Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Being a boring, old, logical American of Scandinavian and German extraction, I tend to see coincidences as simply that: things that happen, by pure chance, at or around the same time. But I know quite a few people who routinely see coincidences as supernatural warnings, signs or other forms of communication. A good number of these people are Irish. (In fact, I sleep with one of them.) A good number more are South American.

There is something very appealing about people who do not think within the strict confines of rigorous logic and the immediately observable. There is something quite attractive about grown people who are not merely superstitious but who naturally accept the existence of magic. It is a sensibility that gives much Latin American literature a sense of accepted wonder that many North American readers find tantalizing and exciting.

As much as part of me wants to believe that it was no mere coincidence, I’m not quite at the point of believing in magic simply because Chile was on my mind during the several days leading up to the devastating earthquake that occurred on Saturday. This was so because, ten days ago, I was mentally transported back to Chile by the final film that I saw at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It was The Dancer and the Thief, based on a novel by the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta. The title in Spanish is El baile de la Victoria, which has a bit more depth than the English one because it can be read as Victoria’s Dance (Victoria is the name of the dancer of the title) or as The Dance of Victory. While Chilean actors fill the secondary roles, the main talent on screen and in the director’s chair is not Chilean. Spain’s Fernando Trueba is the filmmaker. As he pointed out in his extended chat with the audience after the film screened, with one notable exception, the main actors were playing characters of their own nationalities. Ricardo Darín plays a rather legendary Argentine thief. Catalonian Ariadna Gil (Trueba’s sister-in-law) plays his estranged Spanish wife. Mario Guerra plays his Cuban driver/helper. Veteran Brazilian ballet dancer and director Marcia Haydée plays a role that could conceivably be herself. The central character, Ángel Santiago, is played by the young Argentine actor Abel Ayala. As a non-native Spanish speaker, I am not the last word on Ayala’s accent, but to me he sounded exactly as I remember Chileans speaking. And the photography of Santiago, the Andes and a beach all brought back a flood of memories of a beautiful country full of beautiful people.

So, Chile was still on my mind when the terrible news came in over the weekend about the 8.8 earthquake. The epicenter was 70 miles from the city of Concepción. I know Concepción. Three decades ago, I lived there for nearly a year. I went to school there. I wrote there. I endlessly walked its streets. I had my haunts and my friends there. I went to parties there. I went to weddings there. I kissed women there. I fell in love there. I have not been back in 27 years, but I am still in contact with people who live there or who are from there. It is very strange to keep hearing the name of a place I know so well mentioned on television and on the radio as the location of a cataclysm.

I have been in touch with Chilean friends who now live in the U.S. Fortunately, their friends and family generally seem to be as okay as is possible under the circumstances. I have managed to contact one person in Chile itself. He was a tot in the house where I lived, the grandson of the couple who were my surrogate father and mother. He is now grown, with a family of his own, living in Santiago. He could tell me that his parents were abroad when the quake struck and have been trying to get home ever since. His two brothers were safe at home in Concepción with their grandmother, but extremely nervous because of the looting and robberies that were occurring. The rest of the family—his uncle and his aunt and their families—he could not tell me about.

I can only imagine what people in Concepción have been going through the past few days. It must feel like civilization itself has come to an end—like some sort of, dare I say it, apocalyptic movie. A friend emailed me a photo with a note that it is the only one to come out of Concepción that she feels good about. It shows a soldier with his boot on the neck of a looter, pointing a rifle at his head. There is no small amount of irony in this. Such an image cannot help but evoke events of 1973 when the military acted in what it said was the defense of the country. But it is a different time and a different situation now. The country is in the last days of a center-left government (a lame duck administration shortly to be succeeded by its political opponents), and the most controversial thing about the military action is why it took so long to happen.

People in Concepción knew this day would eventually come, although they probably hoped it wouldn’t come in their own lifetime. The largest earthquake ever to be recorded by modern instruments (9.5) was more or less in the same spot, in 1960. All of us who have grown up and lived along the Rim of Fire have learned to affect a bit of bravado when it comes to the topic of shifting plates. A pretty big earthquake struck the area where I was born while I was in my mother’s womb, causing a lot of damage to the town of Tehachapi and the city of Bakersfield. And throughout the years I have experienced my share of jolts in central California and in Seattle (Ash Wednesday 2001 was a pretty good one), as well as one memorable one during my time in Concepción. As my friend reminded me, Concepción was originally located where the seaside town of Penco now is. The city was moved many years ago away from the coast, after being wiped out by an earthquake and tsunami.

If we think too much about the forces of nature that we have no control over, it becomes overwhelming. It is enough to dwell on the catastrophes that have already happened, let alone all the ones that could or may happen. In the end, we go on with our lives and hope for the best. And maybe, just maybe, it helps to believe, at least a little bit, in magic.

-S.L., 4 March 2010

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