Archive for August, 2007

nature, nurture, and Louise Lateau’s bloody ecstacy

Maud Casey

Genealogy presents as a spider web of chemical instability and family life, through which we pick our way to monster in the center: who or what, if anything, has caused the daughter’s descent into mental illness?

The parents of the Hennart family are over-intellectual narcissists or, more charitably, adult orphans who understand the family lives they have rejected far better than the one they want, or the one they have.  Bernard, a recently fired professor much older than his wife, envies the religious ecstasy of long-dead mystics.  He rejects, even ridicules his wife’s rediscovered Benedictine spirituality as a lingering superstition of her tragic childhood, but naively loses himself in accounts of a 19th-century teenage stigmatic.  Samantha, who unknowingly carries a potential aneurysm in her brain, seems to be 18 years into untreated post-partum depression as well as two decades of writer’s block.  Unlike her husband’s yearning for “something beyond,” she both fears and craves relationships that are concretely mundane.  They both retreat into separate studios to “work,” producing nothing, seduced away from action by soft research and contemplation.

Outside these rooms, they don’t interact so much as ritualistically converse, interrupting to disparage each other’s verbal tics, and repeat processed family stories.  They believe, but don’t realise that they believe, that their small family’s world can be controlled by repeated rational definitions.

Jammed into the spare corners of this intellectually crowded house are two adult, or nearly adult, children.  As the novel begins, Ryan is gone, part banished and part fled.  He struggles with a psychological marijuana addiction—somewhat like his father, wanting to feel something different from his own life and thoughts—and a nervy general malaise, the victim of his parents’ self-centred definitions as both their son (and likeness) and his sister’s emotional father.

His sister, Marguerite, is what traps him, him and his mother, by their own need to live up to a vague maternal standard.  Once ejected from the house, the brother is eager to have a life away from both his parents, whom he sometimes loathes, and his sister, whose clingy love demands total absorption.  Samantha has never connected with her as a mother, and now attempts to do so by turning Marguerite into the subject of a research project.  Marguerite’s father attempts to connect as well, with a younger image of his now 18-year-old daughter who used to love stories, but emotionally poisons her with stories of his stigmatic obsession.  Alone with her parents, and the horny Benedictine builder brought in to upgrade the bathroom into a turn of the (19th) century therapy zone, Marguerite rapidly begins to resemble one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys.

Shifting from present to stories within stories, the first half of the novel establishes a household that resembles an emotional foot-binding, a sustained attempt to create and maintain a family narrative that allows for no growth.  The novel begins at the moment of disintegration, of the family and the individuals inside, which unexpectedly leaves the interloping builder at the centre.  The second half seems to have been written at a later time, as it leaves the interlocking circles of perspective behind and races deeper into anxiety—will these people reconnect in time to salvage anything of the family relationships, rescuing Marguerite and themselves?

Endings are always difficult in backstory-heavy sagas.  Here, it is satisfying in one sense—the family members feeling that they’ve individually touched something greater than themselves and making new lives out of the stifling past—but one of the lynchpins of the change and the one who grounds and advises them is a character named Hyuen, who is never fleshed out.  Why he would tie himself to a difficult person and family is unknown, leaving him uncomfortably close to the magical ethnic figure—unless the cynic who would assume he needs to be surrounded by dysfunctional people needing his guidance is correct, and he is meant to be a final example of unhealthy mental spaces. 

With the family members, however, the right questions are answered and the bittersweet ones left a mystery.   They go on, satisfied, more or less, with “small comforts that are no small comfort.”

let them watch cake


Marie Antoinette

It’s a rare privilege to experience a film not only so spectacularly wrong-headed but, according to the making-of special feature, one that was also exactly what the director was going for. 

Marie-Antoinette is shallowly humanized by stripping her of the propaganda and pop culture baggage, initially leaving a spoiled, undereducated 14-year-old pushed into an alien, suffocating world who seeks refuge in frivolity.  However this lack is quickly and unironically replaced with ill-fitting contemporary baggage, reimagining the child—as she would have been considered in her time, married or not—as an anachronistic teenager mired in a super-sweet sixteen

Other potential humanizing elements during her time in Versailles passed over in favor of clothes, hair and sweets were the deaths of her father and sister, her charity funds, and her growth out of frivolity as a mother, especially nursing her hunchbacked, bed-ridden elder son, who died at 7 of tuberculosis.  In fact her maternal tragedies are summed up by the changing of an official portrait to remove an infant (her second daughter) and a stylized funeral scene, before racing through the last days at Versailles with no foreshadowing that Louis’s decisions not to flee likely cost his family their lives. 

While the previous king does die of smallpox in the film (miraculously infecting no one else), there is no impression of the fragility of life in Marie-Antoinette’s time, even directly among the royal family.  Of peasants and the distance of their lives from hers, there are no hints.  This is a difficult failing for a movie that presents a false picture of the converse-wearing teenage queen.  In this reality, are the peasants revolting because they can’t afford to upgrade their iPod every year?  Are they encased in the fun, pretty bubble as well, or is their reality conversely more horrible than we vaguely remember from high school history, banished from the fun anachronistic royal world?

I suppose they don’t matter.  They can’t be part of the sheer joy of unbridled consumerism, so they have no place in this film, until they are the agent of destruction.

I am left with the impression that it wasn’t Marie-Antoinette who had no conception of the reality outside her privileged life, but the filmmakers.

If the making-of documentary was unbiased, this affect is the result of director Sophia Coppola attempting to make the subject and presentation more personal, “more personal” defined by her father and others as the magic ingredient to quality filmmaking.  Was no one watching the dailies?  Her directing style looked awful…simpering, shallow, and off-putting.  Because I enjoyed Lost in Translation so much, this was a painful disappointment.

not-quite-porn for a lazy summer afternoon

DOA: Dead or Alive

I don’t have anything like a review for this one.  It’s a movie that shows up from the Netflix queue (or Tesco queue in our case) that no one will cop to putting on the list, at least while sober.  It’s not even much fun to mst3k.  Forty-five minutes in, the robots would be reduced to muttering, yeah, T&A…another close-up crotch shot…another wank moment…sigh…

The one thing worth mentioning is that Jaime Pressley seems to have a special talent for adding moments of actual character to one-note redneck stereotypes.  Jessica Simpson, take note.

Actually, don’t.

“for the discerning reader”


The Bedsit Journal No. 1
Various artists
Found: Mega City, Camden Town

Set in Dublin and refreshingly bitter. The artwork is loose and conversational, varying in topic and quality, generally circling the bedsit lifestyle of those who either attempt to live from their art or compromise with a soul-leeching office job.

The point of view for the entire collection could be the rat who, realising he’s been poisoned, dies a long Shakespearean death. These are the people who have no place in the city’s boastful, goodtime craic culture. They may be too intelligent or individual to fit in, or just socially repellent; which of these, only time will tell. The collection offers an example of both: one, Pat Keenan, who made nights out more interesting—and safe—with his unreasonable demands, and another, a hammy old stage and tele actor who plans a drunken advice session with a young actor to turn into a creepy seduction attempt.

Most of these characters, keenly aware that they will turn into one or the other depending on future artistic success, are living forward in retrospect, mostly paralysed. Isolated in grim little boxes, they are without dependable friends to provide perspective, and are easily overwhelmed by the demands of greedy acquaintances. Painfully familiar amusing stuff that left me recharged to get on with my own neurotic efforts.

Overall: intimate and promising series.

he did and he didn’t

I, Fatty
Jerry Stahl
Found: Soho Original Books


Is there anything more popcorn-ready than old Hollywood gossip? All those geriatrics, well back in the fog of boredom and conformity that ruled before those Boomers changed society with their long hair and their Beatles albums, getting Lifetime Achievement Awards months before dying in unfashionable Hollywood neighborhoods…the sanitary images giving way to the bold whispers that Hearst shot Ince, thinking his was murdering Chaplin for sleeping with his teenage mistress. Drugs, promiscuity, and hard-hearted scheming, all even before cracking open the encyclopaedia of paranoid malevolence written on Howard Hughes.

Perhaps even better are the speculations you can draw from the period details; perhaps your great-grandmother soothed your infant grandfather with Bayer’s heroin but was wary of their strange new pill, aspirin?

Out of this hidden morass Jerry Stahl, himself a late-era Hollywood horror show, pulls the fictional biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, the sacrificial victim that conjured up the modern tabloid cycle. Better known as “Fatty,” Arbuckle was the highest-paid actor of his time, the first to make a million dollars per year, but today is mostly remembered for the three trials he underwent for the alleged murder of a starlet named Virginia Rappe. Although cleared of all charges, he never quite escaped the moral indignation, or the American public’s appetite for it, whipped up by Hearst’s papers against Arbuckle and Hollywood itself.

In the introduction, Stahl calls Arbuckle “the OJ of his day…aside from niggling matters of race, guilt, and innocence,” and, one could argue, talent, but also argues that the public condemnation was a logical and not entirely unexpected shift for “Fatty.” Mack Sennett anachronistically cribs from Mel Brooks: What I think, comedy is you fall in a ditch and die. Tragedy is I get a hangnail…people just naturally love watching bad go to worse.

Stahl makes an effort to distinguish his tone as presenter in the introduction from Roscoe-the-narrator. His fictionalised self speaks in something approaching early Chuck Palaniuk, but Roscoe’s tone too often drifts. Roscoe is recording this, we are told, near the end of his life while desperately in need of a fix, which his manservant refuses to provide until he’s worked through another chapter of his past. Given this state, he’s quite patient in describing his earlier years, unexpectedly in the moments he describes as a young child rejected by his father for “breaking Mama’s little flower.”

He seems to be talking from a stage to a larger audience, speaking dismissively of his servant, in the third person, rather than “you.” The one who controls the heroin Roscoe desperately needs isn’t flattered, isn’t coaxed. This man with a second-grade education peppers his narrative with Freudian observations and complex sentence structures that sit uneasily next to his childish worldview.

This opens up a distance between the narrative and the reader’s expectation that allows in the wrong kind of doubt. I should be looking for the clues of the unreliable narrator, the gaps in the verbal wallpaper that let through the truth he won’t admit; instead, I see places where the author isn’t in control of the flow. This leaves Fatty’s story feeling like a penultimate draft rather than the final novel, a work that needs one more rewrite to strip out egotistical turns of phrase that fit the writer rather than the character and adjust the flow to fit the frame.

Still, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the main subject, who may have been a poor conflicted sap set up by his studio owners and used to assure a titillated public that Hollywood was cleaning house of all immoral dangers.

Roscoe himself is so emotively fleshed in that even the flawed voice can’t prevent an instant bonding with the character. Stahl effectively uses a classic screenwriters crutch—the Freudian biopic backdrop—with a bit of a twist: his difficult, unassisted birth physically traumatises his mother, who “stopped being a wife” to his father. He had partially fulfilled the Oedipal complex before emerging completely into the world, and his father despised him and his girth, believing he took her from him sexually. His size, his fat, his identity as “Fatty” were the focal point of his father’s abuse, and later, that of his audience’s adoration—and still later, again, that audience’s abhorrence.

Unique among the fat-narrator genus of novels, Roscoe never loses or considers losing weight. As much as he may be feel unhappy or limited, his fat is him, not a separate element that could be shed. He often thinks of keeping up his weight as he polishes off extra food, his third milkshake. The weight is his paycheck, and his identity.

As an aside, how fat is fat, this elephantine beast? Five foot seven and 260 pounds at the height of his fame—today, the size of the charming IT guy, the one who gets a lot of interest in his profile.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the last century, that was tall and that was wide. Many were fascinated by his round childish body and wholesome face, the eternal energetic child. However, it seems that as “obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” along with the more popular “people are borderline sociopathic jerks in general” theory, his audience was also primed to reject him as a morally depraved glutton. And much like the later—if less legally fraught—scandal surrounding Paul Reubens, it provoked extreme reactions on the part of the audience and studios, which agreed to pull all of Arbuckle’s movies from theatres and prevent him from working even after his aquittal. The childlike image (that one could fairly expect an audience of adults to conceptualise as an act) juxtaposed with the realisation of the adult person made Fatty and Pee-Wee horrifying, monsters capable of any imagined horror. It’s possible to continue the Freudian metaphor that, having identifying a performer as a child, their growth into sexual maturity provokes a different Oedipal fear, of being the parent who is deposed or erotically taken.

More simply, however, Stahl and his version of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take us to the place where we struggle to remember what we believe of ourselves against the dark carnival of scandal, but grotesque gossip is what becomes history. Stahl has continued to muddy the Arbuckle/Rappe waters with his potluck of fiction and history, but in doing so may be a gifting the entire cast with one humane remembrance among thousands of pantomime villains and damsels.