The Notorious Bettie Page (dir. Mary Harron, 2006)

If you ever peruse my journal, gentle reader, you'll most likely be aware that I have little patience with the new cabaret and burlesque explosion - to my mind, the vast majority of the work (though not all) reeks of sexual objectification, gender segregation and slavering voyeurism under a new, trendy guise. So I wasn't actually planning to see this film - I only went because we'd decided to go to the cinema, and it was the film I least didn't want to see. But, although I usually think that knowledge of something will only spoil a firmly-held opinion about it, in this case I was glad I went.

The film, based mostly on Richard Foster's book The Real Bettie Page (which I haven't read), follows Bettie's life from her high-school years in the late 30s to her re-embrace of Christianity and the end of her modelling career. While it took a little while for this viewer to engage with the meaning of the character in the context of the film, Gretchen Mol does an excellent job as Page; while Lili Taylor almost steals the show in her supporting role as Paula Klaw (the famous Irving's sister) and there's a great turn from Cara Seymour (who was also fantastic in Hotel Rwanda) as Maxie, a fellow model.

Having seen it, I'm very surprised at the lacklustre critical reception the film has received. Watching it made me reflect on the way in which so many other film/maker/s are so determined, overtly or covertly, to influence the viewer's opinion on the subject matter in question, and in this sense are political (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). In contrast, Harron doesn't shy away from the misogyny of erotic modelling and fetish photography (though I did question the decision to cut away from the darkest moments of Bettie's life); but she also presents the fun which is to be had in the expression of sexuality (particularly if that's what you happen to do well, as Bettie notes at one point) and the hypocrisy of a prudish society. In this way, the film avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary left-liberal opinion on pornography, the way in which it often becomes a fruitless contest between two sterile positions emerging from the 60s and 70s: an anti-sensual, censorial approach which focusses on the (very real and important) misogyny and objectification of erotic and pornographic presentations of women, and an anything-goes (free-market) liberalism which sees any expression of sexuality as valid and empowering, no matter what the context. In this and other areas which the film explores (for example, the question of the impact on Bettie of personal, moving witness testimony claiming that her pictures led to individual suicides), the viewer is credited with the intelligence to make up their own mind - which is incredibly refreshing.

In a sense, Page functions as a kind of everyman or Candida (given the lack of explicit shots, no pun intended). Her travails expose the evil that men do (and they are men), but her optimism never fails; as in her wished-for acting career, she's a bright blank slate on which others write. However, this is by no means a simple tale of innocence corrupted. The contrast between the way in which Bettie is treated by pornographers, as opposed to the way she's treated by men in society at large, poses interesting and unexpected questions about the nature of exploitation. Bettie is perhaps not the brightest spark in the box, but she's a thoughtful person, and moreover, one whose innocence gives her, and thus the viewer, a very different perspective on the pleasures of erotica, pornography and fetish.

Nor is the depiction of Page motivation driven. I've been thinking about this issue recently - in realist film (or film with an element of realism), at least, I tend to feel dissatisfied if I don't feel that I understand the characters' motivations. But perhaps in a certain sense this is, or can be, a furphy - after all, in reality itself, people sometimes behave in ways which neither they nor others can account for on a psychological level; whereas fiction introduces a satisfying element of coherence - that, as Wilde pointed out (with a somewhat different nuance), is its meaning. In this way, the character 'Bettie Page' has an important role beyond realism, in a way which is self-reflexive in terms of film, and biography, as forms or media.

Visually, TNBP is a treat, featuring some interesting non-realist choices, including the contrast between a noir, black and white New York and an overcoloured, picture-postcard Miami Beach. And personally, I'd be satisfied just by the costumes and forties/fifties architecture and graphic design, which are all gorgeous.

Even in its final moments, the film maintains ambiguity. I was actually moved by Bettie's return to the arms of the Church (and, given my opinions, that's a tribute of the first order to the film); but at the same time, in her submission to God and His representatives, we see a parallel to the submission she's been forced to undergo at various male hands throughout her life. In many ways this is a tragic story - Bettie missed out on a scholarship to Vanderbilt University after skipping one class to attend a school play rehearsal, and we see her yearning for that particular road not taken. Her life, as depicted, contains catastrophe and evil enough, sometimes only hinted at in the film - while the spectre of the still-living, real-life Bettie, her bitterness, her battle to recover what was owed to her, her periods in mental institutions, hangs over the work and shadows it; but it doesn't feel like a tragic film.

Overall, I found this a work which was deeply thought-provoking on a number of different issues, and at different levels of discourse. The fact that Page is still alive and extremely resentful of the book on which the film is based (which she called 'a pack of lies') adds another dimension to the uncomfortable but complex and fascinating drama of morality and voyeurism which Harron presents, and raises further questions about the art of biography (to which I've been giving a great deal of thought since reading my way through Janet Malcolm's ouevre). I walked out of TNBP thinking it was a good and interesting film, but not a great one; but, on reflection, it deserves higher estimation. Recommended for anyone interested in morality, fetish, biography, pornography, feminism, voyeurism, religion, American society in the inter- and immediately postwar years... in other words, history, truth, art and the human condition.
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R.I.P Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard himself can now, ironically, become a hyperreal symbol based on no physical actuality (in a sense his recent process of withdrawal from his own work has come to its conclusion)... I wish him luck.

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power in darkness (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Darkness-Tom-Robinson-Band/dp/B000002Z7Q)

Our landlady has very particular ideas of what a garden should look like. Ours, which is made up mostly of paving with beds round the edges, should consist of single plants standing proudly alone, with about a metre of barren space between each one, and if it doesn't, she starts talking about 'the youth of today', which is more than any of us can bear (I'm not going to go into my theory about what our actions toward plants say about the human psyche, group or individual). So I spent the better part of yesterday out in the jungle which had grown up over the past six months or so, paying the price of scratches and splinters, but the reward of spending some Durrell-esque time with praying manti and other assorted fascinating minibeasts.

So she shows up today for fifteen minutes, glances over the place (though the garden did get an approving patronising 'good' - and then leaves a letter to say that she's putting the rent up by twice the amount of which she originally informed us. I can't help but feel I'm being punished for evoking my right to 60 days' notice and to a rent in keeping with prices in the area...

Which brings us to today's subject - need - through the roundabout path of unequal relationships.

Need motivates and inspires pity; but to what end? When there is a distance (and any kind of distance is good enough) between ourselves and that need the expression of need makes that need seem inevitable and just (as Susan Sontag points out in Regarding the Pain of Others, it's this that's the modern problem - not 'compassion fatigue').
But need is also disgusting, because it breaks down and destroys social niceties, which, despite what some may claim, exist for a very good reason. As Mary Douglas points out, the breaking down of boundaries is essentially a contaminating act; and so we're contaminated by being the object of the need of others. This is something we take into consideration in the expression of our own needs to others.

Some people find it pessimistic or depressing to conceive of social interaction as a constant flow of self-interested power negotiation, but I don't see why this should be the case if we think of self-interest as a universal precondition and power as a medium or a solution through which we act.

In any case, my latest read, Dennis Cooper's Frisk (oh, should I have started with Closer?), deals obsessively with insatiable need and very uneqal power relationships. People who know my tastes've been urging me to read Cooper for some time, finally resorting succesfully to lending me a few novels.

The plot, if the term's appropriate to a fluid semi-surreal narrative like Cooper's, follows 'Dennis' on his journey to gay serial-killer-hood, sparked off by a series of faked snuff photos he saw in his youth and becomes obsessed with. I liked the novel, and read it quickly, though it felt somehow a little thin, lacking in substance. Personally I'm a little over the serial killer thing (though we should recall that in 1991 it hadn't been so done to death, as it were), and I felt that, unlike other writers of the transgressive like Genet (who provides the epigraph) or Bataille, the abject bodily grue here was somehow meaningless in an unsatisfactory way - but perhaps that's the point, Easton Ellis-style. In any case, it failed to quite click for this reader. The closest reference point for me was the film work of Richard Kern with Lydia Lunch - the work shoves disgust and complete humiliation in the face of the audience and stares them down. There's also the nice, pomo author/narrator edginess as evidenced in the 'Dennis' character, a technique which doesn't let up in the final scenes. Overall, while I enjoyed Frisk, I found it a little lightweight in comparison to other notable works in a similar ouevre (Genet, Bataille, Burroughs, Selby Jr, et al). Closer's next on my list, though, so we'll see how the cumulative effect effects...

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Violence found not to beget more violence...

... in a shock twist, Violence sues Karamchand Gandhi for paternity rights.

I've long been convinced that the relationship between the depiction of violent acts in art, and the commission of violent acts, had a relationship which was much more complicated than a simple 'monkey see monkey do' which people whose intelligence I otherwise admire (Robert Manne, say) continue to use in their argument that pornography should be censored (in any meaningful sense, the argument of such people generally boils down to, 'I don't want to see it or know that other people do, so I have the right not to' - and in saying this I acknowledge the climate of hierarchical, forceful dominance which such depictions help to create - but, I'd argue, as symptoms, not as causes). In any case, while I've long argued that violence in art can have a cathartic effect, I didn't imagine that statistical research would actually demonstrate that violent films prevent violence. Don't believe me?

OLE IVAR LOVAAS, a doyen of child psychology, sat 10 preschoolers in a room and exposed them to five minutes of a cartoon wrestling match.

He then gave them baby dolls and watched (sure enough) agitated children tearing limbs off their little plastic friends. It was 1961 and public television was barely 10 years old, and yet Americans were already concerned about the behavioural effects of watching screen violence.

Since then 50 years of laboratory experiments and surveys have shown links between exposure to violent imagery and actual aggressive behaviour. A whole lobbying industry has grown to protect children from the psychopathic consequences of watching violence on TV.

But almost all the psychological experiments were in laboratory conditions, focusing on aggressive behaviour immediately after violent visual stimuli. The surveys reveal people who watch violence tend to be violent but do not prove that violence on the screen begets violence on the street.

Despite five decades of trying, researchers have not shown that watching violent films, television or video games causes aggressive or antisocial behaviour in the real world.

That is where two well-regarded American econometricians, Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, saw an opportunity to observe a "natural experiment".

They pored over seven years of box office data to determine how many people had watched violent films on any particular day....Collapse )
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Hopes: Double-Entry Tally As At 23.02.2007

Raised by: Britney Spears beginning her transformation into the Marianne Faithfull of our generation.

Dashed by: my friend Alecia telling me that one of the events at fair day was hosted by gay cowboy Dave of Big Brother fame (yes, that was a shiver of disgust you felt, gentle reader) and 'some blonde girl' who turned out not only to be straight, but to have a husband/boyfriend in Iraq - and she then asked the audience to cheer for 'the boys in Iraq', which they did - and when Dave spotted Alecia and co. booing, he said, 'I know we all have our differences, but they're our boys out there and we have to support them'. This reminds me of last year's London Pride, which was absolutely wall-to-wall pink British flags (Australian flags were apparently rife at Fair Day too...) How anyone could think that this chauvinistic, place-at-the-table model could actually achieve anything for queers, I'm not sure...

Thus far: one all. Ennui time...
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Notes On A Scandal (dir. Richard Eyre, 2006)

(warning: spoilers)

For the most part, I try not to see films based on books I haven't read. Once the mental image is lodged, it can't be unlodged... For NOAS, though, I made an exception, and I'm glad I did.

The film follows the relationship of Bathsheba (Cate Blanchett), a 'bohemian bourgeoisie' who inherited wealth and who has just entered her first year as an art teacher at a rough school, and Barbara (Iris Murdoch), a stern but lonely older woman, teacher at the same school. The two become friends; but Barbara accidentally stumbles upon a secret of Sheba's... how, to what end, and with what consequences she uses that information constitutes the subject of the film.

I very much enjoyed this film - I was never bored, it was politely nasty in the Jackson/Rubens/Ishiguro style which is perhaps my favourite tone, and there were some wonderfully funny lines. The dark, twisting plot and the acting carry the film - Murdoch outdoes herself and Bill Nighy is excellent as Sheba's much older husband, though I'm not entirely sure about Blanchett herself - her character feels a little underdeveloped, and I sometimes wonder whether the fact that she's so beautiful in such an atypical fashion for Hollywood means that one (at least this one) is distracted from the actual quality of her acting -and, face to face with Murdoch's heavily developed and (in many ways) quite unusual character, hers feels slight. But these three key performances carry the work.

That's not to say, however, that I didn't have quibbles. The film is based on Zoe Heller's novel of the same title, and that becomes very clear, inasmuch as the work is narrated by Barbara, in passages from her diary. This, to my mind, breaks the first rule of turning a novel into a film - it's lazy, making the narrative task much easier, but treating the audience patronisingly - in creative writing, perhaps the primary injunction is 'show, don't tell', and a narration is ultimately the latter, allowing sloppy characterisation at the cost of allowing the audience to develop, over time, their own guided understanding of the plans and motivations of the characters. The at-times thin characterisation, (of Blanchett's as opposed to Dench's character), also means that her actions and motivations don't quite ring true.

I also felt that the novel-film transition showed in the way in which we were not given to understand from whence the motivations and obsessions of the characters sprang, but rather expected to accept them as appearing, as it were, fully fledged, which was in turn problematic in the bigger issue of people's redeemability and inherent or chosen 'badness', or evil. In turn, this brings us to the distinction between the major characters - while they both commit ongoing, reprehensible acts against innocent, or at least naive, others, the (young, beautiful, straight) Sheba is redeemable, and, as the film progresses, it's played increasingly to her corner, unlike the (old, decrepit, lesbian) Barbara (and this is spelt out in the cliched horror-thriller ultimate scene).

Neither will this film disabuse anyone of their stereotypes about homosexuals - Barbara's character is depicted as lonely, lecherous and predatory (to say the least). The issue of representation is always problematic, for of course in life there are homosexuals exactly like this - so should this aspect of art-reflecting-reality be disallowed in the name of the destruction of stereotypes?

Finally, I felt that there were a few logical holes in the plot which were clearly necessary for plot development. Would people really commonly confide their secrets to a cold, forbidding person who gives little of herself? Would a secret diarist leave an intact page of a diary lying around in a bin, when the person who was the subject of that entry was living in the same house? Would a person familiar with the details of a scandalous story making its way through the tabloids fail to recognise one of the major players?

Overall, though, while the film would have been better had these weighty and not-so issues been resolved, the film in its success and failure certainly provided food for thought and for reflection, which is in itself positive (after all, there's no point discussing why an absolute stinker was bad - it goes without saying). And some issues about interpersonal relationships are very well explored here: the way in which you can love, dislike, resent and hate someone at the same time, without necessarily being aware of the contradiction or even the fact that a contradiction exists; the finer points of class mores and class envy, the pleasures of patronising and being patronised, and hypocrisy (at one point Sheba casually tosses off an invitation to Barbara to visit her and her family in the Dordogne over summer; when Barbara later refers to this, quoting her exact words back at her, Sheba tells her that 'of course she didn't really mean it' - and how many of these hypocrisies do we all commit in a relationship on an unequal footing, as all relationships ultimately are?); and the nature of loneliness in all its manifestations, and the individual's response to it.

While it's not a masterpiece, I'd definitely recommend this one as an interesting and entertaining, though flawed, piece of work. I'm looking forward to reading the book to see how much of the film was carried on the original plot and dialogue, and what has been added, altered or lost in order to recreate the work in the medium.
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Janet Malcolm - The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995)

Trevor Thomas was one of the last people to see Sylvia Plath alive – living in the same building, she came to his door in a crazed state a short time before her suicide. Malcolm closes with an interview at his house, which reveals him to be a compulsive hoarder, so filled with small objects that there is no free surface space whatsoever. Malcolm posits this house as: ‘a kind of monstrous allegory of truth … unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless – as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life’. It is the task of putting such a house in order that she faces in her metabiography The Silent Woman.

I'm not sure exactly what made me pick up TSW. I'd read some of Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer in a non-fiction writing class, and I found the book interesting and nicely written, but studying it at the same time as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which I'm not at all a fan of, turned me off. Again, I used to love Plath in my mid-teens, but her melodrama and monumental self-obsession made me turn away - though I've recently rediscovered just how good the best works are. But I've never read a biography, or particularly wanted to; the 'cult of Plath' always seemed a little sad to me.

Still, TSW isn't a biography as such (although the material that’s presented does allow the reader to form her/his own view of Plath and Hughes as individuals), but rather a ‘metabiography,’ a study of the art and artifice of biography, using the ever-controversial Plath as an example. The slim work (I read it in two days) revolves around Plath herself; Ted Hughes; Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and for many years fierce guardian of Plath’s estate; Anne Stevenson, dissatisfied author of the Plath-estate-authorised bio Bitter Fame; and Al Alvarez, a writer, journalist and estranged friend of Plath and Hughes. Malcolm’s main concerns in the book are the use made by Olwyn of her in-all-but-name ownership of the Plath-Hughes archives; as well as her manipulations of every biographer who comes to her to use the archive in order that they not show Ted in an unflattering light; and the choice by Ted of what material to censor in the published versions of The Journals and Letters Home. Malcolm is concerned with the effect all this had on the publication of Plath biographies, the rise of the ‘cult of Plath’ (Olwyn calls her enemies, who’d depict a tragic, heroic Plath and villainous Hughes, the ‘cultists’) and the public perception of Plath, her life and work.

There is a mass of work on Plath, published and unpublished, fiction, poetry, journals, letters, and recordings, residing in various different hands, which have often been reluctant to allow access. Despite this, there being money in publishing books and articles on Plath and Hughes, there are a great many biographies. Malcolm looks at Stevenson’s ‘authorised’ Bitter Fame (which Stevenson considered not attaching her name to, after Olwyn’s persistent interference and Stevenson’s final backdown to many of her demands); the universally despised, working-class Edward Butscher’s anthology of personal recollections of Plath; Paul Alexander and Ronald Hayman’s ‘meanspirited’ works, Rough Magic and The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (respectively); Jacqueline Rose’s postmodern/poststructuralist interpretation of Plath through her work in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, which outraged Hughes by its frank discussion of Sylvia’s putative androgynous or homoerotic sexuality (with her usual sharp perspicacity, Malcolm points out the contradiction between Rose’s claim to ethical right to free use and interpretation of information as far as her own Plath work is concerned, with her refusal to give Malcolm permission to publish a publicly-censored passage from one of Ted’s letters – which he later gave her permission to use).

Malcolm dissects the different biographies of Plath, and interviews biographers, Olwyn, and other connected figures. Her style is absolutely beautiful: highly critical; sensitive to the minutiae of meaning in language, and to small, seemingly irrelevant details which can be read symbolically or metaphorically; understated; impartial in her consciousness of her own partiality (I couldn’t help thinking that Janet Malcolm is what Helen Garner might aspire to if she didn’t let her monumental ego get in the way); concise yet literarily beautiful; sympathetic and completely honest but at the same time always slipping the knife in gently before twisting. Stylistically I’m reminded of politely nasty writers like Shirley Jackson, Bernice Rubens, Alice Thomas Ellis, or a less contorted Kazuo Ishiguro. The questions which concern Malcolm, however, are those of ‘truth’ mediated through biography. Who owns the past? Who should (Hughes writes of the inconvenience posed to biographers by the fact that he’s still alive, as are Plath’s children, when she is forever frozen in stone at 30)? What’s more interesting to a reader, or more valuable as a record, a biography by a biographer which attempts impartiality, or an impassioned memoir full of flattery or grievance from a personal acquaintance? Who owns someone’s words once they’ve been spoken, and does that ownership change depending on whether they’ve been recorded and in what medium, and whether that recording was made with the subject’s knowledge? Does an individual have a right to censor her/his own past, even if s/he is not the owner of the recorded material in question?

In the time since the publication of TSW the Plath industry has had some huge revelations: Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the first breaking of his silence on Plath in the written form; a biographical film starring Gwyneth Paltrow (!) (I couldn’t bear to watch it); the publication of a poem, Mother, by Frieda Plath, who accused the filmmakers of profiteering from her mother’s death (to my mind the poem was cringeworthily derivative of her mother’s work); the publication of the ‘fictional biography’ Sylvia and Ted, by Emma Tennant, once Hughes’ lover; and the first biography of Assia Wevill, for whom Hughes left Plath and who would also kill herself, along with her daughter, in 1969. I’d love to know what Malcolm would make of this material.

In TSW Malcolm has produced a profound and fascinating meditation upon the nature of truth, memory, and history; upon the art of writing and of biography, with particularly refreshing examination of the authorial presence itself. And it is also, of course, a fascinating story about the suicide of a poet and her circumstances (the nature of her romantic life, relationships between England and the United States, and so on), and the way her person has reverberated through discourse, both that of those who knew her and those who would know about her, ever since. It also provides food for thought about the way one conducts one’s own life; certainly I’ve been more cagey about anything I express, particularly in any recorded form, than I was before I started reading this work.

In the end, Malcolm cannot resolve her own dilemmas in this work; as a metabiographer, she too is caught in the snares of her own subject position (as she wrote in TJ&TM, ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’) But she makes it her job to carefully unpick and lay bare each strand of the web in which she as the authorial voice is just as entangled as those she interviews were in their own works; and it is this which differentiates Malcolm’s approach to (meta)biography and makes TSW such a deeply disturbing yet beautifully crafted and fascinating work.

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