viernes, 31 de octubre de 2008


She (2004 paperback)
by H. Rider Haggard
UK, 1887
ISBN 0-140-43763-0

Decent but far from mindblowing fantasy/adventure "classic" from King Solomon's Mines author H. Rider Haggard. While thankfully not as overtly racist as I'd been led to believe, there's still plenty of casual misogyny, class bias, and unrepentant colonialism sprinkled throughout the novel to lend She that true period seasoning. The far-fetched main events have to do with a trio of British adventurers' discovery of a 2200-year old but still youthful-looking femme fatale/sorceress named Ayesha (a/k/a She-who-must-be-obeyed), an ill-tempered and seemingly all-powerful white empress of a black cannibalistic tribe living amid the ruins of a spectacular lost civilization in central Africa. A pretty loopy premise to be sure, but Haggard attempts to tone things down somewhat with a couple of intertwined love stories, an affectionate account of friendship under extreme duress, and some Brit-friendly nods to antiquarianism and archaeology that probably fared better with the work's original pre-post colonialist readers. All the chauvinism and goofy supernatural elements aside, I did enjoy reading about She's complex hottie of a title character (even more fetching and mysterious on the black border Penguin paperbacks than on the slightly altered illustration above) and coming across unintentionally funny moments like the one where a digression on queens and monarchy leads to an unfavorable comparison between the despotic Ayesha and Britain's own Queen Victoria, "venerated and beloved by all-right thinking people in her vast realms" (p. 254). 3 out of 5 stars for an Orbis Terrarum Challenge alternate and a guilty semi-pleasure. (

Franz von Stuck, Die Suende [Sin], 1893

miércoles, 22 de octubre de 2008

Killer's Paradise

Killer's Paradise (2006 DVD)
Directed by Giselle Portenier
Canada and U.K., 2006
In English with Spanish subtitles

I don't know how easy it will be to find this outside of academic circles (my library copy came in an unmarked DVD holder with a homemade, bootleg-looking insert typed out in Spanish), but it's definitely worth tracking down if you get the chance. Apparently first aired on the BBC's This World program a few years back, Killer's Paradise (Spanish title: Paraíso de asesinos) has to do with the ongoing murder spree against women in Guatemala that claimed over two thousand lives in the five years before the movie was made--with an average of two a day in Guatemala City alone (10 times Britain's rate). Although male murder victims outnumbered female victims by a ratio of 8 to 1 at the time of the documentary's shooting, producer/director Portenier and journalist/narrator Olenka Frenkiel point out that the number of women murdered had quadrupled in just the last three years.

While these are grim statistics by anyone's standards, the filmed interviews with family members of the victims reveal the horror of the individual tragedies in a way that statistics alone simply can't. "It's the fashion here to murder women," laments the husband of one victim resigned to the knowledge that his wife's killer will never be caught. "There's no safety in this day and age." In another moment, the brother of a slain college student rails against the police for their blame the victim mentality towards girls and women: "That's how they see the victims. As nobodies. It shouldn't be like that." Fearing reprisals, the single mother of a recently-slain teenager asks a "favor" of the two police who come to make a token investigation of her daughter's death--not to investigate at all "because my other children are still alive, and so am I." Elsewhere, the father of yet another young innocent confronts the bloody clothes his daughter was wearing on the day she was kidnapped and shot and sobs, "Here in Guatemala, there is so much impunity."

Although a reporter's voiceover wearily notes that "gangs, domestic violence, and drug wars are all blamed" for many of the brutal, unsolved murders, Killer's Paradise lays out a convincing case that the root causes of the femicide are more complicated than that. Woefully inefficient police, the unleashing of ex-army "civilians" trained to torture people during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, and a macho culture that permits rapists to avoid punishment if they marry their victims all play a contributing role to the cycle of unpunished violence. To add insult to injury, government officials' response to the killing spree has been one of almost complete indifference: a point shockingly brought home when Guatemala's gutless president Oscar Berger tells journalist Frenkiel that she should be "more optimistic" about the soaring murder rates and the lack of progress in holding anybody responsible for the savage killings. This isn't an easy piece of work to watch--and you might never want to visit Guatemala again after seeing it--but I can't recommend it strongly enough for its courage and its sense of moral outrage. A real eye-opener. (

domingo, 19 de octubre de 2008

Touchez pas au grisbi

Touchez pas au grisbi (2005 DVD)
Directed by Jacques Becker
France, 1954
In French with English subtitles

More French film excellence from the '50s. The prelude to a cellar torture scene and grenade-tossing finale notwithstanding, what we have here is sort of like a kinder, gentler version of an old school gangster movie. Jean Gabin and René Dary are outstanding as aging hoods Max le Menteur and Riton, two dapper criminals with a touching friendship more than 20 years in the making. Although much of the plot focuses on rival thug Angelo's attempt to make off with the loot (le grisbi) that Max and Riton had themselves only recently ripped off from Orly airport, director Becker does a masterful job of introducing ironic humor (one type of criminal to another: "You're all the same. To you, a fence is a crook.") and a non-cloying sentimentality (the scene where Max's considerable fondness for Riton is revealed in an interior monologue, one of the most unusual narrative devices I've ever seen in a gangster film) into the double-crossing mix. Lino Ventura as Angelo, Jeanne Moreau as the coke-snorting devil doll Josy, and Paul Frankeur as bespectacled club owner Fats all make mighty contributions to the success of the film as well, but the best testament to the unexpected brilliance of Becker's underworld aesthetic triumph might be the iconic scene where old friends Max and Riton wearily commiserate about a spilled secret and a bad break over a bottle from Nantes and a terrine of foie gras in a new hideout: sort of like Marcel Pagnol with machine guns. Five out of five stars but not for squares, Daddy-o! (

René Dary and Jean Gabin

lunes, 13 de octubre de 2008

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Dear Readers:

If any of you book-lovers out there were wondering what "we" here at Caravana would be reading in October while the world economy crashed and burned, this must be your lucky day.
  • Paul Auster, City of Glass (Penguin)
  • Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (Anagrama)
  • Rodrigo Fresan, Mantra (Mondadori/Año 0)

I'm only two chapters into the Auster novella thus far, so I'll have to postpone any comments on this first third of his New York Trilogy until later. I have read big chunks of both the Bolaño and the Fresan doorstoppers (clocking in at 1127 and 539 pages respectively), though, and feel confident they will be huge faves by the time I'm done with them. Fantastic writers! Breathless prose!! Updates soon!!!

miércoles, 8 de octubre de 2008

¡Ay, Carmela!

¡Ay, Carmela! (2005 DVD)
Dirigida por Carlos Saura
España e Italia, 1990
En castellano con subtítulos en francés e inglés

Un bien intencionado pero bastante cursi homenaje a la República Española. Carmela (Carmen Maura), Paulino (Andrés Pajares) y Gustavete (Gabino Diego) son tres artistas ambulantes contratados para dar una representación para los republicanos en pleno frente de Aragón en el año 1.938. Después del show, preocupados por la guerra, los tres deciden andar a la seguridad de Valencia--pero se pierden en la "zona nacional", donde se convierten en presos de los franquistas. Una oportunidad para salvar el pellejo se presenta cuando un soldado italiano, Teniente Ripamonte (Maurizio Di Razza), les ofrece la oportunidad de hacer una obra de teatro en cambio de su libertad. ¿El dilema? La obra incluirá temas fascistas para humillar a los otros presos políticos (miembros de las brigadas internacionales, el gobierno local, etc.) antes de su muerte por pelotón de ejecución la mañana siguiente. ¿El desenlace? Previsible.

Saura es un genio (a modo de prueba, véase su Cría Cuervos de 1975, una obra maestra), pero la materia aquí es de dudoso gusto. Basada en la obra de teatro del valenciano José Sanchís Sinisterra, ¡Ay, Carmela! es, desgraciadamente, demasiado "teatral" en cuanto a la actuación, el diálogo, y los personajes (casi todos son o héroes o fascistas). Además, el guión sufre de un desnivel de tono entre la sátira y el comentario social...o sea, es difícil agradecer la tragedia en medio de todo el humor infantil de la comedia. Aunque ¡Ay, Carmela! ganó el premio Goya a la mejor película de 1991, me inclino a pensar que la nota que merece se acerca más bien a 2 banderas republicanas a escala de 5 banderas republicanas. Mediocre. ( )

sábado, 4 de octubre de 2008

El violín

El violín (2008 DVD)
Dirigida por Francisco Vargas
México, 2006
En español con subtítulos en inglés

No veo tantas películas mexicanas como me gustaría, pero El violín es de primerísima categoría. Aunque tiene que ver con una guerra "zapatista" entre los campesinos y el ejército mexicano, se nota que nunca menciona explícitamente ni el lugar ni el tiempo de la acción. En cambio, el cineasta y guionista Vargas cuenta una historia triste que llama la atención a la atemporalidad de la lucha eterna contra la injusticia. Mezclando episodios brutales (la chocante primera escena sobre la tortura y la violación) con momentos líricos (la impecable toma de seguimiento alrededor de la holguera de campamento donde el abuelo trata de explicar la presencia del mal en el mundo a su nieto) en una especie de corrido visual, Vargas logra encontrar el punto medio entre un documental e una obra más poética.

La cinematográfia de Martín Boege y Oscar Hijuelos es igualmente loable. Rodeado en un blanco y negro que a veces es casi onírico, el filme contiene muchos hermosos retratos de la naturaleza y primeros planos de los aldeanos que me recuerdan de las fotas de obreros de Tina Modotti. Si está claro quiénes son los buenos y los malos de la película según el punto de vista de Vargas, esto no significa que sus personajes son caricaturas políticas. De hecho, el protagonista Don Plutarco (un inolvidable Don Ángel Tavira, haciendo su debú como actor a la tierna edad de 81 años) tiene el papel de una vida entera como el violinista manco cuya familia está fatalmente involucrada con el movimiento guerrillero--y cuyo violín simboliza su única manera de contraatacar. En resumen, un buen ejemplo del cine mexicano contemporaneo y 100% creíble. (

Don Ángel Tavira en El violín