Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 12-16

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series reread! In today’s post we’ll cover “chapters” 12 through 16 of Mendoza in Hollywood, so from the beginning of ‘Part Two: Babylon is Falling” through the chapter ending on “Can’t you, senors?”

All previous posts in the reread can be found on our handy-dandy index page. Spoiler warning: this reread contains spoilers for the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t finished reading all the books yet!

The only possible choice for this week’s soundtrack has to be the score for the movie Intolerance. I’m a child of my age so I prefer the modern 1989 Carl Davis score over the original one by Joseph Carl Breil, but film purists would probably howl their disapproval so I’m including links to both. (Also, if you’re so inclined after reading my bit about Intolerance below, there’s some interesting material about the movie in general and the score in particular in this article.)

 

Summary

The immortals watch D.W. Griffith’s silent era epic Intolerance. Imarte picks up another piece of the British plot. A young relative of Porfirio shows up and attempts to kill him.

 

Commentary

Chapter 12: This chapter, the longest one in the novel, could have been subtitled “The Intolerance Chapter” because almost the entire thing is taken up by Einar’s screening of the D.W. Griffith silent era classic Intolerance. This is one of the most influential and analyzed films in history, and since I’m far from an expert in early cinema (unlike Kage Baker), I won’t attempt to write about it much here but instead just try to place it in the context of the Company series. (Intolerance is in the public domain, so if you’d like to watch it yourself, you can find it in various places, including on YouTube. It’s an experience!)

When we were reading about the first Cahuenga Pass Film Festival back in chapter 3, I mentioned that Kage Baker probably picked that movie (Greed) because its long lost nine hour “Director’s Cut” is the Holy Grail of film archivists. Intolerance, on the other hand, was almost certainly picked because it has several obvious thematic connections with the books, and that’s also why we’re spending multiple pages going over the movie with the immortals, rather than passing over it quickly like we did with Greed. (If video book trailers had been a thing back when this novel came out, I think a shot of Kage Baker rocking the cradle á la Lillian Gish in Intolerance would have been an awesome way to start it.)

The most obvious connection is the narrative structure, which skips back and forth between four stories set in four distinct historical periods, giving a bird’s eye view of history. If you take a look at that Youtube link, you’ll notice each story even had its own color in the original print, maybe to help audiences navigate this (for the time) incredibly avant-garde structure. It must have been tremendously confusing for audiences used to the much lighter, less challenging cinema of the era! More importantly for our reread, it also simulates the experiences of millennia-old operatives who live through vastly different times and eras but see the same human stories play out over and over again. Looking ahead a bit, Einar’s drunken epiphany that all of history is happening simultaneously and that the cyborgs can step out of time foreshadows what Edward and Mendoza discover at the end of the series.

Also interesting: Intolerance was, on one level at least, a reaction to criticism D.W. Griffith received for his previous film, The Birth of a Nation, which was seen as glorifying the Ku Klux Clan and drew swift condemnation from the NAACP. Remember that the American Civil War is still in full swing in 1862, adding a sense of prophecy to this screening.

Then there’s Imarte, who was actually alive in Babylon when it was conquered by Cyrus the Great. (By the way, note there’s another Cyrus in the novel, desperate to breach Babylon’s—or at least Miss Marthy’s—gates…) There’s also a brief hint that Imarte was in 16th century France, given her strong reaction to Catherine de’ Medici. I absolutely love how Imarte starts out in full Sheldon Cooper mode, earnestly lecturing the others about the movie’s historical accuracy or lack thereof, while the rest of the audience giggles at D.W. Griffith’s idiosyncrasies in the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 tradition. However, by the end of the movie, Imarte is so overcome by the experience of seeing her lost city brought back to life that she drops her academic façade and gives in to the memories in a truly spectacular outpouring of emotion. I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the entire series that’s more quintessentially Imarte than her sheepish “Was I indulging in grief accommodation again?” after she’s been rolling around on the ground weeping her eyes out at the end of this chapter.

This scene, somewhat overlong as it is, is a perfect example of Kage Baker’s genius. A screening of a movie that hadn’t been made yet, more or less exactly on the site where much of it would be filmed in a few decades, is already unique, but at the same time that movie is also extremely meaningful to several of the characters, to the historical period, and to the series in general.

Final note: I love the hints that the Biblical version of the crucifixion of Jesus is very different from the way it actually happened, but I am deadly curious what Kage Baker had in mind here, given that the Real Story was apparently shocking enough that the fundamentalists who paid the Company to record the crucifixion then paid even more to have the information suppressed. It’s probably nothing quite as extreme as Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, and at this point we’ll probably never find out, but I’m really curious. (Mendoza’s speculation that Jesus may have been a Crome generator is interesting too, isn’t it?)

Chapter 13: Mendoza, probably inspired by the movie, ponders the nature of politics and history. This is a short chapter but one that packs a powerful punch. I really want to quote the whole thing here, but I’ll restrain myself. This part about the Emancipation Proclamation is my favorite:

While none of those people to whom that piece of paper meant so much would ever have gone back to being slaves again, they must have known that the chains would be ten times as hard to break now that they were invisible and intangible.

Chapter 14: Aside from the hilarious conversation between Porfirio and the very drunk Latter Day Cyrus, this chapter is interesting because this is where Imarte begins to put together the various elements of the plot she’s collected throughout the book, interweaving pieces of real history with the “secret history” that’s the backbone of the series. If it’s a bit tricky separating out the real from the imaginary, that’s because Kage Baker was clever enough to use just enough actual historical detail to make the imaginary bits sound like they could plausibly be found as footnotes in a history book.

Just one example from the information Imarte shares in this chapter: the British did actually have a complex relationship with the U.S. during the Civil War, with some factions supporting the Confederates and others waiting out the conflict to see if they could get a new foothold in their former colony. The two nations had even come to the brink of war over the Trent Affair less than two years earlier. There also really was a minor gold rush in Catalina in the early 1860s, leading to a real (but temporary) mining town called Queen City. However, in reality Queen City was just that: a boomtown for hopeful miners, not a British fortified base for mining and/or artillery emplacements. So unlike what’s seen in the Company series, the British weren’t involved with Queen City or with mining operations on Catalina, but by linking the two and putting a few small twists on the historical events, Kage Baker links Catalina, England, and the Company in a way that almost but not quite fits in with actual history. It’s close enough that Imarte believes she’s struck a lode of crypto-history, not realizing that it’s the Company (or at least the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society) that’s really behind the divergence from recorded history. Clever, no?

The final section of this chapter shows another one of Mendoza’s dreams, but unlike the other ones so far, this one doesn’t feature an appearance by Nicholas Harpole. Instead, Mendoza finds herself on an English ship, where she watches sailors do “terribly nautical things” and is addressed by a black-bearded seaman who asks “Ain’t you been in to see him yet?” Given that this takes place on a contemporary (not 16th century) English ship, I’m guessing this is some sort of Crome-instigated vision/dream about Edward at that moment, but as with many of the dream scenes in this series, I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure what to make of it—which may actually be the point.

Chapters 15-16: This entire “Part Two: Babylon is Fallen” section of the novel seems to be the spot where Kage Baker decided to puncture the delusions of her main characters and make them come to terms with their life choices. We’ve already seen Imarte forced out of her detached, academic comfort zone when she’s confronted with a visual reminder of her old home Babylon, and in just a few chapters we’ll see Juan Bautista learn a hard lesson about caring for mortal creatures. In these two chapters it’s Porfirio’s turn: he has his own moment of reckoning when he learns that micromanaging his extended family of mortal descendants isn’t just very difficult, but it can lead to emotional trauma for everyone involved.

These two chapters are tragic in almost every respect: a dysfunctional family complete with alcoholism and child abuse, a murder, lies, revenge, Tomas’s near-fatal shooting, another attempt at revenge leading to another (staged) murder, and finally, Tomas becoming a violent and abusive drunk himself. Happy days.

It’s both ironic and heartbreaking that Porfirio, who has taken many lives for Dr. Zeus, ends up accidentally shooting someone he loves. It also jumped out at me that Mendoza has become so used to murder that she doesn’t even blink and just coolly sips her mocha when Tomas is shot. And finally, I’m not sure whether it’s seeing a child in need that awakens Imarte’s motherly instincts or whether she was just reminded of the “very old recipe” for goat stew when she saw Babylon in Intolerance, but she suddenly starts “Chaldean Surprise” (as Mendoza calls it) while analyzing Porfirio’s dysfunctional family dynamics and placing it in its proper socio-historical context.

Maybe Einar has the most helpful reaction to Porfirio’s unfolding family drama when he proposes staging Porfirio’s murder. It makes sense that the movie-obsessed immortal would want to direct his own version of the “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” scene and, aside from Tomas’s unfortunate reaction after the deed, it was actually a pretty good idea. I can’t even blame Einar for giving himself the best line: “I think I finally got a line on that no-good murdering hombre that killed your pa.” (I almost picked an Ennio Morricone tune for this week’s soundtrack just because of this scene!) It’s sad that Einar will disappear from view after this novel because, as much as I love the Adventures of Joseph and Lewis in Hollywood, Einar would have been a blast in that setting too.

 

And that’s where we’ll end it for this week! Next week we’ll cover the remaining eight chapters in Part Two: Babylon Is Fallen. See you then!

Stefan Raets used to review tons of science fiction and fantasy here on Tor.com and his website Far Beyond Reality, but lately his life has been eaten by Kage Baker’s Company series.

2 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!