Forgotten Greats: Miguel Vega

Excerpted from Lance Dunne’s The Eyes of a Millennium (University of Texas Press, 1984), with kind permission from the author’s estate

…It has become a truism of contemporary film criticism that, just as genius is never recognised in its own time, no great director can ever be truly appreciated in his own country. Of all the sad-sack stories of thwarted ambition and wasted talent I have dusted off and presented for your appreciation in this heartbroken volume, none gets this point across quite as eloquently as that of Miguel Vega.

electric-cinema-palaceSpanish by birth, he was raised by turns in each of the four busiest port towns along the western coast of that country, absorbing a love of his native culture in all its merry, chaotic variety which would remain with him throughout his life, making frequent and memorable appearances in many of his films. Vega’s first encounter with a camera might well have been in any one of these towns where, since the turn of the century, talking lantern shows would have been a beloved fixture of the ramshackle carnivals and harmless freak exhibitions which toured up and down the land. We can well imagine the young Miguel watching with childish amazement, as the shapes and shadows of his own future danced on that colourful and weather-beaten sheet of canvas.

My first encounter with the man’s legacy came when I was pretty well a youth myself, studying Comparative Literature at UCLA. A frequent, and very welcome, guest of the Film department, I was already more knowledgeable than most of their professors about the common-or-garden “auteurs” who littered the syllabus. One course, which I saw from the noticeboard had been cancelled due to lack of interest, caught my eye – its subject was a Spanish-born filmmaker, whose name alone set my imagination jangling like a windchime.

tmih-mar-fountainWhile the Film department busied itself with raking over the well-worn importance of Truffaut – who, in turn, had raked over the well-worn importance of Hitchcock, and so on – I was feverishly tracking down any information I could about the mysterious Miguel Vega. I learned from the department Head – an overweight and incurious Cypriot – that he had produced thirty or so films in his lifetime, only seven of which were rumoured to survive in a watchable form. About all the information he would willingly give me were the titles:

Some Day Soon (1943)

Under the Porch (1954)

Inside Doubt (1968)

Come Aboard, Mammy (1936)

I, Midas (1940)

Death by the Numbers (1971)

Evelyn Ever After (1946)

Like the man’s name itself, each of the titles stuck glimmering in my brain like a precious stone, the words suggesting more diverse and meaningful themes and ideas to me than had sitting through any of the tired, mealy “masterpieces” being screened for us each week. I begged the Professor to let me see the films themselves, but he protested. He had no copies of the films themselves, it transpired, but only second-hand stills and production notes – one of the main reasons the course had been scrapped.

I confirmed this sad fact the next day, after managing to gain access to his office. I searched frantically through the ramshackle mess on top of his desk (a pig-sty of incredible proportions, though typical of his countrymen) for fully ten minutes, before finding an item of interest – a small, hazy photograph of Vega himself on the set of ‘Come Aboard, Mammy.’ There he was at last – a small man, physically, but with an immensity in his posture and expression which seemed to radiate outwards from the image and become almost a physical sensation. His face was almost the least clear portion of the image but, still, it will remain forever burned into my memory.

protectedimageThere was the prow of the great, painted ocean liner on which most of the film’s action supposedly took place. There was Lana Spinosa, giving her last and, I feel certain, her greatest performance as the wealthy widow (if her character’s name was recorded in Professor Nicolaou’s savage scrawl of handwritten notes, I was never able to make it out). There were the negro porters, hefting her great piles of baggage with a comical effort, puffing out their great black cheeks and tottering nearly off the gangplank. Leafing through these and other unforgettable stills, for the first time I had a sense of Vega’s sensibility as a filmmaker beyond his choice of titles. What I saw there left a mark on me, which has yet to fade.

Realising that I might as well cast this precious material into a fire as leave it in the fat, sweaty hands of Nicolaou – or, indeed, in those of any of his morally bankrupt race – I filled my unassuming black trash bag with everything that looked relevant to Vega, and half of what didn’t just to be sure. Before leaving I took $30 in cash and change from his drawer, and then opened one of the windows, in order to imply that this had been nothing but a common burglary. As a final flourish, I blunted the nib of his expensive Parker pen by etching “PROFESOR WOG” into the polished surface of his desk. This was chiefly to imply a racial motive for my fictional, illiterate burglar (though I won’t deny taking some small measure of primal satisfaction in the act myself!).

broken-penI will never regret taking such drastic action in the cause of artistic conservation. I am confident, in fact, that my daring evening raid would not be judged a “criminal” act by any sane court in the land – even if I had not, after taking legal advice, chosen to alter the good Professor’s true name for this account. He knows what he did; I know what I did. Let‘s leave it at that.

What I did regret, and will continue to regret until that happy day soon to come, was discovering the following day that I had somehow confused my precious black trash bag with one of its twins while disposing of my janitorial disguise from whence it came. The howl of grief I let out, on finding only empty Coke cans and banana peels in place of Nicolau’s treasure trove, brought my fellow students running to see what had happened. The real Vega archive, I assume, found its way quietly into one of the three belching furnaces at the South end of the campus, and was returned to the airy nothing from whence it, and we all, came. After I had shed every tear I had to give, I vowed to continue my quest to discover all I could about the elusive Miguel Vega.

E0702 KLENZE 9463Sadly, I proved unworthy of this lofty goal. After several months, not only had I been unable to track down even a single copy of one of his films, but now even the shallow pool of Professor Nicolau’s third-hand wisdom was no longer available. He had finally returned to his beloved land of olive-gardens and male whores, following a series of increasingly vicious acts of vandalism perpetrated against his professional and personal property over an eight-month period.

To this day, other than a few vague references in irrelevant technical journals – so vague they could almost, in truth, have referred to a different man with the same name – I have not managed to find another scrap of information on Miguel Vega. Those undoubtedly wondrous, epochal works he forged between the magical years of 1936 and 1971 remain a blank to me and now, approaching the end of this book, I realise they always shall…

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