Hollywood as imaginary in the work of Horacio Quiroga and Ramon Gomez de la Serna.
In Quiroga's stories, the male spectators sit alone in the dark and enjoy specular access to the starlets on screen. There, they let their imaginations go, although the resulting geek fantasies are self-censored to Disney-like standards. Silent film's popularity relied greatly on the enduring gaze, and the new movie houses of the 1910s and '20s provided the perfect peeping redoubt for spectators to contemplate erotic images with anonymity and impunity. The camera lens took the moviegoer to private places and held images in tantalizing close-ups and freeze shots. In an earlier Gomez de la Serna novel, El incongruente (1922), a movie-viewing protagonist interacts with the characters on screen. Quiroga's filmic narrative likewise delights in such frame breaks, a strategy used later to more heralded effect in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
And yet, neither Quiroga nor Gomez de la Serna set eyes on the word's movie Mecca. Cinelandia's first English translator boasts in a prologue: "Ramon has never been in Hollywood. Not even in the U. S. A." (xii), a gleeful confirmation of the imaginary. Instead, the two authors' fictional remake of filmdom draws heavily from the gossip of fan magazines. The ironic, at times zany, aspect of Quiroga and Gomez de la Serna's work affirms the humorous mindset that critic Ortega y Gasset appreciates as emblematic of the age: "... el artista de ahora nos invita a que contcmpleruos un arte que es una broma, que es, esencialmente, la burla de si mismo. Porque en esto radica la comicidad de esta inspiracion" (86-87). These Modernist texts lampoon the world beyond them, but most of all they lampoon themselves. By "Modernist," I refer narrowly to a Western literary movement that reached its creative zenith during the 20s and 30s and characterizes itself with constant technical innovation and a grand interiorization. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane sum up the period as "The movement toward sophistication and mannerism, towards introversion, technical display, internal self-skepticism" (26). The greatest asset in that self-deprecation is the mix of high and low modes--elite literature with populist film, respectively--a mix that is simultaneously playful and earnest. I will now consider two such texts that derive comic inspiration from film: Quiroga's "Miss Dorothy Phillips, my wife" and Gomez de la Serna's Cinelandia.
"Miss Dorothy Phillips, mi esposa" (1919)
Quiroga's first movie story describes a diva-addled bureaucrat's dreamt perambulation through Hollywood's studios and fast-set parties: a kind of fantasizing aloud. The Argentine protagonist's ardent recounting of his California sojourn often slips into selfmocking, for he recognizes that his infatuations are ludicrous, "Yo pertenezco al grupo de los pobres diablos que salen noehe a noche del cinematrgrafo enamorados de una estrella" (436) The thirty-one-year-old Guillermo Grant evidently derives pleasure from putting his fatuous hobby on display. He confides:
Siendo como soy, se comprende muy bien que el advenimiento del cinematografo haya sido para mi el comienzo de una nueva era por la cual cuento las noehes sucesivas en que he salido mareado y palido del cine, porque he dejado mi corazon, con todas sus pulsaciones, en la pantalla que impregno por ires cuartos de hora el encanto de [Agnes] Brownie Vernon [1895-1948]. (437)
The story serves as an undisguised pretext to share reveries about the silent film starlets of the day and to analyze their merits within a fictional frame.
Grant heaps similar praise on Mildred Harris (1901-1944), Miriam Cooper (1891-1976), Marion Davies (1897-1961), Edith Roberts (1899-1935), Wanda Hawley (1895-1963) and Dorothy Phillips (1889-1980), his intended wife. These performers were at the peak of their stardom in 1921 when Quiroga brought "Miss Dorothy Phillips" out in a collection (Anaconda. Buenos Aires: Ageneia General de Libreria y Publicaciones). Several of the names, however, were stand-ins selected by Quiroga because the original starlets had become passe in the scant two years since the story's initial publication. (See the annotated Baccino/Lafforgue edition Todos los Cuentos for these and other changes.) The popular Harris had just married Charlie Chaplin. As for Dorothy Phillips--real name, Mary Strible---she had acted in seventy films by the time Quiroga wrote the story bearing her name. Her director/actor husband, Allen Holubar (1888-1923), played Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916). Quiroga was evidently so taken with this actress that he signed thirty odd movie reviews in the popular magazine Caras y caretas (December 6, 1919 through July 24, 1920) as "El esposo de D. Ph," a humbly eccentric gesture. However, the star's eventual decline in popularity caused critic Quiroga to express openly his concern in a 1920 Caras y caretas sub-column titled "La resurreccion de Dorothy Phillips":
La circunstancia de set Dorothy Phillips esposa del que escribe estas lineas, puede crear al cronista una situacion embarazosa. Pero tratara de salvarla lo mas humanamente posible, conforme a la imparcialidad que, a despecho de todo lazo familiar, se debe el cronista de esta seccion. (Artey lenguaje del cine 151)
Within the month, Quiroga ceased signing his name "The husband of Miss Dorothy Phillips," thus annulling his pseudonymous marriage to the fading diva.
Returning to the story centered on Phillips, although the protagonist Grant is hopelessly narcissistic and star-struck, his narration preserves a patina of verisimilitude during his long pilgrimage to Hollywood (erringly by way of New York, which with New Jersey in the 1910s, shared movie production honors with California). In Hollywood, he locates and woos Phillips, a less animated version of her bigger-than-life on-screen persona. Grant deals in adroit fashion with the improbability of that liaison. He indicates that Dolly has fallen in love with him despite his poverty and foreign status:
--!Zonzo! ... !Crees que no lo sabia!
--?Que?... ?Sabias que era pobre?
--!Mi vida! !Mi estrella! !Mi Dolly!
--Mi sudamericano ... (462, original ellipses)
However, the Argentine's encounter must remain forever anti-climactic because a final linkage to the movie character goes unconsummated. He weds the actress, not her acted self. The mundane is not transcended. In any case, the story concludes abruptly with this glib admission:
Pero esto [the foregoing Hollywood adventure] es un sueno. Punto pot punto, como acaba de contarlo, lo he sonado ... No me queda sino para el resto de ntis alias su profunda emocion, y el pobre paliativo de renutir a Dolly el relato--como lo hato en seguida--, con esta dedicatoria: "A la senora Dorothy Phillips, rogandole perdone las impeninencias de este sueno, muy dulce para el autor." (463)
By recounting a dream as though it were fact, Grant discredits himself as a reliable narrator, and the divide between real and imaginary is exposed. The reader now knows that the visit to North America and the subsequent courtship of Dolly are daydreaming--the last given information is assumed to be true and wipes out preceding versions. By default, then, the story's reality resides in the life of this Buenos Aires bureaucrat named Grant, who has twice backed out of marriage engagements and whose only romantic experiences occur in movie houses while gazing into the eyes of actresses, a "paraiso ideal, sonado, mentido" (438).
Critic Rodriguez Monegal, generally a Quiroga apologist, reacts negatively to "Miss Dorothy Phillips":
Refleja la obsesion de Quiroga por el cine y sobre todo por la imagen de las estrellas en la pantalla. Es flojisimo como cuento y repite, en prosa rioplatense, las mismas historietas improbables del eine mudo comercial de entonces. (196)
That stern assessment misses the crux, i.e., the tale is not "extremely weak"; rather, Grant's vapid recounting is weak. The greater story--which presupposes a higher narrative level and incorporates Grant's rambling--is successful for its metafictional cueing and reader engagement. From its fibbing title to its playful conclusion, "Miss Dorothy Phillips" can only be read as parody. More importantly, this first Quiroga movie story serves as a stepping-stone to the uninhibited genre mixing--film and literature--that the Uruguayan engineers in his succeeding three movie stories.
Although Quiroga enjoyed a short reign as mentor in Buenos Aires literary circles around 1920, the avant-garde soon nudged him out. In an Atlantida article, "Los intelectuales y el cine," Quiroga derides the fickleness of River Plate esthetes, "Pero el intelectual suele set un poquito advenedizo en cuestiones de arte. Una nueva escuela, un nuevo rumbo, una nueva tonteria pasatista, momentista, o futurista, esta mucho mils cerca de seducirle que de desagradarle" (Arte y lenguaje del cine 286). Quiroga's insertion here of the word "futurista" probably refers to the European vanguard, which sprang from the Futurism and Dadaism of the 1910s, and evolved into '20s Surrealism. Literarily, however, Quiroga may have been a better practitioner of these splinter movements than were his Buenos Aires counterparts. He embraced film's dynamism and kitsch, innovatively juxtaposing the low of popular cinema with the high of literature. The embedded film artifacts, presented with deft irony, serve his narrative as a perfect mirroring device.
Now, a look at Gomez de la Serna's novel Cinelandia. The action transpires in a composite of places, all of them quintessentially urban and modem:
El aspecto de Cinelandia, desde lejos, tenia algo de Constantinopla, mezclada de Tokio, con algo de Florencia y con bastante de Nueva York. No eran grandes pedazos de esas poblaciones los que se congregaban en su perimetro, pero si un barrio de cada clase. (49)
Despite this stated territorial amalgam, the overriding inspiration has to be Hollywood itself, for all the cinematographic icons are there:
studios, sets, stars, and stock supporting actors. In fact, the town seems to be an enormous honeycomb of elaborate facades, of burning buildings and train platforms, all Hollywood cliches. Indeed, the narrator frequently eulogizes Movieland as the "false city."
The denizens of Movieland emerge as archetypes, recognizable personae who cannot shake their cinematic destinies. Some examples are los hombres malos, los japoneses, los tenebrosos, la aburrida, and los negros, respectively. They perform by rote, conforming to established poses, gesticulations, and dialogue. The novel's internal reality always imitates cinema, not vice versa, as the narrator constantly reminds us. For example, "Venus de Plata tiro el sombrero sobre una butaca con aire cinematografico" (52) and "Los turistas iban veloces con paso de pelicula" (53). The narrator even utilizes meta-cinematic language to evoke movie spectatorship: "El cicerone, como letrero de pelicula, pasaba con rapidez por las calles ..." (54). The characters full-knowingly follow and acknowledge their Hollywoodesque scripts. As such, they combine the roles of movie actor and movie character. (1) The novel pokes fun both at cinema and the world it purports to represent. Cinematic and real life worlds are shown to contain true and false components; however, all is fragmented, mixed, mirrored, so that by the end, simulacrum and original have become essentially indistinct constructions.
Cinelandia brims with plots, subplots, and mere wisps of plots, or in Hollywood jargon, treatments. One of these loosely parallels Quiroga's "Miss Dorothy Phillips." A foreigner, Jacobo Estruk, travels to Movieland and falls for starlet Venus de Plata. An emotive courtship ensues comprised of sighs and frowns, and the witty repartee that later typifies the Talkies of the '30s and '40s. There, the similarity ends. Venus accidentally incinerates herself with acetylene--a denouement that echoes a different Quiroga story, "The Vampire," in which a starlet apparently ignites herself and her lover, who has coaxed her unwilling spirit from the screen by way of a special "N-1" ray. Cinelandia's Estruk does not die during his actress-girlfriend's fiery immolation; however, he cannot survive narrator disinterest and so slips unceremoniously from the novel's pages.
Such starts and half starts proliferate in Cinelandia, sometimes within a single chapter. The jumble of scenes mimics the "Take One! Take Two!" of filmmaking. The action halts frequently and abruptly, tumbling like snipped pieces of celluloid to the cutting room floor. Literary critic Roman Gubern pulls the thin masks from Cinelandia's characters, associating them with famous actors and personalities of the day, like Thomas Alva Edison, Sessue Hayakawa, Jackie Coogan, Lon Charley, Ben Turpin, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. In Cinelandia, an obese figure named Carlos With suffocates actress Carlota Bray, a reprise of a notorious 1921 Labor Day weekend debauch in San Francisco involving actress Virginia Rappe and Arbuckle. Rappe died of peritonitis four days later, and the comic actor Arbuckle was accused of "killing her with his weight, while savagely raping her" (Rosenberg). He was acquitted at a third trial fpllowing two hung juries.
Quiroga was also fascinated by the spillover effect, whereby unbridled lust and violence on the big screen transferred to the lives of its actors, often destroying them. In an article subsection "Las orgias del cine" (Arte y lenguaje del cine 220-21), Quiroga refers to three fatal Hollywood scandals embroiling Olive Thomas (1894-1920), William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922), and the aforementioned Arbuckle (1887-1933). These figures must have been well known to the public because Quiroga provides few details. According to Robert Klepper, "Thomas died at the height of her [film] career in Paris in September 1920. She had taken mercury while on her honeymoon with Jack Pickford. It is not known whether her demise was a result of accident or suicide" (165). As for Taylor, an up and coming director, he was found shot to death in his Hollywood home on February 2, 1922.
In "Miss Dorothy Phillips," Grant pals around with famous actors Lon Chaney and William Stowell. The latter customarily played opposite Dorothy Phillips, and he receives high praise in Quiroga's movie columns. Stowell met his end in a 1919 train wreck in the Congo while en route to a film shoot. Evidently, the star agonized at trackside for an entire day before expiring. For Stowell, it was, Quiroga notes ironically, "el filme decisiva y final." Another famous actor of the day (identified as Scott--no first name given) also met a tragic end, yet his image endured on the big screen. Quiroga adds:
Scott habia muerto ya, y alli estaba sin embargo ante nuestros ojos, en la pantalla, lleno de vida. Estas alucinaciones fotograficas, estos espectros cientificos tocan cuerdas muy hondas. ("William S. Stowell," Arte y lenguaje del cine 70)
As can be appreciated, Hollywood's on- and off-screen capers inflamed the prose imaginaries Cinelandia and "Miss Dorothy Phillips." Such counterpoint between film and literature exerts a mirroring effect. One medium plays off the other, revealing the fabricated status of each.
Such preoccupation with form typifies what Ortega y Gasser in 1925 categorizes as "la deshumanizacion del arte." Constant reminders of authorship, in concert with a denigration of plot, serve to self-announce the texts and to shout their narrative project, all consistent with a Modernist aesthetic of self-engrossment. Whereas innovative writers in Europe began taking up the Hollywood theme in their fiction, none, apparently, antedate Quiroga's "Miss Dorothy Phillips" in 1919. The European vanguard--like Quiroga--esteemed Hollywood, but not always for flattering reasons. Artists found themselves endeared to its camp, even banal, idiosyncrasies. In any case, Quiroga's interpolation of literature and film was largely ignored then and still goes unmentioned in Gubern's very recent Proyector de luna: la generacion del 27 y el cine, an almost encyclopedic review of film and the Spanish avant-garde. On the other hand, Gubern does credit non-Iberian writers Ehrenburg (Russia), Abril (Peru), and Cendrars (France), all of whom wrote Hollywood-based narrative either in Spanish or in Spanish translation.
Despite Quiroga's lack of cachet in the Buenos Aires vanguard, he followed a trajectory similar to that of Gomez de la Serna in Spain. Both were in-between authors who used film to bridge literary generations. Quiroga connected late modernismo (epitomized by the fantastic tales of Leopoldo Lugones) to a stark existential realism that parodies itself when admixed with popular cinema. Meanwhile, Gomez de la Serna passed the baton between Spain's Generations of '14 (whose maximum exponent was Ortega y Gasser) and" '27 (the vanguard poets--Alberti, Cernuda, Garcia Lorca) through tertulias, articles, and literary production that celebrated film. Gomez de la Serna's pithy satires won him a cult following among the European vanguard, so much so that he simply signed his name, RAMON, all uppercase, and that was identification enough. The Spaniard's vanguard repercussions do not end there, but extend to his personal imprint on the River Plate. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he took up permanent residence in Buenos Aires, where he continued to publish until his death in 1963.
Almost from its inception, film manifests itself as a universal phenomenon, a transnational outbreak that, while emanating largely from Hollywood, defies regional hegemony. A localized spectator response sets in, embracing and embellishing the foreign imaginary. During the vanguard years of the 1910s and '20s, Horacio Quiroga and Ramon Gomez de la Serna ingeniously assimilated filmic scenarios, artifacts, and strategies into literary frames. Parodic works such as "Miss Dorothy Phillips, mi esposa" and Cinelandia playfully subvert high/low binaries and revel in literamre's invented status. More significantly, such self-conscious narrative insinuates that everyday reality could be similarly fabricated.
Bradbury, Malcolm and McFarlane, James. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930. London: Penguin, 1991.
Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay of the Organization of Experience. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986.
Gomez de la Serna, Ramon. Cinelandia y otras novelas (1923-1928). Obras Completas. Carolyn Richmond, prologue. Vol. 10, Novelismo 2. Barcelona: Circulo de Lectores, 1997.
--. Movieland. Angel Floras, tr. New York: Macaulay, 1930.
Gubern, Roman. Proyector de luna: La generacion del 27 y el eine. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1999.
Klepper, Robert. Silent Films, 1877-1996: A Critical Guide to 646 Movies. North Carolina and London: McFarland, 1999.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose. La deshumanizacion del arte y otros ensayos de estetica. Valeriano Bozal, introd. Madrid: Coleccion Austral, 1997.
Quiroga, Horacio. "Miss Dorothy Phillips, mi esposa." Todos los cuentos. Edicion critica de Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon and Jorge Lafforgue. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1993. 43664. (First published in La novela del dia. Buenos Aires: February 14, 1919. Year 1, No. 12. 26180.)
--. "La resurreccion de Dorothy Phillips." Caras y caretas. Buenos Aires: June 26, 1920. No. 1134.
--. Horacio Quiroga: Arte y lenguaje del cine. Jorge Lafforgue, "Advertencia." Carlos Damaso Martinez, "Estudio preliminar." Buenos Aires: Losada, 1997.
--. "El vampiro." Horacio Quiroga: Todos los cuentos. 717-32. (First published in La Nacion. Buenos Aires: September 11, 1927, 8-10.)
Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. El desterrodo: Vida y obra de Horacio Quiroga. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1968.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The 'Fatty' Arbuckle Scandal." December 16, 2005, http:history1900s.about.com/library/weekly//aa021800a.htm.
DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES
UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA
(1) Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis, specifically his chapter "The Theatrical Frame," distinguishes between "personal identity" and "specialized function." He delineates theatergoer and onlooker, stage actor and staged character. Goffman's topology would seem to work equally well with cinema.
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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