventional effort. So I started thinking about which pictures had the greatest influence on me-- as a storyteller, sure, as a fan, definitely, but as a way to live too. A modern man's philosophical outlook is much more a composite of acquired culture rather than bearings gleaned from the Church, school, or elders-- the way to live isn't so much handed down anymore as it is observed in flickering images in a dark room.

I've always loved the movies. My earliest cinematic memory is going to the theater to watch The Empire Strikes Back, but the projector failed and we were ushered to the adjoining room to enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark (both childhood favorites and probably on many others' lists but not on mine). My second oldest memory is being annoyed with the teenaged girls sitting in front of me during E.T., sobbing at the ending. I thought they were saps but I would, wouldn't I? Anyone who has Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Irreversible, and A Clockwork Orange on such a list is not the world's best person.

Top 50 Films lists are like two snowflakes-- no two are exactly alike. Maudlin metaphors aside, a Top 50 Films list is by its very nature a provocation as nearly everyone is likely to be irritated by some of the listmaker's choices as well as his omissions ("Irreversible? And what the hell is Cisco Pike and Punishment Park? No Star Wars? And no Pulp Fiction? What about The Shawshank Redemption for crying out loud? Well, fuck you, buddy...")

I wanted to put together the list somewhat casually-- the following films immediately came to mind because I believe they've had the strongest effect on me. Though cinema is more than a century old, on this list you'll find only six films predating 1960. From the last twenty years there are only nine films. On the other hand, there are twenty-nine films between 1960 and 1980. This was a time of upheaval for the studio system, which, when unraveling in the late sixties, funded some very unusual projects for a politicized, sexualized audience coming of age in protests, riots, and lifestyle experimentation. It was a remarkable time for the arts that sputtered out in the Reagan years and is yet to recur. (In the event of a Top 50 albums foray, it is likely 80% of the list would come from the same generation.)

Just a few more notes about my choices: There are no animation films. There are also no documentaries, which though I watch often, do not have the profound impact as a dramatic story well told. There are six foreign films. At least thirteen of these films I watched on the big screen (mostly double-bills at The New Beverly in Los Angeles). From the list, Robocop and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are the only films I watched before turning eighteen years old.

I'd originally wanted to limit my selections to one director but abandoned that option as the list became riddled with Sophie's Choices (choosing just two Kubricks was difficult enough!) Directors with two films on the list include Kubrick, Orson Welles, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, and Martin Scorsese. Orson and Jon Voight star in three of the films, but Jack Nicholson tops the list with four.

Again, the list is not ranked, so my selections are alphabetized. Films shortlisted for my personal Top Ten are marked by a *. Not surprisingly, eight out of the ten films shortlisted as favorites were released between 1969 and 1979 (The Third Man, from 1949, and The New World, from 2005, being the exceptions.)

The best hospital bed in the world.

1. All That Jazz*: (1979) Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical look at a philandering, debauched theatrical director may be the best film ever made. I write more about it here.

"Charlie don't surf!"

2. Apocalypse Now*: (1979) Not sure if I prefer the original release or the Redux version. No screening  will ever compare to the time I saw it in Santa Barbara, when a homeless vet stood up during the famous Ride of the Valkyries air attack and hooted and hollered, cheering the bombs bursting.

3. Baraka: (1992) When I saw this at an IMAX screen ten years ago, it was like an invitation to see the world. So I did.

4. Barfly: (1987) Mickey Rourke should have gotten the Oscar for this. He does Bukowski proud.

Barry Lyndon

5. Barry Lyndon: (1975) No one's ever made a period piece come more alive than Kubrick does with this rapscallion!

The title swingers

6. Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice: (1968) Dated perhaps, but hilarious, as wife-swapping with your best friends inevitably is.

7. Boogie Nights: (1997) Not only does Paul Thomas Anderson bring the late 1970s into clear focus, he humanizes the adult industry with love and pathos.

8. Breathless: (1960) Who hasn't wished he could ever be as cool as Jean Paul Belmondo?

9. Carnal Knowledge: (1971): An overlooked masterpiece directed by Mike Nichols about two friends (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) and their acquisition of said knowledge (Nicholson being the faster learner and oh so dickish about it...)

10. The Celebration: (1998) Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's Dogma 95 story of a 60th birthday of a patriarchal pedophile is one of the most uncomfortable films ever made. When I saw it in the theater, the credits rolled, the lights went on, but most of the audience remained paralyzed, utterly unable to move.

11. Chinatown: (1974) The best film noir picture ever made! And in color too!

12. Cisco Pike: (1971) A dark horse candidate for any Top 50 List, but I really love it. Kris Kristofferson is an ex-con trying to go legal in Venice Beach, but a crooked cop (Gene Hackman) just won't let him. Kristofferson also contributed the music (from his album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I), which is terrific, as is the seedy, hippie vibe of Venice pre-gentrification. I write more about it here.

13. A Clockwork Orange*: (1971) I've seen it probably fifteen times and I see something new or enjoy some previously hitherto unknown revelation every time. Also on my shortlist for the greatest movies ever made.

14. Coming Home*: (1978) There's something about this little film about a guy (Jon Voight) returning to LA from 'Nam, falling in love with a volunteer nurse (Jane Fonda), only to have to deal with her militaristic, shellshocked husband (Bruce Dern) when he returns to his wife off-kilter. The most dangerous love triangle story ever told.

15. Deliverance: (1972) Terrifying. Burt Reynolds peaks in his career with his performance as a survivalist taking out some weekend warriors rafting in the woods before "civilization" dams it. But civilization turns out to be a lot friendlier than the woods.

16. Dog Day Afternoon: (1974) A bank robbery gone awry, inspired so that Sonny (Al Pacino) will have enough money for his boyfriend's sex change operation. Have always loved this one deeply, particularly the opening credits sequence, perfectly encapsulating New York on a hot summer day, circa 1972.

Free dudes

17. Easy Rider: (1969) No film has ever inspired the joy of the road quite so much as these motorcycle hippies did. Is there a scene more purely expressive of a beautiful, elusive, nearly extinct freedom as this? I've seen it at least a dozen times and it holds up after all these years.

18. Eating Raoul: (1982) One of the funniest movies ever made: Mary Woronov (of Warhol factory fame) and Paul Bartel are a couple of prudes who discover that swingers have a lot of money, and therefore seduce and murder them (hoping to make enough to get their own restaurant). They pay a dubious locksmith, Raoul, to dispose the bodies.

19. F for Fake: (1975) Orson Welles' examination of the life and times of history's greatest art forger, Elmer de Hory, opens up a can of worms about the value of art and the nature of authenticity. This two-hour mind-fuck is beautifully narrated by Welles in a black cape and tophat, with plenty of interviews with his conspirators. If nothing else, watch the trailer.

20. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: (1982) It will probably always be the best High School comedy ever made. Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli remains the mentor for all aspiring stoner-surfer-slacker dudes.  Has hometown resonance as it was filmed in the Valley.

21. The Graduate: (1967) I've been there, Ben. I know what it's like not to know what to do with your life. And O how sweet that Simon and Garfunkel will always sound. Wes Anderson's probably seen this movie a thousand times. He's built a career out of its themes (particularly that of delayed adulthood) and zooming camera techniques.

22. Hannah and Her Sisters: (1986) This has always been my favorite Woody Allen film. When I rented it the first time, I'd checked out The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup the same time coincidentally, the same film Allen's character watches after a failed suicide attempt, the film a revelation that the meaning of life is joy and laughter.

If only he were wearing his Technicolor Dreamcoat

23. The Holy Mountain: (1973) Speaking of the meaning of life, the most bizarre attempt to explore that slippery slope is Alejandro Jodorowsky's masterpiece. If you still have an open mind after viewing the trailer, you might want to 'go there.' I've also written in depth about my interpretations of the film here.

24. Hud: (1963) What makes this morality tale about a womanizing rancher (Paul Newman)--who wants to unload his pestilent cattle on an unaware market-- so good is that in spite of Newman's self-regarding antihero schtick, we the audience love him regardless. It also evokes an America that hardly exists anymore. I've written more about the film here.

Bautista's babes didn't fare well in post-revolutionary Cuba

25. I Am Cuba: (1964) A Soviet-Cuban collaboration, the greatest propaganda film ever made-- director Mikhail Kalatozov dramatizes the end of Cuba's Bautista regime and the beginning of the Castro revolution with a very clear schism of good vs. evil. Whatever melodrama it suffers from overly wrought politics is compensated by its groundbreaking cinematography.

The inimitable Peter Sellers

26. I Love You, Alice B. Toklas: (1968) Peter Sellers is a straight edged lawyer who eats pot brownies and joins the hippies in Venice Beach. Like a time capsule, nothing encapsulates the silliness of the sixties so well as this. Austin Powers has nothing on Howard Fine. And I confess to a long-term crush on Leigh Taylor-Young's flower power hippie girl. I write more about the film here.

27. Irreversible: (2002) I tried turning this off three times within the first forty minutes of the film. I was so angry by the time of the 8-minute anal rape take that I'd wanted director Gasper Noe's head on a pike. But I persisted and by the end of the movie, I was moved beyond reason. Such a trick. How the hell did he pull it off?

28. It Felt Like a Kiss: (2009) Some might take issue with this inclusion, as it was designed for an arts festival. Nevertheless, it is the best mashup of U.S. ascendance and decline archival footage with American pop music montage on record, motion picture collage art par excellence. Here's a snippet.


29. The Last Picture Show*: (1971) A black and white film of 1950s small-town Texas life beautifully (if improbably) recreated by a 1970s hipster. I truly love this scene--in which Ben Johnson reminisces about a "wild lady" with whom he was "pretty deep"in his youth, a woman who he's loved and lost but is still worth cherishing nonetheless because "being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do."

30. Life Lessons: (1989) Another dubious selection as Life Lessons is a short film, one third of New York Stories (the Coppola contribution is unwatchable, the Woody Allen Jewish mother comedy similarly atrocious). But I love Scorsese's story of an big-league artist (Nick Nolte) who can't paint because his young assistant (Rosanna Arquette) won't sleep with him, partly because he can't tell the young woman her work is good. Anyone who's ever struggled in NYC will feel some "Oh, man..." moments.

Lady Macbeth

31. Macbeth: (1971) The first film Roman Polanski made after the Manson Family murdered his wife, Sharon Tate; his version of the paranoid king is probably the goriest Shakespeare production ever made. Eleventh century Scotland will never again look so windswept, cold, and cruel.

32. Melancholia: (2011) Perhaps the most subtle apocalyptic film ever rendered, I write more about Lars Von Trier's underrated masterpiece here.

Two hustlers (though nowadays we'd call 'em hipsters)

33. Midnight Cowboy*: (1969) Such a lonely film. So many of us have a bit of Joe Buck in us, naive optimism, relentlessly hopeful in spite of the overwhelming evidence that life is hardly fair and often brutally punitive.

34. Nashville*: (1975) Another shortlist candidate for the greatest film of all time-- and the most Altmanesque of Robert Altman's oeuvre with its anarchic overtones, ensemble cast, antiheroes all over the place, the comedy of American life. This is also the last hurrah for country music before it's rampant commercialization and, thus, inevitable mediocritizing. The film's three hours long and worth every minute. More here.

35. Natural Born Killers: (1994): Celebrating the cult of violence has never been so weird. A Nashville for the 90s, America through the looking glass.

36. Network*: (1976): My favorite demagogue, Howard Beale. Another contender for the top spot and a film I learn something from every time.

37. The New World*: (2005) Watching all of Terrence Malick's other films, I want to like them as much as I should but it's not always easy. But The New World is not just a great Malick film, it is one of the greatest, another shortlist entry. Consider the opening sequence when the settlers are docking in the Virginia tidewater on the verge of encountering the Potomac Indians. It is just a day but a day that will evolve into the transformation of the world. At the moment, however, the indigenous are curious and a little anxious about the development, the settlers relieved and happy to have survived the voyage across the sea. And it happens to one of Wagner's most dramatic pieces, his Prelude to Rheingold.

38. The Passenger: (1975) Via Jack Nicholson, Michelangelo Antonioni explores the issue of self when Nicholson's character, a frustrated journalist, takes on another man's identity when he finds his corpse in a hotel room in Africa. Every man has a past of course, and some are the harbinger of disaster. A quiet, patient, lyrical film, the kind just not made anymore.

39. Punishment Park: (1971) A mockumentary about a German film crew documenting the implementation of an authentic piece of legislation, the McCarran Act of 1950, not dissimilar to today's Patriot Act, which gave the government sweeping powers to detain individuals deemed "a risk to internal security." This is Nixon's America and the war the kids are protesting is Vietnam but, unfortunately, it feels all so relevant to today's calls for suspension of due process in the war against terrorism. The trailer and my review for it here.

Mr. Putney Swope: Chairman of the Board

40. Putney Swope: (1969) Through some fluke in the voting system, a Madison Avenue advertising firm elects Mr. Putney Swope as the new chairman of the board, the sole black executive, who promptly fires all the old white guys and hires Black Panther types to run the agency, now renamed Truth and Soul, Inc. Directed by Robert Downey, Sr. an overlooked masterpiece in "black" comedy.

41.  Robocop: (1987) I loved it at 12 years old and I love it today. A highwater mark in the action genre, due its humor, spoof, and truth be told, spectacular urban violence. Clarence Boddicker: one of cinema's great arch-villains.

42. Scarface: (1982) I've seen it ten times and though I think I've outgrown it as a shortlist candidate, I love this American Dream twist of beguiling decadence. Pacino's Cuban immigrant rises to the top of the Miami cartels by virtue of having cajones bigger than anyone on the street. Eminently quotable.

The danse macabre

43. The Seventh Seal: (1957) Ingmar Bergman's tale of a medieval knight (Max Von Sydow) returning home (Sweden) from the crusades in the midst of a Black Death epidemic-- he's mainly concerned with winning his game of chess with Death. My favorite Bergman film, which says a lot, considering he is one of my very favorite auteurs.

44. Shampoo: (1975) Hal Ashby's hilarious story of a handsome Beverly Hills hairdresser (Warren Beatty) whom all the men assume is gay (due his profession) but is sleeping with everyone's wives. Set during the day of Nixon's election in 1968, Shampoo explores grass-is-greener virtues between free love and commitment.

45. Singin' in the Rain: (1952) Arguably the most charming movie ever made. The entire film-- a story of Hollywood making the uncomfortable transition from silent to "talkies"-- is terrific but Gene Kelly singing in the rain might be the greatest revelation of happiness ever visited upon an audience.

46. Sullivan's Travels: (1941) The oldest film on my list, Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels is about a successful director traveling Depression-era America to get an idea of the common man's experience so that he can make a truthful film about their plight, only to learn that comedy is what he does best and that making people laugh is a wonderful thing.

47. Taxi Driver (1976)  What scene in any film better exemplifies alienation than this? And has New York ever looked scarier? Wrote a ten-page paper in college comparing Travis Bickle's morality to Holden Caulfield's. Got an 'A' too.

Joseph Cottens' Holly Martins ("I haven't got a sensible name.")

48. The Third Man* (1949) A writer of Zane Grey-style pulp westerns comes to Postwar Vienna looking for his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), learning he's mixed up in some disreputable black market business, then falls in love with Lime's woman. Nothing better recommends this perfect film than its perfect ending.

49. Touch of Evil: (1958)  Charleston Heston's Mexican cop, Vargas, investigates a murder at the border, but he's stymied by a crooked cop, Quinlan (Orson Welles, who also directs). Film noir at its very best, including arguably the best long tracking shot in film history.

50. Y Tu Mama Tambien: (2001) Two Mexico City nineteen-year-old boys of different class backgrounds go on a road trip with a broken-hearted but sensual older woman to visit a legendary beach. If only American teen comedies could combine pathos, humor, sexuality and political outrage as well as this, we'd have a much more interesting cinema.   


Please feel free to express yourself in the comments section. This entry, after all, is about sharing.

Friday, September 7, 2012


It’s always good to understand who you are, why you do something, and what brought you to this present position. Introspection is not something that comes easy to most of us, what with schedules, errands, obligations, mass distractions and the next big project. I’ve been lucky this year to be interviewed by some very interesting editors, whose questions compel me to do some hard thinking. As I don’t do Facebook and try to keep Twitter somewhat private (at least on a personal level-- it's rather difficult concealing my outrage at politicians), these interviews are a good opportunity for me to be unusually candid. That I have been the subject of interest is an honor, as I am still some ways from making my mark.

Forgive then this shameless moment of self-promotion and enjoy the interview with Marco Polo Arts Mag.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Short History of Personal Doings

In polite circles and otherwise, it is likely a stranger will query profession before bothering with names. This habit survives in spite of a minefield of potentially uncomfortable revelations. What’s left to talk about when a person suffers an unpleasant desk job? How do you best respond when they tell you they are unemployed? Personally, I don’t really like the “What do you do?” question because I never know how to answer it correctly. Most of my time is devoted to writing and photography, but as I have few commercial instincts it provides a modicum of income compared to my “day job.”  The question seems to measure success but it doesn’t reveal much of a person’s interests. I wish we lived in a society that treated first encounters with more depth: that it was acceptable social protocol in which, two strangers, upon meeting, could ask one another (with a non-contextual straight face, of course), “Nice to meet you. What are you into?”

When I was a kid taking the rare moment to consider future prospects I was sure I’d evolve into a comic book proprietor. Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, X-Men, the Teen Titans and their multitudinous superhero peers were my overriding interest in life. Every Saturday my father took my sister and I to Fantasy Castle, a local comic book store, where we’d whittle an hour or two. My father had the same obsessions as a kid and didn’t mind the outings (still an avid Conan the Barbarian fan). He was also generous. As I amassed an enormous collection, it seemed then my future was all but assured. Then, quite suddenly, around the age of 14, I lost nearly all interest in the one endeavor that had consumed my life. Certainly in the early 1990s comics had changed—the popularity of Todd McFarlane’s artwork had led to some industry standardization. But I don’t blame Mr. McFarlane for my disavowal of the subculture. It was more personal than that.

I suppose confusion is the normal teenage existence. Following my apostasy I drifted. I liked sports but after a childhood of Saturday afternoons centered on Fantasy Castle, I was ill prepped for High School football’s physical demands. I followed the pros well enough, participating in baseball Rotisserie leagues, but it didn’t seem to matter much whether or not my teams won. I couldn’t even make it as a fair-weather fan.  This quagmire of fecklessness affected my career prospects. I could not begin to wonder what would be worth devoting my life. Lacking considerable imagination, I thought I would be a lawyer. My father was one, after all, and hey, they seemed to make a solid living.

Studying history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I got caught up in Hemingway, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson. Santa Barbara is a beautiful beach community, flanked by the sea and mountains and it is facile for a twenty-year-old to fall under a spell of romantic impulses. The authors inspiring me at the time were an aspirant’s gateway drug: they made the writer’s life appear wonderfully romantic. Not only that, their prose made writing look easy.  I got it into my head that I could do that too. Thus I became a “writer,” giving up any pretensions towards a respectable, well-compensated career.

Unfortunately, the exceptional genius aside, writers are not born— they’re made. But it takes a long time to understand that. Rare is the young person who recognizes his or her prose is predictable, asinine, goofy, and just plain bad. Storytelling is not a natural instinct—very few people know what to put in and what to take out, especially when a story is being invented on paper. It took me years to get the hang of it as I experimented with different styles and media— starting out with poetry and screenwriting and eventually settling into prose, both short and long. I sacrificed my twenties to my muse, laughing at me across many a blank page.

I consider the time I languished producing mediocre work a sort of apprenticeship. But in that time I acquired the will power to go through multiple drafts of stories. The writer, Laird Koenig, the closest I ever had to a mentor, advised me that, until publication, “a story is never finished, only abandoned.” The literary establishment, often guilty of prickly, conservative, and insular values, can be quite dismissive of unknown authors. I don’t take their defensiveness personally. Any author who wants to make a name for himself must develop a Nietzschean attitude towards perseverance.

I’ve found that when one becomes a writer, the creative process becomes more difficult: standards have evolved and knowing the complexity that goes into a good story well told, I took to long, meandering walks when the words didn’t come. Having grown up in Los Angeles car culture, walking has always been something of a novelty. That I was walking in Japan, India, and other foreign places (where I’d gone to research setting for my stories) inspired me to photograph these wanderings. Like writing, initially I had no real talent at pictures. But I liked doing them and once I had found my own particular signature I found I was pretty good at it. Photography complemented writing— it was a unique medium of self-expression, becoming something of a refuge when the stories I was composing hit narrative pitfalls.

Success is relative and I have a long ways to go but after developing considerable content, I have managed to place my work in various publications, both on the Net and in print. Such third party endorsements have come slowly and I’ve learned to appreciate the acceptances in proportion to the perfunctory form letters.  I haven’t been very good at advertising some of my achievements: I never had a facebook account and only lately started tweeting. I’ve only very recently begun sending out group emails. Even when you are published it is a challenge securing readers. After all, there is a lot of content out there.

It’s a journey, all right, and the arc is long. I’ve accepted that the relatively small monetary compensation is something ruled by market values and not talent. A person’s work is not necessarily what he gets paid to do but where he puts his thinking powers when no one’s asking. Nowadays nearly every piece I’ve managed to “finish” is a job well done and I’m thrilled when it’s delivered to the public. The artist should be grateful for his audience and their distinguished tastes. Between the creator and consumer a bit of energy is passed. This makes living quite worthwhile. A little impact goes a long way.

I decided to write this during the weekend my website was updated. It showcases my photography but if you click on the ‘about’ page, you will find links to my fiction and haiku project. This is what I’m “about.” It is what I do. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Empire Folly

"Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?

Who could shake the foundation of heaven...?"

It is the winter of 1519 and there is much ado in Old Worlds and New: the Roman Papacy, led by Leo X is doing its best to suppress a renegade heretic named Martin Luther from spreading his blasphemies; Ferdinand Magellan is outfitting a crew of sailors in Seville with plans to circumnavigate the world; Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor has died, setting off arrangements to coronate his grandson, King Charles of Spain, as heir; meanwhile thousands of miles across the great seas, a little-known conquistador named Hernán Cortés lands in the Yucatan peninsula with eleven ships, 500 men, thirteen horses, and some cannon, dreaming of wealth and glory.

Hugo Thomas’ history of the adventures of Cortés, appropriately titled, “Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico,” (Simon & Schuster, 1993) is an enormous undertaking. Thoroughly researched and meticulously told, as much biography as it is history, Thomas describes a force of personality so intelligent, cunning, and audacious, as to be a nearly mythical figure of history. It was one thing for the Europeans to dominate an archipelago of scattered, benign tribes— wholly another for them to subdue an enormous empire run with an efficiency as sophisticated as its cousin kingdoms on the European continent. Cortés succeeds by utilizing leadership, diplomacy, strength of character and some Machiavellian technique. But this is not a hagiography— contemporary historical hindsight does not take kindly to what in the end became wholesale destruction of a flourishing, vibrant culture.

“Conquest” is a massive book difficult to summarize even in a long essay, so interesting and detailed is the story. At the back end more than 160 pages are devoted to chapter notes and sources, while the appendices include a glossary of the Nahuatl language, a summary of Montezuma’s tribute, Mexican calendars, a table of Spanish currency, a list of Cores’ mistresses, and genealogical diagrams of the emperors of Mexico, the Imperial Spanish family, Cortés’ ancestry, and the transformation of the post-conquest Mexican imperial family. This is preceded by well over six hundred pages of text that reads alternately academic and the best of adventure narrative.

The story begins in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica ruled a vast empire (Thomas disavows the word “Aztec,” a malapropism popularized in the 18th century). They had a centralized government similar to feudal Europe. Also like Europe was Mexico’s pyramidal social structure, divided between nobles, craftsmen, peasants, and slaves. This was no Garden of Eden but a complex hierarchy uninterested in the issue of inequity. Priests, as ambassadors to the gods, were highly influential and whom emperors turned to for all divine guidance. Montezuma, the Mexican emperor in 1519, was particularly superstitious and susceptible to portents.

Because of elaborate pomp and ritual, the Mexica required enormous quantities of tribute from the provinces it ruled (some examples from the appendix: loads of lime: 16,800; gold-mounted crystal lip plugs: forty; live eagles: two). Tax collectors roamed the valleys to the coasts collecting for the emperor, causing considerable resentment among the smaller tribes. Moreover, the Mexica often staged phony wars with rivals in order to guarantee prisoners for human sacrifice.

Dressed in ostentatious costumes mimicking the wardrobe of gods and given peyote or mushrooms or even pulque (a variation of tequila) to quell anxieties, captives were led to the top of the great pyramids, where, “the normal procedure was for the victim to be held down on a stone block by four priests. His heart would be plucked out professionally by a chief priest or even the monarch…the heart would be burned in a brazier. The head would be cut off and held up. The limbs would be ritually eaten, with maize or chili, by noblemen…the torso would be thrown away, or given to animals in one of the zoos.”

It sounds gruesome but according to Mexican belief, death by “the obsidian knife” entailed a beautiful afterlife in “the paradise of the sun.” In the end, human sacrifice would be the most important argument for Spain’s superior civilization (never mind the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition!) But to the Mexica, if they did not sacrifice to Huitzilopochtili, the sun would not shine and if they did not give to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and maize, the staple of their diet, would not grow.

Who were these Spanish adventurers confronting a society with such unpronounceable gods? Mostly they were men “of an experience as long as their reputation was dubious.” The first tide of explorers originally came to the New World with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, a “company of gentlemen” descended from powerful Castilian families (the historian is forgiven for his occasionally tedious layouts of pedigree). They established great encomiendas (agricultural estates tended by Indian slaves) in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica. Explorations were privately funded, which meant they needed to return profit on their (costly) investment. They weren’t interested in Christianizing (and therefore humanizing) the natives, whom they needed as a labor force. The Spanish did not play fair: entering a new land and subduing resistance, the Requerimiento was read out in an unfamiliar language affirming that the territory was now in Royal Spanish hands. The tipping point for European arrogance was Alexander VI’s Papal Bull formally dividing the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms, to which effrontery the Cenu Indians suggested, “The pope must be drunk.”

Once the first generation of settlers arrived, the Caribbean experienced a demographic crisis: there was no longer enough indigenous to operate the encomiendas since many had died from overwork looking for gold or malnutrition after the introduction of wild cattle devastated crop yield. Something had to be done about this labor shortage.

Enter Hernán Cortés. Like many conquistadores he came of age in a golden age of violence and glory. In the late 15th Century, the Moors were expelled from Spain and many Jews forced into conversion (and those that didn’t were handled by Torquemada and his inquisitors). Between religious cleansing, Columbus’ discoveries and the unification of the Spanish crown, much opportunity existed for ambitious, courageous men.

El Cuadillo

Cortés, of a minor noble family in Medellín, Extremadura, arrived in Cuba via Salamanca and Seville, when he was eighteen. Displaying wit, foresight, and intelligence, he became a favorite of Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, working up the ranks as a notary, secretary, treasurer, and magistrate, then as an encomienda lord and mine baron. He could read and quote Latin as well as popular ballads. A physical, intellectual, and engaging presence, Cortés rose to power on the strength of his Renaissance Man qualities, which is why Governor Valesquez named him caudillo of a commercial expedition to the Yucatan.

But it quickly became clear to the Governor that the caudillo was exceeding his authority. In bringing horses and cannon it seemed to all Cortés had long-term plans to establish a colony. A messenger sent to relieve Cortés of authority was murdered en route and all a port city’s meat taken by Cortés at gunpoint. This flagrant disrespect made a lifelong enemy out of Valesquez.

Cortés’ was the not first fleet captained to explore what was beginning to be called New Spain: Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva had made exploratory maneuvers the year before, antagonizing the Mayans, who now challenged Cortés upon arrival. Attack dogs and artillery took care of the first wave of Indians and cannon and horses (the Mayans mistook the equine for dragons) took care of the second. The Mayans were slaughtered because their swords were made from obsidian rather than metal—built to wound, not kill (the Mexica would have the same problem). The Spanish reliance on artillery was anathema to the Indians, who believed it dishonorable to strike from a distance. Thus both technology and the playbook were to the Spanish advantage.

Slowly, Cortés and his men moved up the coast, reading out the Requerimiento to perplexed audiences, building settlements and demanding gold (which they received when available in exchange for beads, looking glasses, pins, needles, and scissors— obviously the events at hand antecede the concept of fair trade).


Meanwhile, Cortés’ troublemaking was beginning to freak out the Mexican emperor, Montezuma. It was bad enough that this foreign army had cannon that “deafened the Indians and made trees vanish,” as well as “‘deer’ which bore the visitors on their backs” and dogs with “great hanging jowls and blazing yellow eyes.” The worst of it was the possibility the visitor might have been an “immortal… sent from heaven.” This foreign leader dressed in black resembled Quetzalcoatl, a bearded god, “the warrior of the dawn,” a morning star, the one deity philosophically opposed to human sacrifice. The fact that that year in the Mexican calendar, “I-Reed,” Quetzalcoatl was ascendant, suggested a very bad portent indeed.


Nevertheless, unlike many conquistadores, Cortés was not out for blood. War exhausted his men, caused casualties and desertions, and depleted his harquebusier’s gunpowder and his crossbow men’s arrows. Cortés preferred allies to enemies and was able to make friends via his interpreters (Geronimo de Aguilar, who had shipwrecked on the coast ten years earlier spoke Spanish and Mayan, while a concubine Cortés received in the victors’ spoils, La Malinche (who would be Cortés’ mistress and give birth to one of the first mestizos), spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Valley of Mexico). Cortés learned early on that while his army intimidated the locals, they seemed to hate the Mexica more than the Spanish. The native kings fed Cortés’ men and, crucially, supplied him with porters and guides.

But not all Indians were so accommodating, as the journey to Tenochtitlan became a Spanish Heart of Darkness. Some testified later, “The Castilians perpetrated many unnecessary cruelties, such as cutting off noses, ears, arms, feet and testicles, as well as throwing priests down from the tops of the temples” and that “arms were weary from killing Indians.” Sixteenth century shock and awe entailed wholesale massacres and pillaging, tactics Cortés might have learned from previous pacification programs in Cuba.

In spite of a first encounter battle, the rogue kingdom of Tlaxcala offered hospitality to Cortés and his men. Later, the Tlaxcalans would prove more instrumental than any other tribe in defeating the hated Mexica and bringing down the traditional culture preceding Cortés’ invasion. They would even exceed the Castilians in their savage destruction of rivals, soon proving themselves “good vassals of King Charles” in a confrontation at the kingdom of Cholula, a tribe sympathetic to the Mexica and refusing hospitality to the Spanish. The slaughter was horrendous. The town was sacked with “much stabbing, slaying, and beating.” As was the pattern in the Caudillo’s conquests, temples were whitewashed and pagan idolatry was replaced with crosses and pictures of the Virgin.

Tailing the expedition now were emissaries from Montezuma, who were beginning to doubt that Cortés could be Quetzalcoatl— for one thing, Cholula was dedicated to this deity; for another, it was doubtful a god— any god— could be so murderous. The Mexican emissaries showered Cortés with many gifts, begging him not to come to Tenochtitlan. However, after the massacre at Cholula, Cortés and his forces were able to march into the capitol unopposed on November 9th.

This is an historic event of two powerful cultures coming into contact for the first time and should be described with some detail: “The Castilian expedition made an immense impression… the horses kept turning, moving back and forth, their riders looking at everything on every side with the greatest attention… great dogs ran ahead, panting… the standard-bearer walked by himself, waving his banner back and forth… The Mexica were much impressed by the steel swords and lances, both of which flashed brightly. The crossbowmen and harquebusiers were wielding their weapons and making as if to test them. Behind Cortés, the Indian allies made noises as if preparing for war, shrieking, hitting their mouths with their hands, whistling, and shouting…”


The Castilians were equally in awe, for at the time only Constantinople rivaled Tenochtitlan in size. The city of Tenochtitlan was on a lake connected by four causeways. Vast numbers of canoes made from hollowed tree trunks approached the Castilians to observe these strange white, dirty, bearded men from the water. The pyramids of the city emerged as “castellated fortresses, splendid monuments… glorious heights!” Happy to have arrived in the capitol without incident, the harquebusiers fired volleys into the air, the thunder of which astonished the Mexica.

Receiving an audience with Montezuma was just as dazzling: “None of the Castilians would have admired the polished stone labret with on it the blue figure of a humming bird which the Emperor wore on his lower lip. Nor would they have approved his large earplugs and turquoise nose-ornament. But they could not fail to have been awed by the fine feather headdresses which both the Emperor and the nobles wore, as by the jaguar costumes of the senior warriors, with the animals’ heads over their own.”

The fateful meeting: La Malinche is at Cortes' left

Montezuma and Cortés greeted each other with a hug and then Montezuma escorted the Castilians to their lodgings at the Palace of Axayacatl. What happened later that night set the tone for what Cortés believed became his legal authority over the Mexican people. Montezuma, as is custom with good hospitality, probably expressed his obedience to King Charles in meaningless but polite language germane to the formal occasion, which Cortés assumed to mean that Montezuma had ceded authority to the European monarch. This meant that any defiance on the part of the Mexica could now be construed as rebellion, a treason punishable by death.

It’s hard to know for certain what happened— his words were doubly translated, from Nahuatl to Mayan to Spanish— omissions and enhancements might have been made in the process and nuance lost. Montezuma was both intimidated and curious of the caudillo but it’s unlikely he could begin to contemplate the duplicity and avarice of European conquerors. Right away he was taken into “custody” by the Spanish, a strategic coup for Cortés , as it amounted to severing the head of a very hierarchical society.

At first, nothing much happened and life in Tenochtitlan went on as before. For the conquistadores, the marketplace was inevitably a place of fascination: “All goods were sold by number and size rather than weight—for weights were unknown in old Mexico: gold dust, for example, was sold in goose quills. Many sections of the market provided services, like haircutting. There was another department where slaves were sold, tied to poles by collars…prices varied: if the slave was not highly skilled as a dancer, his price was thirty large cloaks; but if he danced well his price was forty. Canoes full of human excrement were disposed of to tan skins. The market at Tlatelolco, like most great markets, was a haunt of prostitutes and gamblers.”

But as time passed and the Mexicans grew weary of feeding a motley crew of gold-diggers, Montezuma’s cooperative imprisonment was beginning to adversely affect the structure of Mexican life. The emperor was “the heart of the city,” whose words were “precious jades,” and who spoke on behalf of the gods, of whom he was “the seat, the flute, the jaws, the ears,” who not only governed Mexico but kept alive the universe itself. His helplessness was all the more magnified when Cortés took violent reprisals against rebels, executing them in an auto de fe. Montezuma was compelled to reaffirm his vassalage to King Charles, which he did, weeping. Of course, it wasn’t enough Cortés had Montezuma’s state— he had to have his soul too: “Believe in our God who made heaven and earth, and, by His works, you will know who the Master is.”

Meanwhile, conditions in the Caribbean had deteriorated the past year when a smallpox epidemic wiped out whatever Indians not yet fatally claimed from overwork. Governor Valesquez, incensed at the rumors of Cortés’ success, commissioned a large force, headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was charged with relieving Cortés of his command. But shortly after the flotilla arrived on the coast, Cortés, utilizing diplomacy, bribery, and a bold nighttime ambush, captured Narváez, put him in chains and conscripted Valesquez’ police force into his own ranks.

While Cortés was at the coast, in Tenochtitlan there was a festival with much music and dance. Dance, integral to Mexican spiritual culture, was not just amusement but a religious rite, a service of gods, “calling upon them with one’s whole body,” to provide with peace, children, health, and wisdom. In command of Tenochtitlan during Cortés’ absence, his favorite lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, exercised remarkably bad temper. Feeling threatened by the communality of the festival, Alvarado and his men slaughtered the participants in mid-celebration: “They surrounded those who danced… struck off the arms of the one who beat the drums… his neck and his head flew off… They pierced them all with their iron lances… Of some they slashed open the back and there their entrails fell out. Of some, they split the head, they hacked their heads to pieces…” And so on.

This bloodbath was the breaking point. When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan he found it under siege. For all of Cortés’ shortcomings, he did not want a war. He ordered Montezuma to reestablish normalcy but by now Montezuma was a groveling wreck. It seems that he might have been a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. When an insurgency finally took shape under the leadership of his brother, Cuitlahuac, Montezuma pled with his countrymen to make peace with the occupiers. During one such overture to his subjects, he was assaulted with stones, dying from injuries shortly thereafter.

Montezuma’s disgrace in death is one of the great tragedies in a tale built with tears. Had he been more decisive, he might have defeated the Spanish. As stated before, an emperor’s leadership is everything, so his passiveness infected Mexican society, enabling the Castilians to gain the decisive upper hand.

However, at that point, nothing yet was inevitable. Now determined to fight, the Mexica cut off all access to food and water in the palace. Cortés decided to lead his men out of the city on the night of June 30th, remembered now as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). The Mexica overwhelmed the Castilians on the causeway— two thirds of Cortés’ men were lost as well as most of the horses and nearly all the gold. Many were captured, sacrificed and later eaten. Cortés retreated across the mountains to Tlaxcala where he was given sanctuary.
Xicotencatl the Younger: Tlaxcalan chief and Spanish ally

I should note that although this reader knew the outcome of this story, it was impossible not to root for the Mexica. The arrogance, avarice, prejudice, and ruthlessness of the Castilians was despicable. This is not 20/20 hindsight: many in Cortés’ time were horrified at the treatment of the Indians, including members of the Crown and the Church. Had the authorities understood the atrocities being perpetrated in their name, they would have been ashamed. Territory claimed and souls saved— the ends don’t always justify the means.

La Noche Triste was a turning point in the campaign. From then on the conflict became total war. Unfortunately for the Mexica, they were unable to secure any alliances. Either out of a desire for revenge, a fear of the Spanish, or sense that the empire was experiencing a paradigm shift, tens of thousands of natives allied themselves with the Spanish, feeding them, carrying their equipment, and killing for them. Those that didn’t fall in line were “pacified.” Worse, smallpox had arrived in New Spain with the Narváez expedition, decimating the indigenous population. Only the Spanish proved immune, further demoralizing the Mexica who interpreted the disease as divine punishment. There weren’t enough people to harvest and ground the maize. Famine ensued.

The situation for the Mexica continued to worsen. Spanish reinforcements with troops, horses, artillery and foodstuffs arrived from the coast. Cuitlahuac perished in the epidemic, succeeded by his cousin, Cuauhtémoc, Unfortunate for superstitious types, Cuauhtémoc’s name translated as “Setting Sun.”

Nothing so well demonstrates the different martial methodology of the two war parties than the weeks leading to the final confrontation. Cortés was preparing to siege Tenochtitlan by constructing thirteen brigantines that would give him control of the lake. Doing so, he could totally isolate the Mexica from access to food and water. While full-scale construction of the ships was underway, across the lake the Mexica were celebrating the festival of Etzalqualiztli. Priests would bathe continuously in the lake, the spiritual leader announcing: “This is the place of the serpents’ anger, the flight of the wild duck, the murmur of the white rushes.” Priests leapt, splashed and cavorted in the water mimicking birdsong: “some spoke like ducks babbling…some imitated water ravens… some like kingfishers.”

Nevertheless, when Cortés finally attacked, the Mexica gave everything they had to save their civilization. Though his brigantines and divisions cut off the Mexica at the causeways, in the war of attrition the Mexica fought bravely with obsidian knives and stones against artillery, crossbows, and Toledo steel. In spite of the superiority in technology and tactics, taking Tenochtitlan was a game of inches, not dissimilar to urban house-to-house fighting witnessed in Stalingrad in the last century. It had been Cortés’ desire to hand a jeweled city to his King but by the time the Spanish took the capitol it was a pile of smoking rubble. Cortés had won a pyrrhic victory.

Though Cortés had promised to treat the fallen monarch with dignity, Cuauhtémoc was tortured into providing the whereabouts of more gold. Natives throughout the land quickly learned they had made a deal with the devil once it became clear Spanish demands for tribute would exceed the Mexica. Whatever beautifully crafted work was recovered was burned down to make gold bars, the better for distribution. However, the conquistadores, who had suffered so many privations over the past two years, were astonished when Cortés paid them a pittance. They reacted to this injustice by perpetuating it on the natives in more expeditions to the frontier. Amazed by Spanish gold lust, the chief of the Tarascans concluded “they must eat it if they like it so much.” Inevitably most indigenous became human chattel in encomiendas partitioned by the new foreign government. Not long after, Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived, baptizing millions. The gods were the last to go of the old ways.

Cortés succeeded an improbable victory by improvising against numerous calamities. A creative leader, he’d organized a complex siege, inspired the brigantines, and forged a unique alliance with rival tribes. Against tens of thousands of Indians killed, he had experienced modest losses. The Crown eventually recognized him for his achievements, naming him Captain-General of New Spain. It was the apex of his career. Twenty years and some unsuccessful exploratory trips later he died in his homeland, in debt and disregarded by a new generation of forward-thinking adventurers.

Five centuries onward, we struggle for an appropriate moral for this story. We can draw some conclusions. It’s arguable that the Mexican empire fell to the Spanish not because of the latter’s edge in ruthlessness or aggression but because of these same faults in themselves. The other tribes in the Valley of Mexico should have sided against the Spanish: with the Mexica they shared the same language and religion, yet for all this shared culture, they committed their fate with the invaders— a caveat for contemporary empires who misappraise the extent of their power and influence.

The Fall of an Empire in Comic Book Form

It’s so easy to see inevitabilities when looking back at history. If not Cortés, then some other conquistador… But in disagreeing, the historian, Thomas, makes a fascinating assertion: “The conquest required Cortés’ capacity and determination to win over the Indians. Had it not been for their help, as porters, as quartermasters, and in providing a sanctuary, the expedition would have foundered. Had that occurred, who is to say that the Mexica under Cuauhtémoc might not have acquired the use of Spanish weapons, and perhaps learned to use horses? Even allowing for the onslaught of smallpox, they might have maintained a determined opposition until Spain became weary of conquering. Perhaps they would have embarked upon their own version of the Meiji era in Japan.”

Though there is a certain delight in revisionist speculation, that pleasure remains the property of fictionists. The historian’s role is to make sense of the past. Whether or not, you respect or loathe his accomplishments, you must acknowledge Cortés is one of the godfathers of our modern world, begetting us his proselytizing spirit, adventurous bravery, and hypocritical violence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.