– Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams
– Romeo Is Bleeding, screenplay by Hilary Henkin
– Running With Scissors, directed by Ryan Murphy
– The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel
– Misery, directed by Rob Reiner
– Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
– Cerebus, written & drawn by Dave Sim
Last night, a friend and I watched a double feature: Romeo Is Bleeding and Suddenly, Last Summer. Not wanted to give away the total nutsack craziness of the latter film, I couldn’t explain to him why it was not only the perfect but the necessary complement to the film he’d chosen — but watching the scope of Suddenly‘s total fucking weirdness dawn on him was more than fulfilling enough. It is a deeply strange, nearly perfect, viscerally upsetting film with a denouement as unbelievable and inevitable as that found in Bug, or Ellen Burstyn’s Switch. I wish movies were being written that so closely approximated the raw, ugly, weird, personal creepshows we all carry around — hell, I wish plays were still being written that were half so brave.
Romeo Is Bleeding, of course, follows Jack (Gary Oldman)’s adventures with the ladies: from his wife (Annabella Sciorra, doing her usual sexy-wounded emotional flipbook) to his mistress (Juliette Lewis, knocking yet another brain-damaged sex doll out of the park) to the cunning and magical hitwoman Mona Demarkov, played by the possessed and terrifying Lena Olin. While Roy Scheider’s Don Falcone is nominally the source, or one half of the source, of Jack’s misery, we are never privy to the whole story of Mona and Falcone’s association. The story follows a repeating, telescoped sequential narrative: Jack (1) tests the waters of ethical relativism, (2) is rewarded in a small way by Falcone, (3) has sex with Lena Olin, (4) is offered a bigger reward to betray Falcone, visits his (5) wife and (6) mistress, and then (7) is punished mightily for his crimes.
The whole movie simply plays this sequence of events out several times, each time cranking up the pain and stakes of the iteration, until we end up at a brilliantly funny, ridiculously over the top version of the story in which Olin — hands cuffed behind her back — nearly murders Jack from the back seat of a Cadillac using only her dainty ankles, survives the resulting car accident, kicks through the windshield, grabs a suitcase full of money with her bound hands and an envelope of false ID in her mouth, and takes off down the street to construct an elaborate ruse in which she somehow procures Juliette Lewis, dresses Lewis up like herself, gets Oldman to shoot her, and then produces her own arm — which she thoughtfully removed herself at some point while all of the other shit was going down — and still manages to escape the legal system scot-free.
She is magic.
She’s also a femme fatale, clearly, but one whose person and persona are so bound up with the universe of the narrative itself that we are never surprised to see her popping up out of nowhere, coming back from the dead, visiting Jack in dreams, straddling him in a variety of rooms and amputations, and haunting him long after her death. She’s the Joker to his Dark Knight, the Tyler Durden to his Jack’s Sense Of Oedipal Guilt. Romeo is a deeply personal, an almost Impressionist, film, which twists and manipulates the rules of noir and action so perversely around itself that in the end we feel like we’re reading the diary of a deeply lonely man.
What’s interesting, and subversive, is that the story is written by a woman, Hilary Henkin. Born in 1962, she’s part of the Shane Black generation of smarty-pants action writers, but with a subtle and emotionally savvy touch that few reviewers seem to really grasp. I’ve just been through a thousand inches of Romeo criticism, and they all — men and women alike — seem to say the same thing: “derivative,” “sluttish,” “appallingly violent”; most of all, there seems to be agreement that Henkin, in telling her story, is trying to do the Boys’ Club one better: to “out-Hammett Hammett.” Or, even more insultingly, one female critic claims that “[Olin’s] lingerie flaunting appears to be one of the film’s main raisons d’etre.”
1994 was not so benightedly long ago that this crap should be unexpected. It’s not a perfect movie — the voiceover and absurdly drawn-out end sequence are both laughably heavy-handed — but it’s an original film, and like anything else it deserves to be critiqued on its own merits.
I’m reminded firstly of Geek Fallacy #235, “This Unfamiliar Thing Is A Rip-Off Of Something With Which I Am Familiar.” 235er involves constricting the entire universe and all creative artifacts in it to a private gallery, owned and curated by the loser who’s talking. Your favorite band? I heard about five seconds of it, and I have to say that the A-G-E chord progression reminded me of a Rolling Stones song I saw in a commercial last week; therefore I am fairly certain that your favorite band is a ripoff of the Rolling Stones. The herky-jerky camera work of your favorite television show reminds me of the gritty autofocus tricks on my favorite television show, which was cancelled: therefore your favorite show is obviously a ripoff of my favorite television show.
Combine GF#235 with the mid-’90s “glass ceiling” obsession and you can see how they got there: hardboiled, ridiculous dialogue is a staple of the genre, but can you really picture it coming out of a woman’s mouth? Or, by extension, her pen? Of course not: obviously she’s trying to join the Boys’ Club. Obviously, by using and exploiting the tropes of the noir style — which by 1994 had disappeared up its own asshole anyway — she’s just trying on the slumpy suits and rumpled fedoras of her betters. What can a woman know about violence, or about the terrifying and numinous power of a sexy, squatting (Always with the squatting! In basques and garters, squatting all over the place!) Circe like Mona Demarko? Obviously, she’s just aping the work of the stronger, smarter men — the Dashiells and the Jakes and the Bogeys — that came before. No way is she trying anything new. Right? It sounds like something I’ve heard before, so obviously there’s nothing new here.
Except, of course, this is the same woman who has written, produced, co-written, ghost-written or polished some of the most loudly lauded and goofily beloved tongue-in-cheek action (Fatal Beauty, Road House), genre-establishing claustrophobic gothic incest remix satires (Flowers In The Attic) and straight-up genius political calls-to-arms (Wag The Dog, V For Vendetta).
Once you’ve watched Olin cackle her way through the fourth or fifth deadly iteration of the above sequence — at one point asking, in all seriousness, if the shackled and toeless Oldman would prefer she fuck him with her prosthetic arm (the busy leather straps of which seem organically developed from her earlier complicated belts and garters, and which serve her breasts up like St. Agatha’s, on a plate) attached or unattached — it becomes clear that we’re operating in a heightened reality. This is not, after all, an expose about the corruption to which policemen are sometimes, or FBI witness protection protocol, or a amputee’s story of determination: it’s literally being told by the narrator, to the narrator, as part of a semiannual self-flogging ceremony of guilt and flagellation.
Romeo gives us a world of all-consuming femininity, in which whatever the plan is, Mona’s already thought five steps ahead. She infiltrates the personae of both Jack’s lovers, replacing his wife Sciorra through gesture and in dreams and his mistress Lewis through actual costumery. In the final sequences, we learn that her ties to Falcone, Jack’s other torturer and puppetmaster, are as mysterious and intimate as everything else about her. The bitch chainsaws her own arm off and then sets an entire building on fire with herself inside, but still makes her day in court. Jack finally kills her — the movie’s second act is built around the premise that he cannot bring himself to kill her until she has literally leveled his life around him — but only on the way to killing himself. She fences him in with sex, with money, with temptation, with legal and criminal double-crosses, and even forces him to dig a grave for her archenemy (in a sequence that makes it clear she’s only suffering him to live because she’s down an arm): without Mona, the story falls apart.
Meaning that the story is fundamentally about Mona, or rather, about the relationship between Jack — the Ego of the story — and Mona, whose seeming demonic possession echoes the archetypal possession that fuels Jack throughout most of the story. She represents not only his shadow, the id temptation that puts his wife and lover and self into jeopardy, but also the dark aspect of his anima: she is his female Other, on whom he projects all of his own darkness, giving her mythical powers far beyond those of mortals.
Compare to director Peter Medak’s other projects, which include an adaptation of Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner and Species II — both of which echo Romeo‘s devouring and dominating feminine stories, in their own way. (Species II in particular is interesting: the sequel doubles the original’s Venus Flytrap sex/death naïve/horny heroine with her male counterpart, and then watches them fall into a mutually destructive dance of exploitation, death and sex, but expands the universe with a surprising amount of latitude given the male’s viewpoint as the chase comes to a close.)
Which makes Suddenly, Last Summer the perfect follow-up. In this one, based on Tennessee Williams’s 1958 one-act, two women catch Monty Clift’s hapless doctor between them as they war over the rights to memory regarding the dead man they both still love. While the play was originally presented off-Broadway as a double-bill with Something Unspoken under the joint title of Garden District, the latter play’s emphasis on the lesbian undercurrent (the eponymous unspoken “something”) turns up the volume on the gay content in Suddenly, which is basically unnecessary and unbalances its noir effects and devilish religion.
Suddenly takes Olin’s Mona Demarkov and makes her a god. Literal. Half the story takes place in an explicitly primal jungle of a New Orleans garden, while the rest of the scenes are set in a mental hospital. Katherine Hepburn’s Violet Venable aims to get Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Catherine Holly, lobotomized for reasons having to do with her faceless, voiceless son’s sexual secrets, and pulls every string — like a grande dame, Katherine Hepburn version of Mona Demarkov — in order to make it happen, catching Clift and Taylor both in a web of deceit and Razor Magnolia denial. A Venus Flytrap — “named for the goddess of love” — originally seems to represent the devouring mother/aunt at the heart of the tragedy, but in the end it’s revolved itself around to represent the willing sacrifice of St. Sebastian Venable himself.
The God stuff is weird, but follows. Violet remembers Sebastian’s preoccupation with the destruction of a litter of sea turtles by carnivorous birds overhead through her own filter, that of a bereaved mother sea turtle, but the truth is that the give-and-take of Sebastian’s mutually destructive and devouring relationships with everyone around him make him both a God of turtles and a sexual victim of ancient seagull sex rites. He is the recipient of fervent worship, by both his female relations and the young men of Cabeza de Lobo, but knows that ultimately he will be destroyed by their rapacious appetites. He is, offstage, a magical character in his own right, imbued even in death with so much power and secret knowledge that he almost seems more present than Clift himself. And again, we see identity slippage at the hand of the death mother figure: Clift, the protagonist, is eventually rewritten as a new Sebastian.
So why have Clift’s character, Doctor “Sugar,” in the story at all? Because there must always be a man who resists. Williams is good at writing the devouring female madness, because Williams has a shrieking madwoman in his head making him a good playwright and a very commonplace homosexual, but knows enough to know that without a male character standing apart, denying, or directly contradicting the emotional, neurotic, unconscious mass of crazy that comes with mommies and madwomen in his stories, he’s just telling static stories about nothing at all.
Stories resolve conflicts. In the undifferentiated unconscious content that gives birth to dreams, stories and our every shadowed movement, there is no conflict, just as there is no time or distance or spatial relationships. Everything is now, everything is present. It’s a big old mess. So to simply tell us a story of how crazy and scary women can be, without including a male or denying ingredient, means looking at an undifferentiated mixture of crazy. Which is not story, but in fact the first step of art therapy, which is by definition not art. What makes Sebastian Venable so interesting and significant is that, as Sugar’s double, he is the man in the story who gave in to the susurrus of unconscious significance that threatens to devour men, in Williams’s stories. He is fully invested, like Dionysus in the Bacchae: neither classically male nor physically female, but above and combining both; like the flower of the Venus Flytrap, which gobbles like a predator while resting gently in the garden, Sebastian is a female and male symbol of passion and androgyny.
The story takes place several months after Sebastian’s death, as the title suggests, and the main action of the plot follows Dr. Sugar as he tries to bait first Violet and then her niece Catherine into giving up the truth about the murder — a truth which is so bizarre and unbelievable that one can forgive both women for being driven mad by it, and by falling for the numinous trap of thinking that it represents the true and awful face of God. Sebastian is a sacrifice and apotheosis for them as well, God incarnate and sacrificed on an altar of hot, grimy, luxuriating decadence and sensuality. While Dr. Sugar, like Tom or Stanley in Williams’s bigger plays, can stand apart and watch this happen and shake his head bemusedly, it’s Sebastian who is forced — by Violet’s narrative, which she dominates just as she dominates the plot of the film — to reenact his namesake’s martyrdom.
For a historical example of the noir flytrap narrative, look at Macbeth. From the beginning to his sad end, he is hounded by magical, strange, witchy women. His fortune is told by actual witches from outer space, his entire path is written out by the original Mona Demarkov of course, and in the end he’s defeated by whom? The only man on earth not “born of woman” — not touched, that is, by the sick energy and magic of the whole world that encroaches slowly in on him from all sides, like happens when you end up in Silent Hill. Or think about Rob Reiner’s Misery, in which a writer is caught between two crazy women — one who sprung from his head like Athena, and the other who leapfrogs up the chain of command and becomes the boss of him in every way, literally creating the narrative of his life, his eating and shitting and ability to move, as he’s doing the same for the fictional object of her obsession.
When I say post-Oedipal, I’m talking about two things which specifically inform the fictions of the last sixty or seventy years: non-normative sexuality and gender-imbalanced sexual development.
Firstly, the purely sexual connotations of the Oedipal conflict, as classically understood and referenced, are unavoidably inscribed with the heterosexual male viewpoint. This is fallacious in several ways, not least because — if things were really that simple — gay men and all women would get off scot free. That’s not the case, however: in fact, all people, men and women alike, are born of women to this day. It’s limiting and sophomoric to an insulting degree to ascribe the consequences of birth in these childish, giggling terms. (One might say, however, that while the Oedipal conflict directly relates to the Hero’s Journey itself — as a retreat from, descent into, and return from the oblivion of undifferentiated psychic content, or ecstasy, in all its forms — it’s the Nuclear Age, with its creepy focus on artificial family units and rigidly enforced gender rules, its top-down regulation of female and child sexuality that suborns all desire to the rules of the Father, that has really given Electra her strength, and her wounds.)
Or to put it another way: the opposite of the Oedipus Complex is not the Electra Complex, it’s the Oedipus Complex. Our connection of the Mother archetype with both wish-fulfillment Eden and devouring, negative critic (from kritikos, “judge” or “discerner”), carries the danger of infecting our actual view of the world. By letting the former shade our worldview, we run the risk of staying infantilized — as in the once-popular “Peter Pan” diagnosis — or by engaging in subtle or overt warfare with the outside world. A disappointed Peter Pan sees the failure of Mommy to provide in every unfair detail of his life: the car he can’t afford, the clothes she can’t fit into, the job for which he is unqualified, the uselessness of her graduate degree. All cause and effect goes out the window when Mother archetype takes control of the spoiled adult child: if the world won’t comply with Peter’s wishes the way Mommy used to, then he’ll just hold his breath until his face turns blue … or become a serial monogamist, or regress to childhood and become an otaku, become bulimic, or otherwise demonstrate her dissatisfaction with the status quo by refusing to grow up at all.
Similarly, possession by a negative anima or Mother archetype takes advantage of and fulfills all fears and nightmares of powerlessness. By relieving the subject of his ability to make informed decisions — or by making them futile, by overwhelming them with critique or bitterness — these types of ego possession actually absolve the subject of any responsibility to himself at all. How much of the voice of depression is an inverted, bloated Mother archetype taking on the guise of self-hatred? What these stories warn against — by describing its possibilities and procedures — is the abandonment of personal power in favor of the controlling, poisoned anima.
The Devil Wears Prada and Running With Scissors are both fundamentally stories of children who, through trial and error, manage to make it out of their childhood alive, even as the worst and most hellish Mother possessions swoop at them again and again, like Williams’s God-infused seagulls. Burroughs’s memoir-filtered mother is expertly played by director Ryan Murphy and Annette Benning as a charismatic, secretive figure who controls and destroys the lives of others without a second thought; back to whom every strange desire and ugly event can be traced. While Hathaway’s beleaguered assistant is a grown woman with common sense, and not a innocent young man, the narrative itself follows the same basic skeleton as any other devouring-feminine story: the hero resists a set number of slings and arrows, is tested and discovers love and a personal ethical standard, and — this is key — eventually repudiates and leaves the mother-dominated world.
Where things get dangerous is when we are unable to separate the unconscious and archetypal content of these stories from our own personal narratives: ask a straight male acquaintance of average intelligence about his views on women at the right time of night, and you’ll get a psychiatrists-level survey of his mother’s faults and virtues, universalized across the spectrum. This is so laughably common — and so prevailing among the rules-setting, normative, male heterosexual definers of culture — that we’ve forgotten to be grossed out by it.
Only when the details become too terribly personal — as in Dave Sim’s memorably loopy ass-hatted digression into the “gaping void” of femininity in the pages of his once-feminist comics — or when something else ties the storytellers together do we realize anything is off. While Hilary Henkin is subversive and wonderful for telling her story in such big, crazy, 1994 terms, I’m seeing a certain commonality among the creators of these others stories.
Let’s see: Suddenly was scripted by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, and apparently the confusing, overly symbolic mess of an ending can be blamed on the Catholic Legion of Decency’s interference with the script, and the homophobic compromises made and stances taken by producer Sam Spiegel and director Joseph Mankiewicz — the former of whose mistreatment of Clift was so overt that Hepburn, once she was sure her filming was complete, spat in his face.
Prada is, while based on a female novelist’s sub-par novel and taking place in a female-dominated and -coded environment, is commonly accepted as somehow related to the gay men’s experience, a gay male fantasy played out entirely in female and gay male characters, aggressively feminized — a modern-day Wizard Of Oz, in which the accepted cliché of gay men’s lives are (like Sex & The City, we’re constantly being told) played out by cardboard cutouts and surreal personae. Contrast, please, this film — or the other big, execrable Rudnick-esque hits like Birdcage or In & Out — with something like Brokeback Mountain or the more gritty gay men’s narratives like Prick Up Your Ears, in which neither couture nor the devouring feminine have anything more than a vague symbolic presence — and ask which one made more money, by virtue of its accessibility, its accordance with our accepted perception of the gay male as feminized, fussy, flighty eunuch. The more masculine the gay man in question is, whether on the screen or in real life, the more likely we are to judge him with the harshest terms imaginable: as a waste. “What a waste!” we say: and why? Because he’s not playing the game, and without the game, what are we? We want our own stories told back to us, and that’s true for everybody. But 90% of the world is straight, and needs the radicalizing spectre of gay sexuality — which calls into question not only sexual identity, but also gender and, most importantly, the static roles of male/active and female/passive — pushed into its little box. It’s not evil, it’s just the accumulation of desire; it’s supply and demand.
Running With Scissors was adapted and directed by one gay genius of our time, Ryan Murphy, from a book by another gay genius of our time, Augusten Burroughs — who was of course writing from his own experience. The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel, a Hollywood scion whose credits include Sex & The City and the shelved gay romance The Dreyfuss Affair, who had this to say about the continued Disney stalling of the project, back in the summer of ’96: “Birdcage is the most conventional story about stereotypical, flamboyant gays who are hardly shaking up the system. What did Birdcage make possible? More Birdcages.”
I couldn’t agree more, and God knows big-budget loads like Birdcage and In & Out are almost more embarrassing than the lion’s share of the awful independent gay movies that followed, mired in their ’70s self-obsession and self-pity, but it doesn’t really answer the question at hand, which is: why do gay men tell these stories, over and over and over? Cause and effect rear their ugly heads again.
Picture this: Absent father, overbearing mother. Heard it before? Me too. It’s a pretty common narrative.
What’s interesting, and telling, is that the narrative is written by straight men, who have no experience of organic homosexuality. I’ve just been through a thousand inches of attempts to circumnavigate the essentially and implicitly Othered experience of homosexuality, and they all — men and women alike — seem to say the same thing: “derivative,” “sluttish,” “immature,” “neurotic,” “appalling”; most of all, there seems to be agreement that gay men, in telling their stories, are joining the Boys’ Club by describing their relationship to femininity and masculinity in weirdly heteronormative terms. Not the gay men’s experience of femininity or masculinity, then, but what the heterosexual definition of culture would prescribe as everybody’s experience of gender.
I’m reminded of Geek Fallacy #235, “This Unfamiliar Thing Is A Rip-Off Of Something With Which I Am Familiar.” 235er involves constricting the entire universe and all creative artifacts in it to a private gallery, owned and curated by the loser who’s talking. Your favorite band? I heard about five seconds of it, and I have to say that the A-G-E chord progression reminded me of a Rolling Stones song I saw in a commercial last week; therefore I am fairly certain that your favorite band is a ripoff of the Rolling Stones. The herky-jerky camera work of your favorite television show reminds me of the gritty autofocus tricks on my favorite television show, which was cancelled: therefore your favorite show is obviously a ripoff of my favorite television show.
Combine GF#235 with the mid-’00s backlash against the ’80s-’90s entitled white bitching of ACT UP and other radical groups who alienated the definers of culture while disappearing up their own boring, self-destructive, lazy, mindless assholes — and then screamed like toddlers when their Peter Pan dreams weren’t fulfilled. By letting the dominant culture infantilize them, and rebelling against those self-defined cage walls, all they did was reinforce the “real” cultural perception that homosexuality was simply a deferment of sexual maturity: to reinforce the ugliest stereotypes by letting their poisoned animas and abused Peter Pan egos take the stage. Way to go, girls.
That’s one narrative: that without a normalizing, heterosexual masculine influence, or with a powerfully — magically? — feminine force of great enough magnitude, the normal course of nature is somehow subverted. As a person who believes that every human being deserves — and is required — to know and love themselves intimately, all the way to the bottom, this is a contradiction I could never reconcile, even as a youngster. Somehow an a priori condition of my identity — the gender and sexual lines against which we define ourselves, in terms of the twinned forces of life, sex/attraction and death — was, thanks to the environment in which I had grown up, traveled back in time like some kind of submicroscopic quantum phenomenon?
Of course, to screech — like Catherine in Suddenly, asserting her sanity from inside the insane asylum, unable to gain leverage against the culture-defining powers so threatened by her personal truth — that these memories are mine, subjectively verifiable and real, is to get into an impossible argument. The one response you can’t have, to the accusation that you are crazy, is that you are not crazy. It’s like telling the witch hunter that you’re not a witch. “I just happen to be a woman of intelligence who resists the dominant, masculine heteronormative paradigm,” you could be screaming while they set you on fire.
I’ve written before about the inscription of patriarchal values, the logos, on our viewpoint, both in the abstract and in unending anecdotal exegeses. I’ve also performed deconstructive analyses of classic homosexual tropes in the same vein. I’ve discussed the experience of gay teens in this context, and what it feels like to except yourself from the entire mess, whether you’re a real-life business executive or fictional celebutante.
What I’ve never really done is offer a real alternative to these narratives. Try this on for size: Perhaps the absent father contributes to an a priori sexuality by virtue of his absence, in the case that his assertion and enforcement of heterosexual behaviors would twist what’s naturally there into a behavioral approximation of heterosexuality. Perhaps in his absence, the father avoids wrecking what was there in the first place, and establishes a negative space in which his child’s desire and identity arise from actual experience rather than tradition. Likewise, the overbearing mother is expressed — by straight and gay writers alike — in the particular Peter Pan narratives of her son: the only people who tell stories are those people who have stories to tell. Which is to say, the only people that tell stories are those with conflicts that need to be resolved. It comes down to a self-selected population telling their stories, which align along both lines in a false positive that becomes universalized, and the myth of constructed homosexuality is born.
The radical element in this narrative, as in the lineage of classic noir, is represented by Romeo Is Bleeding, in the works of Kathy Acker and Karen Novak; in short, by the female writers whose need to tell the story of the devouring mother take their form in parallel to the more usual — which is to say, canonical, which is to say male — gay men’s narratives. Every gay man whose healthy, nuclear upbringing still “resulted” in unaltered homosexuality speaks against this prevailing narrative, and every woman whose experience, as told, recapitulates the false ontogeny of the mythical gay persona, radicalizes the enforced gender and sexual roles that have come down through the accumulated power and narrative of our culture.
And if those voices are ignored and liminalized by the defined culture of their fathers, for whom Geek Fallacy #235 is a simple fact of life, in which we all take part — even threatening and attacking when they’re sufficiently well-stated, or too derangedly different from the accepted paradigm — I don’t know that we have many alternatives than to attack that paradigm head on, and speak our stories for ourselves, even as they light the coals beneath our feet.
You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone, but if both of those things are true, then the most hideous responsibility has just landed itself firmly on your shoulders, because there’s nobody left to blame. If you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone, then why aren’t you happy? That’s the path you have to walk, alone. And it’ll take you the rest of your life.