Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW Home Page
Home
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
Discussion
TV Schedule
Newsletter
For Educators
Archive
Topic Index
Search:
Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo  National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
11.29.02
Archive:
NOW Transcript
More on These Stories:




Transcript

ANNOUNCER: You're watching NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, with contributions from NPR News.

This week on NOW...

Bill Moyers interviews his favorite storytellers on the deep roots of their artistic visions.

TAYMOR: I really like to be challenged. I like to go into something not knowing if I can pull it off.

ANNOUNCER: The sources of their inspiration.

NAVA: When you hear those incredible myths what do you respond to? Do you respond to it intellectually? No, you respond to it like the images in a dream.

ANNOUNCER: And the fires that feed their creativity. Tonight on NOW.


ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers.

MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

We return tonight to one of our favorite subjects: where do creative people get their ideas? Creativity was the subject of a series my wife Judith and I did for PBS 20 years ago.

By the time we had finished the 17 broadcasts, we had given up trying to define creativity and decided simply to enjoy it.

I'm still intrigued by the question: how is it some people possess an awareness that leads to a new way of seeing the world? Consider that question as you meet my guests in this hour.

They are among my favorite storytellers.

Faithful viewers of the show will recognize them from their previous appearances.

We begin with Julie Taymor.

MOYERS: Julie Taymor turned the Broadway stage into the throbbing, thrilling spectacle of THE LION KING, where creatures of the jungle dance out of her imagination into the wide eyes of audiences of every age, and where grandchildren and grandparents enter an animal kingdom as human as our own hearts.

She not only directs, but designs, using traditional cultures with the modern, creating from old masks and ancient mysteries new stories filled with song and dance, laughter and tears.

Soon out of college, Julie Taymor lived four years in Indonesia, an experience that changed her metaphors and her life.

She came home steeped in the colors, costumes, and masks of people for whom the union of the human and divine is a natural act of creativity.

MOYERS: She went all the way back to Shakespeare for her film TITUS.

MOYERS: Here the demons and angles of human nature war with one another in blood feuds and vengeance that reach mythic dimensions.

Julie Taymor's latest movie is FRIDA, about the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, played by Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina.

Taymor was fascinated with how the young Frida, hardly known in her time, could become an icon of modern art, and with how any lover copes with the pain of betrayal.

MOYERS: Once again, her directing draws upon an artistic imagination unlike any other and Julie Taymor joins me now to talk about what she sees that others don't.

MOYERS: How do you keep in touch with your artistic self in this commercialized world?

TAYMOR: Well, I don't know how to answer that exactly, but I think that I can only do what I do feel passionate about or what moves me or what daunts me. I really like to be challenged. I like to go into something not knowing if I can pull it off.

I'm not really interested in safety. When I did FRIDA it was so different from TITUS and THE LION KING and all my other pieces because it was supposedly a reality, a biography. And now all of a sudden I have to pay attention to cars of the period and buttons and lamps and truth, whatever that means. There's no such thing, but some semblance of truth.

MOYERS: You don't believe...

TAYMOR: No, because I think the truth is, as Frida would say, could be behind the eyes. What we call truth or reality, or literal reality, that's just an exterior reality. But it's really in the eyes of the beholder, it's subjective.

[FILM CLIP]

MOYERS: I'm a journalist. This is not supposed to happen, but I'm chilled every time I see that.

TAYMOR: Why?

MOYERS: I do not know, I was going to ask you why. I mean, why is the hair cutting so significant?

TAYMOR: Well, that particular scene happens after Diego has done the ultimate act of betrayal: he's made love with Frida's sister. And she leaves him. Frida leaves him.

And she...so much of Frida was about her physically, her hair, her braids, her clothes. So she cuts her hair off at that moment. And I found these paintings to be...because they're autobiographical, I could actually set them in the order. In the movie, I could put them when they happened.

So we used the hair cutting...I play with time, as you can see. She's, we cut her hair, then we're advanced in the party afterwards and she's just...not drunk but getting to be alcoholic and trying to be with other people, she's very sad and depressed.

And she takes the hair off that she knew Diego loved so much and she puts on her male suit and she plays with that other side of her, which is the masculine side of her.

But that particular shot, which is Selma Hayek in front of the mirror, Selma Hayek completely painted -- we painted her face, we painted her clothing, we forced perspective. When you talk about the theater, that is a forced perspective set.

There's nothing computer generated in this at all. This is almost totally theatrical. You use motion control, which means your camera moves once with the real Selma here, then you do the same action again with there, and you can then put them together. But it's so shocking to people because it looks like a two-dimensional painting for a moment and then you feel that it's a human being coming alive.

MOYERS: I'm chilled I think because of that and chilled because suddenly as you talk I think of...I'm seeing the melancholy. I mean, feeling the melancholy, the cut hair, the something lost, something gone, something that she loved, she shears.

And then suddenly this figure comes alive for a brief moment and then lapses into the most utmost posture of despair and melancholy.

TAYMOR: And it's a little, little gesture. That's a little teeny gesture, just the collapse. It's so subtle just to go, oh, my God, she's alive.

MOYERS: When I saw it I thought that my friend George Lucas uses special effects to take us into the farthest reaches of outer space.

TAYMOR: Yes, right.

MOYERS: You use special effects to take us into the deepest recesses of the inner life, what the ancients used to call the soul. I don't know how you do it, but it happens when I'm watching that film.

[FILM CLIP]

In almost everything I've seen of yours, there's a moment, a defining moment, usually a violent moment. You don't see the violence. That accident beautifully photographed, beautifully directed accident scene with the falling gold dust and the falling glass and the falling oranges. There's also that pipe there that we know later is going to enter her back and vagina and means that she never has...but you don't see that...you grope with the consequences of violence not with the act itself.

TAYMOR: Well, I learned from Shakespeare about that.

MOYERS: Good mentor!

TAYMOR: Yes, I did. And I think that people's imaginations are richer sometimes than the reality. And also, if you show the act, you have the danger of putting the audience off so they can't enter into it.

And all kinds of violence. When I did TITUS I was very aware this has been made into art. Whether it's the requiem mass, the crucifixion. How many times have we seen the most beautiful sculptures of Christ on the cross, the most violent, bloody, shocking thing that you could do to a human being. And yet there have been more sculptures, paintings of that that evoke compassion in the audience and emotion.

And we always write stories of tragedies because that's how we reach our human depth, that's how we get to our...the other side of us. We look at our cruelty, we look at the darkness and the horrific events that happen in our lives.

And then you find this ability to transcend. And that is called the passion, like the passion of Christ.

When I talk about passion, and I'm not a religious person, but I absolutely am drawn and attracted to the power of religious art because it gets at that most extreme emotion of the human experience.

MOYERS: Excuse me, I have to tell you that I think you are one of the most religious people I see working in the...

TAYMOR: Well, yes, but not an organized religion.

MOYERS: No, no, not doctrinarily, but the experience.

TAYMOR: No, I agree with you. I believe in it profoundly.

I think that LION KING, some of the most beautiful experiences I've had with that show is when a family will come and say to me, we had a daughter, she died...this is one story. She died a couple of months ago, we had tickets to Lion King, she was a 10-year-old daughter, we brought our eight year old son to THE LION KING.

And when that moment happens where the child asks the father, will you always be there for me, and he sings the song, the father sings the song, Mufasa sings to Simba, I'll be there, we live in you, he lives in you, he lives in me, he's watching over everything we see, he sings about how he'll always be in the stars.

This little boy, this eight year old boy, turned to his parents at that moment and he said, "Sara is with us, isn't she?" His sister. "Sara is with us."

Now, I think that is absolutely essential to the act of theater, because that's what theater is, with film, it's with art, and always meant to do, is to take you through those passages.

That's its function. It's to take us through these moments. You just don't need to show the happy moments; you have to take people through those horrors.

MOYERS: That's what I really did like about your film, is that it doesn't deny anything including the triumph for the moment of joy, of ecstasy, of sharing...

TAYMOR: Oh, joy is deeper than sorrow, said Nietzsche. That is such a beautiful concept.

MOYERS: Don't you find that love really hurts? It's not...

TAYMOR: If it doesn't hurt it's not real, it's not going to be deep.

TAYMOR: And unfortunately the way human beings are the darkest...the worst tragedies are when true greatness is...flowers and is born. And you can say heroes or whatever you want, but we use this 9/11 over and over again to say that. People come, the best of human beings rise to the surface when the worst things happen in the world.

MOYERS: What I sense in you is a seeker. That's what I mean by religious, pilgrim, sojourner, whatever. You're a seeker.

TAYMOR: And I do the...I'm often interested in the story of the outsider, because Elliott and I both do this, we're doing GRENDEL, which is the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view, we did JUAN DARIEN, which is about a jaguar that becomes human and then is tortured and abused for being a jaguar and killed.

We are very inspired by these stories because they allow us to reflect on our culture from a different point of view. And I think that definitely helps us see ourselves in a different light.

MOYERS: What was...what happened to you in Indonesia?

TAYMOR: Ugh.

MOYERS: Something that was as defining in your life I sense happened there as what happened to Frida. I'm not saying.... I mean, you had a bus accident.

TAYMOR: I did have an accident. I had a horrific accident. And it's odd that when I was working on this movie I had no memory of the accident until someone brought my attention to it after. But I actually had an accident with my theater company in Bali.

I was there for two years, I had a company of Javanese, Balinese, Sindunese masked dancers and actors. And we were en route to Java and Sumatra on a night bus in Surabaya. And we crashed head on. I was in the front seat and glass embedded into my neck.

One of the actor's backs was broken, another leg was broken. It just practically demolished...it demolished the spirit, because it was on the way to a six-month tour.

So can I tell you this little story of what we did?

TAYMOR: This is the story that I...moves me the most.

I was there for two years, and I was planning to stay longer and start a theater company. And I went to Bali to a remote village by a volcanic mountain, Batur, on the lake. And they were having a ceremony, that only happens every 10 years, for the young men.

And I was sitting...I wanted to be alone for a while and I was just listening to this music from all these different Balinese gamelans, from many villages that came. And I was sitting under a gigantic banyan tree in the dark, no electricity, just the moon.

And all of a sudden out of the darkness I could see glints of mirrors and 30 or 40 old men in full warrior costume, Baris costume, there was nobody in this village square, I was alone, they couldn't see me in the shadows.

And they came out with these spears, and they started to dance. And they did, I don't know, felt like an eternity but probably a half an hour dance…with these voices coming out of them.

And they danced to nobody. Right after that, they disappeared and a young man came out with a propane Petromax, lamp, hung it up, the square filled up with people and we needed light now because the human beings were watching the performance and they did an opera all night long.

And I went oh, my God. The first man came out and they were performing for God. Now God can mean whatever you want it to mean. But for me, I understood it so totally. The detail on the costumes. They didn't care if someone was paying tickets, writing reviews.

They didn't care if an audience was watching. They did it from the inside to the outside. And from the outside to the in. And that profoundly moved me then. It was...it was the most important thing that I ever experienced.

MOYERS: And the question for me is, obviously you took there, the capacity to be touched and moved by that, the imagination was insipiently there when you went, but what was it about the Indonesian culture, about that dance, about the masks, about the stories, the myths of Indonesia, that made your imagination what it would not have been if you had not gone there?

TAYMOR: I don't know what it is. I live in New York, but when I'm in Indonesia, I feel right.

When I travel to Africa in my imagination, and then when I finally got to go, there's home for me in many cultures, because if I can connect to what makes people create art, then it doesn't matter where you're from. It transcends culture.

So we just cannot understand in this world what should be so easy, to move back and forth and to communicate. We just don't get it.

And when I'm in a culture like Indonesia where this was 30 years ago where you have no television, no movies, and people, children, everybody's watching these theater pieces all night long, and you're watching it be political, be religious, be a social event.

It's incredibly moving because it's the original way theater was. It's the way it started as a tribal village event. And it functions in every single faction that it's supposed to, if that makes sense to you. It functions as education, as political, as honoring the village. Shakespeare was very much in that vein. That's why I'm very attracted to it.

MOYERS: How do you mean?

TAYMOR: Well, because he created plays that had many levels at which an audience could hook in. If you were the groundlings, you liked the bawdiness and the crude jokes and the puns and the clowns and the good story.

But if you wanted to plug in as an intellectual or as a more sophisticated theatergoer, you'd get great history, you'd get philosophy. And he wasn't an elitist that way.

MOYERS: No. These plays were...written for people in the street, the people who came into the pubs and would stay there for an hour and a half and watch it, just like Renaissance art. I was so moved when we did a film about it. Renaissance art was meant to be public art. It was meant to be out there on the square, on the corner.

TAYMOR: Well, I feel strongly about that as an artist, and I think that art has become a big scarlet letter in our culture. It's a big A. And it says, you are an elitist, you're an effete, or whatever those Agnew things...[LAUGHTER] do you know what I mean?

It means you don't connect. And I don't believe that. I think we've patronized our audiences long enough. You can do things that would bring people to another place and still get someone on a very daily mundane moving level but you don't have to separate art from the masses.

MOYERS: Now that you are so popular, now that your work is...

TAYMOR: [INAUDIBLE].

MOYERS: No, I'm serious. Now that you're popular, now that your work is celebrated and people are seeking you, do you feel your creativity is threatened by that popularity or liberated by it?

TAYMOR: No, I think it's neither one. I don't do things any differently now than I would before. And you think that sometimes perhaps if I get a bigger budget for a movie, then it will just be the same thing...

MOYERS: Ruination. Ruination.

TAYMOR: No, because LION KING is a combination of high tech and low tech. There are things up on that stage that cost 30 cents, like a little shadow puppet and a lamp, and it couldn't be any better than that. It just couldn't. Sometimes you are forced to become more creative because you have limitations. I know that from the theater that I've worked and from my history, I've worked from $300 budgets and now I've worked on $20 million budgets. It doesn't really change. It's not about the technology. It's about the power of art to transform.

I think transformation becomes the main word in my life, transformation. Because you don't want to just put a mirror in front of people and say, here, look at yourself. What do you see?

You want to have a skewed mirror. You want a mirror that says, you didn't know you could see the back of your head. You didn't know that you could...almost cubistic, see all aspects at the same time.

And what that does for human beings is it allows them to step out of their lives and to revisit it and maybe find something different about it.

I think that's why travel was so important to me. I did it at a really young age, because you go outside and then you look at your own country, your own culture, completely differently.

I remember back then I used to say that arts were talked about in the arts and leisure page. Now, why would it be arts and leisure? Why do we think that arts are leisure? Why isn't it arts and science or arts and the most important thing in your life?

TAYMOR: Because in Indonesia, art at that time -- I don't know what it's like now -- was, is the most fundamental thing. To be able to dance in an all night topang performance in Bali is what you do to survive as a human being. You don't just do it to be in your leisure spare time.

And I was very moved...at age 21. I've been in theater since I was 11 years old. And I finally saw a culture where it really meant a complete difference, that these performances were the very act of devotion.

MOYERS: As I listen to you talk, so many of us live workaholic lives, going from one obligation to the other. We seem so devoid, so many of us, of this kind of passion, this kind of enthusiasm for the dance, as you say, for art. How do we get that back?

TAYMOR: I think it happens through [SIGHS] through people allowing themselves to be receptive, to be open. You have to encourage people to say, go out and let it happen to you.

MOYERS: It has to be nurtured, though.

TAYMOR: Yes, it does. You have to nurture it. Now we're in a society where everybody's frightened. When I was 13, my parents let me go to Sri Lanka. When I was 16 I lived in Paris alone. Do you think any parent would do that with a child now? They're terrified of it.

MOYERS: If we do that, the terrorists win. I mean, because the...

TAYMOR: Well, that's the problem. We're living in a time of terror, we're...

MOYERS: They're after our psyche.

TAYMOR: ...frightened of being exposed, of being challenged, of being in an uncomfortable situation.

I don't...I like that, because then I find out more about myself. If I'm in an uncomfortable situation, I either find that I have to make a bridge to somebody else and then the joy from that bridge is unsurmountable.

MOYERS: Well, thank you very much Julie Taymor, for being with us tonight.

TAYMOR: Thank you so much.


MOYERS: This is the season when public television stations across the country take time out to ask for your direct support.

If your station is among them, please think of it as the chance to vote on what you want to see.

If you prefer programs like the NEWSHOUR with Jim Lehrer, WASHINGTON WEEK, WALL STREET WEEK, and NOW, we'll be listening as the phone rings.

Later in this program, we'll continue to explore where ideas come from with Gregory Nava, who finds inspiration for his modern stories in the myths and art of pre-Colombian Latin America.


MOYERS: We continue our look at where ideas and creativity come from with Sherman Alexie.

This Native American writer grew up on the Spokane reservation in Washington state.

In addition to his novels, short stories and poems, he's also turned his work into movies, including SMOKE SIGNALS and his latest, THE BUSINESS OF FANCY DANCING, which he also directed.

Such prolific inspiration doesn't come easily.

To the contrary, Sherman Alexie has to go looking for it out in the streets and deep into his memories.

In fact, it keeps him up at night.

WAITRESS: Hey man, what's up?

ALEXIE: One.

WAITRESS: One.

ALEXIE: One.

My name is Sherman J. Alexie Jr., and I am an insomniac.

ALEXIE: Thanks.

WAITRESS: You want some coffee?

ALEXIE: Yes. Forever and ever.

My father was sleepless most of his life, so by the age of five, I was awake with him all night long, watching bad television or we'd lie in the same bed, and I'd read my comic books while he read his latest spy or mystery novel.

But my dad, that alcoholic nomad, he used to leave my family for days or weeks drinking and roaming, and I'd lie awake at night waiting for him to come home, and five or six times I cried myself sick into the hospital. And I'd lie awake in the kids' ward, ignoring the night shift nurses who came in and said, "Please, try and get a little sleep." So maybe I learned how to be an insomniac because I'm still waiting for my father to come home.

And so I'm walking the floors of my office and I'm trying to write a poem or a story or a novel or a screenplay. Or I'm out in my car driving the streets of Seattle, and I'm searching, searching, searching and looking and trying to write. I've got a pen in my head and a pen in my hand and...or I'm in these 24-hour restaurants and diners or these all night supermarkets walking the aisles. And...and I'm trying.

But it's good too, being awake, meeting the other insomniacs, and sometimes its just poor and middle class folks who are working the graveyard shift so they can make a little more money, maybe one-and-a-half or two times the minimum wage.

The thing tonight I saw was Carrie the waitress, and she had a tree tattoo on the back of her neck. And, you know, I was asking her about it and she wouldn't tell me. She said it was a secret. So if I was going to write poems about the people I meet during the night, and I often do, you start thinking about that tattoo. "Hey man, what's up?" And I asked her how far it went down, you know, realizing right after I asked the question how invasive it was. And she said, "Not very far." And I think that's how I would start the story in fact.

I worry, as I wander in the middle of the night, how good a father I can be, how good a husband, if I'm exhausted all day after having spent the entire night awake. Because of my passion for writing and my father's passion for drinking, both of our sons miss us all the time.

On Friday nights when I can't sleep, there's a place I can go unlike any others in Seattle. I mean there's something amazing about a place where I can find Chester Himes at four in the morning, or Graham Greene at 4:30. That instead of some carbohydrate grand slam feast that kills your heart, I can find something that feeds your heart. Toni Morrison. Imagine that, Toni Morrison at sunrise. Can you imagine anything better than that? I mean, I could be patriotic in a place like this. I can love this country more in a place like this than in any other place. We have too much, but not here.

So you sit here, looking at that one last cup of coffee. You're thinking about being a father and a son, and wanting to live a lot longer than 51, which is the average life expectancy for the Native American male. I want to live to be 102.

I'm awake because I'm a father, I'm awake because I'm a son, I'm awake because I'm a husband and a lover. I'm awake because I'm a Spokane Indian, I'm awake because I'm an alcoholic. I'm awake because I'm sober now. I'm awake because of all of that.

Why can't I sleep? It's because I don't want to sleep.


MOYERS: This broadcast is about stories and the creativity that gives birth to them.

Gregory Nava tells stories about the people he knows best—the people of Latino America with roots south of the border and deep in the past.

When I first interviewed Nava months ago in the infancy of this broadcast, PBS had just premiered his dramatic series called AMERICAN FAMILY about the Gonzalezes.

But I had become intrigued by Nava years earlier, when I saw his unforgettable film, EL NORTE. It's about a brother and sister making their way north, to the shining dreams of California.

I still place it in the list of the top ten movies I've ever seen.

I realized when I saw EL NORTE that somewhere along the way Gregory Nava had learned about drawing on great universal themes—the hero's journey, the odyssey, the dark forest, the quest for the grail, loss and recovery—to bring to life the stories of ordinary human beings.

Lo and behold, as I learned in that interview months ago, the wellsprings of Nava's creativity run deep in mythology.

Not the myths of Europe or the Middle East where the worship of one god began, but the myths that people lived by in this hemisphere long before Christopher Columbus arrived here by accident.

It was a world peopled by many gods, strange and powerful and very real to the ancestors of Gregory Nava.

On this ancient pyramid in Mexico, the stone carvings take us back to the long-lost world of the Mayans for whom the gods were next door neighbors.

The god Quetzalcoatl, whose name means precious feathered serpent, had the face of a coyote, when he emerged from the jaws of earth to become the deity of the sun and moon, symbol of rebirth and renewal.

One of his many faces is depicted here with a mask made of turquoise and shell on wood.

My own favorite is this one, the head of Quetzalcoatl on the temple in his honor at Teotihuacan.

Encircling the plumed serpent at the temple are sculptures that make me think of Stonehenge in ancient England.

These mythological creatures of the pre-Colombian cultures were a part and parcel of the daily lives of the people who worshipped them.

Here the supernatural met the natural, now and the hereafter emerged, and the dreams and stories and speculations that inspired them, and in turn issued from them, became a canopy of images stretching across the journey from life to death and beyond.

It's a canopy Gregory Nava knows well.

And he is here to talk about it.

MOYERS: When Joseph Campbell was just nine years old he came to the Museum of Natural History here in New York and his mind was exploded by the pre-Colombian art that he saw there...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: ...and the totem poles, the masks, all of that that had come down from the stories of the past. And his life was changed by that. Were there myths that changed your life?

NAVA: Yes, very, very much so. You know, when I was a young man I went to central Mexico in order to study pre-Colombian culture, Spanish, and to get in touch with my roots because I was Mexican but I was born in the United States and I wanted to go on a journey so I could find my roots, find who I was in a sense...

...because you know, living in the United States, being raised with the Mickey Mouse Club, it's all great, but you feel suddenly in your heart that something has been lost in this journey.

So I went there and I studied. And a world opened up for me that was extraordinary. Ever since I was a child I've always loved mythology. I've always been attracted to mythological stories.

And suddenly when I went to central Mexico I found pre-Colombian mythological stories that hooked up with the Greek and the Celtic myths and Hindu myths that I had been reading as a child...

MOYERS: What happened to you?

NAVA: It was an explosive process, I think. It was really kind of the beginning of my journey as a filmmaker. It opened me up in so many ways. You know, it caused a deep trembling in my heart. It's like an awakening within me of something, because suddenly what I was, who I was, got interconnected with everybody else and everything.

NAVA: And what was marvelous about it was, is that you could see the interconnections between this and Christian mythology and Greek mythology and Hindu mythology and all these other mythologies.

They all had a commonality.

The human experience is like one incredible complex kaleidoscopic jewel. But each one of these great mythologies sees it from a different perceptive and illuminates it in a different way.

If you look at the great religious thinking from the world, you know, I think that the pre-Colombian represents a triangle from what we think of as western and then what we think of as eastern. And then there is the pre-Colombian.

If you think of Christianity, what is the great statement that Christianity says? You know, it's do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you think about the great Eastern religions, what is the great truth that is revealed there? All is one.

If you look at the pre-Colombian, the great truth, the one phrase that sums up that incredible religious thinking is, make your heart your face.

Take what you have inside of you and put it here so the world can see who you really are. Live honestly. It's another way of saying it. You know?

The ancient pre-Colombians believed in a concept that was called ollin, which means movement. And the idea of making your heart your face was to them the ollin heart.

They believed that everybody had a journey in their life -- something that they needed to do in their life, and that it was everybody's responsibility to find what that was because once they found what it was and other people found what it was then the entire society would find its ollin.

Everybody who needed to be a poet would be a poet, and everybody who needed to be a warrior would be a warrior. But the way to find your journey in life, the way to find your path in life, was to make your heart your face.

And when you made your heart your face it opened your eyes so you could see. And when you could see you could find your path.

MOYERS: Joseph Campbell called that follow your bliss.

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: And there was a great deal of misinterpretation about that, as if it were just, ooh, go and do anything you want to...

NAVA: No.

MOYERS:...and you know, play light and frothily on the surface of the water. That's not what he meant. He meant if you're a warrior, be a warrior. If you're a writer, be a writer.

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: If you're an entrepreneur, be an entrepreneur. And find the joy in fulfilling your identity as your destiny and as your vocation.

NAVA: Yes, that's right. It's not an individual thing. That's what's so powerful about the pre-Colombian point of view. It is a communal thing.

When you find your bliss in a sense, when you make your heart your face and find your path, you're not only doing what's right for you, you're doing what's right for your society -- because the society needs for you to do these things.

And when everybody does this, then everything in this society will be taken care of.

And I was introduced to this idea of ollin when I was a young man and I went to Mexico, and it has really changed my life. And I realized what my ollin was...

MOYERS: Wich is...?

NAVA: Being a storyteller. I'm a storyteller and that's what I need to do in the life that I do. One more thing I wanted to comment about that is that to the Toltecs they had no monasteries. There was no concept of retiring from life to find God. Their entire concept was that you found God in what you did, in your work, again getting back to this concept of ollin, you know.

So doing what you need to do and finding what that is. You know, everything was sacred to them, and to the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America to this day it is still the same. Getting up in the morning is a sacred thing. Making the tortillas in the morning is a sacred thing.

You know, everything they do is sacred.

MOYERS: But let me give you a slightly different take on the Christian story and see what...if there was something akin to it in pre-Colombian culture.

The Christian story is not primarily ethical in this tradition; it is revelatory. It is God finding you; not you finding God. And it is the sense that God was incarnated, the word became flesh, God became human and suffered with human beings in order that human beings could be transformed.

And I was struck in the little exposure I've had to pre-Colombian art, by the rituals and mythologies of sacrifice and resurrection, death and life in that culture. Is that true?

NAVA: Yes. Very, very profoundly so. One of the things that's incredible about pre-Colombian mythology is the concept of twinning and duality.

I got a big dose of this when I was working on EL NORTE and working with Mayan people.

And even though the conquest happened 500 years ago and people were nominally Catholic, they still had a deep-seated feeling that the western, shall we say, take, on God, got it wrong. The idea that God was one or God was three, right, keep missing the point to them...

...because in the pre-Colombian viewpoint God is two. God is a duality. The pre-Colombian religion as all Native American religions is very sensitive and very interconnected with nature.

And since God is a creative force, what is the number of creation? It's two. One cannot create, and three, it's odd.

MOYERS: It may also be illegal.

NAVA: That's right [LAUGHTER]. It takes two deer to make another deer. Two people to make another person. So does it not make sense that you need a coming together of a duality in order to create the world and to create life as we know it. And that's how they saw God. And to this day, they see God as being a duality.

MOYERS: How do you see God today?

NAVA: You know, to me God is a tremendous mystery which is impenetrable and needs to be so.

And I think that that's one thing that I love about pre-Colombian mythology, is that nothing is judged in pre-Colombian mythology.

MOYERS: What do you mean?

NAVA: Well, it's...you know, for example, they have this god who is the god of mischief making and you know, all problems that people have, right?

MOYERS: There's a trickster god in the African...

NAVA: Yes, so it's like everybody's arguing and disagreeing, and he's always sowing dissent.

MOYERS: Yes.

NAVA: Yet this god is worshipped and prayed to because there's a spirituality in that that you have to get at in order to deal with it as opposed to cutting it off and dismissing it.

The idea being that whenever you cut something off and try to repress it, it only comes back in a negative way. So the fact is, is that you have to kind of embrace all of these things and realize that they ultimately all are one...

...because this duality that we see in pre-Colombian mythology, you know, all heroes, everybody's twinned, there's no one hero; there's always two heroes. Right? The twins of the Popol Vuh, always doubles, doubles, doubles, everywhere you look...

Has given the false idea that the pre-Colombian mindset was a dualistic mindset. It wasn't. It saw the duality as being one, kind of in a Daoistic way...

MOYERS: The yin and yang.

NAVA: The yin and yang.

But it is manifested in a particularly pre-Colombian way. Let me give you a very, very beautiful example. You know, you talked earlier about the incarnation of the word in flesh which exists also in pre-Colombian mythology in the form of the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.

So the feathered serpent has often been compared to Christ, but the feathered serpent can also be compared to Buddha because like Buddha everybody can become a feathered serpent if they reach a certain point of enlightenment.

Being a feathered serpent, the pluming of the serpent, is the coming of enlightenment.

But, Quetzalcoatl has a twin, his dog Xolotl. And the planet Venus is seen as being this god, Quetzalcoatl, and the planet Venus has two manifestations: it is the morning star and it is the evening star.

And as the morning start it is Quetzalcoatl, and as the evening star, it is Xolotl. As the morning star, it is darkness coming to light, reason and enlightenment; as the evening star it is the light going into dark. And this is seen as being the animal -- the animal twin that we all have with us which is very important in pre-Colombian mythology, which is our instinct.

You see, we have our reason and we have our instinct. They are both one, and the planet Venus is the same planet. It is one, but it has two manifestations as the morning star and the evening star; as Quetzalcoatl and as Xolotl.

And so when you look up into the heavens you see your inner soul reflected and the journey of your life reflected in the movements of this planet.

MOYERS: Enrique and Rosa in your classic film EL NORTE, this brother and sister coming from Guatemala, which was where so many of these myths grew up. What do you make metaphorically of that struggle of theirs to leave a bloody ground of Guatemala and make it to the El Dorado of California?

NAVA: Well, that journey takes place on many levels. It is the individual real story of two people who have to leave their homeland and come to the United States to work without papers to try to make a better life.

[FILM CLIP]

It is their individual spiritual journeys as they find who they are. And it mirrors the great Mayan book the Popol Vuh, the twin heroes of the Popol Vuh, Xbalanue and Hunahpu.

And this is why I wanted to have that movie have dual protagonists who were both equally important. And when I was first sending the script around, people would say to me, you know, in the film business, you can't do this. It has to be Rosa's story or it has to be Enrique's story. It can't be both their stories equally.

MOYERS: The individualist of the American ethos.

NAVA: As opposed to this duality. I said, no, that's the whole point of the piece. It has to be about both of them equally.

I want to see the man's experience and I want to see the woman's experience. I want to see how both of those things interplay and how this unit of brother and sister gets attacked when they come to the United States, you know, and the different kinds of values.

The other level that the journey takes place on is a very big mythic level where the story starts in a purely and totally American world, what I think is the true American world, that is the indigenous Native American world, a Mayan world.

When that movie starts, you see the people wearing their [wepeelas], and you see their mythology, and it is as if Columbus hadn't come.

Then this horror comes to their lives and it cracks it open. And that native world is released and it makes a journey through the mestizo which is represented by Mexico in the film. And the mestizo is the combination of the European and the Indian.

It makes a journey through that mestizo world and then into the Anglo world of the United States. And we see these three steps, represented by three languages, [Maya], Spanish and English.

And so in a way I wanted the film to be a journey of two people trying to make a better life for themselves, and in a sense a journey of the Americas and what all the interplay is of the cultures in...you know, in the Americas.

MOYERS: And then there is that incredible unforgettable sequence in which Enrique and Rosa are making...are journeying through the tunnel under the border...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: Full of rats in the darkness...

NAVA: Yes.

[FILM CLIP]

MOYERS: And far...you don't think they're going to make it.

NAVA: No.

MOYERS: And then far, far, far down the pipe is a little glimmer...

NAVA: Of light.

MOYERS: Of light. And to me that was powerfully mythological.

NAVA: Yes, and don't all of us in our lives have some life and death struggle with some demon, some horror, that we must transcend in order to find ourselves. You see that throughout all mythology and in all hero myths.

And in a sense, in EL NORTE that's the moment. They're in this dark tunnel with these rats, which is a real story -- that is to say, that really happens. People really do crawl through those tunnels. I got that story from somebody who had made that journey.

And when they told me that story, I went, this is what I'm looking for. I want something here, when they cross this border, that will be so, as you say, dark, mythic, terrifying, that when people watch it, they will no longer think about the politics. They won't think about the culture of Rosa and Enrique. They will be united with those two young people in that moment of fear.

And when those kids emerge from that tunnel they will be one with them and they will be seeing the world with their eyes. And that's what those kinds of heavy emotional experiences do.

I mean, after all, Bill, film is all emotion. Completely, 100 percent emotion. And myth is all emotion. When you hear those incredible myths, what do you respond to? Do you respond to it intellectually? No. You respond to it like the images in a dream.

You don't necessarily know what they mean, but they make the back hairs of your neck stand on edge and you know that you are suddenly understanding something on a deeper level, on a mythic level.

MOYERS: Mythology is not meaning, it's living. I said to Joseph Campbell, are you a man of faith? And he said, I don't need faith. He grew up a Catholic. He said, I have experience.

NAVA: Yes. Yes.

MOYERS: Myths are about the experience of living, right?

NAVA: Yes, they're about the experience of living and they are told on dream terms in a dream like way. The logic of myths is the logic of dream.

And I think this is where they come from. But they come from cultures that have a very fluid relationship with dreams. When you go and you meet with Mayan people down in Chiapas and in Guatemala, they make no differentiation between their waking life and their dreaming life. For them it is the same.

And as a result of that, as a result of the barrier being so, you know, they can move through it so easily, they do move through it very easily evening their waking life. They go back and forth into a dream state.

You see that very, very strongly in Celtic mythology which I love and adore. And there's, by the way, a tremendous relationship between Celtic mythology and Latin American. It's very powerful.

And that is one reason why James Joyce and his novels have such a tremendous influence in the great Latin American dream realist writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miguel Angel Asturias.

MOYERS: These stories are like seeds carried on the wind. And we're almost out of time. Thank you very much, Gregory Nava.

NAVA: Thank you.


ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW, how the deregulation of the radio industry left listeners in the lurch.

BARRY FEY, ROCK PROMOTER: When Congress deregulated the radio business, I'm sure they didn't have this in mind. This is just deregulation on steroids. It's just gotten crazy.

ANNOUNCER: What media consolidation means for consumers, next week on NOW.


ANNOUNCER: And...coming up on NPR radio.

LIANE HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen, host of Weekend Edition Sunday from NPR News.

This week Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller, on PERSONAL VELOCITY, a film she's directed based on her own short stories. Plus a wish list of vinyl records—which ones should be reissued on CD?

Find your local public radio station on our web site, NPR.org.

MOYERS: That's it for this week.

I'd like to know what you think, so drop us a line at pbs.org.

For NOW, I'm Bill Moyers.





about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
go to the full archive