Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Monday, July 16, 2018

Criterion's Dietrich Box's Masochist Supplement (Verboten!)


The arrival this month of Criterion's Dietrich-Von Sternberg Blu-ray boxed set (all six of their pre-code Paramount collaborations) answers an unspoken prayer I made a few years ago. I envisioned a different cover to the box, and some different extras, and MOROCCO looking slightly less faded, but only a Herbert Marshall-style ingrate squawks when prayers get answered. God--it seems--really is on speaking terms with everybody. BUT - what it really needed, or I would have loved to see, was an extra via Gaylyn Studlar. Let this humble post at least fire a salvo towards redressing that wrong.

THE MASOCHISTIC SPECTATOR / DEATH DRIVE:

The excellent liner notes and extras explore all sorts of great elements, both thematic and texural, except for a glaring omission. There is no exploration of the very obvious masochistic subtext running through these films like a hot river. The extras are guilty of shamefully ignoring the work of progressive film theorists like Steven Shaviro and--especially--Gaylyn Studlar. Her book In the Realm of Pleasure (left) deconstructs the Dietrich Sternberg films' kinky symbolism via a theory of the cinematic spectatorial gaze as inherently masochistic. This is a theory far different from, say, that of the sadistic gaze postulated by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey. It's Mulvey's theory that has been not only utilized but rigidly enforced in feminist film studies the last few years, to the point the masochistic gaze is almost heresy. In fact, feminist film theory has been under such brutal siege by the Mulveyan male gazers that--like ISIS in ancient Babylon--all the great old edifices are in danger of being torn down. Even Mulvey herself is like, whoa, chill, it's just a talking point, a theory, not some buzzkill holy writ. (I paraphrase).

Studlar's book, alas, is rare enough that even the more open-minded academics don't often know about it. But they should, for it is like opening a magic window into these films that makes them glow and resonate far beyond the--admittedly true and enticing--consensus of the historians, critics and academes on hand in the chosen melange of extras. Was Criterion scared Studlar's approach was too academic, too controversial (bucking the Mulvey doctrine), or just too kinky? Or were they worried Camille Paglia wouldn't be roused from her deep vampire slumber in time to rescue them from third wave feminist reactionary clawing with a potent Salon essay?

As it is, I heard Studlar's name mentioned only once in the extras. Homay King's excellent extra accompanying Shanghai Express mentions her concept of the 'heterocosm' i.e. an enclosed dream world outside space and time in which the film exists (i.e. it's not the 'China' of reality, but a kind of dream repository centered around the mystique of the 'Other').

Rather than just try and sum up the deep points Studlar makes in The Realm of Pleasure in this post, I'll urge you dig up a copy, and failing that, point you back towards some of my previous posts exploring cinematic masochism, i.e. the voyeur as masochist - subject to having no control of the events in his experience and how that relates to infancy and fear of abandonment by the mother and the embrace of death as pleasure being the ultimate act of pure control, of conquering death and moving past the pain-pleasure rim of the wheel right to the center.

50 SHADES OF GREY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, EXIT TO EDEN, SECRETARY + SHE DEMONS, Franco, Bunuel, Josef von Sternberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet (7/31/14)

According to Gaylyn Studlar (4), true masochism can only exist in dreams, conjured more out of a need to safely experience the abyss, to trick out the satisfactory endorphin rush that surges to accommodate sudden pain (as in the heroic measure of wasabi or hot sauce undergone as a food fair rite of passage); it must be done in person or in the mind where we can imagine a transformational ecstasy that ordinary movie watching doesn't accommodate. Seeing is never believing - that's why sadomascohistic literature is often more arousing than bondage films, which seem merely silly or misogynist.  The shocking Times Square marquee, coming attraction, or the film capsule review might enflame or awaken masochistic desires, but the actual film will never measure up; it's the difference between remembering your own crazy, erotic dream and hearing about someone else's. It's the difference between seeing the covers for films like Kitten with a Whip or Naked Under Leather vs. the actual--inevitably disappointing--movies themselves. Death can exist only as a promise. In practice, it's just not as sexy.

As per Studlar:
"The fatalism of Von Sternberg's films is not simply an acceptance of death as an externally imposed inevitability but the expression of the masochistic urge toward death as a self-willed liberation. In choosing death, an illusionary triumph is created: the illusion of choice... (48) 
"...masochism's obsession with death may be interpreted either as the expression of a universal instinctual urge or as the result of the masochistic wish for complete symbiosis with the mother and a return to nothingness,.... Eros is desexualized and resexualized; death becomes the ultimate fetish that fascinates with the promise of a mystical unity." (p. 123)
Only Bunuel and Von Sternberg ever seemed to use this concept in romantic surrealist cinema, and it's interesting that both adapted the same masochistic text, Pierre Louÿs "La femme et le pantin." For Bunuel, two different actresses play the Dietrich character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire: the sweet girl who entices him and the cold calculator who continually manipulates him into bankrolling her mercenary mother (and then bailing on him with a younger man). Teasingly withholding sex, but always promising it, she instinctively understands he needs and appreciates this long-term unfulfilled longing (he's rich and respected, she may be the only objet petit a he has - all other desires are already met, and thus failed). He might have some sexual liasons with her but they're never long enough to make him feel 'satisfied.' Some lovers are 'done' as soon as they climax. Well, some characters never want to be 'done' - it spoils the game, turns a long elaborate twisted ritual into a disappointingly short-lived gratification followed by shame and emptiness (be that due to impotence, premature ejaculation, or other). Similar to the two-faces of Concha in Bunuel's film, Marlene's Concha wears two outfits for separate seductions - pure white to lull the guards into letting her see the prisoner; a black mourning outfit to sway the prefect.

Maybe the whole trick to getting what you want is to deliberately want to want it rather than to have it (and so want your old wanting back, which is a double negative). Most magic tricks are part sleight-of-hand and part misdirection, but in masochism, misdirection is the trick. The slighted hands of the clock are frozen at bedtime, right before mom comes in to kiss you goodnight and turn out the lights. If you never get the kiss, the lights stay on and the demons under the bed can't get you. The guy who comes too quick or is impotent or just falls into deep depression after orgasm, for him especially is the lesson drilled home. A sexual desire's fulfillment is never a good thing. It's fatal. (2014)


If you know Marlene’s history you know she liked to sleep with a lot of different people, and broke the hearts of adoring males (and females) when they realized they would never “own” her totally had to learn to share (which her husband well knew, as he archived all her various love letters for her), and that’s where masochism and sublimation comes in. Imagine being Von Sternberg and you’re basically living at Marlene’s estate, painting a picture out on the lawn and here comes Gary Cooper’s car and you know that you wont be sleeping with Marlene all weekend, and will just have to wait til he leaves for the set on Monday, or she gets bored of him. But hey, he's gorgeous, and taller and younger than you, etc. Do you throw your canvas to the ground and have a fit? Get a gun and run around the estate like the thuggish gamekeeper in Rules of the Game? Neither one will get you anywhere but in jail or laughed at. But if you can sublimate that jealous sting into your artistic vision, ah - mon ami- you are reborn in a. The artist Von Sternberg lives for that moment, that flush of Oedipal rage and shame, harnessing its power, converting the emotional energy via artistic sublimation, Sternberg’s painting merely becomes darker and more twisted… better, in short. (full - 2009 - Bright Lights)

From: (Butterfly Moanin: DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)
(2015)

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's sadistic definition, 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. 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 that old pined-for keyhole. (More)

AUS:















WEITER MIT DEN MÄDCHEN:
Cinema's Naughtiest Germans, Part 1
Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child: THE RING, SHERLOCK JR., VIDEODROME (2004)
Death Driving Ms. Henstridge: GHOST OF MARS, RIO BRAVO (2003)
Naomi Watts: Cinema’s Post-Modern Mother of Mirrors
Hope vs. the Scandanivian Svengalis: THEY CALL HER ONE-EYE; I'LL TAKE SWEDEN














ANGELS OF DEATH, the Series
ANGELS OF DEATH - I
ANGELS OF DEATH - II: Great Women of Horror
ANGELD OF DEATH III: Badass Brunette Edition
ANGELS OF DEATH IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition 
ANGELS OF DEATH V: Magic Slut Split/Subject Maenad Edition


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