Noir

“FOR MY PART I KNOW NOTHING WITH ANY CERTAINTY BUT THE SIGHT OF THE STARS MAKES ME DREAM” (Vincent van Gogh)

Pippa RathborneWoman reading Vickie Lester’s novel “It’s In His Kiss”  at night. Photo © Martin Hübscher

LISTEN TO THE FIRST CHAPTER OF It’s In His Kiss
on Vickie Lester’s brilliant blog
Beguiling Hollywood

on which each apparently effortless post strikes deep behind the razzle-dazzle to give insight into the design and inspiration, humour and human cost that go into creating the glamour of classic film-making.

All these qualities are evident in Vickie Lester’s fiction.

It is easy to dream when we look at a starlit sky, more difficult to represent it, even harder to understand how it was made.

“IT SHOULD BE CLEAR THAT PUTTING LITTLE WHITE DOTS
ON A BLUE-BLACK SURFACE IS NOT ENOUGH””
(Vincent van Gogh)

The most comprehensive and authoritative site I know about dramatic and comedic arts in all media, from historic to present times, is Sarah Vernon’s Rogues and Vagabonds, rich in articles and illustrations, edited by someone who understands theatre through and through.

Another recommended site dedicated to classic movies, combining charm with informed criticism, is Silver Screenings.

For down-to-earth reviews of popular films, I enjoy the wisdom of Pete Johnson (who is wise about everything) and Vinnieh.

Epistolary

readingheloiseBernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?

What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.

What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.

The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.

Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London

Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.

It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.

But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.

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Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)

And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:

Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.

Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.

The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..

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Facing the world (2) through Beguiling Hollywood

“I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”
Line delivered by Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, 1932

garbo-clarence-s-bull-1929-the-kissPortrait of Greta Garbo in The Kiss, 1929 by the great Hollywood stills photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Image: Beguiling Hollywood © Vickie Lester 2014

Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? retold in the wittiest, most sophisticated blog in the west – Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, “Greta, it’s unbelievable that you two have never met—Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.” Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, I’m humble in your presence,” and on and on. Garbo said, “Thank you very much. Next?” And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed.

Read the full, illustrated story on Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Orson Welles’ mischievous anecdote about a goddess so world-weary she is bored with being worshipped contains an allegory of acedia, the state of mind that drives people to retreat from responsibility to lonely indifference to their existence.

The shadows of facts and guesses about Welles, Marlene and Garbo loom over the tale, along with the suspicion that more than one of them was sending up the others.

Welles and Garbo both suffered from depression which has been diagnosed since as bipolar disorder; Marlene and Garbo are rumoured to have been lovers, many years before the party at which, according to Welles, he introduced them for the first time.

The affair might be a writer’s sexual fantasy turned into lucrative gossip, but it could also be an imagined consummation of an attraction between two powerful, androgynous rivals, an historical fiction with pyschological truth.

None of them corrected the received impressions of their private lives, or revealed their most desperate feelings, when they faced the world. The self needs protecting from exposure to other people if it is to stay true. You don’t know what they will do to it.

Orson Welles deflects all the latent sexual feelings, self-aggrandisement and fears of worthlessness into an amusing piece of apocrypha.

As Vickie Lester succinctly puts it, “truth or fiction?”, meaning, it doesn’t matter, art in the form of a funny story has been born.

Both are true; one reveals the outward parade of facts, the other what was going on inside people’s heads, their thoughts and passions, and secrets.

Myth and history interweave, informing each other, and it’s up to us to treat them as allies, not irreconciliable forces. We can’t understand one if we ignore the other.

It is a universal truth that could not have been illustrated without Vickie Lester, who has published her own beguiling Hollywood murder-mystery, It’s In His Kiss.

Foreshades of Grey (6)

or, The Royal Stag

The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.

louis XV

Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.

Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.

How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.

Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.

Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (3)

LiaisonsDangereuses2

Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 10 ‘O mon ami, lui dis-je… Pardonne-moi mes torts, je veux les expier à force d’amour’, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1796 edition) Image source: Wikipedia

LiaisonsDangereuses fragonardXLIV

Illustration by Fragonard of Letter 44 ‘Je ne lui permis de changer ni de situation ni de parure’
for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

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Illustration by Marguerite Gérard, who was the sister-in-law and pupil of Fragonard, of Letter 96 ‘Valmont entrant dans la chambre de Cécile endormie’ for 1796 edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Image source: Wikipedia

The greatest novel about erotic power, gender politics and psychological manipulation was written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and first published in 1782. It became famous again towards the end of the 20th century when it was adapted into a play (1985) and subsequently a screenplay (1988) by Christopher Hampton. There have been several other adaptations, in period and modern dress, including the 1959 French film directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jeanne Moreau, the TV mini-series starring Catherine Deneuve (2003) and the Hollywood teenage treatment in three films.

Its influence extends far beyond officially credited versions; Merteuil and Valmont have reappeared in different incarnations ever since, as sexual, social or political schemers, because Laclos demonstrated psychopathological prototypes in their characters.

The original epistolary book is unsurpassed, both for the shock at the amorality and cruelty inherent in civilized society, and the subtlety of Laclos’ understanding of human nature, including his recognition of sexual equality far ahead of his time.

boltfragonard

Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Fragonard painted many voyeuristic, sexually suggestive scenes, far more blatantly erotic than the insouciance of The Swing – naked young girls rolling about with fluffy dogs, that sort of thing – with his characteristic joyful lightness of touch, but this painting, as noted on WGA, shows signs of a serious moral involvement on the artist’s part. There’s none of Boucher’s artificial pastoral sauciness; there’s real violence in the strong diagonals, the turbulent swirl of her skirts, the closest to a condemnation of forced seduction as rape we will find in Rococo art. “No” means no, here. The woman could be the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, struggling with her conscience as she succumbs to Valmont.