My God is a Gun

My God is a Gun, translated into English in 2013 by the late Melvin Milo Melbern from a Spanish translation of an anonymous and untitled Quechuan text, is an anomaly in the history of translation.

My God is a Gun


For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart


Preface

My God is a Gun, translated into English in 2013 by the late Melvin Milo Melbern from a Spanish translation of an anonymous and untitled Quechuan text, is an anomaly in the history of translation. The acclaimed original Spanish translation, Nuestro padre, la lanza (Our Father, the Spear), was provided by Jorge Paca, who is primarily renowned for his historical work on oral folk histories from Peru and Colombia. Melbern, an author first and foremost, is known in the translation community for his work on other esoteric discoveries such as Hammett’s Statement (a Cornish text dated 1919) and the apocalyptic Diaries from Beyond (which Melbern translated from English into Spanish).

The original untitled text, named by Paca after a line found near the conclusion of the text, is dated to have been written between 1880—1883 in the Tacna region of Peru. The text was originally uncovered by antique book collector Bernard Laurent on the 3rd of January, 2008, near the bottom of a bric-a-brac box at a West London car-boot sale, alongside such charity shop classics as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

Melbern’s English translation differs from Paca’s celebrated (and considerably more linguistically and historically accurate) translation in a great number of controversial ways, and is considered to contain embellished elements not present in the original Quechuan text.

Despite the controversy and purported lack of understanding of both time period and cultural voice, My God is a Gun has the distinct reputation for being the only current official English translation of the text. Furthermore, in contrast to critical opinion, many well-regarded multilinguists have spoken of their affection for the text, and some fans of this unknown Quechua-Peruvian author’s lone work consider this to be the definitive version of the text; both historian Jonathan Bayer and journalist Kenneth Loveman have praised Melbern’s effort as a singular work that transcends traditional translation and achieves its own greatness as a piece of metafictional art (Loveman summed it up in the Observer thusly: “Melbern’s translation is only passingly acquainted with the original historical work; however, it is through this that it unfolds as a masterpiece of artistic translation that deliberately defies rational understanding and instead takes its aim directly at the human pathos.”); other critics, however, blasted it as the work of an exploitative charlatan and a confused, grandiose narcissist well past his prime, particularly after Melbern’s infamous breakdown on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2014, an incident that fellow author Miles Stone claimed as indicative of Melbern’s decline.

In the interest to the reader, I have supplied a number of endnotes; these detail the notable similarities between the translated text and Melbern’s own 2004 novel Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar, his most successful work both critically and commercially.

The additional English translations of sections of the Paca translation are provided by professors Joelle Luna and Dennis Birkbeck of the University of Surrey, to whom I give great thanks.


My God is a Gun

I

There is no beauty greater than that of the female soul—O, no, lo and behold, I found myself indebted to a wanderlust driven by that need, that fire, for the beauty of a Spanish woman, far from my tribe; salted meat I prepared for the journey, and I left in the dark, speaking not a word of my plans to my mother Saywa, and before long the hills and mountain trails were breaking in my stride, and after some weeks I reached occupied Tacna.

When I arrived in Tacna on the 27th of May, I could still hear the lost echoes of dead souls. Many had died in the city the night before, and weary guards stood stony in the streets, a few lone smiles that read not joy but determined and temporary victory. Despite the upheaval, the people of Tacna continued their lives, unsure of what would come next.

I had no money or goods to trade; I had chewed all of my coca leaves on the journey, and salted meat had little value of note. My cultural background in ceramics however led me to take residence with a contentious and somewhat melted man named Pedro Sciarra, a watchmaker who employed me to create glass domes for his timepieces. Rarely did I complete a project for him in one effort; more often I received diatribes for my work, and Sciarra was not above striking me if he considered the work of low enough quality.

Adjusting to the existence found in this city of labyrinthine streets1 oddly unpopulated and so distant from the huts and hillside abodes of my past life took many months. I spent all of the time not engaged in dome-assembly wandering the city lanes, speaking to no one but observing all. After some time, the faces of the individual shifted into one face with two genders. The further I looked, the less defined became the European face of the Spanish beauty I had seen in my dreams.

In the dust-ridden neighbourhood of Texcuana2 I found a small abandoned house, and I began spending nights away from the Sciarra residence. Only here did I start seeing the image of that Spanish beauty again; she stared into me as I slept, and once I even heard her name. I saw her face clearly now, as vital as the morning sun: her speckled green eyes flickered with an energy I felt familiar. But for all of these dreams, she came no closer to taking material form; and in time, I even forgot the name that she had whispered into my slumbering ear.

II

Sciarra took ill, and in facing his death, became a new man. I stayed by his bed and listened to him speak of God, and the rites he wished to have performed at his funeral. He asked me to find his only living son, and to deliver him a message, entrusting to me several pages of Spanish that he sealed in an envelope with watchmaker’s mould wax. In the last few days of his life, he spoke of the Trinity, and he spoke of his hope for forgiveness. He repented for beating me, and he entrusted me with the future of his workshop. I stopped visiting that house in Texcuana, and forgot entirely about the Spanish beauty who surely waited for me still.

Sciarra passed away through the night, and I found him staring inert at the ceiling, clutching his bedclothes. I could tell that his last moments had been difficult; and in his eyes, something spoke to me, words in a language I did not understand. He was buried as per his requests—a scattering of herbs left on his unmarked grave, his coffin nothing but a linen sack. I was the only attendee; I left the letter to his son on the grave, and said a word to the shepherd spirit to deliver his son to the spot, if he still lived. I walked from the grave, herbs and dirt falling from my clothes.

I tried my hand at watchmaking but fell short repeatedly and gave up. To fail to create a facsimile of time is known to corrupt, and with each mistake I could feel myself taken further and further away from the destiny I had ordained for the future. Each ripple contained within it ten thousand paths, and the hope of falling onto the right one began to seem small. Violence spread through the region, until news of new hostilities became ubiquitous. But for all of the war, I thought only of the flower-haired Spanish beauty of the flatlands.

Her return to my life had me renounce any further attempts at watchmaking, and I sold the Sciarra property and took myself to Texcuana to locate and purchase the property I had stayed in the year before, but the house had been razed. Wandering into the night, I drank from pisco from a flask and spoke to many denigrated denizens of their woes and passions. I slept in the bed of an older woman of Quechuan origin named Cuxi3, who spoke of food and farming as we made love upon the course sheets. And although I felt a fervour, I left in the morning before she rose.

I found myself wandering for some weeks, avoiding the streets at night to save myself from losing my small inherited fortune at the hands of dark-eyed knives. Through the markets of dust I walked, passing the dull-eyed camelids and the chromatic drone of the ponchos. I dressed in fine cotton clothing, not for the heat but for my waiting Spanish beauty, the one who got ever closer and ever further away.

III

Three nights after I heard the fox howl, my eyes set upon a woman. She had conquistador eyes4, flowing rust-flecked hair, a brimmed hat resting atop her head. She was not the Spanish beauty I had been seeking, I knew that; no, she could be nobody else but my own flesh and blood, my own family, my own sister.

Her yellow dress was a beacon. I moved with the wind towards her, to find out how she came to be; how she found herself here; how we had never known each other. But the crowds of like-faced folk churned, and as I pushed further into them, I quickly realised that I had lost sight of her. After catching one more glimpse of that yellow robe, a man took a step directly into me. I fell back onto the floor, sand in my eyes. Something happened, and I clutched at my side. Hands moved around my body, pushing into every pocket. Soon, I looked up to see the crowds of people with their uniform yet shifting faces staring down at me. I looked at my hand to see it smeared red.

My blood painted the sandy street. My fortune was lost. My sister had disappeared into the aether, and my last conscious thought was that I would never see her again.

IV

I spent a month recovering from my wound. When I slept, it was no longer the Spanish beauty that looked into my eyes; it was my sister. I thought of what I might say to her; what I might call her. I thought of many names, but there was no single one that felt natural. I had to find her, to draw the answers from our shared mouth.

I spoke to the Father, but he spoke not to me. God spoke to no-one; I was left out of the loop, alone but for the rain and wind5.

My doctor, Santos, discovered my history working for the watchmaker Sciarra and took me under his wing fixing his medical tools. I witnessed the many victims of the city, those unlucky enough to feel the blade dig too deep or who had deteriorated from the lash of time. Most did not survive. I thought on my luck, and how I would not squander this chance to atone.

All of my time away from the surgery was spent carefully wandering the streets, searching for my sister. I dressed in sodden rags, appearing so to be a beggar or leper. I played the part and kept my gaze toward the future.

Three hundred days passed, and in time I became a master artisan of medical tools. I crafted devices that saved lives and eased suffering, and I played audience to the increasing survival of the unfortunate folk who found themselves on the operating table. Santos and I eventually spoke of my future; his kind eyes followed mine and he nodded as I spoke of the sister I had to find. He was quiet for some time, and then told me that there would be a day soon when he would not see me again. I nodded.

The day came sooner than either of us could have imagined; to be precise, it was that day. Not long after our conversation, I took my leave to a local drinking hole that I had recently started to patronise. As I took my corner seat, she appeared at the door. She was wearing that same yellow dress as before, the same hat, and her eyes were still my own. She only looked briefly into the room before turning and going on her way; I got to my feet and scrambled out of there, leaving my alcohol to the dust and flies.

The streets clamoured with a resounding din of footsteps and mercantile. Through the tangled archways I moved, keeping the woman in yellow in sight at all times; I knew that this would be my final chance to reach her. I saw many infinite versions of us moving through the alleyways that we crossed, our forms blurring as I kept my true sister in aim.

Eventually, we reached the outskirts of Tacna. Lonely streets housing lonely homes, and it was as if we were the only living souls around. More cautiously now I followed, her seeming unaware of her brother coming to find her. O how near the truth was now—but I did not rush, I could not. The desertic flats now stretched out into the northeasterly valley, the hills rising up to meet us. Finally, we were the only ones walking.

I was but fifteen feet from her now.

‘What of you?’ she said.

I knew not what to say, but I walked still.

‘You do not mean me harm, lest I would already be dead,’ she said, and she turned around.

Indeed, those eyes were unmistakable; the sleek curves of her face, the parting of her hair; she was my kin, a perfect feminine mirror of my soul.

‘You are my sister,’ I said.

She smiled. ‘We have been living together in this city for some time. Why only now do you seek me out?’

‘I knew you not. If only I had.’

‘Let us keep walking,’ she said.

V

We walked in silence up to the crest of the knoll that I had traversed on my journey to the city. Finally stopping and turning around, we looked over at the place we had both made home; all was quiet, other than the chirping of insects and the occasional cry of the birds.

‘How long have you been here?’ I asked, finally shattering the illusion of silence.

‘As long as you have. We have found ourselves here again.’

‘Again?’

‘Indeed.’

She turned to me. It was as if I were capturing my own gaze.

‘What of our god?’ I asked, but knew not why.

‘My god is a gun6,’ she said, ‘and I am a bullet.’

I inspected her eyes further; I had seen them before somewhere, in some dream state or fugue of youth.

‘Have you forgotten me?’ she asked.

‘I apologise, sister, for I believe that is the case.’

‘Do not apologise; one of us was to remember, and I get to play that role this time. There is much that will come back to you: the many aeons we have spent together. We were there at the start, and we will continue even beyond the end, to even more distant and remote lands and vistas. We have seen every end of this earth a thousand times; we have never failed to meet. We are more than twinned souls, my old friend.’

She offered me her hand, and I took it.

‘Do you feel it now? That sense of being whole—and the forces that conspire to pull us apart. There will always be times when we must be apart, but we will find each other again, always. For beyond brother and sister, you are I, and I am you. We have always been one, and we have always been two. Without one, we could not have the other. We fit together as pieces of a jigsaw, as parallel paths in Sol’s Labyrinth. Every woman you seek is I, just as every man I have adored has been you. Reflection is an ideal; it is purity.’

Our hands fell apart again. I nodded solemnly, and looked away from her eyes.

‘It is not our time yet, is it?’ I asked.

We stared out over the city. I felt the land expanding out before us, incrementally increasing in size, along with the rest of the universe. I turned once more to her, to see her before we parted again for another epoch.

‘I do not believe so, no,’ said she, said I. ‘There is much trouble to come before we are joined forever. We will realise our differences, and then our similarities. For it is not just our eyes that we are similar, just as our bodies are not the only way that we differ. It is only when order and chaos are at peace that we will speak as one. Until then, I will dream of you.’

She smiled, and Inti, the great sun, shone down on us. In the light, our forms were inseparable; two identical bodies, silhouettes without difference or conflict, melding in the solar incandescence.

‘We shall meet again, many years from now. One will give the other a sign; messages caught in the melee, scripture that only the other will discern. Let us take this chance and bury it here on this hill, and one day it shall find us again. When the call finally sounds, we will answer in kind, and after a decade has passed, we shall be together as one, for eternity, as one.’


Postscript

For those familiar with the lauded Paca translation, it is not difficult to see why Melbern’s ‘fictionalised’ version is so controversial; even the very name of the piece is a personalised corruption. But despite the artistic liberties taken (particularly) with the conclusion of the story, it is noticed that the final paragraph is incredibly close to Paca’s original translation, and despite the final sections becoming divergent to such a degree that the message is changed, Melbern finds a way to finish the tale with the same words, even with the context so vastly changed.

We know the reasons for those lines in the celebrated original translation, of course—the two separated siblings have discussed their return to the realm of the gods where they belong, but must first go their separate ways to attempt, perhaps futilely, to reconcile the brutally contrasting perspectives of their native mother and rapist, colonialist father.

The discovery in the original translation that they are half-Quechuan and half-Spanish makes the account primarily a piece of cultural criticism in the form of a tale, and until Melbern released his own version, that was exactly all the piece was: a primary text of somewhat novelty value, sought after by Peruvian and other Latin American scholars for their collections. Since Melbern’s translation was released, the story has taken on a life of its own; and particularly now, one year after his untimely death, it is being reassessed as one of his defining works.

Many theories abound about his personal changes to the story and the coincidental crossovers between the original Quechua text and Melbern’s own novel Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar, but I am not here to catalogue such conjecture.

Melvin Milo Melbern died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his home in Oxford on the 3rd of January, 2018. He left behind a final novel, posthumously released this year, titled Woman Behind the Train, or Annotations Through Time, a dense, 1200-page odyssey-narrative of spirit-doppelgangers attempting to contact each other through time and space by leaving messages in the stars.

His other final work was his suicide note. It read:

‘My God will not punish me for this sin, as it is my God that has taken me out of this world.’


Endnotes

1: This marks Melbern’s first moment of erroneous translation: Paca’s Spanish translation describes the streets of Tacna as uncomplicated and bustling with life; moreover, the narrator is portrayed interacting with a number of townspeople (these conversational scenes provide satirical humour, showing supposed Peruvian stereotypes of the era). Conversely, Melbern’s Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar (hereafter referred to as ‘Jars’) is set in the city of Labyrinthia, a city in the lost Latin American country of Quelacicero. The streets are believed to shift in the night, making each new day subject to a sweeping clean of the slate and offering opportunities for constant adventure. As such, Melbern’s translated description of Tacna more closely resembles his own fictional work than the reality of the original text.

2: ‘Texcuana’ is not a real place, nor does it exist in the Paca translation—the area isn’t named in the original text, instead it is implied to be an abandoned hut or outhouse some miles outside of the city. Texcuana is, however, the metaphysical ‘locked cage’ that protagonist Atoc places herself in in the final chapter of Jars.

3: ‘Cuxi’ is the only name that remains the same from the Paca translation (for example, Sciarra’s name is Abracante). Cuxi is also the name of a minor character in Jars: coincidentally, both characters are described as older women of native origin. The similarities end there however, as the Cuxi in Jars is the distant half-sister of Atoc, as opposed to a brief sexual partner of the unnamed protagonist of My God is a Gun.

4: This oft-cited and infamous phrase is the focus of much derision from certain critics, who point out that for all of the liberties taken by Melbern, this shortsighted and insensitive description is the one that unveils him as an ugly, colonial-minded opportunist seeking to use a native primary text for his own means. The Paca translation of this line uses the word espíritu (a form of pun or reference to alcohol) in place of ‘conquistador’. If I may offer my own opinion, I consider Melbern’s reference to conquistadors and colonialism in this paragraph indicative of a deeper understanding and consideration of the original text, especially taking into account the original final reveal of the shared lineage of the Peruvian siblings — due to this, I see these critics as engaging in contrived controversy, and as such, cast doubt on their credentials.

5: This short paragraph does not appear in the Paca translation to any recognisable degree. It is, in fact, verbatim from a passage in chapter six of Jars; it is Atoc’s reply to her brother Tito after he asks her the fate of the magically enthralled apu Father Wind.

6: The title line, and what follows, is the most erroneous and controversial element of Melbern’s translation. Paca’s translation posits these lines as:

            Y nuestro padre?
            Nuestro padre es la lanza.

            ‘What of our father?’
            ‘Our father is the spear.’

This complete rewrite continues throughout the conversation; little of what the narrator and his sister speak is similar or even vaguely related to Paca’s version, and, as such, the entire outcome of the plot diverges onto its own path, as far away from the original outcome as possible, beginning with the revelation that the protagonist and his sister are the children of colonial rape.

Gone is the parade of gods that the siblings witness above Tacna, and absent too is the appearance of their mother. Of note to the reader is this: in the conclusion of Melbern’s Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar (published four years before the discovery of the Quechuan text), Atoc reunites with her father after the battle of the gods has taken the lives of her townspeople, only to discover her father is in fact Illapa, the lord of thunder, who set her off on her journey in the beginning with that portentous lightning strike.

After he asks her if she is happy to see him again, she shakes her head, and says: ‘My father is a spear. He offers only death, and I shall not grasp him.’

Although she tries to destroy Illapa for putting into play the dark, world-changing events that have taken place, she ultimately sees her own face reflected in his eyes; with this revelation, she turns away from her father, and places herself in the locked cage of Texcuana, to be awoken only once all of time has passed.


References

Anonymous. (n.d.) Untitled. Translated by Paca, J. as Nuestro padre, la lanza, Bogotá: Pontificia Press; and translated by Melbern, M. M. as My God is a Gun, London: Faber and Faber.

Hammett, C. (1919) Hammett’s Statement. Translated by Melbern, M. M. London: Faber and Faber.

Inženia, Ï. (1937) Diaries from Beyond. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

McCarthy, M. (1963) The Group. New York: New American Library.

McEwan, I. (2001) Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.

Melbern, M. M. (2004) Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar. London: Sahnow.

Melbern, M. M. (2019) Woman Behind the Train, or Annotations Through Time. London: Sahnow.

Wordsworth, W. (2015) ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, in Gill, S. (ed.) Selected Poems. London: Penguin, pp. 61-66.

Essay: The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage

In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage.

The Absurdity of Passion: Nicolas Cage

 

“There are often lists of the great living male movie stars:
De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the
name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there.”

(Ebert, 2008)

 

In this essay, I explore the craft of acting through the work of Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage, in particular the films Wild at Heart (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), and I explore the manner in which Cage approaches his craft, from the influence of method acting, or “working from the inside out”, in his early days (Gibb, 2015, 20), to his slow refutation of traditional ‘realism’ and embracement of both “working from the outside in” and more surreal styles from the early 1990s to present-day. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this interest of his in larger, more dramatic acting styles that I primarily focus on, and I explore his creation of new, personal acting styles: “Western Kabuki” (Gibb, 2015, 28) and “Nouveau Shamanic” (Nordine, 2014). Through this exploration of the many forms that Cage has taken throughout his career, I argue that his range, diversity and fearlessness to experiment places Cage in the highest tier of modern actors.

As a young actor trying to find his place in the business, Cage, after having studied at the American Conservatory Theatre for three months (Cage, 2003), found an interest in method acting, inspired by Robert DeNiro and in particular his performance in Raging Bull (1980) (Cage, 2003). The style of method acting derives from Lee Strasberg’s teachings, which in turn were inspired by Constantin Stanislavski’s idea of “the system” (Hirsch & Bell, 2014). The idea is to get into the character “from the inside out”, so as to fully understand the character you are portraying, and in doing so, create a sense of truth in the performance. Whilst acting in The Cotton Club (1984), Cage decided to take the method acting technique and apply it to real life, so as to get fully into the head of his character, a psychotic gangster – he approached a street vendor selling remote control cars and smashed one of them in front of the man, paying the man after the incident. (Cage, 2003) Another example of his dedication to method acting early on was his role in the film Birdy (1984), in which he played a Vietnam War veteran: to get into character, he had two of his teeth pulled out and wore a bandage over his face throughout the shoot. (Gibb, 2015, 22) It is this kind of method acting that some actors undertake to fully understand their character in search of truth on screen: if they can be this character utterly, then the audience watching will be further able to empathise with them.

But before too long, Cage started experimenting with other styles of acting. He found that the naturalist style that resulted from method acting can be incredibly effective but can become boring, and he did not want to become a boring actor. (Gibb, 2015, 20) By his appearance in David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart, Cage was becoming tired with method acting and wanted to try new styles. It was through this film that he was able to shed method acting as his primary acting style and move towards the “from the outside in” style that he refers to as being a more British style of acting. (Cage, 2003) This style of acting has a focus on the look and exterior mannerisms of the character – Stella Adler said that “[w]hat you put on […] affects you inside. What’s outside what makes you feel certain things inside” and that as such, “the costume is the character.” (Adler, 2000, 200) One example of this in Wild at Heart is the snakeskin jacket worn by Cage’s character Sailor throughout the movie. Cage owned this jacket himself, and asked Lynch if he could wear it in the film. David Lynch liked the idea, and added it into the script. (Wood, 2015) The jacket ends up having a large connection to the character of Sailor: Sailor is a rebellious man, and a big believer in being himself, and he expresses this through his choice of clothes, saying on a number of occasions that his jacket is a symbol of his individuality. (Lynch, 1990) Another facet of Cage’s performance in Wild at Heart is Sailor’s voice and demeanour, a clear homage to Elvis Presley – as a testament to Cage’s wide range of influences in his acting styles, he claimed to have been inspired to play Sailor as Elvis as a reference to Andy Warhol’s famous duplicates, as well as an attempt to specifically break the rule set by Stanislavski that an actor should never imitate someone else. (Gibb, 2015, 41) Sailor is also an incredibly animated character: he dances, flails around, fakes kung fu moves, sings Elvis songs, beats people up – all of this showing Cage’s physical dedication to his craft, and backing up his view that naturalist, low-key acting was not the way to go for the role, and showing his increasing interest in more surreal styles of acting.

Another example of his use of physicality is in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. True to the idea of outside-in acting, Cage plays the character of Lieutenant McDonagh with a constant limp, due to a back injury attained whilst saving a prisoner from drowning, which gives him a lumbering and threatening demeanour. But another element of this physicality is in the use of his face and voice: McDonagh frequently loses it, shouting and screaming at whoever is close to him, and speaks through gritted teeth due to the pain he is constantly in. In The Art of Acting (Adler, 2000), Stella Adler speaks of the power of words, and the importance of knowing how and when to speak in certain ways. (Adler, 2000, 205) Cage demonstrates his knowledge on the use of words and speech extensively throughout Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, showing a man who has become embittered by, and is angry at, the world, who constantly harasses and abuses the people around him; even to the people he meets in passing, he hisses at them aggressively, the pain inside him too great to suffer other humans. It is the character lashing out at the world due to what he sees as the unfair afflictions in his life – but even in the darkness, he recognises his love for his girlfriend, a prostitute. She is the only character that he speaks to with a quieter, more caring demeanour, showing his affection for her by not lashing out at her like he does everyone else. The only other character that he really treats like this is the criminal he saves at the start, when he meets him again at the end: the man is attempting rehabilitation, and expresses gratitude to McDonagh for giving him that chance. He and McDonagh go and sit in an aquarium, Cage’s voice now hushed to a contemplative mutter: he is given a moment of tranquillity where his pain is not making him lash out any more, his lack of venom showing us the character in a moment of a peace that has been lacking in his life since he damaged his back. It is this use of extremes in his use of speech that help to paint a truthful picture of the character and give the audience some insight into why he acts like he does throughout the movie.

Cage compared his performance in the film to impressionistic painting, in that his character is constantly on drugs but he played the character sober, and instead imagined “how the drugs would affect the character’s vocal quality or facial mannerisms” (Keough, 2010) – he identified each drug that McDonagh was on and added different elements of them to different parts of the performance. To achieve this, he used the technique of sense memory to recall past times where he had been drunk or high, making the portrayal of a man unhinged from drug use blurry around the sides but no less truthful. Sense memory is a technique used in different forms of acting, and was one of the earliest techniques he learned whilst he studied at the American Conservatory Theatre. (Cage, 2003) The idea of it is to draw upon past memories and bring them out in the performance, so as to make the performance as visceral as possible and without overthinking it too much or turning the performance into an intellectual endeavour that could stunt the immediacy of the performance. (Weston, 1996, 150)

In 1995, Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of Ben Sanderson, a suicidal alcoholic, in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. (Gibb, 2015, 38) This performance finds Cage acting from both sides of the spectrum, both inside-out and outside-in, and also shows Cage being both extreme and reserved. His work from the inside-out came from his research of alcoholism, and how he took to drinking in preparation for the role – but as opposed to what the young Cage would have done, he did not drink himself through the film, recognising that that would have been too much of a gamble. (Ebert, 1995) The outside-in came from Cage finding physical objects that he felt connected him to the character (the character of Ben Sanderson, in both the film and the novel it is based on, is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of the novel’s author, John O’Brein, who committed suicide before the film was made), so as to build the character’s persona around the things that he owned. (Ebert, 1995)

One of the elements of Cage’s costume in the film are his sunglasses: these can be seen as an ‘object correlative’, an item that is linked to a character and which says something about their personality. (Butler, 2007, 58) Sanderson is a man tired of life, who has a wish to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. His sunglasses, which he often wears indoors, show how closed off he is to the rest of the world, as the sunglasses allow him to avoid eye contact and seem distant to the people around him. He is not always wearing these glasses, and as his relationship with the prostitute Sera continues, he wears them less and less, now being more open to human contact. Another more obvious object correlative is the alcohol: he is never without a drink to hand, both when he is indoors and out in Vegas. Indoors, he has a cache of drinks of all varieties, from whiskey to beer, often drinking from multiple drinks at once. This object correlative is the signifier of his desire to die, as it is the tool that he is using to commit suicide.

Whilst playing a more down-to-earth character than the wild Sailor, Cage was drawn to the melodrama within the script, and took to the piece by acting in a style he referred to as ‘operatic’ (Ebert, 1995), playing heavily on his emotions and the mental state of the character. He plays Sanderson in many ways: quiet, loud, happy, sad, tired, restless, living, and, finally dying; it is a role of extremes, where he employs his full “bag of tricks” (Weston, 1996, 160) in an attempt to portray this character as vividly and truthfully as possible. Every actor can bring their own take on a character, as the script is a “skeleton” until the chosen actor has identified what it is that they think makes that character tick, and how most effectively to portray that character and their relationships with other characters (Moss, 2004, 111); as recognised by the Academy, Cage brought to the role something powerfully unique – it was his range of (and love for) extremes that allowed him to play it so powerfully.

It is through these mixing of styles that Cage started to formulate his idea of ‘Western Kabuki’. Whilst the Japanese theatre style of kabuki has gone through many changes, its main components are a “collaboration of acting, sound and physicality” (Gibb, 2015, 28), and can be seen as an avant-garde style of performance – fitting in with Cage’s desire to move away from realism. Cage sees the main part of his Western Kabuki style as the use of his voice, wanting to use it in “a heavy-metal or operatic or baroque way.” (Gibb, 2015, 29) Kabuki plays have been seen as less works of literature and more as vehicles for the central performers to “demonstrate their enormous range skills in visual and vocal performance” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014) – looking at some of Cage’s later films, such as The Wicker Man (2006) or Drive Angry (2011), it can be seen that Cage’s kabuki style has been taken to the fore of the films he stars in, but in films such as Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas, and later Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, this exaggerated and experimental style is meshed with the subject matter of the film to bring out truths within the characters that he is playing. The side of kabuki centred around dance is evident, too: his mother, a trained dancer, likened his performance in Wild at Heart as similar to modern dance, due to his unbridled physicality and how unpredictable he was in how he used it. (Brockes, 2013) Eventually, his dabbling in Western Kabuki led to him creating another acting method, this one called ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ (Gibb, 2015, 30), in which Cage wanted to find parallels between ancient Shamans and modern actors. Shamans typically used spiritual practices to bring about altered states of consciousness, with rituals being the centre of those practices; rituals would induce “trance, mystical visions, out of body experiences, a radical shift in awareness, [and] soul-journeying” (Dox, 2014, 115). This acting method could be seen as the culmination of his experimentations with avant-garde acting: as a part of the method, Cage would attach ancient artefacts to his clothing, gather crystals and minerals that are known to produce vibrations, and paint his face black and white in the style of Afro-Caribbean shamans. All of this may seem somewhat over-the-top for preparation for the central role in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), but it shows Cage’s dedication to every role that he throws himself into: if he is to play a being from another dimension, then he will find the means to understand what it is to be a being from another dimension.

Cage is an actor that pushes boundaries, unafraid of results. Ethan Hawke has described him as the only actor since Marlon Brando to try new techniques within acting, an actor who has taken us away from an obsession with naturalism and into a performance-based style of acting more similar to those of the old troubadours. (Gibb, 2015, 31) The idea of linking Cage to an older style of acting is well founded; his acting style can be compared to that of a silent movie star (Gibb, 2015, 31), as well as him being compared to Werner Herzog’s old leading man Klaus Kinski in his movements and use of facial expressions. (Keough, 2010) More than that, he has stated that he grew up watching German expressionist films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) from a very early age. Influences such as these show how an actor like Cage could formulate his own acting styles away from those in the norm, refuting the method acting of the time and moving in a new direction entirely; not just returning to older, more exaggerated acting styles but also finding new ways to express himself, and in the process finding new ways to portray truth on the screen.

Judith Weston, when discussing whether to favour the inside-out style of acting or the outside-in acting style, states that “surely the best actors can do both.” (Weston, 1996, 145) Cage understands this. It is this restlessness in his search for truth that makes him so notable – looking at his body of work, he has played “yuppies, scumbags, honorable rogues, heroes, villains, a gangster, a lovelorn punk, a pair of screenwriters, a greasy weapons dealer, at least a dozen cops and ex-cons” (Gibb, 2015, 74) – the list goes on, and has taken to each role with his own take on it, more often than not fitting the part and turning the character he is playing into something unique. For this, he can surely never be called boring. His breadth of knowledge on the craft of acting indicates a man fully immersed in his craft: his use of voice and physicality, his use of working from the outside-in as much as inside-out, his understanding that costume and props can build a character, his interest in merging theatrical styles with more traditional screen acting styles, his lack of fear of playing characters new to him, his creation of new methods of acting; all of these things show an actor not just fully immersed in his craft but also fully dedicated to it. Weston states that “[t]he really great actors love their craft. They experience acting as a kind of laboratory of the soul, a means of exploration and growth” (Weston, 1996, 141) – this is certainly true of Cage, a man who has dedicated his life to exploration and growth not just in his life, but also in his craft. An actor who believes that it is important to “break as many rules as you can” (Cage, 2003), Cage always pushes forward, even when appearing in low-budget or mainstream films. It is this kind of attitude that sets him apart from most modern actors, many of whom are content to play similar roles time and time again, and it is this kind of attitude, along with his impressive body of work and expansive range, that puts Cage in the ranks of the greatest actors of all time.

 

 

Bibliography

Adler, S. Kissel, H. (2000) Stella Adler: The Art of Acting. Applause.

Brockes, E. (2013) Nicolas Cage: ‘People think I’m not in on the joke’ . [online] London: The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jul/20/nicolas-cage-frozen-ground [Accessed 28 March 2016]

Butler, J. (2007) Television: Critical Methods and Applications. London & New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cage, N. (2003) Inside the Actor’s Studio: Nicolas Cage. [interview] Bravo. Interviewed by James Lipton, Inside the Actor’s Studio, Feb 16.

Dox, D 2014, ‘Shamanism’, Ecumenica, 7, 1-2, pp. 115-119, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, viewed 4 April 2016.

Ebert, R. (1995) Cage relishes operatic role in tragic ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. [online] Roger Ebert. Available from: http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/cage-relishes-operatic-role-in-tragic-leaving-las-vegas [Accessed 2 April 2016]

Ebert, R. (2008) Adaptation. [online] Roger Ebert. Available from: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-adaptation-2002 [Accessed 29 March 2016]

Gibb, L. (2015) National Treasure: Nicolas Cage. Toronto: ECW Press.

Hirsch, F, & Bell, J 2014, ‘BIRTH OF THE METHOD’, Sight & Sound, 24, 11, pp. 44-51, Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 4 April 2016.

‘Kabuki’ 2014, Encyclopædia Britannica, Research Starters, EBSCOhost, viewed 4 April 2016.

Keough, P 2010, ‘CAGE UNLOCKED’, Sight & Sound, 20, 6, p. 35, Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 4 April 2016.

Moss, L. (2005) The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor. New York: Bantam Books.

Nordine, M. (2014) Nicolas Cage Explains His Acting Style, and His Legacy. [online] Los Angeles: LA Weekly. Available from: http://www.laweekly.com/film/nicolas-cage-explains-his-acting-style-and-his-legacy-4559572 [Accessed 29 March 2016]

Weston, J. (1996) Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film and Television. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Wood, J.M. (2015) 16 Wild Facts About ‘Wild at Heart’. [online] Mental Floss. Available from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/67686/16-wild-facts-about-wild-heart [Accessed 2 April 2016]

 

Filmography

Coppola, F.F. (dir.) (1984) The Cotton Club. [film] United States: Orion Pictures.

Figgis, M. (dir.) (1995) Leaving Las Vegas. [film] United States: United Artists.

Herzog, W. (dir.) (2009) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. [film] United States: Millennium Films.

LaBute, N. (dir.) (2006) The Wicker Man. [film] United States: Warner Bros.

Lussier, P. (dir.) (2011) Drive Angry. [film] United States: Summit Entertainment.

Lynch, D. (dir.) (1990) Wild at Heart. [film] United States: The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Murnau, F.W. (dir.) (1922) Nosferatu. [film] Weimar Republic: Film Arts Guild.

Neveldine, M & Taylor, B. (dirs.) (2012) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. [film] United States: Columbia Pictures.

Parker, A. (dir.) (1984) Birdy. [film] United States: TriStar Pictures.

Scorsese, M. (dir.) (1980) Raging Bull. [film] United States: United Artists.

Wiene, R. (dir.) (1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. [film] Weimar Republic: Decla-Bioscop.

 

Essay: Third Cinema – A Cinema of War

Third Cinema purposefully deviated from classical Hollywood stylings; it saw classical Hollywood cinema as “synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good”, and that “[a]t best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice.”

Third Cinema – A Cinema of War

This piece looks at how Third Cinema purposefully deviated from traditional Hollywood norms so as to found a new type of cinema that could serve the people, by being in the hands of the people. It uses The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) as a case study, so as to see how Third Cinema aimed to separate itself from classical Hollywood cinema, or ‘First Cinema’ (as well as European auteur cinema, or ‘Second Cinema’). Third Cinema purposefully deviated from classical Hollywood stylings; it saw classical Hollywood cinema as “synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good”, and that “[a]t best, films succeeded in bearing witness to the decay of bourgeois values and testifying to social injustice” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) – likewise, Second Cinema, whilst seen as progressive compared to First Cinema, was seen to be limited by it still being within the bourgeois society, and as such was “doomed to wait until the world conflict was resolved peacefully in favour of socialism in order to change qualitatively.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969)

Progenitors of Third Cinema such as Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, who introduced the term ‘Third Cinema’ (Willemen, 1989) in their seminal essay Towards a Third Cinema (Getino & Solanas, 1969), wanted to consciously break away from this style, and create cinema that had the potential to emancipate the lower classes by spreading awareness of the injustices being perpetrated against the people by a corrupt system – it was to be a cinema “committed to a direct and aggressive opposition to oppression” (Gabriel, 1982).

The Hour of the Furnaces, an actively revolutionary film made by Getino and Solanas before they wrote their formative essay, first debuted internationally at the Pesaro Festival in Italy in the June of 1968, (Mestman, 2013) and was one of the cornerstones in the process of forming the concept of Third Cinema. Getino and Solanas wanted to create a piece of cinema that actively moved directly away from escapism and entertainment, and instead highlighted the plight of those oppressed in their home country of Argentina. To do this, they decided that this film would have to be totally resistant to assimilation by the bourgeois system, by making sure that it not only had nothing to offer the system, but that it was also directly setting out to fight this perceived system. (Getino & Solanas, 1969)

This approach to filmmaking is perhaps the biggest way that The Hour of the Furnaces differs from mainstream Hollywood: it was a political act, not one born of a desire to make money, or even to create art just for art’s sake. Notions of a star system and the promotion of wholesome family values had no relevance to what Getino and Solanas wanted to achieve, and instead the ‘stars’ of the film were their subjects: the people of their home country. The film could be seen as a ‘subjective documentary’ – within the film, many Argentinian people of lower class are interviewed, and speak of the troubles that they are subjected to. In showing these real scenes, the film wants to put across its beliefs of inequality, and engage its intended audience – i.e., those seen in the film as well as intellectuals unhappy with the state of the country – into a violent, armed revolution. We are shown the massive social divide in Argentina, where the wealthy of Buenos Aires enjoy a comfortable, Westernised lifestyle and the lower classes and natives live in poverty, unable to change their situation. The film argues that the time for complacency is over, and that every citizen of Argentina should take a stand: “[t]he worker who goes on strike and thus risks losing his job or even his life, the student who jeopardises his career, the militant who keeps silent under torture: each by his or her action commits us to something much more important than a vague gesture of solidarity.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) This point of view can be seen in contrast to the Hollywood system, in its utter refutation of the status quo; generally by the conclusions of the Hollywood movies of the era, the status quo would be reinstated, backing up a lack of desire for change or not seeing a need for it in the world that these films represented. With The Hour of the Furnaces, Getino and Solanas aimed to break this status quo not in fiction but in real life, by refuting the positive view of the status quo in First Cinema.

Although the film is primarily a documentary, it still tells a story: by chronicling the oppression of a native people and the lower classes, we are still being subject to a narrative. However, unlike First Cinema, it is not structured in a typical way. The use of title cards, narration and music keeps the film’s sense of flow, but the film moves from place to place and from topic to topic freely, allowing us to take in the full breadth of the environments and situations that the film is addressing. It is not characters that the film centres on, but real people – so unlike traditional Hollywood, it is not fiction that drives this film, but something genuine. This could be seen as the filmmakers wanting to show the audience a full portrayal of the oppression in the country, so as to allow those less educated on their positions to start actively questioning the parts of their culture that are oppressing them. American culture permeates the film, but not in an unconscious way – the film bombards the audience with American adverts (including one scene intercut with the slaughter of cattle, thought to be a reference to ‘Second Cinema’ director Sergei Eisenstein (Schroeder, 2007)), and displays scenes of Argentinian youth who are dressed in highly Western-styled clothing and listening to American music. “We are taught to think in English” (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), the voiceover says – and they want to change all of this, and allow Latin America to form its own identity free from Western influence, particularly the perceived neo-colonial influence of the United States.

Again, the story they are telling is true, and they want people to pay attention to it. The mode of address in the film is indicative of this: it speaks directly to its assumed audience of the people of Argentina, imploring them to bear arms against the oppressors. Whilst Hollywood films regularly employed voiceover narration, it was never as direct or incendiary as the voiceover work in The Hour of the Furnaces. This is cinema as war – Getino and Solanas saw themselves “acting as the cinematic insurgent patrol in the armies of liberation fighting colonialism and imperialism” (Brenez, 2012). The reality presented in the film was theirs also – a far cry from the distance between a Hollywood producer or director and the fiction of their film.

Third Cinema did not attempt to achieve the perfection and mass popularity that First Cinema strived for: in The Aesthetics of Hunger (Rocha, 1965), Rocha describes it as “a project that has grown out of the politics of hunger and suffers, for that very reason, all the consequent weaknesses which are a product of its particular situation” (Rocha, 1965). In fact, it was this technical perfection and need for appreciation that it railed against: it aimed for “a new kind of distribution, outside the circuits still dominated by Hollywood products.” (Armes, 1987) As opposed to the large, public theatres that Hollywood films would be shown in, The Hour of the Furnaces was screened at clandestine meetings, where the film could be stopped and be discussed (Shroeder, 2007); something that would likely have never happened at a screening of a Hollywood film. But again, it is not for entertainment that this film was made: it was to incite revolution, and every screening of the film ran the risk of being caught by the dictatorship that they lived under (Brenez, 2012). Hugely distinct from the family-orientated appeal of the Hollywood film, The Hour of the Furnaces transformed its audience “into responsible historical subjects, not because they did or did not agree with the content of the film, but by virtue of the very decision to attend, despite the threat.” (Brenez, 2012) To Getino and Solanas, “in Latin America, the war is waged principally in the minds of men” (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), so to allow discussion of their film during showings was a way of getting their audiences to think, which could lead to them enlisting their support to help overthrow the ‘System’. The imperfections in the method of distribution for the film were as important as the message they were spreading, even being a part of that message: the point of seeing this film was not to have an evening out with family or friends, but to take part in a social and political activity.

The production of the film, too, was in opposition to that of a Hollywood production. It was filmed clandestinely in between 1966 and 1968 (Schroeder, 2007) by Getino and Solanas, with them not only filming interviews with citizens of the lower classes and revolutionaries, but also collecting archive material and newsreels to splice into the film. (Mestman, 2008) The guerrilla nature of their filming made completion difficult, as they explained: “A lack of foresight which in conventional film-making would go unnoticed can render virtually useless weeks or months of work.” (Getino & Solanas, 1969) But this way of shooting a film shows how with the right amount of dedication a Third Cinema film can be produced; through careful planning, and by using whatever you have at hand or can find, the creative limits of the Hollywood production budget can be defeated. A Third Cinema film can “be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle” (Espinosa, 1969) ­– these limitations can be used to create art that consciously deviates from the norms of the art of the bourgeois – art that is inherently and proudly imperfect. Getino and Solanas harnessed their limitations and were able to create something truly unique with it, something one likely wouldn’t have found in any of the Hollywood films of the era. In The Hour of the Furnaces, “uncompromising raw footage is transmogrified into art, just as the alchemy of sound-image montage transforms the base metals of tiles, blank frames, and wild sound into the gold and silver of rhythmic virtuosity.” (Stam, 2003)

In conclusion, Third Cinema wanted to distance itself from Hollywood because of the oppressive bourgeois society that it helped to promote in Latin America; as seen with The Hour of the Furnaces, to achieve this it utilised as many techniques as it could to distance itself from the First Cinema, from the basic format of a story and using a realist and social documentary style to convey its message, to its guerrilla production methods, to its stance as a political and revolutionary movement. It is these approaches that allowed it to succeed in it breaking away from traditional Hollywood’s norms, and allowed it to become its own, unique form of cinema, one that could be used by any oppressed group around the world to make a statement about their condition of life. Seeing the camera and projector as a gun (Getino & Solanis, 1969) – a tool of war (and of change) – was a revolutionary step to take in the advancement of cinema, and it is this aggressively revolutionary stance that helps to make Third Cinema what it is; a cinema for the people, a cinema by the people, and, most importantly, a cinema that can strive to genuinely change the world; the fact that Third Cinema films aren’t always going to achieve their social or political goals is fine – it is an imperfect cinema, after all.

 

Bibliography

Armes, R. (1987) Third World Film Making and the West. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Brenez, N. (2012) Light my fire: The Hour of the Furnaces. [online] London: BFI. Available from: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/greatest-films-all-time-essays/light-my-fire-hour-furnaces [Accessed 15 December 2015]

Espinosa, J.G. (1969) For an imperfect cinema. In: Scott MacKenzie (ed.) Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gabriel, T. (1982) Third Cinema in the Third World. An Arbor: UMI Research Press.

Getino, O. & Solanas, F. (1969) Towards a Third Cinema. [online] Documentary Is Never Neutral. Available from: http://documentaryisneverneutral.com/words/camasgun.html [Accessed 13 December 2015)

Mestman, M. (2008) The Hour of the Furnaces: Crafting a Revolutionary Cinema. [online] Vertigo/Close-Up Film Centre. Available from: https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-3-issue-9-spring-summer-2008/the-hour-of-the-furnaces-crafting-a-revolutionary-cinema/ [Accessed 13 December 2015]

Mestman, M 2013, ‘The worker’s voice in post-1968 Argentine political documentary’, Social Identities, 19, 3/4, pp. 306-323, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 14 December 2015.

Rocha, G. (1965) The Aesthetics of Hunger. [online] Amherst College. Available at: https://www.amherst.edu/media/view/38122/original/ROCHA_Aesth_Hunger.pdf [Accessed 13 December 2015]

Schroeder, P. (2007) Violence and Liberation in The Hour of the Furnaces. [online] Senses of Cinema. Available from: http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/cteq/hour-furnaces/ [Accessed 14 December 2015]

Stam, R. (2003) Beyond Third Cinema: the aesthetics of hybridity. In: Anthony R. Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake (eds.) Rethinking Third Cinema. New York: Routledge.

Willemen, P. (1989) The third cinema question: notes and reflections. In: Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds.) Questions of Third Cinema. London: British Film Institute.

 

Filmography

Getino, O. & Solanas, F. (dir.) (1968) The Hour of the Furnaces. [film] Argentina.