Friday, March 12, 2010

Corman, Bucket of Blood (Iconophilia and Iconophobia)

A while back I criticized the movie "Synecdoche, NY" for participating in what I might call the iconophobia of the wax museum, an anti-kitsch syndrome I've traced to the nostalgia for a kind of primeval sense of community of authentic relations.

But I'm changing my view of "Synechdoche, NY". In difference to the anti-kitsch discussions in contemporary poetry, the movie is positively iconophillic. I still think about some of the images: the guy brushing his ex-wife's toilet as a kind of ersatz sex, the actress acting the main guy's role giving him directions in his earpiece, the miniatures of the ex-wife's relationship, the daughter's stripper dance, the cheesy tattoo coming alive on the daughter's body as she's dying. It may be a film whose allegorical message is that images/art is dangerous and threatens to ruin the real, authentic relations between people, but the iconophilia of the piece certainly undermines any such simplistic readings.

(Maybe this was pretty obvious to everyone but me. Perhaps I was watching the movie with the wrong glasses. Perhaps I am my own best/worst case study in the failure of this kind of reading.)

In this it has a lot in common with pretty much all of Edgar Allen Poe's brilliant stories about women being killed as they are made into art (there are any number of these, and of course these were written for mass consumption, and of course Americans tend to read them as kitsch, I think he's a great writer, which is a sign I have not yet earned total assimilation). And the movie I watched on Wednesday night, Roger Corman's "Bucket of Blood" from 1959.

This movie presents all the hallmarks of the wax museum fear in super-perfect setting of a beatnik cafe. The movie begins with the Uber-Beatnik proclaiming the deadness of people who are not artists and expressing his opposition to the deadness of "graham crackers" (ie kitsch). He importantly begings the film by saying "There is nothing but art." Life is art. However, he doesn't grasp the possibly fatal consequences of this statement. Nor does he seem to realize the contradictions involved in this sentiment, but that's the contradiction this film explores.

A little later, the feminine, weird busby admiringly quotes the passage back to the poet, and the poet is taken aback. He explains to his friends that he doesn't memorize his poems, in fact he doesn't write down his poems because he doesn't want to repeat himself; to repeat oneself is death. This doesn't stop the busboy from repeating the line later to a bourgeois couple who's come to tourist-gawk at the beatniks. Their reaction is: :"Oh,you must be an artist!" From the very start, the movie sets up this attraction/repulsion of repetition, of artifice; the threat of art is that it may destroy the authentic. For one person, the blurring between art and life means spontaneity in both; for the other, it means the artificialization of life. (We're back to the Ranciere quote about kitsch being the blurring of art and life.)

The great thing about the setting is that the cafe, supposed icon of "community" authenticity, is already turning into an art show, wax museum of sorts. It is full of beats who perform the roles as beats, narcs who look for drug dealers, and tourists who come to look at the beats who are really narcs looking for the real beats who are supposedly drug dealers. Everybody's an actor in this show!

Drugs here seems to be the secret agent behind the plot. And drugs seem to play a similar role as aesteticism: it creates a scene, a role, a costume. It even aesteticizesour senses, makes the world more like art, more like a wax museum. Not surprisingly, it's the real druggies who - complete in uniforms (tellingly army hats) - are the ones who offer the bourgeois couple a tourist tour of the counter culture.

The busby accidentally kills his landlady's cat and to cover up his crime by turning the cat into a clay sculpture (by simply covering it in clay, leaving in the knife, all ultra-Poe). This finally makes the busboy into an artist. Suddenly he's acclaimed at the cafe and bourgeois art enthusiasts want to buy his art. Unfortunately, one new fan gives him some heroin, and one of the narcs witnesses this. In a freak-out moment the busboy kills the narc with a frying pan. And what does he do? He turns the narc into his latest artwork, a life-size man with a split skull. Art isn't perhaps life but death.

The problem is of course how to avoid artist block. To do so, the busboy kills a beautiful woman and turns not just the woman but the act of strangling her into a statue (she's naked on a chair, having a scarf around her neck, visibly being strangled). Ultimately, the beat cafe stages a whole show of the busboy's artwork. Unfortunately the clay starts coming off,and the woman the busboy is in love with is horrified, especially when he then offers to turn her into artwork, thus immortal. Well, there's a big chase scene which ends with the busboy hanging himself as the final artwork ("Hanging Man" - suggesting some kind of intertext with Eliot).

This is another example of a movie that is about the deathiness of artifice, the opposition between real community and performances, but that totally undermines this simplistic message with just he awesome kitschy imagery. And in that tension between the moral and the image, the tenor and the vehicle, is a much more interesting take on art.

And it's of course totally essential that the Uber-Beat is very macho (with beard, muscular) while the busboy is very feminine, impotent, with the posture of a chronic masturbator. He freaks out when approached by a woman suitor. He's the "soft surrealist," the violent femme.


Recently someone informed me that Eve Sedgwick had already in the early 90s come up with a more detailed, nuanced reading of the kind of binarism I have been reading in Silliman's rigor-vs-softness rhetoric in her book "The Epistemology of the Closet." Here's a list of binaries associated guided by hetero-homo:

"I'll ague that the now chronic modern crisis of homo/heterosexual definition has affected our culture through its ineffacable marking partiuclary of the categories..."


A lot of these binaries seem to be played out in the film as well.

What makes the poetry discussion interesting to me is the way it works on secrecy/initiation and public/private. A secret community is interesting. I'm obviously not anti-community as some people on the Net have suggested.

One might also read this as a kind of Lacanian parable: the real is not the community but the trauma that has to be symbolized, turned into art in order for the symbolic order to function.

There's one more thing that intrigues me about the movie and that's the relationship of the busboy's titles and the title of the movie,Bucket of Blood. The busboy gives his work very factual titles, "Dead Cat" etc. But Corman names his film, not "Film about Death and Art" but "Bucket of Blood," referring in part to a very gruesome image in the film and in part metaphorically to the film as a whole. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I thought it was worth noting.


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