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La Zona Fantasma: The Slowly Disappearing World

Back in August, Maruja Torres sent me an endearing, wistful article (“For JM,” she ventured to call it), though I have not had a chance to acknowledge receiving it until now, since I have been away for the past month. I would hate to have come off as rude, though, because I was very touched by the piece, and most especially by the warmth with which she spoke of her old friend, the writer Terenci Moix, who died not long ago. Moix, she assured her readers, had been the only person in the world with whom she could have a conversation about not only the marvelous Italian cinema of the 1950s and ’60s, but its most obscure actors and actresses as well, incidental and charming as they were. I understand how she feels, because with the death of Guillermo Cabrera Infante several months back, I myself have been reminded that there is one fewer person in the world who will understand who I’m talking about when I mention names like Elisha Cook Jr., Arlene Dahl, Henry Daniell, Dolores Hart, Robert Morley, or Diane Varsi. Cabrera Infante would have instantly been able to connect a face to every one of those names and hundreds more like them, and he could have easily recalled their most significant—though always secondary—performances as well, thanks to an encyclopedic memory and an appreciation of film so genuine that, on more than one occasion, he very openly admitted to me that as a man of letters, he had gleaned much more from the movies than he ever had from books, or even his own life experience. Luckily for me, I still have a few friends and a brother or two who could read this brief, improvised list and not write me off as an eccentric kook or a pretentious jerk, and who would know who I was talking about. We all have our own personal troves of obsessive knowledge, and just as Terenci could recite the entire pantheon of Italian cinema off the top of his head, Cabrera Infante felt a special devotion to classic American movies. If, while in his presence, I were to mention the name of John McGiver, he would jump up and cry “Oh, yes, yes! Now there was a man who was funny without ever trying too hard, as in Man’s Favorite Sport? or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” And if I were to confess to him that the first woman I ever fell in love with on the big screen was Rhonda Fleming (when I was very, very young), he would not only recite her complete filmography but he would also regale me with the most salacious tidbits from her life story.

As far as I am concerned, the most gratifying kind of knowledge is the useless kind—the type of information you acquire almost effortlessly, just for the fun of it, and which you never put to any good use. And whenever someone dies, one of the things that always hits me the hardest, the one thing that seems so utterly incomprehensible, is the realization that all those things the person knew and remembered have suddenly, abruptly vanished. Where does it all go? The last names of so many teachers and classmates, the faces of first boyfriends or girlfriends, those people we could only admire from a distance, the thousands and thousands of anecdotes that constitute a life, the languages we spoke and read, the infinite number of names filed away in the mind, essential acquaintances and superfluous strangers, like Elsa Martinelli and Antonella Lualdi, who Maruja Torres and I so fondly remember and admire. I understand why she yearns for her friend Moix, because with every passing birthday, the absence of those people that once belonged to this world (different for each of us) has begun to feel like the most abominable curse of our existence, and it inevitably makes me think of the ever dwindling world of older people we have with us. I have one older person, in particular, at arm’s length—my good father, who is now ninety-one. Despite the fact that he has children and grandchildren, I occasionally catch a kind of helplessness, a bewilderment in his eyes, usually just after he has lost another friend. They’re gone, practically everyone—all those who were older than him, most of the ones his own age; and even some longtime friends who were a good deal younger than he is, as well. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t ask himself, “What happened? Where did everyone go? Why isn’t the world what it used to be, what it was, what I always took for granted? Why, if I’m still here?” Small wonder, then, that as older people are orphaned by their friends and increasingly overlooked by the rest of society (I can’t imagine a more suicidal attitude, since we will all be old ourselves, some of us for many years), they feel redundant, bothersome, a nuisance.

In her public letter, Maruja Torres lamented the unqualified disdain that young people seem to feel for the “minor” cinema of yesteryear—the kinds of movies that for true aficionados are every bit as meaningful as the masterpieces, in the same way that writers learn as much from adventure stories and crime novels as they do from Proust, Conrad, Flaubert, and Dickens. Oh, if only the problem ended there… but perhaps that is a topic for another article. All I can say is that for centuries and centuries, anyone who carried out an artistic endeavour had an obligation—all but disregarded nowadays—to learn about everything that had happened in his chosen discipline before he arrived on the scene.The artist did this not so that he would “be more educated,” nor to be able to boast of encyclopedic knowledge, not even out of respect for one’s predecessors. Rather, it was for a far more practical reason, one which people seem to have abandoned in many of the arts today: to avoid repeating what has already been accomplished, to avoid reinventing the wheel over and over again.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

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