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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Two Monks (Juan Bustillo Oro, Dir., 1934): Why I love Mexican Cinema - 4

Dos Monjes (Two Monks) emerged in 1934 as one of the most innovative Expressionist films of the time. In the same genre as the work explored by the German Expressionist filmmakers, F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, Juan Bustillo Oro uses dramatic techniques to tell a story, but more importantly to probe the psychological state and the nature of reality of the protagonists.

The storyline of Dos Monjes is straight-forward, especially as Gothic fiction goes. Two monks, who clearly hate each other, are in the same monastery. One has a secret, and the other has a lacuna, a big gap in his memory, which is not as much like amnesia as something that might have had from a shock from which his mind has not yet recovered.

Dos Monjes (Two Monks) is a ground-breaking film of Mexican Expressionism. Although critically well received, it was followed by only one of the same Expressionist genre, primarily because the newly-elected president of Mexico, President Cardenas, gave financial support to work following Leninist notions that art was to be used for didactic purposes, and to inculcate socialist values. Thus, his presidency supported the films that were consonant with themes such as land reform, nationalization of national resources, separation of church and state, educational opportunities for indigenous, and more. Abstract, modernist, and expressionistic art forms clashed with his administration’s ideology. So, Bustillo Oro, along with other filmmakers, began to make more traditional films, although there is no doubt that Bustillo Oro’s aesthetic ideas infuse all his work, and even constitute a subversion of the dominant ideology of the day.

Bustillo Oro’s ability to manage the techniques and ideas of Expressionism is stunning, particularly considering he and his crew had to improvise and build for the first time the sets and the techniques in order to bring about the effects.  Specifically, there is a visual “conversation” with various antecedents, which include the German Expressionist cinematographers: F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. From art, the conversations include the painters Edvard Munch, Ernst Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, and the sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

The story is a basic one: a young woman is shot during an argument between two young men. What really happened? The only certain thing is that she is dead, and that the two men ended up at the same monastery. We learn what happened in the accident through flashbacks. The details of the accident are not as important as the psychological story being told by means of film technique, and also the destabilization of reality and all the ontological considerations attendant to it. Specifically, Bustillo Oro uses lighting, shadows, point of view and perspective to call into question what is real and what is a hallucination or flaw in memory.  


Javier                           A gifted composer, but psychologically unstable

Juan                             Javier’s boyhood friend, now a sailor

Ana                              Javier’s next door neighbor with whom he falls in love

Gertrudis:                     Javier’s mother


Madness:                     The primary theme of the film is that of madness and how it shapes one’s perceptions of reality. In essence, it is about the victims of madness and how it takes their lives away from them. For Bustillo Oro, madness is depicted less in words and more in expressionistic images and lighting that show rather than describe the states of mind, the perceptions, and the unmoorings from rational thought.

Obsessive love:             Javier’s love for Ana verges on the obsessive. She does not reciprocate in the same way; she is mainly grateful to him and to Gertrudis (Javier’s mother) for having given her a place to stay when her parents expelled her from their home after she rejected a suitor. Unbeknownst to all, Ana rejected the suitor because she had promised herself to Juan before his latest long sea voyage.           

The nature of memory: Memory is not to be trusted in Dos Monjes. In fact, the film revolves around two competing narratives and ideas about how memory depends on the eye of the beholder, and that one’s own memory may be inaccurate.

Friendship:                   The friendship shared by Juan and Javier is one that dates back to childhood. However, it does not withstand the pressure of rivalry over a love interest. Nor does it withstand the pressure of psychological instability.

This is an excerpt of a longer article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. To access the full version, you may click here

Meet Javier, a monk who is living the life of a self-abnegating monk, but we do not know why. Notice the light focused on his face, the candle and the dark background. 

This scene is absolutely brilliant: Javier is watching from his home, and observes the arrival of a suitor, the welcoming gestures of Ana’s mother, and Ana’s own resistance to the arrangement. The silhouette technique is quite striking. 

After Javier meets the newly admitted Juan in the monastery, he begins to play the organ again. But instead of the sweet, harmonious tones he created before, he is now mentally disorganized, and his performance reflects it. His music is discordant. The lighting reinforces the concept of madness, with a circle of light suggesting exaltedness. The monks are faceless, with their backs to the camera, a menacing presence.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Each Madman with his/her Theme (Dir. Juan Bustillo Oro, 1939): Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 3

Cada loco con su tema (Each Madman with his / her Own Theme) is a high-energy and highly intelligent farce from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (Cine de Oro). As a farce, it entertains the audience its use of exaggeration, absurdity, and over-the-top performances. However, as in most of Bustillo Oro’s work, Cada loco con su tema uses Expressionistic cinematography and themes from film noir to satirize a genre (pulp horror radio) and to pull in the tradition of the “carpas.” The carpas were Mexican (and also Mexican-American) traveling tent shows that traversed Mexico and the southwest United States from the time of the Mexican Revolution, 1910, through the 1940s. The high-energy theatrical spectacles were intended for working-class Spanish-speaking audiences and as such, they often mocked the wealthy classes and the mores of the rich, especially the elites descended from the Spanish who were granted land and privilege during the Spanish colonial times.  Thus, they could be, and generally were, anarchic and subversive. The brilliant comedian, Cantinflas, got his start in the carpas, where he perfected his “peladito” character, a cheerful and quick-witted street-smart character who finds himself in absurd situations, often deliberately defying conventions of the upper classes (who are indistinguishable from corrupt politicians and organized crime families).

In Cada loco con su tema, there are many levels of mistaken identity and misperceptions due to completely flawed assumptions. The main premise is that a horror-radio show writer with a comical name (Julio César Napoleón ) has driven himself into a state of extreme paranoia by being immersed in crime drama and horror all day, every day. After a nervous breakdown, he is advised to spend a month at a sanatorium operated by his doctor. To avoid possible career repercussions, he takes on an assumed name, Justiniano Conquián , which, coincidentally, is the same name as a mild-mannered and rather befuddled taxidermist who must endure one month in the ancestral family mansion, reputed to be haunted by spirits that drive one mad or to one’s death. Justiniano will inherit the full 6 million pesos. The catch is that he has to emerge from the month both alive and sane.  It won’t be easy. The real Justiniano has the bad luck of having greedy relatives who are eager to push Justiniano into madness or death so that they can have equal shares of the inheritance.

So, with such a premise, there are many opportunities for identity confusion, mix-ups, and comical misperceptions.  Most of the action takes place at the ancestral family castle, where Julio César  and his assistant, Serafin, end up after taking a wrong turn on their way to the mountain sanatorium. Justiniano’s scheming relatives are already installed there. Justiniano arrives a day late, having spent a night at the mountain sanatorium after also taking a wrong turn.


Julio César Napoleón                A successful, but very high-strung writer of horror shows for the radio          

Justiniano Conquián                  A mild-mannered taxidermist who may inherit 6 million pesos

Josefina Larios Conquián          Lovely younger sister of Justiniano

Serafin del Monte                      Julio César’s assistant

Dr. German Casca Conquián     Distant relative who devises a scheme to cheat Justiniano

Augusta                                    The butler’s wife who foretells doom and gloom

Severo                                     The butler, and also, secretly a contender to the inheritance

Lucrecia                                   The scheming wife of one of the contenders to the inheritance

Dr. Luis Jiménez                       Psychiatrist who runs a sanatorium based on his personal theories


Grand Guignol-esque Naturalism:  The Grand-Guignol Theatre was a theatre in Paris that specialized in horrifying spectacles known to make people faint, become sick, and otherwise traumatized. In a way, they can be said to make a mockery of the Greek notion that the efficacy of theatre is in its purifying and emotionally clarifying catharsis. The Grand Guignol productions were extremely popular from the late 19th century through 1962 and exercised a tremendous influence on radio, film, and expressionistic experimental theatre such as that of Antonin Artaud (The Theatre of Cruelty). The theatre was an outgrowth of literary naturalism as pioneered by Zola, Flaubert, and Proust. The spectacles were highly popular, and prided themselves on giving people extreme experiences – something that found its way into French philosophy as well; for example, in the case of Foucault’s quest for “limit experiences.”  Always a bit disreputable and willing to toy with the frontiers of life and death (they often boasted of having a doctor on call for people who needed medical attention due to the intense shock), the Grand-Guignol Theatre became a kind of “guilty secret.” The direct heirs of the horror spectacles were the popular genres in literature and film, which included pulp fiction, horror radio, sensation novels, and horror films. Cada loco con su tema is a parody of the Grand-Guignolesque productions, and in subverting the genre, it also calls into question the true impact of art, and the nature of catharsis in theatre.

Reality is a Deconstruction.  In Cada loco con su tema reality is seriously and repeatedly called into question. Perhaps the most powerful message in Cada loco is the tacit suggestion that reality is a choice, and not something to be independently verified by empirical observation or sensory perceptions. Because they believe that they are in an asylum and that what they are seeing are simply theatrical productions designed to shock them into their senses, Julio César  and Serafin scrunch up their faces, close their eyes, and loudly chant: This is not real! This is not real! The comical aspect is that they are actually closing their eyes to something that is quite real.  When Julio César  chooses to assume the identity of Justiniano Conquián , he is also choosing his own reality. For the “real” Justiniano Conquián , his befuddlement and tenuous grasp on what is going on around him have the opposite effect. For Justiniano Conquián , reality is not a choice, but a slippery slope that slides just beyond his grasp. Taxidermy further illustrates the “reality dialectic” – the taxidermy specimens are real depictions of a life that is no longer a life. They are dead – except for the supposedly taxidermied gorilla, which turns out to be quite alive (albeit not a taxidermy specimen at all, but a man in a gorilla suit).

 This is a brief excerpt of a larger work by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.  You may access the article here. 

Julio César Napoleón, a horror radio show writer, arrives home to the sound of “hands up or I’ll shoot!” but does not realize it is his radio that has automatically turned on at the hour of his “Murder in the Madhouse.” Bustillo Oro uses the chiaroscuro of German Expressionism to emphasize the fact that this is a part of the horror genre (or a parody / subversion of it). 

Justiniano Conquián, a mild-mannered taxidermist, learns that he will inherit $6 million pesos if he can manage to survive a month in the Conquián Castle without going insane or dying. 

Dramatic backlighting gives Augusta an unearthly glow, and the light that illuminates her crucifix gives rise to the thought that one needs divine protection to survive a night in the castle

This is a dramatic point of view shot that reminds one of Bustillo Oro’s masterpiece, Dos Monjes. Dr. Conquián takes Julio César’s suggestion to start the evening meal with a prayer – a “Black Mass Prayer” to an absurd extreme. When Julio César enthusiastically joins in, Dr. Conquián impatiently chides him, “Stop blaspheming my blasphemy!”  While the Black Mass is an inversion of Christianity and Catholic rituals, the Julio César’s interruptions and farcical asides are inversions and subversions of the subversion. The result is comical chaos. 

When the loudly blaring radio program, “Murder in the Madhouse,” opens with “drop your gun!” it so startles everyone that they drop their guns. Julio César scoops it up and subdues the scoundrels, the scheming, greedy distant relatives. 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Arm in Arm Down the Street (Del brazo y por la calle) - (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1956) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 2

Juan Bustillo Oro’s film, Arm in Arm Down the Street  (Del brazo y por la calle) (1956) is the story of a young married couple, María and Alberto, who have great dreams, but who live in grinding poverty in the harsh, noisy, industrial neighborhood of Nonoalco / Tlatelolco, which is slowly robbing both of their human dignity and, in the case of María, her sanity. What makes this film unique is the fact that Bustillo Oro uses the Expressionistic techniques he employed in his earlier works of Mexican Expressionism and film noir, to create the sensory conditions of the experience of the living in an industrial part of Mexico City (Tlatelolco) near a huge train terminal and the Nonoalco bridge, and the psychological consequences. María, who hails from a family from the wealthy (and snobbish) Mexican elite, married the impecunious but ambitious artist, Alberto. They are intensely in love, and both have the best of intentions to make their marriage a success. However, the grinding monotony of poverty, the bill collectors, and the invasiveness of the city with its noise, heat, smoke and grime are pushing María into a state of anxiety, despair, and paranoia. 

Trapped at home, she comments that “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry” (from Del brazo y por la calle). Alberto’s pride and ambition push him to make rash and ultimately selfish decisions, and above all, make him blind to the consequences of his selfish point of view. The film is emotionally difficult to watch, but as opposed to the films based on plays by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, Bustillo Oro’s film, like most of the great films from Mexico’s Epoca de Oro del Cinema Mexicano, has a life-affirming ending with a message of hope, strength, and salvation.

While many of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age films are melodramas, comedies, film noir, or westerns, Arm in Arm Down the Street is an example of Naturalism.  In a literary sense, the film is in a direct line of descent from the novels and novellas of the naturalist writers, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and George Gissing in that it shows the inner workings, dreams, contradictions and vulnerabilities of people in a state of relative powerlessness.  In the case of George Gissing, his female protagonists are often ones driven by poverty to degrading behaviors; but it shows (as Jane Austen was at pains to always point out), that women had to muzzle themselves with respect to frankness and honesty in order to have any chance whatsoever at survival (aka, a “good match”).  Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s female characters also tend to fall to that level as well. Without a “good match,” there was essentially nothing to keep you from falling into a pit; a veritable hell on earth. In that sense, many of the naturalists and sensationalists (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Ellen Wood), are in essence writing cautionary tales about what fate will be befall you if you marry badly.  Although they write to question and undermine the practice of “The Season,” there is a sense that they can’t change reality, and so the novels become normative in the sense that they simply equip people with knowledge and a cold-eyed stare at the practice to arm themselves to play the game to win.

Del brazo y por la calle is really no different. While its super-realism / naturalism engenders comprehension and sympathy (and perhaps even self-knowledge) in the viewer, in the end, most viewers will look at María and think, “Look what you could have avoided if you had not been dumb enough to marry an artist!” In terms of the clichés surrounding “artistic temperament,” one can argue that María is even more temperamental than Alberto. He is unflappable. However, that is primarily because he has learned to insulate himself a bit from reality. It is only when reality intrudes does he face his own part in the drama that resulted in such profound alienation and emotional agony for his wife. 


Maria                Beautiful young woman from a wealthy family in the Mexican elite

Alberto             Poor, idealistic painter who is passionately in love with María

Mexico City       Credited in the credits as the third main actor


Del brazo y por la calle the story of María and Alberto, who marry in spite of María’s parents’ exhortations to the contrary.  Wealthy parents never want to see their daughters marry impecunious artists, and it is even more the case in highly stratified Mexico where social hierarchy has been so rigidly enforced it amounts to a caste system. But, love will be love, and all it takes is a little bit of Puck’s pansy juice in the eyes, and the beautiful society debutante falls in love with the penniless artist who lives in a noisy apartment that is falling apart at the seams and inhabited by carousing neighbors and sexual predators. The film is about the how the once utopian part of the city that housed the hub of President Porfirio Diaz’s immense railway network evolved into a dystopian, Hephaestian inferno around the Nonoalco Bridge, and how that environment slowly chipped away the sanity of the residents. In the end, the strength of their love prevails, but it is not without deep challenges and introspection. The clanging, shrieking, hoarse-throated city breaks down, but in doing so, it reveals the gold within.


Naturalism in cinema.  As perhaps one of the most innovative and daring films of the entire Epoca de Oro del Cine Mexicano (Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Del brazo y por la calle .  Its subtlety and relative obscurity have resulted in the fact that it seems to be an underappreciated film. And yet, there are aspects of the film that make it unique, not only for being an intensely innovative example of Naturalism in cinema that brings in the city itself as perhaps the main protagonist, but for functioning as a time capsule.  The film was shot in the Mexico City industrial areas of Nonoalco and Tlatelolco, which, at the time of the filming in 1955, was an industrial area criss-crossed by train tracks and busy elevated bridges and highways. It was an ugly agglomeration of Bauhaus-appearing multi-story stucco buildings, plazas with low-rent businesses (pool halls, etc.), cheap hotels, incessant construction, and pockets of grinding poverty where poor children did not get the nutrition or medical attention they needed.  There were also vestiges of the past – a small church dating back to colonial times, constructed over the old Tlatelolco city-state that once rivaled Tenochtitlán. There was also a charming lake, Lake Texcoco, which rivaled Xichimilco, but unlike Xochimilco, Lake Texcoco was drained.  It is interesting to note that Bustillo Oro filmed in Nonoalco, the same location as Buñuel’s classic (but immediately banned) film, Los Olvidados (1950) which incorporated the story of juvenile delinquents. The scenes of the trains and the tracks upon which María trips as she returns from the market are reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s stunning photographs of the trains of Mexico City which he published in 1955. In Rulfo’s photographs, the trains simultaneously evoke the rapid leap to modernity of Porfirio Díaz’s presidency, along with a sense of its impact on people’s ways of surviving against all odds.

Costumbrismo urbano:  One can consider Bustillo Oro’s film an example of “costumbrismo urbano” (to coin a term), because the Tlatelolco of 1956 (as in the case of the pre-Conquest Tlatelolco) no longer exists. Much was demolished in order to make way for utopian urban projects – a utopia that never arrived, given that Tlatelolco was the site of a massacre of students by the military in 1968, and then the site of mass death in 1985 when the relatively new buildings collapsed during the 1985 massacre.

This is a brief excerpt of the full article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.. Click here to read the article with additional details about plot elements, themes, character analysis, illustrative scenes, and review questions. 

In the opening scenes, the narrator takes the viewer on a tour of Mexico City and its wide and diverse array of neighborhoods and communities. This is a few of the Polanco district, renowned for its leafy trees, wide avenues, and prosperous businesses. 

As we progress through Mexico City, the camera angles become more pronounced and the views of Mexico City are askew, suggesting that the city itself can cause disorientation and alienation. 

Alberto and María kneel inside the small, colonial-era church located in the poor, industrial Tlotelolco District of Mexico City, where Alberto lives. 

Working by the light from below, María huddles near the skylight, still mending clothing.  She is still on the azotea (rooftop patio), and in the distance one can see the neon lights, demonstrating that artifice and human constructions have completely overwhelmed / negated nature. 

María observes poor children playing in the dirt and trash in her neighborhood of Nonoalco, just past the train tracks and under the elevated highway bridge. She notices one boy is disabled. All seem to be hungry. She leaves her paper bag containing bread for them. “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry.”

The bridge at Nonoalco where Alberto considers suicide. The chiaroscuro treatment by Bustillo Oro gives it a feeling of being in an inferno. 

María and Alberto recommit themselves to each other. Morning has broken, and the light of day is shining into their home and their hearts. Bustillo Oro uses light to represent calm optimism and a transformation. The cross-beams are clearly visible, also connoting stability

Alberto and María walk hand in hand down the street. They are together, and the sky is clear. There is very little traffic, and the weather is calm. The viewer has a sense of optimism and restored balance. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

El Angel Negro (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1942) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 1

 In El Angel Negro (The Black Angel), Juan Bustillo Oro takes his desire to experiment with lighting, shot sequencing, mise-en-scene, and camera angles in order to achieve expressionistic effects that represent hidden, chthonic places in the mind and the heart, and a psychological experience that explores perception and beingness, and asks what happens when you represent ontological uncertainty. He also creates what may be the most evil femme fatale in film noir with Cristina. (For a full plot summary and character analysis, click here).

In his earlier films, Dos Monjes (Two Monks) and Cada loco son su tema (Every Madman with His Theme), Bustillo Oro explores the deterioration of mental state due to guilt (Dos Monjes) and due to an excessive exposure to hyperbolic, sensational narrative, similar to the notion that young women could be negatively influenced by reading gothic novels or romances (Cada loco con su tema). In those cases, the audience’s gaze was directed to a particular character whose mental stability was the primary focus. However, in the case of El Angel Negro, the issue of mental illness is not in question; the person who is obsessive and potentially mentally ill has already arrived at that state. Instead, Bustillo Oro explores the kind of emotional impact that he can create within the world of the film; how a world becomes suffused with danger and menace because of a combination of past sinful criminality and a tacitly present sense of invasive, engulfing desire.  Specifically, Bustillo Oro brings his expressionistic cinematography to show how the murderous obsession of a deranged, illegitimate half-sister and the murky worlds of possessive desire, echoes of past violation, and an unwholesome attachment spill out into the audience who perceives the way that the fabric of the daylight, polite world can be ripped asunder.  The audience feels the vulnerability, not only to their person, but also to the potential of being classified as an outcast, or shunned due to one’s origins. In this case, the emotions are not created in order to feel compassion or empathy, but to intensify the sense of revulsion and menace.  The danger is palpable; the assault on one’s values is recognizable. The audience feels relief when the evil woman kills herself and order is restored to the world. And thus it is that horror serves a normative purpose and could be viewed as a kind of “rhetoric of conservation.” Bustillo Oro’s excursion into the depths of depravity end as the holiest and most revered of religious figures, the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, essentially breaks the evil spell and reunites the family, and re-illuminates the sin-darkened world.

In El Angel Negro (1942), Bustillo Oro creates a psychological drama that pushes the envelope on earlier films that established the horror genre, such as such classics as The Mummy or Frankenstein. It is the story of a failed attempt to protect an innocent new bride and her new baby from the jealous intentions of another woman. The fact that the woman was the half-sister of the new wife, and that the man’s previous wives had mysteriously died of poisoning, and that the half-sister lived with the burden of a shameful secret of origin (her mother was raped by a man working in the home) and an unwholesome love for her half-brother add not only a sense of the taboo, but also the experience of vicariously stepping outside the norms and order of the polite world.

In looking at Bustillo Oro’s oeuvre, while on the surface, El Angel Negro may seem rather simplistic, it represents an important aesthetic bridge between his Expressionistic works: the gothic Dos Monjes and the campy satire, Each Madman with His Theme, and the nostalgic, romantic world of ornate architecture, expansive growth of wealth for the upper class, and intricate social rituals of the time of President Porfirio Díaz (In the Time of Porfirio Diaz (1942) and My Memories of Mexico (1944)).

While a review of the relatively simple plot gives the impression that the movie is simply about the fact that truth prevails in the end, and justice is restored, the movie itself is much more than that. The non-narrative aspects of the film, namely the Expressionistic lighting and camera angles, and the visual narrative that contains shadowy evocations of evil, go far beyond the simple person of Cristina, and point to a world at least half-saturated with the forces of darkness, underworld, and the chthonic.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is suggested at times, and in visual allusions and the chiaroscuro with unusual camera angles, the idea of a world where order trembles on the brink of darkness and chaos is suggested.  Femininity and womanhood are problematized by the presence of a woman (Cristina) who is aggressively antagonistic to the social and cultural ideas of a “nice” woman. The power lies in the shadows and not in the light, which trembles and may be blown out or otherwise extinguished at any time.

Bustillo Oro has created film that revels in its triumph of the fertile, chaotic, procreative darkness over the light, and which suggests that the horror genre relies on the interplay of order and symmetry, over its ghastly, infernal counterpart. In such a world, Cristina and Elisa are in fact both the one true mother of the son, but as a fused doppelganger, the order containing its own disorder.


Jorge Llorente               Wealthy member of the elites; a widower who marries Elisa

Elisa                             Innocent and beautiful young woman who marries Jorge

Cristina                        Jorge’s half-sister

Don Luciano                 Elisa’s father, a prosperous but rather silly man

Doña Meche                 Mother of three marriageable daughters

Doctor Bustamente       Don Luciano’s doctor


Set in the 1860s, El Angel Negro begins as a story about the “season” for young women of Mexico’s elite class in the mid 19th century who attend elegant balls and soirees in an attempt to attract a wealthy suitor. Elisa, the daughter of a doting (if rather silly) and indulgent father, seems to have the best of all possible chances; at least that is certainly the assessment of the mother of three daughters who will compete in the same pool of men.  Elisa, who is as innocent and good as she is beautiful, is ineluctably drawn to the wealthy, but potentially dangerous widower loner, Jorge Llorente, whose previous two (or possibly more) wives died young by sudden illnesses that look a lot like poisoning.  Elisa and Jorge are magnetically drawn to each other and their intense connection is palpable.  However, when Elisa entered Jorge’s massive, gloomy mansion, things start to become quite strange.  Jorge’s half-sister, Cristina, is the housekeeper, and although she tries to conceal it at first, she is intensely jealous of any attention toward Jorge.  Jorge does little or nothing to stop the behavior; in fact, he exacerbates the problem by keeping a life-size portrait of her in a main hall, and by letting her have access to Elisa.  When Elisa gives birth to a baby boy, Jorge is delighted and relieved.  Almost immediately, Cristina positions herself as the primary caregiver, to the point that it seems that she does not want to release the baby to Elisa or Jorge.  Eventually, Cristina’s possessiveness and erratic behavior become quite obvious to Elisa, and she complains to Jorge.  In the meantime, Cristina catches Jorge’s ear as she whispers to him that Elisa had an affair with a male friend, and that Jorge is not even the father of Elisa’s son. As a result, Elisa is forced to move away and the baby is raised as Cristina’s son.  Years pass.  Elisa and Jorge reunite, and they decide to tell Jorge who his real mother is. Cristina tries her best to block the news, but is unsuccessful. Jorge rejects the information, but Cristina believes it is just a matter of time, so she gives herself a lethal dose of poison.  Jorge remains unconvinced until a religious medal containing the Virgin of Guadalupe triggers his memory. The movie ends as the three embrace – a family reunited.

For the full article by Susan Smith Nash and her analysis of themes, character, and illustrative scenes, please visit Humanities Institute: El Angel Negro

Jorge Llorente arrives at the ball in a top hat. Elisa is wearing a blindfold, which is both physically and metaphorically indicative of her ability to see what she was getting herself into. 

The otherworldly beauty of the life-size painting of Cristina which hangs on the wall in the gloomy mansion / castle where Jorge lives. 

Cristina holds the baby possessively, and the camera angles make the baby blend into her own body, giving the impression that they are a single being. 

Cristina, the camera angle and lighting emphasizing the wildness in her eyes, tells Jorge she will never give up “her” son.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Phantom Selves and Haunted Places in Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020)

Chemical Hearts (Dir. Richard Tanne, 2020) is a teenage angst-riddled love story that has a The Catcher in the Rye premise.  The new girl in a suburban New Jersey high school walks with a limp and a cane. We find out that she is tortured by guilt and blames herself for the fatal car accident in which her football star boyfriend (she is a track star) dies at age 17.  He was driving, but she thinks she distracted him by trying to be funny. It happened a week after she moved into her boyfriend’s family home due to clashes with her alcoholic mother.  The new girl meets a shy, aspiring school newspaper / yearbook editor who has never had a girlfriend.  

The shy, writerly guy is obsessed with his favorite hobby, Japanese kintsugi, the art of breaking then repairing pottery by gluing back the pieces with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or other metals.  This highly symbolic hobby makes one immediately think that he is driven by wanting to fix broken things and make them even more beautiful than before ; a metaphor that is not lost on the new girl, who, at one point declares to him, “I’m not your latest kintsugi project!” 

But she is, because she is extremely broken. The scar on her leg seems to get larger, and her limp seems to worsen. Psychologically, she reshatters herself daily by living in her boyfriend’s unchanged room, and even by wearing his clothes (it is unclear how / why the dead boy’s parents do not say something about that). 

Grace Town (played by Lily Reinhart) is the new girl. The shy, writerly guy is Henry Page (played by Austin Abrams). The film was directed by Richard Tanne for Amazon films, where it was released for immediate streaming. The dead boyfriend’s name was Dominic Sawyer. 

Grace catches Henry’s attention as they are seated next to each other, waiting to see the journalism teacher. She is reading Sonnet XVII from Pablo Neruda’s 100 Sonnets of Love.  He reads the following, some of which as been highlighted: 

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz

or an arrow of carnations that propagate fire

I love you as one loves certain obscure things – 

secretly, between the shadow and the soul – 

Sonnet XVII

He is also fascinated by something he sees inscribe on a ring she wears hanging from a chain:  “Serva me, servabo te”  / Save me, and I will save you. 

Henry’s curiosity is piqued, and even more so when he and the new girl (Grace Town) are called into the journalism teacher’s office.  The teacher offers Henry and Grace the position of co-editor. Grace immediately declines and offers to be an assistant. Henry is confused. 

Since Chemical Hearts is about damaged or painfully shy teenagers in love, we know there will be pain and heartache. But, what will be the extent of that pain, and what will we learn about ourselves along the way?  Well, it really depends on how you catch the metaphors in the scenes.  Here are a few: 

After suggesting developing a feature story on teens and suicide over the ages, Grace pulls a stack of works of literature featuring teen suicide: Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, Girl Interrupted, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and more. Will Grace follow in those footsteps? 

Henry follows Grace to the places she visits after school. One is in an abandoned building that mysteriously has an intact koi pond on the bottom level. She likes to wade in, hip-deep, in the cold waters.  At one point, Grace is wearing the dress she was to be married in, and one can’t help but think of the pre-Raphaelite (John Everett Millais) painting of Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) face-up, dead after drowning herself in a shallow pond. 

Grace does not literally attempt suicide but in many ways she has expunged her own existence to become the animating spirit of her boyfriend, Dominic Sawyer, as she dons his clothing and becomes a kind of phantom self – a living ghost that desperately seeks redemption through physical contact, which creates a pathway back to a differentiated, re-established self. 

What makes the movie interesting? There are quite a few elements that give the film an edge. First, there are the punctuated “reveals” – the information that is revealed like puzzle pieces or clues that help you solve what is clearly developing as a mystery, or at least a mystery girl. 

Further, there is a sweeping sense of “place,” especially of a haunted place. The leafy, lush New York / New Jersey woodlands, streams and rivers, together with ornate gingerbread-carved Victorian homes, crumbling factories, and a soulful, stained, shadowy home where Grace lives in the dead young man’s bedroom and wears his fading clothes, converge to reflect states of mind. 

At school, visual allusions to Ken Kesey-esque Merry Pranksters can be found in the camaraderie and creative self-fashioning and subversion of the tradition. The Pranksters are those who work with Henry and Grace on the paper. They pursue self-expression where the chemical state of being “in love” is everything, and when the most raucous, they also invoke an echo of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). 

The film itself subverts and challenges the hyperbolic bathos of teenage love and at the same time acknowledges the true, physiological impact of grief by literally depicting walking in another person’s shoes. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Meeting Corporate Collaboration, Training and Talent Management Needs with Workplace Moodle

Reading Corporate Learning with Moodle Workplace (Packt, 2020), by Alex Buchner, filled me with relief.  

Corporate Training with Workplace Moodle

There has never been any doubt that Moodle’s capabilities are ideal for any number of organizational needs, ranging from onboarding and compliance training, to collaborative projects across departments or locations. The problem for most people who want to use Moodle for their organizations is that most web-based Moodle templates are created for schools (primary and secondary) as well as colleges and universities. For someone who wants to have an on-premise solution, there will be a lot of customization to be done, and it’s easy to make a mis-step in the first few phases that lock you into something you don’t want, but it’s too expensive and time-consuming to change. To further complicate things, Moodle has frequent updates and upgrades, and if you’ve put a lot of effort into a custom solution for one version, you may not be too excited about experimenting with it to see if it will migrate to a later version. 

Thankfully, the enterprising Moodle community has developed Moodle Workplace, which is a Moodle build that has the structure and built-in activities for a wide array of workplace needs, which include on-boarding, training, certificates, bite-size training for badges, collaborations, compliance assessment, talent management records-keeping and more.  To give eager users the skills they need to use it, Alex Buchner has written a well-organized, clear, useable, and nicely documented book, Corporate Learning with Workplace Moodle . It is now available through Packt Publishing, an acknowledged world leader in technical training publications.

If you’re familiar with Moodle as it is used for an educational institution, you’ll immediately notice that some of the terms have been used to give the platform a business feel.  Individual users are “tenants” which evokes the feeling of a building with physical office space where you can arrange the workers. The decision by the makers for Workplace Moodle to trigger a visual image of a single building may be a bit ill-advised, given the distributed workplace and the very real possibility that post-COVID, many companies will choose not to pay high rents but will encourage working from home as much as feasible and practical. For Minecraft devotees, the open-world sandbox aspect is an exciting one, and the prospect of building a training and collaboration world with Moodle Workplace is exciting. 

Moodle Workplace does not replace Moodle. Instead it consists of a series of plug-ins that sit on top of the Moodle platform. In this sense, it’s a customization and the downside is that any inherent limitations in Moodle will be present in Moodle Workplace as well. Some of the plug-ins are Totara Learn-developed plug-ins, so if there are aspects of Totara that you do not like, you’ll need to learn to live with them, at least until Moodle 4.0, and then all bets are off. Another limitation is the fact that it’s not available for your own on-premise download. Instead, you must work through an authorized Moodle Partner. They can be expensive. 

That said, the biggest advantage of using Moodle Workplace vs another solution is a quick learning curve for Moodle users, customizable appearance, and rapid deployment. Further, Workplace Moodle has made an effort to integrate with other databases or systems. For example, many companies currently use AEP for their payroll functions as well as compliance, workforce development record-keeping. 

For a developer or instructional designer who is used to using Moodle with educational institutions, it will be intuitive to use Workplace Moodle to set up training modules that include the content as well as assessment. 

The self-enrollment function for both synchronous and asynchronous training events eliminates the need for associations and professional societies with external members to use something like EventBrite.  Being able to integrate the webconferencing function (Big Blue Button, for example), makes it possible to do everything from within Moodle and not have to exit in order to set up a separate meeting with Zoom, Teams, BlueJeans, RingCentral, etc. 

Buchner’s text goes into detail about how to set up the following: 

  • training with assessment
  • training with automatic generation of badges and/or certificates
  • designing badges and certificates
  • collaborative projects with team members from different groups / locations
  • brand-building exercises

Buchner does not go into as much detail as he could about one of Moodle’s big advantages. Although the file sizes are limited, Moodle does and can function as a content management system as well as a learning management system. The choice whether to archive and create repositories in the cloud-based Moodle site, or to create a portal to one’s own storage / repositories is one that the user will make. But, the bottom line is the same:  Workplace Moodle (as well as regular Moodle) can help you map your training path and the objects used in conjunction with it, and to do so with maximum flexibility and re-useability.


Sunday, January 31, 2021

E-Learning Corgi Recognized as a "Lockdown Learning Hero!"

 We are thrilled to announce E-Learning Corgi and Susan Nash have been recognized as a "Lockdown Learning Hero" by Twinkl

From the website: This year has presented us with a range of challenges, not least to the disruptions to children's educations. We have been inspired by UNESCO’s International Day of Education, so we’ve been searching for organizations, schools, charities, and individuals who went above and beyond to: ‘Recover and Revitalize Education for the COVID-19 Generation.’ We’ve been asking for nominations for learning heroes, and we’ve collected some of our favorite responses in this post, so we can share some fantastic examples of perseverance in continuing the education of children. So, without further ado, here are some of the many Learning Heroes for 2021. 

Twinkl has developed an enormous number of standards-aligned online learning resources for all grade levels and in many different languages. They are impressive -- and free! 

Saturday, January 02, 2021

The “Animus” Required of a Poetics: On a Recent Poem Series by Rochelle Owens

Rochelle Owens consistently challenges the reader's perspective with her plays, poetry, and videos that relate to her work: Futz!Black Chalk, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need?, Oklahoma Too

Literary critic and scholar Brian McHale argues that the primary difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that Modernism is concerned with constructing vast, new epistemological frameworks, while with Postmodernism, there is no longer any belief in the efficacy of knowledge systems to represent the world.  Instead, Postmodernism’s primary conceit is that of a challenge to beingness and the unavoidable processes of disintegration to be followed by re-integration. 

Award-winning and trail-blazing poet and playwright Rochelle Owens (latest book, The Aardvark Venus)  captures the two often oppositional processes in her work.  On the one hand, her weaving, incantatory rhythms and the reflexive nature of her subject matter, clearly take on the constructive act of developing the poem’s own epistemology.  On the other, however, she often dismantles the very episteme she has built, and as it is torn down, she replaces it with the process of becoming.  In some cases, the “becoming” process starts as an “undoing” or dismantling.  

There may be images and processes that allude to dissection, dismembering, putrefaction (as in Black Chalk (1994)), or they can allude to a destructive, nutrient-robbing parasite (the tapeworm in “Chomsky Grilling Linguica (Part 2)) . But, by the end, the ontological destabilization turns into a regenerating process that explores how language and poetics model the creative act; more specifically, the freedom enjoyed in the re-assembling of language and signification.    

Owens’s latest work, “Patterns of Animus,” ( specifically addresses the issues surrounding how the poet represents knowledge and knowing.  The poem begins with the image an etched piece of metal.  The engraver creates an etching that has “geometric form” and is “fatal the design. However, the action of writing and inscribing, or etching, is a work of construction of meaning. The construction occurs when the letters are formed, and that gives rise to the possibility of signification. 

The artist continues to engage in the act of etching, which reinforces idea of signification-in-the-making and meaning that can arise from the actions.  The “animus” brings together a great desire to create, but also suggests a base-level hostility that may be necessary for true art to be created.  

The engraver is inscribing something that stays just outside the reader’s view, which gives it the ability to take on many forms at the same time and to create in the reader’s own mind, the notion of the reader’s own epistemological framework that rises up like a Fata Morgana, the startling weather phenomena that results in mirages resembling complex castles and structures.

In the engraving process one cannot help but think of other acts of generative classifiable ways of seeing and cataloging. The Marquis De Sade comes to mind because his subversive world which is in essence a destructive mirror: an anti-world.

The artist cuts or burns his way through to a new world order and a new system of organizing perception and in doing so creates a sense of permanence by cutting into the metal in a way that the message or the series of signs are permanent and not easily erasable. But instead of metal, he could, like Kafka’s Commandant, invent “The Harrow” to dig into The Condemned Man’s head. The artist, so enchanted by the ability to write, inscribe, or etch, may be oblivious to the fact that the function is violent and will ultimately kill The Condemned Man.  In “Patterns of Animus,” art is likewise consigned to the service of signification, but it is not, as in Kafka, done to remind the condemned of their transgressions.  Instead, Owens reminds the reader of the potential to create.

In contrast to the act of inscribing and etching and of creating a system of knowledge, in Part II of “Patterns of Animus,” the body of a woman (the “dead paysanne”) floats in a swamp, and as it does so, decomposes. Is the “dead paysanne” like the drowned prostitute used by Caravaggio as a model for the Virgin Mary for his painting, “Death of the Virgin” (1606)?   

The paysanne is heavily imbued with signification because she embodies a taboo or a limit to the structure in which people find their roles. That body is potentially a victim, or simply a receptacle of transition as it lies in a swamp and decomposes. The body transmits a message metaphorically because of social constructs (in the case of Caravaggio, the drowned prostitute was used to represent the Virgin Mary).  The body has meaning simply because of the action of the observers and their socially constructed reality. 

However, the body of the dead paysanne is lying in the swamp and it is decomposing, a condition of being (or “unbecoming”) that triggers a process by which all the signification starts to change. One becomes very aware that the meaning system and the concerns of the text have to do with ontological anxieties and ontological instability: the center does not hold. The central concern of the poem transitions to questions of being, beingness, becoming, and their inversions, “unbecoming.” The “dead paysanne” floats in a swamp and the physical changes brought on by “microscopic algae” suggest an unraveling of being and by extension, a poetics of “un-becoming.”  The rather horrifying mental image of a body being broken down by natural processes gives rise to an extended metonymy, and a mechanism by which one can address how the poet subverts traditional values. The restrictive belief systems become turgid, followed by the burbling degassing of values (and of meaning).  

On a larger scale, one can’t help but think of videos of a dead whales that wash up onto beaches, their putrefaction gases building up in their bellies, causing consternation to the communities. Eventually, they explode, resulting in a rain of rotting whale carcass parts. (There was a case in Oregon: and in Newfoundland:  The granddaddy of them all took place in Florence, Oregon, in 1970, where Oregon Highway Division decided to have a “controlled demolition” with twenty cases of dynamite . It did not go as hoped.).  On a smaller scale, the explosion only bursts the belly of the dead whale, allowing the entrails to slide out as though alive: 

If the “dead paysanne” has a parallel with Caravaggio’s dead prostitute who was used as a model for “The Death of the Virgin,” there is another level of ontological insecurity, which has to do with being judged for one’s status in society.  She drowned. Was she murdered? If so, the notion of murder reminds one that certain people within a social construct are those relegated to be the trigger of change.

If the moving eye that moves along the “jagged black line” represents the epistemological framework in a world, the rotting corpse of the murdered prostitute lying in a swamp is representative of the ontological insecurity of the world and an essential fragility that points to the provisional nature of being and beingness. And, in this fragile world, “animus” – with all its contradictory suggestions – is a requisite condition for the creation of a poetics. 

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.” Franz Kafka Online. 2007. 

Owens, Rochelle.  “Chomsky Grilling Linguica” TheNewVerseNews. 15 March 2006. 

_____  “Patterns of Animus” Jacket2: 24 September 2020 

Questions? please contact Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Interview with Bill Kara, CEO and Founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games

Typing is so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget that it is a skill that must be learned. How can learning to type be engaging, effective, and even fun? TeachMe has developed typeracer, a game-based typing instruction program that helps students learn to type and also how to create documents and to interact. Welcome to an interview with Bill Kara, CEO and founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.

1. What is your name and your background?

My name is Bill Kara and I’m the CEO/founder of TeachMe and Addicting Games.  I oversee the company’s operations, growth strategies and product development. A lifelong gamer and entrepreneur, I’ve been in the gaming industry for over 20 years and have a passion for blending gaming and learning. I previously co-founded gaming company Hallpass Media, which was acquired in a roll up to create Jam City in 2011. Prior to Hallpass Media I founded Addicting Games which was acquired by Atom Entertainment before being purchased by Viacom shortly afterwards in 2006.


2. How did you get interested in e-learning? 

With two young daughters at home, I wanted to create games aimed at making learning skills fun and rewarding with TeachMe; experiences that offer more than just superficial fun on the surface. I’d always been interested in making learning more accessible through games and when I saw existing content out there was full of messages you wouldn’t want your kids to see (not to mention the titles were just really low quality), created by people that weren’t really passionate about either education or gaming as a hobby, I decided to create TeachMe as a way to fill that void. I wanted to combine these worlds of learning and play in a powerful new way with a vision that could change the lives of millions of children around the world.


 3.  Why are typing skills important now? 

Typing remains a fundamental skill, and it is one of the most foundational, yet important life skills you can learn. Learning to type fast and accurately has so many real world applications in this day-and-age - it’s an essential skill for anyone working with a computer (which is just about any profession) in any capacity. Typing effectively helps you to work comfortably and more efficiently, it aids in timely communication with colleagues and customers, creating documents, and finding new information and much more.




4.  What is your philosophy about skill-building in an e-learning environment?

Teachers want a powerful tool to complement their expertise, their passion, their skill. Parents want the best education possible for their children. Children want to play online, to master a skill, to feel like they’re growing and learning. With that in mind, we realized that education was moving in one direction and entertainment was moving in another. As parents, we have very little insight into how our kids are learning, what areas they found challenging and the speed they were progressing. And after further research we found a lack of e-learning resources customized to empower the strongest students to continue to excel while addressing the learning gaps faced by those that may be struggling a bit. We hope that games like TypeRacer, alongside the other offerings on our TeachMe properties help fulfill both objectives that also prioritizes fun.


5.  What is your program and how does it work?

TeachMe’s games and apps bring new meaning to the phrase “customized learning”. We teach students to master a skill instead of simply answering a question. And the games change based on who’s playing: their mastery of that skill, as well as their experience levels. As the learner gets better, the game — the curriculum — changes to match the optimal level of difficulty. Players pay attention longer and they learn more, which helps ensure their time online is never wasted.


As part of the TeachMe family of products, TypeRacer, allows people to race each other by typing quotes from books, movies, and songs. It is the first multiplayer typing game on the web. Millions of people from all over the globe have completed hundreds of millions of races on TypeRacer, improving their typing speed by as much as 50 words-per-minute.


6.  Please provide an example of a success :) 

As parents and kids grapple with back to school season in this uncertain time, we want to ease their transition back into the learning environment in a way that’s fun and engaging. We’ve made sure that the TeachMe experience can be accessed in any setting, with any device, anytime. I believe our achievements this year are a testament to how much students, teachers, and parents value learning tools that authentically combine practice and play. This year we’ve seen over 31MM users on Math Games, also part of our TeachMe product offering. With the re-launch of TypeRacer we’re also expecting to see the number of users grow 


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