"Know how I'd like to die? I want to be ripped apart by wild animals" -Jerry (Annie Hall, 1977)Jerry may be 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 dreads being ripped apart "for real," which is why they stay so drunk and high (no rock star was brave enough to suffer withdrawal of one drug without the help of another drug, to take the edge off). That Jerry even says that shows he's no lizard king poet - and never saw the face of God on the Encantadas during the sea turtle hatchings when the sky is black with carnivorous birds (or the bad trip equivalent, when your whole soul becomes the beach and the world rips you to shreds with its transient blood bag banality.
No, I mention Jerry's little byte here only to "say something funny" to make me "stop wanting to cry."
I'm referring to Violet's need for a joke mourning the death of Sebastian in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1958), drinking her daiquiri to undo the skeeve of her poor relations, the loud no-neck monster poor relations picking through her late son's clothes, those loud, horribly pedestrian and chatty no-neck monster poor relations, like bottom rung scavengers nosing through the empty turtle shells after the birds have already had their fill and flown. For you see, after she delivers her unforgettable Encantada tale (wherein we learn Sebastian saw the face of God in a beach full of devouring birds) 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. So she rants on, determined to drill a hole in her screaming hysterical niece. Violet may be monstrous, but she knows the queasy dread that so draws sensitive poets to the rocks. We poets--and Violet is one, made so by osmosis as is Ms. Katherine - they are the two main monologuists in the movie, they even sound similar, so we can only presume their somehow imitating Sebastian's style--we have felt the caustic touch of god, the endless ever-amplifying agonies of drug withdrawal, 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) 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 for the Liz Taylor the movie), they're all concessions to the realistic level that come with an intense price tag. Sometimes they constitute crimes but forget morality; 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 by that white beach), just peaks of crucifixion-level agony at the climactic end of the spectrum and drunken 'snap' peacefulness on the other. The 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 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.
And even then, there's one thing worse, being locked in with the no-neck monsters, in 'the Drum' and its insane gibberers (where did they find them?), or the smug naysaying nuns who refuse to let their patients so much as finish a cigarette or scream in frustration. The banalities and shrill over-acting of Mercedes McCambridge as Katherine's mom and Gary Raymond as the dumb-as-shit poor relation Goober of a brother, George. How Sebastian ever put up with any of them long enough to pull Katherine from their grubby mitts 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 context. Then, somehow, it would be okay, the bourgeois snobs would 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, but also that it can't--nor should it-be shown. A mix of metonym and metaphor (hands, legs, instruments, birds), it plays like a Hitchcock or Bergman dream sequence during a long therapy session with a Swiss shrink stereotype, 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, blood sacrifice, implied homosexuality, and ritualistic initiation and of course, maenad rending - the 'ultimate' sensation (as Frank might say right before the Cenobites spring the hooks-- "Jesus wept"). 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 that--just because it hides so damned archaically deep in the collective subconscious--doesn't mean it didn't happen. So, 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! Meow! Meow! ROAR! 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!
But this is a talking cure movie and, as I say, the main horrors are spoken of--not seen, nor is the above image. She has her neutering bathing cap on in the movie. What a cheat! We ripped the screen for nothing. Instead, 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 an 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.
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 in 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 repressed squirmers forced to look, even if it's just largely the horrified eyes of someone who has looked (which is profound without being sickening --the s). 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 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, man; paying the tab, redressing the sins of our hear-no-feminine-napkin-application-procedure evil forefathers. The patriarchal rep (Clift) hears the truth (sparagmos) of the hysterical symptom (Violet's denial / impending lobotomy) and thus the scene itself is cured as well as Katherine. 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.
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 pretty boys, sacrificed to ensure the harvest. Sebastian's unseen ghost 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 William Campbell and Alain Delon, but that's the genius -- everyone's conception is their own, and above all there is his faceless blankness --as if his eyes were gouged from their sockets by those damned birds. He's outside of space and time, at once something of a past and future century, 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.
Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun:
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.
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?
|Any subliminal resemblance between Violet's hat and a Venus flytrap upper palate is purely intentional|
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.