Magazine article The Spectator

A Child of Celluloid Fantasy

Magazine article The Spectator

A Child of Celluloid Fantasy

Article excerpt



by Suzanne Jill Levine

Faber, L20, pp. 429

Manuel Puig (`Pooch' to Catalans, 'Pooig' to Argentinians) achieved international celebrity when his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman was turned into a Hollywood movie starring William Hurt as the homosexual cineaste Molina and Raul Julia as the political dissident Valentin, whom he benignly seduces. British readers never welcomed him with quite as much fervour as those in the USA, for whom several of his other novels, such as Heartbreak Tango and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth seemed to embody an ideally subversive urban antidote to the Latin American magic realism so fashionable among the pundits and opinion-formers of 1980s New York.

At his wilful, acerbic, unsparing best Puig roams an imaginative universe filtered through his obsessive adoration of screen glamour as purveyed by Tinseltown bitch-- goddesses, Crawford, Garbo, Dietrich and the rest, a world evolved during his early years in the Argentinian frontier town named General Villegas after a dashing colonel who had driven the Indians from the neighbouring pampas. As later reconstructed in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, this childhood was an archetype of cosseted loneliness suspended between the daydreams of his philandering father and the frustrated practicalities of a dynamic mother, known as Male, whose abundance of talent and instinctive chic found little encouragement in a provincial society already shocked by the progressive `atheism' she was supposed to have picked up through having been allowed to attend a university.

It was Male who introduced Manuel to the cinema almost as soon as he could walk. The pair of them attended the Teatro Espanol every weekday for the 6.00 show, where the little boy was motivated to learn reading through having to negotiate the subtitles attached to American movies. His interpretation of stock screen characters women as empowered, manipulative yet paradoxically trapped within their emotional freedom, men as concealing a potential sensitivity beneath layers of reticence and aggression - applied itself to his parents' failing marriage, resulting in a view of various forms of human relationship as doomed unless conceived in terms of celluloid fantasy.

Since he obviously could not metamorphose himself into a cine-diva and possessed no serious acting talent, Puig left Argentina for Italy in 1956 with the idea of becoming a screenwriter for Cinecitta. Disillusioned by the dogmatism of its film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografie, he retreated to London, foggy and populated by the `nice but incomprehensible' English, where he failed to interest producers in a script entitled Ball Cancelled, had a backstage pass made at him by Vivien Leigh and in the musical Pal Joey regretfully noted Rita Hayworth's earliest lurch from her stellar pedestal. …

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