The Literary Shining of a Cinematic Light
Though cinema and literature are from various perspectives very different, even fundamentally so, as the former relies on concrete resemblances and the latter on abstract signs on a page, nevertheless novelists have often been influenced by, seduced towards or written novels about the movies. In 2018, Sight and Sound published an article listing the hundred best novels and stories on cinema, and it is far from an exhaustive list. Amongst them are The Moviegoer, Point Omega, Short Letter, Long Farewell, The Loved One, Contempt, Blonde and The Last Tycoon. But there is also Pubis Angelicus, one of numerous novels that Manuel Puig wrote that could have been included, since Puig more than most novelists, in a century where cinema couldn't easily be avoided, insisted on film's influence on his work. Other Puig books immersed in film include Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. In his capsule write up on Pubis Angelicus, David Melville registers Puig's passion for film. "He once threw a close friend the cinematographer Nestor Almendros out of his Greenwich Village flat for impugning Lana Turner's acting talent." (Sight and Sound) Here was a cameraman who shot films for Truffaut, Rohmer and Malick being told he didn't know what he was talking about, or at least that Puig didn't want to hear what he had to say. It is a moment that could have come out of a Puig novel, a truculent piece of first-person melodrama that needn't have turned into a scene but did. It might have appeared absurd that Puig would eject Almendros from the premises for so minor a misdemeanour in judgement, and even more so since we might assume the great cinematographer was the man of cinema and not Puig, but Puig seemed to know forties and fifties melodrama better than most, and always saw his awareness of cinema as greater than his engagement in literature. "I don't know much about literature" (Review of Contemporary Fiction) Puig claimed. "In Rio, the video collection came to definitively replace the book collection, and Puig set out to create what his friends knew during his last years as "the cinito on Rua Aperana": a miniature movie house, a minute and systematic reconstruction of his earliest nights at the cinema in General Villegas." Javier Montes continues. "On March 19, 1981, he wrote to his family from the airport where he was awaiting the arrival of a Beta video recorder, which was being shipped from New York, as if it were his most beloved relative: I'm in the airport to pick up la machine!!!" ('The Top Secret Cinema of Manuel Puig')
While there have been numerous writers who have been drawn into Hollywood, seeing the financial benefits of writing for the silver screen, plenty who have been interested in watching numerous films, many who have written novels about cinema, and allowed films to have been made from their work, Puig might be one of the few who acknowledges that watching films has meant more to him than reading books. "I don't have traceable literary models because I haven't had great literary influences in my life. Instead that space has been occupied by cinematographic influences" (Review of Contemporary Literature) Obviously, there have been adaptations (including a moderately well-known film of Heartbreak Tango and the famous Kiss of the Spider Woman from the mid-eighties with William Hurt and Raul Julia) but what interests us chiefly is the cinematographic as self-reflexive influence and as a subterranean force. To take the latter first, Montes quotes Puig talking about the gauchos from his youth. "How well they portioned out the story!!! People stayed until two in the morning, outside in the cold, listening and listening. They started bringing out ponchos and kept telling those stories. I adore a well-paced tale, forgetting myself. Getting completely absorbed by a story causes me tremendous pleasure. That's what I learned from cinema, but cinema didn't invent those values." ('The Top Secret Cinema of Manuel Puig') Puig also acknowledges differences between film and literature, saying "film has a certain narrative approach and th novel another...Your attention behaves differently. In cinema your attention is centred on images and sounds." (Review of Contemporary Fiction) Yet while he sees Hemingway as a writer who has absorbed cinema, few would assume Puig has done so in a manner which resembles the taciturn American. When Puig talks of the gauchos telling stories cinematically we can more easily see Hemingway than Puig. A Hemingway story like 'Indian Camp' or 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' could be read out over a fire, but Puig works like Pubis Angelicus and Heartbreak Tango?
Both novels absorb the melodramatic tropes that are central to the work of the film stars he loves: Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Lamour and Bette Davis, but they also play with formal techniques that seem to us the domain of literature. The structure adopted in Pubis Angelicus is threefold: a contemporary tale of an Argentinean woman ill in Mexico, a story set in the past about a woman caught up in Fascism, and a futuristic story where a cyborg woman services various men. Though the book was turned into a film in the early eighties, nevertheless it was unlikely to have the impact of a more straightforward narrative perhaps because though film is perceived as the more popular medium, the strengths of literature can often appear like weaknesses, even impossibilities and certainly eccentricities of the film form. Here we can take a very obvious example. In literature to say that people are acting like sheep we are clear what is the privileged aspect: it is the people not the sheep. The sheep are only there to reflect the sheepishness of the people. As Christian Metz says, "in filmic metaphors the two things are aligned side by side (the crowd and the sheep) and the phenomenon of transfer of meaning is much less clear cut. The crowd remains a crowd, the sheep, sheep." ('Current Problems of Film Theory') There is an associative equality. This we might assume extends across an entire work so that when we note books like Pubis Angelicus or Ian Banks' The Bridge represent different aspects of a single consciousness, the privileged narrative would be offset by essentially metaphoric stories alongside the main one. In Pubis Angelicus, the 'purposeful' narrative is Ana's, the Argentinean woman ill in Mexico, with the others subordinate to it. As critic Jay Canto says, "the novel depends for its interest on our being able to read the sometimes slack fantasies in relation to Ana's "real" life, a life only very gradually given us. So it isn't till the last quarter of the book that the fantasies have sufficient, involving interest." (LA Times) Such a problem is much greater in film partly because of the difficulty the subordinate stories have remaining subordinate to the main one. Puig is right when he says film and literature are distinct and that in film that our attention behaves differently. If the sheepishness in literature is an idea; in film the sheep, expected to allude to the idea, become too present. They are sheep: they have wool and black noses and if the film has sound can make sheep noises. Equally, across a narrative this will accumulate as a problem and while this doesn't mean films should eschew the desire to bring together very different modes of storytelling, such an attempt means the movies will become very different from the melodramatic works Puig so loves.
A marvellous work like Alain Resnais's 1981 work My American Uncle offers three modes of discourse within the one film: three characters all with a favourite film star (and where clips of their work are shown) who are then contained by a behavioural psychologist explaining and exploring his work. The film is deemed radical enough for a literary and film theorist Seymour Chatman to say that it "exemplified a broader and more complex approach to text-type actualisation than the commercial cinema had yet seen." (Coming to Terms) Chatman's purpose is to explore how Resnais presents an argument in film form, saying, "I want to discuss the film in considerable detail for two reasons: first, it introduces explicit argumentation in an innovative way; and second, it problematises the relationship between narrative and argument in ways unusual to the cinema (though not to literature)." Indeed, Kiss of the Spiderwoman (the book) looks a lot like My American Uncle without at all proving a difficult text. It too has a story about various characters accompanied by filmic tales told by one of the two main figures in the book, and also footnotes explaining various psychological theories concerning homosexuality. The threefold aspect is there in Resnais' film and Puig's book, but Puig's novel is almost an easy read while My American Uncle is a perplexing and original work of film. Yet all we need extract from Chatman's remarks for our own purposes is to note how easy it is to present an argument in literature and how hard it might be to do so in cinema, and see how this can be for similar reasons concerning the stubbornness of the image in the face of the abstract. A metaphor or simile is difficult in film because the two terms become equally valid while we have noted in literature it is clear which term is the privileged one: the people and not the sheep.
Equally, a book can exemplify an idea through its illustration because the thing it illustrates need never become as privileged as the idea getting expressed. If a first-person narrator says that of all his friends, Julian was the most happy, the writer can then give albeit dramatic examples of this happiness. But the happiness we are shown is serving the premise of happiness that has been set up. A few paragraphs later we would expect to return to the narrator as he tells us about the other friends, less happy and for various other reasons. But a filmic equivalent would be more inclined to run away with itself, as if Julian would become too strong for the narration that produces him and a return to the narrative could seem like an intrusion, even a disappointment. We don't want to exaggerate this, and voice over is very commonly used in film even if it still relatively rare for it to function as insistently as a narrator in a novel. But that My American Uncle is seen as exceptional because it does keep interrupting its narrative flow suggests exemplifying situations from the perspective of thoughts and ideas remains something film is quite resistant to, though numerous great filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, the Straubs and others) have tested those limits, and works by Joseph Losey, Nicola Roeg and John Boorman have played with them in films that have been close to commercial.
However, this isn't chiefly an article about cinema but literature, and more specifically about Manuel Puig. Our point is that the literary playfulness at work in the Argentine's work is not uncommon in literature: Puig may have been immensely influenced by film but the approach he takes is literary. If he can suggest Hemingway was a writer who wrote quite close to the cinematic it rests partly on the ostensible simplicity of Hemingway's stories, close enough to the gauchos' tales to suggest that they both got cinema at its narrative source. By relating events in a manner that gives us little access to a character's inner thoughts but a series of their actions, Hemingway's short stories can resemble the typical script which insists on show don't tell. But try telling a Puig novel round the fire and note how quickly the reader would get lost. His books are usually what we can call literary melodramas, perhaps a paradoxical term but useful in understanding the way they combine the diegetic melodrama of the films he loves, with the narrative tricks that contemporary fiction often deploys. In Heartbreak Tango, Puig tells the story of a young man, Juan Carlos Etchepare, who everyone in the small town in which he lived was besotted. Suffering from tuberculosis since his youth he dies when he is still a young man and the novel begins on his death, with one of his lovers, Nene, from the past writing to his mother asking for the return of her letters and expressing how she loved Juan ten years earlier, saying that she is now married to a man she doesn't love. Much of the book is made up of letters, not just letters by Nene to Juan's mother, but also those who wrote to Juan and Juan writing to his lovers. Other chapters offer dialogue exchanges with no narration in between, nor speech marks, only dashes. "Hello...It's Fanny!Hello? Who is this?It's me, Fanny! Big Fanny, is this Nene?" Another chapter reports a criminal deed through the language of a police procedure. "On the eighteenth day of the month of June of the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty-nine, the undersigned Police Captain Celedonio Gorostiago, under the authority of Lieutenant Benito Jaime Garcia who countersigns for all legal purposes, testifies that in this act the preliminary investigation corresponding to the bloody deed in which Police Officer Francisco Catalino Paez, ex-official of this police station, lost his life, is hereby established." Other passages are medical reports. "Symptoms: Last menstruation second week in April, vomiting, nausea, general state of patient confirmation." Still others, accounts of events that are still quite different from third-person narration. "Opening time: 630 P.M. Price of tickets: one peso for the gentlemen, twenty cents for the ladies. First Dance performed by the musical band called Los Armonicas: tango "Don Juan."
The chapters are introduced by quotations from songs and films, commercials, poster advertisements. Whether it is from the publicity for Red Dust "she fought with the fury of a tigress for her man! He treated her rough and she loved it", to an ad-line "for today's modern woman, personality comes before beauty", Puig absorbs the modernist principles of collage, bringing together materials from different arenas to find manifold narrative possibilities within the novel. Such a combination in film form would make for a work closer to Godard and Resnais than the melodramas and noirs Puig loved. What makes the work literary melodrama is the combination of stories that are intricately woven and at the same time over the top. In Heartbreak Tango, a young maid stabs the man who is the father of her child to death long after he won't acknowledge his paternity. We also find that the mother who receives Nene's letters where she insists she always loved Juan and never the man she married, isn't receiving them at all. It is Juan's sister who receives them and pretends to be her mother all the better to get revenge on Nene: she puts them together in a package and sends them to Nene's husband. Describing the events in some of Puig's novels and you have melodrama; describe the way they are put together and we have the literary modern, even post-modern.
Natasha Wimmer proposes that Puig's eschewal of conventional narration rests on insecurity more than literary play. Quoting the writer's biographer she says, "Puig was afraid that he would make mistakes or sound silly if he wrote in a standard third person, so he channelled his writing through the voices of the people he knew growing up, writing in 'voice-over,' as he put it" but also of course through many other methods too. Such a claim can help explain Mario Vargas Llosa's belief, quoted by Wimmer, that Puig's novels were "light literature [with] no other purpose than to entertain", noting too that, of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig...He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject. Wimmer sees this as unfair and supposed such assumptions also led to further prejudices. "Manuel Puig occupies a curious place in Latin American literature. Chronologically, he should be a member of the Boom generation, but he's rarely included in the usual catalog of Boom writers (Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes)." Wimmer says, "this is not because he was less prominent, though since the 1980s his reputation has faded a little. His novelsespecially Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)were internationally acclaimed and widely read. He was a genuinely popular writer while at the same time a radical innovator..." ('The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig')
We might not rate Puig's work as highly as Wimmer but does an interest in melodramatic subjects lead to a lower reputation than writing for example about political ones? We should be wary of such a line; Puig often combined the two. Pubis Angelicus, published in 1979, is nothing if not an account of the political horrors in Argentina during the seventies. The ill woman in Mexico receives visits from an Argentinean lawyer involved in protecting and defending those deemed enemies of the state, and has thus himself become perceived as an enemy too. Ana may reckon that "a lawyer who defends a prisoner, it doesn't mean he's committed the same crime," but Pozzi replies "yes, but a lawyer who defends only political prisoners, and those in opposition to the government, you can imagine that it doesn't come out looking very favourable for them." He is in Mexico partly to persuade Ana to help these opposing government forces to kidnap her very wealthy ex-husband, who is now closely associated with the government. The lawyer, Pozzi, intends to move permanently to Mexico as well, moving his family with him but first needs to go back temporarily, and in disguise. There is much talk in the novel about the intricacies of the Peronist position, how the Peronistas can seem from one perspective left-wing, from another right, and also depending on certain periods during the post-war years. Juan Peron was a populist leader who came to prominence after building union power and securing pension rights, vacation and retirement benefits, and severance pay. Briefly in government before being forced to resign, while also being arrested, popular protests led to his release. Juan came properly to power in 1946: "revenues were redistributed in favour of the workers; public services were nationalized, and urban and industrial areas were given preferential treatment over their rural counterparts." (Encyclopaedia Brittanica) But after Peron's wife Evita's death in 1952, Peron became more conservative and many of the groups that would previously have supported him were now against him. In the mid-fifties, his government was overthrown and a military dictatorship took over for several years. By the time the Peronistas came back into power in 1973 it was left wing, but Peron himself was right-wing, and with his support, the party purged its leftists, and Peron was soon elected president, with his second wife as vice president. "He continued the campaign against the left, and in May 1974 the victims of the purge acknowledged the break with their leader and passed into (still) legal opposition." (Encyclopedia Brittanica) Peron died a couple of months later and after various problems including a huge devaluation of the currency and a large drop in wages, the military was once again in power, and Argentina had its infamous military junta. The economy improved and many people's lives greatly worsened. "This economic relief, however, was accompanied by continued political violence. Thousands of citizens were killed or imprisoned or disappeared." (Encyclopedia Brittanica) The lack of politics initself can't be the problem. There is plenty of it in Pubis Angelicus, and a socio-political context is all but necessary in understanding it.
Much of these political details are also the backdrop to Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Valentin a political prisoner and Molina the imprisoned 'pervert' expected to report on his cellmate. In Pubis Angelicus, Ana and Pozzi exchange views on Peronism. "To me that government is the real Peronism, of torturers and Nazis" Ana says. "It wasn't the Peronism that I was working for, and you know how hard I worked." "Pozzi, you imagined Peronism as you pleased, and you got married to it without knowing it first. And only now is the beast baring its fangs to you." For Pozzi, Ana is often the empty-headed beauty who doesn't understand politics but we might also note that understanding the intricacies of Argentinean political affairs when Peron can be both generous man of the people of the forties, and an oppressive figure in the seventies, doesn't make politics easy. But, as in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Puig offers the political from the position of the passionately, socially engaged, to those who see passion elsewhere. In both books, the politically focused explain to those who have other things going on in their mind (usually suffused with movies) how they can understand an aspect of political reality.
In this sense, Puig isn't a political novelist but he helps us comprehend that one reason why political realities remain a modest force in people's lives is that romantic and heroic fantasies represent much greater ones. Hence the melodramatic aspect that overshadows the political, and perhaps partly why Puig isn't seen as a figure interested chiefly in politics but in overblown feeling. Nothing suggests Puig would wish this to be otherwise, taking into account his love affair with the movies but this is where our earlier tussle with Christian Metz and semiotics segues into psychoanalytic questions that cinema was also utilising.
In film, numerous theorists of the late sixties and seventies adopted Lacanian psychoanalysis to try and comprehend cinema's problematic pull for people, seeing that Lacan's notion of the child's misrecognition in front the mirror at a very early age resembles the spectator in front of the cinema screen. The viewer like the child is looking for a unity of perception and the cinema provides it with identification and suture: with giving us characters whose affairs we follow closely and in a style that means we are always where we would wish to be in the viewing experience. The film shows us a long shot and we want the close up and get it; the camera offers us an establishing shot of the building and soon enough we are inside that building. Puig wasn't oblivious to such enquires. "I find the new French school of psychoanalysis very interesting," Puig says. "Very hard to follow, but interesting." (A Last Interview with Manuel Puig) After the interviewer says, "what interests you, the notion of mirroring? Puig reckons, "Yes. It's hard enough to try to understand it, let alone say anything about it, but I have the impression that there's definitely something there. But films are the real influence von Sternberg and the whole MGM look, if I can define it that way. Not especially great directors at MGM, but a certain visual style, contributed by producers like Thalberg and Mayer and second-rate directors like Fleming, Leonard, Mervyn Leroy. And the faces of their women." "So, for you," the interviewer says, "it's the stars, the fantasy, that matters rather than the qualities that cineastes discover in films?" Yes. For me it is the fantasy that stars embody. The constellation of vices and virtues." In Pubis Angelicus, Pozzi tries to explain aspects of Lacanian theory to Ana, as though determined to make sense of that space between the socio-political and the fantastic, between the political that sits behind the books and the melodrama that drives them: between how the I exists and the other within us. As Pozzi says, "He [Lacan] says that the 'I' is that part of the self over which each one has control, that is the conscience. Later that part over which one doesn't have control, or let's say the unconscious, passing as foreign, crosses over to join the surrounding universe. It is the Other."
We needn't concern ourselves too much with Lacanian thinking except to say that Puig's purpose seems to be to incorporate the literary within the fantastic, to suggest the importance of the films he loves within the melodramatic tales he often tells, while also acknowledging the distance demanded to pass for the literary at all. If Puig's novels were films more or less faithfully adapted they would be much more radical works than the novels happen to be because, as we have noted, of the greater resistance film has to abstraction. Pubis Angelicus, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Heartbreak Tango, as well as a short story like 'Relative Humidity 95%', possess the narrational density missing from much of cinema. One might not think Puig is a great writer, but Vargas Llosa is being just a little unfair when he suggests Puig produces light literature with no other purpose than to entertain. There are constant markers of the literary in his work indicating we are reading a piece of 'literature' rather than a work of 'fiction'. And yet this isn't a prejudicial claim we wish to make: Hemingway is closer to fiction than to literature if we accept that Hemingway is closer to the telling of the gauchos than the literary baroque of Puig, and why Hemingway is a writer much easier to film than the Argentine. By way of comparison, we can look at a Hemingway story as opposed to Puig's, keeping in mind Puig's claim that Hemingway had a cinematic conception of reality. In 'Relative Humidity 95%' it is a horribly hot morning in an Argentinean household where the parents bicker and the boy won't get out of bed. There is no tale here that the gauchos could tell; the story is an exploration of the senses to the detriment of ready narrative cohesion. At no point are the characters who speak named, and there is no use of he said or she said to make clear who is speaking. It is a story not so much told as a series of perceptions and characters you fit together to arrive at coherence. A typical story has a denouement, a temporal movement of events that can lead us to a conclusion, and in this sense Hemingway often tells typical stories, and typical stories are often also those we find in films, no matter the frequency of flashbacks. So what better Hemingway to contrast it with than 'The Killers', a short story filmed (and filmed again in the sixties) in 1947 and that filled out the back story and utilised flashbacks to make the story feature-length and more crime oriented. Yet the story itself is an impeccable example of suspense meeting resignation. Here we have two men going into a diner in a belligerent mood who eventually reveal they are waiting for a man to show up, and obviously to kill him. They tie up the one customer Nick Adams and also the black cook, and the owner George stands waiting for Ole to appear. But Ole Andreson doesn't come and the men leave, with Nick Adams taking off afterwards to Andreson's rooming house to warn him. But Andreson knows it is a matter of time before they get him and Nick returns to the diner, both of them knowing not only that Ole is a dead man but that Andreson knows it too. There is much to be said about Hemingway's story, not least an implausibility that would seem to contain a deeper plausibility. By telling Nick and the others that they are out to get Ole surely when Ole doesn't turn up they should have killed the three in the diner to make sure that news doesn't get back to Andreson, but we realise before the end of the story that Andreson is a dead man already, awaiting his fate. The killers know that he has nowhere to go and will bide their time. The story ends before Ole is killed but where his death is imminent.
For our purposes what is interesting about the story is the complete lack of difficulty it offers cinema, taking into account some of the comments made near the beginning of this essay. Indeed, one of the ironies is that when filmed, the director Robert Siodmak, added narrative complexity rather than reduced it. It becomes a great forties film noir with a complex robbery, a femme fatale that betrays Ole and a serpentine double cross narrative. Yet Hemingway has provided more than enough in his spare, immediate (if past tense) tale that covers around two hours of real time. Out of that time, the film covers many months, but what could a filmmaker do with a short story like 'Extreme Humidity 95%'? The story is both much more literary and much more resistant to film than Hemingway's story, and very far away from anything one would care to tell the gauchos around the fire. Hemingway's story is easy to tell, and we have just told it; Puig's can hardly be 'told' at all. By suggesting Puig's story is more literary than Hemingway's, by distinguishing between fiction and between literature, we can insist upon Puig's literary aspirations without even remotely suggesting he is a more important writer than Hemingway. What Hemingway understood more than most was that literature could become contractive and 'simplified', just as Henry James realised it could become perspectival and ever more intricate. They are such important writers because they each pushed their respective realisation into the further reaches of certain technical procedures, aware perhaps that so many stories when told utilise one or the other. Think how often we tell a story from our point of view, or how often we leave out details that finally aren't pertinent to the story and Hemingway and James, for all their differences, can be very narrationally verisimilitudinous. Puig, however, can appear much more contrived, as though nobody would tell a story like Puig unless they were determined to prove themselves as literary writers.
There are a couple of anecdotal details that would back such a view but these in themselves only take us so far. The first is the aforementioned claim that Puig was afraid of error and thus channelled his voices through multiple narrative modes rather than a more straightforward third-person narration. The second is a claim Puig made himself, saying: "it's always to please one person in particular. To convince one person of something. It has always been like that. I don't know, for me writing is always an act of seduction. At a certain point there's an important person in my life...someone I respect who doesn't respect me. We disagree about something and I write to show that person I am not as dumb as I sound." ('A Last Interview with Manuel Puig') Would that person have been at some point Vargas Llosa or others who shared Vargas Llosa's reservations? Yet such anecdotal material is limiting, and in this sense Puig proved his critics indeed wrong: he could write literary novels even if for all their technical competence they never become as memorable as the films he so admired and that his characters often narrate.
But if Hemingway channelled cinema through his interest in surfaces over psychological depths, in telling a story with economy rather than expansiveness, cinema's influence on Puig could be seen as much more 'superficial' he wanted to register the movies' tragically romantic sensibility that had as much to do with film magazines and the gossip that surrounded the stars as the performances themselves. Subsequently, it seems Puig had little interest in cinema as an ontological form, as a mode of perception in the world and of the world, but was fascinated by the glamour industry that would make and break the people in it. By taking the plots of melodrama and the lives of stars and shaping them into baroque literary narratives, Puig managed to make his books very far from readily cinematic; instead, producing works of a literary complication that shows them so clearly a product of the late 20th century. Focusing specifically on Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kimberly Chabot Davis sees in the book a "contemporary cultural genre that I call 'sentimental postmodernism.' Since the text is centrally concerned with the politics of mass culture and of homosexuality, it also bears some relationship to the critical practice called "camp." ('Audience, Sentimental Postmodernism, and Kiss of the Spider Woman') It seems a fair summation of Puig' work, and though Davis looks at camp chiefly through the prism of Richard Dyer's thought, we can see that Sontag's famous essay, 'Notes on Camp' both hinders and helps us in understanding Puig's fiction. "The peculiar relationship between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it's not true that Camp is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap." Puig's approach to postmodern camp, to "sentimental postmoderism" is to elevate the material of the cinema he loves with the downgrading of literature he merely likes. He will take forties and fifties melodramas starring Hedy Lamar, Rita Hayworth and others and pass them through the prism of complicated collagist narratives utilising letters, diaries, dialogue without speech marks and identification, police reports and even footnotes suggesting a form quite distinct from earlier modes of fiction (no matter the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century fascination with the epistolary).
Yet it would seem Puig's purpose isn't to elevate the novel but to promote much more the films he loves to give them a life beyond the screen and on the page. It appears to us the opposite of Hemingway's purpose which, at its best, could draw upon the simplest of scenarios, told in the most straightforward of language and with a temporal contraction, allowing a continuum between the stories a cowboy might tell around a fire, a story that can be offered in print, and a film that can easily adapt it. To state the obvious, Hemingway is very far away from the Camp sensibility unless we include the camp fire around which the story can be told, but perhaps one way of looking at Camp is that it often offers a complicated surface texture that within it contains very obvious emotions. Sontag says that "the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers." Equally, Camp can be narrationally convoluted all the better to reveal thoughts and feelings that the surface texture doesn't, finally, impact upon. In Heartbreak Tango, for all the intricacies of the way the story is told, it is really about a series of women and their fascination with a beautiful young man who will die from tuberculosis. It will contain obvious jealousy and despair (when the maid kills the father of her child who won't acknowledge the fact and when she finds him sleeping with the lady of the house) and revenge: when Juan's mother (actually the sister as we've noted) sends the package of letters Nelida sends she sends them not to Nelida but to Nelida's husband. He will thus read about his wife's treachery as she has feelings for a now-dead man whom she has always loved. Told straight, so to speak, and the novel might seem a collection of cliches; told as collagist Camp and it elevates the story without deepening insights.
Maybe Varga Llosa had a good point but for the wrong reasons. That actually Puig did produce literature, but still arrived at a lightness of sensibility, at the obviousness of thought and feeling nevertheless. It was as if for all his interest in playing with form, and making in some ways books that would be unfilmable in their present condition (the 1974 film adaptation of Heartbreak Tango ditches most of the stylistic intricacies), the novels' point and purpose was to replicate the sentimentality Puig loved to witness in classic Hollywood. Thus we end on an anecdote just as we began on one. In his essay on Puig's fascination with cinema, Javier Montes speaks about another writer, Graciela Speranza, interviewing Puig for a book on Argentinean writers. "At that exact sad time of day, according to Speranza, Puig did something unexpected: he stopped talking, turned on a penlight, and shone it through the semi-darkness of the room toward the wall in front of his desk. One by one, he slowly illuminated his collection of portraits of movie stars from the 1940s: Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamar, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth. The light fell on each one individually and lit her up for a few seconds before passing to the next, while he recounted memorable moments from his favorite films." Are the books finally very different from that shining light?
© Tony McKibbin