Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Plaster and Pearl (excerpt)

This is a fragment of a new, lengthy work on Dominican Starlet Maria Montez, matriarch of Universal's war-year sarong epics, and her baroque stylizations.

Maria Montez’s first leading role, Arabian Nights also marked Universal’s first use of the new, 3-strip Technicolor process. The new color film was an ocular sensation both in the emblazoned color stock and the plastic potential for world creation. This technology enabled the emphasis of film to rest on the visual construction of the fantastical scene, more than mere documents of lands and people. Like religious art of the baroque, images told their tales, but also served as a promise of feats to come, the 1,001 tales yet to be told – which can now be told, thanks to this new method of wondrous rendering. These colorful tableaus were awash in formal hysterics of blazing turbans and flowing veils whose hues ranked in significance with plot development and storyline. Narrative concerns in this flagship title waned in importance to the visual spectacle and the mythological basis of the plot suggests less inventive plotline than historical testament. Such bald emphasis on visual construction and the particulars of the plastic form echoed the tendency towards externalization in baroque aesthetics.

Following the Renaissance cult of antiquity, art of the baroque period still found use for the pagan gods of prior celebration. Yet due to the reified religious order, the gods persisted in an allegorical province. Through this plasticization process, the figural body of the god is stripped of his mythological power. He exists for his allusive, no longer mystical, purpose. As Walter Benjamin writes, “There is not the faintest sense of spiritualization in the physical.” The allegorical tendency towards personification strips all mystical functions of the spiritual by enshrining it within the aesthetic, the physical. “The whole of nature is personalized, not so as to be made more inwards, but, on the contrary – so as to be deprived of soul.” Similarly, abstract and unrepresentable tropes and concepts begin to become personified through plastic objects, in an attempt at signification.

That such sites of Orientalist depiction would be Universal’s first choice for imagistic referent speaks to the newness (and exoticism) of such visual sensations. The ethnic and mythic content of these “exotic” films too is shelled of any heritage to ebb instead a purely referential relation to Otherness. Shari Roberts observes, “The scenario established here was a falsely simplistic us/them, United States versus the foreign Other, dichotomy.” This allegorical fashioning allowed for escapist narratives to incorporate aspects of warfront tension and the “Good Neighbor” policy that Roosevelt was promoting at the time. To broach these issues, they become invested in suggestive aesthetics (which in this instance, function narratively). They are meant to provoke with their pertinence as crude reflections, accounting for the manner by which these past vogues today, out of their originary context, seem blatant or “heavy-handed”. Further, Michael Moon’s observes how the mere focus on material qualities, like 1910’s cult of “voluptuous fringe,” can lead to frivolous role play, enabling mass fantasies of ethnic mastery. The emphasis on and donning of these emblematic garments permitted an imaginary escapism, to “the other side of the looking glass from their wearers’ ordinary lives, a phantasmagoric ‘oriental’ margin…” Too, Roberts points that, “this masquerade performed by consuming fans was also perhaps enacted during individual film-viewing experiences.” In this capacity, Montez’s films expanded beyond a locational tourism and allowed a disquieting form of mimicry in audience reception. Such distillations of ethnic and gendered otherness fold in on themselves as spectacle, however and Montez’s ecstatic conviction bores through the generic text; Shari Robert notes similarly on the reception of Montez’s progenitor, Carmen Miranda “she was able to create through her performance of her own character as both feminine and ethnic excess, a spectacle that ultimately puts into question both feminine and foreign stereotyping.”

Maria Montez’s power is dialectic, exposing the constructedness of her figural roles through her transparent performance style and in her ecstatic reverie amid the lavish plaster settings. As Roberts further writes, “her persona also reveals these images as stereotypes, allowing negotiated readings by fans.” In Gore Vidal’s follow-up to Myra Breckinridge, Myron, the since-remasculated namesake character catches sight of Montez on late night T.V. Myron becomes possessed by the diva through her mixture of play and being. Reverting to his prior, flamboyant persona, Myron becomes an admix of Myra and Maria. Montez both embodied her roles and clung to her star image, narcissistically entranced by the spectacle. “She gave the films a conviction which was a fabulous quality,” Charles Ludlam continues. “The things those movies have that today’s movies don’t have is actors sort of winking at you from behind their masks…” Jack Smith’s entire article, ‘The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez’ is a testimony to the star’s reflexive quality. “If something genuine got on film why carp about acting – which HAS to be phony anyway…Acting to Maria Montez was hoodwinking.” Beauty and aesthetic perfection, Smith argues, were the foremost of her concerns, hence her famous claim, to look at the screen and “I am so beautiful I scream with joy.” The films were “a medium for her beliefs” and the intensity of these beliefs tends to subsume all of the diegetic causality. The ceremonial dance in White Savage depicts a plethora of “natives” worshipping an effigy of their god, Tangora. Upon a pedestal, however, between the dancers and this god, Montez is perched and beams out at the procession in honor of their worship. This religious ritual becomes a devotional to her white-clad form. So too do the natives fear her in Cobra Woman where she acts as intermediary between the people and King Cobra. Her zealous and crazed dance, which defaults to a frenzied selection of sacrificial maidens, is so possessed in its place of power that the viewer momentarily loses track of the narrative circumstance that resulted in the movement. The discordant rapture Montez evinces in these sequences transgresses socially acceptable behavior in civilized society. What might have initially been intended as transgresses from American sociality into a wild “native” land is swept up in larger, normative and gendered issues of transgression as the narrative melts away in the whirring frenzy of the scene.

For many period cinemagoers (Ludlam and Smith obviously among them), such posturing served to dash the conventions of generic roles, parodying their constructedness through direct, viewer address. Montez’s fiery performances convince of her convictions but are unconvincing in their intended diegesis. In this manner, they frustrate the space between her star persona and the narratives in which she partakes. These were “flaming images,” defiantly visual vehicles wrought for a new screen and a new Queen, too immersed in the performance to partake in numbing convention. Montez inadvertently opened a doorway for others to a space beyond this genre, which could only contain and constrain its figures. Framed in the edifice of her plaster palace, the vibrancy and conviction of her performance shed new light on that concrete space and intoned and impressionistic life overtook the façade of that fake decor. Speaking to a far more classical model, John Rupert Martin does justice to this sensation in describing how “the observer experiences something of the thrill of release from the narrow confines of the material world, by subconsciously identifying himself with the figures who are represented as being swept upward into the celestial glory.”

Christine Buci-Glucksman reads the abound baroque iconography of angels drifting into the abyss, elaborating upon Martin’s description. Through the simultaneity of allegory, those angels function in their plasticity as jouissance; their ascension, a means by which to show the “baroque conversion, [how] this ‘nothing of being’ changes into an infinity of ecstatic delight…a plethora of forms” These angels, for Gluckman, are the feverous vie to envision that unrepresentable form. Excess, ecstasy, jouissance. They give figurative and narrative presence to abstract, conceptual space. “Here, the angels’ aura forces us to look, to lift our eyes, to desire the impossible spiral of an ascending desire foredoomed to the earthly representation of appearances…” Montez’s conviction, too, gave way to such illusionism. As Jack Smith famously writes,

The vast machinery of a movie company worked overtime to make her visions into sets. They achieved only inept approximations. But one of her atrocious acting sighs suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.

These gaudy approximations cannot convey Montez’s passions, but are faulty forms that can only suggest as enigmatic allusions. The objects fail. Their rudimentary quality testifies to the boundlessness of that Other space of allegory that Montez personifies and conceals. This space is indiscernible, only glimpsed or sensed, broached only through reference. What they vie for and what Montez brought to them, of course, were two separate things, but a fantastical convergence on the Universal lots so many years ago gives way to a peculiar baroque anomaly in cinematic history that attests to their endurance.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I’m very afraid. I love a good horror flic – in fact, I love a bad one even more perhaps. And though I’ve had my hands full these past couple years, something does concern me greatly. I’m just home from The Haunting in Connecticut and just getting over the sustained trauma of The Unborn and I want to shore some things up for the record:

We’ve had some rehashings. Still are, I suppose, what with Jackie Earl Haley just cast as the new Freddie Kreuger. And I think in these pages I’ve bemoaned the absolute unscariness at the root of these new retellings – I can speak directly for The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, When A Stranger Calls (at least these are the ones that come immediately to mind). With those pictures, in an attempt to revitalize a franchise (or make a few bucks, in any event) the best course of action seemed a remythologization of the original yarn with exhaustive backstories. An unnamed demon reflection in a seventies hell/basement becomes a possessed laboratory where an evil Quaker tortured native Americans. We get names, dates, elaborations and gritty flashback sequences to seat the scary in a story. What was once quipped a doorway to hell now in fact is. Leatherface now kills people because he has facial cancer and yearns to cover his deformity with the faces of others. If that’s not narcissism, I don’t know what is. It seems as though the current filmmakers are far more interested in gussying up a plotline so convoluted (or hackneyed) that we forgo and just invest in the new, neo-baroque digi-pale, CGcrumble and DVrot. In mining these popular stories, the filmmakers (well, more the producers, I would argue) are a) playing party to a common trend of reexploring past narratives to breathe a post-modern life into them b) reanimating dead tales to enact a strange narrative nostalgia c) remaking old movies because more people will see that which they already know than take a chance on the new. These figures (Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, the Amittyhouse) are popular icons with bankable reputations. Of course these are archetypical figures of allegory and all have rather distinct MOs. Nathan Lee has made some interesting observations on these remakes and it’s not my desire to go into them here.

What scares me more than anything that whirs past mirrors and suddenly exposes its rotting flesh is what happens when this elaborate mythology looks towards other horrors, escapes from haunted relics of popular narratology and roams about other mortal ground for its spooks. The Unborn (which I thought was a remake of Roger Corman's 90's killer genetics baby movie of the same name) deals with senility, pregnancy and, yes, Auschwitz to tell its tale of an unborn demon. Sorry, a creature from Jewish mythology called a dybbuk. You see, while experimenting on the eyecolor of children in Auschwitz, the Nazis found their perfect subjects in twins. Trouble is “what is a twin if not a mirror and mirrors are doorways to other worlds.” One such utterance from a fragile concentration camp survivor is accepted, wide-eyed by a protagonist so (rightly) terrified that they’ve got to believe it. Perhaps we are in a manner as well, so jolted by lurching demo… dybbuks from every medicine cabinet, bedsheet and rear-view mirror.

The Haunting in Connecticut starts off with a bang, locating its scary in corpse photography that would make Dana Luciano sit up and smile (if it wasn’t so iPhoto) and gurgling with rivets of black and white gore. But then we’re displaced onto a real horror story. (Poor) Virginia Madsen is taking care of her dying teenage son as he goes through exhaustive chemotherapy sessions. The car ride home to father, (poor) Martin Donavan, is so intense that he stops every mile or so to vomit. One such mile, Virginia stops in the middle of the night, by a house they were considering renting and does so on a whim (to relieve the child of torment, of course). There’s ghosties galore in this new old funeral home, which was the site of séances so intense that ectoplasm was produced. This was effected by carving up the dead, cutting off their eyelids (so that they remain unseen, not to be confused with cannot rest/sleep – eyelids, get it) and burying them in the walls of the house. Of course no one asks how they prepared the séance-goers noses, though I suppose that’s missing the point (beside which, they’re burned to a crisp in the key scene). That the teenage son’s otherworldly torment is muddled with some heinous cancer medications and trés-chic chemo procedures starts to make you cringe in all the wrong ways. These sequences incorporate into the narrative schema and introduce aspects of faith though a faithful Madsen and (the scariest thing the film holds on offer), a befuddled (but game) preacher, Elias Coteas. As the charred skulls of the dead dribble in chunks down a storm drain at the film’s close and through voice over we are treated to Miss Madsen’s appeal that “God works in mysterious ways.” (which is nothing on The Unborn’s line “It is up to you to finish what was started in Auschwitz!”) the fluffy content suddenly takes on a grimly propagandistic tone.

Such shelled narratologies of quite real issues are of course nothing new. Adam Lowenstein’s book, Shocking Representation deals with allegorical use of pop cultural traumas like Vietnam through the very guise of B horror. These present dealings, however, seem to shed no light on the events they address even in the most allegorical of fashions, instead milking them for thrills and for (in the case of The Haunting) reifications of faith. Allowing the post-modern plotlines that unfold la Lord of á the Rings, with their twisting plotturns and tremendous leaps of disbelief might just cuddle some of these issues addressed into the narrative fold, in lieu of using such genre fare to address the mor(t)al issues at hand. But that's not what's going on here and the complex narratives which push the spectator away from their convolution might just inspire the same response to the gravity of pertinent subjects like Cancer or the Holocaust. Then there’s the shelling allegory of faith and Christ to consider that the Haunting takes as its grand prototype. But that’s one embrace that sure won’t see the light of day in these pages…