The Clare Spark Blog

September 27, 2010

Cannibals, “Negro jazz,” and servile revolt

Tennessee Williams

I saw the 1959 film “Suddenly, Last Summer,” last night, with its graphic representation of the not-so-saintly Sebastian’s flight from a mob of young, nubile Spanish boys, who then tear his limbs and eat of his flesh (off camera). The Wikipedia entry on the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s one-act play speculates upon the underlying politics of the film, linking it not only to Williams’ personal biography and homosexuality (a theme that the Catholic Legion of Decency repressed) but to “mob violence”:

[Wikipedia entry:] “…The film’s plot is said to take place in 1937, which would mean that the death of Sebastian in Spain during the previous summer would coincide with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. The war is not explicitly mentioned in the film; however, the time before its outbreak was characterized by widespread social unrest in Spain, and the Civil War’s first days saw numerous cases of mob violence – both well fitting with the circumstances of Sebastian’s death as revealed at the film’s climax.” [end Wiki excerpt]

     But whoever wrote this suggestion neglected to mention the strange and frightening instruments and cacophony of sound the musical mob produces in its riotous, relentless march toward the white-suited, elegant Sebastian. (To see the scene go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWndDghOIdQ.)

     I have been reading Earl R. Beck’s Germany Rediscovers America (1968), a survey of German responses to all facets of American life during the Weimar Republic years. To some, American music was almost entirely “Negro”-produced jazz (to be contrasted with a more sedate and less crazy-making European variety). The author quotes one German’s horrified, even paranoid, description of the genre that he links to cities and to modernity itself:

    Beck writes, “After describing the polyphony of sounds produced by ‘water-gurgling sprinkling cans, swinging saws, howling pot covers, primitive forest tones of buzzing sticks, bells, saxophones, etc. Dr. Fritz Giese declared that these were joined ‘to a suggestive, close-cut disciplined rhythm. A rhythm just as harassed, just as concentrated, just as determined as the brutal turning tempo of the industrial machine, the speed of the racing car, the momentarily changing lighting and constant rotation of the lighted advertisements on the business houses.’

   Beck continues, “And Giese described one band in New York with appropriate symbols: ‘First it rattles like the air-pressure pump in the subway; suddenly a dog is run over by an auto bus; just as unexpectedly the gas stove explodes; then one hears the whining sound of the elevator motor. This instrument sounds off like a motor horn in haste; the other hums like the carpet sweeper; in the midst of it purrs in eternal calm the ventilator. Swinging cranes, locomotive steam, telephone snarls, back-fires of motorcycles—this and everything else is actually caught and melted into a musical film full of emphatic express-train tempos.’” (pp. 161-62)

   Which leads me to this question. Wikipedia, in focusing on the repressed theme of homosexuality in the film version of Williams’ play, ignored cannibalism as a symbol of the Jacobin mob. Finally, as students of the Spanish Civil War are aware, Ernest Hemingway  produced in For Whom The Bell Tolls, one of the most graphic, and prolonged scenes of mob violence in modern fiction, in this case the renowned Anarchist attack on the ruling classes of Ronda. The climax of Suddenly, Last Summer, brilliantly conceived, scored, and edited to demonstrate the almost pychotic vision that had to be repressed by the overwrought character Katherine/Tennessee, displays the specter of servile revolt that continues to haunt post-romantic artists writing for the gentility. Melville’s Benito Cereno (1856)comes to mind.

October 2, 2009

Roman Polanski and his critics

Image (73)

Ad, LA Weekly, Nov.10-16, 1989

[Added, Bastille Day 2010: Switzerland has refused to grant the state of California extradition, hence Polanski is no longer under house arrest (though I understand that California is appealing the decision). This decision has reignited the controversy. One Facebook friend has made this argument to those who feel that the legal aspects of the case were clear cut and that a criminal had wrongly evaded a properly functioning legal system:

[Joe Gelman:] …Chino has Maximum, Medium and Minimum security facilities, It also has a facility for ‘Mental Health’ inmates. That is where Polanski was sent by Judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, despite having received a detailed and official probation report and psychiatric evaluation, both indicating that Polanski should not serve jail time. The politically ambitious Judge let it be known IN ADVANCE that he intended not to follow the probation report in this high profile case. At that point Polanski fled for his life. You and I probably would have done the same thing. Context matters.  

 [Gelman, cont.] In my view, this was a clear case of a judge looking to make a special example of a celebrity in a high profile case where he can reap the political rewards from a public that has little sympathy for “Hollywood types”. In an unusual move, the Judge decided to completely ignore the official probation report, and made public expressions to that effect in advance of his sentencing hearing, leaving no alternative for Polanski other than to flee for his life after he had already served 42 days at the ‘Mental Health’ facility in Chino, California. It is entirely possible to commit a crime, which Polanski clearly did (and admitted to), and be the victim of a completely dysfunctional justice system at the same time. The fact that this “justice system” continues to use tax resources to pursue this long-forgotten celebrity matter from multiple decades later, despite much higher and pressing priorities, only illustrates how incredibly dysfunctional this justice system is.  [end, Gelman entries from my FB page, 7-14-2010] 

[Added, 11-25-09: Polanski may be getting bail and house arrest in Switzerland. I have added at the bottom of this blog, a comment from a friend who wrote me a  thoughtful reply upon reading my statement in its second draft.]  

(I am assuming that the readers of this blog are familiar with the basic facts of the controversy. For the latest, see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/movies/11polanski.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&hp). [ I am going to add thoughts I have had since posting this blog, which has seen more traffic than most: the fixation of media figures on this man and his conduct is so extreme and vehement that, though I was a child in American during the second world war,  I am again distressed by the indifference of the world to the Shoah, both while it was in process and afterwards. Polanski is a Holocaust survivor: how he survived after his father threw him out of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto (to save him from certain death), I do not know, but his mother was murdered at Auschwitz. He is also of Jewish descent (although he was not religious, his father was Jewish, his mother was half-Jewish, according to Nazi racial ordering). His pregnant wife Sharon Tate was horribly knifed in her belly by the Manson family in their rampage. RP is now an old man. His movies are about the indifference of the world in the face of the worst corruption and evil (think especially of The Pianist and Chinatown). How he has functioned at all in the world is something of a testament to the resilience of our species. Ask the children of Holocaust survivors how they and their parents have fared: they are not always mentally healthy human beings, as numerous reports by clinicians can attest.

    Perhaps none of this personal and professional history gets through to his most sanctimonious pursuers, but it does to me. We were not there to witness the activities of long ago that impelled one media personality to wish him dead: did the latter “libertarian” imagine Samantha Geimer as a young blonde, contaminated by a carnal Jew despoiling her forever? Was he protecting his fantasy that all children are innocent, until corrupted by sexuality sometime in adolescence? I am asking questions that any artist would understand: the world is not black and white but grey. I am thinking now of Elia Kazan’s publication of  Tennessee Williams’ letter to him, warning that neither Stanley Kowalski nor Blanche Dubois was a stick figure, to be painted either black or white, and most especially that Kowalski was not “a black-dyed villain.” (I am referring to A Streetcar Named Desire, before it was either a stage play or a movie. Kazan directed both, and the letter is in Kazan’s confessional autobiography.)

   While all the ink is spilled and hot air blown about, we are in one crisis after another in the world in this country regarding our safety and that of our children. What is the matter with those who are so quick to take a position before they have either empathy or the facts? The victim herself, married and a mother of four, has asked that RP not be prosecuted further and yet the howling mob must take its revenge. [Compare to this nugget from Kazan’s autobiography: The (Catholic) Legion of Decency made this demand for him to change the movie version of  Streetcar: “We must make the audience believe that Stella and Stanley will never again be happy together.” (p.434). Recall that at the climax of the movie, Stanley rapes Blanche, while his wife is giving birth in the hospital. As Kazan recounts, the Church did prevail, and his film was “mauled,” in his opinion giving heart to the right-wing assaults that would follow. At that time, Catholics were 20% of this country. They are now 40%. Think now of Dick Wolf and his Law and Order, SVU.] I for one am sick of this reflexively politically/religiously motivated behavior on the part of the talking heads and those who nod in agreement like ventriloquist dummies.  Having said that, with anger on my part, I must reassure the reader that I have not condoned Polanski’s behavior, but then neither has he, to my knowledge. Added: 10-13-09, 10-15-09]

    The world may be falling apart, the nation is certainly politically polarized, Washington politicians seem to have lost their collective minds, Israel and other Western targets may be nuked by Iran, and the President seems increasingly ineffectual, while for several days now, numerous intellectuals on the Right, and even some who are “moderates”  are waxing indignant over such matters as a petition signed by dozens of the threatening  corps of “Hollywood liberals” who stand accused of defending not only Polanski, but  pedophilia.

   I just watched a Pajamas TV video in which Roger Simon and Lionel Chetwynd express their horror that famous European intellectuals (including Bernard-Henri Levy, Bernardo Bertolucci, Bertrand Tavernier, and Claude Lanzmann, the director of  Shoah!) and American directors such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Lynch, and their most vulnerable colleague Woody Allen, have signed a petition. (The petition is not described for its content, which does no more than criticize the mechanics of the arrest in Switzerland, Sept. 26. The movie industry was asserting its rights to have chosen its honoree, Polanski, for lifetime achievement, without intervention by the Swiss authorities, who had not moved against Polanski before this, though he has a home in that country.) But on the video, these ostensible nihilists are depicted as excusing Polanski for his crimes, though there is not a word in the petition concerning his conduct with young Samantha Geimer.  No, in a breathtaking gesture of populist solidarity, the petition signers are damned by Simon and Chetwynd as “elitists” who “create their own moral universe,” one which is opposed to that of the presumably virtuous “People,”  who have shamed the morally rotten intellectuals in their comments as posted to the press reports of the arrest and its noisy aftermath.

   What is wrong with this picture?   

1.    The fact that Woody Allen has made movies such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point does not prove that Allen is rooting for the bad guys. He is, as usual, posing the problem of Job: how can God, should One exist, allow evil to go unpunished? What kind of an amoral world are we living in?

2.   Polanski has been quoted as saying that everyone wants to “f—- little girls.” You would think that some feminist or male sympathizer to feminism would stop a moment and reflect on either the veracity or the mendacity of such a broad claim. The rest of this blog considers the condition of women and the sexual expectations which are laid upon them by men.

VICTORIAN WOMANHOOD. Surely we have all seen pictures of those respectable ladies with their hair pinned up, no visible makeup, wearing black bombazine and looking rather grim. And yet they seem to have had relatively successful marriages, had many children, and, oh yes, created the first feminist movement in this country, while also leading such movements as abolitionism, uplifting urban prostitutes, and fighting alcoholism in men. We loathe them as Victorian battle-axes, right?

HOLLYWOOD AS BABYLON.  Budd Schulberg was eloquent on the sexual free-for-all that was Hollywood from the very outset. Although he blames this decadence on the Roaring Twenties, the world of the theater was probably always libertine, as Goethe demonstrates in his quasi-autobiographical  Wilhelm Meister novel, much of which is about his life in the burgeoning theater of eighteenth-century Germany. Nor does he complain about la vie boheme.  Goethe was quite the wild man (though not a revolutionary of any kind), and possibly bisexual. Yet no one is trashing him for his moral blindness today: rather as rooted cosmopolitan and internationalist he is the greatest European intellectual who ever lived, according to his millions of admirers.

   Any mother who has allowed her pubescent daughter to go near the mini-sultans of the movie industry (or its related business of modeling) should know what a risk she is taking. But those few commentators who point this out are shouted down as excusing Polanski.

THE HYPER-SEXUALIZATION OF WOMEN BY THE FASHION, COSMETICS, AND PLASTIC SURGERY INDUSTRIES.  Schulberg’s memoir is also quite explicit about the ties between the fashion industry and Hollywood. We all know about it, and millions of women world-wide are spending way too much time perfecting themselves as little dolls, while plastic surgeons batten on the “narcissism” that women develop to please men and their infantile fantasies of female beauty. Studies show that the ideal glamour-girl looks like a child: lithe little bodies, big eyes, long lashes, undeveloped nose, bee-stung lips, silken skin, Rapunzel hair, pearly white baby teeth…you know the drill. And their mothers are complicit in this fashioning of the perfect nymphet. Women know (my mother certainly did) that it is suicidal for a woman seeking marriage with a promising male to flaunt her intellectual or artistic accomplishments. My own mother advised me to become a good listener and not to show off my brains.

   Need I add that women are frequently viewed as perennially sexually available to their husbands, and that the multiple demands made upon them by motherhood or other activities are no excuse for saying no?   Indeed, women’s magazines, even WebMD, are full of advice regarding spicing up marriage, and the perversion of sadomasochism is now a joke on sitcoms, with no tut-tuts or curiosity about its history in the psyche of its practitioners. (See my prior blogs on this subject, almost too numerous to mention.)

    I am saying here simply that there is enormous social pressure to under-develop women and to exhaust them before their time. The pro-Life Right would wear them out with too many children, while the bohemian Left spurns fidelity altogether as a bourgeois imposition, activated by unleashed female curiosity that would pry into all their secret feelings and harness them to a deadening domesticity. Monogamy is notoriously square.

    The second wave of feminism started out with the reformist fervor of the nineteenth-century first wave, but then became co-opted by the “progressive” anti-imperialist Left (think of the Anne Hathaway character in The Devil Wears Prada who reverts to p.c. dowdiness at a magazine something like The Nation) and in their upward mobility into journalism, academe or business, these lucky few too often forgot about the great majority of women who were left behind. About this lamentable state of affairs, the punditry remains silent.

[Anonymous comment from a friend:] I read it with interest and agree in great part with you — I also feel this whole Polanski fracas is more complex than it appears, while at the same time being old news and dull news (compared to say, the real scandal of what happened in Guinea, or even, more locally, the gang rape of a young woman up in Richmond while onlookers took pictures and laughed).  I, too, think back to Polanski’s horrifying childhood and the Manson murders.  I think about what the man has endured.  

    I was also struck, after reading Samantha Geimer’s deposition, how Lolita-esque this whole episode was.  She had had intercourse before, several times.  Polanski, the pedophile, offered to perform (and did perform) oral sex on her, which she referred to as “cuddling”.  He did many things which he should never, ever have done.  But he kept asking her (again, according to her testimony) if she wanted champagne, if she wanted a quaalude, if she would like to take a dip in the hot tub, and she kept saying yes.  Now, of course, she is 13.  She is a child.  She doesn’t know what to do, even if she is somewhat sexually experienced.  And, alas, girls are implictly taught to be polite and acquiesce.  And is it so terrible to imagine that she could be both scared and curious simultaneously?  Then, she says she wants to call her mother and Polanski gives her the phone.  She calls her mother.  Her mother asks if she should come get her?  The girl says no.  So mother does not come.

 What the hell was Samantha Geimer’s mother thinking?  Or not thinking?  I hate to make this into an indictment of the mother — it was Polanski, after all, who is responsible — but still.  WTF?

L.A. in the 70’s was a very dark place.  It reads like something out of Didion, if Didion had written about it.  

 And still again… I don’t think Woody Allen’s support is doing Roman Polanski any good at all.  

 As the mother of two girls, at the end of the day, I think Polanski got away with something ugly and wrong, and even though Geimer moved on and doesn’t want more attention for this, it isn’t right. “Chinatown” may be about “the indifference of the world in the face of the worst corruption and evil” (well put), but it is also about a man who has raped his daughter and fathered a child by her.  A child he wishes to rape as well.  If Polanski could have just left his demons in his movies…

 The stupid right-wingers hate, because they fear, complexity.  But then again, they’re right about one thing:  being an artist doesn’t make it okay to have sex with a 13 year old. [end, comment from a friend]

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