Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Butterfly Moanin' (DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)

(2014) Dir. Peter Strickland
"The sovereign being is burdened with a servitude that crushes him, and the condition of free men is deliberate servility." - Georges Batailles 
Emerging from its cocoon as a beautiful Shout Factory Blu-ray, Peter Strickland's Duke of Burgundy is a nod to the 60s erotic reveries of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, only without the vampires and knife-wielding sadists. Snaking forward in a steady hypnotic rhythm, it instead examines the dom/sub head games played by a pair of lesbian lepidopterists living in a dream world where it's always autumn, men don't exist, and the Gothic architecture is ever-fecund with overgrowth. The beautiful dusky purples and oranges of the butterflies and the house interiors match the women's clothes and skin textures as they move through cloistered scripts in an endless repetition.

As a throwback to the 'Eurosleaze' genre, only without its sleaze, Duke's dreamlike mood is at once boring and fascinating, eros and thanatos inextricably linked. Like Frnaco's and Rollin's films, it's best seen while falling half asleep (which its slow pace is guaranteed to help with). Less a forward phallic arc of a narrative, Strickland's film is more like a repeated lullaby or the same storybook read over and over to a child in its crib by the giant mommy goddess. And it's this repetition maybe that holds the key to all spirituality, carnality, and musicality. Chanting and ritual work not, as some think, to lull the conscious egoic mind into a trance but to annihilate it by boredom, the way a cigarette snuffs itself out once dropped in an empty bottle.  To deliberately court this annihilation is the core of masochism, at least in film. Warhol's films court it, all but proving that behind masochism is post-modern awakening and behind that, nirvana. Once the ego's been bored to death, the unconscious cautiously takes the wheel.

Scarlet Empress, The
Similarly the films of Josef Von Sternberg with their fetishistic veils, mirrors, and inert momentum, or the magical repetitive hypnotism of Kenneth Anger or, especially as its so clearly referenced in Strickland's film, the 1963 Stan Brakhage experimental minute-long Mothlight:

I'm a confirmed proponent of the masochistic gaze theory posited by Gaylyn Studlar and Steven Shaviro, so I knew what to look for in Darionioni Nuovo tremolare Strickland's Duke, otherwise I wouldn't have known my boredom was an artistic response. According to his interview in the Blu-ray extra, Pete Tombs (of Mondo Macabro fame), commissioned the film, wanting a remake of Lorna the Exorcist (a very long awaited Jess Franco title, for those who wait for such things). Me, I've learned that like Jean Rollin's oeuvre, the only way to enjoy Franco (for me at least) is while alone at dusk, falling asleep in your dad's easy chair as the sun sets. In all other ways, certainly as narrative, or any kind of genuine erotica, his films are epic failures. But in the right half-asleep malaise, they're genius. Until I screened SUCCUBUS for a bunch of half-asleep kids at a European horror film class, I hadn't realized just how sex drenched it was until they shifted uncomfortably at their desks --noting the genre offers little more than student film style sights of pretty girls in long white dresses walking up and down ancient castle staircases, and softcore soft focus sex. I explained my secret to enjoying these films (the secret to most art films) stems from my long familiarity with drunken black-outs: I always presume the lead character has amnesia and doesn't want anyone to know.

from Jess Franco's Succubus (1967)

After all, if a beautiful redhead, naked under a fur, comes over to my swinger apartment at four in the morning and gets into bed with me, I'm not going to say "who are you and what do you want?" though I probably should... At any rate in swinging Europe '67 that would be rude, maybe I invited her over the night before and just don't remember. And since I've been drunk and on drugs for years, it's only natural I'd assume she'd been invited, maybe we're even married, best to play it cool and act like I know who she is.

In the film theory aspect, this ties in with the post-war modernist frisson born of French-speaking critics watching liberated Hollywood films, most sans dubbing or subtitles (we'd stopped making them since the German Occupation had cut off Allied imports), so not understanding anything that was going on in the plot allowed the critics the freedom from language's structuring of the images and sounds, leading to original conception of the phrase mise-en-scène.

Anyway, once I told the class to imagine the main character had amnesia I screened Succubus for the class again and they loved it - they 'got' it this time, the modernist frisson. That's the kind of magic Franco's best films provide, the mystery of how such a crappy film can get better with repeat viewings.  In the end that's perhaps why Fritz Lang 'got' the art of Franco, as did Welles, when most critics sneered at or ignored it. They got it. Babylon - the tower of language barriers and how drugs and staring might overcome them. This was Europe in the 1960s-70s, the time of commercial jet travel opening all borders to well-dressed imports, thus Western Europe became the Capital of Amnesia and the tower of Babalon Working, a time when a producer, actor, and director may easily have no language in common, none were on the A-list, and drugs and alcohol were ubiquitous. And if you're in the drug crowd there's a rule: when you can't remember how you got somewhere, or the walls are bleeding and--when you wake up out of your black-out, the person in bed with you is a stranger, you can't make a big deal about it. If you freak out you might end up in the sanitarium or prison; worse, you might draw attention to yourself as a square, a tourist, a rube, a wally. You might tip off cops or the jonesers who'll start pestering you for a hit of what made you so messed up. You have to just ride it, ride the weirdness and roll along with how paranoid the inscrutable actions of others are. You must let the mannequins assemble for the sacrifice, presuming that your unbridled arrogance will convince them that you're not the designated victim.

And S/M cinema in the end is really about that very same modernist frisson, the enslavement to the Other that finds true fulfillment only in dreams. I know the drill, like the back of my molar. Like the older lady in Strickland's film, I--though no sadist--have been called onto to play one in bed, and each time it was really the verbal descriptions of what I would do--dictated by my lover in very specific details-- as opposed to action or punishment. The act never works as well as the threat, the speaking of it. It's about the show, the whispered declarations of power vs. humiliation rather than the practice, which ascribes to the Gaylyn Studlar masochistic filmgoer theory vs. the Laura Mulvey sadistic proprietary male gaze theory:
"Studlar uses Deleuze’s treatise of masochism as a starting point for her article. Where Mulvey views the female as having no power, in a masochist reading, the woman is powerful due to possessing what the male lacks, so pleasure is not gained by “mastery of the female but submission to her” (1985:782). This is in direct contrast to Mulvey’s view, which centres on voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia being a defense mechanism to castration anxiety. For Studlar, there is not always a connection between looking and control and therefore the process of looking, or obtaining pleasure from looking, is not always about objectification. If the viewer is getting pleasure through identification, then there is equality between the spectator and the subject being looked-upon." (Z- Mediated Musings)

Strickland understands these confusions of gaze; his film delves inwards to where the segmentation of a pupae abdomen circles into a set of winding fecund autumnal purple steps linking the look with the looked upon. Along with his post-giallo contemporaries, Strickland brings the modernist shiver of experimentalism into a head-on collision with the tenets of conventional narrative, letting their momentum derail each other and making something new from the train wreck, something that's neither formal/classical narrative nor avant garde/experimental, but a hybrid at once both invigorating and stultifying. In what could easily be the story of Mulvey and Studlar forever locked in a death/love staring contest, this wreck of a film shakes every pair bond to the core not through any particular eroticism but through the deconstruction of the kind of hermetic universe a loving couple creates within their shared space, a feeling of magic and second childhood, their honeymoon suite becoming an overgrown forest, a private world free of the constraints of time and outside responsibility. The stultifying comes once the outside has been ignored too long, the overgrowth chokes itself into mulch and dead leaves, leaving the stench of plant decay, what was once felt as protection and safety is now a prison, not through some shift of power, but through its own endless repetition.

In that and other senses of course it mirrors the fragmented masochistic obsessiveness of the films of Josef Von Sternberg (all those long slow meditative takes as Marlene walks around rooms, playing with this doll or that and shooting coy looks over her shoulder--as if stalling perpetually for time)--or even Bergman films like Persona (with the young boy in the experimental opening, trapped in the morgue as if reborn and tracing the blurry projection of Liv Ullman's jaw). And from there of course, The Ring and The Birds and my theory about Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child, i.e. the merging of the screen and the eye, the speakers and the ear, the
dialogue between one's unconscious and conscious mind finally becoming audible, recognizing the monstrous absurdity of one's own masochistic sex fantasies once translated into action. (See Taming the Tittering Tourists).

Color coding, From Top: Lips of Blood (Rollin, 75); Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (Gantillon, 71); Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 72)
In short, from my own perspective, I don't see a Mulveyan fear of castration in cine-masochism at all in these Eurorotica time capsules- but rather a longing for it, a longing which underwrites my own theory behind the heterosexual male's fascination with an all female or matriarchal world (ala Persona, The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay), one that doesn't 'include' the male figures or allow for even a projection of one's own gender based locus into the narrative. If a male figure somehow gets a toe hold into this special universe, it's only as a eunuch servant, a blind man at the door who is not invited in, or an outmaneuvered future blood sacrifice ala Daughters of Darkness, the Blood-Spattered Bride, The Velvet Vampire, Girly and Vampyres.

This woman-centric film universe reflects the opposite of male-orgasm-based pornography, for the typical male sex fantasy doesn't last beyond the point of le petit mort. No men fantasize about women continuing to go down each other after they've already come. Men's sexuality, unless they are extraordinarily virile, dissipates immediately and drastically after orgasm, the fulfillment of the phallic hero's journey always ends in symbolic castration. This is why he begs and pleads but then, when there's no more barriers, hesitates; each orgasm a sort of suicide. The lesbian erotic scene, on the other hand, goes on and on, stopping time in its fairy tale tracks. The fairy bower's chthonic overgrowth ensnares and subdues narrative phallic linearity. It's something men just don't get to (or want to) see --we've already left the bed and headed for the kitchen to find a snack.

And so it is that these films show us a variation of sex we are, as single perspective organisms, forever denied in real life: we get to find out what our moms were like before we were born. It's something we'll just never know in real life, except through keyholes, screens (projections, paintings, pictures) dreams, and rebirth. In these films we finally understand, perhaps, why the patriarchy, the male gaze as per Mulvey, is so terrified of the female orgasm. I don't mean the little 'sneeze' girls get, or even the cherished involuntary vaginal contraction versions, but the one--eternal female orgasm--that comes later, and last forever, and increases and increases, feeding its own orgone energy flame until the alchemical awakening of the Kali destroyer / creator goddess, a withering force as devastating to the phallic tower as a great flood, is achieved, and even then... When this occurs, the male gaze is blinded in the flash, and not even Oedipus' stiff braille guide rope can help him find the door, let alone the keyhole.

Elsie Wright -w/ Cottingley Fairies

Rose Bower (Burne-Jones)
The lesbian fantasias of Franco and Rollin aren’t really meant for the chthonic dead end of fairy bower lesbian stasis, but they do draw on the same chthonic morass torpor, the way Antonioni draws on Monica Vitti’s beauty, or Fellini on circus pageantry or Welles on Welles – as a thing fulfilling in and of itself that precludes or prefigures egoic deattachment from the mother. The sexuality of Fellini is--as in his best work-8 ½ and La Dolce Vita--exposed and recognized as infantile narcissism even while its being indulged; Antonioni’s is like Horatio’s worry Hamlet’s father’s ghost is one of those tricksters leading men to dangerous ledges; and Welles’ balloon of titanic ego is inevitably punctured by the realization of his own shortcomings --he can post-dub anyone in his films but a woman. Theirs are not the orgasm moments, the money shots, theirs are reminders that epiphanies, like male orgasms, are short and cheap and then life grinds on, oblivious. The trick with European reverie cinema is that this egoic puncturing never happens nor needs to. In a Rollin film, if a male character shows up who fancies himself the hunter-rescuer of the scene (as in one of Rollin’s endless string of jewel robbers) he’s peripheral --we’re invited to scorn him even as he tries to organize or tame the matriarchal nonlinear experimentalism of the hermetic female fairy bower. Like the forbidding father at the nursery he tries to shatter the fantasy of our total reunion with the mother, the memory of being an infant surrounded by gigantic adoring women, hearing their conversations as strange enigmatic words we do not understand, formatting the blank hard drive of self with ones and zeroes corresponding to the ebb and flow of mom’s attention. He tries to whip the women into linear order, but they of course devour him, like an egoic sandcastle in an incoming tide.

At this pre-egoic stage we don’t identify ourselves as separate from mother and are therefore ‘female’ regardless of biological gender. The need to differentiate and establish oneself as male and separate from mom is a traumatizing initiation these films undo. Their drawback is their lack of dramatic arc, their inability to finish the initiation and begin journey. The butterfly motif in Duke is the ultimate irony - the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, flies off and dies (male linearity) but here, with these lesbian lepidopterists, the butterfly stays fixed in time, punned on the board, etherized on the fairy bower table– the life cycle interrupted at its peak moment, from the safety of an eternally warm cocoon, or one just hatched from, full colors and all life ahead of it... or not. 

My favorite game to play with babysitters in the 70s

Maybe I'm keen on this subject because as a child I was never very coordinated or confident on the kickball field (and hence always picked last for teams, a daily humiliation). I always just wanted to hang out with the girls, I was in love with girls in general, no real sexual desire had cohered along my polymorphic jouissance ley lines, but girls made me feel electric nonetheless. I despised boys on principle. I had one little brother and no sisters, which might explain some of it. When some girl's evil mom didn't approve of my attention, tried to force me outside into the mud with their wild obnoxious dirty foul-mouthed boys instead of upstairs watching their sisters do Colorforms, it aggravated my delicate nerves. I hated those boys and their stupid mother! The girls were pretty and sweet and I was enthralled. I also adored all my female babysitters, like they were giant idols; there were these three cool female cousins who coddled me all through my infancy, and then --boom, they weren't around anymore. Never having had a lot of physical affection from my (Swedish) mother after, say, five, that affected me totally. I longed for three giant cute girls (relative to my size) and I didn't feel them again until stumbling on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park (see my first film Erich Kuersten: A Poet's Journey)

Just the right size
As a child in the arms of a girl Alice size, I didn't need to exist, or get affection, or conquer any other phallic arc. I was, in other words, in the state of the passive masochist spectator. Of course this came back to haunt me later as I was often paralyzed when it came to busting the first move, afraid the girls I fancied would flutter away with some spiel about how 'I thought we were just friends.' And also the closer I got to said move the more my knees buckled and I felt I'd pass out. In short, sex and desire were too intense, I wanted to orbit the star, not crash into it - that was for the boys good at kickball.

Duke of Burgundy in a way operates on the same principle. The one hot sex scene is merely spoken, with the mistress struggling to keep her partner supplied with her custom-tailored erotic dom-sub fantasia. But again there's no ego formed, no linear thrust, which is why the film is so boring but that's part of the masochistic current, the Warholian love of boredom which is the result of undoing the need for ego and therefore yang energy and therefore lacking a narrative arc to guide and hone in our focus the way a child's polymorphous perversity gradually 'settles' in the genital region and then dissipates altogether after a few decades. But if we ignore that 'settling' there's freedom that comes with servility, the love of repetition and ritual (as in the repetitive alchemical rites in Anger's films). The oceanic experience the masochistic gaze in cinema mirrors what the Studlar's theory of masochism admits from the beginning is hopelessly unattainable. To attain it would end it.

The ending is the same either way. Death is just the sign on the door through which the audience exits the theater into the lobby; the sign 'Birth' is on the other side of the same door, from the lobby coming in. The only way to avoid going in our out of that door is to become etherized, frozen and pinned to your seat. Either way, the cinema is the same; the movie playing never changes. And its that element of inert sameness, the repetition, that works to make Duke of Burgundy both boring and artsy and maybe proves that calling something boring and artsy is redundant, and maybe it even proves that calling a film the realization of the insatiable appetite for repetition is to damn it with high praise, something only fellow post-giallo filmmakers like Helena and Bruno understand (as in the endless variations of the same scene in The Strange Color of your Body's Tears). But who likes it? Almost no one, for longer than 10 minutes at a crack. Still, in this inert symbolic re-death eroticism Studlar's masochistic gaze is spot-welded to a Crash-style car and sent over a cliff into to the kind of Jungian ego annihilation, liberating the libidinal desires that formulate the structure of the differentiated self, which is really just a nice way of saying it's boring as fuck-all. Don't miss it. Oops you did.

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