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.