By Cory Bilicko
When German art critic and historian Franz Roh devised the term “magic realism” in the early 20th Century, his frame of reference stemmed from the visual arts he’d been studying. In his essay “Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism,” Roh was recognizing the “magic” of the everyday world as it presents itself to us; in other words, how, when we really observe ordinary things, they can appear bizarre or extraordinary.
By the early 1960s, magic realism had been slightly reappropriated by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, since literature can engage the reader in ways different from the methods a painter uses to speak to the viewer of visual arts. In literature, magic realism often combines external elements of human existence with internal ones, fusing the real with the imagined. It is a union of scientific physical actuality and psychological human reality, incorporating more cerebral facets of human existence such as ideas, feelings, dreams, cultural mythologies and the imagination.
In Amaryll Beatrice Chanady’s 1985 book Magical Realism and the Fantastic Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy, magic realism “refers to the occurrence of supernatural, or anything that is contrary to our conventional view of reality…not divorced from reality either, [and] the presence of the supernatural is often attributed to the primitive or ‘magical’ Indian mentality, which coexists with European rationality.”
Cinema, being a visual and literary medium, offers the opportunity to incorporate elements of the visual traditions of magic realism as well as the literary devices used in books. Films such as Amarcord and Night of the Hunter, and more recently, Antonia’s Line and Magnolia, have been cited as cinematic examples of magic realism. But one that seems to fall under the critical radar is the 1988 German film Bagdad Cafe.
Shot in Newberry Springs, California, the film begins with surrealist shots of a road-tripping German couple squabbling. Jasmin, the fed-up wife, pulls from the car what she thinks is her own suitcase and begins walking down the desert highway. She ends up at the eponymous roadside cafe, where Brenda, the domineering and dramatic owner, has just had a row with her own spouse. Her cafe is also a motel, where an unusual cast of eccentrics lives, including Jack Palance as the creepily charming (or charmingly creepy) Rudi Coxx, a gonzo “Hollywood” type who is later demystified by the revelation of his having only been a set painter.
Other occupants of Bagdad Cafe include: Brenda’s son, who is devoted to practicing piano, a constant source of her chagrin; Brenda’s attention-starved daughter, who repeatedly takes off with men who represent the archetypes of those you wouldn’t want your daughter associating with; Debby, the tattoo artist whose occupation seems to be a surrogate for sex; and Cahuenga, the Native-American who waits tables and serves as the calmest person around.
Plot is not the driving force of Bagdad Cafe, and its strange characters and mystical location set the stage for its exploration and deconstruction of magic realism, toying with the genre rather than simply illustrating it. This is evident in a literal sense when, in an early scene, Jasmin the mysterious German enters the cafe where Cahuenga the sensible Native American is working; the two contradict Chanady’s idea– the diametric opposition of the European sense of reality versus the mystical traditions of the Indian.
One traditional element of literary magic realism is that characters accept the logic of the magical element rather than question it. When Brenda goes to clean Jasmin’s room, she finds nothing but men’s clothing and accessories. Rather than thinking nothing of it though, which would be appropriate to the genre, she calls the local sheriff to come and investigate. Her reaction to the clothing is more unusual than its being there in the first place. Later, truer to magic realism, Jasmin is seen perched on a ladder scrubbing a water tower, wearing her nice suit– an image used on some of the film’s posters. It’s a strange sight that seems fitting for a magic realist painting, but the logic behind her garb is the fact that she has no other clothing to wear, since she mistakenly took her husband’s bag.
Another element of magic realism is that it creates uncertainty in the reader, who has to determine whether to believe the supernatural or the realist interpretation of what happens, and to what degree. When Brenda and Jasmin first make extensive eye contact, there is a flashback that Brenda seems to have in which Jasmine is nude in a large outdoor tub while body-painted natives dance around her. There’s also a Thermos that contains some sort of seemingly transformative coffee, with no real explanation offered. Later though, the Thermos is seen on the counter, shaking as if it has a life all its own; then Cahuenga pops up from behind, revealing that he was actually the source of the movement.
These sorts of incidents fill every almost every scene of Bagdad Cafe, enriching it with a colorful verve and initiating some touching moments in unusual situations, as well as some off-kilter scenes that may be difficult to buy into. But to be too critical of these instances would be missing the point. Bagdad Cafe is not the kind of movie that will give us all the answers or lay out a story with well structured beginning, middle and ending. It’s the kind that leaves you scratching your head a bit as the desert highway beckons you.
Several books related to magic realism are available through the Long Beach Public Library system: The Fantastic Art of Vienna by Alessandra Comini; Magic Realist Landscape Painting by Rudy De Reyna; and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. To have a copy of any of these titles sent to the local Dana branch, call (562) 570-1042.