Friday, August 5, 2011

That Old Black Magic: The Female Artist as Witch

This post is going to finally give you what you've been waiting for: a glimpse into how my mind actually works when it comes to art and gender. Ready?

Way back in the day, Paglia's sexual personae taught me how to leap across centuries and cultural contexts in a single bound, as in her comparison of the bust of Nefertiti and Bowie in his “android phase.” What I liked about this tendency to yoke together the disparate with violence was that it enabled me to perceive, or assert, affinities between my two areas of interest (in common with many thoughtful teens of my generation and since): high culture and pop culture. Which can otherwise be rather difficult to compare. How could I measure which had the “greater” impact on me as a teenager – Hamlet, or Hatful of Hollow? Pride and Prejudice, or Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?

In any case, Paglia instilled in me a lifelong tendency to think of artists in groups of “personae,” although my personae weren't as sexy as hers. I've got one main cluster, which I can separate out into male and female examples; today, I'll be giving some of the female examples. I think of this main grouping as “fey” artists, male or female, with some peripheral overlap with Paglia's “Mercurius androgyne.” These artists are also usually “minor,” or at least for niche tastes; they may also be miniaturists, like Robert Walser.

Maya Deren and Jane Bowles: Entangled Twins

Although I'm not sure how well my first example today, early American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, fits this category. She's certainly obscure/niche, and a miniaturist in the sense that she only made short films. But as a persona, Deren was too richly sensual to be “fey”; a sensual intellectual. Her first and best-known film, Meshes of the Afternoon, reveals her deep entanglement in what even now, in our “metrosexual era,” can only be called a specifically female narcissism: not mere physical vanity but dreamy psychological self-absorption.

Deren eerily reproduces herself in this film in a way that distinctly reminds me of one of my favourite paintings, Memories, by the Symbolist Khnopff. 

A heavy, humid, hauntingly “maternal” atmosphere hangs over Khnopff's painting, as it does over Deren's film. Deren herself, with that abundant curly hair, seems physically as well as psychologically in the same Pre-Raphaelite mode as Khnopff's model (his sister, if I recall from Sexual Personae) and the most famous example, Rossetti's late Muse, Jane Morris.

I'm hardly the only blogger to think in terms of “sexual personae,” and others have noted Deren's similarity to another British icon, both physically and as an artist: Kate Bush.

Certainly, Bush has that same sensual/intellectual combination, and her lyrics frequently obliquely explore a certain freaky, convoluted female sexual psychology in which narcissism plays a large role, as in the rather terrifying “Get Out of My House,” in which male sexuality is figured as a kind of invasive poltergeist (and, oh yeah, an abject donkey). Bush, whose lyrics often align sexuality with occult powers (think of the Cathy-ghost in “Wuthering Heights,” where it's male sexuality that's shunning and cold), also likes to take on the role of “witch,” perhaps as a metaphor for demonized femininity; another point in common with Deren, who became fascinated with Haitian Vodoun, to which she was introduced by dancer, choreographer, and dance anthropologist Katherine Dunham.

Deren, however, was not British, but an American of Jewish Eastern European origins (born in the Ukraine). On the evening I finally familiarized myself with Deren (after hearing about her for ages in connection with Lynch and especially Mulholland Dr.), I did a little dreamy, persona-based googling. (In the early 90s, Paglia recommended browsing library shelves to spark unexpected associations, which I'd already been doing as a teenager anyway; the internet facilitates this creative methodology to an exceptional degree.) Based on nothing more than their hair, their Jewishness, their limited output, and their cult status, I made a connection between Deren and American writer Jane Bowles, and was surprised (“spooked” might be a better word) when I googled their Wikipedia entries to learn that they were born in the same year, just a couple of months apart: Deren on April 29, 1917; Bowles on February 22, 1917.

Deren and Bowles had much more in common, too. They were both denizens of New York in their main period of artistic activity, the 1940s (did they ever meet?): in fact, just now I learned, on a closer look at the entries, that Bowles's only novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943, the same year that Deren made her first completed film (co-directed with her husband, Alexander Hammid), Meshes of the Afternoon. They were both drawn to the “exotic,” Deren travelling to Haiti, Bowles travelling with her husband to Mexico and Central America before settling with him in Tangier. Deren became infatuated with Voudon; Bowles with the Berber woman Cherifa.

It seems to be a “thing” for female cult artists to develop strange myths surrounding their lives and deaths. Anyway, it certainly happened to Deren and Bowles. The documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren gives an account, mainly from a seemingly 60s-addled commentator, of the rumours that Deren's early death (at 44) was related to her dabbling in Voudon. Commentators who knew her towards the end also suggest that it was due to her vast, volatile creative energy, responsible for many stormy rages, which had turned poisonous due to her frustration at not getting enough funding to continue making the films she wanted to. (Among the official reasons given was malnutrition.)

Bowles also died young, at 58, in a sanitorium in Spain. She may have outlived Deren, but only to suffer, since in 1957 (four years before Deren's death), she had a stroke (official reason: alcohol) that severely incapacitated her to the end of her life. In the hotbed of expatriate gossip and rumour in Tangier, however, the story spread that her declining health was due to Cherifa's native witchcraft – also supposedly responsible for Bowles's obsession with the woman. Throughout her life, many who knew her (and her fans in her lifetime included John Ashbery, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Christopher Isherwood, who supposedly based Sally Bowles on her in part) believed that her to some charismatic, to others (notably an unimpressed Gore Vidal) insufferably neurotic personality was the result of her thwarted creativity, a life of extended, tormented writer's block.

That Voodoo That You Do So Well

Deren's Eastern European and Greenwich Village connections (and the hair, again!) wafted me along to my next association: the heroines of producer Val Lewton's 1940s B-horror/noirs, especially Simone Simon in Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur) and the iconic Jean Brooks (of the Pulp Fiction hair) in The Seventh Victim (1943, directed by Mark Robson).

Lewton, also of Jewish Ukrainian origins, was a pulp fiction writer who found his metier making classy horror films on a low budget for RKO. In Cat People, French Simon plays Irena Dubrovna, from Serbia. (In a Hollywood film, the French are “exotic” enough for anything, and one Eastern European country as good as another.) Irena is trying to Americanize (by pathologically attaching herself to bland all-American boy Oliver Reed, played by Kent Smith, every bit as wooden as he sounds), and get away from a past that includes idol-worship, witchcraft... and the ability to turn into a panther. The “horror” of the film is female sexuality: Irena appears frigid (returning us to the terrain of “Get Out of My House”), but her “panther self” seems a metaphor for the voracious female sexual appetite, which she's afraid to unleash. There's a distinct thematic connection to Dreyer's great melodrama about witchcraft, Day of Wrath (1943 again!), in which female sexuality turns out to have the power to telepathically kill.

(Yet Dreyer, like Lewton, stays on its side.)

The Seventh Victim, set in Greenwich Village, deals openly with the topic of suicide: the heroine, Jacqueline, is a decadent sensation-seeker who can't decide if she wants death as the final sensation or if she's just world-weary; but she's as terrified of it as she is drawn to it. She gets mixed up with a Satanic cult who want to force her to die, and tries to get away from it. (Doh! Just realized that this was the main source for a one-woman theatre piece I wrote and performed in which I played two women who might be one woman with a split personality: one is convinced that a sinister cult wants to put her in a snuff film; the other is trying to persuade her filmmaker-boyfriend to make one in which she stars. My favourite line from it, towards the end, was: “I want them to say, 'She only did it for the attention.'”) In the end, however, she goes back to her Village apartment and hangs herself. The whole thing eerily anticipates the Manson murders and their connection (through director Polanski, husband of victim Sharon Tate) with Rosemary's Baby.

Lewton also produced an RKO film... about Voudon. I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is set on the Caribbean Island of Saint Sebastian (probably because Lewton, or someone involved, liked the decadent reference to the homoerotic imagery of the suffering saint; here, however, put in service of representing the legacy of African slavery). The film also draws on the actual Voudon origins of North America's favourite millennial monster, and features a “gone native” female doctor who believes she can be possessed by a Voudon god and deliver curses, as Deren apparently did.

Recent shout-outs to Deren in a variety of media include the video for Janelle Monae's “Tightrope” (2010), set in an imaginary asylum for artists in which, a bit of text informs us at the start, “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices,” and Bruce LaBruce's queer zombie movie, Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008), where the filmmaker-within-the-film Medea Yarn is obviously loosely modelled on Deren.

Fragments of Bowles and Deren

Janelle Monae also has some of that Bride of Frankensteinesque Bowlesian hair (and androgyny) going on:

The cover of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, however, seems to draw specifically on the cover of Sexual Personae, which no doubt Monae has read, since it includes Paglia's android-Bowie/Nefertiti comparison. For Paglia, the head-heavy Nefertiti represents a new, nature-rejecting image of woman as aspiring, soaring intellect; for Monae, claiming this right for women seems to mean embracing an android persona that (although, ironically, object-like) repels attempts to turn her into a sex object.

During a long period (between 15, when I read Millicent Dillon's biography, and 23 or so) when I was rather obsessed with Jane Bowles, I found still other correspondences, such as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (obviously an alien, especially in the bar scene where she's wearing that extraordinary metallic dress with the bits of ribbon floating around her face like translucent antennae) and Jennifer Jones in Love Letters

Jones has no association with witchcraft that I know of, but the two films in which she starred that were directed by William Dieterle, Letters and Portrait of Jennie, have an eerie, Gothic/Expressionist feel suited to Jones's fey, earthy/ethereal, high-strung, almost somnambulistically narcissistic persona as nothing ever would be again. In Portrait of Jennie, she plays a ghost who ages in quantum leaps, and gives the most convincing portrayal by an adult actress of a child I've ever seen. In Love Letters (with a screenplay by... wait for it... AYN RAND), she's, basically, a Platonic Idea, who can't psychologically negotiate the reality of her own or male sexuality, despite being as avidly, felinely sensual as ever. I suspect that Hitchcock took notes for Vertigo watching Portrait of Jennie and for Marnie watching Love Letters. The critic David Thomson, who's usually grievously wrong about everything, was almost right when he said that Jones would have been suited to play James's Isabel Archer; if he'd said Milly Theale, I would have forgiven him everything.

More Tragi-Farcical Courtship Rituals

The last play I ever had produced was called Non Sequitur, about the marriage of Jane and Paul Bowles, which I subtitled “A Screwball Comedy with Consequences” because I couldn't figure out how to focus it until I made the Bringing Up Baby connection. (I also had in mind Paglia on As You Like It in Sexual Personae.) The first act was produced at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival, and NOW magazine made it a top pick; it was self-contained enough that no one noticed the second act missing. The play focused, scene by scene, on various more or less malicious games the couple played to negotiate their complex relationship, and my own favourite, which recurred as a motif, was the one in which Paul pretended to be a parrot that Jane would have to send to his cage when, due to her coaxing, he got out of control (or in others words, got his queer on and “freaked out” – an idea brilliantly, bravely realized by straight actor Ross McMillan in the workshop production; Ross also played a note-perfect Orton in the original production of Live With It). The wonderful poster (sadly, no longer up on the internet) for the Toronto production seized on this image, portraying a tiny Paul brooding (Cary Grant Thinker style) in a bird cage, on which Jane leans languidly – sort of like I Dream of Jeannie with a gender role reversal. I thought it was a great image, but for many years I was in deep denial that I had really portrayed such an overpowering woman, when I thought I was portraying my idea of an equal marriage (except for the part where Paul is forced to put Jane in her cage – the asylum – at the end).

Nevertheless when the actress who played Jane in the Toronto production, Sarah Neville, repeated to me with worry a critic's opinion that she was “too relentless” as Jane, I reassured her, “It's Jane Bowles. That's not possible.”

Shirley MacLaine, Preying Ingenue

A sort of postscript: the freakiest, feyest performance I've ever seen a woman give is the young Shirley MacLaine in Tashlin's Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle, Artists and Models, which may still be the queerest movie ever made, harnessing all of the gender-bending potential of the Martin and Lewis partnership in the service of a bisexual utopic subtext. In all other Martin and Lewis films (generally regarded as vastly inferior), Lewis is the queerest object on display, a homely Boylita who, for 50s (straight) America, was secretly the ultimate twink to an even greater degree than Justin Bieber is now, to judge from the surprising fact that he, not Martin, is the sex object of the films. But here the genuine ingenue MacLaine beats eternal ingenue Lewis at his own game by being, as I recall Mark Simpson and I observed together in a discussion of this, a better boy than he is, providing a rare example of the androgynous (though voluptuous) girl being more charismatic than the androgynous boy. And when she serenades him on a staircase by bellowing “My Innamorta” at him as he tries frantically to get away, she's like some kind of contortionist stick-insect, and textually, he's an adolescent boy scared of the faster-maturing adolescent girl, while, subtextually, he's a queer man fleeing the female preying mantis who's trying to devour him because he's asking for it by being such a tasty little morsel. (If there's any difference. Lewis would, of course, perfect this persona and scenario in his masterpiece, The Ladies Man. But more on that in a later post.) But they're reverse mirror images of each other, and their bizarre courtship ritual is, of course, symbolic of heterosexual relations even into adulthood, according to some analyses. Which is what makes male homosexuality a continuity with male heterosexuality. 

MacLaine isn't exactly a witch, but her freaky-kooky persona at this early stage of her career lets you see where the later, New Age advocate MacLaine came from, and almost makes up for it. 


  1. A fascinating, inspired piece, Elise.

    So much going on which I will return to some other sunny day, but here's my rather limp-wristed post-script about Janelle Monae and her 'masculine [post-sexual] androgyny'

  2. Hello, only commenting reader! *waves*

  3. A commenter on my blog left this link to another echo of the Janelle Monae imagery...

  4. Oh yes, of course! The main source of her female android persona.

    Btw I didn't even know, or remember, when I made my new Lewis post that the witch is considered the prime popular symbol of the phallic mother! (You can read all about it by following the link to the article on phallic mothers in pop culture to the link to an abstract on the phallic mother in film.)

  5. I am a bit wary of Freud's phallic mother. It just sounds a bit cliched to me. I mean, I am a woman with no kids aged 40 and I don't feel very potent, sexually. Crazylady yes, phallic mother? not so sure...

  6. I don't think it means "potent" as in "sexually potent," but as in forceful, powerful, metaphorically "penetrating." I'm just amused (and a little wary myself) that the witch is so much on my mind these days. Never been one of my own favourite female personae, or so I thought! (I haven't got the slightest interest in Wicca or anything else occult.)

  7. Yes it's definitely an age-ing thing. But you know, Freud admitted he was at a bit of a loss with women. He had women clients but his clinical research (I think) apart from the famous case studies like Dora, was all on men. I will check.

  8. Lol, it probably is! Oh dear! What am I going to do at 50 or 60? (Be over it, I hope.)

    Well, accounts of psychoanalysis trace Freud's discovery of it, and the unconscious, to his studies, with Breuer, of female patients suffering from "hysteria." As Freud did.

  9. Yes I know. But I think Freud did a lot of research that wasn't just about his own private patients. So most of his 'general' research was based on men as subjects.

    I will check this out. The problem with feminism and Freud is feminism went to anihilate Freud, rather than to critically assess his work from a gender perspective.