Manuel Puig doesn't answer questions, he composes a thesis in his head until you become aware of the silence in the room (the library of the Argentine Embassy, around rush hour), and then the writer lays out the answer in linear paragraphs, with all but the footnotes. The sentences are almost flawless -- few of the 'ers' and 'ums' of modern movie dialogue, and on the rare occasions when he flounders, he rewrites verbally.
"In films, you cannot be analytic," he has just said. The author of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is ruminating on the difference between writing fiction and film scripts. And Puig is in midthesis. When writing films, he continues, "you cannot accumulate detail. The motto is synthesis, and I don't think I could tell the same stories."
"No," he says after another in a monastic series of pauses. "You can take it out. Yes 'synthesis.' Scratch what comes after that. I want to take another way."
Again, the pause. He tries again.
"Films offer you other possibilities that fiction writing does not . You can't be slow and analytic and motionless, but you can play with elements that the page -- that the written page -- doesn't offer you. You can counterpoint music and color. You can play with the magical juxtaposition of the character's -- of a character's face -- and the face of the actor or actress that plays it."
Now the paragraph is complete. Edited. The long-winded academic demeanor seems an unlikely evolution of the chronic film buff raised on Norma Shearer and the organized sparkle of Vincente Minnelli. Brought up in a pampas town in Argentina "where power had prestige -- the power of money or the power of fists," the young Puig escaped by watching movies. Nightly at 6, he warmed the same seat in the local movie house and "watched everything -- American and Argentine. The more fantasy it involved the better. I was looking for a contrast with the life at home.
"I couldn't find any role in life or even in films that I wanted to perform . . . More than with characters I identified with stories, entire films. I was 'Wuthering Heights,' I was 'Spellbound,' I was -- no. Take out 'Spellbound.' I was 'Dishonored,' I was the 'Shanghai Express.' I was certainly 'Spellbound.'
Puig, with a film-writing career in mind, attended the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and served as an apprentice at Cinecitta', doing menial work for such movie notables as Vittorio De Sica and David O. Selznick (who visited Italy to produce "A Farewell to Arms"). But the film scripts he wrote were too derivative of his favorite films, and Puig found "my characters and the nature of the stories I wanted to tell required more space than a script gives you. They were mainly stories about motionless people. There were no heroics, no action at all -- only an interior action that could not be expressed in film terms."
He began writing fiction in 1961, but he has never really deserted the movies: His first book was titled "Betrayed by Rita Hayworth," and his subsequent work has generally been brief on narrative prose. He has also written several screenplays, including his present project, "The Seven Tropical Sins," an original script for film producer David Weissman. In the novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (recently adapted into a generally acclaimed film by Brazilian director Hector Babenco and produced by Weissman), there is evidence again of the film writer: There is no prose whatsoever. It's strictly a recording of voices, differentiated from each other only by their alternation.
"I thought their voices were expressive enough," says Puig. "I didn't feel the need to be there, present, as a narrator. It's not the same in all my books . . . But when the characters are more interesting than the narrator, my coming in between would be an intrusion."
Set during one of the infamous autocratic eras of recent years in Argentina, the voices are those of two cellmates -- one, a political prisoner regularly beaten by wardens for his beliefs and the other, a politically apathetic and homosexual window dresser imprisoned for consorting with minors. Grainy cynicism meets gilded fantasy, as Molinas the window dresser describes in lush and obsessive detail the movies he loves, and Valentin the activist -- forced to listen to the tales out of boredom -- lances his cellmate's bubbly fantasies.
Ironically, the "Spider Woman" novel, which is -- if nothing else -- about the movies, rivals the film "My Dinner With Andre" in terms of visual stasis; the characters for the most part remaining within the cell. "I love these dead moments," says Puig. "No action. Where, anyhow, a whole state of things is revealed. In fiction you can develop a more complicated yarn. There is no dispersion . . . And that allows the narrator to take convolutions that are not a burden on the reader."
Another unexpected feature in "Spider Woman" is an extensive use of footnotes on the subject of homosexuality, which follow occasional references to gay character Molinas. "I thought that was needed," says Puig. "In 1973, when I started to write "Spider Woman" , especially in Spanish countries, there was not much information about homosexuality."
It's a subject that Puig has distinct opinions on in general, but one he will not discuss in terms of his personal life. "Homosexuality doesn't exist," he says in one of the biggest pause-ridden statements of the afternoon. "It's a figment of the reactionary mind. I consider sexual activities of total inconsequence. They have no moral weight. They are as important only as the acts of nutrition and resting . . . I think identity cannot be defined by a banal act. What is not banal is the realm of feelings, affections . . . The idea of sex as a sinful activity was invented by a patriarch thousands of years ago, a guy who needed the fantasy of the two contrasting kinds of women: the saint at home and the prostitute in the street . . . It should have been fun and games, the major antidote against the tortures of -- "
A Puig pause. The dark brown eyes search the library for the answer.
"Nature-storms. How is the phrase? The forces of nature -- what's the word? Not holocaust. Wait, wait, wait."
We wait. Outside the library someone is turning off lights.
"Nature's cruelty? That is close." Sex is an antidote, then, "against the cruelty of nature. Earthquakes, hurricanes, illnesses, pestes . . . "
Is there an element of Puig in Molinas, the gay character utterly obsessed with films, who abhors reality? Or does he identify with Valentin? Puig laughs. "There is in me the possibility of those characters. But that you can say of all my main characters -- if I get interested in a real-life character enough to make it the center of a novel, it is because I feel that character as a possibility I carry in myself."
The subject of homosexuals or heterosexuals is irrelevant, he maintains. What concerns him, he says, is "the battle between the individual and the collective unconscious. Battle or love affair. For me it's especially exciting to reveal in a moment of total banality in the life of a character, this tension between what he may believe his unique self and the condition humaine -- how do you say 'conditioning of society'? -- meaning the moment when he thinks he's being totally himself -- an individual operating -- and it may be the contrary -- the weight of an education deciding what he's doing."
His statements on such subjects, as well as his books, have not been met with unanimous critical acclaim, he says. Reviews for his latest novel, "Blood of Requited Love," published last year, "as with all of my novels, were not encouraging. Strong attacks, a few raves. I'm used to it . . . I'm always rescued by the academic world. It's in colleges that my work is discussed in its right light."
Puig, who resides in Brazil, was recently here to lecture on film and literature on college campuses, as well as to discuss the staging for a forthcoming New York production of his play version of "Spider Woman" (the play is also scheduled for London's West End). He is not comfortable with adaptations, he says. For the play, for instance, he had to reduce the number of films narrated by character Molinas to one. And, although satisfied with Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein's production of Jose' Donosa's "Hell Has No Limits," for which he wrote the screenplay, Puig's second collaboration for Ripstein (an adaptation of Silvina Ocampo's short story "The Impostor") was "an unpleasant experience . . . It was changed drastically and my name remained in the credits as responsible. I disown it."
"I wasn't too pleased when I saw the adaptation," he says about Babenco's film (scripted by Leonard Schrader). "I didn't think it would convey what I wanted. That's very normal -- when other people take over a project, they have their views. But then, the audience's reaction was a surprise; they were getting exactly what I wanted them to feel. So by a different way, they arrived at the same results -- that was pleasing."
"For me, literature offers the possibility of dealing with more complex matters. I find literature the ideal medium to tell certain stories that are of special interest to me. Everyday stories with no heroics, the everyday life of the gray people."
A press officer at the embassy enters the library and taps his wristwatch. Puig shrugs. It is time for the next interview. The lecture is over. He leaves, reminiscing about De Sica ("not only did he have value as an artist, but an unbelievable human being. I never saw him lose his temper"). Asked about his love of the movies, he shrugs again. He will always love Hollywood, says the 52-year-old author and screenwriter. Because he fell in love with it when "I was young."