My Dinner With Jodorowsky
When I was fifteen and back in Pasadena, California, my then-boyfriend Carlos and I drove 25 miles to a theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills to see an art-house movie we’d read about, a strange foreign thing entitled El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky, in Spanish and poorly subtitled. We drove in a 1950-something Dodge Dart my lovely fool had gotten for his birthday, a white car with rusted chrome and aqua upholstery. It had buttons instead of a stick shift for changing gears and sounded ready to give up the ghost, but it ran. We’d gotten as far as Wilshire and Sepulveda and, parking at a gas station to buy low-lead for the car and Cokes for us, we saw the car’s dirty red transmission fluid spreading out beneath her like blood pooling under a murder victim’s head on the station’s concrete island. We pushed the car to a parking space along a brick wall, told the attendant we’d be back for it, and caught the next bus to the theater. We got there in time to miss the previews, but I remember that it was 9:49 p.m. when the theatre went dark and the world lit up.
It was 1972 and I knew then and there what I wanted to be.
A Zen cowgirl.
We of course never saw the Dodge Dart again, and one month and three fistfights later Carlos and I were history too. Four years after that I was walking up Fifty-Fifth Street in New York City, heading towards the St. Regis Hotel to meet Jodorowsky himself.
I’d moved to New York six months earlier following my current boyfriend, Anders. I was working as a translator with Romero and Associates, a small but growing language agency that operated, so far, mostly on the east coast. It wasn’t Berlitz but, being new, there were less rules, and I liked that. I spoke Spanish and French fluently, and was currently studying German and Japanese. I was also picking up tourist Dutch from Anders, his English in the shop for repairs, but then again we didn’t really talk much. My blonde bad boy was working at the Golden Calf Café. Just before I joined him he’d graduated from commise to chef de partie, or line cook.
The sky was mottling towards a dark bruised evening when I walked through the St. Regis doors. Inside, an attendant of sorts gave me the once over. I wore a sober black mid-calf length business skirt with a cream long-sleeve button-down top with epaulets; the man’s thin gray tie with a red sigil design and pumps the grey of a watered silk sky were both from the Salvation Army. I looked like I might belong. I’d cropped my own blonde hair closely, a boyish cut with just a hint of a spiky chaos. My left ear bore a largish faux pearl earring, the right one tiered with three tiny diamonds. Perhaps I’d overdone the vampire eyeshadow, but I’d been trying to disguise a black eye. I’d gotten into an argument with Anders over a lost-in-translation moment, and I’d split the infinitive of his lower lip, and he’d dotted my eye. The bright neon red lipstick was, I admit, a little over the top, but like a streetlight, calculated to bring traffic to a standstill.
“May I help you, miss?”
“Not unless you know the way,” I said, shaking a few flakes of snow from my hair and shoulders, “to the King Cole Bar and Salon.”
He looked at me as if I were a dirty smudge on an otherwise white wall.
“I’m meeting someone.”
“May I ask whom?” he said, his accent heavy.
“You can ask.”
“Mister Gael Dandy Cat.”
The man’s eyes visibly widened as he nodded, lips pursed, deciding the smudge belonged.
“And you are?” he asked. He had a name tag that said he was Fernando Arrabal.
“Waiting for you to take me to the King Cole Bar and Salon.” We’d established I was expected. Surely he knew my name.
“This way Miss Caracole. Here, let me take your coat and…backpack.”
“Touch my backpack and I break your fingers.”
“Excuse me, miss,” he said, unruffled. “Is this yours?” He was straightening up from having picked something up off the floor. “It fell out of your pocket,” he said, handing it to me.
It was a small slip of paper, a Chinese cookie fortune. It read: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Trite cliché, but it sounded right, though I felt a little let down for want of a cookie.
I let him take the heavy gabardine greatcoat that had raked the floor. I’d switched from scuffed Adidas to the pumps I now wore before entering the hotel. He led me through well-lit and airy spaces of Louis XVI décor, autumnal hues and a rosy golden aura and firm looking elegant couches consonant with the Beaux-Arts architecture and ambience. A spare selection of classical paintings gave the high-ceilinged lobby walls grace, elegance and restraint. We came to a set of darkly stained wood-and-glass doors trimmed with an austere geometry of mirrored gold, pushing through into a world of eternal night. The King Cole Bar and Salon was a seduction of lush darkness pierced here and there by tiny stars and a luminosity of wandering faery lights. In the darkness a muted sprinkling of jazz and the susurration of intimate conversation created a whispery pleasure.
I noticed the Maxfield Parrish behind the bar a second after I saw it. I stopped walking while my guide obliviously moved on.
It was Parrish’s mural of “Old King Cole.”
I was six years old when I fell in love with Parrish’s art. I later learned that for most people that feeling of a lost swooning comes with adolescence and the descent of hormonal fluctuations. But my first taste of the erotic dissonance between the ethereal and the heavy-handed was from Parrish’s “Garden of Allah” which I’d found in an oversize coffee table tome an aunt — now in prison over some art forgery scandal — had given us for Christmas.
Some of that passion had been augmented through the years by the likes of Frances Bacon and Dalí, but being confronted here-and-now by thirty feet of a rehydrating girlhood memory shining with a delicate inner light, the hyperrealist color-saturated fantasia made my knees weak all over again, a rekindling of a time-dulled wonder and delight.
I closed my mouth.
A man was standing beside the table we’d stopped at. The darkness had a luminous edge but I was unable to see him well, even with the reflected light from the bar and Old King Cole, at least at first. It was like stumbling into a darkened movie theater. My eyes were adjusting, the speaker’s face undulating with the table candle’s flame.
“Mister Dandy Cat?” I said.
“Miss Kage Caracole?” he said with a properly amused smile and a nod. I of course knew the pronunciation of Danticat; I work with language. “Gael Oswaldo Don-tee-kah.” He handed me a business card with nothing but a telephone number and the name he’d just recited.
I’d never heard his voice, since Romero’s had merely given me the assignment, but I had been given his name as the contact, and with that name I’d imagined him to be much older. But he appeared to be no more than a handful of years my senior, twenty-five tops. His face was sculpted and beautiful, its angularity and symmetry lending him a youth beyond his authoritative baritone. The hair was short, the eyes large, his smile long.
We shook hands, his grip powerful yet graceful, a pianist’s or artist’s hands. They must have easily sensed my callused, bony fingers.
If push came to shove, I thought impulsively, I could probably take him. On a conscious level I pushed the thought away as inappropriate.
But you probably could.
“You play a stringed instrument?” he asked, surprising me.
“I’m good with my hands,” I said lightly, frowning.
Smiling as if content with my answer, he motioned me to sit, and we both took our seats. I noticed that my hotel Charon had silently disappeared.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” he said, which made me smile crookedly, and the fact that something about him made me feel fluttery made me mad, though I tried not to show it. Eyes on this one. Smile’s distracting and the canny fool’s tongue is pointy and forked, but he was good looking, and I was a fan of devilish tongues. “I’m here on behalf of Mr. William Pilgrim,” he said unnecessarily.
Thanks for this plummy assignment, I wanted to say, and show me please where you keep the silverware and jewelry. “Thanks for the opportunity,” I recited straight from the manual. “Is Mr. Jodorowsky here already?”
“No, not yet,” His smile seemed secretly amused, like the servants surrounding Old King Cole in the painting above the bar. “Do you know why you’re here, signorina?”
That made me smile. “Nothing dirty, I hope,” I said, forgetting myself.
“Would that be a problem?”
Which surprised and amused me. “I’m here to translate English into Spanish and back for Mr. Pilgrim.”
“Well, yes and no. True, Mr. Pilgrim only speaks English.” He looked around him. “And there’ll be some lawyers and agents who are also monolingual, but there’ll be three, maybe four other interpreters in attendance tonight besides yourself.” He smiled as if hearing the formality of his own voice. “You’ve come highly recommended, Miss Caracole. We have no doubt you’ll adapt to the situation easily and interpret for Mr. Pilgrim. But we also need you to listen and watch and observe. We want to make sure that the other interpreters translate everything that’s being said accurately, that there are no,” and here he paused, the fingers of his upheld right hand waving anemone-like, as if he were calculating numbers or trying to remember something, “well: misunderstandings.”
“And if they mistranslate? Do I wrestle them to the ground?”
“Only if you have to.”
“Une boisson, mademoiselle?”
I was startled. I hadn’t noticed the waiter’s approach, and now, looking at him, I was doubly startled. He looked like someone I thought I should know. Then it struck me: the man was a dead ringer for the dead poet, theatre director and actor Antonin Artaud. A favorite of my old boyfriend’s, who’d done sketches and portraits of him in pencil, ink and watercolor and convinced me to read The Theatre and Its Double before dragging me to watch some absurdist plays.
But of course it wasn’t him. How could it be?
Not yet of drinking age, I’d acquired a false I.D. for just such occasions, a damned good one that I’d used plenty of times without incident, but before I could retrieve it, Mr. Dandy Cat said, “Apportez Mlle Caracole une aviation Cocktail, Antonin. Et apportez-moi un autre Red Snapper, s’il vous plaît.”
“Did you just call him Antonin?”
“By the way, what happened to your knuckles?” he said non-responsively. It was dark enough that I’d thought he wouldn’t notice.
“A misunderstanding on the bus.”
“Riding the bus?”
“Some people can’t see well but refuse to wear glasses.”
Behind a gentle smirk he nodded, letting go of the point. “I can’t tell you how impressed we are with your background.”
“My background?” I said, my mind still on bruised knuckles and bus schedules.
“Your résumé, Kage. It’s impressive.” He finished off the last sip of the prior Red Snapper he’d been nursing when I’d arrived, said, “Is it okay if I call you Kage?”
The agency had given me the context of my assignment, but nothing more. As an interpreter you’re expected to be agile and alert, capable of simultaneous translation. I knew that the CEO of Société Cartier — Mr. William Pilgrim — was approaching Alejandro Jodorowsky, who spoke mostly Spanish and French, with a business proposition. Since he was an internationally recognized film celebrity, I knew a lot about Jodorowsky. But I knew next to nothing about Pilgrim. He was something of a recluse who hated to be photographed, so I’d never seen a picture of the man. I was a little apprehensive, knowing that he was reputed to be one of the three billionaires in the world.
He looked down and, putting on reading glasses from a lanyard around his neck, read from a document that seemed to have magically appeared in his hands. “Two languages,” he said, “besides your mother tongue. And you’re studying Chinese and German as well. Started with Romero while still in the eleventh grade. Graduated from Lynbrook High School, San Jose. Good school? I obtained a copy of an essay you wrote in 10th grade English, on Lautréamont and his Les Chants de Maldoror. Awfully perceptive for a fifteen year old.” He looked up briefly, adding, “I’ve always found Lautréamont a little creepy myself.” Looking down again, he resumed with “And you have an autographed copy of Carlos Fuentes’ Las Buenas Conciencias.” He removed his glasses, looked up again. “Are you aware that Fuentes, who went to school at Harvard, had to decide whether to write in English or in Spanish for his fiction since he was fluent in both?” He put his glasses back on and continued perusing his pages. “You sold a science fiction story to Worlds of If when you were sixteen, though it was never published. Why was that?” He smiled coolly, staring into my eyes, then back down. “And you spent a summer in juvenile detention for a minor theft, when you were — what? — fourteen? And just last year you were arrested in connection with an alleged mayhem involving use of a stiletto, but it was a County Counsel reject.” He looked up again. “How was that managed? Oh yes. And there was that little incident…”
I’d been breathing shallowly as I listened, stunned at the things he was reciting, my eyes opening wide, then slitting, then wide again. What kind of a translating job was this? At the last few sentences the floor under me went soft, the sound level in my head kept rising. What the fuck?
No sooner had I tried to backhand him in the face then we were surrounded by three black-suited men. We must have rolled away from the table with an instinctual agility, for suddenly we were standing, Mr. Dandy Cat and I. He released my hand with his left, his other held up towards security, shaking his head, waving them away.
“It’s okay,” he said and they retreated into the shadows.
To me: “I’m sorry. I’ve made you angry.”
I was alarmed, not only because of my stupid, stupidly uncontrolled reaction, but because Dandy Cat had remained calm and unruffled throughout. He wasn’t even breathing hard. My ears were still pounding with anger and idiocy, and I rather pathetically and ill-advisedly said, “You’ve never seen me angry, Mister Dandy Cat.”
It was at this point that he might have huffily corrected my pronunciation of his name once more, angry himself at my lack of control and effrontery. Instead he said, “Please,” sitting down first and motioning for me to follow suit. “I sincerely apologize for being so unclear,” and his apology sounded heartfelt, which made me feel even more stupid, further cooling me down. “For us, Kage, your gift for not tolerating bullshit is the reason why we hired you, and I think we’ve just proved that. You have quite a bit of panache, Kage. And a talent for landing on your feet. Our organization is always looking for people like you. And it would please me if you called me Gael.”
I took a deep breath, blushing with embarrassment and residual unprocessed anger. I’d never felt more the opposite of having any panache than just now. For the cat he thought I was, I’d landed on my feet shakily, gracelessly. I sat down again, still pissed and wary but now insatiably and helplessly curious, willing to use up another of my nine lives to find out what this was gig was really about. The needle on the bullshit detector he was complimenting me for being was wildly dancing. What he was saying made no sense whatsoever to me, though on some level I was pleased, reprieved for a cause I hadn’t thought to be championing. “Gael.” I clenched my fists closed, then opened, closed, opened, not yet ready to play dead, and, leaning backwards, said, “Sounds like a girl’s name.”
But then Antonin Artaud reappeared with my drink.
“Votre Cocktail de l’aviation, mademoiselle.”
I took hold of the misted glass by its stem, considered it, then tipped back a mouthful of chilled, milky gin, the cherry at the bottom a bright beacon, a warning maybe.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Dandy Cat, feeling sorry for my attempt to slap him but not feeling so otherwise. “No, really. I’m not used to being undressed in public. Forgive me. I just wanted to make a point.”
He gave a chastened smile, small quick nods, point taken but hey. “Please, call me Gael.”
“So, Gael,” I said. “Help me out here. What’s really going on here tonight?”
“We’re here to give Mr. Jodorowsky everything he wants. And more.”
Which sounded ominous. “Without a fight?”
“What’s the point of fighting if you don’t have to? Do you really like bruised knuckles?”
Of the three questions that came to mind, I asked, “What is it he wants?”
“Are you familiar with the novel Dune?”
I’d read it. Wildly successful, for science fiction. There’d been some effort to turn it into a movie, and Jodorowsky’s go at the Dune piñata had been the second or third swing. It wasn’t a secret. I’d seen preproduction photos in a magazine thumbed through at a newsstand, Fantastic Cinema or somesuch. I remembered a pre-production drawing of a Sardaukar soldier whose helmet crest was a blade, with text explaining that water was such a valuable commodity on the desert planet of Arrakis that soldiers would slit the throats of their enemies for their blood, for the water content.
A lover of the fantastic in the arts, I’d devoured and loved Dune. The fact that Jodorowsky had been interested in it had only elevated its standing for me.
Jodorowsky apparently had spent a cool two or three million American dollars, Gael said, putting together a dream team to transfer his vision onto the big screen, a mystical lysergic acid space opera crafted to stun and wake up the world in a cinematic one-two punch to the pineal gland. “By all accounts,” he said, “it had produced a press kit that included an extraordinary script and storyboard the thickness of a telephone directory with glossy, outsize pages. Cartier owns one. I’ll show it to you, later. Quite extraordinary by itself.” These extravagant press kits were sent out to major U.S. and overseas film studios, and by all accounts, every head of studio and their minions had been bowled over, stupefied by the lush and fevered artistic madness of Jodorowsky’s skewed but panoramic genius. They’d loved El Topo, and they’d loved The Holy Mountain. But while they positively loved his treatment for Dune, nobody was buying. They didn’t really know what to do with it, nor how to do it.
“And what is it you guys want?”
“We want to bankroll his vision.”
“For the same reason you’re here. We love the man. He’s extraordinary. His Dune may not quite be Herbert’s Dune, but his vision of it is unique and pays the deepest homage to it. People will either love it or hate it, but we think it’ll be quite notorious.”
Corporations were known to pour money into public exhibitions of cultural, artistic or charitable displays of goodwill. But this seemed extravagant, and I said so.
“A chance for everyone to know who we are, what we stand for.”
“And what is that?”
He smiled like the cornered, charming bullshitter he was, nodded his lowered head, put up a finger.
“We want a relationship with Mr. Jodorowsky. We also have another property we want him to look at.”
“Aw. You mean this whole thing is just a pitch?”
“No, Kage. Cartier, as you know, is a multinational conglomerate. People pitch us.”
“I don’t know. Sounds like a pitch to me.”
Gael nodded, looked at his hands, his body language saying Maybe.
“What’s it called?”
“The Paramount Foreseeability of Unpredictable Events.”
I head-danced and frowned a Repeat that please.
He did so, carefully enunciating, putting a comma between Foreseeability and of. “Let me order some appetizers and another round. This may take some time.”
I shrugged. “It’s your dime.”