Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Lost in transition

This is going to be another of those rambling kind of commentaries. My mind is still adjusting back not only to Greenwich Mean Time but much windier and wetter weather than I got accustomed to in southern Nevada and central California. Even Seattle was mild and pleasant compared to where I live now. I’m still trying to remember if there were actually large lakes this close to my house or if they are new.

Overall, we were lucky in our travels. Seattle’s storms ended before we got there, so other than some mounds of snow piled up in parking lots, there was little evidence of nature’s fury. Similarly, there was a break in Ireland’s weather, so we arrived back to sunny but cold conditions. That didn’t last long, however. I am now back to the usual winter pastimes, like chasing the recycling bin down the road.

Strangely, it is always the second full day back that the jet lag really seems to hit home. After waking early on Monday, we all nearly slept through school on Tuesday. That got me to thinking about

  • Jet lag. I was trying to think of any movies in which jet lag played a material part of the story. I can think of only one, and it is of course Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. She caught that sense of being disoriented by being wakeful and sleepy at all the wrong times, compounded by being in an entirely foreign location. I am still wondering how I could have liked Lost in Translation so much but was so turned off by her follow-up Marie Antoinette. It’s not that the two movies are completely different in themes explored. But I guess it comes down to the fact that Lost in Translation is clearly based on Coppola’s own personal experience in a world she knows and so has the ring of authenticity, whereas with Marie Antoinette she seems to have imposed her own personal experience onto a historical figure and the result is just artificial. Marie Antoinette still could have been good if it had just been more fun or more serious or more something.

    Anyway, one way of dealing with jet lag—especially if you are in Seattle or anywhere in America—is to visit

  • Starbucks. I have a longtime connection to the ubiquitous coffeehouse chain. I think there were something like three Starbucks stores on the whole planet when I moved to Seattle, so to me it was always just one of several neighborhood places to get good coffee. It was started by people like me (except with a lot more entrepreneurial moxie), who had spent time in Europe and just wanted to drink good coffee like the Europeans did. I was happy to see Starbucks become successful and expand. But, like a lot of Seattle coffee snobs, it wasn’t my favorite brand of coffee. In coffee-mad Seattle there are too many other good choices. When I moved away, the one I missed was Victor’s Celtic Coffee in Redmond. Not only was his coffee great, but so was his cafe, which somehow managed to bring a funky university-type ambiance to the suburban Eastside. So, when I pined for Seattle coffee in Ireland, it wasn’t for Starbucks so much as for Victor’s—the irony being, as his company’s name suggests, that Victor is from Ireland, specifically Cork.

    The great thing about Starbucks, however, was that, once it went nationwide, it was like an outpost of coffee civilization in a barbaric Maxwell House-drinking world. (A memorable editorial cartoon in one of the Seattle newspapers had a yuppie Seattle reacting in horror as they drove east on Interstate 90 and saw a sign that read, “Last latte for 3,000 miles.”) As I traveled around the country, in places where there was otherwise no good coffeehouse (or I didn’t know where to find one), it became easier and easier to find a Starbucks and experience a bit of home (and usually get a New York Times to boot). But things began to get weird when they starting popping up all over Bakersfield. Especially when, in place of the usual jazz playing the background, I was hearing mariachi music. But despite Starbucks’ ubiquity, I found myself still pining for that Seattle roast taste, since there was no Starbucks in the Republic of Ireland—even though they were all over London and Paris. That has changed in the past year. There are now two Starbucks in Dublin, and more will surely follow. But it is too late. Sometime in the past year or so, I had an epiphany. As I was lamenting my inability to easily enjoy that Seattle roast coffee taste, it dawned on me that the reason that Starbucks got started in the first place was to emulate the experience of European coffee. And here I was in Europe. Well, on the periphery of Europe, and a tea-drinking periphery at that. Ireland has Bewley’s, and other coffee companies have made inroads, but frankly they aren’t great. But it is possible to get Italian coffee here and, even better, Italian coffee machines. It is clear now that I was wishing for the imitation when I am so close to the original.

    Meanwhile, the Starbucks phenomenon has gotten out of control. On this last visit home (after nearly two years away), it was as if the joke in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me had actually come true. The one where Seattle’s Space Needle had been taken over by Starbucks and become Dr. Evil’s headquarters. Starbucks are now everywhere. There was even one in the tiny Mojave Desert town of Baker—more for the benefit of travelers between Los Angeles and Las Vegas than for the locals, I suspect. And in Redmond, they are almost literally on every street corner. They are in every shopping center and in every supermarket and even in the Target. Somehow Jay Leno’s quip, upon hearing that more locations were to be opened (“Where are they going to put them? Inside other Starbucks?”), wasn’t a joke anymore.

    Anyway, I am still enjoying all the Starbucks I have been drinking since I got home. I brought a bunch of Starbucks coffee back to Ireland with me—all thoughtful gifts from various friends and relatives. Indeed, being among American friends and family again reminded how wonderful these people are, and that got me to thinking about

  • Borat. I suppose that living abroad for years and then going back home is the closest an American can get to seeing our own country from the point of view of the fictional documentarian Borat Sagdiyev. The U.S. is really too immense a country to generalize about, but one thing I can say is that people in Seattle are exceedingly polite. I always knew this, but somehow I sort of forgot or maybe thought they had changed because of all the Californians (and others) who had swarmed into the place. Now, after spending a week there and then coming back to Ireland, it has been a hard adjustment to go from a place where cars stop politely to let pedestrians cross a road or where drivers on a busy freeway make space for you when you signal a lane change and come back to a place where the drivers actually speed up and aim for you if you dare step off the footpath. And, on reflection, that’s why a lot of the Americans came off so badly in Borat. If you go back and look at the movie, most of the Americans were bending over backwards trying to be nice and accommodating and tolerant to someone they genuinely thought was a foreigner. And, all the while, the foreigner is secretly laughing at them (“taking the piss out of ‘em,” as my in-laws would say). This is just more evidence of the enduring American-European cultural divide.

    Jet lag, Starbucks and Borat do not have anything to do with

  • Augusto Pinochet—except maybe for this. When I found out that I would be going to Chile for a year as a student, I thought I would be getting really good coffee there because, after all, it was in South America. And they grow coffee in South America, right? Well, they do in places like Colombia and Brazil, but not in Chile. Imagine my horror when I found that most everywhere I went (including fancy restaurants) after dinner I was served a cup, a small kettle of hot water and a little can of Nescafe powder! Well, at least the wine was good.

    The year that I was there was the fourth year of the Pinochet military government. So things were still fairly clamped down. There was a nighttime curfew, and some buildings still had quite visible bullet holes from shooting during the coup. I had expected Chile to be like Spain, as I had experienced it in during one of Francisco Franco’s final years in power. But the two were very different. Unlike a lot of Latin American countries, Chile had mostly had democratically elected governments since its independence. Political conversation was a part of the culture, military government or no, in a way that didn’t seem to be the case in early 1970s Spain. Clearly, supporters of the military were more vocal than its opponents, but once I got their trust, I got an earful from people on the left as well as the right. People on the left weren’t happy with my government’s support of the coup, and people on the right weren’t happy with Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights, as they thought it wasn’t be applied fairly to Chile.

    I have written in this space before about how the rivaling versions I heard of the period immediately preceding the coup seemed irreconcilable. How should history judge August Pinochet? There is no defending a man who toppled a democratically elected government and presided over torture and murder of his fellow citizens. But there is another side. His defenders sincerely believe that by ousting Salvador Allende, who died in the coup (for years his supporters claimed he was murdered, but they eventually conceded that he committed suicide, as the military had claimed), a full-scale civil war was averted, which would have resulted in far more bloodshed than occurred under the military. There is no way to know if this is true and, even if there were, would it be justified morally?

    The other defense of Pinochet is his handling of the Chilean economy. It is ironic that the general died a month after Milton Friedman. Pinochet decided to use his authoritarian power to make Chile a near-perfect test case of Friedman’s free-market ideas. Friedman’s surrogates from the “Chicago school” of economics (los Chicago boys they were invariably called) were advisers to the government. And darned if their ideas didn’t work. The Chilean economy of the late 20th century was nothing short of miraculous. Another mitigating factor in Pinochet’s reputation is that he (unusual for Latin American dictators) announced early on that Chile would return to democratic government on his timetable, and he kept his word—doing his best at the same time to ensure his own immunity from prosecution during his lifetime. Doing some good things certainly doesn’t erase the bad things that Pinochet did. But when you attempt to tote up both the bad and the good, he doesn’t compare all that unfavorably with other dictators, like Fidel Castro, who many of his harshest condemners have thought was just dandy.

    Strangely, I had my chance to vote for or against Pinochet while I was in Chile. Stung by constant criticism from the United Nations, the general ordered a referendum to be held to legitimize the military government and to ratify Pinochet as president. As the electoral rolls had been destroyed in the coup, voting was controlled by placing a sticker on citizens’ national ID cards. Voting was compulsory, and ID cards would cease to be valid without the sticker. As a resident student, I had such a card, and I was advised that, if I did not vote, my card would be invalid and I might not be able to process my exit visa at the end of the year. So I voted. It was a strange experience, not only because of the armed soldiers standing guard around the polling stations but also because of the elections official who kept offering to come in and help me with my ballot. He asked me repeatedly if I was Swedish, perhaps because the Swedish government had been one of the most critical of the Chilean regime.

    Over the years, several films have looked at the Pinochet years, from various perspectives. In the years immediately following the coup, two Chileans examined it. Helvio Soto’s Il pleut sur Santiago was a fictional treatment, which was more or less Popular Unity propaganda. Patricio Guzmán’s La Batalla de Chile, on the other hand, was an exhaustive and fascinating documentary. He followed up three decades later with Chile, la memoria obstinada. Most North Americans’ first cinematic look at the Chilean golpe was Greek director Costa-Gavras’s 1982 movie Missing, which dealt with the true-life case of Charlie Horman, an American who was killed during the coup. Horman was played John Shea, and his wife and father were played by Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. In 1994, arthouse audiences flocked to see Michael Radford’s Il Postino, which fictionalized (and romanticized) the years that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda spent in Italy. The same year Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, about a torture victim (Sigourney Weaver) confronting the man she believes tortured her (Ben Kingsley), captured the maddening ambiguity of Chile’s modern history. More recently, a filmmaker of a new Chilean generation, Andrés Wood, looked back at the events of 1973 through a story of a friendship between two boys in Machuca.

    I would go on but, frankly, I am falling asleep. Zzzzz…

    -S.L., 14 December 2006

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