On the Beach of the Drowned Men
A Bombshell Plays in the Waves
Zipolite. You pronounce it zip-o-LEE-tay.
The bullshit guides have extolled the place for years as an escape from tourism and obligations, a beachside paradise where you can be rocked by Pacific waves while reading a book in a hammock or checking the beach for nude visitors who walk in the sunshine with a sense of daring you won’t find anywhere else in Mexico. Yes, there are military goons at night who might shake you down for twenty bucks if they smell marijuana or sense your fear as they approach with machine guns, but there is also a natural beauty to the place you cannot deny and which you probably need a lot more than your grey routine will admit to.
This is escape, first class. The Lonely Planet crowd have not yet ruined the place, but it won’t have long to go before it is a shithole on par with nearby Puerto Escondido. It will never be Cancun, glitzy and shallow, and it has so far eluded the mushrooming hedonism of the Maya Riviera, and if you can operate in the early hours of morning, when the Sun’s rim has not yet sliced over the horizon, you’ve got an astounding place to shoot with Nature as a fiery partner. This is a dangerous beach. Make no mistake. But beauty has its poisons, doesn’t it?
And I brought my own: the pinup star Kyla Cole, straight out of the Internet to play the part of the assassin Abbi Hendrix in my never-ending theatre of anti-corporate revenge. “Where will we go next?” asked Kyla after we’d shot our opening scenes in Bruges and the Arctic. We will go where Nature is easiest to touch, I said, and Kyla laughed as she booked her ticket: sick of standing around naked in front of tongue-tied photographers, she was desperate for a character who acted with honesty and intelligence, and the role of Abbi Hendrix was the ultimate femme fatale.
Portrayed as a sort of cyber supervixen who flits from one orgiastic photoshoot to the next, engaging in a series of ambisexual romances, cursed with an insatiable sexual appetite, Kyla Cole the pinup queen is lifetimes different from the real women who grew up in a stifling Roman Catholic province in Eastern Europe, where her neighbors and family enemies regularly remind Kyla’s mother that Kyla is heading to hell for showing her anus on the Internet. As you will see, she is actually a shy, virginal romantic who has fooled a lot of people with her dazzling looks. I’d simply sent her an email and offered a movie role as the assassin Abbi Hendrix and Kyla accepted right away and flew to Amsterdam to play my words and ideas in a movie shot by me and legendary cameraman Tanker Gogh. We bonded when she and I found two swans caught in traffic in Bruges, that famous poster town for delicate European nobility, and she dreamily remarked that “they mate for life,” to which I replied that more than 40% of baby swans are bastards because swans are always cheating on their mates, and this led to a loud and incredulous conversation in public about my sources, which Kyla came to realize are usually impregnable, if often distorted by my enthusiasms.
After Amsterdam and Bruges and Spain, shooting the scenes in the erotic thriller Assassin 62, I was convinced we could make something much more literary. A love story that would have its visual enticements to punctuate the melancholy and passions of remembering a torrid affair. I told Kyla about my doomed romance with Ananda Shields, started at a glance in the Himalayas and burnt to a crisp in the Congo: I wanted Kyla to play the assassin Abbi Hendrix in whatever came out of the Assassin 62 series, but I thought there might be an interesting re-telling of my love story if Kyla could act out the emotions of several dozen scenes I’d had with Ananda Shields. Kyla interrupted me: “Look man, I am a big pair of tits in every studio I walk into, and eventually everyone realizes I’m a good girl and there is no orgy happening, and then I’m the sweet model that everyone wants to buy candy for and I’m sick of it, because I never get to play an intelligent and strong woman, and if there’s anything I’ve figured out about you, Sean, it’s that you’re full of strong female characters, and I’ll do what you tell me to do. The beach in Zip-whatever in Mexico, it’s a nude beach, right?” Yes, says me, and Kyla replies: “Then we have the visual bait right there: catnip, sugar, whatever you need for your trap, and you have everything written already, right?”
Of course I don’t have shit written, I say. “We’ve got the nude beach then,” says Kyla, “And that’s a perfect start.”
And in this improbable way I end up with the Internet’s most popular nude model in a tiny shack on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, on the beaches of Zipolite. We’d finished our scenes for the erotic thriller in Cuernavaca, where I’d used my sister’s fabulous villa as a location for shooting Kyla as Abbi Hendrix, and I’d brought in some cinematographers and actors to play the scenes out for a few days, and then we were off in the 4-Runner southward to Oaxaca to shoot a scene in the ruins of Monte Alban, before tooling into Zipolite at night and waking up in a sort of paradise for anyone who grew up on beaches, as I have.
And what do you do when you wake up on a nude beach with one of the most beguiling models in the world waiting to be shot? You shoot.
Right away, I’ve got an image I’m delighted with. Kyla is usually pictured smiling wearing an expression of “come closer, big boy,” and what I want could not be further from that profile. I want her to seem to be impervious to danger, on the edge of a lethal place with a casual attitude, with an expression of loathing on her face, perhaps directed at the viewer or the photographer or even at herself: doesn’t she have something better to do than stand around at dawn on an empty beach in the snap and hiss of fatal waves? And the waves are fatal.
I came here a quarter of a century ago with my brother in law. I think my nephew might have been conceived in a hammock in the palapa huts put up by Cosmo on the rocks at the end of the beach, where Kyla and I were now staying in a new hotel called “The Alchemist.” My brother in law was a Swiss dentist, and he’d fixed Cosmo’s teeth, so we stayed for a few days until a young boy drowned in front of us, battered against the rocks while everyone on the beach waited for a motorboat that came thirty minutes too late. I was sick to my stomach, and went up to the bar where the cook asked me if I was okay, and then simply shrugged and said “it happens” when I told him about the drowning. As everyone had watched, a couple of men had kept up a continuous warning to us: Do not jump in, do not try to save him, or you will die too. A day later, I met Pierre from Montreal. Like my brother in law, he’d come to the beach not for the beauty but for the cheap dope you could score in a small village up in the mountains called San Juan del Pacifico. I’d gone there with my brother in law, got rounded up by the narco-traficantes, and was called a marijuanero as they tore through my belongings. But I speak Spanish and fought back: We’re here for a walk and if we wanted to score we wouldn’t come up here without a local connection because anyone would sell our skin for ten bucks and you know it. A cop in shades looking a bit like Bruce Lee listened to this, and gave a short nod to the military guys squeezing the bottles of my contact lens fluid, and the search stopped. He wanted to talk to me. Why were we here? The country is full of magic, I said, and this is my brother in law, who likes to smoke a joint de vez en cuando (“now and then”), who is a dentist and is always contorted over his patients so his neck and shoulders are in agony, you can see it in the way he’s standing there like a bent tree. The cop looked at Ollie and smiled. We came up here to get away from the gringos down there in Zipolite, I continued, to get some peace and quiet without thinking we would be hijacked by the military. Well, be careful, says the cop, that’s the beach of the Drowned Ones. Even foreigners die there, as one did from Canada a year ago.
Ollie and I left and I didn’t know it but he’d stashed half a kilo of shitty brown grass under his jacket right before the cops ambushed us, and that bus ride back down to Zipolite, through the Naval base, was anxious hell. I could have killed him, but he thought it was all grand, and I told myself never again travel with a fool, a rule I’ve broken several times but more or less have lived up to. Back on the beach, I found out the Canadian who died there a year ago had not died at all, even if he’d been left for dead on the beach under a blanket. Pierre from Montreal gave me the secret to surviving Zipolite if you got pulled out by the ferocious undertow, and I carefully tell this secret to Kyla on the first morning in Zipolite:
In case you get pulled out into the ocean, dive underwater and grab hold of the rocks, and wait until the waves come back in toward the beach, and then shoot up into the waves until you feel yourself being pulled back out, at which point dive back down and grab the rocks and wait again. Do that a dozen times, and you’ll make it back safely. She is astonished at this advice: My breasts float, she says, so I’ll just wait until you get a motorboat organized and come out and get me, I’ll be patient. I hadn’t thought about that. Okay, I say, you float on your breasts and I’ll scramble back underwater like a crab over the rocks so let’s make sure only one of us is in the water at a time. We shake hands, solemn. The next time we would be in the water at the same time, it would be with sharks, three weeks later, but that is another story.
But what was the image I was so delighted with that I mentioned above? What do I get out of the first day shooting on the beach? Who needs more nudes? There are already a million shots of Kyla naked on web, so what purpose will my additions have? There is the aesthetic of simply shooting the animal, the prowling feline or whatever other silly adjective you’d like to use, and there is of course the male competitive aspect of shooting her nude in a location that is better than other places other males have shot her nude (the “my nude is better than your nude” syndrome), and I am super competitive but not in that sort of self-aggrandizing way. My sole reason for living is to tell stories, to make some sort of unique literature, and for this Kyla Cole is a tool to shape my thoughts. In her beauty there are magnets millions of years old for men who are driven by instinct to look at succulent bosoms, child-bearing hips, and strong limbs: guys will look at what I shoot, as you are doing at this very moment, and also drink in my messages if I can attach them to those magnets of hers. I have an idea about time and its contours, what it means to pass in and out of it, and I intend to get a shot on the rocks of Zipolite that is sexually frank and arrestingly composed. An hour after we get onto the rocks, I have the shot and can see the photoshopped version of my message in my head:
Memory is a map of limits, of who you once were, and now will never be.
At the end of the first day of shooting, after I’d got a few distinctive images I knew I could use for my “Burn + Scar” project about the woman I fell in love with on the streets of Katmandu, we had a brief strategy session. I turned on the camera and captured this key part of it in the toilet:
She agreed not to shave her armpits until we reached Palenque or the Yucatan. More pheromones, I explained, would come in handy for the audience of our movie (and for you too, dear reader). When I’d traveled to Africa and France with Ananda Shields, she’d listened to my enthusiasms about pheromones and decided not to shave anything while we traveled together, and whenever she sensed my attentions were wandering from our goals of seeing the world and making babies, she would stick my fingers into her armpits so I could feel the hair growing there, and usually this was followed by flashfire sex in parking lots or public restrooms. Kyla adored the idea of this sort of power, and on several occasions in the following days would ask me again to explain the science of pheromones.
When you walk your dog and it smells the tree stumps and car tires, it sometimes stops and grinds its teeth and seems lost in thought, and at this moment the dog is processing pheromones left my another dog in the urine on the tree or tire. All animals have pheromones. They are basically nature’s way of saying that somebody or something is ready to mate, and when a male gets a whiff of pheromones mating is all he thinks about, because if he can impregnate the nearest female he is fulfilling the duties of his existence, the promulgation of his genes. Some butterflies are capable of picking up the scent of pheromones from 10 kilometers away. Scientists debated for years about what pheromones were and how they might be useful, but they refused to admit that humans might also secrete pheromones. We weren’t beasts! I was hugely affected by an essay by Lewis Thomas, written in his groundbreaking book “Lives of a Cell”:
“What are we going to do if it turns that we have pheromones? What on Earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything?”
Thomas wrote that in 1974. Two decades later, in 1996, scientists announced that human beings had pheromones, too. There is still debate whether pheromones lead directly to sexual encounters, but there is no debate that pheromones lead to sexual thoughts: the proof is ironclad. The smell of sex billows out from pubic hair and armpit hair and even from your eyebrows. Sex sells, we know, and sex smells, we fear.
Kyla listens to all this and nods her head as she realizes the tough part of this project is not getting people to tune in, but getting them to grow a seed of belief. She’s the sexual object, the sexual meme that floats out of the armpit of our thoughts to attract open minds to our traps. But for what purpose? What is the message our victims will receive from the movie or the book or the play or whatever it is we bring to the market?
I thought you’d never ask, I say to her in response. We will have to find out as we go along. Kyla is incredulous: That’s it, that’s all you’re gonna say? And I tell her: That’s the adventure of it, man, to slowly develop your thinking into a theory that your reader is willing to test out, on themselves and on the people they love. Kyla Cole laughs and sways in her hammock as the Pacific ocean drums against the nearby beach: “Then this is basically a marketing trick, Sean, and you’re selling tickets to a ride that nobody can describe or even remember, because the journey is about themselves and not what they see or who they meet,” she says, “I get it, I will play the candy your readers swallow, and you just have to figure out to lace me with the poison they want to taste.” Poison is a strong word, I say, maybe you meant potion? Kyla laughs: “No, no, poison, because with one taste you will let the reader know that it should be him here with me on the beach, shooting me in this hammock, with my underwear on or off, right? And speaking of that, which would you rather have?”
“My underwear, on or off?” asks Kyla.
It’s up to you man. I laugh as she undresses in the hammock, almost falling out of it, and she throws her underwear past my camera and into the bungalow. She is a naked potion, waiting to be dipped into poison, like a spear about to be chucked into the heart of my target. And here’s some poison for you to chew:
And almost falls out of the hammock as she tries to hide her armpits from my camera. Is there a more shy model on the planet, I wonder?
Then I am shooting her at a strange angle and she is suspicious again. Are you trying to make me look ugly? No, I tell her, I just want people to see you intimately, without all the glamour glitz plastered over your face, and these mosquito bites are fantastic because they’re so real. She howls in protest: “You can’t be shooting the mosquito bites!” And she almost falls out of the hammock again. She covers herself up with a sheet, and refuses to show herself and wears her tight smile of private reserve, and it is this Kyla of course that I find so mysterious and photogenic.
To my surprise, she asks if I think I’m capable of shooting her in the ugly way she often feels inside. I hear this from all women who suffer the constant attentions of men. That’s where the real ugly person resides, she says, inside. Can you shoot what’s beneath my skin? She walks into the cabin and finds a spot where the light can split the image in two, since she knows I like this sort of contrast, the imperfectly lit pose. I don’t say anything as I follow her inside, and when I have the camera up to shoot, she drops the sheet.
She gives me nine shots with the sheet off in the doorway of the cabin, from DSC07692 to DSC07701 before she abruptly stands up and draws the sheet around herself again: I know it’s time to leave her alone, and she seems close to tears as she shuts the door. This sensitive side of herself erupts like a small volcano whenever she talks about her feelings or her self-perception. It’s the Catholic guilt, I find myself thinking, haunting any young girl who dares to show herself naked to the world. Masturbation is the enemy of the church, and Kyla has caused more masturbation than possibly anybody from her country, and her family takes church very seriously, so they suffer her sin every Sunday. But it’s not just that: she is idolized by men who don’t really want to know what she thinks or feels. She is a trophy everyone wishes to clutch in her race to hide herself from her admirers. I like this thought better than the church issue, and wander off to take pictures of a Mexico few tourists ever see. As I drive away from the Alquimista Hotel, I hear Kyla shout, “Wait for me,” and she clambers into the Toyota, smiling. Her storm has passed. “I want to see, too,” she says, and we play our favorite tunes and drive the Mexican countryside.
As we adventured the smaller towns in the state of Oaxaca, we talked about our plans for the movies we were doing. The erotic thriller, “Assassin 62” in which Kyla played supermankiller Abbi Hendrix, and the love story “Burn+Scar,” and then a third project called “The Luminous Nude” where I hoped to explain the odd subculture of young women posing naked for guys with cameraand while Kyla was receptive to all my plans, and loved the informal traveling style I took for granted, away from the fucking tourists, she was more concerned about the literary value of what we were doing than anything else. She’d just been booked to do a car chase movie in Malaysia, but her speaking lines were minimal, and the only movie she’s done of any note so far involved riding crops and leather boots and not much else in a grand Italian house, so she was more concerned about the words, the ideas, the story. Would I actually finish anything, she wondered. I laughed at this concern, because to me even an incomplete story has its brilliance and purpose, and I’m not ashamed to admit when a story loses its sheen that another story can cause me to move on, a philanderer of philosophies. “That is exactly what I am afraid of,” said Kyla, “That this story we are working on now is simply a small chapter of a larger piece which is really about you working on an impossible story.” I was astonished that she’d arrived at that conclusion. It sounded good to me. But she was adamant: “I’ll cancel my shooting plans right now for the rest of the month if you tell me you have a plan.”
And right there on the street between honking taxis and lumbering lorries, I told her there was a city nearby owned and run by women, the only matriarchy in the world, and beyond that was a ruin just dug out of the jungle, and beyond that jaguars were hunted to be hung on walls of small restaurants, and still further were sharks to swim with in Belize. That’s as far as I got. Kyla immediately went into an Internet shop and made a phone call to her agent in Paris. She came out smiling. “I am free,” she said, “You can kill me with your words.” How long do I have to commit this killing, I asked. “The month is canceled, everything canceled, a dozen shoots canceled,” she replied, “So I can be a moon circling your story.” I warned her that I wasn’t just interested in pretty pictures: she would have to reveal her feelings, cut into that ugly self she hid beneath her glamorous exterior. “I am ready,” she said, “And if it means I leave with scars, I will show them off to everyone I meet.” The next scene we shot that afternoon back at the Alquimista was electric:
About the nature of abandoning dreams, of which we are all guilty, I tell Kyla that the scene requires her to say “Come, chase me, a dream will not wait for you,” and then to follow that with some other lines before repeating that refrain but with a single change: “Come, chase me, I will not wait for you.” It’s a tiny thing, a subtle piece of acting, but she does it just right and only an attentive viewer will catch the difference. Kyla is the dream in this instance, but will not wait unless you can chase a dream properly. And this is the essence of all romance, I think. People make the mistake of putting their loved one on a pedestal, holding them to an impossible ideal, but beauty is temporary and empty, so for somebody like Kyla the pursuit she encounters from so many people feels hollow or shallow: what are they chasing? Kyla Cole, the pinup star? What a stupid and small objective! The dream should be to explore the corona around the Sun or the tiny cells of life living in vents beneath the Antarctic ice sheets, or a thrilling melody or the perfect blend of colors on a canvas: why did Vincent van Gogh put lavender across from green in his color wheel, for instance? Who will explain that to the dreamers?
Tell me your dreams, dreamer. Do not make me your dream. Kyla gets it. She is raring to go the next morning when we hit the beach at dawn. No make-up, no mirrors, leave the mosquito bites alone, just get in and out of the water and the sand and let the camera do the speaking. She is in three characters now, she tells me: “I am Abbi Hendrix, assassin of oil executives and defender of wildlife, and I am also Ananda Shields, dying for love, and then I am also a third character. Do you know who?” I am filming her, so I shake my head silently, no. “I am also me,” she says, and jumps into the waves.
She is all smiles and rough energy, tumbling in the waves, full of ideas, and already ready for the next scenes.
We have to shoot an ad for a magazine, a cover picture, so we tackle this first, a picture of the assassin on the beach with a few feathers loose from her wings stuck in the sand around her. There is a deadline and the matter of a little bit of cash, but we are both looking forward to the next literary scene, when Kyla will be releasing baby turtles into the Pacific ocean. We are to go out that night to find the nesting mothers and help local activists collect the eggs before poachers grab them and sell them for five bucks a dozen.
But I am already having trouble sticking to my own script. Each conversation we have leads me to other possibilities, and I start to draw different characters, changing the stories. She will notice, and then wonder what we are working on. Simply claiming to be working on a set of loose ideas will not cut it, I realize. There has to be something firm for the actor or they start filling the role with themselves. The best actors are empty, ready to be molded into whatever the story demands. I cannot let Kyla Cole become the story, even if it is the best story I’ve got on my hands. What was the script?
The story will come back to me: turtles on the beach, the city of women in Juchitan, and a magical mystery in the magical town of San Cristobal Las Casas. The next chapter, waiting to be written, and waiting to be plotted. No problem. What are you thnking? asks Kyla when we drive toward the turtle reserve a few miles north of Zipolite. I’m thinking of how the story ends, I say, and she frowns: “We’re just at the beginning, Sean, in our baby steps, so forget about the funeral.”
In the map above you can see the route we took in the 4-Runner. leaving from the city of eternal Spring (Cuernavaca) near Mexico City on the left of the map, before heading straight to the colonial town of Oaxaca and then southwest to the beaches at Zipolite (between Puerto Escondido and Huataulco on the map). We would head further eastward to the City of Women (Juchitan de Zaragoza) and then to the ruins of Palenque (where we would get into a fiery crash at 50 mph on a rain-slick mountain road), before heading to the jungle ruins at Calakmul. That was the extent of our Mayan travels in Mexico, and we would add more in a second trip into Belize and Caracol and Caye Caulker, which you can read about in another eBook titled “Kyla Cole and Me on Caye Cracker.”
The next installation of “Kyla Cole and Me” is about the Muxes in the City of Women as well as my plans to open a unique hotel for photographers, called “Hotel Tortuga.” You will meet the dreamer, me, and his dream muse, Kyla, as we continue searching for the secrets of being: what kind of life do we have, with what impact on our murderous surroundings, and what kind of life do we want, with so much beauty to enjoy?
And after the muxes and the photo hotel? What is next? There are at least five more installments of “Kyla Cole and Me,” which will result in a book and a movie. All six installments will be displayed in a similar style to this one, with a nominal cost for entry which gets you the galleries and the stories and the video of all the scenes we shot in half a dozen countries.
THIS IS AS OF JULY 28: PUBLICATION DATE IS AUGUST 15.
Notes to this eBook
The pictures you’ve seen in this publication are all mine. The movies, the music, the writing, all mine. I was born poor, been kidnapped, died of cancer, wandered across the Amazon, through the Serengeti and into the Himalayas, looking for a good story. I’ve done my share of journalism, avoided any kind of desk job since I was 18, dropped out of high school at 16, edited Presidential Commissions, and traveled to more than 80 countries, looking for those stories. I work as a photographer in the Imperial City now, and I’m putting the finishing touches on three musicals and a ballet, as well as making several novels and memoirs available online. I haven’t spent a minute trying to get published in any way, and would rather have long conversations with a single person about what the fuck I’m trying to say than have a movie of mine seen by 20 million people or create a New York Times bestseller. All I have is time, and that is running out, and I can’t afford to waste a drop of it.
You can see more of what I’m doing by drilling down into seanieblue.com.
About the photography . . .
Most of the pictures in this eBook were shot with a remarkable DSLR from SONY called the R1. I shoot 100% Nikons now, with the superfancy monster D850 paired with 40-year-old manual Nikkor lenses made in Japan. So the images I take today are radically different from what you see here, but this story was captured more than a decade ago when the transition from film to digital was the razor’s edge. Not many people knew about the R1, which had a two-year life on the shelves at B&H and Adorama, but which is now getting an unusual acclaim as the perfect bridge from analog to bytes. By the time I was shooting Kyla in Monte Carlo and France, I had moved to Nikon’s first serious digital SLR, the D200, and I’ve been hopping along the upgrade path with them ever since, even though the nikons now manufactured in Thailand are just not quite as robust as the Japanese models. I shoot 150,000 pictures a year, so I feel the difference with the cameras.
The video was shot mostly on a SONY FX1, one of the first prosumer HDV video cameras. This camera was ahead of its time as well, but the lenses cannot compare now to what a good prime lens on a DSLR can do. There is no contest: the D850 shooting 4K is unimaginable compared with a decade ago. As much as I would have liked to shoot Kyla with the D850, there is an interesting aesthetic that comes from that curious time of abandoning film. Kyla Cole is a phenomenon of the Internet and broadband widths, and naked babes on computer screens have lost a lot of their charms to gonzo graphic portraits that don’t leave much to the imagination.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this publication and its imagery and star, and I look forward to tackling the next edition of Kyla Cole and Me!