Great stories deserve to be told and this one can be told in ten waves.
Waves which pass through the femoral artery that carries blood and oxygen to the lower limbs of the human body.
Surf. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
Guillermo Cervera, who is a photographer of things, has been talking to me about the femoral artery for ten years. It is the one that has come up in our conversations and in particular while sailing between the islands of Macaronesia.
First wave. At the beginning of 2011, having covered the start of the war in Libya together, I returned to Barcelona, and Guillermo managed to reach Misrata by sea with a group of photographers – the city being under the siege of Gaddafi.
Guillermo found himself there with Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and some other photographers from the English-speaking world. They went to the centre of Misrata, where the fighting took place metre by metre. Guillermo disappeared for a moment to take a piss and when he returned the others had gone. They had left him alone. He was fucked, but he managed to get out of there. Once back in the house where they all slept only one of the photographers from the group, M., apologised.
Misrata, 2011. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
Second wave. In the afternoon they returned to the front and there they found a Brazilian photographer. it was an absolute classic: the Brazilian was the first to arrive in Misrata and he resented the arrival of the other photographers. “Out of the way you idiot!” he said and headbutted Guillermo. Guillermo did not hold back. It was a sensational scene: two western photographers in a fist fight in the midst of a battle, and the rebels, looking like they were seeing a UFO, stopped firing in their quest to take a building. The rebel leader, wearing a turban and with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, tried to separate the photographers, who were fighting with their cameras also slung round their necks.
“Tim, Chris and the others watched our fight. Nobody took photos of it. And it was the best photo opportunity ever!”.
The rebel leader – he had already clocked him – pointed the Kalashnikov at the Brazilian, the photographers separated and the war – the other one – continued. The rebels took the building and killed the Gaddafi loyalists inside it. On the roof the rebels took selfies with the dead bodies.
Misrata, 2011. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
Third wave. The next day they retreated to the urban front. There was a relative calm but still there was something strange in the air. They met three French journalists and together they decided to leave the place. But before they did they went up to the roof where the bodies were. Guillermo stopped to photograph an armed rebel underneath a large Pepsi poster. The group carried on without him. Just seconds after he had shot the Pepsi photo, its bubbles dissolving into the sky…BOOM! A missile struck between the façade and the floor that the others had reached. Without even thinking about what he might find he took a photo of the smoke from a distance. Those who were able to ran from the strike and Guillermo ran after them.
Misrata, 2011. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
“When I arrived I found M. and K., another photographer in hysterics. While a Libyan managed to escape in his car, I opened up the boot and they both jumped in and fled. I went towards the site of the strike and through the smoke I could make out Tim on the floor, half propped up on one arm. ‘Guillermo, please, help me’, he begged. At his feet was Chris, face down. Blood was trickling out of his helmet.” The rebels looked after their own. There were five or six Libyans either dead or injured.
All the journos and photographers had fled.
All the journos and photographers had fled. All that was left were the injured bodies of Tim and Chris.
The scene was a great photo. The great photo that Guillermo did not take. His photography was to help them.
“A rebel with a pick-up who was helping his own approached me. ‘Please, please, help me!’, I yelled. Several others came over and together we put Tim and Chris into the vehicle. Tim was still conscious. I thought Chris was dead”, (in fact he was alive but he died later).
Guillermo didn’t know it at the time but the two photographers suffering at his feet had taken the photos that had most impressed him years earlier when he had bought a book of war photographs.
The pick-up sped on to the hospital. Guillermo took Tim’s hand. On leaving the area they saw an ambulance and made towards it. The ambulance took Chris away.
Fourth wave. Before the pick-up set off again Guillermo grabbed his mobile out of his pocket and took a photo of Tim, injured. Just the one. “It was all I could do”.
Fifth wave. Racing towards the hospital Tim went in and out of consciousness. “I saw blood coming from his groin but I didn’t look good; the whole floor was covered in blood and guts, sliding around, and the pick-up was bouncing up and down”.
Guillermo didn’t let go of his hand. “Tim, don’t worry, we’re almost at the hospital”, he said in an effort to stop him losing consciousness. But Tim’s eyes started closing and in the end Guillermo noticed something difficult to describe. “One of the rebels travelling on the roof of the pick-up put his hand on my shoulder, as if to say ‘I’m sorry, he’s dead’”.
Misrata, 2011. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
Sixth wave. In the hospital they took Tim’s body away – his camera still round his neck. Guillermo went up to M., who was only slightly injured. “Don’t take photos of me”, he said to Guillermo, who had no intention of doing so and simply wanted to know how he was. Weeks earlier I had seen this injured photographer, who now did not want to be photographed, shooting the torn off face of one of Gaddafi’s gunned down pilots with great aesthetic sensitivity.
A Reuters cameraman asked him for a short interview and Guillermo conceded. The interview went viral. Shortly afterwards he got rid of a BBC journalist. He did want a scene.
“My shoes were soaked in blood. In the hospital corridors everyone looked at my feet. It freaked me out”.
Leaving Libya, 2011. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
The next day he left Misrata in a Libyan fishing boat full of refugees heading for Malta. “Can you open your bag?”, K asked him before he left. “Why?”, he asked. “They haven’t found Tim’s camera”, she said. “See for yourself”, Guillermo told her handing her the bag… “Ok, are you happy now?”.
In the middle of the Mediterranean a US destroyer forced the fishing boat to turn back and they went to Bengasi.
Seventh wave. Now in Lanzarote Guillermo set out to do a spot of windsurfing with an emergency doctor friend. He told him about Tim’s femoral artery and asked if he could have done anything. “You’re not a cardiovascular surgeon, right? And even if you were you couldn’t have saved him there”, he replied.
Eighth wave. A funeral in the bonfire of New York vanities, already murmuring that he – the only one who hadn’t given up on them – carried on taking photos rather than helping out.
Surf. Photo: Guillermo Cervera.
“They did invite me, but I was already OK with my waves. I didn’t fancy the circus of photographers that would be there”. The recommendation of American photographer MK. illustrated the magnitude of the tragedy: “You should go to Tim’s funeral. You’ll make a ton of contacts”.
Sebastian Junger, author of the best seller The Perfect Storm and the documentary film Restrepo contacted Guillermo. He had been a close friend of Tim’s. He asked him to go to the funeral, saying that his mother wanted to talk to him. “I thought of my own mother, who had died eight months earlier, and I went”.
The funeral took place in the great Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue. Guillermo found himself seated next to K. – the one who had forced him to show her his bag.
“It’s not easy to explain to a mother how her son died. She asked me whether Tim had spoken of her. Whether he had suffered. I told her that he gradually fell asleep. She thanked me for taking her son’s hand as he was dying”.
The great social event of the funeral was the exhibition of Tim’s photographs in a Chelsea gallery. “That was the funeral of the ‘contacts’. I went, saw the panorama and left”.
Obsessed with the idea that Guillermo could have stopped Tim’s haemorrhage, Sebastian set up a first aid school for reporters in the Bronx (RISC, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues). “With bombs in speakers, extras in burkas and that kind of thing. It hurt me. I never understood that”.
Sebastian had planned to make a documentary with Tim: The Last Patrol: walking with two combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan over almost 500 kilometres of deepest America. Sleeping rough. And he offered it to Guillermo in place of Tim.
“Oh, my!, I thought. But then again it was an opportunity to tell my story. And to take photographs. Over the long route I told them what had happened in Misrata and about the femoral artery. We left it there”.
Ninth wave. Guillermo kept the image of the injured Tim for himself. Some years later we published it, the size of a postage stamp, in a book that we made together, War is a swimming pool. And we exhibited it large-scale in a major New York gallery, the culminating work in a room full of surf pictures.
The gallery manager remembers Tim’s friends expressing “immense respect” for having exhibited that image. All of them, except for this one, were surf pictures but “they felt that it was more than a surf exhibition”.
Final wave. Today, Tuesday 20th April 2021, it has been ten years since a missile destroyed the femoral artery of Tim Hetherington.
It is the photograph that nobody took: Guillermo holding his hand as he died.
Many different personalities coexisted in John Huston (1906-1987): the self-demanding and rigorous film director, the admirer of Joyce and Rothko, the loving and demanding father … but also the actor with the appearance of a rascal or adventurer, the reveler, the divorced, the boxer…
In fact, Huston decided to be a film director because it allowed him to express and represent all the characters that he wanted, even more than being an actor and a “freeloader” in the best sense of the word.
Anjelica Huston in The Dead.
Had he not made The Dead, his cinematic farewell would have exhibited a very different tone: that of the black comedy with mobsters Prizzi’s Honor (1985). And perhaps, we would now say that his best film was The Misfits (1961), an extraordinary twilight, torn and vitalist, as well as existentialist post-western, which had a magnificent script by Arthur Miller conceived for a splendid Marilyn Monroe. In that film they drank a lot of whiskey, as in the funny adventure The African Queen (1952), where Huston incorporated the humorous tone of some dialogue he had had with Humphrey Bogart during the filming in the jungle, both quite full of Jack Daniel’s, on pesky mosquitoes: “Nothing bites me. A solid wall of whiskey keeps insects at bay … Anything that bites me soon drops dead so I am safe.”
Huston understood life as an adventure and knew how to film some memorable adventures, such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, starring his father) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). But the tone of his last work was radically different.
John Huston, Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann, in the set of The Dead.
The first time I saw The Dead, I experienced a strange sensation for most of the film. The story took place in Dublin, during a dinner with friends and family, on the festivity of the Epiphany, on January 6, 1904. The narrative was limited to a succession of conversations and daily acts, apparently trivial, and yet there was -in the way of contemplating all that- a rare fluidity, an extraordinary cinematographic and vital wisdom, a visible love of cinema, life and diverse people, happily real, with their excesses and defects, not adorned or too judged. All of this suggested a possibility for something different and better. And that possibility was fulfilled in a prodigious way in the last acts of the story.
First, in the scene in which the song that is the key to everything appears and acts as a revealing light, a memory and a connecting thread with an episode from the main character’s past. It is at the moment of goodbye going down the stairs, when Gretta (Anjelica Huston) stops as she listens to The Lass of Aughrim, an old Irish song that sounds from the living room and moves her. We will soon discover, at the same time as her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann), that young Michael Furey, Gretta’s first love, used to sing this ballad. And then, the denouement comes, which actually is also the true core of the story. The two monologues – hers spoken, his thought – summarize in a few minutes, with intensity, precision and depth, what the author of the literary story -James Joyce- and the authors of its cinematic version -John Huston and screenwriter Tony Huston, son of the director- wanted to articulate on some essential issues in human existence: love and death -and dying love-, passion and its obstacles, marriage, the contrast between desire and reality, the precariousness and the transience of everything.
The Dead reminds us the difference between what we think we are to others and what we really mean to them.
Suddenly, starting from some music and its verses, there was an unforeseen connection with an intense past, with a teenage love that at the time meant, for her and for the absent Michael Furey, true life, even if fragile and transient. And that single memory, unknown to her husband after many years of life as a couple, meant a revelation capable of transforming the perception that until then, Gabriel had of his own existence. Thus, The Dead reminds us of the possibility of experiencing strange rediscoveries, and also of the difference there can be between what we think we are or represent to others and what we really mean to them. To the couple, in this case. And those kinds of discoveries can be disappointing. But in the final part of The Dead there is much more than that.
I do not want to be exhaustive in the description and analysis in case any reader has not yet seen the film or read the book. I just wish to point out that Gabriel, after listening to Gretta’s story and while watching the snow fall from a window, realizes and tells himself that he has never loved that way. And we understand that he has not been loved that way either.
The most surprising thing about the film is that this revelation and final elevation that gives meaning to all of the above, happens in a way that does not seem like John Huston’s. That denouement that the viewer can experience as sublime, in a tone typical of the best possible romanticism –content, modulated and therefore more intense- and which arises from most day-to-day, reminds me of the best films by Yasujiro Ozu, that they have that same unusual structure. To those fluid stories that ultimately lead to a kind of fullness of meaning and intimate enlightenment, unsuspected, after so many common or even anodyne actions.
For many years, people aware of the splendid expressive and narrative possibilities of cinema have perceived the disdain of a large number of writers and critics convinced that cinema is a medium incapable of expressing with depth, subtlety and fullness what the best literature has effectively managed to express. Faced with any adaptation of an important literary work, the favorite and routine phrase of such observers has been: “the film is not up to the novel.” And the truth is that they were often right. Sometimes the problem was fundamentally a question of footage: it makes no sense to try to summarize in one hundred minutes, or two hundred, novels like War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time. And, already in the 21st century, when television series deal with long stories, it turns out that they tend to squeeze or lengthen them too much, just for commercial interest.
But what is relevant is that after The Dead no one has been able to affirm, without running the risk of appearing ignorant, that cinema is incapable of achieving what literature can achieve. And, fortunately, since then, other authors have made films that live up to the celebrated literary stories that inspired them. For example, Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Anthony Minghella in The English Patient (1996) -from the novels of Edith Wharton and Michael Ondaatje, respectively- as well as David Fincher in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), based on a story by Scott Fitzgerald.
The Dead is a film that enhances Joyce’s original literary tale. And it was not easy to achieve, because it was sustained maintaining a very fine subtle tone, which at the slightest carelessness could have been destroyed. However, the Huston team and their collaborators showed that this was feasible. It is true that, as The Dead was a short story, the film version did not have to suffer impoverishing cuts. In this case the duration was not a disadvantage. And another decisive advantage of the film with respect to Joyce’s text is that the audiovisual medium allows viewers to hear and be moved by the song The Lass of Aughrim, which in the book is only alluded to with three verses.
Also, in a general way, in the cinematographic narrative, a subtle gesture or a nuance of the voice says and suggests more than a long dialogue or the psychological explanations that abound in so many novels. And a well-filmed cinematographic appearance or presence can advantageously replace those long, heavy descriptions that were written before cinema existed. In The Dead John Huston wisely uses and doses all the expressive elements and resources of cinema, from the casting to the music (by Alex North), passing through the distance and the continuity of the shots. And as in his other films, he gets the best out of every actor and every actress, especially his daughter Anjelica, who embodies, more than she plays, the character of Gretta.
But there is another less obvious and rarely mentioned key factor, which is found in the script signed by Tony Huston. Is it possible to improve Joyce’s text and, furthermore, by means of a monologue? … Well yes: that happens in the final part of The Dead, which rewrites and distills the original text, turning the book’s third-person narration into a single meditative voice, associated with some nocturnal images, outdoors. That verbal distillation and that relationship of words with dark and snowy landscapes, manages to add to the clarity and subtlety of Joyce’s story a poetic flight at the height of the best passages in Finnegans Wake. Good prose, without ceasing to be so, suddenly becomes poetry.
The Dead meant an act of love in many ways. In the first place, from John Huston to his children Anjelica and Tony, with whom he wanted to share the creation of his last film, also as an affirmation of generational change and vital and creative continuity. Love, too, of them to their father, who filmed it very ill, shortly before he died. And finally, John Huston’s declaration of love for the life he was about to abandon, for his favorite writer – James Joyce – and for the music, people and landscapes of Ireland, the land of his ancestors.
Are we in a painting or a sculpture exhibition? The material is earthly: sand, silicates, clay, lime, and the volumes seem to fit with the technique of bas-relief more than the material informalism of, say, a Tàpies. And taking of informalism, are we looking at a series of abstract or figurative works? In fact, all work is an abstraction of something… Informalist, then? No. There are cracks and incisions. Art Brut? No, not that either.
There are two pairs of twin works in which we can sense symbols. Something female in one and peace in the other. There are also geometries that suggest the cross. Symbols, “presences made from absences”, that do not determine the sense of the works. Red herrings.
Some people say that the painting—or sculpture—is a window of different dimensions. In Adalina’s case it would be better to talk of doors; opening that can take us to new spiritual states…or not. We can also simply talk about presences: “my aim is that when looking at the works someone can connect with the moment, inhabit the present”, the artist explains.
Adalina also tells us that following a period of problems she chose the discipline of walking in nature. She had had an epiphany as a child: “you form part of everything, and everything is you”.
Adalina Coromines, Cicatrius amb ondulacions beix, 2020.
She walked for four years until one day she had an injury. Immobilised at home she spotted her partner’s box of watercolours and she started to paint. By painting and creating she reached the same place as in the woods: “when I go into my studio I smile with fulfilment”, she admits.
We could classify Adalina Coromines’ procedure as “metaphysical constructivism”. Her goal is plastic even though the creative process obliges her to experiment limitlessly, guided and almost pushed by her intuition. The right thing only emerges after an exhaustive process of rejection and destruction.
An act of rural artistry that would delight Perejaume.
Adalina creates by sedimentation: she sometimes scratches sketches on the wood on which the material will be deposited and then floods it with water and adds the pigments. The result is often random but calculated at the same time. When the work dries out she digs and ploughs out the earth in an act of rural artistry than would delight Perejaume.
All the materials she uses are natural and none of them are toxic. When she is not pleased with the work she immediately destroys it and its components are recycled.
Adalina Coromines, Cicatriu vertical beig, 2020.
Thinking about layers, at the beginning of this article I said that in Adalina’s case an alternative vocabulary is required. From the Latin humor we get liquid, humidity, and in particular the type that the earth transpires. Earth that is called humus. The smile on the artist’s face as she goes into her studio is, then, the greatest expression of creative fluidity.
The cracks that break the earthy surfaces are part of the process of regeneration, of a present continuous that covers all other possible times. If there are scars, then it is a sign that the wound has healed. And there is no better symbol of hope than that.