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Manuel Puig and the Face of Hedy Lamarr

From Brick 95

Brick 95

In the prologue to her book of interviews with Argentine writers, Primera Persona, Graciela Speranza describes her visit with the then tremendously famous Manuel Puig at his house in the glamorous Leblon neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. It was 1989, one year before his move to Cuernavaca, Mexico, and his sudden death.

Depending on the day, Puig could be nasty to fans from his beloved and detested Argentina, but Speranza found him friendly and talkative. They chatted in his study, “a room crammed with books and videotapes,” and there she saw his famous “zombie library,” where the only books on view were “American paperbacks of his novels and translations of them into exotic languages. Proudly he accumulated trophies of success.”

That afternoon Puig orchestrated the ambience to his liking. He spoke very calmly, “occasionally pausing over an Argentinian expression he’d thought forgotten. His seductive tone of voice, his evident pleasure at the murmur of the language . . . his gestures or commentaries that summed up what his novels left to be read between the lines.” As they talked, evening fell on the other side of the shutters, half closed to provide shelter from the heat. In Rio, the shift from day to night is punctual and implacable, as if reminding us that we do not live in a merciful world and no one is ever granted an extension of their stay. At that hour, the sun forgets the city unabashedly. At five o’clock in winter, at eight in the summer, evening falls as if the spectacular cinemascope was stealing away from us in fast-forward. Maybe it’s a good thing, because in that scant half-hour the doors of nostalgia and its ghosts open. Tropical Night Falling, which Puig had just published at the time, begins precisely at that sweet and frightful hour of all Rio evenings. The novel opens with one of its two elderly protagonists saying, “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?” (By a macabre fluke, it would be Puig’s final book.)

At that exact sad time of day, according to Speranza, Puig did something unexpected: he stopped talking, turned on a penlight, and shone it through the semi-darkness of the room toward the wall in front of his desk. One by one, he slowly illuminated his collection of portraits of movie stars from the 1940s: Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth. The light fell on each one individually and lit her up for a few seconds before passing to the next, while he recounted memorable moments from his favourite films.

The scene is unmistakeably Puig (a bit terrible, obviously melodramatic), ideally filmed in black and white with the help of a good director of photography to take maximum advantage of the play of light and shadow. And Puig, the consummate movie lover, was of course well aware of that: Speranza recalls that the gesture was full “of the same deceptively ingenuous theatricality as his stories.” In the face of the room’s growing darkness, against the melancholy of the tropical night falling suddenly and implacably and threatening to be definitive, Puig flourished his tiny spotlight like a beacon in the darkness. The high point of his Brazilian days, when he used to receive visitors at his lounge chair on Ipanema beach in the blinding midday Rio light, had passed. Almost ten years after his arrival, the city had lost its novelty. Violence, AIDS, and pollution in the water and on the beach were all taking their toll. Now he received guests in his near-dark office inhabited by ghostly Hollywood faces.

As a boy, at first accompanied by his mother and then on his own, Puig took refuge in the Teatro España Cinema in General Villegas, a town, he recalls, where “everything was more than a thousand kilometres away”: the mountains, the sea, the big cities. The climate was arid, the landscape was arid, human relations were arid: couples and family relationships were based on authority and force, an atmosphere of violent machismo dominated. At the cinema, they changed the films every day (What thirst, one thinks of the inhabitants of that dry plain). And for Puig, the daily alternative world of tropical dusks, white telephones, and dance numbers improvised in the middle of the street shaped a parallel reality more real to him than reality itself. Once, coming out of a musical with a friend, almost in a trance of pure happiness, Puig sang and danced through the streets until running smack into his father, who cut short those effusions of (presumably camp) joy. “Outside,” Puig recalls, “was a bad western I’d walked into by chance, by accident. And that I couldn’t get out of.” Or he could only get out of it by going into a good movie inside that bad movie.

In the Rio dusk, Puig set up for his visitor, for the umpteenth time, a small portable cinema, made of words and faint light. Perhaps it was even a pre-cinema, a re-creation thousands of kilometres away, eons later,  of festive summer barbecue nights on the outskirts of General Villegas:

I took from cinema my taste for pacing, the measuring out of intrigue and the handling of emotions. Now I realize that all that had to do with cinema but wasn’t invented by it. How did I arrive at that conclusion? I remembered that when I was little, out in the countryside, where I lived, barbecues that towards the end, with everyone drinking a lot, began to fill up with stories . . . The gauchos would tell them . . . There were some who specialized in ghost stories. And of course they’d never been to the cinema. But, how well they portioned out the story!!! People stayed until two in the morning, outside in the cold, listening and listening. They started bringing out ponchos and kept telling those stories. I adore a well-paced tale, forgetting myself. Getting completely absorbed by a story causes me tremendous pleasure. That’s what I learned from cinema, but cinema didn’t invent those values. I say values, for others they might not be valuable. For me, they are.

The town’s professional raconteurs who dazzled people with ghost stories by firelight did not just set up a sort of proto-cinema that impressed Puig as a boy and that he’d remember fifty years later. They reproduced (and Puig must have been aware of this as well) the scene we might call primordial, almost prehuman, the origin of all narrations, and maybe the very origin of what makes us human.

The cinematographic refuge, the protective cave made of words and light that Puig set up in his house in Rio, was usually much less abstract than during his conversation with Graciela Speranza. He had moved to Rio from New York in 1980 (as the fates of real estate would have it, he acquired the property from a Brazilian soap opera star who’d fallen on hard times), giving up the marvellous premieres and screenings of classics and the thousands of American cable television channels. But in exchange he gained video, just as it was starting to change the film landscape all over the world. In Rio, the video collection came to definitively replace the book collection, and Puig set out to create what his friends knew during his last years as “the cinito on Rua Aperana”: a miniature movie house, a minute and systematic reconstruction of his earliest nights at the cinema in General Villegas. In order to resuscitate it, Puig assembled both the technical infrastructure and the obligatory rituals of a shared ceremony with a few friends: the necessarily collective liturgy of storytelling around the fire, just like the one he established with his readers when he sat down to write.

Puig developed, installed, and perfected a real laboratory of movie cloning worthy of the most certifiable mad scientist. On March 19, 1981, he wrote to his family from the airport where he was awaiting the arrival of a Beta video recorder, which was being shipped from New York, as if it were his most beloved relative:

I’m in the airport to pick up la machine!!! Everything seems to be in order. I’m just waiting for the inspector to come back from lunch. Now we just need one more little paper with my signature and I can collect the package and ciao . . . What’s taking the inspector?! La machine’s arrival is so opportune, a series of subtitled French films is about to start and I am going to record them. By June this is going to be no holds barred, and with the chauffeur . . .

The letter is interrupted here: the inspector must have arrived and stamped the forms that would liberate the captive machine. I imagine Puig carrying it lovingly to Rua Aperana in a taxi, locking himself up with it as with a long-awaited lover. Just as, according to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Stendhal was able to summarize a whole night of love in a semicolon, the magic spell that would close a long-open circle fits into the three dots of that interrupted letter. In General Villegas, the cinema had brought to the heart of the dry and dusty Pampas the dream of the tropics as the symbol of all possible paradises. Once finally settled in paradise, Puig went to great efforts to restore the cinema of his early years: he could visit that redecorated childhood landscape at will, without depending on permission or showings or opening hours, invoking time and again, through its magic, the faces and exact words of its resident spirits. Dated the day after his first night of his idyll, home alone with his video recorder, the interrupted letter to his mother carries on:

Friday 20th

. . . Impossible to continue yesterday, everything terrific, la machine is now operating (. . . ) It seems unbelievable, to suddenly see the face of Hedy Lamarr appear right there in the room.

The video is a miracle worker.

It is likely that Manuel never returned to General Villegas as an adult. As he told Rosa Montero in 1988:

Look, there’s nothing I’m more curious about than my hometown . . . But I’d like to go back as a gaze without a body. Like when you watch a film. To be reduced to a gaze, be a pair of eyes, a pair of ears . . . Beyond pain’s reach. To go and see the town the way you go to the cinema, well . . . that’s the movie I most want to see.

Were those disembodied eyes able to travel through space and time—now as a beam of light shining through the shadows onto the face of that Hedy Lamarr, with whom Puig spent the first night of love in his Leblon cinito? Many years after escaping from that “bad western” thanks to the cinema, did he end up returning to it, paradoxically, by way of the cinema? I’ve often thought so, and almost felt the proverbial satisfaction of a hard-boiled detective when I came across an article written in 2003 by a close friend of Puig’s, Mexican diplomat Hugo Gutiérrez Vega. Vega recalls his visits to the cinito on Aperana, by then fully up and running, and the dedication that Puig wrote in his copy of Cae la noche tropical: “For Hugo and Lucinda, who visit me every evening in General Villegas and then go back home again, leaving Aperana empty. Rio, spring 1988.”

Puig stopped going out to the movies in Rio. I, on the other hand, went often from the moment I arrived. Among the things that made me feel that little by little I was making friends with the city (or the city with me) were its bookshops and movie theatres: all over the Zona Sul were screens showing an array of films comparable to those on offer in any European capital—if not better because it’s now difficult to find cinemas in Rome, for example, and movie theatres are closing down left and right from Madrid to Moscow. It was a pleasure, on my first nights there when the city was still vast and hostile (maybe only indifferent, actually, as much the foreigner might take that very indifference as disguised hostility), to seek solace and refuge in a movie theatre. I would check the listings in the newspaper, choose a title, approach an unknown cinema along the unknown streets of Botafogo or Copacabana or Leblon, discover with relief that the theatre did exist and that I wasn’t alone in the night or the only one there. A line of unknown but friendly people had also answered the call and were willing to share a couple of hours of their enviable Carioca routine with the movie (and, in some way, with me). Night hours and cruel anonymity were tempered by the signs of identity tacitly exchanged by those of us there, perfect strangers united all of a sudden by the tenuous thread of our interest in the scheduled movie and, once the showing was finished, by a shared memory of it.

The fraternity would disperse immediately at the exit, of course, and I very rarely exchanged a word with anyone. Couples, groups of friends, people on their own like me walked away without looking back or saying goodbye, but as I lit a cigarette and started walking home I somehow felt less alone and more fulfilled, as if coming home from a party among friends or a ceremony among equals. I suppose for believers it must be just as consoling to find a place of worship of their persuasion in an unfamiliar city and attend a service.

If not absolution or promise of salvation, going to a movie in a strange city has always given me, at least, the feeling of being granted a fragile residential permit, a letter of precarious but valuable citizenship for one who’s just arrived and has no other documents vouching for his right or need to be there and occupy those streets. Like visiting the bookshops, it’s a way of taking possession, admission to a circle that might not be secret but is somewhat more intimate—almost a safe-conduct to access the domestic dimension of a city not knowing or participating in the stories glimpsed behind the lit-up windows or in the shadows of doorways. Movies and books attenuate, even if only imaginarily, the sensation of irremediable foreignness.

One night all this was verified in a more literal way than I’d expected. In the newspaper listings, a cinema whose name I’ve forgotten but that I remember as respectable and standard as the name of any cinema in any city anywhere in the world—Metropolitan, Imperial—announced a recent French film I hadn’t seen and took as yet another sign of Rio’s recalcitrant francophilia, which had surprised me (and appealed to me, so unexpected, antiquated, and fervent as it was).

I wrote down the address. The cinema was in Flamengo, the chicest neighbourhood until the 1930s and 1940s, when the upper classes began their exodus to the south, colonizing first Copacabana and then Ipanema. It retained a sleepy, agreeable atmosphere, with large eclectic buildings that had wide dark entrances like ballrooms long fallen out of use. I arrived slightly before the announced time of the single showing that evening. But there was no cinema there: just one of those old front doors, and not even a particularly large or opulent one. The concierge’s desk, barely visible in the darkness on the other side of the iron and glass door, was empty. I read and reread the note taken from the newspaper, walked around the block a few times, asked two or three people, but they didn’t know of any movie theatre. It began to drizzle, and I ended up returning to the door in question, on the verge of going home. Just at that moment a middle-aged couple with the indefinable appearance of possible moviegoers arrived: they were walking quickly and it was almost time for the film to begin, but they didn’t seem as disconcerted as I was at not finding any sign of the Coliseum or Principal cinema where it should be showing. Without hesitation they rang one of the apartments listed beside the intercom, and while they waited for an answer I asked them if they were there to see the same film. They nodded and smiled, just as from the other end of the intercom someone buzzed open the door without asking who it was. I walked in with them and saw as I passed a tiny sign with the name of the cinema handwritten beside the bell.

We went up together silently in the old-fashioned elevator. I felt uncomfortable, amused, and vaguely apprehensive: we seemed like guests on our way to a dinner party who haven’t met yet and are not quite ready to launch into the introductions that transform strangers into fellow diners. At the end of the dim hallway, before the doorway of an apartment with the lights on, an elderly couple awaited us. They greeted my accidental escorts like old acquaintances, and said good evening to me with a smile in which I thought I saw a tinge of surprise. I felt like an intruder who goes undercover to sneak into a secret lodge, and for a moment I feared that one of our hosts was going to interrogate me or forbid me to enter.

But they invited us into what seemed to simply be their home. The front hall was not overly big; it had high ceilings with original mouldings and a coat stand where I was encouraged to leave my jacket. The other couple already knew the ritual: in one corner there was a little table with a bundle of blue tickets and a small metal box into which the woman smilingly put the money with which they paid for two tickets. The old parquet floor creaked, and from the other side of a wide wooden door came a murmur of conversation.

I, who’d headed out to a movie theatre, suddenly found myself in the living room of perfect strangers: a spacious room, but not too spacious, with two windows overlooking the street, their shutters closed. Our hosts had pushed the furniture against the walls, and at one end a roll-up screen was unfurled on its tripod. In the middle of the room they’d set up three or four rows of folding garden chairs, seats for twelve or fifteen people in total. Some were already sitting down, chatting; some stood beside a side table set with cookies, thermoses of coffee and tea, and plastic cups. Everyone appeared to know one another and seemed like they might be neighbours. I was by far the youngest person there. I nodded the way one greets people in a dentist’s office and received smiles and slightly curious glances in return.

A few more latecomers arrived, and the owners received them with an attitude of good hosts crossed with efficient box office clerks. I sat stiffly in one of the few empty seats: it was one thing to feel a sense of belonging to an anonymous fraternity of moviegoers, but quite another to feel that somewhat stifling awareness of being in someone’s home, invited to a party full of strangers with nobody to talk to. I barely dared to breathe the air, its complex and weary texture and smell not necessarily indicative of a lack of cleanliness but saturated with the nuances of very lived-in rooms.

To alleviate a wait that felt endless to me, and also to get to the bottom of “the mystery,” I asked if I could use the washroom. With an imperturbable smile the woman showed me the way. It was at the end of a hallway, past several closed doors. Deep down I was grateful they were closed: catching a glimpse of pots and pans or blankets and bedspreads would have been distressing. So would finding face cloths, razors, or toothbrushes in the bathroom, but in fact they were conspicuous by their absence. The bathroom was in fact immaculate, although the ancient tiles and huge faucets were unmistakably domestic. The shower curtain, that classic from so many horror movies, was pulled closed around the bathtub. I hesitated but didn’t end up peeking behind it: maybe piled up in the tub, apart from who knows what other mysteries, were the soaps and lotions prudently removed from the little shelf under the mirror.

I returned to the living room, forcing myself to think—since much to my regret I couldn’t manage to feel—that this was amusing and I had it coming. I had asked Rio to let me into its private life by way of the cinema, and now I found that the cinema had turned into a literal and not at all metaphoric private life, complete with creaking parquet floors, family photos, and dusty mouldings around the ceiling.

Everyone was seated, and the old man was improvising a little introductory speech while the woman was handing out a mimeographed page of credits. Such professional details, curiously, only sharpened the sensation of absolutely not being in a proper cinema. It almost seemed, rather, like a meeting of early Christians in the catacombs: there was something unmistakably liturgical in the handing out of the homemade leaflets, as if they were hymn sheets or psalms we all would recite.

The man concluded by inviting us to stay to discuss the film once it had finished. He went to the projector, and the woman sat down in a little chair against the wall, like a privileged acolyte or magician’s assistant who has now done all she can and confidently submits to the maestro’s powers. I was beginning to calculate the possibilities of a discreet escape when the lights went out.

A silence more silent than silence fell (everybody had already stopped talking and you couldn’t hear a fly), that inexhaustibly enjoyable second that precedes the first credits and the first note of the soundtrack, when the air turns silky and seems charged with electricity. I remember the words “For where two or three are gathered together in my name” appearing in my head.

And I noticed with a shiver how incredibly the miracle worked.

In the eternal magic moment of the lights going down and the air crackling and the screen filling with light as if pulling open some imaginary velvet curtains, that well-worn, little middle-class living room actually transformed into the Metropolitan or Excelsior cinema, a cinema that was all cinemas; and those strangers and I transformed into spectators, united by the provisional, consoling, firm bond that unites people in cinema seats all over the world for as long as the spell lasts.

I don’t remember anything about the film, except that Emmanuelle Béart was in it, and I’m not even completely sure of that. My uneasiness suddenly vanished, as did my urge to flee. I didn’t leave until the final credits had gone by, the lights had come back up, throats cleared, and debate begun. All smiles, the hosts saw me to the door and said goodbye, as if they had understood from the start the fragility of my faith and didn’t want to exert themselves in showing me any more miracles than the one they had no doubt I’d already experienced.

Nor did I have any doubt. I walked home through empty streets with the sensation of having been to the cinema more truly than ever, of having understood better than ever what the cinema consists of and the mysterious ways its ritual operates and how we take it for granted. And I also felt, mysteriously, better understoodby all of that: by the cinema, yes, but also by the city itself. Looking back over the distance of several years now, and in light of all that I lived through while I lived there, that night marked one of the milestones of admission to a superior or at least a more complex comprehension of Rio. Or perhaps I should say of our mutual recognition.

I kept that pamphlet for a long time, but as is so often the case, now that I look for it, I can’t find it. And the truth is that now I even have my doubts about the exact address in Flamengo. I never saw it in the newspaper listings again, and on my walks through that neighbourhood, years later, I found it very difficult, in daylight, to locate the exact doorway or find the little sign beside the intercom of those that most closely resembled the one I remember.

I would very much have liked, of course, to have been one of the secret guests invited to the cinito on Aperana, although I arrived in the city fifteen years too late, and I didn’t even know about it yet. But that night in the phantom cinema, in the Flamengo Odeon or Paramount or whatever it was called, has come to mind so many times and was the first thing I thought of when I read about Puig’s cinito. Thanks to that night, it’s almost as if I’d been there. I better understand that the private and wilful rereading of the entire history of cinema (which he turned into his personal history of cinema, and his own personal history) was just one part of what Puig was trying to do in his magical reconstruction of the past in his exile in Rio.

The other part—which perhaps interested him more and led him to set up his cine-club with its organized sessions and series, its secret fraternities of spectators, its rituals of admission and libations—was the collective experience. I am convinced: the cinito was the penlight, the path of light Puig used to pierce the darkness and go back in time to the provincial cinema of the General Villegas of his childhood, to jump from there to the dew-drenched nights around the campfire listening to stories, sensing the blurry silhouette (in the mists of time, I’m almost tempted to say) of an ineffable and distant collective past, to which only this ungraspable thread of light and words could connect him (and connect him to his listeners, his viewers, his readers).

But the weak beam of light that Puig shines in the darkness of the tropical night to fleetingly convoke the dream faces only had meaning if other eyes contemplated, shared, and understood the scene. Neither cinema nor writing works their sorcery in solitude. The magic revelation “to see, all of a sudden, the face of Hedy Lamarr appear right there in the room,” its daily repetition, only had meaning by making possible again the collective experience of those listening to ghost stories by firelight, the first setting of all stories, to which the filmic experience is heir and emblem. The particular charm of the Aperana cinito worked the miracle of recuperation and reconciliation with the past, yes, but it also pointed in a less private and even more miraculous direction: the exorcism of the irremediable nocturnal solitude of each and every one of the secret members momentarily united, in the darkness, by the little thread of light and voices of the never-ending narration.

This essay is from Stranded in Paradise, a work in progress about four writers (Manuel Puig, Elizabeth Bishop, Stefan Zweig, Rosa Chacel) exiled in Rio de Janeiro.

Javier Montes is the author of several novels and essays, most recently the novel La vida de hotel, translated into English as The Hotel Life. His work was included in Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Writers issue and has appeared in El PaísABCArtNewsThe Brooklyn Rail, and Letras Libres. His essay in this issue comes from a work in progress, Stranded in Paradise, about Rio de Janeiro and the experiences of four writers “exiled” there: Manuel Puig, Elizabeth Bishop, Stefan Zweig, and Rosa Chacel.

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