The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box

Seven Kinds of Denial Just to Get Out of Bed

III. “The Worms and Passions Writhing Within”

There is something in the air these days. It is as if the air hates beauty, creativity, spirit... all you read these days in the news, in comments online, and all you hear in friends conversations [is] hate. Everyone hates everyone. The air is heavy with hate and dullness…As I work to achieve what I consider beauty-- the functional beauty of technology-- I hear the voice of the Zeitgeist…whispering in my ear "do it!" "do it!" It is, of course, encouraging me to kill myself.__The age does not want creativity to happen. We are all supposed to surrender.__I know that if I stopped my work and became a cubicle drone as the age wishes me to become, the voice would go away.
-- ”anuma” commenting on the blog Rigorous Intuition about the Duncan-Blake deaths.

When writing about German culture on the eve of World War I, historian Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower, described its cultural preoccupation with violence and unease coupled to complacency. Mark Twain remarked that history doesn’t repeat itself, but if often rhymes, and The Proud Tower period is reminiscent of our own time and place.

Historian Edward Stillman wrote of the period, "Something strange lay beneath the stolid prosperity of the Hohenzollern Age -- a surfeit with peace, a lust for violence, a belief in death, an ominous mystique of war. 'Without war the world would quickly sink into materialism,' the older Von Moltke, chief of the German general staff proclaimed in 1880; and he, his nephew the younger Von Moltke, and the caste of Prussian militarists they represented could presumably save the world from that tawdry fate."

The gigantic ominous orchestral tone poems and bloody operas of Richard Strauss and the viciousness of characters in Frank Wedekind’s plays have evolved in the contemporary United States into the blood and gore fest films that strive for greater, sickening realism, and public humiliation is offered up on television as spectacle. Art, freed from constraints, delves into the psycho-trauma-sexuality of the maker.

Tuchman describes how French writer, critic and pacifist Romain Rolland viewed Germany in 1899. He felt that the nation couldn’t remain all-powerful and maintain its balance for long. “Nietzsche, [Richard]Strauss, the Kaiser—giddiness blows through her brain. Neroism is in the air!” Rolland considered the German “meme” of the day was Disgust. He sensed it in the compositions of Strauss and in their invariable gruesome conclusions, a German “sickness hidden beneath the strength and military tautness.”

Stillman writes, “The malaise was evident everywhere—in the new cults of political violence; the new philosophies of men like Freud, Neitzsche, and Pareto, who stressed the unconscious and the irrational, and who expose the lying pretensions of middle-class values and conventions; and in the sense of doom that permeated the avant-garde arts of the prewar years. Typical of the spirit of rebellion was the manifesto set forth in 1910 by the Italian Futurist painters: it declared that “all forms of imitation should be held in contempt and that all forms of originality glorified; that we should rebel against the tyranny of words ‘harmony’ and ‘good taste’…; that a clean sweep be madeof all stale and threadbare subject matter in order to express the vortex of modern life – a life of steel, pride, fever, and speed…”

Tuchman observes how the “undercurrent of morbidity…increased in proportion as Germany’s wealth and strength and arrogance increased, as if the pressure of so much industrial success and military power were creating an inner reaction in the form of a need to negate, to expose the worms and passions writhing within that masterful, purposeful, well-behaved, orderly people.”

* * *

During the first decade of the 20th century the staple of the German theatre was tragedy. “Social comedies with happy endings were not a German genre. German fun was confined to buffoonery, either painful or coarse.” Sounds like Jackass to me, and a whole slew of films and programs that put the audience into the mind of enjoying the pain of others, but with the not-so-subtle implication that you could be next.

There is the entire subgenre of video games which, in many, but not all cases, are voyeuristic invitations to mayhem. (Duncan was during the 1990s a designer of narrative-driven video games with girls in mind, Chop Suey being the most notable; in his later months, Blake was employed as a graphic designer by game studio RockStar “the house that Grand Theft Auto built,” as one commentator has described).

German theater’s tragedies, Tuchman explains, were not so much curative, as Ibsen’s, nor compassionate like Chekhov’s, “but obsessively focused on mankind’s cruelty to man, on his bent toward destruction and death.”

A cognate of Wedekind on today’s stage can be found in the works of Neil Labute, His characters possess outward sophistication that belie an interior bruitishness. Of interest to this discussion is Labute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. Set at a university, Evelyn, a graduate art student seduces Adam, an English major, into becoming, unbeknownst to him, her thesis project. She alters his appearance and identity until he is almost unrecognizable to his friends and himself. It is Pygamlion in reverse; Evelyn doesn’t love Adam, and wants him just for the length of her experiment.

[In the aftermath of the Duncan-Blake deaths, film producer Bradford Schiel was quoted as saying of Duncan that she'd realized her paranoid behavior had nullified all of Blake's working connections to the art world. "Jeremy was her creation. And she was killing the thing she created, this great, terrific artist. Se realized what she had done. To let him live, she had to go. But in a symbolic relationship, one couldn't last without the other."]

In The Company of Men involves two corporate button-down types who destroy a deaf woman, and Your Friends and Neighbors involve the sexual and psychological dynamics and emotional barbarism of self-absorbed couples. In a similar way, though adjusted (but just) for mass consumption, was the long-running comedy series Seinfeld. Here, thoughtless people committed atrocious acts against one another and strangers without learning anything from their behaviors. Subsequent programs featured individuals more despicable in more bleak situations (Arrested Development, Always Sunny In Philadelphia, etc.), but played for disconcerting and sometimes successful laughs.

These themes flowered in the “Dickensian” Sopranos, which followed the exploits of a murderous but lovable New Jersey crime boss who had sought out psychotherapy to treat depression. In the concluding episodes, the shrink realizes Tony Soprano is just using her to sharpen his rationalizations for his sociopathic tendencies and she throws him out. Like the characters of Seinfeld, by series end, though the Soprano family has had tragedy visit those close to it, the audience is left believing that the characters have grown little, and won’t alter their behaviors because in a greater world that is even more monstrous than the Sopranos, their family values blend in, just like the serial killing investment banker of American Psycho.

* * *

Two novels by Bret Easton Ellis, which operate in the kind of rarefied world that Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake moved in, also strike similar chords to how Tuchman describes German culture prior to World War One. The misogynist killer of 1991’s American Psycho, and “well dressed man” for whom, as ZZTop insists, the girls go crazy, is more interested in getting a good table at a trendy restaurant than human life. He performs heinous acts against many people and gets away with it even after admitting his crimes. The character’s descriptions of an unbelievable horrendous nature isn’t taken with any seriousness – even by his lawyer. His one means of distinguishing his life from those of others whom he abhors, proves false.

The underlying cruelty of the celebrity and quasi-celebrity haute monde is further explored in the 1998 novel Glamorama. Here, models and actors are recruited by a mysterious cabal to commit acts of terrorism. The effects of bombings and torture are described in detail. The premise was played for laughs in Zoolander. A drug and mental-addled haze permeates both American Psycho and most particular Glamorama, which casts doubt on the actions of the characters. Is their universe “real”? It’s a novel, of course, so it isn’t really “real” at all.
Much less violent, and more believable in its tragic elements, is Wilton Barnardt’s 1998 Show World. Barnhardt uses the lives of two women college roommates to show the intersection of politics and entertainment. These books are downright prescient when re-read in the context of 9-11, stolen or tampered elections, the predominance of reality television, celebrity obsession and the erosion of reliable news and information into just more platforms for the loud distractions of bloviating blowhards.

Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, aren’t anything new, but gross latter day iterations of opinion shapers and propagandists aided by advanced technology. Tuchman introduces “the feared and fearless” Maximilian Harden, editor of the newspaper Die Zukunft “of which it was said that everything rotten and everything good in Germany appeared in its pages.”

Harden was on intimate terms with the “malice, intrigue and private vendetta” in the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s circle. When Harden went after somebody, he used the private files of political operative and German Foreign Office diplomat Frederick von Holstein, who “in the method of Byzantine courts exercised power without nominal office. He regarded all diplomacy as conspiracy, all overtures of foreign governments as containing a concealed trick, and conducted foreign relations on the premise of everyone’s animosity for Germany.”

Harden and Holstein sought to bring down a group of the Kaiser’s advisors who were, in their view, more peaceful in their political views, and therefore harmful to Germany. Wild accusations of homosexuality and perversion were made, and from October 1907 to July 1909, the “Eulenburg affair” dominated German newspapers and café conversation. Stage center was the luckless Prince Philip Eulenburg who was condemned for leading a gay coterie among the Kaiser’s advisors. The elaborate, bewildering and dramatic trials resembled a Wedekind plot, with the disgraced Eulenberg wheeled into his final trial on a hospital bed. The whole thing rather backfired as the prestige of the Wilhelm II and his court suffered in the public eye, but not soon nor deep enough. Opinion polls made no difference to the Kaiser. Indeed, writes Tuchman, “Damage to the image of the ruling caste caused its members to swagger more than ever.”

A few years earlier in Britain, academic and journalist Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, a non-Marxist socialist progressive, and social critic, lecturer and writer John Atkinson Hobson, were publishing books that described how neither man nor his social systems were operating very well. Not headline news, for sure, but their work illustrated underlying pessimism in an otherwise heady time persuaded of forward progress.

Tuchman explains that Hobhouse and Hobson were of a group of sociological examiners who were “concerned with man’s curious refusal to behave rationally in what seemed his own best interest.”

The low level in which the populace reacted politically, the appeal of the sensationalist press and the new phenomenon of mass interest in spectator sports were disturbing. Henri Bergson’s idea of man as moved by a force which he called élan vital had stimulated a new science of social psychology to probe the roles of emotions and instinct as the basis of human conduct.

Hobhouse’s Democracy and Reaction (1904) concluded that the average man “has not the time to think and will not take the trouble to do so if he has the time.” His opinions faithfully reflect “the popular sheet and shouting newsboys…To this new public of the streets and tramcars it is useless to appeal in terms of reason.”

* **********************************************************************************

In the German theater of he 1890s and early 1900s, Death by murder, suicide or some more esoteric form resolved nearly all dramas.

In Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening (revived in New York in the summer of 2006), as Tuchman describes, “the discovery of sex by adolescents conflicting with the prurience of adults produces total catstrophe.” One teenaged character, unable to bear life, commits suicide and in a closing scene reappears in a graveyard with his head under his arm, like that decapitated image of Bijou Phillips used on Duncan’s blog.

[The Chumscrubber, 2005 satire of upper middle class Los Angeles. suburbia features a teen suicide, and a video game hero who “wakes up without his head” in a zombie infested, post-collapse L.A. The self-appointed Chumscrubber carries his head like a totemic device, and in a heroic moment while standing on the hills over the city, holds his head aloft, which then winks at the audience.]

From 1895 on, Wedekind’s plays “plunged into debauch of the vicious and perverse which seemed to have no argument but that humanity was vile.” He introduced the character of Lulu in Earth Spirit (1895) and continued her story in Pandora’s Box (1905). Lulu’s sexuality doesn’t create, but destroys.

A still from the 1928 G.W. Pabst film Pandora’s Box was used in Duncan’s January 12, 2006, entry. This announced the monthly, full-moon meeting of the Los Angeles Lunar Society’s wake for the fake novelist JT Leroy, at which mourning clothes were required. The famous face belongs to actress Louise Brooks, whose own character and Lulu merged. The scene is from a court room appearance in which Lulu is wearing a jet black version of her wedding dress complete with veil, and she’s in the dock to hear the court’s verdict on her role in the death of her newspaper magnate lover.

No one actually loves Lulu, writes Jean-Michel Palmier in Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star, “they buy her, they sell her, they trade her. She’s never anything other than a sales item, and object passed from hand to hand. Those who get near her don’t really love her, they are in love with her image. In other words, they are in love with the reality as they see it…Alienated to her very core, even her identity is stolen from her.”

The connection between this period of history and the decades leading to World War I also provided some inspiration for the most recent novel of Thomas Pynchon, titled Against The Day. It is an example of “historiographic metafiction or metahistorical romance.” E.L. Doctorow covered much of this same territory, in a more straight-forward manner, in his Ragtime, in the ancient days of 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended.

Pynchon himself described the massive, sprawling book: “With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."

Duncan mentioned the book's upcoming publication several times in late 2006, and expressed her appreciation for earlier Pynchon works. An essay written in reaction to the novel didn't deal with the text in specifics, but addressed Pynchon's hiding-in-plain-sight invisibility.

She wrote on May 24, 2007, “The United States itself has become a huge haunted Winchester Mansion.” This was an entry pertaining to a 9/11 videographer claiming that he’d been harassed and threatened, apparently due to footage he made on that day. Her Winchester reference is Blake’s three-part film, graphic and painted piece Winchester (2002-2004) about the bizarre gothic mansion built by armaments heiress Sarah Winchester. She designed the place of scores of rooms and weird staircases to appease the ghosts of victims slain by Winchester guns.

“No doubt we shall never understand it completely,” Stillman says, employing a phrase that is repeated now about the circumstance of the deceased writer and artist. “What is absolutely clear about the outbreak of the First World War it that it was catastrophic: the hetacombs of the dead, the appalling material waste, the destruction, and the pain of those four years tell us that. In our hearts we know that since that bootless, reckless, bloody adventure noting has really come right again in the world.”

The fourth and final part of Seven Kinds of Denial Just To Get Out of Bed is titled “I found this out in a roundabout way,” and analyzes how the news of the Duncan-Blake deaths permeated the Internet, and the varying reactions and formations of theories about the event.

"You fucking hopeless parasites. The world is a violent storm of greed, where the victor takes the spoils, and you are just waking up to it now, saying to your sorry selves, "oh no, they could kill me?"
-- omnimental, commenting on the blog, Rigorous Intuition’s July 25, 2005, entry, “Imitation of Life.”

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