Monday, December 15, 2008

We're all at fault

By Alejandra Espasande Bouza

On Wednesday, December 26th of 2001, a day most American kids spent playing with their toys, Leslie Zepeda, the eleven-year-old daughter of Julia and Benito, was no exception. Earlier that day, she had gone to visit her neighboring friend Kenia Salinas, bringing with her the large, and beautiful, blonde doll she had gotten for Christmas.

Soon after, Kenia's mother, Nelida Avellaneda, and a friend, Jose Aguilar, took the girls to the mall where they would spend most of the evening. It was at around eight-thirty p.m., when about to be dropped off at her house, that Leslie remembered her doll. She had left it at Kenia's house. Not planning to let a day pass without the gift she had grown so attached to, Leslie requested to go back to pick it up. Since both lived a few houses apart it was just a matter of turning around and backing into the driveway.

Sadly the doll never got to her. Right after getting to the driveway a shoot-out between alleged gang members ensued in front of the house, causing a stray bullet to wound Kenia, and another to end Leslie's life.

On Saturday, December 29th, at Hawthorne's Saint Joseph Catholic Church, Julia and Benito Zepeda gave their final farewell to Leslie with a funeral Mass at the end of which the casket received the blessing of the priest. Walking right behind, one of her sisters followed the somber procession holding Leslie's doll.

There's not much we can say or do to appease the pain of the Zepeda family, because there's absolutely nothing we can do or say to bring their daughter back to life. We have two choices: We can add Leslie's story to our memories of tragic events, and go "back to normal," or we can take action to prevent further happenings like this one to repeat.

In Hawthorne, Leslie's death brought about some action on the part of a group of her neighbors that came together to form the Eucalyptus Neighborhood Association -- an effort to control the level of delinquency in the area, and plans to honor her memory culminated in a Memorial Fund that carries her name. If any positive came out of this tragedy it was the pulling together of the community and its city officials. But organizations and fundraisings are not enough of a solution.

There are an overwhelming series of social problems that we have yet to confront.
If we come to think of the person that shot the gun, we have to consider that this person has also grown up under our social system and that somewhere and somehow society failed. As a society we failed to offer Leslie the right to a full and blooming life, and conversely, we failed to prevent another life from developing into a host of violence that only serves to destroy, and cause tragedy to families like the Zepeda's.

Can we look at our children and know which ones will be the victims and which the victimizers. Of course we can't. But how can we prevent them from going into the wrong paths. Yes, we have the schools with all their special programs but what can we do if some of our children have to go back home to an environment plagued with poverty, crime, violence, and drugs.

Why do we as a city have to wait for this irreversible tragedy to bring light to an issue that is the very cancer of our society? Why live in denial? Why let it drag on and on? Why ignore the severity of the consequences of adapting, and accepting as normal, the violence that surrounds our everyday life?

When I was growing up I had respect and faith in the adult world. I thought they had the answers to everything. The day I attended Leslie's funeral mass I was reminded of the contrary.

What is left to say but the facts: A young and beautiful girl of eleven, from Hawthorne Intermediate, lost her life to the war that we have not been able to win -- the war on crime. And whose fault is it? Ours only.

I would like to finish this article with the childlike ideal I once had -- that there's hope for change -- and that we, as a city, have the right leaders and citizens to make it happen.

Post Script:
On Friday, December 13, 2002, twenty-four year old Hawthorne resident Juan Baeza, was charged with the murder of Leslie in what was considered an attack meant to harm a member of a rival gang who lived right across Kenia's residence.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Manuel Puig and his Kiss of the Spider Woman

By Alejandra Espasande Bouza

Hector Babenco's The Kiss of the Spider Woman was recently released in Blue-ray and DVD for all to enjoy, hopefully this release will shed light upon the life of Manuel Puig (1932-1990) author of the novel that inspired the film.

The film The Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on the novel published by Manuel Puig in 1976, and adapted to the screen in 1985, revolves around the relationship of two prison inmates who share a cell in the sinister humidity of an undisclosed Latin-American country.

Valentin Arregui Paz, interpreted by the late Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia (1940-1994), is a leftist revolutionary obsessed with justice and the woman he loves. Luis Alberto Molina, played by American actor William Hurt, is a fragile homosexual who has been imprisoned for pederasty, and whose only desire is to reunite with his sick mother.

In spite of their striking differences, Molina has no problem in asserting his "feminine role" with confidence by considering himself a "normal woman," only capable of loving men. In contrast, Valentin struggles with an ideology that keeps him from accepting his devotion for an upper class woman. With time, Valentin opens up to Molina by allowing him to care for his wounds, and admitting his fear of revolutionary martyrdom by expressing his desire to have a “normal life.”

During the night, when the lights are turned-off, Molina makes use of his repertoire to recount old film plots. His visual memory, and his attention to detail make his narratives ever more palpable for a sick and bitter Valentin. From a thriller set in a Nazi occupied Germany, to the terror of a Zombie island, or the heat of a tropical night, Molina succeeds in drawing Valentin into his fantasy world. Every film tale, every anecdote, every word, slowly penetrates the remoteness of Valentin, who eventually succumbs to the workings of Molina, the "spider woman."

In one of the most defining moments, Molina sings a Mario Clavell bolero, titled My Letter, that summons what is going to became the core of the inmates relationship:

"Querido, vuelvo otra vez a conversar contigo. La noche trae un silencio que me invita a hablarte. Y pienso, si tu también estarás recordando, cariño...los sueños tristes de este amor extraño." Mi carta, Mario Clavel

"Dear, I come back, yet once again. The night brings an inviting silence for conversation. And I wonder... if you also remember the sad dreams of this strange love."

Unlike the collaboration of filmmaker Barbet Schroeder and author Fernando Vallejo in the literary adaptation of Our Lady of the Assassins, or the more recent collaboration of director Eloy de la Iglesia and author Eduardo Medicutti in The Bulgarian Lovers, there never existed a collaboration between The Kiss of the Spider Woman's director Hector Babenco and Manuel Puig.

Though the end result caused major distress upon the author, who never agreed with the changes of screenwriter Leonard Schrader, the film managed to gain an Oscar nomination for best adaptation. Another criticism of Puig fell upon the casting of William Hurt. The author did not agree with the choice, and never approved of the performance, which he considered shallow, but a performance that gained the actor an Oscar. In spite of Puig's disagreement, Hurt delivered a heart-wrenching final scene not to be forgotten in the history of contemporary cinema.

Excerpt of interview with Manuel Puig.

Could it be that there was too much of Puig in the character of Molina to let just anyone take a hold of it? Regarding the closeness of an author to a special character, French novelist Andre Guide, pioneer of "homosexual" literature, once expressed "How many buds we bear in us that will never blossom save in our books!" If Manuel Puig's passion for nostalgic boleros and classic cinema was the bud that sprang through Molina's persona, his political stand against dictatorial governments, cause of his exile, was also reflected in the persona of Valentin.

In an interview with Jorgelina Corbatta, following the 1979 Congress of Hispanic-American Writers in Medellin (Colombia), Puig was asked about the role the reader played in his literary work. His response was "Whenever I write, I'm always thinking of the reader. I write for somebody who has my own limitations. My reader has a certain difficulty with concentrating, which in my case comes from being a film viewer. That's why I don't request any special efforts in the act of reading."

For those interested in discovering the genius of this author here is a list of his novels:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Manolo Alonso: A Cuban cinematic pioneer

Film still from "Casta de Roble / Oak's Caste" (1954)

On the ocassion of an upcoming lecture, scheduled for October the 25th, about the legacy of Cuban film pioneer Manolo Alonso I'm re-publishing the following article writen in 2002.

“With tears in my eyes Manolo, I send you a message. Back to the era in which we met, many generations have passed, and we have assimilated those generations. Because you, the man, have elaborated interesting projects that will culminate in posterity, and because of it, I congratulate you, admire you, and appreciate you”

Actor Ernesto de Gali / Glendale, CA

Manolo Alonso, pioneer of Cuban Cinema and Television, was born on August 23, 1912, in the city of Havana, Cuba, from the union of Spanish immigrants, Maria Garcia and Jesus Alonso. Manolo's formative years developed in the Salesian School of La Vibora, followed by his entry, in the prestigious San Alejandro Academy of Arts, enrolling in the drawing department. His talent landed him work in the field of comic strips, where he created for Sergio Carbo’s La Semana magazine. At the same time, Manolo starts working as a ticket holder for the theater Campoamor, a position that later gained him the title of theater administrator for the Campoamor, Alcazar, Fausto, El Encanto theaters.

Manolo teamed up with Nico Lursen, and Lucio Carranza, to produce the first Cuban animated sound film, inspired by one of his comic strips, published for the newspaper El Pais Grafico. The two minute project, filmed in black and white on 35 mm film, was titled Napoleon: The Pharaoh of Misunderstandings (1937), produced the same year that Ernesto Caparros directed The Red Snake, the first Cuban feature-length sound film.

In 1938, at the age of 26, Manolo made history once again with the founding of Cuba's first newsreel production company, the RHC Cadena Azul-Noticiero Nacional, followed by the addition of Noticiario America-El Pais and The Royal News.

Financed in part by Cerveza La Polar, Manolo started the production of 52 annual comic sketches, to be played with the newsreels, introducing the characters of Chicharito and Sopeira, best known as Alberto Garrido and Federico Piñero, Cuba's funniest comedians. Two Cubans at War, Things I Left in Cuba, Funeral Mouse, Gallic Garrido, What Kids are These! and Chicharito for Mayor, represent the quality and dynamic of sketch production that took place in the 40's.

In 1943, he directed I Am Hitler, a comedy which mocked the German leader, written by Castor Vispo and starring Adolfo Otero, Minin Bujones, and Rolando Ochoa, and the debut of young actor, Rosendo Rosell. In 1950, with the arrival of television, Manolo follows the lead of Cuban TV icon Gaspar Pumarejo, by producing a sketch of Chicharito and Sopeira for Channel 4 Union-Radio-Television, starring the famous comedians Heda Bejar and Rosendo Rosell.

Manolo Alonso between the President of Cuba and actors Cesar Romero and Tyrone Power

In 1950, he directed the film 7 Timely Deaths, produced with an array Cuba’s best actors: Juan Jose Martinez Casado, Alejandro Lugo, Raquel Revuelta, Ernesto de Gali, Rosendo Rosell, Maritza Rosales, Adolfo Otero, Gaspar de Santelices and Manolo Coego. This was a new film genre: the Cuban-Thriller, a mix of mystery, with comedy and music, played to the rhythm of Osvaldo Farres? compositions.

In 1953, Alonso directed Oaks’ Caste, a rural drama written by Alvaro de Villa, scored by musical director Feliz Guerrero, and photographed by Spanish cameraman Alfredo Fraile. The film, performed by Xonia Benguria, Angel Espasande, Mexican film star David Silva, Santiago Rios, Ricardo Dantes and Antonia Valdes, marked Alonso’s entry in the history books as the best Cuban filmmaker of the 50’s. By the age of 41 he had already pioneered Cuban news, films and television.

Manolo Alonso at Noticiero Nacional

William Rebustillos, entertainment journalist for Fuste's Show magazine, wrote a column, dated May of '52, depicting the director's pioneering vision, not to be "the dream of a romantic poet," but "a reality.” Rebustillos comment was formulated as a direct attack against the lack of governmental support for the development of Cuban Cinema. "Each government that has taken public office invariably has promised Manolo Alonso, lead supporter of Cuban Cinema, its outmost collaboration, then, the days go by, and the purposes of the executive focus on the political currents, which by turn, absorb it all.

"In his search for support, Manolo found in President Pio Socarras a leader that understood the importance of newsreels. With Fulgencio Batista, part of the National Lottery was set aside to finance Manolo's efforts, culminating in the construction of the Biltmore Studios, later renamed, the Estudios Nacionales, a copy of Mexico's Churubusco Studios. Finally, a law was passed to create The National Institute for the Funding of the Cuban film Industry.

His next film project, We Are, was to have the participation of actress Xonia Benguria, and comedian, Guillermo Alvarez Guedes. It was to be the first Cuban color film, developed in Alonso’s newly formed Color Lab (Noti-Color), if it hadn't been for the change in politics that resulted in the confiscation of Alonso’s Estudios Nacionales, which in turn became the Animation Department for the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos).

In 1960, Alonso joined the masses of Cubans that went into exile, marching to Miami with the entrepreneurial spirit that was to guide him in 1963 to New York. Next to Victor del Corral and Rosendo Rosell, Alonso started representing Latino artists and organizing variety shows that took place in the Lincoln Center. The shows were an intermix of exiled artists with International stars, including, Celia Cruz, Rolando La Serie, Rafael, Sara Montiel, Pedro Vargas and Tito Puente.

With his brother, cameraman Bebo Alonso, Manolo produces The Cuba of Yesterday, a film, made up by newsreels, that documents the high standards of life, and progress of Cuba’s pre-Revolutionary era. At the same time, Manolo started working with Rene Anselmo in WNJU TV Channel 47, where he was to make history in the elaboration of the future of Spanish Media Television in the United States.

Time passed, and the reality of his exile condition made itself present with the arrival of 7 Timely Deaths to the New York screens, as a representative of the Cuban government, using the confiscated film for financial gain. In volume II of Life & Miracles of the Cuban Farandula, actor Rosendo Rosell, now a established writer, records the director’s discussions with the situation. "My property title for 7 Timely Deaths is not only registered, but it is tattooed on the memory of the Cuban people. Recently, with my consent, it was exhibited in the French Festival Des 3 Continents, and now, without it, Castro, through Joseph Papp, presents it in New York. Actually, I don’t know whether I feel more hurt, with the confiscation I suffered, than with having to witness how here, in New York, Castro exhibits my film, mixing my name with his film gang.

”This month one of those pioneers celebrated nine decades of dreams and achievements. In the name of the many that watched his films, in the Cuba of Yesterday, or in the exile of some remote post, we congratulate this glory of our Golden Cuban Cinema Era, and tell him, !Gracias Maestro!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lupita Tovar: Mexican film legend turns ninety-eight.

By Alejandra Espasande Bouza

"Y digo yo, bueno, lo que nunca me esperaba yo. En primer lugar yo nunca pense en ser actriz y con un padre que teniamos tan estricto y nunca ibamos al cine. Usted se imagina, de repente alguien me ve en la escuela y me hacen la prueba y de la prueba vino todo esto"

"I never considered becoming an actress with such a strict father. We never went to the movies. Then, out of a sudden, somebody spots me at school, I do a screen test and from there it all began". 

~Interview w/ Lupita Tovar (2007)~

Lupita Tovar daughter of Maria Sullivan and Egidio Tovar was born in Oaxaca (Mexico) on July 27, 1910, a year that witnessed the downfall of President Porfirio Díaz and the birth of the revolution.

Her film career began to shape in 1928 when Tovar auditioned for a contest, organized by El Universal Ilustrado newspaper. The judge was none other than filmmaker Robert Flaherty who chose her the winner of a contract with Fox film studios. In November of that same year, Tovar arrived in Hollywood accompanied by her grandmother Lucy Slocum Sullivan.

Following bit parts in three films directed in 1929, The veiled woman, King of the Khyber Rifles and The Cock Eyed World, Tovar joined Universal studios. The transition from silent films to "talkies" had started and Hollywood - in an effort to retain foreign audiences- began producing different language film versions of a same film.

It was during this period that Tovar was assigned the starring role of La Voluntad del Muerto (1930), Spanish film version of Universal's The Cat Creeps (1930). In December of 1930, Tovar returned to Mexico for the premiere of the film. Images of her arrival illustrate the excitement of the fans and the satisfaction of the young starlet who had met the expectations of her nation. During her stay Tovar had an important meeting with Carlos Noriega Hope and producer Juan de la Cruz Alarcón. Noriega Hope, editor of El Universal Ilustrado, represented an important group of film critics that scrutinized what they considered the often deplorable results of Hollywood Spanish films, productions that congregated under one film actors from different regions of Latin America and Spain, whose accents proved unnerving for the Mexican audiences. Juan de la Cruz Alarcón was a successful businessman who had fought in the revolution and who had turned his attention to the distribution and exhibition of films.

Noriega Hope and Alarcón had come with an offer, the starring role in a film that was to be the first sound film made in Mexico. The film was to be based in Santa, a novel previously adapted to the screen in 1918 by Luis G. Peredo. A meeting was arranged to introduce Tovar to the author, Federico Gamboa, who in turn introduced the actress to Emerenciana, the old lady whose life story had served as the basis for the novel. The event was documented by Noriega Hope in an article: "I remember her temper [Emerenciana's] when accusing Gamboa of portraying her as a bad woman. And Federico, a gentleman at heart, smiled and took some photographs with Emerenciana and Lupita."

Tovar returned to Hollywood and the plans of filming Santa were left in the hands of Juan de la Cruz Alarcón. At first he tried pitching the film to US producers, but none were interested in the project, in consequence Alarcón amassed the backing of local colleagues and founded the Compañia Nacional Productora de Películas in collaboration with Gustavo Saenz de Sicilia, Felipe Mier, Jack Epstein and Eduardo de la Parra, among others. The film adaptation of Santa was commissioned to Carlos Noriega Hope.

Alarcón hired talent from Hollywood that included Mexican actors Lupita Tovar and Ernesto Guillen (aka Donald Reed), another actor, Antonio Moreno, a native of Spain with a consolidated career in Hollywood, was assigned the direction of the film and Alex Phillips, a native of Canada, was in charge of the cinematography.

The most crucial element for the making of Santa – the sound film recording – was assigned to two very unlikely characters. During a trip to rent a sound recording system, Alarcón found his budget unable to meet the pricy demands of the Hollywood companies and was preparing to depart when he was met at Burbank airport by two young Mexican brothers. Joselito and Roberto Rodríguez explained to Alarcón the capabilities of their invention, the Rodriguez Bros. Sound Recording system. Skeptical, Alarcón promised a future meeting to test the equipment. The brothers explained that their system was lightweight and that their conversation had been recorded all throughout. The sound test was shipped to Mexico and the brothers got the job.

The film depicts the story of Santa (Lupita Tovar) a naive girl who is seducedand then abandoned by a soldier (Ernesto Guillen). The misstep lands her out of her house and into a brothel where Santa is met by the character of Hipolito (Carlos Orellana), a blind pianist who expresses his love through the performance of the film's theme song composed by Agustin Lara.

Excerpt of Agustin Lara performing "Santa".

"In the eternal night of my despair. You've been the star that brightens up my sky. And I've imagined your rare beauty which has illuminated my darkness."

"En la eterna noche de mi desconsuelo tu has sido la estrella que alumbra mi cielo. Y yo he adivinado tu rara hermosura que ha iluminado toda mi negrura."

Santa premiered in Los Angeles at the California Theater, on May 20th of 1932. The event gathered the likes of Jose Mojica, Luana Alcañiz, Mona Maris, Ernesto Vilches, Jose Crespo, Mimi Aguglia, Ramon Pereda, Adriana Lamar, Barry Norton, Conchita Ballesteros, actors who had come the world over to join the Hollywood "Hispanic" film productions, and who had witnessed in Santa the promise of an emerging Spanish language film industry.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

19 years in Los Angeles!

On July 10th 1989 I first set foot on US soil: to be precise, nineteen years ago.
I arrived in the States from Madrid. A quick, extremely humid, night in Miami was followed by a morning trip to the airport where I was to embark with my family to our final destination, Los Angeles.

After so many years I have maintained the fresh perspective of a tourist living in a city that never fails to surprise me. And thus the idea, what a better subject to blog about than the experience of living in Los Angeles, its places and people.