If Worship Be the Right Name: Samuel Clemens

One day at Riverdale-on-Hudson, Mrs. Clemens and I were mourning for our lost little ones. Not that they were dead, but lost to us all the same. Gone out of our lives forever—as little children. They were still with us, but they were become women, and they walked with us upon our own level. There was a wide gulf, a gulf as wide as the horizons, between these children and those.  We were always having vague dream-glimpses of them as they had used to be in the long-vanished years—glimpses of them playing and romping, with short frocks on, and spindle legs, and hair-tails down their backs—and always they were far and dim, and we could not hear their shouts and their laughter. How we longed to gather them to our arms! but they were only dainty and darling spectres, and they faded away and vanished, and left us desolate.

That day I put into verse, as well as I could, the feeling that was haunting us. The verses were not for publication, and were never published, but I will insert them here as being qualified to throw light upon my worship of school girls—if worship be the right name, and I know it is. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908

(Photographer Unknown) – Frances Nunnally and Clemens, London, July 1907

I am always delighted to discover rare tidbits of human interest that relate to little girls. The most notable British case is Charles Dodgson known to most by the pen name Lewis Carroll who was a skilled photographer of children and enjoyed their company. Only a few years ago I learned there was also an American writer of great stature who also had a strong affinity for little girls which manifested itself in an unusual way in the last years of his life: Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), a prolific writer of novels and essays under the pen name Mark Twain. A pseudonym is used to create a kind of alter ego—to distinguish the man from the character of his work. This period in his life in which he became obsessed with school girls is a personal one and, for the sake of convention, I will refer to him as Clemens but when referring to those written works consistent with his other persona, I will call the author Mark Twain.

This interesting epiphany about Clemens’ association with young girls was best fleshed out in a book called Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence 1905–1910 (1991) edited by John Cooley. Cooley was then a professor of English at Western Michigan University. The editor’s first knowledge of the Aquarium Club came from his second cousin, Marjorie Breckenridge, who still had in her possession the letters Clemens had sent her. Fascinated with his cousin’s teenage friendship with Mark Twain, he set out to find out more—scouring the various institutions that housed his papers. The book endeavored to contain nearly every known written communication between Clemens and the young women who constituted his Aquarium Club. Undoubtedly, many of the letters have been lost. Because of its peculiar nature, this aspect of his life has been largely excluded from biographies.

(Photographer Unknown) – Louise Paine and Clemens in the angelfish headquarters, the billiard room, Stormfield, Summer 1908

When the book was written, only seven letters from angelfish survived of the eighty-seven letters Clemens wrote to them during this period. Since Clemens was a diligent saver of letters, it is assumed that his daughter Clara, who strongly disapproved of the Aquarium Club, disposed of many of them after her return from Europe in September 1908.

For example, Hamlin Hill’s important biography of Clemens’ last decade, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973), reveals many aspects of Clemens’ last years that strongly contrast with the image of him perpetuated by his daughter Clara and his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Until then, it was generally believed that Clemens remained the “king” of American humor—a devoted family man and playful public cynic, passing gracefully into retirement and old age. Only more recent biographies gave clues to the breakdown of his family life after 1904, upon the death of his wife Olivia which followed that of his eldest daughter, Susy. His relationship with his surviving daughters, Clara and Jean, became so strained that neither spent much time with their father during his last years. Clemens’ overwhelming vanity and unpredictable rage made him extremely difficult to live with. Quite routinely, after prolonged visits, Clara would place herself in a rest home to regain her emotional strength.

The impulse to be humorous choked a man whose sense of rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions. -Hamlin Hill. Mark Twain: God’s Fool, 1973.

(Photographer Unknown) – Irene Gerken and Clemens, Bermuda, Winter 1908

These girls and young women were no doubt reminders of the happy years when his own daughters were younger, and of his girlfriends from that happiest of times, his own adolescence.

His earliest sweetheart was Laura Hawkins. Clemens recalled her as a blond, blue-eyed “charmer” who wore white summer frocks, plaited her hair into two long tails, and lived across the street from the Clemenses in Hannibal. She was also the inspiration for Twain’s Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer and other stories. In the fall of 1908 Laura contacted him and was invited to come visit.

About next Tuesday or Wednesday a Missouri sweetheart of mine, is coming here from Missouri to visit me—the very best sweetheart I ever had. It was 68 years ago. She was 5 years old and I the same. I had an apple, & fell in love with her and gave her the core. She figures in “Tom Sawyer” as “Becky Thatcher” -Samuel Clemens in a letter to Margaret Blackmer, October 1908.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Quick and Clemens, Tuxedo Park, August 1907 (1)

Another important sweetheart was Laura Wright. She was fourteen when she met Clemens, an age of some significance appearing frequently in his stories. Years later his rules of the Aquarium Club stipulated that only school-age girls were eligible for active membership. In 1906, Clemens dictated a remarkably detailed passage for his autobiography concerning his brief romance with Wright, one summer forty-eight years earlier while she was sailing on a freighter with her parents from St. Louis to New Orleans.

I found that I remembered her quite vividly and that she possessed a lively interest for me notwithstanding the prodigious interval of time that had spread its vacancy between her and me. She wasn’t yet fifteen when I knew her.

Clemens stated that he was never more than “four inches from that girl’s elbow” during their waking hours over the next three days.

That comely child, that charming child, was Laura M. Wright, and I could see her with perfect distinctness in the unfaded bloom of her youth, with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time. … I never saw her afterward. -Samuel Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Charles Neider ed., 1959.

Wright’s parents did not approve of her continued association with Clemens who was the pilot of another ship. He wrote to her many times, but the letters were intercepted and disposed of. He did not hear from her until the publication of these passages 48 years later. She wrote to him to ask for money which he sent her, thrilled at the prospect of being her hero. He was quite dismayed by her change of circumstances, having a modest career as a teacher.

When I knew that child her father was an honored judge … What had that girl done, what crime had she committed that she must be punished with poverty and drudgery in her old age? … It shook me to the foundations. The plaited tails fell away; the peachy young face vanished; the fluffy short frock along with it; and in the place of that care-free little girl of forty-eight years ago, I imagined the world-worn and trouble-worn widow of sixty-two -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, August 1906.

(Photographer Unknown) – Margaret Blackmer and Clemens in the cart; Maude, the donkey, with her groom Reginald, Bermuda, March 1908

Clemens’ fond recollections were not just from his own adolescence, but from the joy of spending time with his little daughters. And during the period of their childhood, Susy, Clara and Jean Clemens more than filled his need for contact with teenage girls. He teased and played with them and frequently created stories for their entertainment. His desire to relive these wonderful moments was made more acute by the death of his eldest, Susy, in 1896, the death of his wife, Olivia, and the lack of grandchildren. Two manuscripts devoted to his family, “A Family Sketch” and “The Children’s Record” (Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley) reveal how much pleasure his young daughters gave him.

For Clemens, childhood was the most important time—the central experience of life. Although boyhood portraits figured prominently in Mark Twain’s best-known and greatest works, in later years the author turned his attention to the adolescent female.

Clemens’ repeated concern for the innocence of his angelfish suggests that he believed young women became spoiled or perhaps corrupted upon entering the age of sexual activity. In both his fictional and his autobiographical writing, Clemens returns with some frequency to the idea of the “platonic sweetheart,” in which a somewhat older and more experienced male both longs for and wishes to protect his school-age sweetheart. This paradigm is most clearly expressed in the short story “My Platonic Sweetheart” (1898), which purports to be a report of Twain’s recurring dreams in which he is always seventeen and his love is an innocent maid of fifteen. Although he kisses her and they walk “arms-about-waists”, he insists that it “was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it.” Nor was it the mere affection of brother and sister, but something “finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting” (Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, 1922).

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Sturgis (?) with Clemens, Bermuda, Winter 1908

Clemens worked out his concept of young female innocence in greatest detail in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895). Clemens remarked that Joan of Arc was written out of love, not for money, and that his heroine reminded him of his daughter Susy and believed it to be his best work. He was something of an authority on Joan—citing eleven books on the topic in his preface. Other revealing though minor portraits of young women appear during Clemens’ last decade of writing: “The Death Disk” (1901), “Eve’s Diary” (1905), “A Horse’s Tale” (1906) and an essay, “Marjorie Fleming, Wonder Child” (1909). There is a note of pessimism in his interpretation of the Saint Joan story: that an innate and powerful goodness cannot survive long in the real world, certainly invoked by his memories of Susy.

It is known that about three hundred letters were written and received by Clemens and the schoolgirls as well as personal notes indicating the extent to which the girls occupied his thoughts during the last five years of his life. In 1908, the Aquarium Club was at its height and Clemens sent several letters a week to the angelfish and received an equal number in reply and became his “chief occupation and delight”. Despite the author’s usual inventiveness in his writing, this correspondence was much more formulaic in his attempt to plead for letters and visits from his young friends. Nonetheless, amongst the gushing sentimentality, one can find small gems of wit, wisdom, and humor we would normally associate with Mark Twain at his best.

In grandchildren I am the richest man that lives today: for I select my grandchildren, whereas all other grandfathers have to take them as they come, good, bad or indifferent.  Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey and Clemens on the front steps, Stormfield, Summer 1908

The spark for the Aquarium Club came from Clemens’ correspondence with a girl named Gertrude Natkin whom he met during his travels. Then one “golden day” in the winter of 1907, a fourteen-year-old English girl and her mother came to visit. Since then, Dorothy Butes and Clemens maintained a correspondence and he considered her his first angelfish. Only later did he begin “collecting” and corresponding with schoolgirls in earnest: Butes was followed by Carlotta Welles and Frances Nunnally, girls he met while on a ship for England. On the return voyage he also met Dorothy Quick. The first half of 1908 is when Clemens formulated his plan to establish his aquarium to be comprised of a school of girls of bright and lively temperament. The club really began to take shape during Clemens’ two winter trips to Bermuda, adding Margaret Blackmer, Irene Gerken, Dorothy Sturgis, Hellen Martin, and Helen Allen. Clemens notes that most readers will understand that, like all collectors, we believe our fad to be more rational than any of the others.

… As for me, I collect pets: young girls—girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. My collection consists of gems of the first water. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, February 1908.

Each of the girls received a pin as a memento of their friendship.

Heather Morgan – Angel-fish pin given by Mark Twain to Louise Paine (Mark Twain Library, Redding, CT)

In June 1908, Clemens moved into a new home in Redding, Connecticut aptly naming it ‘Innocence at Home’ to commemorate his latest fascination. This villa was able to accommodate the angelfish during their numerous visits. New acquisitions at this point were Marjorie Breckenridge, Dorothy Harvey, and Louise Paine. Clemens’ daughter Clara disliked the name of the villa and its associations and had it changed to Stormfield—a name apropos to a period of discord in Clemens’ domestic life and the eventual decline of the Aquarium Club to come.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey, Clemens and Louise Paine in the “Fish-Market”, Stormfield, Summer 1908

Clemens’s own awareness of his destructive pessimism, of his great rage at the swindle of life, must have driven him all the harder to construct about himself a small court of happiness, innocence, and youthfulness, which he set against the ever painful reality of his life. Thus, his indulgence in stories and tales involving young female characters and his collection of young angelfish serve as a surprising antistrophe to the strophe of his rage and despair. -John Cooley, Mark Twain’s Aquarium, 1973.

Although Clemens’ last years were often dominated by loneliness, illness, and depression, his angelfish letters are nearly always optimistic, loving, and playful; they reveal the depths of his loneliness and the size of his need for attention and affection.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey and Clemens, Stormfield, Summer 1908

It is interesting to examine this work in the context of his other writings of the period: his autobiography, The Mysterious Stranger, and in his late stories, essays and letters. The contrast between this and his angelfish correspondence helps us appreciate the conflict between his natural inclination for youthfulness, playfulness and affection against his growing fatalism and cynical rage.

Clemens’ writing during his last decade does not include young female characters and reveals his preoccupation with predestination and a corruption seemingly inevitable in adulthood. In one of the most bleak yet most important works of his last years, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain has his cosmic representative, a young cousin to Satan named Philip Traum, reveal that human and earthly reality are purely an illusion. Despairing as this seems, he concluded that the great, unbeatable weapon of the human race is laughter. In another work, What is Man?, the old man declares that nothing is able to shake humanity of its fundamental cheerfulness, not even the most bleak facts of existence.

For Clemens, there seemed an eternal dichotomy between evil and good, darkness and light. As Albert Stone expresses it, Clemens sought to maintain a “desperately delicate balance between despising mankind and loving certain individuals, between intellectual assertion of a meaningless universe and intuitive awareness of love’s reality” (Albert Stone, The Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain’s Imagination, 1961).

A core issue in this counterpoint between light and dark is Clemens’ ambivalence about sex and sexuality and as Mark Twain, he generally avoided dealing with the subject. A set of writings published posthumously bears this out. Letters from the Earth (1909) concerns morality, the hypocrisy of religion and racism. It takes the form of a personal report to Satan, informing him of the numerous foibles of Earth’s human denizens. Clara Clemens initially objected to its publication in March 1939 but finally conceded that “Mark Twain belonged to the world”. The letters were first collected, edited and published by Bernard DeVoto. Twain writes the following startling revelation expounding on humans’ obsession with sex, despite the well-known presence of Biblical admonitions.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in woman’s construction is this: There shall be no limit put upon your intercourse with the other sex sexually, at any time of life.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in man’s construction is this: During your entire life you shall be under inflexible limits and restrictions, sexually.

During twenty-three days in every month (in absence of pregnancy) from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent. As competent as the candlestick is to receive the candle. Competent every day, competent every night. Also she wants that candle—yearns for it, longs for it, hankers after it, as commanded by the law of God in her heart. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter VIII, 1909

(Photographer Unknown) – Helen Allen and Clemens, Bermuda, 1908

Not all the letters have a cynical tone. Twain speaks eloquently about the beauty of the “sweeter sex” and that of the nakedness of an uncorrupted human body.

The pleasant labor of populating the world went on from age to age, and with prime efficiency; for in those happy days the sexes were still competent for the Supreme Art when by rights they ought to have been dead eight hundred years. The sweeter sex, the dearer sex, the lovelier sex was manifestly at its very best, then, for it was even able to attract gods. Real gods. They came down out of heaven and had wonderful times with those hot young blossoms. The Bible tells about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter IV, 1909.

The convention miscalled modesty has no standard, and cannot have one, because it is opposed to nature and reason, and is therefore an artificiality and subject to anybody’s whim, anybody’s diseased caprice. And so, in India the refined lady covers her face and breasts and leaves her legs naked from the hips down, while the refined European lady covers her legs and exposes her face and her breasts. In lands inhabited by the innocent savage the refined European lady soon gets used to full-grown native stark-nakedness, and ceases to be offended by it. A highly cultivated French count and countess—unrelated to each other—who were marooned in their nightclothes, by shipwreck, upon an uninhabited island in the eighteenth century, were soon naked. Also ashamed—for a week. After that their nakedness did not trouble them, and they soon ceased to think about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter III, 1909.

This last passage expresses effectively a key philosophy of Pigtails in Paint. Also of interest is a book written by one of the angelfish, Dorothy Quick, Enchantment: A Little Girl’s Friendship with Mark Twain, 1961.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Quick and Clemens, Tuxedo Park, August 1907 (2)

*Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations are part of a collection of Mark Twain Papers housed at the University of California, Berkeley.

Love Is Expensive: Lamb

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

There has been some buzz about a film released last year called Lamb (2015). There were two films that year with that title, so this is not the one about the Ethiopian boy! This film covers the challenging subject of the relationship between an 11-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man. Watching it for the first time is suspenseful, because one does not know what to expect. After all, can American cinema tell this kind of story convincingly without resorting to cliché?

The film is based on a novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam. This seems a very personal project for Ross Partridge who wrote the screenplay and played the lead, David Lamb. In the beginning, he is staying at a motel having been kicked out of the house by his wife. He is caring for his father who is chair-bound and dies early on in the story. We also learn that he has been having an affair with a woman named Linny, who seems to be crazy about him despite his many faults. His biggest fault is that he is a chronic liar and uses the lies to avoid facing the pain of the real world. Meanwhile, the girl Tommie (Oona Laurence) is shown altering her clothes, making herself more revealing to fit in with her friends.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (1)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (1)

Having just buried his father, David is sitting and smoking at a cemetery across the street from where Tommie and her friends are. On a dare, she comes up to him to ask for a cigarette. He gives her one but, in one of his many paternal impulses, makes her take a puff right there.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (2)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (2)

She coughs from the smoke—symbolic of her virginity—and confesses that her friends put her up to it. He tells her his name is Gary, his first lie. He warns her how dangerous it is to approach a strange man like this alone. He hastily persuades her to pretend he is abducting her to teach her friends a lesson and make them worry what they might have done to her. He puts her in his blazer and drives off.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (3)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (3)

This throws her off, but she plays along. He tells her that, “Even though I’m not a bad guy, I could have been.” He takes her home, but does not meet her parents. Her mother and her boyfriend work long hours and do nothing but sit in front of the television when they are at home, barely acknowledging Tommie’s existence.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (4)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (4)

David is told to take some time off work until things settle down. He returns to the cemetery and finds Tommie there. She explains that her friends didn’t even care that she was gone. Suddenly, David is the only person in her life paying any attention to her. To apologize for his abrupt prank, he offers to take her to lunch. They enjoy each other’s company and, in an awkward moment, Tommie asks if David would like her email. For a moment, David is taken aback and warns her that their spending time together will look strange to other people. Nonetheless, it seems a friendship is budding between these two lonely people.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (5)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (5)

Tommie is shown shaving her legs, indicating she treats this as a serious grown-up relationship.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (6)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (6)

David explains that he was planning a trip to his father’s cabin and that Tommie is welcome to join him. There are many clues that this girl has an unhappy life with no meaningful friendships and he gets the idea of giving her a whirlwind trip of beautiful memories she can look back on—staying in a rustic cabin with mountains, streams and horses. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine it.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (7)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (7)

He wants to assures her that they are partners in this adventure and that she take some time to consider if she really wants to go with him. Any time she wants to quit, he promises to turn around or put her on a plane home. The trip starts out pleasant enough. There is a scene with Tommie sucking on one of those candy rings. When it is in her mouth, it looks like a baby’s pacifier, but on her hand, it is a ring suggestive of a committed relationship.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (8)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (8)

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (9)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (9)

Throughout the trip, David reminds Tommie of the terms of their partnership. She seems to understand the need for a certain amount of deceit to maintain appearances and calls herself Emily when around strangers. Although they share a motel room, David stays outside when she is cleaning up and dressing, going out of his way to show her that he respects her privacy.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (10)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (10)

As the trip progresses, Tommie gets a little homesick; she is getting further and further from home, and yet she does not want to go back. A woman notices her and asks if she can help. David hastily interrupts, telling her that his “daughter” is just car sick.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (11)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (11)

On occasion, David’s parental impulses kick in and the contract between them is broken followed with retorts that he is treating her like a child. The first incident happens when he offers her coffee and she jostles his arm, spilling scalding liquid on her. In a panic, he rushes her to the bathroom so she can wash and cool off in the shower. She screams pitifully for him to leave her alone, but he persists until she hands him her soiled shirt to be cleaned; all the while the shower curtain is placed carefully between them.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (12)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (12)

Finally, they arrive and Tommie has the bunk room for all to herself along with a few gifts that are waiting for her.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (13)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (13)

While playing in the stream, an old man comes up to them. This time David pretends to be the girl’s uncle and “Emily” just needs some time away after her mother’s untimely death.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (14)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (14)

There is another scene of bonding when they dance together before their next run-in with the old man.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (15)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (15)

David asks Tommie to go to the shack—where the refrigerator is—to get him a beer and says she may have a sip. Right when she takes a sip, the old man walks in. Suddenly, David has to cover for this and rushes her away, scolding her in a phony parental rage. The old man seems to accept the explanation.

Tommie complains that she still has not seen any horses. To satisfy her request, the two of them sneak over to a neighbor’s property. Tommie is delighted even though the horses are a bit scraggly.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (16)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (16)

For the most part, David does his best to make the stay as pleasurable as possible. But tension is brought to a head when Linny makes a surprise visit to console him; they used to go to the cabin together and so she knows the way. As the car pulls up, Tommie is whisked away to hide and told that staying hidden will be her greatest challenge so far. David does not seem to be putting any pressure on Linny to leave and after one day, Tommie observes them making love. This sight makes her nauseous and she runs into the field to be sick.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (17)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (17)

She finally decides to force the issue and appears in the room where the two of them are sleeping, startling the woman. David has to rush to explain things—this is the first time Tommie learns his real name. Linny is upset despite his explanation and drives off.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (18)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (18)

Although Tommie’s feelings about David are clear, his feeling for her are not. He seems to be driven by guilt over his own brother’s disappearance at age 12 and that the boy never got to experience the beauty of life. Along the border fence, he pounds in a commemorative post telling Tommie that this is meant to symbolize his special love for her and that she should remember it as her post. He tells her that he is going to will the cabin to her so that when he is gone, she can go there and make it her own—remembering this special week together.

David reminds Tommie that once the week has passed, he will return her home and she will pretend that she simply ran away. She does not want to go back. After her shower one night, she finds David very distraught at the idea that Tommie might one day look back at their time together with contempt. She assures him that that would never happen.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (19)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (19)

Finally, they arrive in town and, despite their agreement, Tommie does not want to leave. Upset, she explains that maybe they can make people understand their love. David tells her, “Love like ours is expensive.” In order to protect it, they must pay the price of not seeing each other. He made a few vague reference to the possibility of future meetings—that she would know he was there by some secret signal.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (20)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (20)

They embrace one last time and Tommie gets out of the car. As he pulls away, she calls for him to wait and begins running after him as he drives away.

Ross Partridge - Lamb (2015) (21)

Ross Partridge – Lamb (2015) (21)

David may not have misused Tommie in the conventional sense, but he did use her to exorcise his own demons about his poor brother’s abrupt life. He only saw Tommie as a kind of messenger of the dead and, through her, tried to create the kind of beautiful experience his brother deserved. In the mean time, he allowed a girl to fall deeply in love with him—an illusion that must someday end. Are we to believe he really intended to will the cabin to her? Was his declaration of love mere words or just another lie? David really did have reason to fear that Tommie would one day hate him, because in allowing her the fantasy of love, he also created the inevitable reality of heartbreak.

I admit my interpretation may be incorrect because the motivations of the characters are not completely clear. David has an almost compulsive propensity for well-intentioned deceit—in maintaining appearances and in protecting others and himself. I have decided to read the novel to get a better feel for things and perhaps learn what so compelled Partridge to produce this film.

[160213] After reading the novel (Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam), I wanted to add some supplementary comments.

Unfortunately, very few ambiguities were cleared up and the author seemed to want it that way. The author also made a point of naming names, describing the brand names of stores and products in the story, making us keenly aware of corporate dominance in society. Nadzam may have been making a political statement about how corporate culture impoverishes us while the wilds of nature ennoble and strengthen us.

Over all, Lamb seems to be conflicted about his attraction to Tommie and his sense of propriety and paternal impulses kick in and confound things. His low self-esteem seems to foul things up and cannot really understand why the women in his life are attracted to him—his wife Cathy, girlfriend Linnie and Tommie. He is always weaving these tales about how they will one day meet the men they really deserve and leave him.

Many times the author uses ambiguity to create tension in the story. One of the more abrupt and amusing examples is when Tommie is talking about her grandmother—who never even wore pants—and used to make her grilled cheese sandwiches. Lamb said someday the two of them would do that. The timing of their statements is startling at first, but we are supposed to understand that he was really talking about them making grilled cheese sandwiches together and the comment about the pants really meant that granny was old-fashioned and always wore dresses.

In the film, a point is made about giving Tommie her space and she has the bunk room all to herself—not so in the novel. Lamb sleeps on the bottom bunk and later, when Tommie has a fever, they sleep together under layers of blankets together.

In the novel, the age difference is even greater. Lamb is 54, but that detail was simply changed to match the age of Ross Partridge who played the lead.

In the film, Linnie just shows up at the cabin one day. That event also happened in the novel, but it is more clear that he made a point of inviting her, telling her he would fly her out. In part, it showed he did not understand the nature of his feelings for Tommie and may be projecting them onto Linnie. He thought he knew Linnie and that she would never have taken him up on it.

Another point of tension was whether things were make-believe or real in their conversations. Lamb got nervous when he learned that Tommie regarded the trip as “running away”, as though she never expected to return.

The incident with the coffee was much more intimate than in the film. The motivation to get Tommie into the shower was to cool off the burns from the scalding hot coffee and only incidentally to clean her top. In the novel, it was cold coffee—a cup Tommie hadn’t finished—and his concern was that she not sleep in wet clothes and sheets. The night before, Tommie slept in her clothes but this night, Lamb realized he should have bought her some pajamas. Since it was not proper for a lady to sleep in her clothes, he waited outside, counting down, instructing her to clean up, strip to her underwear, fold her clothes neatly behind the chair and get under the covers. When the coffee spilled, he picked her almost naked body out of bed to take her to the bathtub and, in a panic, shut off the lights to assure her that he could not see anything. But she protested that he could feel her. She was uncooperative and sobbing the whole time so he had to wash her himself in the dark, applying soap all over her body and then rinsing her off. In the fuss, she gave him a black eye and there was some bleeding when she bumped her chin in the tub. Only later did he admit to having seen her naked that night.

There was some confusion as to why the old man (Foster) would have been found lurking around and appearing suddenly in the shack. It turns out he and his brother-in-law had built it so he had some sense of ownership of the place and it was a workshop—a somewhat public building. This created a tension that Tommie and Lamb were being observed and every morning Lamb would look for signs that Foster had been there during the night. There were none but the smallest thing would spark his paranoia.

Another change in the film was the way Linnie’s visit ended. In the film, Tommie forces the issue by just presenting herself in plain sight of Linnie. Not accepting Lamb’s explanation, she drives off in a huff. In the novel, Tommie is accidentally discovered by Foster’s son who came over to borrow the snow plow. Both Linnie and Tommie are stunned by the turn of events and stay quiet while Lamb convinces the younger Foster that everything is just fine. He then explains the girl’s presence to Linnie and that he is about to take the girl home to her mother before returning to Chicago himself. She seems to accept this and all depart the same day. The entire trip took 20 days rather than 7–9 it was supposed to be.

A lot is still unresolved. Was Lamb ever suicidal? Or was he a calculating deceiver? Would they ever see each other again? My impression from the film is that he wanted to make a clean break, but in the novel, it seems he did really have feelings for the girl, even if he could not quite admit it to himself. Given his sense of propriety, he wanted to wait until she was older but by that time, she would be a different person.

The Girl as Unrequited Lover: Ana Torrent, Pt. 3 (El Nido)

This post comprises the third and final entry in our Ana Torrent film series.  Before we begin, I would like to point out that, because the quality of film available to me was relatively poor—bleary, washed out and dim—the stills taken from it are not as good as I would’ve liked.  Nevertheless, I took over 120 stills in all and sifted through them to get what I believe were the finest examples from the bunch.  Anyway . . .

Although El Nido (The Nest) was a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1981 Academy Awards, the Oscar instead went to Moscow Does Not Believe in TearsEl Nido is an odd little film directed by Jaime de Armiñán and is widely considered his best film.  It stars Victor Alterio as an aging but spry widower and the then 13-year-old Ana Torrent as the young girl he becomes infatuated with.  Torrent won Best Actress for her performance at the 1980 Montreal Film Festival, as well she should have.  Though Armiñán lacks the artful flair of Erice or Saura, this was a solidly directed film, and I find it strange that I had never heard of it before, only discovering it when I began to look deeper into the early career of Ana Torrent.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered she had starred in Spain’s answer to Lolita!

The film opens with Alejandro (Alterio), a wealthy and reclusive widower, listening to classical music in his living room and pretending to conduct the orchestra.  We see him first in silhouette; when we first see him in the flesh, he’s riding a horse through the forest.
Again, he seems to be conducting an orchestra, though this time the music is in his head.  Alejandro is something of a dreamer and a rebel, a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, and the drum he hears is distinct in his head.  It isn’t a drum, actually; it is Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piece based on the Book of Genesis and inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem that is, in part, about the Fall of Man.  Foreshadowing perhaps?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (1)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (1)

Alejandro’s cerebral concert is interrupted by an egg striking his head.  Befuddled as to its origin, he rides away, only to find a red scarf monogrammed with a ‘G’ attached to a tree limb.  Back at home, Al amuses himself by listening to his music and playing chess against a computerized board.  He tells the game, “I see you coming.  But I will not fall into your trap.”  Definitely foreshadowing.  Meanwhile, the scarf still intrigues him.  To whom does it belong?  Amparo, Al’s housekeeper, comes in, interrupting his reverie.  Al has an antagonistic relationship with the woman, who puts up with his moodiness and eccentricities with great forbearance.  The two exchange shouts and insults more often than not.  Al really doesn’t want her there, and only tolerates her presence because she manages the household affairs, leaving him to his daydreams, the only thing that makes him happy since his wife’s demise.  Amparo berates him for letting basic household upkeep slip, using his dead wife’s memory to guilt trip him, but Al is not interested in such things.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (2)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (2)

Again Al wanders into the woods, this time finding a note with a feather attached that says, “The goldfinch feather will take you to the great tree. G.”  He can’t help but follow the clue.  His curiosity stoked, he climbs up the remains of the ancient dead tree he frequently visits, only to find another note pinned to the top, again with a feather.  “The jay feather will lead you down the stream. G.”  At the stream, Al finds yet another note and feather, this one stuck to a limb out in the midst of the stream.  Having to traverse the swift waters to get to it, Al is both amused and a little exasperated.  The note reads: “The feather of the hawk will take you to the tower. G.”  Who would go to such trouble to torment the old man so?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (3)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (3)

Back at home, Alejandro tries to figure out where the clues came from.  After a lead he’s given by Amparo turns out to be a dead end, he decides to visit his only real friend in town, the local parish priest, Eladio.  Although Al is an atheist with a dim view of religion, and he and the priest often exchange insults, it is clear that the two men are quite fond of each other.  Al brings Eladio a box of chocolates and asks for his help in identifying the handwriting from the notes.  The priest is a scholar and has some knowledge of graphology, among other things.  The priest identifies the writing as that of a young girl, and suggests she is stubborn and uneducated but has some native intelligence, sensitivity, passion and a sense of humor.  These qualities suggest someone who is a good match for Alejandro, if not as a lover then at least as a companion.

The priest also identifies the tower referred to in the final note as the bell tower of his own church.  He and Al decide to climb the tower to look for the next clue.  Here Al wonders why the girl has chosen him.  What exactly does she see in him?  The priest says it’s because he’s a fool and that she’s toying with him for her own amusement.  They find the clue, which says, “Falcon feathers will take you to the performance. G.”  Eladio warns Al that this game could lead to trouble, and informs him that the local school children are putting on a performance of Macbeth.  It seems that Al’s mystery girl may be even younger than he anticipated.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (4)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (4)

And here we get our first glimpse of the girl, Goyita, (Ana Torrent), who is portraying Lady Macbeth in the play, a difficult and nuanced part that requires great acting skills.  Al is immediately taken with the girl’s performance even in the rehearsal.  It is evident now that this is no ordinary young girl.  She is precocious, spirited and beautiful.  I must say: how differently Ms. Torrent looks here than she did in her earlier films!  She reminds me a bit of the young Natalie Portman.  As Lady Macbeth, some of her lines are provocative.  “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” she says.  These are not words one would ordinarily hear coming from the lips of a middle school-aged child.  Al is a captive audience, and Goyita is, in turn, distracted by Al’s presence to the point where it begins to affect her performance.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (5)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (5)

Having been ejected from the rehearsal by the teacher, Al waits for Goyita outside until the rehearsal is over. Their first meeting is in the town square, in the street.  Alejandro walks Goyita home, quoting lines from Macbeth himself.  Meanwhile, Goyita’s teacher spots them walking together and is obviously concerned.  Al—and the audience—finds out here that Goyita is only 13 years old.  No wonder her teacher is worried.  We also learn that Goyita has been aware of Al for years, and it is only recently that she has decided to get his attention, although she did so coyly, through her little game with the notes and feathers.  Isn’t that exactly like something a 13-year-old girl would do?  Usually their affections are reserved for boys much closer to their own age though.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (6)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (6)

They soon arrive at Goyita’s home.  It turns out that her father is a policeman.  This certainly complicates things.  Before they part ways, Goyita mentions that she also knew Alejandro’s wife, yet another element that will cement their bond.  And as she is ascending the stairs to her family’s apartment, she whistles.  What do you think the tune is?  None other than Hadyn’s The Creation, of course.  Is it deliberate?  Well, Goyita has said that she knows where Al lives.  It’s possible—even likely—that she’s heard him listening to this same oratorio.  So, it seems she knows very well what she’s doing.  The last thing she does before entering her home is stomp several times on the floor, an act which indicates that, although preternaturally bright and mature, she is still a kid after all.  Kids tend be noisy when they’re happy.  What is the source of Goyita’s joy?

Immediately she is confronted by the police sergeant, who criticizes her for being too loud.  Goyita’s relationship with the stern and unpleasant sergeant is one of mutual dislike and mistrust, as we will see.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (7)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (7)

Back at home in his study, Al asks Amparo if anyone has come to visit.  He is eagerly awaiting a visit from his new little friend.  He dials the number of the police station, but when someone answers, Al doesn’t speak, afraid to reveal his identity and why he’s calling.  The officer on the other end hangs up on him.

We cut to Goyita’s home, where her family is eating dinner.  She is in fact the oldest of four children.  Psychologists interested in birth order would suggest this accounts for at least some of Goyita’s high intelligence and maturity.  This theory is, of course, only moderately accepted in the larger mental health community.  Nevertheless, Goyita is a good model for the theory.  During dinner, Goyita’s mother criticizes her for climbing trees, calling her a naughty tomboy.  It seems poor Goyita is constantly being attacked from all sides.  One might say she is the typical misunderstood teen, only she is anything but typical.  Goyita’s mom also uses this opportunity to criticize her husband, Goyita’s father, whom she considers a lazy and ineffectual disciplinarian.

Soon the sergeant appears, inviting himself into the house.  Goyita’s dad rises when the sarge—his boss—enters.  Since the family lives over the police station, the sarge is apt to appear at any time.  The sergeant insinuates that Goyita has been climbing to the building’s roof, and the girl curtly answers, “That’s a lie,” earning her a smack to the back of the head from her mom.  We find out that Goyita’s given name is actually Gregoria; Goyita, or sometimes Goya, is a diminutive nickname.  The sarge accuses Goyita of leaving the attic door open and of breaking out a window.  She denies it, but her mother takes the sergeant’s side.  She ends Goyita’s meal and sends her to her bedroom as punishment for these offenses.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (8)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (8)

Alejandro prowls around Goyita’s school, waiting for her to get out of class.  Goyita’s teacher, Marisa, spots him and addresses him.  Their conversation is warm and friendly.  I can’t help but think that, if such a thing occurred in this day and age, the teacher would likely call the authorities immediately, and she certainly wouldn’t be friendly towards the man.  In fact, she apologizes for being rude to him the other day when she chased him
away from the rehearsal.  Meanwhile, Goyita watches the conversation from a nearby window.  She seems worried.  What are her teacher and her new friend discussing?

Well, Marisa is inviting him to the performance of Macbeth!  The old man isn’t sure he’ll be able to make it, though of course there is a powerful drawing card in the form of Goyita.  He wonders if Goyita was assigned this difficult role as some kind of punishment.  This isn’t a bad assumption.  Goyita certainly has a tendency to be mischievous.  But no, she is studying acting and volunteered for the part.  She’s the real deal, Al realizes, a girl truly interested in the arts.  His fascination for her only deepens.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (9)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (9)

Later, Alejandro enters an artist’s studio that’s full of old paintings and objets d’art.  It should come as no surprise that Alejandro is an aesthete, an admirer of beautiful things.  The artist turns out to be a young woman he is well acquainted with by the name of Mercedes.  Indeed, the two are lovers and their relationship is something of an open secret.  Yet, their relationship is well organized, with Al showing up at certain times each month.  This time, however, he has shown up early.  Something—or someone—has stirred up his passion, causing him to break out of his usual routines.  I wonder who that someone could be?

When a young couple shows up at the studio to invite Mercedes to some film event, she casually informs them that she and Alejandro are lovers.  Al feels like she is mocking him because she doesn’t really want to be seen with the old man.  She promptly informs him that he doesn’t understand her at all.  She’s right, for, although the two are lovers, they aren’t really compatible, though not because of their age difference.  They simply have different temperaments.  Anyway, to prove her sincerity, Mercedes drags him into the street and kisses him passionately before all and sundry.  There can be no doubt now that she cares about him, but what are his feelings toward her?  Note that she’s wearing red, the same color we usually see Goyita in.  Red has long been associated with passion and sexuality; so it is here.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (10)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (10)

Later, Goyita shows up at Al’s home on her bicycle.  The gardener nearly sends her away, but Al happens to see her ride up and alerts her to his presence and meets her on the lawn. His joy at her presence is obvious.  This is a man in love, no doubt.  Though Al is pleased to see her, he also takes time to lecture her about leaving home without her parents’ sanction.

Today this same story would be spun another way: Al would be a selfish sexual predator, a one-note villain who doesn’t really care about Goyita and manipulates her to get into her pants, and Goyita would be a lonely innocent who doesn’t understand what she’s getting into.  It would be a cautionary tale about the dangers of underage girls meeting up with strange older men.  But this film is far too classy and nuanced for that.  Alejandro does care about the girl, and while his emotions are running high, sex is the farthest thing from his mind at this moment.

Unfortunately, Al’s scolding, though gentle, upsets Goyita and she storms off.  But Al intercepts her; he doesn’t want her to leave, of course.  She says she came by yesterday and he was gone; she asks where he was.  He was in Madrid, he tells her, a bald-faced lie.  He was actually in Salamanca (which, incidentally, suggests their town is somewhere in the vicinity of Avila), meeting his lover.  Perhaps, then, Goyita has another reason to be upset.  Does she intuitively understand that he has been with a lover?  Maybe she is jealous after all.  Yet, she decides to stay.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (11)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (11)

As the two walk through the woods, Goyita insists that Alejandro not visit her at the school, or talk to her teacher for that matter.  More jealousy?  It must be said, the young teacher is quite beautiful.  Or is Goyita simply worried that word of their meetings will get back to her parents?  Whatever the case, Al promises to do neither of those things in the future.  Next she wants to know why he wears a beard, telling him that it makes him look old.  This is our first real hint that Goyita’s feelings about Al are more than emotional.  She desires for him to look younger, more pleasing to her eye, which means she has been assessing his appearance as someone of the opposite sex.  And yet, when he asks her if she’d like him to get rid of it, she emphatically replies, “No.”  She is confused by her own feelings, perhaps even fighting them.  They hear a bird chirping in the vicinity.  Is it a goldfinch, Al wonders?  Goyita identifies it as a coal tit.  She is forever correcting him on his bird identifications thereafter.  The girl definitely knows her birds!  Is she equally adept at identifying the bees?  Well . . .

Goyita asks about his necklace, which he tells her is a talisman meant to remind him of the concentration camp he was put into by the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.  It’s interesting that all three of the Ana Torrent films we have examined are connected to the Spanish Civil War in some way; few outside Spain can imagine the impact of that event on the lives of those who lived through it and through the Franco regime.  Al in turn asks Goyita how she knew his wife.  As it so happens, she was, like Goyita, a bird nest enthusiast.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the film (which kicks off an extended montage sequence set to music of The Creation), Alejandro and Goyita stand near what appears to be a broken monument in the countryside, both pretending to be conductors.  This is a metaphorical manifestation of their love for each other and their perfect compatibility, as they work together to conduct their imaginary orchestra.  In their minds they are perfectly in sync; but, of course, the realm of the imagination is not reality.   Previously Al had occupied the raised spot in their relative positions, but in an act that conveys multiple layers of meaning, Al steps down and leads Goyita to the higher position.  He is not only demonstrating his true love for the girl by literally placing her on a pedestal, he is also stepping down from his post as representative of his generation and allowing the next generation to replace him.  He’s old and he knows it, soon to die.  More foreshadowing.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (12)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (12)

As the montage continues, they dance.  Couples dancing has a semiotic relationship to sex.  This doesn’t mean that Alejandro and Goyita have had sex (or will), only that if they did, it might look something like this—honest, attentive, joyful and elegant.  We will see the dancing again, and each time it happens, the camera moves in a little closer as their relationship becomes more intimate.  In another kind of dance, the two circle and weave around each other on their bicycles.  Their relationship is being forged and strengthened with these actions.

The montage continues with skeet shooting, Al shooting the skeet while Goyita works the skeet thrower.  He’s a crack shot.  Remember that, because it will be relevant later.  This is also another sexual metaphor.  Al then teaches Goyita to fire the shotgun.  Again, these activities do not imply actual sex; they merely indicate what a sexual relationship would be like between them, a perfect give and take.  Despite their huge age difference, they are perfectly compatible in their shared world.  Would that this was all there was.  But it isn’t.  The reality is, they must contend with the rest of the world, and there is where their
compatibility breaks down, for their huge age disparity will inevitably mean heartbreak for Goyita.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (13)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (13)

The montage continues to unfold, and we see our pair riding horses together, a bit more dancing, and then they play Leapfrog.  It is interesting to note that, among the activities supposedly enjoyed by Edgar Allen Poe and his own 13-year-old bride was this game.  The couple lived in New York City (specifically, Fordham) for a brief time, and there are accounts of Poe and Virginia playing Leapfrog in Central Park with friends of theirs.  Finally, Alejandro and Goyita climb a tree to examine a bird’s nest before the montage ends.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (14)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (14)

Later, as they prepare for bed, Goyita’s two younger sisters, as small children are wont to do, tease their elder sibling about having a boyfriend.  Goyita denies that Alejandro is her boyfriend, and the sisters call him a holy fool.  They have no idea what that means; they’ve only heard the sergeant refer to Al by this term.  It starts an argument between Goyita and her sisters.

Back at Alejandro’s place, Al proclaims to Father Eladio that he’s a normal man, and yet he’s obsessed with this young girl.  The implication here is that Al is no pedophile or sex deviant; he has never been interested in young girls before, but now he finds himself in love with one.  To be fair, Goyita is hardly an average girl.  But what a quandary to be in!  Eladio tells him that if he didn’t know Al, he would’ve reported him to the authorities, yet he knows his friend would never hurt the girl.  Eladio suggests that Al should marry his lover Mercedes to get his mind off the girl and put an end to his loneliness.  Eladio asks how old the girl is, to which Al replies “110 years,” a joke referring to Goya’s precocious nature.

When they meet again, Goyita asks Alejandro what a holy fool is, to which he describes himself to a T, right down to the clothes he wears.  Goyita has the gardener call the police station to inform them that “Goya Menendez is eating dinner with her school friend.”  Again, Al lectures her about lying, especially to her parents.  Goyita dons Al’s headphones, a gesture meant to convey that she isn’t listening to Al’s lecturing.  When he removes the headphones and repeats his point, she again threatens to leave.  She has no patience for Al treating her as an elder treats a willful child; she sees him as an equal and wants him to treat her the same way.  Again he stops her from leaving and agrees with her point that they must lie about their relationship.  Perhaps he is finally seeing it for what it is, whereas Goyita, with youth’s ability to pierce instantly through facades, had seen it that way all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (15)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (15)

Alejandro tells Goyita that he dislikes the civil guard (police).  This seems to make her happy; she dislikes them too.  She asks to see his deceased wife’s bedroom, a request that makes Al uncomfortable for a couple of reasons, but he agrees to do so nonetheless.  At this point Goyita attempts to properly seduce Alejandro.  She picks up his wife’s brush and begins brushing her own hair with it.  She tells Al that his wife was unattractive in comparison to her, describing the woman as short, stocky and small-breasted!

She then goes through his wife’s old things, finding a beautiful blue dress that she holds up to herself.  She clearly has plans to replace Al’s absent spouse.  She says that it’s rumored that Al married for money rather than love.  This accusation finally pushes Al past his breaking point, and he becomes angry, but Goyita quells his anger by pointing out that she never actually believed the rumors.  She asks why they never had children.  Al says it was because his wife was barren, an answer that satisfies Goyita, who may be thinking about having kids with Al herself.  Finally, Goyita wonders if his wife suffered as she
was dying.  Al says that he suffered more than she did.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (16)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (16)

Then they have dinner.  The meal is elaborate, but only because Goyita is there.  She is flattered that Al would go to such trouble for her.  Later, while the two are looking at bird nests, Al asks why Goyita chose him.  “For everything,” she tells him.  Giving up the pretense of cautiousness, Al decides to drive Goyita home.  On the way, her teacher spots her in Al’s car and is obviously worried about her student.  Before she leaves his car, Goyita asks him if he likes her.  He tells her that she’s a child, albeit a bright and sensitive one. But that’s not what Goyita wants to hear; she wants to know if he likes her as a woman, and says that if he doesn’t, she will leave and never speak to him again.  She’s giving him an ultimatum: either love me on my terms or don’t love me at all.  Al tells her that he does indeed like her as a woman, but that it isn’t normal for someone his age to be attracted to a 13-year-old girl.  She asks for and receives a kiss from him (a chaste
one on the cheek).  He says to her that if people tell her bad things about him, she shouldn’t believe them. She agrees wholeheartedly.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (17)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (17)

While speaking to Goyita’s teacher, who has ostensibly come to ask him about music for the play, Al asks her why she agreed to let the girl play Lady Macbeth.  “Because she is evil enough to understand the role,” the teacher insists.  The teacher then asks him why he chose Goyita.  He never really answers her, but he points out that Goyita forbade him to talk to her, so he is violating his promise by even speaking to her.

He and Goyita meet again in the woods.  They swear a blood oath, mingling their blood in an act that mimics consummation.  They each carve their own first initial into the palm of the other and rub the wounds together.  Goyita then gives Al her red scarf, and Al gives Goyita his talisman.  Goyita then asks him to burn all of the pictures of his wife as well as her clothes and other belongings.  This he refuses to do, and she leaves.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (18)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (18)

Later, at school, the teacher asks to see Goyita’s hand.  When she asks what the A means, Goyita says, “Nothing.”  Because it is a letter A, the teacher asks all the boys whose names begin with A to stand.  But none of them have an initial on their hands.  She then asks all the children with an initial to raise their hands.  Every child laughingly raises their hand.  The kids are making a joke of Goyita’s love, but the teacher still believes it is another child who shared the blood oath with Goyita.  She tells her students that childhood romances are normal, though she does have some concerns about the cutting because of the risk of infection.

Later, as Marisa is painting props for the play, Goyita pays her a visit.  While getting her to help with the painting, the teacher also devises a plan to get Goyita to reveal what’s going
on with her: she will ask Goyita a personal question, and for every question she asks her, Goyita will get to ask Marisa a personal question in turn.  Goyita agrees to these terms.

After a few throwaway questions, Marisa gets down to the nitty-gritty.  “What does ‘A’ mean?” inquires Marisa.  Goyita replies, “You already know,” but she admits it stands for Alejandro.  Goyita asks what will be on the next test, which, by the established rules, the teacher must answer and does, but she isn’t happy about it.  How clever our girl is!  The teacher then asks if Goyita has the ‘G’ on his hand, which of course he does.  Goyita then wants to know why her teacher went to visit her friend.  She responds that she wanted to know if he was a trustworthy person.   The teacher then asks what it is Goyita and Alejandro do together.  Goyita lists the things they do, which does not include anything sexual.  The teacher advises Goyita to end the relationship, but Goyita claims it has already ended because he refused to do everything she commanded him to do.  (Despite the stereotype, it is clearly Goyita who is in charge of the relationship and doing all the manipulating.)  Even so, this is a lie on Goyita’s part—her relationship with Al may have undergone a temporary setback, but it is hardly over.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (19)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (19)

The film cuts back to Alejandro’s place.  Although he had refused to destroy his wife’s belongings, in the end he does as Goyita asked, burning her clothes and the photos of her in his yard.  It seems that no matter how much he resists, he cannot refuse Goyita in the end.  This is what true love has done to him.

The next morning, Goyita discovers that the sergeant has released her pet falcon, which rightly enrages Goyita.  She then happens upon the sergeant screaming at her father, presumably about his daughter’s shenanigans.  Goyita confronts the sergeant about her bird, but he simply shouts at her and calls her an idiot, then chases her out of his office.  Goyita, visibly upset, vows to kill the sergeant.  It’s an empty threat, of course; she is no murderer.  But she despises him that much.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (20)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (20)

Al visits his wife’s grave, and the priest finds him there.  Eladio tells Al that the townsfolk,
including the girl’s family, all know about their little romance.  Most people think Al is a bit koo-koo but basically a decent guy.  A small minority think he’s a sex maniac, however, and that he should be taught a lesson.  Eladio says he should beware of the latter group.  Alejandro tells Eladio that for the first time in his life he is really living.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (21)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (21)

When Goyita returns home for supper that night, her mother informs her that she is being shipped off to her aunt’s, and sends her to bed without her supper.  Her father too has had enough, it seems.  He removes his belt, preparing to give her a lashing.  Goyita wants to know why she’s being punished.  After all, it’s not like she and Alejandro are hurting anyone or doing anything wrong.  All they do is ride horses, listen to music and so on.  As it so happens, the anger from her father is all a front to fool his wife.  He doesn’t actually whip Goyita but repeatedly strikes the bed beside her instead.  This makes her mother happy, as she thinks her daughter is finally getting her long-deserved punishment, but her dad seems to understand his daughter better than her mother does.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (22)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (22)

Later, Alejandro tells Goyita that he bought a bird guide.  It seems Goyita has instilled in him her love of birds.  But now she is upset, for she is being sent away on Friday to live with her aunt.  This will be the last time they will get to be together.  She tells him too that the sergeant released her bird and took away the talisman Al gave her.  She asks him to kill the sergeant for her.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (23)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (23)

Back at home, Alejandro’s reminiscences of his times with Goyita are interrupted by Amparo.  In the past this would’ve made him angry, but it’s clear from their exchange that he is a changed man thanks to Goyita.  He treats his servant much better now.  Moreover, he is a broken man.  The loss of the love of his life has ripped the heart out of him.

In their final meeting, Al reveals to his priest friend that he spent five years in the seminary. They share a laugh over that.  Al decides to track down Goyita to her aunt’s place.  Of course, she can only watch him through the window, but she is very happy to see him.  It will be his final view of her, and he will take it to his grave.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (24)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (24)

Alejandro next goes to the police station, where he challenges the sergeant to a duel.  The sergeant thinks he’s joking, but he is quite serious.  He assures the sergeant that he is a terrible shot, but of course we know better.  Later, Al waits on the cliff to ambush the sergeant, who brings Goyita’s father with him.  They both carry machine guns, hardly a fair gunfight.  But Al doesn’t care about this anyway.  He fires on the sergeant and apparently misses.  He then stands in the open, waiting, and the sarge easily mows him down.  After killing Alejandro, the officers discover that Al was using blanks.  The thing is, Al had had the advantage because he was on higher ground, and he saw the sergeant well before the sergeant saw him.  Plus, he was a great shot.  He could easily have killed the sergeant if he’d wanted to, but he’d never intended to do so; his plan had been suicide by cop all along.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (25)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (25)

Many of the townsfolk show up for his funeral, including the policemen, the teacher and the priest.  Goyita later visits his grave, which has been erected on the same site where the old monument once stood and where he and Goyita first danced.  She vows to never give herself to another as long as she lives.  She says that he taught her a new word beginning with A: Amor. She carves another A into her palm and places it against his grave.  The final shot is of Goyita conducting The Creation from Alejandro’s gravesite.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (26)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (26)

 

12 and in Love

***SPOILER ALERT***

12 and Holding was billed as a coming-of-age movie; and despite some very serious themes, it still manages to come off as a comedy with a deadpan and dark sense of humor.  Directed by Michael Cuesta, who is best known for his work on the TV shows Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Homeland, the film’s biggest star is Jeremy Renner.  Less well known is the young actress Zoe Weizenbaum who plays the determined, out-spoken and precocious Malee Chuang.  Zoe also appeared in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Dispensing with any idea that this story of twelve-year-old friends might be light, the film opens with the murder of Malee’s friend Rudy, leaving Rudy’s twin brother Jacob, who has a birth mark over half his face, Leonard, who is morbidly obese, and Malee to cope with the loss.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (1)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (1)

In the next scene, Malee is having her first period, but her mother is too busy to realize and Malee has to figure out how to use a tampon herself.  On the way to school she gloats to Leonard that she could now conceive and give birth to a child.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (2)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (2)

After the funeral, Malee stops in at her mother’s psychotherapy practice where in the waiting room she happens to meet one of her mother’s clients, Gus, a former firefighter dealing with PTSD.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (3)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (3)

Malee is smitten with Gus despite his being thirty-something years-old and she only twelve.  While hanging out with Jacob and Leonard, Malee discovers that Gus is working at a nearby construction site, which also happens to be the location of Ruby’s murder.  She resolves to make lunch for Gus and invite him to a picnic during his lunch-break.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (4)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (4)

Having had the fact of her mortality stirred by Rudy’s murder, Malee commits to living boldly.  She dares to sign up for a flute solo at her school music show, and mentioning this to Gus, he promises to attend.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (5)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (5)

In her curiosity to learn more about Gus, Malee had eavesdropped on his therapy session with her mother and discovered that a certain song figures prominently in his dreams.  This culminates in one of the comic highlights of the film as Malee plays Blue Oyster Cult’s Burning For You on the flute and then sings the lyrics in possibly one of the worst renditions of the song ever.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (6)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (6)

Gus is nonetheless extremely touched and Malee and he share a few moments together after the show.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (7)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (7)

Having fallen for Gus, Malee resolves to visit his house.  Finding that he is not at home, she happens upon the key and lets herself in.  As she snoops around Gus’s place, she uncovers a pistol, which she takes.  When Gus returns home, Malee hides under the bed, but when he goes straight into the shower and begins weeping, Malee, out of fascination, is drawn out and is tempted to comfort him but instead decides to let herself out quietly.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (8)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (8)

Concerned that her mother will find the pistol, Malee passes the weapon off to Jacob to hide.  Jacob will later use the gun to avenge the murder of his brother, and in the original version of the film, Malee returns it to Gus in the last scene.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (9)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (9)

By now Malee has decided to raise the stakes in her pursuit of Gus.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (10)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (10)

She makes herself up and joins Gus again for a lunch-break picnic; this is presumably the first time she has recognized and expressed herself as a sexual being.  Unwittingly, Gus leads Malee on when the conversation turns to sex and he is forced to admit that it was not because of the age difference that his previous relationship had failed.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (11)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (11)

Malee falls out even further with her mother.  Because she is also estranged from her father, the viewer is lead to believe that this lack of a supportive male presence in her life may be what is driving her infatuation with Gus.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (12)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (12)

Malee returns to Gus’s house a second time.  She cleans up the place, prepares dinner,  then puts on stockings and a negligee awaiting his return.  Gus is not altogether surprised to discover her in his home, having surmised that she had previously been there and well aware of her crush on him.  Gus reacts awkwardly, not wanting to destroy her, but at the same time realistically aware of the problematic nature of what is happening.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (12)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (12)

Malee is not discouraged and approaches Gus, asking him, “Don’t you like my body?” and telling him, “Touch me.”

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (13)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (13)

The two briefly come together but they do not consummate their affection.  Instead, Gus calls Malee’s mother and tells her what has been happening.  Her mother is extremely shocked to the point that she acknowledges what a poor mother she has been and Malee’s need for a male connection.  She finally agrees to take Malee to see the father she never really knew.  And for Gus, his brief but profound relationship with Malee finally brings him release from the guilt he was suffering over the death by his own hand of a little girl in a devastating fire while he was a firefighter.

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (14)

Michael Cuesta – 12 and Holding (2005) (14)

One cut of the film can be seen in full on Youtube.