Friday, July 29, 2011

The Fiery, Towering Phallus

As if inspired by the nine sister Muses of Greek myth—or maybe I’m still being held sway by Susan Heyward’s entry for ‘Queer cinema’ and her snippet about Queer theory—I found myself motivated to take a slightly slanted turn when viewing Towering Inferno. But before I even delve into those infernal depths of semiotic lust, assertions of patriarchal virility, and, yes, simulated gay sex concealed among the smoldering shrapnel of this disaster flick from ’74, let me address the points Maurice Yacowar makes about disaster films in general in his essay, “The Bug in the Rug.”
Firstly, Yacowar notes that “people [in disaster films] are most dramatically punished for placing their faith in their own works and losing sight of their maker. So their edifices must crumble around them.” (p.279); this succinctly summarizes Towering Inferno. Furthermore, Yacowar lists the conventions of disaster films and, in the context of Towering Inferno, is uncannily close to the mark. Firstly, he describes the first convention as one without a “distancing in time, place, or costume…the threatened society is ourselves” (p.284) In Towering Inferno’s case, the timeline appears to be contemporary San Francisco of the 1970’s; perhaps, only slightly out of step with our own timeline. By that, I mean that the technology appearing within the Glass Tower seems to be advanced and outside of our own timeline—or rather our own timeline during the late 20th century. With a vast and spacious security monitoring room complete with blinking lights that signify some level of importance, the constant chattering of computers tabulating their results, and an endless sea of symmetrical knobs and dials that, if turned, might mean the difference between order and chaos for the next 2.75 hours of your life. Additionally, each floor of the towering glass phallus appears to be furnished with a miniaturized version of this advanced monitoring system—each with its own set of lights, knobs, and dials. Thus, I suggest that Towering Inferno is a many-worlds interpretation of 1970’s America where, unlike our own reality, theirs is one that has attained a slightly higher level of technological advancement.  Still, it’s close enough to our own.
Yacowar’s second convention listed is that “the basic imagery of the disaster film would be disaster…spectacular destruction” (p.284). Thanks to alcoholic electrical engineer, Roger Simmons, choice in substandard wiring, the Glass Tower is doomed for the most spectacular of destructions. The third convention in disaster films revolves around an “entire cross-section of society…usually represented in the cast” (p.284); in Towering Inferno, not so much. Other than OJ Simpson supervising all of that high-tech surveillance gadgetry and some random firefighter, this cast is about as white as they come. Sure, the aged, deaf, and obese are represented but they’re all lily-white. So, here, Yacowar might be describing other disaster films but not Towering Inferno. Though he does note that the various stars in the film “depend upon their familiarity from previous films, rather than developing a new characterization. Plot more than character is emphasized…In The Towering Inferno an inherited sentiment plays around Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn repeats his corrupt politician…and Richard Chamberlain reprises his corrupt all-American” (p285); nevertheless, 99.999996% of this cast—including its extras—is of the Caucasian persuasion.
Yacowar’s fourth convention asserts that “the disaster film often dramatizes class conflict” (p.285), which for this film is true. However, the class divide is simplified: working class is represented by the average-joe firefighter, while the upper class is indicated by anyone who can afford the luxuriant comforts contained within the Glass Tower. Though, in the context of the film, there is an obvious class divide and not much is done to question it or, at the very least, offer some scintilla of all-illuminating insight into the irony that it’s the working-class firefighters that must rescue, protect, and clean up the opulent upper class’ mess. As is often the case, it’s the working-class that must deliver the rich from their evil pride and vanity, and be the better of the two classes, overriding their socioeconomic differences to maintain the illusion that all life is precious and sacred (praise the angels!). Ultimately, the firefighting joe receives little to no recognition for risking his life to save the wealthy, which logically leads back to the perpetuation of the corrupt system of excess and big business.
A perfect example of the wealthy interacting with the working class materializes between Battalion Chief, Mike O’Hallorhan, and Glass Tower owner, James Duncan. As O’Hallorhan enters the 135th floor to inform the attendees of the Tower’s ceremonial extravaganza that they must vacate the building, Duncan confronts him and attempts to exert his social and financial, O’Hallorhan responds, “Alright, it’s your building but it’s our fire. Let’s get these people the hell outta here.” Duncan growls back, “Hold it! The mayor’s out there. Do you want me to pull rank on you?” O’Hallorhan acts as if he expected such a response and appears unimpressed, which nonpluses and infuriates Duncan; in the end, the rich must yield to the working class.
Yacowar’s fifth convention is the use of “gambling [as] a recurrent device” (p.285). Yep, Towering Inferno’s got it. When the emergency helicopter attempts a landing on the Glass Tower’s roof to rescue those rich white people stuck inside, O’Hallorhan tells the building’s architect, Doug Roberts, to get ten people out on the roof. Roberts takes paper, pencil, and a large brandy snifter and hands it over to Susan Franklin, his romantic interest, to do the dirty work. That’s right it’s “high-rise roulette”, for the landed gentry tonight! Mesdames et Messieurs, draw a number and wait your turn; wielding wads of cash from your wallets ain’t gonna get you on that chopper any sooner. Producer and co-director, Irwin Allen, should be applauded for transfiguring Towering Inferno from a mindless disaster film into an illuminating commentary on the socioeconomic illusions of our contemporary culture. Whatevs.
Skipping over Yacowar’s sixth and seventh conventions, I move to his eight: “The characters’ isolation is exacerbated by the various conflicts between them…people must unite against calamity…personal and social differences pale beside the assaulting forces in nature” (p.287). Lisolette Mueller dismisses Harlee Caliborne’s confessions that he’s a conman all for one last strained stab at love. Susan Franklin decides to sacrifice her dreams to be managing editor of a magazine for a life of domestic bliss with Doug Roberts and his baby-blues. Dan Bigelow no longer cares that he and Lorrie, his secretary, have surreptitiously been having an affair as they succumb to the purifying blaze that will cleanse them both of their adulterous sins. Security Officer Harry Jernigan, the token black man, saves both Mrs. Allbright, the token deaf woman, and Elkie, the indifferent cat.
The ninth convention advocates that the disaster film shares “the further sense that savagery continues to underlie a pretense to civilization. Thus disasters usually breed a lawless anarchy” (p.288). In reference to Towering Inferno, Yacowar offers, “They [civilized humanity] build towers higher than their [the firefighters’] hoses can reach” (p.288), and that “peoples works are dangerous…even the earphone transistors…in The Towering Inferno deafen the boy to the danger around him” (p.288). On a purely reptilian-base-of-the-brain level, Towering Inferno endeavors to visually remind and reconnect we hairless apes with our repressed lawless and godless origins. As Duncan struggles to direct throngs of tuxedos and aerosol hairstyles to use the scenic elevators, one of the express elevators’ doors slide open and it’s every man, woman, and full-length evening gown for him-/her-/itself. Another scene of savagery happens much later in the film when that dastardly Roger Simmons—who’s been intravenously connected to the 135th-floor bar all night yet somehow never appears the least bit intoxicated—challenges Yacowar’s fifth and makes a mad dash for the breeches buoy in a vain attempt for survival, pushing off and kicking at a gaggle of not-so-gentlemen who’ve also decided not to wait their turn. Proof that civility is a myth or God doesn’t give a rat’s ass…or both.
Jumping to his thirteenth convention because numbers ten through twelve are either irrelevant to Towering Inferno or redundant, Yacowar discusses the hero of the disaster film and how he is “usually a layman with practical sense but without specialized knowledge” (p.289). He even mentions the Inferno’s very own Doug Roberts who is “a specialist, an architect, but his knowledge is leavened by his rusticity” (p.289), which is true, but he makes no mention of firefighter Mike O’Hallorhan who serves as the working-class hero. Towering Inferno is noticeably different in its approach to the heroic archetype, imbuing both Roberts and O’Hallorhan with heroic qualities as well as equal screen-time.
Roberts is the former counter-cultural college student who would’ve hightailed it to Canada if he’d been drafted and O’Hallorhan is the high-school graduate who was prepared to fight and die for his country if he’d been drafted. As Yacowar notes, “The disaster [film] cycle of the 1970s followed the slow ending of the American presence in Vietnam” (p.287), and, with that in mind, creating a hero duality between Roberts and O’Hallorhan—watching their blind strides to reach an understanding of the other amidst the chaos surrounding them—is quite telling…if not, confined to the cultural and political chaos of its era.
…And I didn’t even get to my rather long-winded dissemination about the Glass Tower being symbolic of one transcendent, dominating phallus that: is eternally petrified by patriarchal machismo; is riddled with the fires of desire that work their way upward to reach final orgasm; partakes in a homosexual act with the Peerless Building; and lastly reaches its orgasmic climax as cascades of water are ejaculated from the 135th floor. Oh well, perhaps another time.

Grant, Barry Keith. "The Bug in the Rug." Film Genre Reader III  . Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2003. 277-295.
The Towering Inferno. Dir. John  Guillermin. Perf. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Perils on the Poop Deck: the Voyeurs 3
Imagine my shock upon reading the entry for ‘Queer cinema’ in Susan Heyward’s Cinema Studies and gradually realizing that my knack for subverting just about any film I’ve ever seen with a homosexual subtext had an actual name—Queer theory—having been in practice since the era that gave us Reaganomics and Rubik’s Cube.  I automatically felt this overwhelming blush of embarrassment, uttering under my breath, “So, it’s called Queer theory, huh? Well, it looks like I missed the boat on that one.” And speaking of boats… The film, Billy Budd, is awash with maritime mis-en-scenes and seamen (or is it semen?) adrift in the bare-chested posturing of homoerotic semiotics, phallic extensions, and dialogic double-entendres—all under the purview of a queer-theoretical lens, mind you.
Before I get too involved in the examination, exposal, and transduction of these diegetic gay signifiers in Billy Budd, let’s look at Queer theory’s description. According to Heyward, “Queer theory can open up texts and lead us to read texts that seem straight differently—or view them from a new and different angle. Thus queer reading can reveal that you are watching (reading) something far more complex than you originally thought you were” (p.309). This aptitude to supplant the deeply-rooted heterosexual traditions instituted in most contemporary cultures and enforced by the doctrines of patriarchal society isn’t as easy as it sounds. However, as Heyward noted, once such a subversive interpretation has been attained, it can lend clarity and insight to an otherwise stagnant sociocultural assertion/assumption.
Under the scrutinization of this queer lens, Billy Budd transcends its rather narrow, narrative limitations based on 18th –century British naval history, in 1960’s cultural norms, and under the watchful gaze of Hollywood’s  Production Code Authority (PCA); thereby, attaining queer-political transfiguration within the film’s 123-minute run. As Harry Benshoff notes in his essay, “Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film,” from the book Sleaze Artists, such films like Billy Budd “raised significant and complex questions about masculinity and sexual identity and that the borders between male homosocial and homosexual desire…were not always clear cut” (p.90). In this cinematic adaptation of the Herman Melville novella, we find these questions manifesting themselves in their totality within the cores of Billy Budd’s three main characters: Master-at-Arms Claggart, Captain Vere, and Billy Budd himself. Upon a queer-theoretical reading of the film, each of these characters assumes a pre-Stonewall perspective on homosexuality in a society and culture firmly entrenched in heterosexual society and culture.
For instance, John Claggart “can best be understood as a repressed homosexual: he is both attracted to and repulsed by Billy…and so will not allow himself to be physically or emotionally touched by him” (Benshoff, p.78). Within the films first 15 minutes, Claggart’s fascination with Budd is established as the master-at-arms exchanges prolonged glances with young seaman. Claggart’s penetrative stares at Budd do not go unnoticed either. Amidst the film’s first flogging scenes, the camera cuts from Claggart’s stare to Budd’s several times with a slightly extended cut of Capt. Vere observing the two men’s exchanged glances in-between; this third gaze—Vere’s invisible gaze—prefigures Claggart’s voyeuristic fascination with Budd throughout the rest of the film as well as an eroticized fetishization of a later flogging. Vere’s third stare establishes the ‘love triangle’ aboard the Avenger and the focus for the rest of my discussion.
Love triangles aside, Claggart’s sexual repression is transmogrified by his own self-loathing over internal desires into externalized acts of sadism disguised as anal-retentive adherence to military rules and regulations. This adherence is made visible in the master-at-arms’ rigid body posture, immaculate attire, and constant tapping of his cane to the polished sheen of his black boots; in fact, one could argue that Claggart’s cane is a semiotic extension of the phallus. His disgust for his own carnal needs and self-sexualized body manifests itself via snarling reproaches to anyone who dares to touch him. This is exactly what happens when crew-member, Jenkins, approaches Claggart after a homoerotic ‘test of strength’ has ended between Budd and himself. Upon being grabbed by Jenkins, Claggart lashes out with his cane at him and growls, “Watch what you’re doing. Don’t you ever touch me!” The master-at-arms’ outward disgust over physical contact cannot disguise his inner, primal desire to touch and be touched. This unfulfilled, subconscious lust is externally expressed through Claggart’s constant assaults on the crewmen via his flailing cane, and thus, by logical extension, the weapon master is molesting them with his substitute phallus.
  Additionally, Claggart is more than a mere case-study in homosexual repression; he is also a paradigmatic example of ‘the bitter queen.’ This bitterness materializes later in the film when Budd attempts to have a conversation with Claggart on the eve before both men will meet their demise. While Claggart glares out across the roiling waves of ocean beneath him, Budd asks him if it would be alright for him to stay topside awhile. Claggart almost enviously replies, “I suppose the handsome sailor may do many things forbidden to his messmates.” This statement is an echo of an earlier scene where Claggart purposely bumps into Budd and knocks his food rations out of his hands in order to have Jenkins clean it up; here, the master-at-arms remarks to the young seaman, “Handsomely done, lad. But then handsome is as handsome does.” However, the latter of Claggart’s two ‘handsome’ comments directed at Budd is more of a repressed homosexual desire for Billy, while the former is one of covetousness.
Regardless, the topside conversation between Claggart and Budd the evening before the two rendezvous with their fates is also important because Billy astutely observes the source of the master-at-arms’ misery: “I [Budd] think that sometimes you [Claggart] hate yourself.” Benshoff makes note of this scene as well, stating that Budd “comes close to diagnosing Claggart as an ego-dystonic homosexual…but the cause of that self-hatred is never made manifest” (p.78). Additionally, Claggart’s use of words like ‘fool’ and ‘ignorant’ in the context of this tête-à-tête to describe Billy are meant to belittle and berate the young sailor; however, Budd is blithely unaware of the master-at-arms’ slanderous, indirect jibes toward him. In fact, Billy utters a sincere line laced in double meaning when he remarks to Claggart, “I’ve never met a man like you before.” Such a statement might be alluding to Claggart’s misery or to an attraction that Budd himself is feeling for the master-at-arms. Keep in mind, Claggart hasn’t been the only one caught ogling by the camera; Budd too has been returning his stares in kind.
However, unlike Claggart’s repressed homosexual—and, therefore, an older generation of gay men who kept their closets locked up tightly—Budd is representative of a new breed of younger homosexual. He does not loathe who or what he is like Claggart because he feels no shame over it. He is ignorant to his sexual ambiguity. Budd could be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, but it doesn’t appear that he would be unfazed by any label. Billy is indicative of the ‘60s youth culture, its push to re-evaluate accepted societal norms, and, most importantly, its burgeoning sexual liberation. His youthful exhilaration exhibits a genuine affection in body contact, which is antithetical to Claggart’s repulsion of being touched. For example, Budd doesn’t mind the heated, close contact he is sharing with fellow messmate, Jenkins, during their fight below decks nor does he seem to mind that his genitals are pressed and brushing up against his opponent’s—a scene where director, Peter Ustinov, has focused the camera’s lens upon the two men’s pelvic regions—in fact, he appears to enjoy it; thereby, metamorphosing a wrestling match into a lovers’ embrace.
And much like his invisible voyeurism close to the beginning of the film, Captain Vere is an unseen queer caught between Claggart’s Scylla of self-loathing homosexual and Budd’s Charybdis of sexual confidence and fluidity. Unlike Claggart, Vere does not hate his homosexuality; however, he doesn’t embrace it like Billy does either. Instead, the good Captain gives the air that he is above both. In contemporary gay culture, Vere would be deemed a ‘sophistafag’—outwardly logical, highly enlightened, and higher than the straightest highbrow; both sex and sexual repression are below him.
Vere’s sophistafaggotry in Billy Budd is first recognizable in the scene where he materializes topside, bespectacled with book in hand. The Captain exudes a façade that implies that he is too busy reading his novel to notice his crew working diligently around him; however, this ruse is ultimately foiled. As he peers upward, Capt. Vere notices Billy carrying out his topforemanly duties high above the Avenger. Yet again, Vere believes himself to be the invisible voyeur/warrior as he catches a biblio-shaded glance at Budd’s derriere. The anatomical focus of Vere’s attention is unmistakable since, visually, his eyelining mirrors the direction of the angle of his book; furthermore, Billy’s most pronounced body part from the Captain’s perspective is the youthful sailor’s buttocks. With that said, Vere’s voyeuristic invisibility dematerializes as Budd catches the Captain checking out his ass. Billy simply responds with a smile and a wave of ‘hello’; thus, sending Vere into a stolid embarrassment and ending his rapturous few moments of shedding his guise of sophistafaggotry and letting his bookworm squirm with sexual desire.
Director, Peter Ustinov, deftly interweaves this torrid triangle of homosexual desire throughout the film and summarizes each man’s sexual identities in the Captain’s cabin where Billy is confronted by Claggart and his accusations of Budd’s mutiny, and during the trial of the young sailor for the death of the master-at-arms. Here, Claggart is the unadulterated embodiment of the bitter queen: since he cannot have Billy, the master-at-arms has taken it upon himself to make certain that no-one else will either. Like some spurned lover—or, perhaps, like some jealous lover sensing Vere’s attraction to Budd—Claggart meets with Vere in private and accuses Budd of conspiring with other crew members against the Avenger.
When Budd is brought in to confront his accuser, Claggart’s words are inundated with psychological self-projections and dialogical double meaning: “This William Budd acting so out of angry resentment against impressments…against this ship, this service…against the officers, the mates, and me. And urges them to the outrage of mutiny…I surprised him in the forechain…and both saw and heard him conspire with known malingerers…men who continually growl about unfair pay.”   Obviously, Claggart is the one who is filled with bitter ‘resentment’ over his unrequited love for Budd. The master-at-arms’ choice of the words ‘mates’ and ‘urges’ suggests further jealousy. His line about surprising Budd in the ‘forechain’ could easily be interchangeable with foreskin. Claggart’s accusation that Budd is hanging around with ‘known malingerers’ growling about not getting adequately paid intimates something seedier; perhaps, a suggestion that Billy is a whore—harsh words spoken by Claggart and like a true spurned lover.
Brought about by Claggart’s soap-operatic accusations and/or sensing that Billy isn’t likely to be a chubby chaser, Captain Vere’s own concealed jealousies rear their ugly mastheads during the trial of Budd. Here, Vere chooses not to embrace Budd—and, by logical extension, Billy’s liberated sexuality—but to embrace his sophistafaggotry and quash any sexual desire he might have for the young sailor by hiding behind his esteemed logic. Regardless of his own personal feelings for Budd, the Captain  doggedly pursues the topforeman’s death with lustful obsession, which is striking similar to Claggart’s obsessed outburst of mutinous accusations all in pursuit of seeing Budd hanged. Vere protests  the secret court’s verdict of Budd’s innocence by boldly stating, “Which one of us here has rights? It is my duty, and I must perform it…your verdict sets him [Billy] free, and so would I wish to do…We cannot have warm hearts betraying heads which should be cool…Our consciences are private matters…but we are public men…I feel…for myself revulsion, shame, and rage.” By hiding behind the Mutiny Acts Provision Vere spares himself from the temptation of the lowly sexual act of carnal lust, while simultaneously persuades the members of the court to switch their decision from one of ‘innocent’ to that of ‘guilty.’
Both Vere and Claggart deal with their sexual demons in different ways, but both men reach the same decision: the use of their military rank to condemn Budd to death for his good looks (and the powers of temptation that they contain), his sexual freedom and ambiguity, and his inability to give them what they desire most—his sexual intimacy and affection. In the film’s final moments after Budd has been hanged, a broken-up Vere loses his sophistafag cool and remarks, “I’m only a man not fit to do the work of God or the devil,” and walks away from his duties as Captain of the Avenger to hide the tears he has shed over Budd’s hanging. In the end, the whole crew meets a similar fate as Billy’s off the Spanish Coast as the Avenger is sunk into the ocean deep by a French naval vessel. Under the lens of Queer theory, Billy Budd is ultimately a movie comparable to a women’s film period piece— a gay weepie or ‘weepenis’ if you will—and, yes, I did just go there.
Benshoff, Harry M.. "Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film." Sleaze Artists:  Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. pp. 71-95.
Billy Budd. DVD. Dir. Peter Ustinov. Perf. Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Terence Stamp. Warner Home Video, 2007.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies:  the Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

A Sub-A Claws to Notes on Camp
Lori Williams—the actress who played the suicide-blonde bombshell, Billie, in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!—recalls in the DVD release’s ‘extras’ featurette, Go, Pussycat, Go!, that director Russ Meyer described the film “mainly as being camp. He [Meyer] wanted the characters to be kind of cartoonish. You know, bigger than life because during the filming I would say things to him like…’Russ, who lays across a car and talks to people?...Who does this?’ He said, ‘You do because that’s what this movie is [campy]. If you don’t go for it, the movie is not going to work.’” Williams’ recollection of Meyer’s overarching vision for Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! clarifies the coda to which Meyer ascribed to: utilization of the unbelievable in order to make his film believable. And he was totally correct; Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! would neither have been a convincing film if it weren’t campy nor would it have endured as a cult classic under any other context.
I suppose what I find most surprising about Meyer’s idea of employing camp in order to attain a sense of plausibility in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! is that it doesn’t appear anywhere within Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. In fact, out of her 58 notes on the subject, Sontag only touches upon the issue of ‘seriousness’ in #26 where she states, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously” (p.6). Now, while such a statement is true of Meyer’s film, it isn’t addressing the exploitation of this art form for the purpose of appearing credible. Further down her list in #36, Sontag explains that camp is a “sensibility of failed seriousness…Camp refuses…the harmonies of traditional seriousness” (p.8). Again,  Sontag’s elucidations speak truth concerning camp but appear to elide Meyer’s employment of it; so, let’s continue to look further down her list…
In #41, Sontag remarks that “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious” (p.8), which is antithetical to Meyer’s use of camp to make his movie believable—or, if you will, serious. However, in her next breath, Sontag states, “More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (p.8); though this veers closer to Meyer’s use of camp in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, it still doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate to the director’s ethos. Lastly, Sontag tackles the issue of seriousness once again in #55 of her notes: “Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic” (p.11). Again, I find no fault with Sontag’s ideas concerning camp here, but her statement doesn’t seem to account for Russ Meyer’s use of camp as a tool to build the believable.
Perhaps, it’s as Sontag states in #30: “the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it” (p.6); however, considering that Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! was released in 1965—one year after Sontag wrote Notes on Camp—I find it highly unlikely that enough time had passed for the meaning of camp to evolve and change to incorporate Meyer’s use of it.  Moreover, in #19, Sontag observes, “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious” (p.5), which is the exact opposite of Meyer’s intention. Likewise, in #20 of her notes, Sontag elaborates, “Intending to be campy is always harmful” (p.5); this too is antithetical to Meyer’s use of camp. It should be noted that Sontag’s aforementioned statement was in reference to the intentional utilization of camp in order to be campy but not its employment in order to be serious. Overall, Susan Sontag makes no mention of exploiting camp for the purpose of appearing believable, which is the foundation for Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!
Sontag also argues that “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical” (p.2), but, in the case of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, anything could further from the truth. In her essay “The Sweeter the Kitten the Sharper the Claws: Russ Meyer’s Bad Girls,” Kristen Hatch proposes that Russ Meyer’s exploitation films were awash in the sexual politics of their time: “they [Meyer’s films] were produced within the context of a rapidly changing social structure, in which the very definition of gender roles was being challenged. These changes contained a not-so-subtle threat to masculinity and, by extension, to a social order that rested on male authority” (p.145). Considering that part of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! rested on the exaggerated, cartoonish, and, therefore, campy physiques of the film’s triumvirate of pedal-to-the-metal femme fatales—Varla, Rosie, and Billie—and that their “breasts had become a sign of the women’s sexual appetite” (Hatch, p.151), Sontag’s stance that camp cannot be political has been overturned.
Additionally, the extreme posturing airs of sarcasm and attitude—and, as a result, their outlandish one-liners, caustic rebuts, and witty repartee—embodied in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!’s three main characters are further emblematic of the film’s political subtext. As Hatch elaborates, “Sexual frustration plays a major role in Meyer’s films…Meyer’s women are characterized by a voracious desire for pleasure…that, when it meets with restrictions, has a tendency to erupt into glorious bitchiness” This theatrical bitchiness is therefore symbolic of the film’s sexual politics as well.
So what does all of this ultimately mean? Well, it means that either Sontag came close to the true nature of camp but got it all wrong on the subjects of seriousness and politics and their interactive capabilities with camp or that she should’ve just waited a year and published her work after the release of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!. I’m sure if she had, Susan Sontag would’ve added a #59 to her list in order to account for Meyer’s ‘unbelievable to be believable’ model for the intentional utilization of camp. Then again, as Hatch states, “At the time of their release, far from being embraced by feminists, Meyer’s films were picketed by women who objected to his representations of female sexuality” (p.145).
Perhaps then, like the feminists during the era of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!‘s initial release, Susan Sontag wouldn’t have been able to see the sexual politics subtextually  interwoven into Meyer’s brand of camp and would’ve ended her notes with #58. After all, Sontag is the one who speculated that “time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it” (p.6). In other words, Meyer’s ‘unbelievable into believable’ model of camp—that is, camp with a cause—couldn’t be fully comprehended until many years after his films first saw their original, theatrical releases. Furthermore, his brand of sociopolitical, peepshow camp couldn’t be fully fathomed until decades later through a nostalgic lens.
Faster Pussycat... Kill! Kill! [1966] [DVD]. Dir. Russ Meyer. Perf. Haji, Tura Satana. Arrow Films, 2011.
Hatch, Kristen . "The Sweeter the Kitten, the Sharper the Claws." Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. pp.143-155.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From Extraordinary to Ordinary:
The Puritanical Plight of a Southern Jezebel

When I’m hanging out with some of my more cinematically-inclined friends, there’s a part of me that always feels…well, inadequate. While they recite Joan Crawford’s lines from Mildred Pierce or quote Rosalind Russel from The Women, I just sit there scratching my head like a Cro-Magnon trying to figure out fire. I’ve been told countless times that my golden-age-of-Hollywood benightedness is grounds for revoking my ‘gay card.’ What’s worse: I end up agreeing with them, feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment—or what I refer to as ‘diva envy’—because I haven’t latched onto some silver-screen actress like they have. My brushes with Dietrich or Crawford or Davis have been minimal, at best, and certainly not to the point of creating a shoebox shrine hidden away behind old winter clothes at the back of my closet. Regardless, the day after my rendezvous for libations with friends, those feelings of shame from the previous night will fade with my hangover, then I’ll absent-mindedly forget to add Shanghai Express or Dead Ringer to my Netflix queue; ultimately, leading to me tucking away those feelings of ‘diva envy’ until next outing. However, after watching Bette Davis in Jezebel, I felt that ‘diva envy’ unexpectedly (and prematurely) re-emerge once again.
There’s little denying that Bette’s portrayal of Julie Marsden is a tempestuous tour de force with all of the haughty bravado that her bustle will permit. Jezebel only fortifies the actress’ apotheosis from celestial status to Hollywood deity. From her opening scene, Davis’ equestrian entrance onto the film’s field of view diegetically asserts to that Miss Julie Marsden owns this show; in fact, it’s hard to tell if Bette was even acting at all. This inability to distinguish actress in period clothes from character in a period piece recalls Susan Hayward’s definition of a ‘star’ in her book Cinema Studies: “The audience has certain expectations of the star. The star is the point of synthesis between representation and identification…Hollywood tends to prefer the personifying star in the belief that audiences choose films in relation to stars and a knowledge, more or less, of what to expect…for example…the Bette Davis flouncing bitchiness” (p.383). And in Jezebel, there’s ‘flouncing bitchiness’ aplenty. Bette’s brassy flare for devil-may-care deviltry let’s you know that her role as Julie Marsden—who is pretty much Davis’ Southern, pre-Civil War era equivalent—will remain in control of the camera lens for the next 103 minutes. As Julie suavely sweeps up the folds of her riding skirt with the hook of her riding cane and sashays her unpunctual derreire into her own engagement party, she embodies the elite chic of every illustration that ever graced a 19th century fashion plate. Marsden’s commanding gestures and savoir-faire air signify that this New Orleans is very much hers—and hers alone; all others stand in her shadow or navigate by her star, but offer no competition. Her speedy meet’n’greet and hard-nosed joie de vivre as she thanks her guests, displays her magnetic superiority as monarch of the Southern social butterflies and, in turn, further secures Bette Davis a marble likeness amongst the statuary of  Hollywood goddesses.
Davis’ commanding performance as the socially domineering Marsden serves as a matroschka of territorial authority beyond the confines of Jezebel’s mise-en-scene, stepping out of the silver screen and into the subconscious minds of the moviegoers. Marsden is every bit the embodiment of what Molly Haskell refers to in her piece “The Woman’s Film” as one of “the ‘extraordinary’ woman. Haskell further elucidates that female characters in women’s films (or weepies…whichever you prefer) can be broken down into three categories: ‘ordinary’, ‘extraordinary’, and ‘ordinary into extraordinary’. Positing Davis/Marsden into the ‘extraordinary’ grouping, Haskell observes, “There are ‘extraordinary’ women—actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, and characters like Scarlett O’Hara and Jezebel—who are the exceptions to the rule, the aristocrats of their sex. Their point of view is singular, and in calling the shots they transcend the limitations of their sexual identities” (p. 431).
 Unfortunately, in Jezebel, this extraordinariness doesn’t last the entirety of the movie, and, if anything, calls for an additional category to be added to Haskell’s list: ‘extraordinary to ordinary’. In the final scenes of the film, Julie pleads with Amy—the wife of her old flame, Preston Dillard, and, until this point in the film, Marsden’s competition for Preston’s affections—to assist her in her reformation from manipulative temptress into self-sacrificing saint: “I ask for the chance to prove I can be brave and strong and unselfish. Help me, Amy. Help me make myself clean again as you’re clean.”  I find these last few scenes disconcerting and, quite frankly, unnecessary. Instead of maintaining her extraordinary status, Marsden willingly forces herself into a lesser rank, which is the antithetical opposite of Haskell’s third and final category for female roles in women’s films: ordinary to extraordinary. Marsden isn’t freeing herself “of puritanical thinking into enlightened self-interest” (Haskell, p. 432), but, rather, consciously choosing to diminish her freedoms and “adhere to a morality which demands that she stifle her own ‘illicit’ creative or sexual urges in support of a social code” (Haskell, p.430).
Furthermore, Jezebel’s final scenes also appear to fly in the face of Hayward’s assertion that “retribution for [the female protagonist’s] excess can wait until the last frames” (p.248) of the women’s films. In its place, Julie enthusiastically embraces her sainthood as she joins her yellow-fever-ridden, former fiancé, Preston, and virtuously looks onward as the two are carted off to meet their fates. Marsden’s about-face is not only out of character for the Southern debutante but also undermines the sheer magnitude of her filmic effectiveness; who wants to watch a queen bitch abdicate her throne because some whim of Victorian virtue has rushed over her in the last few minutes of the film? Not I. In turn, such an on-screen abdication diminishes Bette’s notorious ‘flouncing bitchiness’ and, ultimately,  my feelings of ‘diva envy.’ ...phew! I feel saved from embarrassment already.

Hayward, Susan. Cinema studies  the key concepts. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Jezebel (Restored and Remastered Edition). Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent. Warner Home Video, 2000. DVD.
Lopate, Phillip. American movie critics:  an anthology from the silents until now. New York: Library of America, 2006. Print.
The (Beauty) Mark of Zorro
According to reporter Rob Faubion, The Mark of Zorro “featuring Douglas Fairbanks, has been dubbed “Hollywood’s first action-adventure movie.” ( If such a statement is indeed correct, then the Fairbanks film was the father of all action film clichés, but that’s not the only first for this 1920 silent film. I will argue that The Mark of Zorro was also the first film to remove the middlebrowed middle man and enmesh the airy ideals of the highbrow with the escapism-seeking lowbrow; ultimately, creating a film comprised of multiplicity of cinematic firsts. Furthermore, I will examine whether The Mark of Zorro—in the historical context of its original release—was initially meant to be campy or whether camp was an reactionary causatum of nostalgia and changing meanings behind camp as it was assimilated into the American cultural lexicon.
As Russell Lynes observes in his Harper’s magazine article, “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow,” the lowbrow consumer “wants to be comfortable and to enjoy himself without having to worry about whether he has good taste or not…He doesn’t care whether movies are art…so long as he has fun while he is giving them his attention and getting a fair return of pleasure from his investment” (p.25). Lynes has also included a handy ‘highbrow to lowbrow’ chart, and places Western films under the ‘lowbrow entertainment’ category. Quite obviously Western films fulfill the ‘gun fights’ and ‘shoot-outs’ that Susan Hayward lists in her definition of ‘action films’ from her book, Cinema Studies.
Additionally, Hayward’s description of the action film corresponds to Lynes’ description of lowbrow escapism: “The motivation behind action films is pure escapism…any sense of guilty pleasure we derive from the thrill of it all is compensated for by the fact that we go to these films to escape everyday ordinariness and, moreover, to experience plenitude as a way of making up for the scarcity in our own lives” (Hayward, pp.5-6). Thus, the action film, by logical extension, would be considered lowbrow cinema, and, as Hayward points out, “Action movies are not new to Hollywood and can be dated back to as early as the 1930s, at least, and the swashbuckler film, with Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Errol Flynn being some of the first action heroes” (p.8). As a consequence of such a statement, one would assume that The Mark of Zorro is both an action film and lowbrow entertainment.
Likewise, with the action film, “excess is key and there is a great deal of ‘male swagger’” (Hayward, p.9). Hayward further elaborates on male swagger by stating that the “action hero embodies the tradition of its earliest courtly meaning whereby it referred to the swank of knights and nobles who would carry this swagger into battle” (p.10), and that—on the swagger spectrum, with brawn being at one end and brains at the other—there is also the action hero that falls somewhere in between and suffuses the two together: “They have the physical strength and display it; but there is that added element that theirs is also cerebral swagger” (pp.10-11). Within the context of The Mark of Zorro, the masked hero clad in black appears to fall into this third ‘male swagger’ category. As can be seen in all of Zorro’s sword-fighting scenes, he quite obviously has the physical swagger since he not only has the stamina to endure intense swordplay but the confidence necessary to maintain a devil-may-care flare with his rapier. Furthermore, Zorro is also imbued with cerebral swagger since he is capable of constantly outwitting and outsmarting his opponents with the tweak of his mustache. For instance, the first time the viewer is introduced to Zorro, we find him laughing nonchalantly at his enemies intimating that he knows something that they do not and that they are, on some level, slow-witted dullards, incapable of comprehending Zorro’s master-plan. While an example of both the hero’s cerebral and physical swagger manifests itself both in the forms of a 'cigarro'-smoking Zorro’s trickster-god flippancy and the element of comedy (and not camp) during his initial sword-fighting scene in the local tavern with the oafish Sergeant Gonzalez.
Similar to this cerebral/physical swagger duality embodied in its hero, The Mark of Zorro straddles the line between highbrow and lowbrow without entangling itself in the exploitative tentacles of the Hollywood middlebrow. In his piece, “The Photoplay of Action,” Vachel Lindsay points out, “The main merit of the movie [The Mark of Zorro] was that it was a direct challenge to all the Hollywood moralizers who said there was no such thing as a successful costume show” (p.7). Since the The Mark of Zorro symbolized a direct challenge to the Hollywood elite’s assumptions of what constitutes the formula for action film success, it is proof of freedom from middlebrow meddling.
Russell Lynes further points out that “if he [the lowbrow] likes grade-B double features, the highbrow blames that on the corrupting influence of the middlebrow moneybags of Hollywood” (p.25); in regards to The Mark of Zorro, this highbrow assumption falls short of the ‘mark’. For although “[Douglas] Fairbanks' 1920 film version was a smash success, rocketing its producer and star to the pinnacle of fame and fortune” (, The Mark of Zorro was still regarded as “a definite challenge to the wisdom of Hollywood” (Lindsay, p.8). In other words, Hollywood’s ‘middlebrow moneybags’ had little corrupting influence over Fairbanks’ silent film because they had assumed that a ‘costume show’ about a Spanish-colonial era Robin Hood would fail at the box office.
Additionally, The Mark of Zorro’s main star and producer, Douglas Fairbanks, refused to play by the Hollywood’s rules, and, in doing so, he simultaneously sabotaged the highbrow belief that lowbrow taste in films was instituted by the middlebrow and the middlebrow belief that the lowbrow consumer wouldn’t buy a ticket to see a jumped-up trickster hero. For standing his ground and proving the middlebrow movers and shakers of Tinsel Town incorrect, Fairbanks falls into that creative breed of “the professional man who…is primarily a doer and not a done-by” (Lynes, p.23), which places him in the highbrow category utilizing a lowbrow genre of film—the action film—as his medium of choice. Moreover, the fact that The Mark of Zorro “was generally praised by critics” (Lindsay, p.8) while proving to be a box-office success, suggests that Fairbanks accomplished the rare privilege of finding highbrow praise for a film genre that was more often than not considered lowbrow.
As for the issue of camp in The Mark of Zorro, I find it highly unlikely that the comedic elements of the film were meant to be campy. Considering that the first textual citation of camp can be found 1909 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in which “the term camp refers to behavior thought to be characteristic of male homosexuals” (O'Brien, p.104), I question whether Fairbanks was angling for what would’ve been considered a scandalous subtext to early 20th century moviegoers. Instead, the slapstick acrobatics and trickster-god motif that materializes as comedy in The Mark of Zorro, is more likely meant strictly for knee-jerk laughs from the audience—an audience not entirely ready for a sensibility with its origins in what was still considered a sexual perversion at the time of the film’s release.
Although, with that in mind, Zorro’s other half, Don Diego de la Vega, is without a doubt every bit the effeminate dandy. However, I argue that if anything this wasn’t an homage to camp or a secret code approving of the homosexual community, but rather a mocking jab at early 20th century ‘gay’ stereotypes of emasculated masculinity and effete effeminacy. While being forced into the courtship of Lolita Pulido, Don Diego limply utters, “My father insists that I get married. It’s an awful nuisance,” showing more affection for his silk handkerchief puppets than Lolita. Later on, after Captain Ramon has forced himself upon Lolita, her father, Don Carlos Pulido implores Don Diego to retaliate against Ramon to defend his daughter’s honor in a duel to which Diego replies, “So many unpleasant things happen—it is most fatiguing.” Of course, Don Diego’s spit-curled dandification and listlessness unbecoming of a caballero is just a ruse to dissuade anyone from connecting Diego to Zorro, and, therefore, eliminates even the slightest scintilla that Don Alejandro de la Vega’s posturing progeny is the masked hero.
It is only through the evolving meaning of camp over time and through the lens of nostalgic retrospect, that Don Diego’s limp-wristed posturing takes on a new meaning and Fairbanks’ performance is re-appropriated and then regurgitated with a brand-spanking-new camp subtext. Curiously enough, it would take Hollywood 60+ years to finally exploit these qualities in The Mark of Zorro that are now deemed camp with the release in 1981 of Zorro, the Gay Blade. But, by this time, camp was already in the process of being assimilated into American culture—and by middlebrow Hollywood types—thereby, tainting any true camp quality that the Fairbanks original had accrued over the decades into caricatured clichés of the male homosexual…but, then again, I suppose that’s the closeted, middlebrow Hollywood machine for ya.

Faubion, Rob. "Classic Film "The Mark of Zorro" Screens at the Long Center with Live Orchestra." Austin News, Weather, Sports - We Are KEYE TV. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2011. <>.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema studies  . 2e ed. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Lynes, Russell . "Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow." Harper's Magazine Feb. 1949: 19-28. Print.
O'Brien, Jodi. Encyclopedia of gender and society  . Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. Print.
The Mark of Zorro - Featuring the Original 1920 Score. Dir. Fred Niblo. Perf. Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery Sr.. Rialto Media, 1999. DVD.
Los Angeles, 2019 > Hong Kong, 2029
20th-century American poet, Joseph Brodsky, once mused, “What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness” (, and how right he was. It’s this hyperbolized duality of excess that makes the city an electrifying, tempestuous organism—an organism conceived and birthed by countless generations of humanity, bearing the animistic marks of both child prodigy and enfant terrible. And much like the inhabitants who occupy its congested, multi-level buildings and skyscrapers, the city, as a Hobbesian leviathan, embraces and devours its constituents in its modular, seductive sleeplessness; often, leaving fate to decide the identities, destinies, and destinations of those who constitute its concrete viscera. It’s this same dichotomous allure and disgust that motivates creative types to envision the varied paths the city may or may not take—whether the enormity of future cities will overwhelm the individual for the sake of the to-and-from masses and erected spires that shine life into this greater urban entity—leading one to ask what the urban environment of tomorrow will look like and how will its inhabitants interact with it. Questions that Science-fiction writers, producers, and directors must ask themselves in order to imagine and actualize these futuristic cityscapes (and their citizens) in approaching their works. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, the viewer is offered glimpses of these potential environs of tomorrow—the same environments that the viewers might find themselves in awe of, lost in or consumed by in their lifetimes.
This looming potentiality of the future urban space manifests its dystopian excesses most strikingly in Blade Runner. Here, the viewer is both instantly and visually assaulted by an over-industrialized, asphyxiating landscape of a future Los Angeles. As the camera thrusts forward through the bellowing, infernal plumes that belch skyward, lightning pummels the city spires from the smog-filled heavens; thereby, creating a semiotic clash between technology and the elements and signifying to its viewer ‘ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!’ This urgency is echoed in the skittish rapidity of the flying cars—or ‘spinners’—as they hurry through the California haze, avoiding as much contact with the rainless maelstrom that awaits them in their trek through this architectural travesty of tomorrow. Resembling the brimstone depths of Hell more so than L.A., the chthonic metropolis of Blade Runner lacks a fixed spatiotemporal tactility yet still feels familiar in its towering otherness; this is, in part, due to nuances of recognizability that blotch the landscape and mobilizes the city’s inhabitants to maneuver through the exposed industrial sprawl of this Los Angeles of 2019. Slowly, the camera hones in on a towering complex in the distance that resembles a ziggurat or step-pyramid, evoking both the familiar via testaments to the potency of previous civilizations and the otherness via their foreign origins and exo-European historical decrepitude.
This evocation of melding humanity’s past with its future is continued in the film during the viewer’s first introduction to Rick Deckard who leans cavalierly against the city’s structure, reading his newspaper and occasionally espying indifferent peaks at the multi-sensory surplus of inner-city commercialization and skyscraping advertisements replete with: massive, flashing Coca-Cola signs; smiling kabuki-faced women enjoying the stylized pleasures of the products they’re pushing; throngs of window-displayed television sets streaming neon images similar to video works of artist, Nam Jun Paik; an overwhelming barrage of brand-names and logos overpowering the urbanized drear appear everywhere the eye can see; and catch-phrases and buzzwords radiate in katakana and hiragana under radioactive skies…all lending to the familiar yet inflated into otherness. Not to mention, Scott has found an inventive way to include those often-annoying product placements that plague most films into his.
Perhaps, it’s then fitting that the rarely-used dirigible nowadays is overtly utilized in this possible future as a means for conveying a percentage of this hyperbolic, commercialized duality into his dystopian cityscape. Several times throughout the film, Scott intersperses these leering zephyrs floating alongside the thick of pollutants and the choking populace, selling the idea to escape the caustic environs of L.A. and escape to the stars. The confident, masculine voice reverberating from the blimps announces, “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure”, while yet another blimp appears to be selling the populace “the custom-tailored, genetically-engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs.”
 Remarkably similar to the overt commercialization in Blade Runner—yet distinctly poles apart in its approach and appearance—Ghost in the Shell incorporates overt commercialization into its urban landscape of 2029’s Hong Kong that is neither utopian nor dystopian in its imagistic prognostications of future urban expanses. Of course, the irony in this statement: not only is the Hong Kong of Ghost in the Shell set ten years after the events in Blade Runner are to occur but also in the fact that the nightmarish Los Angeles of Blade Runner is in part based on Hong Kong. As Wong Kin Yuen notes in his essay “On the Edge of Spaces”: “Blade Runner’s style draws its images from urban spaces all over the world, including such Asian cities as Tokyo and Hong Kong” (p.98). Irony aside, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell offers the viewer a future city that has grown exponentially due to overpopulation and succumb to the exponential growth of technological advancement, but still retains a sense of the familiar and accommodation even in its otherness.
This is alien yet hospitable environment is best observed by the viewer through the cybernetic eyes of Major Motoko Kusanagi—lead operator of Section 9 and main protagonist of Ghost in the Shell—during her excursion through the canals of Hong Kong via mass-transit boat. Brightly-colored banners in Chinese characters stream across the waterway system which flow through the byroads and backways of this future Hong Kong. Unlike Blade Runner’s choking over-pollution, Ghost in the Shell, still has azure skies and sunny days; however, this city isn’t absolved of pollution. As the floating bus, wades its way around skyscraping corners, Kusanagi stares into the waters below her and the murk and filth polluting the deep. Similar to the dirigibles in Blade Runner, this Hong Kong of tomorrow has overtly commercialized floatation devices soliciting brand-names and logos to passersby as it meanders through the city canals. It is also in this scene from Ghost in the Shell that the viewer can find another parallel to Blade Runner.  
As Major Kusanagi stares into window displays lining the waterways, she catches a glimpse of a mannequin that looks exactly like her; thereby, appropriating the film’s protagonist from her external, subjective view and supplanting her into the objectified lens of the inner city. Kusanagi is no longer a separate entity from the city but is now part of its ‘window dressing’, so to speak. This parallels the death scene of Zhora in Blade Runner. As Zhora desperately runs for her life from Rick Deckard who, as part of the Blade Runner unit, has been assigned to ‘retire’ the female Replicant, she crashes through a window display housing statuary of gestured mannequins lit in parti-colored neon lights. As Deckard takes aim, fires, and hits his target, the audience watches helplessly as the injured Zhora perilously flees for her life like a wounded animal. She crashes through a series of display windows semiotically juxtaposing her own trapped feelings as a genetically-engineered Replicant—a flesh, blood, and bone paradigm of perfection—to the immobile, emotionless mannequins lining the streets of Los Angeles. Thus, Zhora, in her struggle for individuality…to be apart from and not part of the city itself…meets her fate on the city sidewalk as she crashes through one last window display to her death and lands on the rain-soaked pavement below; a reflection of the neon commercialization surround her corpse, suggesting that her attempt to be apart from the other window-dressed menagerie of mannequins was ultimately futile.
Yet another parallel between the two films appears away from the iridescent, commercialized decadence of Hong Kong’s and L.A.’s sleepless downtowns and in the abandoned, dilapidated sections of the cities…and, I might add, both episodes occur in each film’s finales. In Blade Runner, this interaction between individual and environment transpires in the Bradbury Building where genetic designer, J.F. Sebastian, is its sole tenant. Sebastian who has given shelter to Replicants Roy Batty and Pris, has met his demise at the hands of Batty. His murder then leads Deckard to the Bradbury, where he ‘retires’ Pris amongst the genetically-modified ‘toys’ of the newly-deceased Sebastian. Pris’s desire to be liberated from her objectified role as ‘pleasure model’ Replicant has been extinguished with her last hysterical gasps of life. This echoes Zhora’s attempt to separate herself from cityscape only to be met by her demise. Furthermore, both female Replicants’ final moments are inverted by Major Kusanagi’s uneasy revelation that she may not be as separated and from her surroundings as she perhaps once thought, while staring at the lifeless, objectified mannequin that looks uncannily like her in Ghost in the Shell.   
Later, Deckard comes face to face with Roy Batty who has returned to the Bradbury after his murder of Sebastian and Dr. Eldon Tyrrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation (manufacturer of the Replicants). Batty, mad with vengeance over the deaths of his fellow Replicants, hunts down Deckard through the drenched decrepitude of the abandoned rooms of the Bradbury. Flashing spotlights from the commercialized dirigibles hovering overhead shine down through the boarded windows of the building, creating an ambience of confusion and discomfiture. Deckard attempts to hide himself in the shadowy disrepair of the Bradbury; however, his attempts are fruitless. Batty—appropriating Deckard’s role as predator—has no trouble blending in with the decay of the building. Batty’s chameleonic embrace of his environment is oppositional to the other Replicants’ desire to escape it, and is, no doubt, a visual signifier that Batty is aware of and embraced his demise as well.
Similarly in Ghost in the Shell, a metamorphic fate awaits Major Kusanagi in an abandoned floating museum on the outskirts of Hong Kong. Kusanagi who has been in pursuit of members from Section 6 (aka –the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) who have raided Section 9 and made off with the Puppet Master, an artificial intelligence created by Section 6 to hack into any cyborg body the Ministry of Foreign Affairs desires. As Kusanagi exchanges fire with a cyborg ‘spider-tank’, she is chased by gunfire up a flight of stairs that ironically leads her cyborg acrobatics to a Tree of Life exhibit that once showcased the evolution of man. The exhibit is itself etched and painted into the museum’s wall, symbolizing yet again, Kusanagi’s inseparability from the overarching environment since she is, quite arguably, the next paradigmatic step in human evolution. After unsuccessfully attempting to destroy the spider-tank, Kusanagi—like Roy Batty from Blade Runner—is now aware that her efforts are fruitless and her end is near as her cyborg body is torn to pieces by the cybernetic tank. Much like Zhora’s corpse lying in a puddle of water, Kusanagi’s bodiless head lies in one on the Floating Museum’s floor as well.
Luckily, Kusanagi’s second in command at Section 9, Batou, saves her long enough to hook her up to the cybernetic remains of the Puppet Master in order to meld her dying mind with its artificial consciousness. This all occurs from perspective angle of Kusanagi’s decapitated head and the viewer is overwhelmed by the slowly-swirling overarching glass roof overhead—the same roof that she had originally crashed into to meet her transformative fate is now the last thing she sees before her mind is interfused with the Puppet Master’s and is released from her cyborg head to become an entity apart from and a part of an entirely separate world: that of the internet. Thus, Kusanagi—unlike the Replicants of Blade Runner—has managed to transcend her physical environment to become a part of an entirely ‘other’ landscape.
I began this paper by quoting poet Joseph Brodsky and will end it with yet another. This time around: Brave New World author, Aldous Huxley, who once remarked, “A large city cannot be experientially known; its life is too manifold for any individual to be able to participate in it” ( I find his thoughts resonant in both Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, since both films skew the lines between citizen and city and call into question whether escape from the objectified and liberation from the whole are possible in both contemporary and potential urban landscapes or whether the overarching environment of tomorrow’s city will engorge individuality from its occupants and assimilate them into nameless, faceless oblivion. As 2019 approaches, ask yourself whether you feel like a mannequin today.

Blade Runner - the Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Sean Young. Warner Bros. Home Video, 2007. DVD.
Book of Famous Quotes - The One Stop for Quotations Lovers. Web. 24 June 2011. <>.
Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Manga Video, 1998. DVD.
Yuen, Wong Kin. "On the Edge of Spaces." Liquid Metal: the Science Fiction Film Reader. Ed. Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower, 2007. 98-112. Print
Observations of the Observatory
(Obscure Alternative Title: Paula Abdul, You’re No Natalie Wood!)

I suppose my initial and indirect introduction to Rebel Without a Cause occurred back in ’91, via the ‘MTV Exclusive’ video premiere of Paula Abdul’s vomitous paean, “Rush,Rush.” I knew a little about James Dean. He was that guy Morrissey was enamored with and had written a song about (“Suedehead”); not to mention, a poster of him smoking a cigarette and looking cool was sold at the local mall’s Musicland.  However, I never truly sat through the entirety of the 1955 film directed and co-written by Nicholas Ray until I was forced to for a class I had taken last year. At the time, I was attempting to tackle the homoerotic subtext of Rebel Without a Cause, but that’s beside the point. What is important is that through my obsessive viewings of the film during that muggy month of May 2010, I began to firmly believe that the quintessential and revelatory scenes in the teen-angst masterpiece are tethered to the telescopic fortitude of the Griffith Observatory.
It is here that we witness Jim Stark’s failed attempts to fit in. It’s here that Jim has his first physical altercation with greaser Buzz Gunderson. It’s also here that Jim has his first real conversation with the unstable Plato. Of course, Jim is the maverick posterchild of awkward-cool. His soft-spoken words and disconnected mannerisms endow Jim with a hip-weird duality and a loner chic. In Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray deftly managed to capture and expertly channel the often tempestuous surge and swell of feelings and emotions that most adolescents endure during their teenage years—and he has done so through: the film’s dreamboat anti-hero, Jim; Jim’s anima in fire-engine red lipstick, Judy; and the psycho-pathetic Plato. Each of these characters’ insecurities manifest themselves at the Griffith Observatory. The observatory itself serves as the Cartesian theater where the hands of fate maneuver the marionette strings of our misbegotten, delinquent triumvirate of protagonists.
In effect, the dome-shaped planetarium becomes a cerebral extension of its teenage occupants both physically and mentally, housing chaos on a cosmic-scale, fomenting familiar teenage feelings of insignificance and one’s own mortality. As planetarium lecturer, Dr. Minton, sifts through simulated constellations and cosmological explosions—explosions that mirror the ones of the stolen cars used for the chicken run scene later in the film—he states, “While the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance…we will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came. Destroyed as we began, in a burst of gas and fire…In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed. And man, existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.” Astronomical facts they might be, but there’s little denying that Dr. Minton’s lecture could easily be translated into high-school poetry scrawled between the faint-blue lines of a Mead Composition notebook. If you disagree, simply go to page 81 of The Jack-Roller and re-read Stanley’s “Life’s Circumstances;” I’m sure it will lay all potential questions and concerns to rest.

Works Cited
Rebel Without a Cause (Two-Disc Special Edition). Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005. DVD.