Friday, September 11, 2009

Sparagmos a-Go-Go: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959)

Them that think their Salvia trip was like being slowly rendered apart by wild animals or ravenous cannibal percussionists clearly never saw the face of God on the Encantadas during the sea turtle hatchings when the sky is black with carnivorous birds. Sure, the bad trip equivalent, when your whole soul becomes the beach and the world rips you to shreds with its transient blood bag banality, may be close, and may take just as long, but it's not the same. You only feel it until you can drink enough whiskey to dull the world's blades back to velvet cudgels. 

"Say something funny" says Katherine Hepburn, playing Violet Venable, one of the most coolly dangerous of all Tennessee Williams' predatory mothers. "Make me stop wanting to cry."

She's talking with a young psychiatric surgeon, Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) mourning the death of her (gay aesthete poet) son Sebastian in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1958), drinking her daiquiri to undo the skeeve of her poor relations (Mercedes McCambridge) and her son George (Gary Raymond)
 their voices honking with scavenger shrillness, picking through her late aesthete son's clothes like late-to-the-party no-neck seagulls, nosing through the empty turtle shells after the birds have already had their fill and flown (God took the soul, the beggar boys took the flesh, the poor relations' one cool family member, voluptuous Catherine Holly (Liz Taylor) is on deck to get a lobotomy; the best her dimwitted brother George can hope for are some clothes and maybe cuff links. Though we never see a photo or painting of him (how can we picture anyone but Hurd Hatfield from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) or Helmut Berger circa 1969's The Damned?) his spirit, his memory, hangs over the film like the angel of sexy death (that poses behind Katherine in that memorable final shot of Dr. Cukrowicz's first visit to Sebastian's weird prehistoric garden)

For you see, after she delivers her unforgettable Encantada tale (wherein we learn Sebastian saw the face of God in a beach full of baby turtle-devouring birds --an all too real annual event that traumatized many of us who first saw it as kids on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom back in the 70s), Violet Venable, Sebastian's mom and the caretaker of his poems, his life story--for his life was his poems and his poems were his life--really needs a drink, or a nap. 

She's not well, or she'd know how creepy it must be to others to hear her boasting about her tight nigh-incestuous relationship with her late son.

Of course, PSYCHO was still two years away --there wasn't a template for recognizing when a mom's apron strings are choking her child in his 22 year-old cradle, at least one wasn't allowed to be visible in film (though the Southern Gothic texts of the 50s were rife with such relationships). With Sebastian gone, her need to dominate and invade moves over to make her determined to drill a hole in her screaming hysterical niece, to keep her son's secret, the shame she can't live with, quiet. 

I don't know, despite all that, I love her. Violet may be monstrous, but she knows the queasy dread that draws sensitive poets to the rocks, that push me-pull you lure of the abyss. Perhaps made so by osmosis, by connection to Sebastian, Violet is a poet herself, as is Katherine. These two women provide nearly every monologue in the movie; they even sound similar. We can only presume--having never heard him speak--that they are somehow imitating Sebastian's style, the way the absence of someone we love or admire causes us to become them in some ways, to fill the void. Like him, or through him, these two ladies have felt the caustic touch of god, the endless ever-amplifying agonies of drug (or sex addiction) withdrawal, the sense of disaster ever-looming, only a lack of funds or availability away. The horrible pain of being ripped apart by wild animals stretched infinitely. Withdrawal is the check for the meal so large and expensive we don't dare finish it. We linger at the bar, the needle, the bathhouse, hoping that blank page will somehow write itself.

But sooner or later we run out of salve for our cigarette-burnt hand and we've no choice left but to twist and hyperventilate in our bed (or on the street or park bench) for hours on end, as if our every minute of consciousness stretches out like a long strip of beach slowly being rent to shreds, every last twisting living reptile cell devoured and clawed; our whole being just a sacrifice to some pagan bloodthirsty god.

Tennessee Williams knows the feeling. You can tell in the way he blurs that sadomasochistic line between fear and desire, between the psyche and its surroundings. Williams' 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 in the film version) castration of Paul Newman at the end of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the terrible bargain just for another drink at the end of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (changed in the film version for a happy ending with Brick finally straightening out and loving Liz Taylor the movie), they're all concessions to the realistic level that come with an intense price tag. Sometimes they constitute crimes but in Williams' world there's no such thing as a bad sensation (Sebastian isn't the type to complain to the management, as Katherine explains during the climactic, drugged, recollection of being harassed at the restaurant), just peaks of crucifixion-level agony at the climactic end of the spectrum and drunken 'snap!' stillness on the other. This is the sort of euphoria only drunks and smack addicts know comes usually only having endured some stint of withdrawal. What else is true heaven but hell, escaped from at a suitable velocity, like a rocket that needs pillars of fire scorching the ground to rise past the clouds? The only truly bad sensation in Williams' work is the despair that 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 violent attentions of cannibal rent boys a luxury by contrast.

And even then, there's one thing worse, being locked in with the no-neck monsters, in 'the Drum' and its insane gibberers, or the smug naysaying nuns who refuse to let their patients so much as scream in despair or finish one cigarette. They're all of a piece with the banalities and shrill over-acting of  as Katherine's mom and her dumb-as-shit goober of a brother, George. How Sebastian ever put up with any of them long enough to pull Katherine from their grubby mitts into his rarefied realm is anyone's guess. "Aren't they awful?" says Violet after they finally leave Sebastian's studio (where we see a male black nude and are left to draw our own conclusions).

Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz from Williams' original one-act play brilliantly adapted with 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 / grindhouse context. Then, somehow, it would be okay. The bourgeois snobs would know to stay away and it would all be laughable or cathartic.  As it is, the film's artsy pedigree 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, Dionysian cannibal truth. They must hear that which cannot be shown. A mix of metonym and metaphor (hands, legs, instruments, birds), Katherine's recollection plays like a Hitchcock or Bergman dream sequence during a long therapy session more 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 from classic Greek literature (namely Euripides' Bacchae) involving crows, youths, blood sacrifice, implied homosexuality, and ritualistic initiation and of course, maenad rending - the 'ultimate' sensation (as Frank notes right before the Cenobites spring the hooks). Violet tries to make the "real" event in Williams' story seem a dead myth, a torture-porn fiction invented by a hysterical nymphomaniac suffering from "dementia precox" (which Dr. Cukrowicz assures her is a meaningless phrase) rather than a living truth. Just because it hides so damned archaically deep in the collective subconscious--doesn't mean it didn't happen. In a way it's the blueprint for paranoid conspiracy theories to come - are the dark secrets of aliens and secret societies so horrible we can't admit they're real, so make up paranoia--a meaningless phrase by which we deny dark truths? Why are alien abductions almost exactly like sleep paralysis? Which one is the illusion, or are both real, or some deeper truth than either/or?) 

We know the truth here because we know someone has read the coronoer's report, but that doesn't change the poetic abstraction - as if shocking violence opens up a direct mainline between modern life and Greek myth. 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, her voluptuous body squirming in the surf in a revealing white one piece bathing suit and inciting us into a horny cannibal frenzy (that image below was the selling point of the film).

What a flashback! The young bucks of the town that clamor against the private beach fence as they ogle her --creating a freakish, unnatural 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. And what a view! Me --YOW!  A thousand horny hands rip the screen to shreds and devour it, hoping to capture some of the hot light upon it. But the image still just hangs there, now on the wall behind the screen, and in the haze of sweat and blood rising up from the front of the trashed cinema. Pan! Pan! Not just bread but the god of satyriasis (a condition Williams self-diagnosed). 

But this is a talking cure movie and, as I say, the main horrors are spoken of--not seen, nor is the above image, we never see her hair flowing so freely (she has her neutering bathing cap on in the movie)  First, Violet describes the spectacle of turtle hatching day to Monty Clift's venerable shrink in the prehistoric garden. She's already a goddess (descending from her elevator chariot), made so by erudite wit and money so is--in a sense--under permanent hypnosis. If she had a hidden unconscious she'd perhaps be less eager to point out the totality of her incestuous bond with her son. Second, under hypnosis, Liz Taylor describes Sebastian's last hours to Clift at the film's climax. This Violet would rather not hear; it's as if her remove from the beach at the Encantadas, the safety of the ship, the fact it was turtles and not her own young, made it just an enthralling and weird story. But when it's your own flesh and blood being rended and gobbled up, she cannot--in a sense--look away from it OR see it. 

Monty'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 via a tongue of a million frenzied lashing conqueror worms; 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. The band-aid is off and the audience forced to look, not at the scenes of carnage too grisly to show in 1959, but into the horrified eyes of someone who has looked (which is profound without being sickening). The natural reaction is horror of the type one may have when turning over a large rock and finding a whole ecosystem of squirming worms, centipedes, and snakes living below it, but then Clift doesn't let us recoil before taking each insect out in turn, and naming it, putting it to sleep under ether; and freeing us of our disgust. It's real Freudian return of the repressed abject menstruation shit. He's paying the tab, redressing the sins of our hear-no-feminine-napkin-application-procedure evil forefathers. The patriarchal rep of a new kind of medicine (Clift) hears the truth (sparagmos) of the hysterical symptom (Violet's denial / impending lobotomy) and thus the scene itself--sex--is cured as well as Katherine, as well as the nation under Kinsey. No wonder 1950s America loved Freud! He gave both genders an out: he mediated the mounting bedroom cold war by just keeping everybody talking. A war can't be waged if both sides admit they're afraid to fight. Their must be something more productive they can do with their excess energy.

Williams' own real life sexual interests followed the Greek ideal, aiding no doubt in his profound grasp of Greek tragedy and its ability to explain the cosmos in terms of Apollonian beach boys. Sebastian's unseen ghost hovers over the action like Poe's Lenore or the dominating spirit of REBECCA. Never seen, he's outside of space and time, at once something of a past and future century. He's anywhere but here. 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.

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.

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.
(Bright Lights Film Journal, #54, 2006)

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?

Any subliminal resemblance between Violet's hat and a Venus flytrap upper palate is purely intentional
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. A new image every viewing comes to mind, with echoes of Matt Shepherd and all the horrifying gay hate crimes on the one hand, and the meta refraction of Liz's real life bosom friendship with the homosexual Clift and his crippling car accident during the shooting of RAINTREE COUNTY, the year before, one that took this beautiful god of a man and left him looking far older, partially paralyzed, with Liz right there every step of the way, procuring and protecting. SUDDENLY finds the connecting ground between the horrors of old Greco-Roman myth and the reality around them, the more outre it gets the more real, the more specific the more meta, the more universal, its clear-eyed unflinching grasp for the truth is so pure-- even if it takes a little demerol to get there--it goes beyond truth, or myth, or even art, to become a reflection of all the loving joy to be found once the horrors of God's cruelty are finally grasped in full, and accepted. Color then is thine.


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

  2. Suddenly Last Summer has now rocketed to the top of my "random" (free-spirited?) blog queue, at least beneath Last Days of Disco, which I must keep at the top in case its "Long Wait"/"Short Wait"/"Very Long Wait" blinking neon sign ever registers vacancy at the exact right moment to be sent to me.

    Sure, the cannibalism, sexual deviancy, and Liz Taylor in a white bathing suit all sound intriguing, but I think it was your description of their description of the turtle massacre that did it. I never saw the nature doc (thank God) but I read a book (a kid's book! - with illustrations!) about turtle-birthing/seagull-feeding as a kid and was equally traumatized.

    By the way, you seem to have a fan in Wow Gold. Funny, he (she?) seems to say the same thing in all of his (her?) comments on the many blogs he (she?) frequents. Perhaps all the gold Wow Gold owns has so dazzled him, he can only mumble in awed epigrams.

    The forthrightness of the spamming at least beats the shiller for Asian hotels who cut-and-pasted an ill-fitting Amazon review to comment on my post.

    Speaking of which, now for a bit of spamming of my own. You should check out my De Palma video piece on Cinema Viewfinder, which would fit in nicely with many of the themes dealt with on Acidemic:

  3. Also, that's a great Paglia quote. I agree completely.

    Speaking of quotes, I believe you misattributed a George Harrison quote on your sidebar. Unless this Lao Tzu guy was in the habit of ripping off Beatles songs.

    (By the way, turns out Suddenly Last Summer is available in streaming form on Netflix. I may not need to worry about that Last Disco placement after all...)

  4. MovieMan, Thanks for your kind words... actually George Harrison was quoting Lao Tzu for his song "The Inner Light", not vice versa. Old George had a habit of ripping people off as in "My Sweet Lord," but then again, who doesn't? And Lao Tzu, being dead for centuries, was not likely to sue, any more than Jebus would sue a Christian rock band for using Psalms in their lyrics.

    I'm so grateful for the canned enthusiasm of the Wow Gold robot, I can't even tell you. Forget about Last Disco, fucking preppies piss me off. I will check out your De Palma link forthwith

  5. Erich, the Lao Tzu thing was my attempt at sarcasm, though I will admit it sprouted from being far more familiar with the Beatles songs than its source.

    As for Last Disco, I take it you did not like Metropolitan! That's the only other Whit Stillman film I've seen, and I liked it without quite...connecting to it. Not that I don't like stories of the aristocratic but something about its sensibility was just a bit off of where I would have really dug it. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, I prefer the romanticism of Wes Anderson (at least Rushmore or Tenenbaums) in this regard - there's a whiff of the stale about Stillman's universe. But yes, I am quite curious to see the new Criterion of Last Disco.

  6. hah, pardon my not giving your deadpan Harrison dig the benefit of the doubt.

    I share your preference for Wes Anderson when it comes to trust fund cinema, and Noah Baumbach beats 'em both, if he quite counts. I only watched two minutes of LAST DISCO and all I needed to see was how ineptly the "disco" scenes were filmed and how the dialogue sounded like the Barton Fink-style sermonizing of Jon Sayles (as when characters talk like socialist pamphleteers in a dead silent bar from across the room in low speaking voices. I did like METROPOLITAN enough to tape it in the 90s, but not enough to see it in the 00's. I'm probably not the best judge of him, actually, since I've never seen BARCELONA either. I've no respect for pretentious rich kids unless they're drunk and high as they can humanly be, ala RULES OF ATTRACTION.

  7. Baumbach's tricky. Kicking and Screaming was very entertaining, though it too lacked enough of the romanticism I need to truly swallow a tale of lost little preppies (Rushmore is ideal in this regard). The Squid in the Whale was probably one of the best American films of the decade, though it's been a terrible one for American films. As for Margot at the Wedding...I know you loved it, but I frankly loathed the film. And it didn't help that Baumbach appeared in person after the screening I attended, and behaved like a prick.

    Your description of the weakness in Stillman's style, "characters talk like socialist pamphleteers in a dead silent bar from across the room in low speaking voices" - feels dead-on, even just based on a viewing of Metropolitan. But there's something there, so I'll be interested to see what I make of Disco.

    And God, did I ever despise Rules of Attraction. Drunk, high preppies are too me the worst possible of all worlds, with the pretensions of privilege matched only by their lack of imagination. I much prefer the wounded little boys with big dreams and wild imaginations of Andersonville (though truth be told, perhaps it's as much Wilsontown, for Owen's writerly contributions, as much as anything else; Wes' work notably slipped when he no longer had the blonde depressive to bounce off of).

  8. Excellent review. This film completely floored me when I saw it. Total masterwork.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...