Monday, June 7, 2021

Adolpho Bioy Casares on Louise Brooks, Marion Davies, silent comedians, Fellini, and working with Borges

Today, Adolpho Bioy Casares (1914 – 1999) is considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th century; Bioy, as he is called, was an Argentine fiction writer, diarist, and translator. He was also a great friend and regular collaborator with his fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges

Bioy authored more than 30 books, both short stories as well as novels, including A Plan for Escape (1945), The Dream of Heroes (1954), Diary of the War of the Pig (1969), and Asleep in the Sun (1973). He also collaborated with Borges on the seminal Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1940), as well as a series of satirical detective stories written under the pseudonym Bustos Domecq. 

Today, Bioy is likely best known for his 1940 novella, La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel), which is widely considered the first work of “magical realism.” Borges wrote in the book’s introduction: "To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." Mexican Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz echoed Borges when he said: "The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel." Later Latin American writers such as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez have also expressed their admiration for this novella whose influence extends beyond literature into film, music, television and the realm of popular culture. [I have written about Bioy’s book and its connection to Louise Brooks in the past, as seen HERE and HERE.]

Along with his many literary achievements, Bioy was also a great devotee of the cinema, especially the silent and early sound era, as is made clear in the following interview. This interview is something I have been trying to track down for years, decades really, because of what Bioy says about Brooks being the "inspiration" behind The Invention of Morel

And just recently, within the last couple of weeks, I was sent a copy. The interview was published in FILM, an Argentine film magazine, in the summer of 1995. I studied Spanish for two years in high school, but regretfully recall little. This interview, by Daniel Martino (Bioy's editor), Fernando M. Pena, and Sergio Wolf, is presented here in my unauthorized, software assisted, translation. I think anyone interested in early film and Latin American literature will find it of interest.


The idea of a meeting with Bioy to talk about cinema was suggested by the bibliophile Manuel Pena and took place through the kind mediation of specialist Daniel Martino. The shared interests sustain the informal tone proposed from the beginning. By Daniel Martino, Fernando M. Pena, and Sergio Wolf.

- When did you start watching movies?

- My mother told me that the cinema was not suitable. However, she went every day, every afternoon, to the movies. She said that I had to play sports, fortify myself and not sit there in the dark.

 - How old were you?

- Eight, ten years. This was in Mar del Plata. On the Rambla there were two cinemas, Palace and Splendid. I was desperate to always be with my mother, so when the cinemas let out I would wait for her, and if she didn't leave the Palace I would run to the Splendid to find her.

- We're still talking about silent movies?

- Of course, when talkies came it seemed to me that I had no hope, it was awful. In the first sound movie that I saw the actors were singing. So then they had talents as singers and not as actors. Every time there was a love scene, they sang, sang the ... that seemed to me to be the destruction of what had been achieved.

- You told others you were afraid that movies would stop being silent.

 - No, that they stopped being silent and were sung.

- Once you said that if you had a brother, you would have liked him to be a director. Did you ever wish to direct?

- No, being a writer was enough for me. Being a director was a bigger concern and I left it to my brother.

- When you were a boy, Drago Mitre and the Menditeguy brothers had a 9 1/2 mm Pathe, and they made some movies.

- We tried to make movies but we failed.

- There was no worthwhile result.

- The results were not very good. I think we shot without a roll of film in the machine. [Laughs] My brother was missing.

- Didn’t you go to see dirty films at the Miriam cinema, perhaps with Drago and Menditeguy. Could it be?

- Correct, almost every afternoon. There was a time when Drago, Julio Menditeguy, Carlos Menditeguy and I went to the movies after playing tennis. And at the Miriam, which was in the plaza Dorrego, they showed pornographic films. They also presented movies about diseases, which really didn't help you. In the Miriam cinema you always saw come-ons, girls who went from one row to another until they picked up a client. From there they went directly to a nearby street, to look for a room.

- That must have been surprising to see...

- And venereal diseases. The movies that were showing there completely put us off.

 - Then you wrote some movie reviews...

- I wrote some reviews for a neighborhood journal, which was called The Spectator. It was around 1932, I was about eighteen years old.

 - And then your cinematographic activity stopped.

- Pretty much, yes. Only later did I go to the movies again every day.

- Did you follow some director, some genre?

- I followed directors. If they showed a Lubitsch movie I went to see it, if it was Ashby I went to see it...

- Hitchcock?

-Yes, as well... It seemed to me that he always set a trap, but that it was enjoyable, he knew how to entertain. He was an entertainer.

- It's a trap? Just knowing that Cary Grant could never die, for example!

- Yes ... There were fallacies in his movies. I made a list of movies and directors that interested me and, well, he isn't here.

- The cinema also comes into play a good deal in your stories and novels. There is a story, The Hero of Women, where you make some references to Western movies, to what the hero of the Western represents, let's say. Do you like the Western a lot?

- I like them a lot, yes. I always watch them with a good deal of enjoyment. I have noticed that the French, who are so fond of fashion, have a great passion for Westerns and they show them often in the old Paris cinemas.

- In your work you refer to the Western more than other genre.

- Yes, that's correct. There is the field, there are the horses. There is something very broad; life opens up in the Western.

 - You wrote stories with Borges as well as scripts.

- Scripts that were poor. Although it is true that they were written before we knew how to write scripts. It is a bit more Borges's fault, rather than mine. He wanted to craft great dialogue with each phrase in the text and that is intolerable.

- You wrote differently when you wrote as Bustos Domecq, for example, than when you wrote scripts?

- Yes, but also because of time. When we wrote such timid scripts it was much earlier. With Bustos Domecq we let loose, we made jokes on jokes, we lost ourselves. Bustos Domecq was also a kind of intellectual defeat: we said that one wrote as he wanted and what we wanted was to write classic police stories, with a clear and sharp solution. Well, we couldn't do that, we got lost in the jokes. Borges suddenly asked me: "Now what do we do with this character? How do we solve this...? "

- The scripts you wrote were tighter.

- Much tighter, and as well there was no pleasure in writing in that overwrought way.

- It's true, but notably Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi is from '42, and there are adaptations from '43, '46, and '49. Things get mixed up a bit.

- Well, in Six Problems anyway ... we were never satisfied. In later stories, really ... I was referring to other earlier, made to order scripts. Pago Chico, for example.

- From what you told us about your work, Borges had a much greater desire to write for the cinema than you.

- I think so. Perhaps because Borges was much more intense than me, with respect to everything. I don't know why he was so oblivious to our failures, but the truth is that he was much more determined than me.

- Did he pressure you to write with him?

- Well, we liked working together. If I wished to work with him, why wouldn't I? It was instructive, it was fun, it was terrific working with him.

- When you wrote scripts with Borges did you go to the movies? Did you have a model?

- No, no we didn't go to the movies because my friendship with Borges was nocturnal, not daytime. He came home to eat at night and then we would write or read.

- Did you ever go to the cinema together?

- No, the circumstances weren’t right.

- You told me that he liked The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935) but you did not, so there was a range of horror movies that you did not share.

- No, no. Except when there was a funny horror film, like Young Frankenstein, which I liked a lot.

- In your list of memorable films there is an abundance of comedies. You prefer humor in the cinema, in your literature...

- In my literature despite myself, because when I write ... I like to be a little more serious.

-Why more serious?

- Because women tell me that humor is cool. [Laughs].

- Speaking of comedies, I can't help asking about Keaton, who is a personal obsession.

-Yes, Keaton seemed to me much superior to Chaplin. Always. I found Chaplin’s movies good, yes? But, in general, I would say that I don't like Chaplin's lyricism but I do Keaton's.

- Did you like silent comedians?

- Yes, I loved them. It seemed to me that they were refreshing to the soul. One was happy to see those comedians. And since it often happened that reality did not agree with me, it was good to see them. There was another comic that I really liked, Charley Chase. At the time I liked Larry Semon too, but when I saw him again I didn't like him that much. Instead, I still really like Laurel and Hardy.

- Why do you think so much is lost in revision?

- It's something strange. That happens more with cinema than with literature. With the cinema it is quite common.

- In many of your stories you mention specific theaters. In The Adventure of a Photographer in La Plata you cite several cinemas, the Roca, Gran Rocha cinema ... did you know those cinemas?

- Yes, sure, I've been a few times. Quoting them was as a memory to myself.

- In an interview you said that the Invention of Morel had come about, partially, from the sudden disappearance of Louise Brooks. Of a certain feeling of abandonment in the face of the loss of someone very dear to you. What happened to Louise Brooks?

- I was madly in love with her. I was unfortunate, because she suddenly left, traveled to Europe, to make a  movie with Pabst which I didn't like as much as when she was in Hollywood. As well, she disappeared very early from the cinema.

- Her absence is like the one suffered by the shipwrecked Morel.

-Yes, she would be Faustine.

- That’s curious, because people fall in love with Brooks through her German movies.

- I did not.

- Can you talk about other actresses?

-Yes of course. I liked Marion Davies, for example. She thought she had married William Hearst. I really liked Anna May Wong, too.


- I liked her, yes, I liked her in Ninotchka, but not as much as some others.

- In your list you do not cite any police mysteries, that is a genre that you like greatly in literature.

- Well, I liked the Maltese Falcon a good deal, but I think the genre interests me more in literature than in cinema. It is that one can think that just as bad books make good films, good books make less good films. I mean, maybe cinema just needs stimulus from literature.

- It seems you feel that it is a good thing for the film to be absolutely faithful to the book?

-No, no. I am convinced that faithfulness can be very harmful. The Red and black [Le rouge et le noir, Autant-Lara-1954), for example, is very faithful.

- Are you interested in Fellini?

- I liked The White Sheik, Amarcord, 8 1/2 ... The one I don't like is Casanova. It seemed to me ... melodramatic and a failure, wanting to give Casanova a fantastic touch that he doesn't have. I should be clear and say that I saw it before having read Casanova. I don't see any relationship between Casanova's memoirs and that film.

- A character from one of his stories says: "Love is like the biographer: when you leave the room you are changed. " Do you believe it too?

- Oh yes, very much. It is like awaking from a dream. One leaves the cinema playing the movie, finding unfamiliar surroundings outside.

- Has watching a movie inspired you to be write a story?

- No, no.

- You used to say so in the sense after watching a movie, thinking: "I would like to write about a character like this, or with a similar tone ..."

- Oh yes. In that sense – let's go back – the cinema has prompted me to write things. I said no, but because I didn't remember The Great Game [Le grand jeu, 1934), a film by [Jacques] Feyder that has the idea of the eternal return. I was very impressed with that. The theme of the cyclical...

- As in The Perjury of the Snow.

- Yes. But in none of my stories have I been lucky enough to tell it in such a soulful way as I saw it in that movie.

- Going back a ways, to the surrealist era. Did you see Bunuel’s The Golden Age or The Andalusian Dog?

- Yes, but I didn't like them. Because I don't really like surrealism. I liked him in general. I did not like any of his surrealist work. I liked what the critics of surrealism said. I was a victim of the critics.

- At one time you wrote "I am willing to wait for the end of the world sitting in a movie theater."

- Of course, it is really a declaration of love to the cinema and cinemas.

- Do you still think about it?

- I keep thinking about it, and when I go to a cinema I feel safe and very happy. There one surrenders to sound, right?


Note  1.

Refers to a film adaptation by Payro, whose elusive story was reconstructed by Daniel Martino Film, No. 1, Buenos Aires, April / May 1993.

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