Wednesday, May 16, 2012

CinemArchetype 14: Puella Aeterna and the Cougar


 This is a very important and strange archetype for our generation and under. This is perhaps where we have been since the 80s finally eradicated all traces of profitable maturity.
Puella aeterna is Latin for eternal girl. The puella is a very important archetype in today's youth oriented, image driven world.... Today the very heart and soul of the adolescent girl/young woman is under siege. Media pressure through television, magazines and movies run the same basic message 24 hours a day: get beautiful. As we shall see below, getting beautiful is according to our cultural value of what beauty is, namely the Barbie Doll, Super Model, Movie Star look - (The Archetypal Connection)
Disney did a number: L-R:  Hillary Duff, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan
There's nothing more tragic than the fleeting beauty of Hollywood's youth royalty, and I mean 'tragic' in the grand actorly sense, not the real sense. The real tragedy--genocide, class warfare, torture--is a drag, and drags are something Hollywood and Madison Avenue have long ago learned is not profitable. That is why there is no new Spencer Tracy or James Stewart, just bland posers. The Tracys would patiently waste spools of film telling us about real tragedies like people starving in China so eat your carrots and when he vouchsafes Sydney Poitier's son-in-law status you have no choice but to respect that, and must lay down your neo-con racist ass arms. Brave Gia tried to hold that authority, and died, and so became Angelina Jolie, but what's the result? We shy away from films like that one she made called Beyond Borders. Would we even accept a new Spencer if he came? God no... the hot young things are the new authority, and like Saddam or Qaddafi they cling to that authority even at the expense of their lives, gradually hardening their faces, blowing out their lips, until they become plastic gargoyles looking grimly down from their billboard battlements.

And we on the street only worship them until its time they be sacrificed, either by the slow scythe swipe of advancing age or indifference. But somewhere along the way even our own wives starting serving Heineken at dinner parties and we grew up mistaking the kids in the ads for ourselves, and we tried to become them and followed like sabre-toothed lemmings as they slunk home to their Wilshire Boulevard tar pits. Like the condemned prisoner who hangs herself to escape the chair, our lovely puellas disfigure their precious faces, spot-welding Vogue cover grimaces to their skulls until they're like Ahab with his wound, where soul and flesh bleed together, a high fashion Joker, beyond fear and the trivial difference between life and death.

 Left to Right: Meg Ryan, Brittany Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Courtney Cox
Beauty surgeries of one sort or another are old hat in Hollywood. The issue is, of course, that a lot of the surgeries done in the past just made the women more regal, cutting out molars to accentuate cheekbones, nose jobs... the ideal wasn't to aim for looking like a pouty adolescent, or sad clown-mode Lon Chaney. The widening and expanding of the lips is tragic, and bizarre, and even in its own way heroic. Most of us will never know the giddy high of mass adoration so we're spared the certainty that adoration will one day slip. If we had such a high, too many mirror mirror on the wall moments would one day turn us not into Snow White but Howard the Duck.

On the other hand, there is a less traumatic and all-around ballsier trend borne of this puella aeterna stampede... the rise of the cougar!  For ladies looking to avoid disfigurement while not snapping into Bellevue level delusion, it's all but irresistible. Ideally your choice of young paramour won't be an actual child like it was for cougardom's premier lady in red:



There's a great bit in the show 30 Rock where Tina Fey is dating a young lad who delivers her coffee in the morning. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), her boss, tells her to go for it and that dating someone younger is "the ultimate status symbol." After hilarity and hooking up has had time to ensue, Jack admits that these affairs "always end in humiliation." It's a fascinating paradox to examine: the 'ultimate status symbol' is also, invariably, a 'humiliation,' ergo humiliation is the ultimate status symbol. Maybe that's the crux of the whole youth obsession, for it is this end game humiliation--of growing too old to 'pass' for young--that promotes real growth, shaming the ego into backing away, allowing a stray moment of grace. Status symbols, by definition, reinforce ego-driven self-perception, which is a negative as far as spiritual growth; status symbols arrest human evolution unless they are 'ultimate' -- in Latin meaning 'the end or last'-- status symbol, which eradicates the self-deception lesser status symbols encourage. Like the final piece in a puzzle, it arrives with both glory and tragedy, for unless you want to shellac the puzzle and hang it on the wall it's time to break the whole thing up and put it back in the box. And then.... you have to find something else to do.


In the cases below, which I have set up in order, from still fairly young to old-old, it's generally hotness and adoration received while a young person that leads to chronic narcissism and then the La Brea tar pit of the puella aeterna, from which arises, finally, at last, a tar-covered Sabre-tooth cougar from the black gold phoenix oil slick flames! It's no accident that those tar pits are right on Wilshire Boulevard... right next door to the museum, and the plastic surgeon.

1. Charlize Theron as Mavis-  Young Adult (2011)

This film is so perceptive about aging, still-hot narcissists that I felt like it could have been about at least three of my drinking and AA buddies over the years. Theron's Mavis writes anonymously for a once hot-selling young adult book series, her arrested development helps her keep a pulse on the young, as does her bad eating and drinking habits. She heads to her hometown to rekindle an old flame but he's married to a granola chick and they've got a kid and he's all loyal father blah blah. A whiskeyhead accomplice forms from the mist of the bar she haunts. It's Patton Oswalt! She's safe with him because of their hotness divide and his crippled member but...

Like the princess in the Grimm fairy tale The Frog King, today's young woman must be willing to accept and embrace the frog, symbol for her human imperfections. Putting this into psychological language, she must come to recognize and accept her own shadow.


So yeah, draw your own grueling conclusions.

 2. Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004)
"When Kidman plans to escape with Sean (the young boy who claims to be her reincarnated dead husband) and just drive, escape, get out, it reads wrong even to the swooning, half-asleep audience; a mid-life crisis of such outré proportions looks obscene even while we half want it to happen, just for the lurid charge. Even the kid can't quite grasp the possibility of such a thing coming true with any sort of realism or grace. And Canada is not an option. The touch of a lover your own age whose very presence makes you suffocate, the comfort of belonging to a faceless, fascist mass, maybe a pill to help it all fit together...that's the best you can hope for… everything else is just a frozen north fantasia… even death brings only another wet, screaming birth..." (2004 - Acidemic). 
2004)
3. Betsy Draper in Mad Men
"The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately.  Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality.  There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent.  She becomes bored easily and feels trapped, unaware of her own lack of self-knowledge.  Thus, her potential withers before it can ripen, because she has preferred the fantasy of perpetual youth to the reality of painful development.

The sense of fraudulence as an adult creates tension and dissatisfaction.  She exudes brittle, crystalline quality and an aura of aloofness behind which she exists in her own untouchable domain.  She is vulnerable, a terrified child for whom physical existence is a trial because bodily sensations are denied or ignored in order to avoid feeling and to protect from anything that is not part of her carefully constructed world.  (-Susan E. Schwartz-Little Girl Lost: Sylvia Plath and the Puella Aeterna)
This description fits half the girls I've known in the rooms of AA and out, and so many of our best artists (like Plath). Betty Draper has a lot in common with the previous puella on this list, Nicole in Birth, as Betty too winds up in a strange Mary Kate La Tourneau-style relationship with a young boy who comes onto her in the first season of Mad Men. Jones' 'vulnerable, terrified child' is drawn to the boys the way a sexy babysitter at a vulnerable age might encourage the worship of her young charges (as mine did in the swingin' 70s) -- even engaging in games of crypto-post office, lap sitting, horsey riding and leashes and other things that carbonize prepubescent boy hormones. Betty's problems are much different than forthcoming examples of this archetype, who revel in a childhood toybox perpetual twilight --she's like the older sister who one day decides to never smile or laugh again because she's decided she's grown up now and thus performs a burlesque almost of adulthood. And like Kidman's character she lives in a society that infantilizes young women, especially if they're hot, blonde, and have mastered the art of looking vacant.

4. Natalie Portman as Nina - The Black Swan (2010)

Every girl growing up wants a pony and to be a ballerina, at least at some point and the frustration of these goals helps them mature... BUT what if they do actually get a pony and/or become a ballerina? Is maturity halted, stunted? Certainly with becoming a ballerina a state of exhaustion (long hours of grueling practice) and starvation (to keep the body light and youthful) must arrest the messy onset of womanhood. There's also: smoking, anorexia, bulimia, strange growth-stunting drugs stage moms procure in shady Mexican pharmacies. Such an evil stage mom is Barbara Hershey as Nina's mom. When this mom brings home a hideously over-detailed cake to celebrate Nina's getting the lead in the Black Swan, the whole scene is laid out - Barbara is trying to turn her daughter into a little spinning ballerina on the top of this cake, and devour her!

In being forced to tap into her dark side to 'become the black swan' Nina's repression and missed chances for bad influence friends, drugs, sex, sticky fumblings in the backseats of cars, and lesbian experimentation come roaring up from the depths, creating opportunities for them to manifest almost out of thin air. In the end it's a choice: adulthood or artistry. Heroically, Nina makes her choice for the latter. Adulthood can mean compromise and 'giving up' unrealistic perfections; artistry means giving up all the other things - life, children, adulthood, and death even.

5. a TIE: Zooey Deschanel
I'm all for weird girls, but Zooey's just a bit too twee and quirky and stuck in ballerina-Pretty Ponyville to not be a Puella.  And you can tell her whole indie musician thing is a front because in that Siri commercial she tells her phone to "play Shake, Rattle, and Roll" but doesn't specify which version! That's even worse than making the Cabbage Patch delivery guy come out in the rain just to deliver a $3.50 tub of tomato soup, or needing a computer to tell her if it's raining. Aww, she's just a girl!


5.b Sarah Silverman
While she explores the same arrested development 'boop boop de boop I'm a girl' terrain as Deschanel, Sarah Silverman gets a free pass because she's beyond mere 'appealing to shy indie boys' aesthetics and instead delves into the realm of pure gleeful id, assaulting guys because they look like Saddam, for example. And her songs are better than Zoey's. Look at her above with her castrating Antichrist scissors, a wistful look on her face as she wonders what she'll cut off next. You can believe she would cut something important off, all while sighing and going 'awwww' as you scream in pain. If Zooey was in a picture holding scissors the only thing you'd imagine her cutting would be some fabric to make an Appalachian pot holder... no offense meant! Pot holders are nice, but quirks without a homicidal edge may just as well be Romper Room.

THE PUELLA COUGAR BRIDGE:
6. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) -
+ Patricia Neal as 2-E in Breakfast
+ Nina Foch as Milo - An American in Paris (1951)

Everyone loves Holly G.,-In the late 90s, The Tribeca Film Center used to screen it every Sunday afternoon and it would be packed with hung-over crowds of post or pre-brunch hipsters and ragers, all swooning to the sophistication (this was pre-Sex and the City so this was our guidebook for boho-swanky living) and terrified to go home and face the crushing Sunday loneliness. But if you look at the film closely (and compare it with An American in Paris if you're of the mind), its true, seedy, perennial puella aeternal escape pod comes crashing through. And it's similarity to the Gene Kelly film makes it clear- the big thing is, Breakfast at least seems to realize it, while American seems largely unconscious of what a complete shit Kelly is.


 As someone who enjoyed a wealthy Parisian sponsor for many years, I abhor Kelly's self-sabotaging 'too good for anyone who would want a loser like him' passive aggression to a rich patroness (Nina Foch) who could make him happy and famous and the toast of Paris.

Instead he's bored at the cafe she takes him to since he can't keep up with adult conversation (not 'American' enough), and spies a similarly bored 'protege' at another table (Leslie Caron) and decides its love at first sight, regardless of her pleas for him to stop stalking her.  The big final ballet is gorgeous and Kelly's a helluva dancer but his self-righteous American snobbery is disconcerting (especially as he gets no comeuppance). A similar thing happens in BREAKFAST, wherein kept man George Peppard and glorified escort Holly G. have some good times but then he decides they should live together in poverty regardless of her own wanton choice in the matter. As his patroness, Patricia Neal surely deserves more respect! Of course, I say that now, but my own French paramour patroness is still four years gone (for all the same damned Peppard-ish reasons).


7. Joan Collins 
With a husband 32 years her junior and a loathing for all things associated with older age (such as 'doting' on grandchildren), Joan Collins is the premiere modern 'cougar'  Just look at that sexy, decadent photo above, which you can instantly associate with a lot of the gender-bent 70s badass "Holly is just speedin' away" Warhol era Manhattan / London /Berlin druggy cabaret of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Warhol, Jackie Superstar and the New York Dolls! As a kid in the 1970s all this stuff was really dangerous and intimidating and Joan was huge! She was part of a whole 'older woman enjoying uninhibited casual sex' trip inspired by the book Fear of Flying, written by Joan's buddy, Erica Jong. It seemed like all the big cities were just reeking with the smell of sex, the smell of suicide, the smell of asphalt, cigarettes, whiskey, smog, urine, freebase, hash, perfume, sweat, blood, and burnt gun powder --all rolled into one the fleabag room where Joan Collins comes in to change for her next number while you cower in the corner like a five year-old Emil Jannings.

8. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
As Tennessee Williams fans well know, being obsessed with youth and beauty is more than just empty vanity and fear of age and death, it's a very real and genuinely (at times) subversive refusal to follow the dopey trail to the slaughterhouse set up up by mainstream 'straight' conservative America! Like Douglas Sirk, Williams applauds widows with the moxy to shucker loose from the perfumed prison of their age bracket. If you love a young stud then you should go for it, even if it means you end up heartbroken or shot or stabbed or chasing donkeys through the brush.

In these two films Leigh is clearly playing a sort of stand-in for Williams himself, the older alcoholic southern gay gentleman, scarred by redneck homophobia and rough trade. Leigh adds a weary desperation in her twinkly eyes and seems a bit bewildered by the weird ride her beauty and talent have given her in earlier decades. Her characters are still getting used to the fact that the ride has stopped and there's no date waiting at the Exit with an ice cream. Karl Malden basically tells her in Streetcar that her cougar-behavior (seducing the newspaper boy) and age and past wouldn't have mattered if she didn't come on so phony and regal, staying in the shadows like a drag queen trying to pass for as long as possible before the big reveal.


Like Charlize with her Patton Oswalt frog, in Stone Leigh ends up throwing her door key down to a disheveled pretty boy / probable murderer who's been silently following her for the bulk of the film. It's a tragic, desperate gesture of supreme loneliness and it's strange way, heroic, like those crazy collagen / botox injections, for what is heroism but the to let an abstract idea like God, country, or beauty trump our fear of death and ruin? Who knows how many times you and I have played out similar scenes and just not remembered them. We never do seem to remember dying, so how can we possibly recall anything about ourselves, unless we're immortal? And how can we find out for sure unless we invite the blade in? Williams knows that you can't judge any experience as good or bad and still be a true genius writer. You have to find God and compassion even in the horror of baby turtles being picked off by millions of hungry birds as they rush to the sea, or the slow, inexorable advance of that final curtain switchblade beach boy.


9. Geraldine Page - Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)
 As a movie star cougar of dwindling years she's slightly more together than, say, the delusional 'chicken hawk' (Lotte Lenya's words), played by Vivien Leigh, in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone--even though she's on the run from the bad reviews of her latest film, we like her moxy, her wounded druggie vanity, which even allows her to treat Newman, God's own true Adonis hustler, with the same entitled disregard with which she uses her oxygen tank, Acapulco Gold, cigarettes, vodka and sleep mask. 


I love this film because it's one of the few that really capture the feeling of arriving at a hotel after driving all night, then settling in a room, procuring a bottle and some ice, and relaxing finally and deeply, like it's only possible to do in motels after driving all night. In her way, Page's narcissist cougar reminds me a bit of Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running, or Maxine in Night of the Iguana and poor stud Newman starts out the film little more than a maraca-shaking beach boy or bus ride floozy.


10. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond - Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Of course not all our aging Hollywood cougars end up wizened to their puella aeterna ways, or get to be already dead and worshipped as some flash frozen eternal youth. Some come running home and stay hidden in the mansions, phantoms of their own private opera houses, the opera in their haunted minds a most functional distraction as the world burbles outside.

Swanson, herself a former puella aeterna from the silent era, plays what was undoubtedly her own fucked up shadow self in Sunset Boulevard. Her Norma Desmond is a Venus flytrap slowly digesting the clueless hack meat-like screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) while he's wrapped tight in a spoken contract to edit her screenplay of Salome (apt since she eats everything but Joe's head), and eventually guilt trips him into spending New Years as her lover when he'd rather be with kids his own age.

Wilder's film is one of the key Hollywood-on-Hollywood classics of the 1950s and is still the funhouse mirror boiler plate of the Hollywood story, and its fame is a blessing to the trade: who knows how many aging stars have been steered away from the delusional recluse path because they don't want to become a 'Norma Desmond'? And here's another thing - Norma is actually cool, and her big haunted palace is great. If she'd have fixed the pool sooner maybe she could have done without the Gillis. He only brings her down.


11. Ruth Gordon - Harold and Maude (1971)
I wanted to stick Maude in here because although she's all life affirming and quirky one must ask if--and when--quirkiness becomes a burden to others. One can trace a direct line from this film to Zooey Deschanel's pixie-ism, and for that alone I'm no fan. Maude's attendance of other people's funerals, her motorcycle riding, it all struck me even 20 years ago (which is when I last saw it) as terminally whimsical and whimsy has become toxic in our puer/puella culture. It's not Hal Ashby's fault... we took his whimsy but left the crushing black humor behind when we looted his corpse and now it's we who blew it. We let both these characters down.

12. Bette Davis - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1967)
If there's a single person who embodies the puer aeternus in contemporary pop culture it's Michael Jackson, so it's fitting that his favorite book was The Little Prince (which Maria Von Franz analyzed extensively), and movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We're all, if we live long enough, bound to experience that Baby Jane moment of looking in the mirror and being confronted by a hideous, aged demon looking back. Michael tried to carve it away with plastic surgery but it was always there. We know it well, which is why Davis' scene is so hilarious, terrifying and tragic. Somewhere along the hours leading up to that moment we had forgotten we too were old, and in a rush it comes back to hit us, square in the hideous demon face.

Baby Jane's not really a cougar; she's from a different generation; the girls idolized in her time weren't hot bronzed 18 year-old navel-ring-wearing girls in bleached blonde dreads, but pale eight year-old moppets in frilly white skirts and golden ringlets. But this is a fitting wrap-up icon with which to end this list-- the final note of warning about the danger of not overcoming your inner puer before you're too old to change, the Benjamina Button-terna!

It's one thing to have an inner child who's free to come and go in your thoughts and who keeps your sense of humor light and airy, another to use that inner child as a crowbar with which to jam the gears of time, to stave off maturity and death and cling instead to the tattered, windless sail of past glories. If we don't learn the lesson from Norma Desmond, the Baby Jane lesson is our last stop before the bughouse.... as Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan points out (read her stunning Davis birthday tribute here), the key difference between the much more vain Joan Crawford and Bette Davis was that Davis was a cool old bat, smoking and joking and keeping a devil-may-care attitude on set, throwing herself into the madness and making Baby Jane one of the most terrifying, tragic female characters in all horror. Joan, as the victimized sister, still struggled to maintain her puella poise and delusional dignity. She's great too, but she just looks pained, there's none of the maniacal desperation she brought to Homicidal, for example.

The Winner!
Having already battled with and triumphed over the puella aeterna dimension in All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), Davis was old hat at aging with grace while pretending to take it rather badly, which is the trick of acting the Baby Jane rather then being the Baby Jane. If she were still enthralled by her inner little prince then the joke would still be on her and she'd never 'get' the paradox-punchline, which is that Jack Donaghy adage once more, that the ultimate in youthful status symbols is the abject humiliation of old age. Once you accept you'll never be young again, and that you will never get that 'old magic' back, that you'll never play the piano because you couldn't play it before, then, amazingly, you finally know why. The youth never value being young. Why start now?

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous17 May, 2012

    Wasn't expecting this, but excellence as usual. Hope this series plays out for a while.

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  2. Very timely piece. The side-by-side photos of the Disney generated replicants is actually horrifying. Yes, replicants. Manufactured totally and utterly.

    Davis was so skilled. Are actors like that truly gone forever?

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  3. http://www.cracked.com/video_18380_the-dark-secret-behind-quirky-romantic-comedies.html

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  4. Brilliant piece.

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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