Juan Guzmán, Peatones en el cruce de las calles 5 de Mayo y San Juan de Letrán, 1943 (Fundación Televisa)

Summer Readings & Screenings

‘A Visit to Don Otavio’ & ‘Redes’

In this installment of our summer conversation, we chat about Sybille Bedford’s 1953 travel memoir A Visit to Don Otavio and Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s 1936 film Redes. Please feel free to join the conversation on Twitter.

For our next and last installment, we’ll be discussing two works of noir from 1977: Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel Fatale and Wim Wenders’s film The American Friend. See our previous discussion, on Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work (1995) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) here.

Griffin,

No matter what T. S. Eliot claims, April is not the cruelest month. It’s August—torpid, muggy, school-is-almost-here, summer-is-almost-over August.

What a pleasure at this time of year, then, to read Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (1953). It’s a delightful book, crisp and tasty like the claret Bedford longs for but can’t convince her Mexican host, the titular Don Otavio, to break out when visiting his estate. The book begins in New York City, in the summer, in a cosmopolitan tone: “The upper part of Grand Central Station is large and splendid like the Baths of Caracalla.” And it ends in Mexico, by the shores of Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, at the villa of Don Otavio,—a kindly, courteous man Bedford deems “the last relic of Mexican feudalism.” In between, Bedford travels with her companion, an American woman dubbed E., from mountain to plain, from city to countryside. She transfigures the ungodly heat and wild sprawl of Mexico into the coolness of continental style, a style whose polished, Apollonian surface and anarchic, Dionysian core might be called absurdist classicism.

In the mid-1940s, the cosmopolitan Bedford—German-born, Italy-, France-, and England-bred—had been staying in the United States for a few years. Before returning to England, she writes, she “had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history and as little present history as possible.” Bedford chose Peru, but couldn’t afford it. She then decided upon Uruguay, but the necessary freighter never showed up. She ended up choosing Mexico as if by accident, and A Visit to Don Otavio is the result.

There ends up being an interesting fit between writer and country. Bedford’s German aristocratic father was Catholic and her British-born mother was partly Jewish, and she becomes interested in Mexico’s syncretic brand of Catholicism. Bedford knew privilege (that aristocratic father), but she also knew economic hardship (the term “genteel poverty” could have been invented to describe her father’s later life), and she finds both, in complicated and fascinating mixture, in Mexico. (Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s 1936 film Redes, which we watched this week, offers a very different vision of Mexican poverty.)

A travel writer lives or dies by her sentences. It’s not the experience we care about, but the aesthetic rendering of these events—their syntactical and rhythmic shaping.

A travel writer lives or dies by her sentences. It’s not the experience we care about. I don’t read to find out what Bedford saw in Mexico City or what she did at Lake Pátzcuaro but to discover her aesthetic rendering of these events—their syntactical and rhythmic shaping. And we could spend this entire exchange just marveling at Bedford’s perfect sentences. Like this passage about how air-conditioning feels: “The bar was air-cooled. Which means that first one feels cool, then one feels cold, then one begins to shiver. Then one feels warm again and rather clammy; then the air begins to taste of steel knives, one’s ears begin to hum, it becomes hard to breathe, then one breaks into a cold sweat and then it is time to leave.” Or this condensed character sketch, where you can see why Bedford was as exquisite a novelist as she was a travel writer: “Doña Anna met us with the kind of zest that produces the same instant animation as the first tumbler of neat vodka, and that later, if kept up, palls, flattens and oppresses.”

This isn’t a book about Mexico but about the Mexico encountered by a certain kind of privileged traveler: incredibly refined, incredibly European. Bedford is both attracted to, and put off by, Mexico’s difference from her own world. Sometimes she comes across as stuffy, like when she’s on a bus in rural Mexico and complains about the sow and live turkey hen and dead fish that are her travelling companions. (No one made her board that bus!) At other times, she uncomfortably exoticizes Mexico: “Squalor is transmogrified into the fantastic…. Smells of goat and garlic, smells of acetylene and charcoal, and the sickening smell of tequila.” Bedford’s treatment of Mexican history can be sloppy. She doesn’t even bother to spell the name of her host correctly: it should be Don Octavio, not Don Otavio.

This book is a far, far cry from Redes. That film is documentary in its style and passionate in its politics. A Visit to Don Otavio is always cool, frequently fanciful; Bedford described it to friend and fellow travel-writer Bruce Chatwin as “light and poetic,” “a novel” rather than a work of reportage. But again, I don’t go to travel writing for accuracy. I go for sensibility, and Bedford’s intelligence and wit redeem everything for me. She doesn’t always understand Mexico, and she frequently doesn’t like it—the heat, the endless train delays, the bureaucratic inefficiencies—but she ends up being charmed by it, and her language and mind charmed me as well.

Were you as charmed as I was, Griffin? Did Bedford make you want to sip some rosé (“a shining, limpid wine”) and then light out for some adventure?

***

Tony,

As it happens, I’ve just returned from a short summer adventure of my own—traveling up to the cool, jagged coast of Maine, then back to the oppressive, unnatural heat of New York City (which Bedford herself bemoans at length). My hedonistic holiday diet (pizza, fries, handcrafted donuts) mirrored Bedford’s (“tortillas, rolls, buns, sweet bread and cake”), and regular stomach aches (and a few extra pounds) brought to mind that key idea from Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work—the “corrigibility of experience,” that is, the capacity for self-correction!

Bedford is nothing if not open—corrigible, we might say—to the range of experiences offered by her travels through Mexico.

And Bedford is nothing if not open—corrigible, we might say—to the range of experiences offered by her travels through Mexico. I was indeed charmed by the adventurous spirit of her writing; whenever her companion E. would rather stay in and read from the comfort (or, more frequently, discomfort) of their hotel, Bedford always insists on venturing outside, throwing herself with almost euphoric abandon into the sights and sounds of her host country.

And it’s not just her detailed descriptions of sensory experiences, as razor-sharp as an Old Master painting, that moved me. I also loved the sincerity of her quest to understand ever more deeply the roots of Mexican culture. Yes, her effete continental tone, alongside her aristocratic prejudices, grate at times. And she frequently misinterprets what she sees (for instance, she is put off by the modernism of Diego Rivera’s famous murals of the Mexican Revolution at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City). But she always attempts to correct her misunderstandings with further reading (including the letters of Cortes and the memoirs of Madame Calderón de la Barca), deeper thinking (through genial conversation), and of course, extensive sightseeing. The result is a fascinating, encyclopedic set of discussions about everything from the “perfection” of Mexican geography and the “divinity” of its weather patterns, to the fear-inducing power of Zapotec architecture, to the socioeconomics of Mexican banditry (the latter reflection occasioned by a pair of stolen suitcases from Bedford and E.’s train).

Despite Bedford’s elitist pretensions, she does engage in a good deal of critical self-reflection, using Mexican history as a lens for examining her own class privilege. For instance, the chapter on President Benito Juárez’s 1867 execution of Emperor Maximilian I (Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s younger brother, installed as the head of Mexico in 1863) reads like one of Machiavelli’s anecdotes from The Prince. Coming late in the book, it’s exciting enough in its own right, both as a historical dramatization and an analysis of how power works. But it’s also a poignant way for Bedford to acknowledge the moral and political failings of the aristocracy—Maximilian, like Bedford herself, suffers from the fact that his upbringing and worldview no longer has a purchase on, or a purpose in, the modern world.

Still from the film ‘Redes’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

What a contrast with Redes, the 1936 “docu-fiction” film in which exploited fishermen on the Gulf Coast of Mexico band together and rise up against their capitalist overlords! Produced with the backing of the progressive, post-revolutionary Mexican government, then keen on raising class consciousness among the country’s poor, the experimental film constitutes a rare collaboration between two very different artistic sensibilities: the pioneering American photographer Paul Strand, and the Austrian-born director Fred Zinnemann (another director, Emilio Gómez Muriel, only became involved later in the project). Made under difficult filming conditions and starring non-professional actors, Redes almost seems like two separate films. One is a poetic, ponderous documentary featuring beautiful shots of sandy, sun-soaked beaches and rolling waves, with dignified close-ups of ordinary, working-class Mexicans; the other, a tense drama full of thrilling intrigue and action (there’s a fantastic, fast-paced scene where a team of fishermen brings in a huge catch). In its visual style, then, Redes shows the same tension between order and chaos, calmness and frenzy, that we detect in Beford’s view of Mexico. 

But if Redes and A Visit to Don Otavio show similar styles, they take diametrically opposite perspectives. As a tourist, Bedford is admittedly, as you say, “cool,” detached, above the fray of Mexico’s inhabitants. There’s no such detachment in Redes: from the very first shots, where we witness the fisherman Miro’s scant catch (quickly followed by his daughter’s death, which results from his inability to pay for her medicine), the film passionately embraces the humble viewpoint of its subjects. The plot is simple—after his daughter’s death, Miro attempts to organize his fellow workers against the exploitative local merchants (there’s even a mustachioed, cigar-smoking fat-cat, played by a professional actor) who control the means of production—the redes, or fishing nets, of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the ending, but one montage sequence towards the middle of Redes features one of the most moving (and illuminating) visualizations of Marx’s theory of surplus value I’ve ever seen on film. Physical human labor, amplified by boats and nets, yields fish, which are in turn exchanged for money; but only a small portion of the coins generated end up in the hands of the workers. The surplus, of course, goes to the fat-cats.

This all sounds highly ideological, and it is. This kind of over-the-top didacticism, in my view, prevents Redes from being a masterpiece in the same way as a film like Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema, the 1946 Italian neorealist classic about poor Sicilian fisherman. At 59 minutes, Redes is short, and we never quite identify with the characters in the same way we would in a feature-length film. For all its progressive convictions, the ideas in Redes seem to come from the directors and the Mexican government, not from the workers themselves. A little too eager to convey its Marxist message, the film, in attempting to awaken a new economic awareness, accidentally obscures the richness of the lived human experience of its subjects.

Which brings me back to Bedford, and her remarkably open, non-ideological way of viewing and writing about the world. Her voice is so distinctive, so different from so much of today’s writing. Refusing to “check her privilege,” Bedford is unabashedly herself, aristocratic as that self may be. Tony, what do you think of this? Can we still enjoy A Visit to Don Otavio, with its detached aesthetic languor and its lukewarm attitude toward social justice?

***

Griffin,

Down with capitalist fat-cats! Down with surplus value!

In all seriousness, I largely agree with your assessment of Redes. Yes, the film’s short running-time prevents us from investing ourselves emotionally in the characters. Or, rather, it prevents us from investing in them as particularized, complicated individuals. Indeed, they are more archetypes—bereaved freedom fighter; evil boss man—than they are characters, and whatever emotional investment we feel comes from our identifying with them at the level of archetype. We don’t get backstories, with the exception of Miro’s daughter’s death; motivation is largely determined by class position; and the emotional range of the film is relatively limited. (Though, I should say, all of these features—archetypal characters; a limited interest in interiority—aren’t flaws, really. They’re just an indication that the film is after something other than deep psychological portraiture.)

For me at least, style redeems nearly everything in a work of art—not absolutely everything, but pretty damn close to it. And both Redes and A Visit to Don Otavio are stylistic wonders.

And yes, you’re also right, the film can be didactic. Just take some of the dialogue. After one character resignedly describes the exploitative system of which he and the rest of the village are a part—“You know the big fish always win”—Miro responds angrily, “But we’re not fish!” After Miro’s daughter dies, Mingo, the foreman in league with the evil boss man, gently explains, “You’ve been unlucky.” To which Miro retorts, “You call it bad luck. I call it misery.” In a film about how the few leave the many with nothing, the first spoken word is, “Nada.” Written out like this, it does, as you suggest, sound rigidly ideological.

But just transcribing a film’s dialogue is almost always an act of critical injustice. A film like Redes depends just as much on the visual—those dignified close-ups and beautiful beach shots you mention—as it does on the aural. And those visuals, as you rightly note, are exquisite.

Still from the film ‘Redes’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

The almost five-minute scene of the fishermen bringing their catch in, for instance, is perfect: attentive to the labor involved but also to the particular laborers involved. We get carefully framed shots of stringy, agile legs balancing on the boat’s edge, of shoulders rippling with effort as the rope is pulled in. There’s frenetic activity, as you mention. But it’s filmed in such a way that we clearly see the particular stages involved in this activity—the hauling and the jumping, the pushing and the pulling—and, by attending to the particularities of labor, the film displays a love toward those characters who perform this labor.

This visual focus on embodiment addresses some of the concerns I raised earlier. Psychologically, the film might be about any grieving fisherman, or any complicit foreman. But by focusing our eyes so much on the particular bodies of these particular figures, the film becomes less ideological and more concrete. To use a word we used about Mouchette, it becomes more incarnated; its ideas take flesh and become meaningful, moving, affecting. Think about what it means to devote nearly five minutes of a fifty-nine-minute film to this grueling yet balletic work! I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from Lady Bird: “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

So I guess I’d say that the most successful aesthetic moments—the loving decoration of Miro’s daughter’s coffin, for instance—raise the film about the ideological to the poetic. Maybe we can follow Polonius and give it a new generic label: the poetical-ideological, maybe, or the aesthetical-Marxist-allegorical.

Do I prefer Bedford’s more purely non-ideological aesthetic? Yes. Do I think we can forgive Bedford her inattentiveness to certain aspects of Mexico because of her brilliant prose style? Yes. All travel writers get the place they’re traveling to wrong, more or less; that’s part of why we travel in the first place—to be wrong and, in the process, to be changed. Few travel writers, though, can write like Bedford. Again, for me at least, style redeems nearly everything in a work of art—not absolutely everything, but pretty damn close to it. And both Redes and A Visit to Don Otavio are stylistic wonders.

 

A Visit to Don Otavio
Sybille Bedford
NYRB Classics, $18.95, 392 pp.

Redes (1936)
Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann
59 minutes
Available in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project​ Box Set
Criterion Collection, $99.96, 9 discs.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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