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On Set in Cuernavaca, Mexico

I am not good at holidays. I don't like doing nothing, and I don't like looking at things just because they are there to be looked at. On the other hand, I am addicted to sunlight. When Philip and Belinda Haas (who made the film of my book Angels and Insects) invited me to Mexico to watch the filming last January of John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges, I thought I could combine writing in winter sun with the excitement of the shoot.

Sun is essential to The Blood Oranges, which is set in an imaginary Mediterranean Illyria. Tropical Cuernavaca, about 60 miles south of Mexico City, has the same clear, hot light described in Hawkes's book, so Philip had chosen to shoot there. The Blood Oranges is a film about sex, about the philosophy of sex, and about innocence and earthly paradises. This entailed intimate scenes where observers were not welcome. When the actors practiced their lovemaking, I would write.

I flew from London to Mexico City, arrived after dark, and was driven through an invisible landscape, down and around. All I could see of the valley were abstract patches of bright light from the town, two great curved horns of red and gold points, reaching into the bulk of the hills. Cuernavaca means "the horns of the cow," and I could see why. It had rained fiercely and everything smelled wet and warm. There was the fragrance of wood smoke, the sound of crickets chirping.

This was my first visit to Mexico, and the images I had of it were harsh rather than paradisal. Graham Greene's 1930's The Lawless Roads is a dry, angry book, written out of rage at the Mexican revolutionaries' persecution of the priests. I had read Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, a brilliantly excessive account of the demise of a drunken English consul on the Mexican Day of the Dead, without realizing that Lowry's Quauhnahuac was Cuernavaca. The impression is of restless violence through a haze of tequila.

I had visual images of the country as well: Brando's powerful performance in Viva Zapata!; and Manet's painting of the execution of Maximilian, with the firing squad and their rifles taking up most of the picture, and the small, insignificant emperor exploding in the background. But behind all these inexorable renderings of blood and death was a perfect childhood memory of magic, W. J. Turner's poem "Romance," about the names of volcanoes.
I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

It haunted Lowry's drunken consul, too.

THE CAMINO REAL SUMIYA, WHERE THE FILM PEOPLE AND I WERE STAYING, seemed to have nothing to do with Mexican struggles. Barbara Hutton had built it for $2.2 million as a Japanese-style retreat in 1959, with imported Japanese workers. It was called Sumiya after the home of an imperial courtesan in Kyoto. I was told that Hutton had built a Mexican-style house in Japan, looking up at Mount Fuji as Sumiya looks up at Popocatépetl. I was also told that she had demanded the removal of a pylon at Sumiya that contaminated her view, had been rebuffed, and was never seen again. This seems to be a myth.

There is a Zen sand garden at Sumiya, and an elegant Kabuki theater where Hutton and her friends used to watch home movies of themselves, a sad, enclosed activity. I spent an afternoon sitting on a faded velvet stool there watching the Haas children do an alligator dance. The terraced grounds are full of running water under high trees. These brooks are Mexican as much as Japanese— they are called apantles in Nahuatl, meaning "water which runs through smooth land." I sat down to write under an umbrella on the terrace, near a fountain with a sculpted crane, and felt detached and happy. Then I discovered the serpent in this paradise. All over the gardens, in the flower beds, by the shallow steps, are small clay or concrete beehives, like Mexican Indian shrines. In fact, they are the many mouths of a piped-in music system, which jangles and strums wherever you are. I found I could write if I wore the earplugs from the airplane. Total silence. No birds, no crickets, no fountain. No music.

On the streets of Cuernavaca, flowers tumble over stone walls. It is a city where rich Mexicans come to relax; their walled gardens are hidden from sight, but color and brightness are everywhere. There are red trees with candle-like flowers, and a red bougainvillea, so much livelier than the Mediterranean purple one.

I made my first excursions outside Sumiya to the 18th-century hacienda near Cuernavaca where The Blood Oranges was being filmed. The cavernous hacienda, which belongs to the Golf Club San Gaspar, was becoming a fiction as the film took over. It would be the set for the run-down villa where the protagonists, Cyril and Fiona, take in Hugh, Catherine, and their children after a minibus accident, hoping to tempt them into their life of erotic freedom. Another part of the hacienda would serve as the studio where Hugh, a photographer, prints his sinister photos of nude peasants. Paul Brown, the set designer, was subtly turning the whole place softer, more Mediterranean, culling some of the ferocious cacti sprouting from what I think of as ramparts. Lemon trees were planted and extra lemons attached with thread. The design crew had planted improbably green grass, which they would then torch so it would look sun-dried. Huge roots like mythic horsetails sprouted from ruined walls.

In this grim and ancient building, Paul designed a world of seventies essentialist kitsch. One particularly beautiful touch was his creation of a bare room with dark blue walls, where Hugh and Catherine's children are put to bed in suitcases after the accident. He covered the floor with pale-golden apples, stored for winter, glowing dimly in the dark. Cyril makes love to Hugh's wife, Catherine, in the next room, on bright-pink nylon sheets. The colors, against the old walls, are temporary and delicious.

Sometimes I stood behind the camera watching a woman smoke on a rickety brass bed and turn lazily, again and again and again. Sometimes I sat in the courtyard under a tree, to drink in the sun and listen to small sounds and watch butterflies— huge, black, floating ones; a bright green one; a large yellow; a small yellow— a lizard; a glistening, black, fat bee that fit into a very small hole in a tree.

Ignacio Decerega, the assistant director, leaned repeatedly over the balcony to cry, "Silencio! La siguiente toma!" ("Quiet! It's a take!") Philip was anxious to exclude all noise, to increase the sense of being in no particular place. I wished Ignacio could deal with the musical beehives.

Sometimes I explored the hacienda. In the heavy-arched cellars, now partly converted to dressing rooms, I found a curious tile set in a wall. On it was an image of Popocatépetl, and below it some lines in Spanish: "Qué bonito / es no hacer nada / y después de no hacer nada / descansar." (How nice it is to do nothing, and after doing nothing, to rest.) It is a Mexican earthly paradise attitude, a contrast to the violence of the literature.

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