April 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve mentioned before that Serling had two daughters who were growing up as The Twilight Zone had its initial run on CBS. This seems to be one of the main influences on some of the female-protagonists episodes which he wrote for the series, and none more so than “The After Hours” (viewable online on YouTube).
A few months before The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959, Barbie was introduced to the American marketplace. Whether or not Serling and/or his wife bought the dolls for their daughters, it’s pretty obvious he noticed her appearance. Because look: Marsha White, our protagonist in “The After Hours,” is Barbie.
This becomes explicit late in the episode, but the resemblance is there from the very beginning.
Many of the themes that Serling and his collaborators examine through these five episodes — the increasing mobility and independence of women in post-war America; women seeing their own, anxious images in mirrors, doppelgangers, and filmed selves; a pervasive sense of loneliness; a subtext, perhaps unintentional, of sexual violence — many of these themes are wrapped up here in the image of the Barbie-mannequin come to life. They are accompanied by other themes that we now think of as integral to an understanding of the 1950s: consumerism, the understanding of Americans primarily as customers, purchasers, consumers, and the blossoming of advertising and marketing to encourage such an understanding.
Marsha White, in this episode, is the desirable image, the advertisement, brought to life. She is, in a way, her own doppelganger, her own uncanny second self. This episode is ahead of its time in the way in which it points out how often such images encourage women to pursue an impossible body, an impossible image of perfection. One of the ways in which this is foregrounded is in repeated shots of Marsha’s legs. After her attempt to purchase a gift — a thimble, for which she has seen an advertisement — ends in an odd trip to an empty floor of the department store, she finds herself locked into the store, alone, after hours. And in her desperation, she tries to run in her heels; the shots of these attempts are painful, showing the way in which a real women’s legs are made to look like a doll’s when any physical exertion is attempted in the shoes they are encouraged to wear.
In one particularly effective sequence, Marsha cries for help with mounting panic through a frosted-glass window: “Somebody? Please, I’m locked in here… Anyone? I — I — I — I need some help… Anyone? Please?” The smearing and blurring of the perfect image through this bubbled glass is powerful, in ways that are hard to define. It’s a view through a non-window of one who begins to realize, or believe, or remember, that she is a non-person.
Welcomed back to the fold of mannequins at the end of the episode, Marsha says it was “ever so much fun” to be a person, an “Outsider.” And yet she is relieved to be back in the store, among her fellow mannequins, with no decisions to make, frozen, displaying the store’s wares.
There’s a bizarre touch in this scene of exposition, when Marsha remembers what she is and the nature of the mannequins’ agreement — each gets one month as a human, then returns to let the other one leave. In the background are three skiers, each wearing his own ski mask. It’s an odd choice, to say the least. In 2013, it reminds one equally of a hostage situation and of the Russian feminist activists of Pussy Riot. And perhaps that’s as good a note as any on which to sum up this series of posts.
April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out. It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.
Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham. The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door. She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.
But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.
1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery. The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue. (It starts at 19:00.)
The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business. Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately. It gives you chills. It’s a stroke of genius. And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director. Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?
2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.
The best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham. Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power. It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode. However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children. Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.
We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality. We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger. Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode. It disturbs and disorients Helen.
Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind. He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone. This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”
And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.
The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?” One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror. The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day. She does not think of the past. She does not even recognize herself as a child. She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.
Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable. “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says. “And you look so like your mother.” Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed. The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.
We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now. I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.
Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.” He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement. But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here? Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?
Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of. Its very existence could be denied. Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.” The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.
March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Mirror Image” (available online, at least for now, on YouTube) is the episode that Serling felt compelled to introduce the week before as a fine example of his ability to write meaty roles for women. Its star is Vera Miles, its director John Brahm; both have interesting backgrounds that blend to make this episode what it is.
Vera Miles starred as Lila Crane in Psycho, released a few months after this episode aired in February 1960. She had caught Hitchcock’s eye in the mid-’50s. The role that Kim Novak would make famous in Vertigo had been meant for Miles; but she was pregnant, and would wait a couple more years until she had her own chance at a doppelganger tale. She had a lovely, plain, open face, a kind of Everywoman quality, that makes her very effective in this episode.
John Brahm was a theatrical actor and director in Weimar Germany who fled to the U.S. with the rise of Hitler. There’s something very much like a stage play about this episode, and something of an Expressionist influence, as well. I love, for instance, the very simple set of the bus station, which is bracketed like the set for a modernist morality play by twin neon signs, bold, declarative, and emblematic of the content of the episode:
Yes: a lady, or ladies, with baggage. This would be a fine title for the next episode of the five, “Nightmare As a Child,” as well.
“Mirror Image” is a fine example of a TZ episode that takes a fairly simple premise — woman fears she’s been replaced by her evil doppelganger — and makes it memorable thanks to visual style, good writing, and a slow build of tension that keeps the viewer interested. The visual reveal of the doppelganger is especially effective.
As in “The Hitch-Hiker,” doom arrives in the mirror. More interestingly, there’s a gorgeous frame-within-frame composition here that calls back to “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” That earlier film also featured a woman looking at an image of her own self — with a very similar gesture, actually, though the roles are reversed: here the “real” self (in the process of being made fictive) is the horrified one, where earlier it was the “fictive” self (whose place would be taken by the real self by episode’s end). The sign above the doppelganger makes explicit a theme throughout these episodes: the baggage that these women carry is, at least in part, the image of the self, which threatens to overwhelm and usurp the life of the person, the individual.
This is also another episode about a single woman, Millicent Barnes, traveling on her own, and as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” one can see a not-so-subtle subtext that such independence leads only to trouble, or to madness. “Offhand, mister,” says the washroom attendant to her supposed knight-in-shining-armor, Paul, “I’d say she needed some looking after… if you know what I mean.” She means psychological help, or institutionalization, but she could mean so many other things, as well.
But as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” the tone and structure of the episode at least partly undercut that idea. Oddly, both of the episodes are split in two between light and dark halves. After Millicent sees her doppelganger on the bus and faints, the station manager turns off the lights. When Millicent recovers, she heads for the ladies’ room again, hoping against hope to catch her double again: in the mirror, in a stall, somewhere. She’s connected the neon “Ladies” sign with the idea of multiples of herself, just as we viewers have.
The ladies’ room, especially in its darkened state, seems a realm of the Freudian unconscious, a place from which bizarre symbol has irrupted into reality. And so Millicent is carted off by the police to the nut house.
But in the reality of “Mirror Image,” Millicent was right, not insane, and the same thing happens to Paul — his double flees to take over his life, leaving him in the dust, a truly wonderful smirk on his face. The shadows and rain-slicked streets of this sequence are beautiful, and obviously artificial, in the mode of expressionist cinema. And as in much expressionist cinema, the episode can be seen as a societal indictment as much as a comforting horror that reinforces norms.
March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here). Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ. The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman. The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story. (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores. And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)
Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation. She’s a buyer for a department store. She has a flat tire. SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet. As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.” As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.
Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past. She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road. Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play. However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.
The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.” Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode. The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode. There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.
The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness. The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”
Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station. It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump. At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”
She delivers the following reply: “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”
The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.
Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas. While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.
Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death. So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied. But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing. This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man. And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.
The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror. Mirrors will come up again in the next post. Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite. Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.
March 18, 2013 § 5 Comments
See the first post in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one for background.
“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (viewable online at Vimeo) is a quintessential TZ episode, and Rod Serling script, in the way that it teeters between indulgence in nostalgia and examination of nostalgia as a force in American life. It was directed by Mitchell Leisen, an art director and costume designer who broke through and became a director of some important films in the 1930s and ’40s. It makes perfect sense that he worked with Billy Wilder and other heavy hitters of the studio golden age; this episode would be a great entr’acte or palate cleanser for a double feature of Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, between which it fits chronologically.
Leisen’s emphasis on costumes and design shows through in the episode, which features an aging actress (Ida Lupino) who, rather than seeking out new roles, prefers to sit in her darkened study watching her past performances, alone, wearing terrific dress after terrific dress, with a glass of something strong. It looks great, and the flickering light of the projector is used evocatively and beautifully as a visual motif. (You’ll have to take a look at the episode online; I’m too lazy to gif or video clip examples of these sequences at the moment.)
Early on, the episode features a gorgeous sequence in which Barbara Jean, the actress, startles her maid by emerging from behind the screen on which her younger self, playing a nurse in a golden-age war romance, is being projected.
The episode had begun, in Serling’s narration, with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.” The reflexivity of this construction, the near-mirroring of Barbara Jean’s younger (ostensibly fictive) and older (ostensibly real) gestures, and the horror on that supposedly fictive self’s face, are the first glimpses of the theme that Serling, the episodes’ directors, and the talented actresses would carry through these five season one episodes: women mirrored, glimpsing their own objectification, their troubled place within both the episodes’ contemporary America and the frame of the viewer’s television screen, their supposed need and desire for the attention and protection of others.
Leisen does wonderful work with these frame-within-frame structures throughout the episode. But Lupino adds her own strokes of genius (I presume, not having seen the script, not having been on the set): the way, in the sequence shown above, her hand begins and stays at her neck, while her younger self’s hand begins at the mouth and works its troubled way down to her neck, exposes her self-consciousness about aging, and about, well, her neck. (Lupino, incidentally, would later become the only woman to direct an episode of the original TZ series.)
Barbara Jean’s agent encourages her to “get [her] war paint on” and come to her studio to hear about a new part being offered to her. Dressed like a young starlet, she is told that the part would be that of a mother. Horrified that she is no longer expected to play the young romantic lead, she leaves in a huff, retreating to the screening room.
Seeing her leading man, now an happily aged businessman, is the last straw: Barbara Jean manages to will herself into the screen, living inside the projector in Hollywood’s idealized past, a half-person half-projection. Now, there is more than a little of the typical 1950s plot element of a woman needing her man above all in this episode (more than in the others under discussion here). But in the end, Barbara Jean makes her own choice, and that choice has as much to do with “the pictures getting small,” to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. The questions remain more or less the same today: Who wants to play a second-fiddle mother when they’ve been the lead? And why can’t the romantic lead ever be older than 25?
This escape into film is set up beautifully by the episode’s beginning, in which the viewer’s television screen is filled with the film being projected onto Barbara Jean’s screen, making the fictive “real” until the camera cuts to her watching that screen. It is somewhat interesting to speculate on how obvious it was to contemporary viewers that they were watching a pastiche of an old Hollywood film: the treacly lighting and music tend to make me think that they were partly let in on the joke, but it’s not as though material so far removed from this were uncommon on television in 1959.
Hearing the cries of her agent from within the screen to come back and live in the present, “Barbie” (as he calls her — and yes, the Barbie doll was launched earlier in 1959, and yes, this will come up again) turns back to the “camera” and camera, gazes out at him, kisses and throws her scarf toward him (or at least, toward the fictive “camera”).
Leisen’s background really comes together here: in this shot and others, the layering of interior set on interior set, the inclusion of frames within frames, the desire to wear elaborate, cumbersome, gorgeous costumes always, leads to a conclusion of remarkable beauty. (It’s also possible, as an aside, to see the episode, and especially this ending, through the lens of camp and the gay embrace of glamour, especially in light of Leisen’s oeuvre.)
Barbara Jean’s decision can be seen as a choice to become an image, an object: she is blowing a kiss and throwing a scarf to messy reality, to her declining prospects for celebrity or employment, to a woman’s natural aging. But of course she is performing as a subject, too, choosing to “live” on her own terms rather than “age gracefully.” It’s probably my least favorite of the five episodes under discussion here, but it contains riches, and it fills me with questions about its production and how (or whether) it fits with the other episodes in Serling’s writing.
March 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
On February 19, 1960, at the end of the twentieth episode (“Elegy”) of a new series entitled The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, the mind behind the series, unexpectedly came onto the screen and delivered the following message:
[First clause cut off in surviving footage, likely “I want to”]… settle an argument to the effect that I’m not at my best when writing scripts for women. Miss Vera Miles takes my side, in a most unusual and unique story we call “Mirror Image.” I hope to see you next week: you in your living room, and Miss Vera Miles and the rest of us in the Twilight Zone.
I’ve been watching the Twilight Zone in chronological order via Netflix’s streaming service; on-screen appearances by Serling were not yet a normal part of the series, so this made me sit up and take notice. It made me notice, too, that only two of the first twenty episodes had focused on female protagonists. I would agree that these were not the best-written episodes, but I had appreciated the conceits of both episodes, and they were among my favorite episodes visually.
As it happened, the weak ratio of female star turns in the first season only slightly improved — five of 36 (36!) episodes — but these five clearly mattered a great deal to Serling, and I’d love to research the backstory of his reasons for the on-screen proclamation. The five episodes hang together in fascinating ways, and form (consciously?) a suite of stories about women in American life on the cusp of second-wave feminism.
In some ways, the focus in the series on male protagonists and, often, exclusively male narratives was in keeping with the 1950s television (and broader cultural) emphasis on the heroic male in westerns, science fiction, and other genres with pulp roots. The female episodes of The Twilight Zone must have stood out for contemporary viewers from such offerings, especially as all five are focused not on domesticity or even married women, but women working, traveling, making their own decisions (for better or, more often, worse).
I’ll explore each of these five episodes in a series of posts. I’m especially interested in a really interesting subtext in these five, and in series as a whole: women as subjects as well as televised objects, women looking back at the male gaze. This would be nicely summarized in the very first image of the opening sequence used for the last few episodes of the season:
February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.
Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.
There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo. Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too. A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.” And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.
A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings). These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.” The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.
The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book. Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.” Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.” In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.” Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue. In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).
When else does Vertigo strike? It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory. It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters. An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center. A series of murders. Missing persons.
Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead. (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)
Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people. Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.” Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it. (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.) Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.
The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide. And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.
December 31, 2012 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; Across the Land and the Water, by W. G. Sebald.
It’s the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial tomorrow. Big deal, y’all. We’re in the midst of the every-fifty-years retrospectives of our Civil War, too. And I’m in the midst of a confluence of culture concerned with these events: in addition to my beginning of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative history (which I’m reading intermittently, between other books, probably all of next year and then some), the past week has featured viewings of Django Unchained and Lincoln. I can’t imagine three more different treatments of slavery and its end. To my surprise, I’m most bothered by Foote’s history (though, of course, I’m very early in this 2000-plus-page project), though all of them are problematic in their own ways.
(Inescapable SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.)
Django is built around a hyperbolic version of slavery — a Tarantino “movie” version of slavery — featuring a capital-E Evil Slave Master whose passion in life is pitting slaves against each other in fights to the death. This never happened, pretty obviously, or if it did, there’s no trace of it left to history. But Tarantino’s stated mission in this movie is to “break that history-under-glass aspect” of slavery in other historical films: he wants it be visceral, and in 2012 you have to be pretty damn brutal to get popcorn-moviegoers to pay attention. (Although, let’s be real, it’s not like Q has been a model of restraint in other movies. You know what you’re getting if you go to his movies, including movies about slavery.) The clever point here is that it could have happened: it would only take one decadent, imbalanced plantation trust-fund kid, after all.
The movie has a number of queasy-making scenes, and the reasons why they were queasy-making for me in a way that nothing was in Inglourious Basterds are interesting. White American audiences are never comfortable with equivalencies between Nazis and anyone, but especially between Nazi Germany and what we still weirdly call “the institution of slavery.” We tend, I think, to be acutely sensitive to “exaggerations” of the horrors of slavery. We are also terribly uncomfortable with even discussing the subject, and I don’t think Django is going to do much to change that: it’s a satisfying cartoon revenge fantasy and that’s that. It’s especially queasy-making, that Tarantino, Q, my fellow white American, chose to end his movie by encouraging us to heap scorn upon, and cheer the murder of, a loyal house slave. But it’s of a piece with the rest of the film: it’s motivation is completely justified rage, a desire for exorcism, not white guilt.
And but so newsflash: for all the lazily scornful talk of “white guilt,” white Americans are very bad at feeling guilty and being ashamed, mostly because we remain mostly unwilling to atone for our shames. We are also acutely uncomfortable with any notion of our history that does not follow lovely inevitable parallel moral, economic, and political slopes to paradise. We just assume we’re going to win and that if we’re doing so, we’re doing so the right way. (See also Hollywood, 1900-present; utter lack of national outcry about torture, 2001-present.) I think that, by and large, the white citizens of this country have managed to convince themselves that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of African people, the marginalization of those peoples for a hundred years thereafter, and the silencing and abuse of women throughout our history, were inevitable “lessons learned” on our path to freedom. In other words, no cause for shame.
The best thing about Lincoln — and however much it could be seen as a “history-under-glass” movie in Tarantino’s view, it affected me far more deeply than Django — might be how it makes clear that nothing about abolishing slavery was inevitable or easy. It was messy and sordid and very nearly did not happen, even with no Confederate states represented in the government. We, as a nation, were fighting this idea tooth-and-claw, 150 years ago, in both the Union and the Confederacy. We were still fighting the concept of full equality less than fifty years ago.
It is worth remembering that slavery ended seven or eight generations ago. That means that there are elderly people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents could have told them about their lives as slaves.
Imagine how they might feel watching a Civil War reenactment. Imagine how they might feel seeing a Confederate flag above a state capitol. Imagine how they might feel about those men dressing up as Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep millions of black people enslaved. For that matter, I don’t need to imagine it. I know how I feel.
What would you call a German reenactor of World War II battles? I think you’d call him a neo-Nazi. You would not find him an eccentric history buff.
If you live in the South, you hear plenty about how lovely those old plantations are. I do commend Tarantino for showing just how blood-soaked those white plantation walls were, and for blowing the damned building up at the end. It’s refreshing.
If you live in the South, you also still hear a lot of comments along these lines:
I am a Mississippian. Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me. However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were removed from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it. Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago. If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.
That’s Shelby Foote, in the “Bibliographical Note” to the first volume of his Civil War history, published in 1958. That’s shocking, I think. That should be far more shocking than blood-soaked Django, than the number of times the n-word is uttered in either that film or Lincoln. “Sympathy for the underdog in a fight”: that has been the argument for Confederate pride for 150 years, now. Sorry: underdogs are only sympathetic if they’re fighting the bad guys. If you’re defending your right to keep people as property, and your economy is based on concentration camps, you’re not worthy of sympathy. You’re worthy of shame.
Shame. This is shameful. And we’ve done our best to forget about it, these past 150 years, and especially these past four years, with talk of “post-racial” America. The desire to “turn the page and move forward,” our most prevalent national mixed metaphor, is just another way of saying you’d like to bury history and leave it buried. Reading Sebald is an antidote to that: the ways in which he reveals that the merest scratch beneath the surface of his life shows all the ways in which historical atrocity affect all of our lives.
July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Finished long ago: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (Continuum’s 33 1/3 series no. 86).
I recommend this piece of criticism/memoir/fan’s notes wholeheartedly, if you’re a Talking Heads fan, though there’s plenty of room for disagreement with some of Lethem’s points and his overall interpretive framework (about which more below). Personally, I hadn’t listened to this album in its entirety very closely before; listening along with reading Lethem’s book was rewarding. A few tidbits that will stick with me from my reading:
-“Cities” is a great song which I became addicted to as I listened to the album, and Lethem has an excellent reading of it as “‘Life During Wartime”s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free…” I’d never thought of it as a disco song, but really, it’s a great disco song, if you just take it at sonic face value. And the lyrics do form an interesting, more optimistic — or perhaps more effectively self-medicated — counterpoint to the apocalyptic “Life During Wartime.” As both Lethem and the late great David Bowman (in his bio of the Heads,This Must Be the Place) point out, a lot of this album is influenced by the band’s punishing touring schedule, and that’s also apparent in the emphasis here and elsewhere on movement, various locales, and vehicles.
-Lethem sometimes seems overextended in his theory that this is a concept album of sorts — especially in his treatment of its first song, “I Zimbra,” which would be the necessary last, not first, song for a supposed concept album about fear, the mysteries of everyday things, urban life, and the perils of consciousness, no matter how much he tries to label it an “end run” or “preemptive workaround” — but he is certainly right when he writes about the album’s evident themes and consistent tone, and that listening to the iconic “Life During Wartime” in its original context of this album is absolutely essential to getting at the heart of the song. It sounds different, here, than it does on its own, which is how I’ve mostly listened to it on the greatest hits album (in an awesome live version) and countless mixes.
-The chapter on “Heaven” is great: I had honestly never paid conscious attention to the disconnect here between the pounding of the bass and drums and the ethereal balladeering of everything else, but everyone notices that this is a different kind of “slow song,” and that’s obviously why. Lethem is convincing as to why that is — how the bass “is easily the best thing and the worst thing on the track,” because it is so out of step with the cloying, floating quality of the song that it “punctures any sanctimony or bogus mystery here.”
And yet Lethem weirdly refuses to use the names of Chris Frantz (drummer) and Tina Weymouth (bassist) throughout the book, almost always referring to them as “the drummer” and “the bass player.” What the hell is that? If Bowman’s book taught me nothing else, it was that the tension between Byrne and Weymouth, who was the media darling of the band in its early days, was the driving force in the band’s chemistry. I have no idea why he’s elided her name here.
-Lethem’s strategy here of alternating between chapters doing close listening of each track and thematic explorations of the album is nice, and as a whole works well, but it’s his exploration of his relationship with the album as an enthralled teenager that’s really fascinating. I love his memory of the radio spot (currently not found online) for the album, and his interesting discussion of why the album meant so much to him at the time, as only albums or songs or bands can mean so much to the young before those things become immensely popular, and why he fell away from the band later. (I differ from him from my latecomer’s perspective; he was crazy at the time, and remains crazy, to damn the ’80s work with faint praise.) He explains realizing in the ’80s that Speaking in Tongues “was basically Funkadelic with David Byrne singing.” Again, I beg to differ — this is insulting both to Talking Heads, and to George Clinton, and in what freaking universe is “This Must Be the Place” anything like a Funkadelic song? Nevertheless, the exploration of his history with and through this band that meant so much to him makes this worthwhile if you’re interested in Lethem, or hipster music culture, or the 1980s.
February 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished: Dubliners, by James Joyce.
And so I have read “The Dead” again.
“The Dead” is the best thing to read if you find yourself questioning the whole literary enterprise. It is full of small miracles of language, character, and structure, and its smallness expands into a sense of the cosmic in the most astounding ways. Its odd length — a very long story, or a short novella, or another thing altogether — is somehow perfect. (In this and in “Grace,” the also-long preceding story, it really does seem that Joyce found his rhythm, and that this rhythm was decidedly mismatched to that of the commercial press of the time.) An incredible amount of literary energy has been spent trying to catch up with Joyce’s exploration here of the gaps between even the closest human minds, and the community of even the most deliberately estranged, and the ambiguity inherent in all joy and sorrow.
Both times that I’ve read this story, the following passage has been the first to stop me in my tracks:
Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cool pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!
This is simultaneously ironic and deeply familiar, this feeling. It is Christmas, with family; you are intended to feel cozy and happy and glad to be by the hearth. And you do, in a way. But the room is close and quite warm; the desire to be alone, by yourself, can be overwhelming, especially if you have a melancholic disposition.
Throughout the story, I kept thinking, in passages like these, of J. M. Whistler’s Nocturne paintings, those gorgeous, proto-Modern impressions of tint and shadow, form and motion.
Whistler makes an interesting complement to Joyce. Both were controversial expatriates, and both were quite self-consciously artists, interested foremost in the form and beauty of their works. Joyce was, certainly, more political and social in his art, less of an aesthete and decadent. And yet there is an emphasis on form and aesthetic in “The Dead,” as certainly as there is in Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Gray and Black:
Use this painting to illustrate the famous passage near the end of “The Dead,” a passage that serves not only as a premonition and insight into Gabriel’s state of mind, but also to give a formal bookend to Dubliners, which began with a wake:
Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.
Obviously, Whistler was most interested in the composition and artistry, not the content, of his famous painting. And yet, one would willfully and needlessly reduce the significance and impact of the painting by ignoring the fact that it portrays his mother; form and content are joined here in a beautiful whole, as in “The Dead.” Beyond its place in the whole of Dubliners, the story itself hinges on a type of artistic expression: Gabriel’s speech honoring the three Misses Morkan. The two paragraphs before Gabriel begins are, I think, among the most beautiful I know. I’ll quote the second here, which is another beautiful, sensuous imagination of snowy night:
Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres.
The oration is a self-conscious piece of rhetoric, and its delivery preoccupies Gabriel throughout the first half of the story. We see him planning out how he will use the occasion to score points off of a foe, Miss Ivors, and we even get this: “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”
And yet the speech works. It is a moving tribute to the hostesses, to the dead, and to Ireland, both to its fictional listeners and its real readers. As the work of Gabriel, a writer and lover of literature, married to a woman from Galway, it is possible to read this as a microcosm of Joyce’s own ambiguous and constantly shifting emotions toward his homeland. If Gabriel had planned to score rhetorical points despite his own reservations about the ignorance or vulgarity of his own people, he ends up meaning it anyway, in spite of himself.
Both the speech itself (and its status as the self-evident focus of the story) and the turn of Gabriel’s thoughts thereafter to memories of he and his wife, young and in love, point to “The Dead” as a work of art about art’s creation, and its power. The story moves toward its astounding conclusion beginning with this paragraph:
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
As it happens, “distant music” is also what I hear when I look at Whistler’s paintings: they evoke soft music, sounds of night. And distant music is precisely what Gretta’s thoughts end up being, to Gabriel: the music of memory, a memory he knew nothing of, and that had nothing to do with him. As devastating as this is to Gabriel, there remains the power of the “sudden tide of joy” he feels when she sees him; the “proud, joyful, tender, valorous” thoughts she evokes in him; the sweetness and fondness of his memories of moments of their life together. The ambiguity of being human with another, in the end. The mingled emotion of a rocket falling back to earth.