Friday, April 22, 2011

Sin Nombre

"Sin Nombre" is a remarkable film. It's set in Central America and Mexico and, like when I watched "Let The Right One In", I was on the edge of my seat the whole time because I really cared about the characters and could see that things were not going to go smoothly for them. El Casper is a young member of the Tapachula, Mexico branch of the crazily violent criminal gang, Mara Salvatrucha. His girlfriend, Martha Marlene, is a middle class girl whom he tries to keep secret from the gang. Smiley is a 12 year old boy whom Casper brings into the gang. He's a larcenous innocent who acquires the homicidal callousness of a child soldier, which he functionally is. Lil' Mago, the leader of the gang, is Satan with face tattoos but not un-nuanced.

Separately, Sayra, a Honduran teenage girl, and her father and uncle are traveling north towards the United States. They come into Tapachula to hop a freight train and things go from there.

This is the first film of young American director Cary Joji Fukunaga (born in Oakland, CA) and he shot it in Spanish, mostly in Mexico, with a mix of professional and first time actors. The film received a lot of critical praise when it was released in 2009 and it deserves it. It's hard to believe it's a first film because the performances are great, the script (which Fukunaga wrote) is smart, suspenseful and even funny. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman gave the film a beautiful look. There is a lot of violence in the film but it's not gratuitous. It's part of the texture of things in the ordeal of making it, illegally, to the USA.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Two Good Memoirs

Today I changed the subtitle under the bureau's name to reflect what has turned out to be the actual subject matter of this blog. When I started posting in May 2008, I guessed at what subjects I might want to write about, wrote them down and almost never looked at them again. Glancing at the subtitle today I realized that the most neglected subject was books. I had exactly one post, a short farewell to Oakley Hall written in the first month of this bureau's existence. So I eliminated books and several other subjects from the subtitle and then, in the spirit of perversity, wrote this post about books. Here are a couple of good ones.

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a poet of the old school. Although she's thoroughly contemporary, here's nothing Post-Modern about her, nothing in quotes. She doesn't seem to have filters against love or grief and yet she's tough and fierce (Rimbaud is her hero). This all comes through in "Just Kids", a memoir of her love affair and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  The book starts and ends with Mapplethorpe's death and in between is a portrait of the artists as young people in New York in the 70s (a decade that's starting to look better and better in the rear-view mirror). It's beautifully written and I found it a great pleasure to read. In some places she may reference a few too many names but they hung out with some really interesting people. The book is also a clear eyed but loving meditation on family. I highly recommend it.

"I Was Looking for a Street" by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford is also a writer of an old school, but of a very different one from Patti Smith. Willeford's writing style is the literary equivalent of the dead pan. His books are full of dark humor but he never winks to let you in on the joke. He was in the U.S. military for twenty years and was a decorated tank commander during the Battle of the Bulge. He only got beyond cult status as a writer with the publication of "Miami Blues", a "detective novel", a few years before his death at 68.

"I Was Looking..." is the memoir of his childhood and early adolescence. He was raised by his grandmother after the early death of his parents. At the age of 13, in 1932, he left home so that he wouldn't be a financial burden on her. The majority of the book describes the year he spent as a bum, riding the rails in the South West states. This is the real Americana. It's a wonderful evocation of the Great Depression at a time when a system of social welfare was only starting to be constructed. You could get very close to starving to death, or freezing to death or you could get your clothes stolen while dead drunk at a Mexican brothel and have to sneak across the border naked. This book is also highly recommended.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Other Peoples' Families

Ten or more years ago, while visiting Richmond Virginia, I was taken to Whiting's Old Paper, a store that specializes in exactly what its name says. Calling it a store could conjure up the wrong vision. It's a stall in an antiques bazaar that's housed in a nondescript warehouse, on a two lane country highway, near Mechanicsville. I was fascinated by the 19th Century photos, tintypes and cartes-de-visite and the early 20th Century snapshots. The bureau chief enjoys looking at the doors of people's refrigerators to see what pictures have been chosen to be magnetically attached. This is the historical version of that.

As far as I know, none of the people in the photos were notable to anyone except their unknown friends and relations. Some images have names written on them (usually just first names) but most do not. I chose them purely because they appealed to me. I had no other method. Almost all are from the United States but I'll start with this German family featuring the world's most startled baby. Click to enlarge.

Now an American family.

A couple of young women looking pensive, melancholic, hungry?

Four guys on a tintype (lightly tinted).

Two young women on a tintype (also tinted).

Grace Reilly!

I returned to Whiting's Old Paper on my recent trip to Richmond, after not having gone there for several years. I found my interest in other people's relations had waned but I was attracted to a section of illustrations cut from books. This is an illustration from an edition of "Gulliver's Travels", most likely from the latter part of the 19th Century.