Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Secrets of Lisbon

Raúl Ruiz’s masterpiece is The Past Recaptured, the finest “capture” of Marcel Proust’s fiction in its multi-layers and multi-consciousnesses and mysterious transpositions of time and emotion. How much of that film’s greatness is due to his appreciation of Proust and the filmic techniques called for to capture his philosophy of time and memory in this very different medium, and how much to Ruiz’s own penchant for telling tales within tales in exotic atmospheres at a glacial pace could not be clear from that single movie.

He has now brought out The Secrets of Lisbon, a four-and-a-half-hour film cut down (!) from a six-hour-long television mini-series. It looks and feels like such a series: High class Masterpiece Theater, the settings (in the royal palaces of Portugal, Lisbon's gorgeous Sao Carlo Opera House, and elsewhere) and more attention to costumes and furnishings (and carriages from several periods!) than to subtleties of acting. The endless details of Castelo Branco’s novel (which I do not know – has it been translated from the Portuguese? Why would anyone bother?), one of about a hundred he scribbled in his sixty-five anguished years, potboilers all, are somewhat straightened out (we may guess) into a narrative full of Manueline curlicues. It looks terrific, but it’s slow, slow, slow, and most of the scenes are indoors. It’s a thrill about the end of the fourth hour when two characters fight a duel, but the action lasts only a few seconds and ends inconclusively with one of the duelists explaining everything (of course, he doesn’t explain everything) to his unsuccessful challenger rather than killing him. It is typical of the film that this eerie flashback (most of the movie seems to be flashbacks) is followed, as the two men drive away in a carriage (it is now about 1840), a figure apparently unknown to us strolls into the abandoned duel-yard and fires an antique pistol – into his own head. By this point in the movie, we know better than to question this – Ruiz will tell us who the suicide is in his own good time. (He does.)

Did Almodovar get his inspiration from Castelo Branco? Just add gay sex and sex-change operations, neither of them in Castelo Branco’s universe, whether because he could not conceive of such things (it’s possible) or because Portuguese censorship would never have permitted their mention, and there: You have Almodovar.

But it was not Almodovar that I thought of during the long spaces between seductions, plots and periwigs of The Secrets of Lisbon. Well, let me tell you its convoluted plot (as much as I remember on one viewing) and see what you think of it. We first meet Pedro – who is called Joao – as a 15-year-old in a boys’ school, much teased because he has no last name and the other boys have as many as five. Whisperers think he is the son of old Padre Diniz, the head of the school, who takes a close interest in him. In fact, begetting Joao-Pedro is almost the only thing Padre Diniz, a man with a long, hidden past, has not done, but we learn his secrets only slowly. Joao-Pedro’s secrets are easy enough to penetrate: In a fever, he sees a beautiful visitor; she has brought him a child’s theater as a present. She is the mysterious Countess of Santa Barbara, and of course Joao-Pedro is her love-child. That’s simple enough. But why can she never visit him? Because her husband, the wicked (or is he?) Count has locked her up and beats her, abetted (or is he?) by his lover, the mysterious Eugenia, the only character who never does tell us her secrets. (I bet they’re in the novel, and I bet they’re juicy.) And why is Padre Diniz so interested in the lady’s case? And why is he pretending to be the brother of Sister Antonia, who runs the convent in which the Countess ultimately takes refuge? And who was Joao’s father, and what became of him before he gasped out the whole sordid story to Padre Diniz in a deathbed flashback? And what became of the burping ruffian who shot him? (This turns out to be significant years later, but what doesn’t?) And why has Padre Diniz a special interest in the fate of adulterous countesses pregnant by their lovers? (You may well ask. Well, you may not, but old Brother Sebastian knows and will certainly tell us.) And why does Padre Diniz pick the purse of the beautiful and amoral Duchesse de Cliton? And how does the mysterious Alberto de Magelhaes (that’s Magellan, in Portuguese) make his money? And why does he lavish it on Joao-Pedro, who nonetheless tries to kill him, urged on by the vengeful Duchess – a lousy conspirator, by the way, as she gets fits of the giggles every time one of her silly stratagems comes off? (What else comes off is also pertinent, and she does have splendid shoulders.) Suffice it to say that no deed, good or ill, goes unpunished, and the whole tale implies that God is a compulsive reader of gothic novels and, having plenty of time on his hands, is in no rush to reach the denouement.

It may be helpful to viewers to know dabs of Portuguese and French history between 1780 and 1840, or maybe I’m the only one who would notice or care. There are references to King José, his autocratic prime minister the Marquis of Pombal (destroyer of the Jesuit Order), his mad daughter, Queen Maria I who fled to Brazil, her son Joao VI, his sons Pedro IV (Dom Pedro I of Brazil) (supported in Europe by England and the liberals) and Miguel, the usurper (supported by Spain and the radical right). And the French (Bonapartist) invasion, conquest and expulsion by Wellington, which would not be important if Padre Diniz had not been a soldier in the French army at the time. Typical scene: Portuguese soldiers’ firing squad shot by an ambush to rescue a French officer … the officer goes off with Diniz, only to become the lover of … well, never mind. Back in the bushes, peasants pick the pockets of the dead. That’s the joke. The peasants and their smocks and clogs remain the same actors in the same costumes throughout the film, no matter the era – no doubt this is accurate – until the late twentieth century, rare was the Portuguese peasant who could afford a change of clothes in sixty years.

What all this reminded me of, while watching, was Scaramouche (1952, Stewart Grainger, Janet Leigh; there’s also a 1923 silent version I have not seen that stars hot, gay Ramon Novarro) and Anthony Adverse (1936, Fredric March, Olivia da Havilland, Claude Rains and wicked Gale Sondergaard who won her Oscar for it), both of them much more active movies. They are both even (I would say, but it’s been thirty years since I saw either one) better movies, certainly based on better stories – though it would surprise me not a whit if Rafael Sabbatini and Hervey Allen had actually stumbled on Castelo Branco’s The Secrets of Lisbon at some point and said, “I can plot better than that – I can run rings around my characters, bring history to life, and have it all make sense at the end.” This is the advantage of art over reality: The wacky coincidences and mysteries can all tie together in a well-plotted novel, epic poem, movie, play, grand opera. In life, they remain mysterious and coincidental.

But Secrets of Lisbon, with its initial focus on a young boy puzzled about his identity, recalls many other, finer works of art. One problem with Secrets is that Pedro-Joao is not very interesting and that, unlike Anthony Adverse (for example), he does not at the end go abroad to forge a new life in the New World and forget the sordid past, he goes to Portuguese Africa and dies there, dictating the opening words of his story. That’s not an uplifting ending, but did it inspire Proust to end his great work with the narrator back at the beginning, blessed with understanding, starting to write the great work we have just completed?

It is difficult not to see the type of plot-crossing, coiled-secrets novel Castelo Branco wrote as a feature of the new bourgeois era, related to such similarly contorted (but usually better) books as Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Great Expectations (Padre Diniz reminded me, now and then, of the lawyer Jagger – but we never get anything personal about Jagger – a far more imposing character nonetheless – or perhaps as a result) and Bleak House (seeing guilt-wracked Lady Dedlock as an epitome of guilt-wracked but far less happily married Angela de Santa Barbara), Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers, even Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. (Aside: All of these have become films, of course – Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, is a masterpiece; David Lean’s Great Expectations is pretty close to one; Masterpiece Theater did a tidy job on Bleak House some years ago, and Disney murdered Johnny Tremain. The Corsican Brothers, aside from a few humorless efforts, has become two sublime comedies, Start the Revolution without Me with Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder as two sets of identical (?) twins scrambled at birth, and Cheech and Chong’s lewd and crude The Corsican Brothers.)

You could even toss in the more epic sagas of George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Hendrik Sienkowicz – heck, why not? There are probably Scandinavian, Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish, Japanese novels of this variety that I do not know or suspect. And there is our first home-grown example: Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Dumas and Dickens set the pattern; everybody followed. It was part of the elevation of the bourgeois family to iconic status during the industrial transformation. In a later avatar, on a less literary level, they became the long-kept-secret mysteries of Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald – whose mastery of demotic prose has nonetheless made them classics and kept them best-sellers while Dumas and Castelo Branco waste away, forgotten and ignored.

I mention Johnny Tremain, a prize-winning young adult novel of the Boston Tea Party and associated events leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, in part because it was the first novel ever to win my heart. I was nine years old, which is to say, this was not long after the events the novel describes. It was the book I clutched constantly to my bosom for two years, that is, until I discovered Tolkien. (I do pity those who did not discover Tolkien at eleven. By sixteen, you’re probably already too sophisticated for it. Of course, Tolkien has a coiled: But what is their real identity? sort of plot too, if you think about it.)

But I loved Tremain because, never having read a family-plot novel before, I found its mysteries, its obsessions, its coincidences miraculous and astonishing. I have given the book to many a child among the (almost readerless) new generation, and I return to it myself once a decade, maybe, and the book holds up. For one thing, I see the bones now, shining through Esther Forbes’s wonderfully firm fleshy prose. Johnny, poor and arrogant, a prize apprentice, is obsessed with his blood relationship to the wealthy Lyte family. In the book, his pride is brought low and he earns his way back up, partly due to the loyalty of his friends (notably Cilla and Rab) but mostly due to finding himself, making his own way, earning his place in society and understanding (as he participates in pre-Revolutionary intrigues) how that society can be, should be, reformed. His own qualities lead him to the book’s climax, when he discovers the truth of his birth and is offered (by Cilla) the return of the silver cup that symbolizes it, and his entire past. He is strong enough to reject this symbol (at nine I couldn’t imagine why – a beautiful silver cup is a beautiful silver cup, eh?), to reject the Lytes as they have rejected him. When his beautiful cousin Lavina Lyte finally informs him of the true secret of his birth, he rejects that, too. “You can put in quite a claim for property when this is all over, if there’s any property left, which I very much doubt,” she tells him. But he doesn’t want their silver or their property – or their name. (He does concede that he will call this reigning beauty Aunt Lavinia in the future.) He wants to be an American, his own man, an adult without childish aspirations based on family – the American myth incarnate. All that is left is for Forbes to inspire him to fight, which she does by having the Redcoats kill Rab at Lexington in the First Shot of the coming war.

Rab is perfect. He is brilliant, brave, noble, true, sexy – he’s got to go; so that highly imperfect Johnny may flourish, inspired by his example. There’s nothing else a good novelist can do with Rab. This event shattered me (as it does Johnny) when I first read it. Now I see it is inevitable, the last dollop of plot before the end. (That the book came to an end also shattered me. I wrote bitterly to Esther Forbes on the subject, and her charming postcard back is pasted into my copy of the book.) So he does and Johnny is resolved to rebel, free of encumbering foofaraw, the stuff that makes Pedro-Joao just want to die, that makes Marcel just want to recapture the past. As for Scaramouche and Anthony Adverse – well, they run off to the New World to make a New Life, and best of luck to them – but Johnny’s already there, thanks, so there’s nothing for him to do but put his hand down on the operating table for the ghastly (no anesthetic, no antiseptics) operation that will symbolically make a man of him. I have only just noticed this might be a circumcision reference, but that can’t be conscious on Forbes’s part: Johnny’s crippled hand apparently holding him back – the scar is made of silver, symbol of false idols throughout the book – is the principal symbol around which she constructs her marvelous, eternally splendid tale.

But the story is older than Forbes, older than Castelo Branco, older even than Fielding. The youth who does not know who he is, or where he fits into a society he doesn’t understand, and who turns out to be of exceptional birth to match his outrageous luck and talent, is one of the oldest stories. It is Figaro’s story in Le Mariage, and his discovery that he is the son of the old woman who wants to marry him is Beaumarchais’ witty spoof on Oedipos Tyrannos. (Beaumarchais actually got his own surname and his title of nobility from marrying an older noblewoman who had inherited them.) It is Oedipus’s story, too: the foundling, crippled like Johnny Tremain, raised by royalty but discovering rumors of his adoption, confronting and conquering the enemies of his society – only to discover he has been too shrewd by half. It is the story of Joseph, sold into Egypt and rising to outsmart (and forgive) his wicked brothers. It is the story of Moses, the king’s sister’s son who turns out to be nothing of the sort. It is the story of young Zeus, the god of Mount Ida on Crete, concealed from his voracious father. It is the story of bewildered Herakles, of bewildered Hamlet, of bewildered Telemachus, of bewildered Aeneas: There’s a job to do, and I have to do it, even if it means putting aside love and pleasure and everything else. It is the ur-myth, or one of them.

We never know quite who we are. We search in the trunks in the family attic, those of us lucky enough to have family attics, those of us lucky enough – or are we? – to know our birth families. Such an attic can contain treasure but, like Aeneas’s father on his shoulders, it can be almost too much to carry from the ruins of the past into the new world where our own work must be paramount. Aeneas is always pius; we have the option of tossing it aside, and the American dream is that we can. This may not be true – as Faulkner says, in Absalom, Absalom, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” It may be forgotten, and each generation takes most of its memories with it to the grave. But something survives to haunt us, and fictions that tell the stories of such searches, such discoveries, such mysteries, sordid or wonderful, therefore appeal to us. We can adore them and puzzle them like Sophocles and Freud, or we can spoof them like Fielding and Beaumarchais and Almodovar. But they never lose their appeal.