Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whip v. Cane: Kink and Spectacle in Wyler's 'Jezebel'

The strengths of William Wyler's Jezebel do not lie in its screenplay, based on a stage melodrama by Owen Davis (a Pulitzer Prize winner, I just learned on Wikipedia). However, the stage origins of the film do become a strength: many of the film's most memorable scenes (including the one that's lived on in cinematic legend, the Olympus Ball scene) turn on rituals, and Bette Davis's disruptive relationship to them. There is an awareness of space and bodies within it, and what the characters are doing and how they interact is far more important than what they're saying. It's a film full of what creaky old theatre parlance calls business, as well as the use of significant props. Through these props the kinky sadomasochistic subtext of this coolly classical Hollywood film is revealed.

From the beginning, the play/screenplay anticipates the sexually/dramatically charged Olympus Ball scene, in which Davis scandalizes antebellum southern society by appearing in a dress fit for a prostitute. Davis makes a fine theatrical entrance, late for her own engagement party in horsey clothes. Inappropriately – and masculinely – dressed, Davis announces that she's been busy breaking a horse that's been giving her trouble, and to underline the point, she's first seen holding a whip. The terms of her relationship with her fiance (an infuriatingly stoic, stiff, and self-righteous Henry Fonda, auditioning for his role as Stanwyck's whipping boy in The Lady Eve) are set: who's going to break whom is an issue that needs to get dealt with before they can marry. Although absent from the scene, Fonda has already made his own, passive-aggressive move – by his absence. What's more important: an engagement party (the feminine realm) or a bank meeting in which progressive young Fonda is trying to convince the fuddy duddies to act to prevent a new outbreak of deadly Yellow Fever? Rationally, we have to side with Fonda – and on the surface, the film asks us to. But of course we know this untouchable moral position is a dirty move, and emotionally, we side with Davis.

From there, they just keep upping the ante. Characteristically, Davis decides to deal with the problem directly, by barging in where she's not supposed to go: she marches into the back of the bank, where ladies are not allowed, and interrupts the meeting. Her “frivolous” purpose is to get Fonda to go with her to her dress fitting for the ball. We know, of course, that if he concedes to this request, he will be completely emasculated – especially if he concedes to her in front of a roomful of men. This is his punishment for humiliating her (and it is a genuine humiliation) by not showing up at their engagement party. Like her, he pretends that all is well, but when one of the men (older and wiser) suggests that a round of physical abuse is just the thing to improve their relationship on every level, even the “progressive” Fonda is tempted.

The scene of Davis's fitting is beautifully bizarre, another tribute to Owen Davis's instinct for stage spectacle if it came from him: Davis, in bloomers and undershirt, is trapped from the waist down in a cage-like petticoat hoop, through which we can see her sitting on a high stool while she tries on gowns. Because this is Bette Davis, her upper body – especially the arms and hands – moves incessantly, restlessly, emphasizing her enforced stillness. Make no mistake, this is not only a metaphor for Julie Marsden's entrapment by propriety, against which her ultimately sexual energy rebels: it's also kinky pornography. Wyler can get away with showing a woman in a state of undress because of the old-fashioned setting and full covering of her undergarments – but they're what make the whole thing so kinky.

It's here that Julie impulsively selects the red dress, as it goes by her (it's been ordered by some “scandalous” woman, a high-class prostitute, no doubt), as Pres's punishment for not conceding to her at the bank. She knows she can't possibly get away with it, and probably doesn't seriously intend to wear it. But the move that tips things over into tragedy – within the terms of melodrama – is Pres's. When he's finished at the bank, he goes to see her and see her dress, as promised. However, he's denied entry. Deciding it's time to deal with Julie properly, he, too, makes an impulsive decision – grabbing a cane on his way up the stairs to her bedroom. There's a great moment where her sympathetic aunt, watching, is horrified and moves to intervene, but she's held back by Julie's other guardian, her disapproving uncle. He's quite right: these two have to work it out for themselves, by whatever means necessary.

Before the moment of truth arrives, however, we're treated to what, to my mind, is the film's greatest set-piece (or at least, it's most overlooked one, overshadowed by the famous Olympus Ball set-piece), one that fascinated me as a young viewer. I went through a Bette Davis obsession between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and during those years and for a couple of years afterwards I watched Jezebel – my favourite Davis film besides All About Eve – dozens of times. Although I'd been finding out about the history of Hollywood from library books, I didn't know about the good movie rental stores in my city at the time, so what I got to see was limited to what I could tape off of TV (half a dozen classic Davis movies and a couple of Garbo ones). Much more than the literature I was reading, the handful of studio-era Hollywood films I endlessly rewatched during this period served as my induction into the mysteries of what one might inadequately, on all counts, call “normative” adult psychology and opposite-sex relationships. (I mean, it wasn't like Naked Lunch or Our Lady of the Flowers or The Trial were going to give me much help there. Or even Colette, since I was never going to be a perfectly handsome, vain, spoiled young man obsessed with a middle-aged courtesan.)

The long, silent movie-like scene that comes between Pres's decision to use the cane and its consequences fascinated me more than any other scene in the film in my original viewings. Once again, Davis is “in her underwear” – once again, fascinating underwear (a lacy, beribboned, semi-transparent dressing gown). She is lounging in a chair next to her bed, doing her needlework, her hair – another point of fetishistic fascination, knotted in little bows – being attended to by her Negro servant. The picture of upper-class feminine luxury, indolence, and “Christian” industry. But what fascinated me most was the psychological game that she plays.

Having made her move by denying Fonda entrance, she knows how he will react – and she is prepared for it. She is going to torture him by making him wait; as a woman in a conservative society, even one as restless as she is, she knows how to practice patience. (This is another scene of female waiting, which I described in a previous post with reference to another forbidden female bedroom.) The scene is as blisteringly brilliant as it is, however, due not only to the kinky premise, but to Wyler and Davis's execution.

The scene could only be conceived by a theatrical intelligence: we do not see Pres for its duration, but only hear him, through the door, while watching Julie's actions and reactions. He starts out sugar-sweet, appealing to her to let him in so they can make up. As soon as she hears him, Davis's servant instinctively moves to let him in, but Davis (always brilliant with her gestures and expressions) stops her by seizing her arm – behind her, while her eyes, looking at the door, in front of her, glaze over and glare. The maid doesn't understand: like the child-viewer I was, the caricatured “darkie” can't comprehend the destructive and self-destructive games that adults play.

I remember the very first time I (formally) met the critic George Toles, who arranged for us to be introduced after he saw, and admired, my play Live With It. I was eighteen and he was about fifty. We met at A&W and, although I can't remember what I ate (a Teen Burger and vanilla milkshake were my usual fare), I do recall that George was eating fries dipped in gravy while we avidly discussed Bette Davis films. (Or that, or the conversation, could have been the second time we met, in the same place.) I don't know what he was doing (perhaps having an innocent conversation), but I was sussing him out – I had heard that he was a professor of English, theatre, and film, and while this impressed me very much, I had to know that he had good taste before I granted him my esteem. And for me at the time, with my limited range of reference, “good taste” meant honouring Bette Davis. Luckily, George was fluent in Davis films, and we got into a spirited argument about the infamous scene in The Little Foxes where Davis wills her invalid husband to die after he has an attack and falls down the staircase behind her, unable to reach his heart medicine. I was gleefully into the sadism of the scene, whereas George told me what he found remarkable about it was Davis's visible, valiant fighting of every human impulse in her to prevent her from going to his aid.

And that is one, primary thing that makes Davis so compelling on film: her visible, hysterical conflict as she perversely acts in opposition to her own needs, desires, and best impulses. Here, we watch as she responds calmly to Pres's growing insistence and, finally, naked anger (after she gives another turn of the screw by turning the lock), floating around the room, pretending to take her time as she prepares herself to receive him. (Who's she performing for? Not for her – gawking – servant; not for Pres, who can't see her, although in one sense for him; not for the audience, whom she cares about as little as Pres. It's all for herself.) She rises, straightens her dressing gown, and wanders over to her dresser, where – in another strange, archaic (and masochism-tinged) ritual, she picks up a large hairbrush and smacks herself on each cheek with the wooden back, also aggressively pinching her cheeks to add colour. (Ladies don't use rouge.) All the while, she knows she's safe from his rage – after all, he's in a position of impotence, and in dramaturgical terms, his words are just meaningless sound in accompaniment to her actions. But all of this is mere provocation, coyness elevated to a fine, sadomasochistic art: she's winding him up as a sexual game, the deep level on which the scene works.

The game, however, is fated to go awry. She finally opens the door, making a flirtatious remark about the indecency of pounding on a ladies' bedroom door – and then she sees the cane. Wyler makes a point of it: a shot of the cane, a shot of her reaction. As usual with Davis, it's a thinking reaction. Importantly, Pres doesn't notice her noticing; in fact, as soon as she lets him into the room, he forgets about the cane, leaving it just inside the door. He would like to forget about everything that's passed between them, even what just happened. But he doesn't get it. There is no going back from the cane. The implication that he would beat her is unforgivable; he's playing outside the rules.

And perhaps, just as he wasn't “really” planning to use the cane, so she wasn't “really” planning to use the dress – by showing it to him as her choice. But once she sees the cane, the die is cast. Now she will have to use her weapon, even though the consequences will be for her, not him: first, by humiliating her in front of the entire community; second, by ending their relationship, which, since she loves him, is the last thing she wants to do.

Jezebel is one of those films – about the battle of the sexes – that I assume must be entirely different viewing experiences depending on whether you're a woman or a man, even though presumably most viewers can sympathize and identify somewhat with both perspectives in it. Wyler, certainly, appears to understand what it means for Julie to be threatened with abuse in response to her unruly behaviour. After all, she may have metaphorically been holding the whip hand with Pres, but she never threatened to use a whip on him. And although on the one hand, these props – the whip and the cane – are metaphors for the kinky aspect of their sexually charged battle of wills – the cane, and abuse, here, is also literal. And not just literal (and literal abuse, not BDSM), but also symbolic of something that may even be more offensive than the use of violence: the implication that he wants to control her behaviour as a woman. This is Wyler's version of so-called “patriarchy,” in which men will decide the limits of female behaviour, and punish their transgressions, as an act of psychological violence that will be enforced with physical violence if necessary.

But the film's psychology is a lot more complex than that. It's important that even the female viewer never entirely loses sympathy with Pres's behaviour, no matter how unsympathetic it becomes, or knows what one would do in his place. (It's a film full of unsympathetic behaviour by both principals.) Until the Olympus Ball scene, Julie has brazened her way through society's opposition; but here, with all of society staring at her, positioned in direct violation of its precepts, she gives in to shame and can't go through with it. But Pres, as stubborn as she is, forces her to see through the consequences of her willfulness and keeps her a prisoner at the ball: if she wants to make a spectacle of herself, she will have to experience what being a spectacle means.

For him, the relationship is over before he even takes her to the ball, as soon as he sees she's determined to go through with wearing the dress. Once he's fulfilled and more than fulfilled his duty as her escort, he then has the temerity to dump her – at her doorstep. What ensues – again, gestures and facial expressions – also had an enormous impact on me as a teenage viewer. He tells her it's over and she pretends to accept it graciously, smiling and offering her hand; but when he takes it, her other hand whips out and slaps his face viciously, whereupon she gives him one of her classic Bette Davis glares, never more powerful than in this film where she and Wyler emphasize her physical and psychological fragility. I was fascinated by this sadistic undercutting of social pretence; by Julie's refusal to assume the moral high ground or conceal the ugly hostility of their parting. She can't refuse herself her revenge, even though, again, it's Pyrrhic.

*

The second act of Jezebel deals with Julie's attempts at redemption after she realizes she has really driven Pres away for good. In the film's “official” morality, Julie is a quasi-sympathetic bitch who goes too far and alienates her man, which teaches her a lesson and sets her on a rocky road to becoming a genuine “good woman.” The film – or anyway, the screenplay – is a textbook example of the “having it both ways” morality of classic Hollywood: on the one hand, the audience gets to enjoy Julie's shocking behaviour and sadism; on the other hand, we pretend it's all in the service of her moral redemption.

But there are many scenes to enjoy in the second half, too. For me the scene in which Julie essentially throws herself at Pres in the virginal white dress he wanted her to wear – kneeling before him – without knowing that he's married, is not one of them. Similar in its emotional dynamics to the climactic onstage scene of De Palma's Carrie, the Olympus Ball scene is nearly unbearable viewing for a female viewer, but in that scene, at least, Julie is made abject – by her society, by Pres – whereas in the kneeling scene, she humiliates herself (both deliberately and inadvertently). And for my teenage self, at least, that was far worse, since she couldn't conceive anything worse than throwing yourself at a man and being rejected. (Which is why the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth was such a feminist revelation for me.) George Toles has argued this point with me as well, and perhaps Davis herself thought that Julie was simply humbling her pride in this scene – but perhaps Davis, as an actress or persona, is incapable of doing that “correctly,” in a way that would be moving rather than painful to watch; or perhaps we, as viewers, are incapable of wanting to see her that way.

Much better, for me, is the scene where Julie is pushed to a point of desperation akin to madness when she's faced with having to play hostess to Pres's northern wifey, and indulges in some of her worst behaviour yet. She takes herself off to the back porch of the manor house, overlooking the Negro shacks, and suffers the little slave children to come unto her, leading them in song. When Pres's wife looks askance on this wild scene, Julie informs her, batting her eyelashes more aggressively than you would think possible, that it's a quaint “southern custom,” and also announces that she wore her white dress “'cause I'm bein' baptized!” Amy the northern wifey may be all for progress (including a marriage based on modern “equal partnership” rather than sizzling one-upmanship), but there's something about a white woman in a white dress mingling with the Negro slaves that appals her delicate puritan sensitivity. I wouldn't go as far as this blogger, who thinks that the threatened caning stands in for the violence of slavery, but I do think that Julie's “lowering herself” to mingle with the slaves makes a symbolic equivalence between her and their abject pariah status – and, with it, innocence. She tried to exalt herself by demeaning herself when she knelt in front of Pres, but here she actually accomplishes it, even if only the viewer recognizes it. (And even if the slaves – like her maid – are merely uncomprehending props in her complicated, sophisticated, grown-up “white person” games.)

I will confess that I'm not unaffected by the “redemption porn” that Wyler and Davis so beautifully accomplish at the end of the film, especially since the final bartering exchange – for Pres's unconscious, half-dead body! – between Amy and Julie contains Jamesian elements of ambiguity as to just how selfless Julie is being. Wyler turns Davis into a soft-focus waif, wearing herself to death in Pres's service, a single-minded somnambulist in a sweaty, ragged black gown that's been dragged through a swamp (with fabulous puffy spotted sleeves I've never forgotten). (Davis, I recall, once said that Orry-Kelly's gown designs did half her acting for her in another Wyler film, The Little Foxes; here, the same designer's gowns are, at least, brilliant collaborators with her.) The wasted beauty Wyler finds in Davis in these final scenes, surpassing the prettiness she achieved in earlier scenes and never managed to repeat in another film, is a distinctly Hollywood (glamourous, erotic) version of “spiritual beauty,” but I can't deny its effectiveness in its own terms.

But Julie's real redemption takes place in the film's subtext: the scene where Pres collapses from Yellow Fever in a crowded bar, where all of the men (now truly revealed as emasculated cowards) stand back from him except for the doctor (who, incidentally, is the one who recommended the caning) makes a symbolic equivalence between this infected, infectious pariah and the “contamination” of unconfined female sexuality symbolized by Julie's red dress in the Olympus Ball scene. Including the fact that Julie is shunned in a feminine “society” space, by the “good,” “pure” women who fear her contamination (and who lead their men in that respect), while Pres is shunned by a roomful of men.

Other than the – disturbing – “Raise Some Rufus” singalong scene, my favourite scene from the second part of the film also answers the Olympus Ball scene. (The film not only leads up to it by echoing it in advance, but keeps on “answering” it – digesting it – afterwards.) Julie has made herself a pariah a second time over by trying to manipulate Pres and his former rival for her, Buck, into a duel, but accidentally getting Buck's naive young man-about-town protege involved instead of Pres. In the end, Buck is killed or lets himself be killed. This melodrama subplot is a manipulation that forces Julie into a technical villain position, in a way that feels rather artificial and a betrayal of her more interesting qualities. At the same time, however, it also echoes the dynamics of the Olympus Ball scene, since Buck's protege is being rash and headstrong and Buck intends to “tutorially” make him see through the consequences of it – although in the end he can't go through with what that would mean.

Now everyone – even her supportive aunt – in Julie's household turns against her in a wall of self-righteous moral outrage. The time-honoured dramaturgical result, of course, is to make Julie seem morally sympathetic, even though she's in a morally inexcusable position for the first time. The only thing worse than a villain is the villainy of group moral outrage. And when Yellow Fever means that they can't march out of Julie's house en masse as they wished, it's the group's turn to get a comeuppance. They return to the house with grumpy bad grace and forced humbleness – while Julie exhibits perfect good grace and the grace (almost in the elevated Christian sense) of genuine humility and southern hospitality – in bowing before them, welcoming them back in. Which also shows that Davis can “do” humility – when it's actual humility, not humiliation posing as humility. Once again, the scene – drawing on the film's stage origins and the southern setting – pivots around ritual and formal manners. Julie draws on the Magdelene side of her casting as whore and on her similarly demonized southern background, disappearing into a social tradition of humility: she is not humiliated (and humiliates no one) in this scene because her visibility is diminished rather than heightened.

One thing I can agree about with the blogger's slavery subtext theory (marvellous blog title, by the way: I Hate the New Yorker): I think the film's sadomasochistic thematic undercurrent (not just the cane) probably refers to the suppressed subject of slavery. In which even, perhaps (and now I'm warming to the theory), women – the abject, the uppity – are metaphorically equivalent to slaves. But then, so is the abject, disease-ridden, backwards, unreformable south: it, too, is the demonized/romanticized Other. At any rate, the transformation of the master/slave conception of the world into BDSM kink at the interpersonal level (which in turn serves as a metaphor for the former) also shows up in one of the most overtly kinky mainstream English-language films ever made, Losey's The Servant. Which will surely turn up as a subject in a future post. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How the Wall of Sound Came Down: Indie, Hip Hop, and Musical Equality

When I was writing my posts on the death/defence of the hipster, in my research on the hipster background I learned that hip hop and punk both sprang up during the 70s in New York, and started to ponder and speculate about this. The issue of race and music that forms part of the (Anglo world) hipster “debate” (if you can call it that, because it largely consists of suspiciously hipsterish magazines, from Canadian Adbusters to New York Magazine to the slightly more balanced, or just more ironic, British Pigeons & Peacockshyperbolically attacking hipsters) was what originally inspired me to make a post about the hipster phenomenon. Because happening concurrently with the hipster's rising profile were frequent press attacks on indie music for the crime of being too white (notably by the – of course – white New Yorker critic, Sasha Frere-Jones); and then Christian Lander sealed the deal by starting a blog-to-books in which “white people” was used as a euphemism for “hipster.” 

Like Frere-Jones, I wondered how we'd reached this impasse in popular music/culture, and I went about answering the question by tracing the origins of indie music back to punk, since the indie scene was one of the sources of the hipster, and it was hip hop and indie that stopped talking to each other (until recent developments). I came up with the tentative hypothesis that hip hop and punk didn't need to talk to each other, because they were parallel developments. I didn't bother posting about this, though, because it would require a lot of research into the history of popular music that I didn't have the time for.

Conveniently, however, the BBC has done that research for me, and put it into an entertaining documentary, Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk, which I only just found out about by pure accident on Twitter. The narrative of the doc is very much like the one I pieced together from my casual online research and previous sketchy understanding of the trajectory of pop music/culture history, although it also filled in details I was unaware of, particularly about the origins of hip hop.

First, there was The Velvet Underground, whom Warhol brought to attention. (Warhol provides the transition from studio-era Hollywood glamour to the new music-based popular culture of youth, fashion, and rock. Oh yeah and drugs, drugs, and drugs.) Then came The New Yorks Dolls, who inspired the CBGB bands. At the same time, disco was invented (apparently by white, though not WASP, DJs) and benefited from the new atmosphere of gay rights and visibility – and pre-AIDS hedonism – after the Stonewall riots. This culminated in the rarefied, elitist, decadent ongoing party of Studio 54. But while the beautiful people partied it up at Studio 54, over in the economically deprived South Bronx, disco turned into hip hop. It was then transported over to the arty (white) scene of the CBGB bands via graffiti artists – which the New York art world (notably Warhol, again) took up. Which led to the first popular rap song, Blondie's “Rapture,” by a CBGB art band-turned-disco.

To summarize: the New York gay scene contributed to both art punk (the Warhol drag queens) and disco. Disco led to hip hop. Hip hop culture then influenced the New York art scene (as pre-Stonewall gays previously had). But it was art punk and hip hop that were the "parallel" movements, as Chris Stein of Blondie put in so many words his reaction to being introduced to the hip hop scene, which he saw as being similarly "destructivist/reconstructionist". One was largely the creation of students/artists who were inspired by the outsider inclusiveness and permissiveness of New York, as exemplified by the Warhol Factory scene and the Dolls. One was the creation of the economically deprived, trying to find a creative solution to the injustice, hardship, and violence of their lives, and a positive outlet for their rage and frustration.

The most obvious thing that punk and hip hop had in common was this rage and frustration, although this was more evident in UK punk and in the hardcore, political American scene (which the BBC doc doesn't deal with) than in the art-punk bands (and the doc didn't include Iggy and the Stooges, I guess because they weren't New York-based). From what I glimpsed in the doc, the early hip hop of Zulu Nation also had a positive social message very different from either the angry, punk-like political hip hop of Public Enemy or the gangster chic that would ensue. (Please be aware, my knowledge of hip hop is scanty indeed.) What punk and hip hop also had in common, though, was their disaffection from an increasingly commercialized music industry that rewarded polished musical virtuosity. As David Johansen boasts in the doc, “We single-handedly lowered the standards of an entire industry.”

In my potentially racially insensitive/uninformed unposted ramblings about the origins of the hip hop/indie divide, I speculated that we conceive of black and white musician “artistry” in different terms. To sweepingly generalize about it, black musicians are considered artists as musicians (and dancers). White musicians are, in contrast, considered artists as artists; since punk, musicianship is a decidedly secondary concern, at best, and in some versions, musicianship and “authenticity” exist in inverse ratio. Black musicians make music that is art; art-punk and post-punk musicians make art that happens to be music.

I further speculated that this was because the original art-punk musicians (The VU through the CBGB bands) drew on an avant-garde European tradition, whereas Africa-American musicians drew on their own tradition, in which artistic expression was primarily in terms of music and dance (and in which an avant-garde could appear in the course of the development of a music genre, as happened to jazz... which inspired such precursors of art punk as Captain Beefheart). My guess about the art-punk tradition, at any rate, was supported by comments in the documentary, such as Chris Frantz's of The Talking Heads: “We thought of ourselves as artists who happened to be musicians as well.” Interestingly, this perception of oneself as artist as something prior to, or in addition to, musician, could coincide with being an accomplished musician, as in the case of David Byrne or John Cale. Just as Picasso “knew how to draw,” so the art-punk musician could be an anti-virtuoso in approach despite being musically knowledgeable and gifted. And what “being an artist” seems to mean here is having a conceptual, cerebral approach to music-making; even if in some cases (like Patti Smith) this was combined with a love of the instinctiveness, immediacy, and animal magnetism of rock and roll. Occasionally, black performers, such as Grace Jones, have adopted this cerebral/conceptual approach. But it's been rare enough that when Janelle Monae recently did it, it seemed revolutionary, especially in a pop music landscape in which “what is black” and “what is white” had become so rigidly defined.

When white critics or fans complain that rock music, as indie, has become “too white,” they need to take into account that rock was always white. By definition, it was a white interpretation of R&B. With punk, which was anti-rock, “rock music” started all over again; a violent, critical break with the past comparable to Modernism in the Western high art tradition. Or to some kind of popular music Reformation. Early punk/art rock had all kinds of R&B, jazz, and funk influences (found in bands/artists from Beefheart to Iggy to The Clash to The Talking Heads). But the reason we're in a “post-rock” era now is that punk rejected rock and hip hop, like its parent, disco, never had anything to do with rock.

Rock was white people inventing a form by appropriating black music. Punk was white people making their own music. (We of course don't like to think of white people making “their own” anything, for fear of immediately arriving in white supremacist territory. But I'm going to let that sentence stand as a neutral observation.) In individual cases, the bands comprising this broad “movement” had black music influences, but unlike rock, it wasn't by definition a white interpretation of a black musical form. And once the punk ethos was in full swing, there was no reason anymore for white musicians to appropriate black music. Punk and hip hop could respect each other, but they had very little to take from each other: they were both anti-corporate rock and radio pop; they both expressed the anger and aggression of outsiders of one sort or another and revelled in anti-bourgeois “urban realism.”

“Indie” was simply what post-punk came to be called. It has been defined in a lot of ways, some of them contradictory: it's the trad-rock set-up of singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer (e.g. The Smiths, the Britpop bands, The Libertines, The Strokes); or it's the post-rock group that rejects that set-up or its traditional sound (e.g. later Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors). Either way it's often associated with the “twee” sensibility of the sensitive, cerebral, elitist college students that listen to and often create it (even though Morrissey and Marr, the creative duo behind seminal indie band The Smiths, who were precursors of the twee “genre,” were never college students). Even in non-twee instances, like Nirvana, with its hardcore punk and art-punk (Pixies) influence, “sensitivity” was cultivated as a virtue, and “passivity” perceived as the net result. Indie and hip hop broke into the mainstream at the same moment – the early 90s – and the lines were firmly drawn: college students (perceived as white) listened to white boys whine; everybody else (perceived as black or “the wrong kind of white person,” with credit to Christian Lander) listened to rappers brag. Who knows what people who were neither white nor black listened to, because apparently nobody cared: the legacy of rock was going to be fought over in these terms. Sometimes the issue got a bit confused, since Eminem did quite a bit of whining, while Morrissey – though no one seemed to notice – did quite a lot of bragging. (The first time I heard “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine, and it owes me a living,” it took my breath away with its arrogance.) (For that matter, Morrissey can make “I've never had no one ever” or “I am the son and the heir / Of nothing in particular” sound like brags.) But this didn't stop the generalizations, of course.

Since black musicians and white musicians each had their own thing to do now, it's hardly surprising that indie got more and more “white.” It was made by white guys whose reference points were white guys (punk and art-rock musicians), whose concerns were white guy concerns. (And when critics talk about indie music in general terms, they're always talking about guys. Partly because a “white guy” is more demonized, in liberal contrast to a black guy, than a white woman would be, and partly because, as I argued in my second hipsters post, the “decline” of the white guy is of greater symbolic importance to Western culture than whatever's happening with white girls. Especially to white leftist critics and commentators.) Likewise, hip-hop artists (also with exceptions, notably the eclectic Outkast) were mainly interested in other hip-hop musicians and a rich, thriving tradition. And yet ironically, as I argued in my original hipsters post, even as this pop cultural divide rose to greater and greater prominence in guilty white liberal reflections on the rising popularity of indie, in the same decade, the 2000s, more and more efforts were being made to bridge the gap from both sides of the hip hop/indie divide. And the audience coming of age now is one for whom both-sides collaborations like Gorillaz were seminal.

By the end of the 2000s, hip hop and indie were so well-defined, and had attained such a level of cultural influence (indie for the hipsters, hip hop for “everybody else”), that they were forced to take notice of each other and consider whether mutual influence would be rejuvenating. This is something to celebrate, and not just because it would end “musical segregation.” Arguably, there was never any reason to fear that the segregation of “black” and “white” musical styles would lead to segregation of audiences (and hence music dividing rather than bringing together white and black youth), since overwhelmingly, white kids wanted to listen to black music – even if it sold even more when it could speak directly to their white lower-middle-class suburban concerns, as Eminem did. It's something to celebrate because these two healthily-developed, separate traditions, which both originated Once Upon a Time in New York, now have plenty to say to and learn from each other, precisely because they've developed separately for so long and reflect different cultural experiences and approaches to art and music. And because both could be accused of losing their “soul” in the process of this segregation: hip hop by going pop and mainstream (and therefore blanding out), indie by getting further and further from the R&B origins of rock (and therefore blanding out).

Hence Beyonce (although R&B pop, not hip hop), in a July interview in Dazed and Confused, turns the white liberal perception of indie upside down by proclaiming indie-rock concerts “just so soulful.” I don't think you have to be an indie snob (and I'm not; the only Grizzly Bear song I've heard is the one Donald Glover rapped over) to question whether it would be advisable for Beyonce to make an experimental album (although I would like more hit singles like “Crazy in Love” and less like “Single Ladies,” Beyonce, if you're reading and taking notes). But at least theoretically, the creative situation for both black and white popular musicians is far more favourable now than it was at the birth of rock and roll. Nobody needs to appropriate from, conform to, or imitate anybody, because there are two well-developed, visible traditions with large, influential audiences and roots in two different approaches to art and music, and with – in their most interesting expressions – a joint commitment to experimentation that looks beyond the rock tradition, mainstream pop, or even the conventional song. That they're curious about each other, from both a creative and a cultural perspective, is only natural.

And for the first time, there's a “white tradition” that's there for black artists (like Monae, with her Ziggy nods) to claim as part of their musical heritage. Any white liberal commentators wanna whine about that? Instead of looking back with longing on the days when only white musicians could have success playing black music, and comparing that to "integration" (or "miscegenation," as Frere-Jones saucily preferred), we should appreciate the present situation, when black and white musicians can come together and influence each other as creative and commercial equals. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

“I've Got a Pair of Herberts in Front of My Heebert”: Jerry Lewis's Kinky Imagination, Freud's Phallic Mother, and Metrosexual Gangsters

In The Ladies Man (1961), Jerry Lewis got as close as he'd ever allow the Idiot to get to being a conventional handsome leading man. Even when he later split himself up into abysmal nerd and swinging lady killer in The Nutty Professor (1963), he had to make up for it by giving Buddy Love an ugly personality (resulting, naturally, in Misaimed Fandom). In Lewis's first proper solo vehicle, Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) (The Delicate Delinquent, which sounds like a Morrissey song title*, had been intended as a Martin and Lewis vehicle, but they split up), director Frank Tashlin put great ingenuity behind making the now over-30 “juvenile” into a viable romantic lead, but the Lewis persona was still gawky-geeky. As the title, with its double meaning, suggests, The Ladies Man wanted to propose Lewis as a rival to his ex-partner's screen persona, even while he took back the audacious suggestion at the same time. It was a double bind: on the one hand, the Martin “half” of the act was even more necessary to Lewis (psychologically, and in terms of his image in the public mind) than Martin himself, so he had to incorporate it into his own, diametrically opposite persona; on the other hand, the incorporation couldn't be too successful, or he'd cease to be “Jerry Lewis.” You can't be the spastic, infantile/adolescent comic and also the handsome straight man. Though Lewis made this impossible attempt more than once, and in more than one way.

To create this new persona, Lewis – who claimed that the films he made as auteur were attempts to recapture the glamour of the studio-era Hollywood films he adored in his youth, which were already a thing of the past in the early 60s – drew not only on Martin but on two of his screen idols: Cary Grant and Gene Kelly. Grant still had a certain association with Martin: in their TV spots, and presumably in their nightclub act, Martin sometimes did a Grant impersonation, underlining their physical resemblance. So to make the glamourous Grant persona more amenable to the nerdy Lewis one, Lewis specifically drew on Grant's performance as a bespectacled absent-minded professor in Bringing Up Baby. (It's important to note that part of the audacity of presenting himself as a sex symbol for Lewis was, doubtless, the problematic idea of the Jewish man as Hollywood sex symbol. Lewis's frienemy Tony Curtis had managed it, but hadn't presented himself as nearly as “ethnic” as Lewis, who had catapulted the Borscht Belt comedic tradition into a post-vaudeville age.)




Gene Kelly, on the other hand, was all Lewis's. As a remnant of the bygone vaudeville age (in Oedipal emulation of his vaudevillian father, whom Lewis hero-worshiped as he did Martin), Lewis knew all the basics of entertainment, including dance; in fact, his pal Sammy Davis Jr. honoured him with the epithet “the great white faker.” But his identification with Gene Kelly went beyond his skills and pretensions as a dancer. In fact, it's when he's not dancing that Lewis is most Kelly-like, the most physical physical comedian of them all, as Kelly was the most physical screen dancer. Despite having greater balletic and avant-garde dance aspirations (or pretensions, as Astaire-favouring critics have it) than his rival for greatest screen dancer, Kelly had a working-class onscreen persona and, unlike the top hat-and-tailed Astaire, favoured form-fitting clothing that revealed his stocky athletic build, necessary for his athletic, earthy performance as a dancer. (Astaire, in Paglia's fanciful comparison of him to Byron's poetry, glides over the surfaces of furniture indoors. In contrast, Kelly's most memorable dance routines – in Cover Girl, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain – take place in the streets.) And that admiration he courted for his body as an artist was part and parcel with the narcissism of which he's also been accused, and with which Lewis could also identify – or more precisely, he could identity with the Kelly persona's incongruous combination of narcissism and populism.



The Ladies Man is a dreamlike, surreal homage to studio-era Hollywood glamour and fantasy, set in a lifesize dollhouse of Lewis-the-auteur's devising, in which a vast array of pretty, candy-coloured women, all aspiring performers, hover in hive-like cells. It's the old Don Juan-in-the-harem gag, with the catch that Herbert Heebert isn't the wolf in sheep's clothing... he's the eunuch in eunuch's clothing. Women-as-dolls are this girl-boy's favourite, forbidden playthings; as living, emotional, sexual creatures, they're his worst nightmare. Yet it's a nightmare that Herbert – and Lewis – feels compelled to confront.

The Bringing Up Baby tribute plays out in a recurring gag involving Herbert Heebert's attempts to care for an unseen, ferocious, malleable, Schroedinger's cat named Baby, who's revealed (but not necessarily “finally”) as a lion in the film's punchline. Baby is behind one forbidden door, which Herbert is forced to breach in order to fulfil his duties to his protector, the fleshy, benevolent-but-strict opera diva who owns the place. Behind that door, the hunk of raw meat that Herbert arduously delivers as an obscene offering is reduced to bone in a cartoon instant. The other forbidden door is basically the same as the first, leading to a liminal space of transformation which, like Baby's room, is associated with a deadly, devouring femaleness. This second door belongs to a Miss Cartilage, and Herbert is repeatedly warned not to enter it – which of course he must, out of the same Pandoran/moron curiousity that gets him into trouble throughout. But never quite this much trouble.

What ensues when he does is a sequence justly admired by the handful of cineastes brave enough to admit the obvious – that The Ladies Man isn't a dopey/campy/kitschy entertainment but an infinitely strange art film. In this Forbidden Room or White Room sequence, Lewis reimagines two key moments of classical Hollywood fantasy: the film-within-the-film from Singin' in the Rain, which pairs Kelly with Cyd Charisse; and the exploration of Rebecca's bedroom in Rebecca. The Broadway Melody sequence in Singin' in the Rain is an audaciously long (and, to Kelly's detractors, self-indulgent) interruption of the narrative by what's essentially another film, and one which includes a lengthy fantasy sequence within it. In this story, a nerded-up Kelly (in glasses and hat with the brim dorkily turned up) is a rube arrived in New York from the country, who meets up with tall, leggy femme fatale Charisse, a gangster's moll. She denudes him of his illusions by plucking off his glasses and using her endless, muscular leg as a hatstand for the silly hat while he's on his knees in front of her. The poor boy goes into the raptures of an abstract balletic fantasy involving an unbelievable length of white silk fluttering in a wind machine, but is eventually snapped back to reality, in which the helmet-haired, hard-hearted dame prefers to stay where the money is. But all-American can-do optimist that he is, he's only momentarily crushed before he remembers the true passion she's distracted him from, the only truth that matters: that he's gotta dance (gotta entertain, gotta feel the joy and energy of the rhythm).






In Rebecca, the mousy, anonymous “second Mrs. de Winter” enters a mansion haunted by a feminine presence that makes her feel overwhelmed and inadequate. Like Herbert, the gauche, naive young woman does everything wrong, including breaking a precious object belonging to “the lady of the house.” And like Max de Winter, Herbert has been traumatized by the memory of a woman who sexually betrayed him, which makes him emotionally inaccessible. Unlike the heroine of Rebecca, Herbert is aided by a kindly housekeeper/secretary (in the form of frequent collaborator Kathleen Freeman; when an elderly Lewis said that female comedians weren't funny, he'd apparently forgotten the comedy partner with whom he had the most chemistry post-Martin), whereas the second Mrs. de Winter is undermined by her sadistic housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who remains fiercely, quasi-erotically in thrall to her late mistress. The mystery of Manderley collects in the charged atmosphere of Rebecca's bedroom, kept as a shrine by Mrs. Danvers, to which the second Mrs. de W's curiousity finally, masochistically leads her. Hitchcock's rendering of this haunted, erotic space is memorably gorgeous: seemingly endless, full of light and transparent, aerated feminine fabrics that only accentuate the mesmeric stillness.



To these influences Lewis, I think, adds a third: one of his own previous films. The six solo Lewis films directed by Tashlin, beginning with Rock-A-Bye Baby in 1958 and ending with The Disorderly Orderly in 1964, constituted the second great artistic collaboration of Lewis's career. Historians of the Tashlin-Lewis collaboration have suggested both that Lewis learned how to direct from Tashlin and that Lewis's role in the Tashlin films may have been more collaborative than normal for a star. Accordingly, it's not easy to know who came up with the ideas in the Tashlin-Lewis films; what's certain is that Lewis used, transformed, and developed them in his own films, as though those existed in a creative continuum with his work with Tashlin (which, however, has a distinctly different flavour than the auteur Lewis films). The all-white room in The Ladies Man, against which Miss Cartilage appears in contrasting black, seems to be an evolution of a gag at the beginning of Rock-A-Bye Baby in which Lewis causes a cloud of soot to invade and soil the all-white living room of an elderly woman. (There's a more obvious evolution of this gag as a gag in the scene where Lewis approaches the tough-guy gangster he previously reduced to a nervous wreck with his hands covered in oil, perhaps from Buddy Love's hair, while the latter is wearing a white suit.)



Even more, however, the Forbidden Room sequence seems to draw on the most remarkable scene from the first film Lewis made with Tashlin, the 1955 Martin and Lewis vehicle Artists and Models: Shirley MacLaine's staircase serenade of Lewis with “My Innamorata.” Ballet-trained MacLaine handles the physicality of the scene nimbly, and her movements as she tries to entice, lure, hypnotize, block, and tackle Lewis reminded me on first viewing of some kind of stick-insect or spider. The Freudian plot of her romantic trajectory with Lewis involves his reconciling his adolescent erotic fantasy of the comic book dominatrix The Bat Lady, for which, unbeknownst to him, MacLaine served as the artist's model (the artist in question is her female roommate, but that's another blog post) with a flesh-and-blood woman, of which he remains terrified.

Lewis seemed to merge these ideas into the singular creation, Miss Cartilage, part-spider, part-bat, and all dominatrix. She's introduced by lowering herself from the ceiling, hanging upside down, dressed all in black... including the hood over her face, that covers her eyes and almost her nose but reveals the morgue-white skin of the lower half of her face and her blood-red lips. Wait – what's mummification/asphyxiation kink doing in a Jerry Lewis comedy? We won't see anything like this again in a Hollywood family movie until the Tobey Maguire Spiderman (remember that kissing scene?).




But the fact is that The Ladies Man is a spectacularly kinky film, beginning with our hero's name, Herbert Herbert Heebert, which is surely a reference to Humbert Humbert: after causing a scandal in the UK and France, Lolita was published in America in 1958 and became an instant bestseller. Lewis is Humbert-the-pervert, but he's also Lolita, which is what seemed to happen to the (cutesified) Lewis persona when it was put on film, culminating in The Delicate Delinquent, where – I'm not kidding – he plays a directionless young man who's “taken in hand” by a police officer (the role Martin was supposed to play) who stalks him to his apartment and invites him over to dinner. All in the interest of straightening out misguided youth, of course. Lewis, now in his mid-thirties, makes his infantilization so literal in The Ladies Man that he ends up in a highchair being fed by Kathleen Freeman in a scene so bizarre and outrageous that I nearly died laughing the first half-dozen times I saw it. (And that, in case you ever wondered, is the nature of Lewis comedy: it's not always that it's funny.)

Oddly enough, Herbert isn't obliterated by his encounter with the Spider Lady, played by Sylvia Lewis (no relation, Lewis clarifies in the commentary), who powerfully evokes Charisse in Singin' in the Rain although costumed quite differently. On the contrary, facing up to her – even if it mainly involves getting chased around the room – causes Herbert to “man up” for the only time in the film, even if that involves dancing with her to big band music in a snazzy suit. Like a sped-up version of Kelly's transformation from nerd to balletic lover in the Broadway Melody sequence; although, as in Cinderfella, Lewis is both the prince and the fairy tale maiden in this scenario. Somehow or other, these two – Herbert and Miss Cartilage – although opposites, are twins. After removing her mask, she hands it to him like he ought to know what to do with it, or like she's passing the torch, and this sexually charged bit of material is what he's left holding after he leaves the room, to show him that he didn't dream it all. As for Miss C, after their dance she retires to her bed and stretches out felinely behind the transparent curtain. They've hardly touched (and note how Lewis manhandles her head in the image above like it's an alien object), and indeed, one of her myriad fetishes appears to be not-touching (which makes another point of connection with the black hands-and-white suit gag). In other words, the female self-pleasuring of waiting and fantasizing. Suspended in gaffa, as Kate Bush put it. She'll be waiting for him in her all-white lair, when he's ready, if he ever is. (Would you be?)



The Ladies Man is Lewis's self-castrating homage to female power and the feminine (ironic, then, that – like a male version of Bette Davis in Jezebel – he was never handsomer than in this film), and Miss Cartilage is a to-the-letter phallic mother, enshrined in a taboo psychological space: both holy (surrounded by white) and demonic (covered in black). Whatever his offscreen sexual preferences, onscreen Lewis is queer in persona and, in The Ladies Man, in imagination and sensibility. But queer fantasies can tell us a lot about heterosexual male fantasies too, when it comes to women. (Here's a fun list of phallic mothers from popular culture, in which the Freudian concept is explained as “not a woman with a penis, but a woman with the symbolic power of a potent male.”)

The Miss Cartilage sequence is The Ladies Man in miniature: at once a fantasy and a nightmare of being absorbed by femininity. Lewis's relationship to both femininity and masculinity is staggeringly ambivalent; which one can take as either cause or effect of his “queerness,” as you like; at any rate, it's the content of it. The exact nature of the fantasy here, as in many of the Ladies Man sequences, is so obscurely private as to be opaque; but that's exactly what makes The Ladies Man as fascinating as any recognized “art film,” despite Lewis's old school vaudeville/classical Hollywood commitment to entertainment and spectacle. It belongs not only to the history of surrealist comedy, with Tati, Tex Avery, Tashlin, and the Fleischer Brothers, to name a few, but to the history of surrealist/erotic filmmaking, with Deren and Lynch (and at moments, Hitchcock). The most Lynchian moment, for me, is when Herbert encounters a Southern Belle whose accent is so thick as to be incomprehensible: it's a vaudeville joke, but in the context of The Ladies Man it's a comment on the fearful alienness of femininity. It may be one of Lewis's surrealist sound experiments, and reminds me of Lynch's backwards-talking dream dwarf. (What Lynch and Lewis have in common in particular, besides their assumption of a seriously "off" boy-next-door persona, is their perception/assertion of a continuity between the unconscious, fantasy, and the essence of glamourous studio-era Hollywood cinema, product of the Dream Factory.)

Another example of such surrealist filmmaking is Cocteau's Orphee, in which Maria Casares is a superb phallic mother, and dangerous Dark Muse to the poet, as Miss Cartilage perhaps was to Lewis.




Herbert Herbert may have sacrificed his Heebert to gain entrance to the darkly magical all-female space of The Ladies Man (at least he's got two Herberts in case he loses one), but to survive within in it proves he's a bigger man than the Hollywood macho male with whom he's also in ambivalent, opposites-attracting relation: the other person he dances with in The Ladies Man is George Raft, playing himself. Lewis loves psychological redundancy, and Raft's double within the film is the gangster played by Buddy Lester. (Criss cross: Raft, in the film, is a real person who played fictional gangsters; Lester plays a fictional real gangster.) In what's probably the objectively funniest sequence of the film – and Lewis's career – we watch in trepidation for the tough guy to demolish the sissy – instead of which, in torturous slow motion, the opposite happens. Lewis's hysterical nervousness communicates itself to proper males and causes them to unravel, while Lewis, who's used to the chaos, remains “in control.” But if I can be Mark Simpsonist about this: the cause of the scene's hilarity is its deconstruction of masculine male vanity. Lester's gangster (in a concept brilliantly realized by Lester) is paralyzed with horror by Lewis's ministrations because if his tough guy image is a hair – or thread – out of place, he can't function. As in The Nutty Professor – Lewis's other colour, and queer, auteur masterpiece – Lewis anticipates Simpson's concept of metrosexuality, due to his sharp understanding of masculinity – based, in part, on his own “feminine” alienation from it. 




*Oh wait, it is: "Sweet and Tender Hooligan."

Friday, August 5, 2011

That Old Black Magic: The Female Artist as Witch

This post is going to finally give you what you've been waiting for: a glimpse into how my mind actually works when it comes to art and gender. Ready?

Way back in the day, Paglia's sexual personae taught me how to leap across centuries and cultural contexts in a single bound, as in her comparison of the bust of Nefertiti and Bowie in his “android phase.” What I liked about this tendency to yoke together the disparate with violence was that it enabled me to perceive, or assert, affinities between my two areas of interest (in common with many thoughtful teens of my generation and since): high culture and pop culture. Which can otherwise be rather difficult to compare. How could I measure which had the “greater” impact on me as a teenager – Hamlet, or Hatful of Hollow? Pride and Prejudice, or Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?

In any case, Paglia instilled in me a lifelong tendency to think of artists in groups of “personae,” although my personae weren't as sexy as hers. I've got one main cluster, which I can separate out into male and female examples; today, I'll be giving some of the female examples. I think of this main grouping as “fey” artists, male or female, with some peripheral overlap with Paglia's “Mercurius androgyne.” These artists are also usually “minor,” or at least for niche tastes; they may also be miniaturists, like Robert Walser.

Maya Deren and Jane Bowles: Entangled Twins

Although I'm not sure how well my first example today, early American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, fits this category. She's certainly obscure/niche, and a miniaturist in the sense that she only made short films. But as a persona, Deren was too richly sensual to be “fey”; a sensual intellectual. Her first and best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon, reveals her deep entanglement in what even now, in our “metrosexual era,” can only be called a specifically female narcissism: not mere physical vanity but dreamy psychological self-absorption.

Deren eerily reproduces herself in this film in a way that distinctly reminds me of one of my favourite paintings, Memories, by the Symbolist Khnopff. 




A heavy, humid, hauntingly “maternal” atmosphere hangs over Khnopff's painting, as it does over Deren's film. Deren herself, with that abundant curly hair, seems physically as well as psychologically in the same Pre-Raphaelite mode as Khnopff's model (his sister, if I recall from Sexual Personae) and the most famous example, Rossetti's late Muse, Jane Morris.




I'm hardly the only blogger to think in terms of “sexual personae,” and others have noted Deren's similarity to another British icon, both physically and as an artist: Kate Bush.



Certainly, Bush has that same sensual/intellectual combination, and her lyrics frequently obliquely explore a certain freaky, convoluted female sexual psychology in which narcissism plays a large role, as in the rather terrifying “Get Out of My House,” in which male sexuality is figured as a kind of invasive poltergeist (and, oh yeah, an abject donkey). Bush, whose lyrics often align sexuality with occult powers (think of the Cathy-ghost in “Wuthering Heights,” where it's male sexuality that's shunning and cold), also likes to take on the role of “witch,” perhaps as a metaphor for demonized femininity; another point in common with Deren, who became fascinated with Haitian Vodoun, to which she was introduced by dancer, choreographer, and dance anthropologist Katherine Dunham.

Deren, however, was not British, but an American of Jewish Eastern European origins (born in the Ukraine). On the evening I finally familiarized myself with Deren (after hearing about her for ages in connection with Lynch and especially Mulholland Dr.), I did a little dreamy, persona-based googling. (In the early 90s, Paglia recommended browsing library shelves to spark unexpected associations, which I'd already been doing as a teenager anyway; the internet facilitates this creative methodology to an exceptional degree.) Based on nothing more than their hair, their Jewishness, their limited output, and their cult status, I made a connection between Deren and American writer Jane Bowles, and was surprised (“spooked” might be a better word) when I googled their Wikipedia entries to learn that they were born in the same year, just a couple of months apart: Deren on April 29, 1917; Bowles on February 22, 1917.



Deren and Bowles had much more in common, too. They were both denizens of New York in their main period of artistic activity, the 1940s (did they ever meet?): in fact, just now I learned, on a closer look at the entries, that Bowles's only novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943, the same year that Deren made her first completed film (co-directed with her husband, Alexander Hammid), Meshes of the Afternoon. They were both drawn to the “exotic,” Deren travelling to Haiti, Bowles travelling with her husband to Mexico and Central America before settling with him in Tangier. Deren became infatuated with Voudon; Bowles with the Berber woman Cherifa.

It seems to be a “thing” for female cult artists to develop strange myths surrounding their lives and deaths. Anyway, it certainly happened to Deren and Bowles. The documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren gives an account, mainly from a seemingly 60s-addled commentator, of the rumours that Deren's early death (at 44) was related to her dabbling in Voudon. Commentators who knew her towards the end also suggest that it was due to her vast, volatile creative energy, responsible for many stormy rages, which had turned poisonous due to her frustration at not getting enough funding to continue making the films she wanted to. (Among the official reasons given was malnutrition.)

Bowles also died young, at 58, in a sanitorium in Spain. She may have outlived Deren, but only to suffer, since in 1957 (four years before Deren's death), she had a stroke (official reason: alcohol) that severely incapacitated her to the end of her life. In the hotbed of expatriate gossip and rumour in Tangier, however, the story spread that her declining health was due to Cherifa's native witchcraft – also supposedly responsible for Bowles's obsession with the woman. Throughout her life, many who knew her (and her fans in her lifetime included John Ashbery, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Christopher Isherwood, who supposedly based Sally Bowles on her in part) believed that her to some charismatic, to others (notably an unimpressed Gore Vidal) insufferably neurotic personality was the result of her thwarted creativity, a life of extended, tormented writer's block.

That Voodoo That You Do So Well

Deren's Eastern European and Greenwich Village connections (and the hair, again!) wafted me along to my next association: the heroines of producer Val Lewton's 1940s B-horror/noirs, especially Simone Simon in Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur) and the iconic Jean Brooks (of the Pulp Fiction hair) in The Seventh Victim (1943, directed by Mark Robson).



Lewton, also of Jewish Ukrainian origins, was a pulp fiction writer who found his metier making classy horror films on a low budget for RKO. In Cat People, French Simon plays Irena Dubrovna, from Serbia. (In a Hollywood film, the French are “exotic” enough for anything, and one Eastern European country as good as another.) Irena is trying to Americanize (by pathologically attaching herself to bland all-American boy Oliver Reed, played by Kent Smith, every bit as wooden as he sounds), and get away from a past that includes idol-worship, witchcraft... and the ability to turn into a panther. The “horror” of the film is female sexuality: Irena appears frigid (returning us to the terrain of “Get Out of My House”), but her “panther self” seems a metaphor for the voracious female sexual appetite, which she's afraid to unleash. There's a distinct thematic connection to Dreyer's great melodrama about witchcraft, Day of Wrath (1943 again!), in which female sexuality turns out to have the power to telepathically kill.

(Yet Dreyer, like Lewton, stays on its side.)

The Seventh Victim, set in Greenwich Village, deals openly with the topic of suicide: the heroine, Jacqueline, is a decadent sensation-seeker who can't decide if she wants death as the final sensation or if she's just world-weary; but she's as terrified of it as she is drawn to it. She gets mixed up with a Satanic cult who want to force her to die, and tries to get away from it. (Doh! Just realized that this was the main source for a one-woman theatre piece I wrote and performed in which I played two women who might be one woman with a split personality: one is convinced that a sinister cult wants to put her in a snuff film; the other is trying to persuade her filmmaker-boyfriend to make one in which she stars. My favourite line from it, towards the end, was: “I want them to say, 'She only did it for the attention.'”) In the end, however, she goes back to her Village apartment and hangs herself. The whole thing eerily anticipates the Manson murders and their connection (through director Polanski, husband of victim Sharon Tate) with Rosemary's Baby.

Lewton also produced an RKO film... about Voudon. I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is set on the Caribbean Island of Saint Sebastian (probably because Lewton, or someone involved, liked the decadent reference to the homoerotic imagery of the suffering saint; here, however, put in service of representing the legacy of African slavery). The film also draws on the actual Voudon origins of North America's favourite millennial monster, and features a “gone native” female doctor who believes she can be possessed by a Voudon god and deliver curses, as Deren apparently did.

Recent shout-outs to Deren in a variety of media include the video for Janelle Monae's “Tightrope” (2010), set in an imaginary asylum for artists in which, a bit of text informs us at the start, “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices,” and Bruce LaBruce's queer zombie movie, Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008), where the filmmaker-within-the-film Medea Yarn is obviously loosely modelled on Deren.

Fragments of Bowles and Deren

Janelle Monae also has some of that Bride of Frankensteinesque Bowlesian hair (and androgyny) going on:


The cover of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, however, seems to draw specifically on the cover of Sexual Personae, which no doubt Monae has read, since it includes Paglia's android-Bowie/Nefertiti comparison. For Paglia, the head-heavy Nefertiti represents a new, nature-rejecting image of woman as aspiring, soaring intellect; for Monae, claiming this right for women seems to mean embracing an android persona that (although, ironically, object-like) repels attempts to turn her into a sex object.





During a long period (between 15, when I read Millicent Dillon's biography, and 23 or so) when I was rather obsessed with Jane Bowles, I found still other correspondences, such as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (obviously an alien, especially in the bar scene where she's wearing that extraordinary metallic dress with the bits of ribbon floating around her face like translucent antennae) and Jennifer Jones in Love Letters


Jones has no association with witchcraft that I know of, but the two films in which she starred that were directed by William Dieterle, Letters and Portrait of Jennie, have an eerie, Gothic/Expressionist feel suited to Jones's fey, earthy/ethereal, high-strung, almost somnambulistically narcissistic persona as nothing ever would be again. In Portrait of Jennie, she plays a ghost who ages in quantum leaps, and gives the most convincing portrayal by an adult actress of a child I've ever seen. In Love Letters (with a screenplay by... wait for it... AYN RAND), she's, basically, a Platonic Idea, who can't psychologically negotiate the reality of her own or male sexuality, despite being as avidly, felinely sensual as ever. I suspect that Hitchcock took notes for Vertigo watching Portrait of Jennie and for Marnie watching Love Letters. The critic David Thomson, who's usually grievously wrong about everything, was almost right when he said that Jones would have been suited to play James's Isabel Archer; if he'd said Milly Theale, I would have forgiven him everything.


More Tragi-Farcical Courtship Rituals

The last play I ever had produced was called Non Sequitur, about the marriage of Jane and Paul Bowles, which I subtitled “A Screwball Comedy with Consequences” because I couldn't figure out how to focus it until I made the Bringing Up Baby connection. (I also had in mind Paglia on As You Like It in Sexual Personae.) The first act was produced at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival, and NOW magazine made it a top pick; it was self-contained enough that no one noticed the second act missing. The play focused, scene by scene, on various more or less malicious games the couple played to negotiate their complex relationship, and my own favourite, which recurred as a motif, was the one in which Paul pretended to be a parrot that Jane would have to send to his cage when, due to her coaxing, he got out of control (or in others words, got his queer on and “freaked out” – an idea brilliantly, bravely realized by straight actor Ross McMillan in the workshop production; Ross also played a note-perfect Orton in the original production of Live With It). The wonderful poster (sadly, no longer up on the internet) for the Toronto production seized on this image, portraying a tiny Paul brooding (Cary Grant Thinker style) in a bird cage, on which Jane leans languidly – sort of like I Dream of Jeannie with a gender role reversal. I thought it was a great image, but for many years I was in deep denial that I had really portrayed such an overpowering woman, when I thought I was portraying my idea of an equal marriage (except for the part where Paul is forced to put Jane in her cage – the asylum – at the end).

Nevertheless when the actress who played Jane in the Toronto production, Sarah Neville, repeated to me with worry a critic's opinion that she was “too relentless” as Jane, I reassured her, “It's Jane Bowles. That's not possible.”

Shirley MacLaine, Preying Ingenue

A sort of postscript: the freakiest, feyest performance I've ever seen a woman give is the young Shirley MacLaine in Tashlin's Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle, Artists and Models, which may still be the queerest movie ever made, harnessing all of the gender-bending potential of the Martin and Lewis partnership in the service of a bisexual utopic subtext. In all other Martin and Lewis films (generally regarded as vastly inferior), Lewis is the queerest object on display, a homely Boylita who, for 50s (straight) America, was secretly the ultimate twink to an even greater degree than Justin Bieber is now, to judge from the surprising fact that he, not Martin, is the sex object of the films. But here the genuine ingenue MacLaine beats eternal ingenue Lewis at his own game by being, as I recall Mark Simpson and I observed together in a discussion of this, a better boy than he is, providing a rare example of the androgynous (though voluptuous) girl being more charismatic than the androgynous boy. And when she serenades him on a staircase by bellowing “My Innamorta” at him as he tries frantically to get away, she's like some kind of contortionist stick-insect, and textually, he's an adolescent boy scared of the faster-maturing adolescent girl, while, subtextually, he's a queer man fleeing the female preying mantis who's trying to devour him because he's asking for it by being such a tasty little morsel. (If there's any difference. Lewis would, of course, perfect this persona and scenario in his masterpiece, The Ladies Man. But more on that in a later post.) But they're reverse mirror images of each other, and their bizarre courtship ritual is, of course, symbolic of heterosexual relations even into adulthood, according to some analyses. Which is what makes male homosexuality a continuity with male heterosexuality. 



MacLaine isn't exactly a witch, but her freaky-kooky persona at this early stage of her career lets you see where the later, New Age advocate MacLaine came from, and almost makes up for it.