"Know how I'd like to die? I want to be ripped apart by wild animals" -Jerry (Annie Hall, 1977)There are, Jerry aside, few of us who are consumed by the idea of being ripped apart and/or devoured by wild animals. What Jerry is doing with the above quote is trying to blow Annie's mind, to seduce her with his LA sexy Jim Morrison-esque chutzpah, but even the most lizard kingly of poets dreaded being ripped apart when push came to shove, and of course I'm referring to Sebastian in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1958).
Incredible fear can bring with it a queasy sexy charge, if you can remember a low spinal vibration when imagining being spanked as a kid (far different than actually being spanked, mind you) then you know imagining pain has a queasy kick, for us poets especially. We can feel it always about to happen right at the corner of our psyches and in our saliva, a sense of disintegration familiar to psychedelic warriors in the temporarily bad trip way where you do often feel like you're being ripped apart by wild animals (or humans), psychically, all the time, whether by Nevada desert bats, bugs in the skin, invisible werewolf cops, Tibetan demons, wild dogs, zombies, clones, giant vagina dentatas, or in my case, angry three foot tall Japanese ghosts salarymen shaking my hand over and over like an air pump, gradually inflating me to capitalist bloat-style blimp as their hands pump mine and gradually morph into a giant phallic oil pipe javelin.. until I exploded... in the shower.
Tennessee Williams knows the feeling. You can tell in the way he blurs that sadomasochistic line between fear and desire in many of his works. His demons precede the debauched white-faced, black leather-clad monsters of HELLRAISER by thirty years. The rape in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the shattering final shot of ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE, the (if the censors hadn't changed it to a broken nose) castration of Paul Newman at the end of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, in Williams' world there's no such thing as a bad sensation, just peaks of crucifixion-level intensity at the climactic end of the spectrum. The only truly bad sensation in Williams' work is the despair comes from the numbness of isolation and drifting, the fear of winding down to the speed of a boat becalmed, when not even the gulls want to peck at you. It's that despair Williams truly fears, a fear that makes the focused attention of cannibal rent boys a luxury by contrast.
Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz from Williams' original one-act play brilliantly adapted by Gore Vidal, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is the kind of thing that would freak people out even today, unless it was shot by George Romero or Dario Argento and all the cannibalism was actually shown, hence giving it a drive-in context. Then, somehow, it would be okay... but as it is, the film's artsy thespian stamp ensures that even the most squeamish of bourgeoisie have to see it all the way through, forced--almost like Katharine Hepburn's insane matriarch--to hear to the vicious incestuous, homosexual truth as told by Liz Taylor under hypnosis. And since it's spoken, and only related via metonym and metaphor (hands, legs, instruments, birds), the flashbacks play more like a Hitchcock or Bergman dream sequence than a traumatic reality or more to the point, it shows there is no difference.
The terrible fate of Sebastian mirrors several mythic archetypal sacrificial moments (namely Euripides' Bacchae) involving crows, youths, implied homosexuality, and ritualistic violence. Violet tries to make the "real" event in Williams' story seem a dead myth, a torture-porn fiction, rather than a living truth. But in flashbacks of hypnotized washed-out poetry, our senses are blasted open by Liz Taylor gradually releasing her gorgeous black hair out from under a tacky bathing cap, squirming in the surf in a revealing white bikini and inciting us into a horny cannibal frenzy (that image was the selling point of the film). The young bucks of the town that clamor against the private beach fence as they ogle her create a freakish class divide / mirror / screen dichotomy - as if these boys could be the audience around us in the theater, or rather we become them, joining the slavering nameless throng climbing over each other to get a better view!
But this is a talking cure movie and, as I say, the main horrors are spoken of not seen, nor is the above image. First Violet describes the spectacle of turtle hatching day in the Galapagos and then relates it to Monty Clift's venerable shrink; second, Liz Taylor describes Sebastian's similar bad beach day for the climax. Monty Clift's job as analyst then becomes acting as witness to these two women discussing the horrors of the unvarnished extreme end of the real, the obscene existential mouth which devours itself in a churning, massive, oceanic ouroboros at the base pit of existence. Both Catherine and Violet wind up lambs in a kind of dual sacrificial ceremony, performing the horror of watching and relating a sacrifice for a (presumably 'civilized') audience whose reaction is meant to be one of horror, the type one may have when turning over a large rock and finding a whole ecosystem of squirming worms, centipedes, and snakes below it. It's real Freudian return of the repressed abject menstruation shit, man, and I'm not knocking it. It's a closure, redressing the sins of our hear-no-feminine-napkin-application-procedure evil forefathers. The patriarchal rep (Clift) hears the truth of the hysterical symptom (Violet's denial) and thus the scene itself is cured. No wonder 1950s America loved Freud! He gave both genders an out: he mediated the mounting bedroom cold war by just keeping everybody talking.
Williams' own real life sexual interests followed the Greek ideal, aiding no doubt in his profound grasp of Greek tragedy's ability to explain the cosmos in terms of Apollonian pretty boys. Sacrificed to ensure the harvest, Sebastian hovers over the action like Poe's Lenore or the dominating spirit of REBECCA. What does he look like? We don't even know, never see a picture. I, for one, visualize a mix of Oscar Wilde and Alain Delon, someone too modern for their time, and who thus we think of as straddling past and future. Even the title carries a time-travel vibe, like Phillip K. Dick's sci fi book NOW WAIT TIL LAST YEAR and indicates the exact kind of transcendence of space and time.
Kim Morgan notes:
The picture has it all -- Kate Hepburn at her most evil scene chomping best, perpetual fag-hag Liz Taylor donning not only the "it" bathing suit but being the "it" woman to procure young men for her chicken-hawk, native sodomizing cousin. Insane asylums, lobotomies, creepy Venus flytrap Gothic gardens, the Galapagos Islands, cannibalization! And then there's the beautiful Montgomery Clift, post accident (I happen to think he's still gorgeous -- just broken and more vulnerable) as Liz's supportive shrink (can you imagine Monty as your shrink? Wait a second...I totally can and wish he was). The movie finds the deliciously named Violet Venable (Hepburn) as a New Orleans widow unnaturally obsessed with her "poet" son Sebastian, who died while on vacation with her gorgeous niece Catherine (Taylor). I love how impeccably formal, insanely eccentric (she comes down to greet people in an elevator and has a garden filled with monstrous plants) and downright sick this woman is; her fixation on Sebastian being Oedipal with a capital O. But pretty Catherine's thoughtful shrink Monty will get to the bottom of this poisoned well leading to the movies memorable blood-curdling scream of "Help!" (Sunset Gun, Three Obsessions, August 5, 2008)The whole structure of "Big Chill" kind of dramas, where the action centers around someone recently or long-since dead and therefore unseen is a big thing with Williams: Blanche natters incessantly about her long-dead lover who couldn't get it up cuz he was queer and thus shot himself in STREETCAR; Anna Magnani worships the memory of her late stud husband in THE ROSE TATTOO; Fred's dead at the start of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and who could forget old Skipper in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF? But none of them can hold a candle to the evil and eloquently damned Sebastian, who for total dominance over the living is as spectral as a Poe heroine, or Rebecca de Winter or the first half of LAURA.
His mother, Violet, then is both Sebastian's symbolic killer and the force that kept him from harm on all the other vacations, and the force that keeps his name on everyone's lips... even in death. She's like a vampire protecting her prey from other hustlers. When Sebastian dies because it's because Violet's not around to save him and he forgot all the things he never learned while being under her wing when other boys were negotiating narrow streets on foot, and otherwise avoiding the painful fate of the cannibal crockpot.
Perhaps because of their own outsider statuses via homosexuality and alcoholism, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal could both really stare wide-eyed into the hellish morass that represents the ultimate end-game of rich jet set debauchery, the "okay let's take off the kid gloves" kind of thing involved in the real rough leather trade and all the other stuff Camille Paglia writes about. Here's an excerpt of Paglia talking about the greatness of Tennessee Williams in that regard:
If we are ever to see a revival of artistry, young film-makers must study and absorb the great movie past. To build on the small, weak, one-dimensional films of the 1980s and '90s is a dead end. The same thing with writing: if young people simply draw on the shallow, cynical, jargon-clotted postmodernism of the 1980s and '90s, they'll produce nothing that will last.(Bright Lights Film Journal, #54, 2006)
This is why I exalt Tennessee Williams as a supreme role model: he was openly gay (daring at the time) but never ghettoized himself. He lived in the real world and thought and felt in passionate, universal terms — which is why he created titanic characters who have had worldwide impact and who are still stunningly alive.
Liz Taylor--a titanic, stunningly alive character with worldwide impact herself--seems to have been a kind of protean cine-muse to Williams, and one much more magnetic than Magnani, and much more opinionated and loud about it than most of the screen goddesses in her league. Totally unafraid to get in there and shake it in all senses of the word, from root to crown chakra (with a long pause at the hips), Liz's characters clash with patriarchy and then withdraw to fight again, like Sung Tzu says to do in ART OF WAR! Take GIANT, for example, where she maneuvers around the end zones at her newfound homeland Texas' narrow-minded patriarchal ways, and everyone of the old guard just has to put up with it. None of their usual patronizing crap works, even when she's way out of line they can't rope her in. She lets them win a hand or two, but never stops wearing them down, until they surrender like aggressive dogs to Cesar Milan in the Dog Whisperer. Like said dogs, these Texans realize they love her for her ability to be assertive without being aggressive, and she becomes the social mother conscience for all of Rich Oil Texas. She creates a new respect and admiration for the voice of dissent. It's okay to walk away having lost a fight with Liz Taylor. She'll let you win the next one.
SUMMER's Catherine isn't allowed to know this kind of power. When she parades around in negligees or bathing suits, it's both a mythic Venus on the half-shell moment and a scream for help; she wants you to see how desperately out of place she feels, but you can only notice how perfectly in place every part of her actually is. She needs a Rock Hudson around who she can bounce off of and claw at and know he'll stick around regardless. She needs a man to see the limitless compassion and love behind all the compulsive attention-seeking. Monty Clift fits this role beautifully, paralyzed face or no. One of my favorite moments is when she kisses him impulsively during their therapy and he neither rejects nor accepts to go any further, or back for that matter, saying "why not? It was a friendly kiss." He lets it affect him only mildly, but later when she grabs him and they kiss we never quite see how he responds. So many similar scenes in films blow this opportunity to dissolve phony social dualities between authority figure and lover, social order/propriety and chthonic carnal desire, the desire of the higher self and the desire of the man, as if any response other than rejection is considered amoral. Catherine's 'nymphomania' could be unknowingly encouraged to devolve into degeneracy by the nuns strictly-enforced codes of shame and negative reinforcement coupled to fast profits ala BUTTERFIELD 8, so when Monty responds in this way the chain is short-circuited and she's free. Who wouldn't go crazy if they took away your smoking privileges?
Yes, this film makes you proud to be a smoker. It's cigarettes ultimately that bond Catherine with Monty's doctor and drive the mean nun from the room. And like cigarettes, it only gets better with repeat viewings, wherein you smoke along with the action, addicted and decaying... until all the cigarettes are taken out digitally and replaced with delicious chocolate candies!
A unique film, SUMMER's only competition in whatever genre it invented is Bergman's PERSONA (1966), which similarly deconstructs the nature of truth vs. recollection, image vs. verbal description, and the way image becomes truth via personally recounted testimonies of unfettered lust under blazing afternoon suns. Stories told verbally (but not seen) of unchained desire prove more arousing and dangerous than mere soft core footage shot through gauze, as it turns out, unless you're on acid maybe, but even on acid you just like it for the rhythmic breathing and colors; the image is inherently obscene to you by then anyway, it seems always about to overflow, eventually ripping open the screen. But whereas PERSONA delves into abstract meditation and whereas something like the DEAD trilogy shows the horror of the animal and vegetable decay but skips the post-modern ripped screen artsiness, SUMMER trumps all by showing the rip AND the screen and then showing Liz Taylor describe it under a heat lamp. The result is as devastating and cathartic as a dozen art and/or horror films combined. You know how I'd like to die? Watching SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER!