Saturday, October 17, 2009


Flowers smack of sentimentality. They’ve become a cultural symbol upon which an entire economy thrives—the flower shop. “Say it with flowers”—flowers presumably speak when words fail, yet can say more than the words themselves. The trouble is, flowers are maudlin, mushy, and mawkish, redolent of schmaltz and hokum. “I’m sending you a big bouquet of roses,” sang Eddy Arnold, “one for every time you broke my heart. As the door of love between us closes/Tears will fall like petals when we part.” In the 1960s, flowers were usurped by hippies and deployed as symbols of peace and love, rendered most famously by Scott McKenzie’s “Summer of Love” song, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” as well as by the image of the flower placed in the barrel of a soldier’s gun. (Donovan’s 1967 album, A Gift From a Flower To A Garden, issued in December of that year as a lavish two-record set, was, according to a blurb by Rob O’Connor found on, “sincerely meant as a possible present for the hippie who has everything.”)

In “Daffodils,” poet William Wordsworth associated flowers—or rather, the daffodil—with pleasurable self-contentment. (That is, if you assume he actually wrote the poem. Ken Russell, in his 1978 Wordsworth bio-pic Clouds of Glory: William and Dorothy, includes a scene in which the Wordsworth character, played by David Warner, tells an admirer that “Daffodils” was a poem composed by his sister—that the poem consists of his “sister’s words.” In exploring the most unusual relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, it seems Ken Russell, more so than any other filmmaker, seems to understand that art can come from the strangest of places.) Of the dazzling field of daffodils, Wordsworth writes:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

In King Vidor’s film Duel in the Sun (1946), the place where the lovers died is marked by an unusual flower known to grow nowhere else: a cactus with a large red blossom. Drawing the motif of the lovers’ graves from folklore (and perhaps Wuthering Heights as well as the poem by Marie de France, “Chevrefoil,” meaning “honeysuckle,” referring to the vine that grows up intertwining the graves of Tristan and Iseult), the cactus-flower symbolizes the lovers’ souls have become mingled in death. Some years later, in John Ford’s magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the film’s central symbol is the cactus rose, the John Wayne character’s favorite flower, an image of “wild civility” (Herrick).

A Bouquet Of Flower Songs:
Eddy Arnold – Big Bouquet of Roses
Patsy Cline – A Poor Man’s Roses
The Cowsills – The Rain, the Park & Other Things
Vic Dana – Red Roses For A Blue Lady
Elvis – Drums of the Islands
The Four Seasons – Watch The Flowers Grow
Ian Hunter – Flowers
The Kingston Trio – Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)
Mountain – Flowers of Evil
Neutral Milk Hotel – King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
Phil Ochs – Flower Lady
Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Johnny Rivers – Mountain of Love
The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers
Spanky and Our Gang – Lazy Day
The Statler Brothers – Flowers On The Wall
Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond – You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Talking Heads – (Nothing But) Flowers
XTC – Summer’s Cauldron

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Speaking of Dolls...

A remarkable serendipity occurred this morning shortly after I posted my blog on dolls, mannequins, marionettes, dummies and other forms of simulacra. After posting the entry, I checked my email to discover that my friend Jim Fields had sent me the link to the British DVD/Blu-ray website, DVDTimes, which has posted the description for the upcoming GHOST STORY DVD for which I conducted the audio commentary with director Stephen Weeks. I’d mentioned the upcoming DVD release of GHOST STORY on my blog few weeks ago, but at that point I’d been notified only of its imminent release by the DVD producer, Marc Morris of UK’s Nucleus Films. If you didn’t see my earlier blog entry, go here. When I receive my complimentary copies of the DVD from Marc Morris, I’ll provide a complete review. In the meantime, you can read the DVDTimes description here. Kim Newman calls Stephen Weeks’ GHOST STORY “A little-known gem of British spookiness,” and I concur. The film’s only previous home video release was many years ago, in the form of a pirated VHS edition, retitled for that occasion Madhouse Mansion. Avoid this slightly truncated version and pick up a copy of the 2-disc DVD set with a fully restored transfer of the film, loaded with supplements.

Guys and Dolls

Do dolls have souls? “All children talk to their toys; the toys become actors in the great drama of life, scaled down inside the camera obscura of the childish brain,” writes Charles Baudelaire. Mannequins and statues (and of course dolls, puppets, and other forms of simulacra) occupy an unusual space in our world, being neither living nor dead. Filmmakers for decades have often exploited the ambiguous cultural status of dolls, puppets, mannequins, and marionettes, often for horrific effect. “Statues are people waiting for their turn to come alive—as in the Pygmalion myth,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings, p. 233). Pinocchio is one such famous doll that became a living person. Durgnat cites the film One Touch of Venus (1948, based on the 1943 Broadway musical), in which Robert Walker falls in love with a mannequin (window model) of Venus. His love for her brings her alive, in the form of Ava Gardner. In Powell and Pressberger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and in Les Jeux Sont Faits (1947, based on a story by Jean-Paul Sartre), the temporarily dead walk among the immobilized living: in eternity the living, paradoxically, are mannequins. Two films released in the Eighties, Weird Science (1985) and Mannequin (1987), also activated the Pygmalion myth, but Mannequin owes a significant debt to the earlier One Touch of Venus. Filmmakers the Brothers Quay generally prefer to work with dolls than live actors, becoming famous for animated films featuring dolls, such as Street of Crocodiles (a still from which is pictured).

In popular song, girls often become dolls, girl-women, adult but infantile objects of desire, their beauty likened to that of a doll (they are “placed on pedestals,” like statues). Baudelaire anticipated what he called the “puerile” future of little girls:

I am not referring to those little girls who put on grown-up airs, paying social calls, presenting their imaginary children to each other and talking about their outfits. The poor little things are copying their mothers; they are already preparing for the immortal future puerility that is theirs, and decidedly none of them will ever become my wife. (Essays on Dolls, 16)

The greatest song about a statue with a soul is Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” about a wooden indian made of pine (like Pinocchio) whose love for the beautiful indian maid in the antique store forever remains unrequited, just as one of those lovers written about in Keats’ poem, frozen forever on the Grecian urn.

Kaw-Liga was a wooden Indian standing by the door
He fell in love with an Indian maid over in the antique store
Kaw-Liga just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no

He always wore his Sunday feathers and held a tomahawk
The maiden wore her beads and braids and hoped someday he’d talk
Kaw-Liga, too stubborn to ever show a sign
Because his heart was made of knotty pine

Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga, he never got a kiss
Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga, he don’t know what he missed
Is it any wonder that his face is red
Kaw-Liga, that poor ol’ wooden head

Kaw-Liga was a lonely indian never went nowhere
His heart was set on the Indian maiden with the coal black hair
Kaw-Liga just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no

Then one day a wealthy customer bought the Indian maid
And took her, oh, so far away, but ol’ Kaw-Liga stayed
Kaw-Liga just stands there as lonely as can be
And wishes he was still an old pine tree

One would think the doll, the statue, the mannequin is above all the drama of life, but that is not so – yet it remains infuriatingly divine in its perpetual silence.

Required Listening:
Alisha – Do You Dream About Me? (from Mannequin)
Chuck Berry – Oh Baby Doll
Alex Chilton – Baby Doll
Foo Fighters – Statues
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers – Statues Without Hearts
The Grateful Dead – China Doll
Buddy Knox – Party Doll
Johnny Mercer – Satin Doll
Mott the Hoople – Marionette
Oingo Boingo – Weird Science (from Weird Science)
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Tesla Girls
Alan Parsons Project – I Robot
The Residents – Kaw-Liga
Stan Ridgway – Jack Talked (Like A Man On Fire)
Styx – Mr. Roboto
Hank Williams – Kaw-Liga

Required Reading:
Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Essays on Dolls. Trans. Idris Parry. Penguin, n.d.

Monday, October 12, 2009


From the other side of the mirror, the Other often intrudes: the heroine sees the werewolf reflected in her vanity mirror, the vampire betrays itself by having no reflection. In Dead of Night (1945), a mirror begins to take over the room in which the heroine lives. “A mirror is a latent doppelgänger,” writes Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings (231). The Dark Mirror (1946) tells the story of identical twins, one good, the other evil. At a critical moment in Evil Dead 2 (1987), the hero, Ash, stops to inspect himself in the mirror—only to have his evil doppelgänger reach from the other side and grab hold of him, telling him he’s losing his mind. “Mirrors tell the truth, but in a menacing way. . . .,” observes Durgnat (231-32). Hence characters who despise what they are, or what they have become, smash the mirror and hence their own self-image. But mirrors can be also remind us in a positive way of who and what we are, as in the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”: “When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you’re twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/’Cause I see you.” Often a symbol for Narcissistic self-absorption, the mirror nonetheless frequently tells the truth: as Jean Cocteau observed, mirrors are associated with death, because we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors.

Reflections On The Mirror:
Blue Öyster Cult – Mirrors
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Mirror Man
Death Cab For Cutie – My Mirror Speaks
The (English) Beat – Mirror in the Bathroom
Lefty Frizzell – I Never Go Around Mirrors
Chris Isaak – Shadows In a Mirror
Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror
Dave Matthews Band – True Reflections
The Misfits – Die Monster Die
Joni Mitchell – Moon in the Mirror
Mott the Hoople – Through the Looking Glass
Graham Nash – Man in the Mirror
Rush – War Paint
The Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror
The Who – Smash the Mirror

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Golden Land

For the past several semesters, I’ve been teaching a course on Hollywood fiction and the Hollywood movie (films about Hollywood). The course requires students to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about movies as a form of mass culture. Because movies are culturally ambiguous—they blur distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication (propaganda)—much of the writing about Hollywood has been critical of Hollywood’s detrimental impact on American life and values, often perceived both as a source of collective fantasy and as an apparatus of mass deception. According to John Parris Springer, in his fine book Hollywood Fictions: The Dream Factory in American Literature (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), Hollywood fiction is highly critical of the influence of Hollywood and of Hollywood movies on American life and values. According to Springer, the “central cultural paradox disclosed by Hollywood fiction” is the fundamental ambivalence of Americans toward their own popular culture, their delight in, and suspicion of, the formulas of mass entertainment and their attraction to, yet distance from, the organizing ideologies and styles of mass culture. Hollywood fictions articulate deep-seated anxieties and concerns about the influence of Hollywood movies on traditional social and cultural values. Fiction critical of Hollywood emerged during the early Modernist period, which was all about self-expression (individualism). Literature shifted its focus from the social system to the individual, with society portrayed as the enemy. Hollywood fiction generally substitutes the studio system for the social system, and hence focuses on the individual’s moral battle vis-à-vis the corrupt system, Hollywood as a degrading social system that requires moral compromise in order to succeed. The features that distinguish “Hollywood fictions” from other kinds of narrative fiction are as follows:

  • It has a psychological appeal: it is a literary narrative that merges 1) fascination with Hollywood as a singular and exciting “way of life” with 2) suspicion toward its moral and social influence
  • Setting is transformed into character, loaded with metaphorical significance
  • Hollywood is a “reference point” for certain social and cultural issues, a passe-partout or “pass key” to a full understanding of the values and experiences that shape America
  • It is explicitly concerned with Hollywood’s moral values, the values of those who reside in the specific socio-geographical space of “Hollywood” and their influence on others.
A typical Hollywood fiction is William Faulkner’s short story “Golden Land,” published in 1935. In Faulkner’s story, Hollywood—the “Golden Land” of the title—functions as an “excessive signifier,” meaning that the location itself, the actual geographical space, has a corrosive, detrimental effect on an individual’s moral and ethical behavior. (The “excessive signifier” in a horror film is any space believed to be blighted or cursed, such as the stereotypical “haunted house.”) “Golden Land” is typically interpreted as expressing Faulkner’s disgust and dissatisfaction with Hollywood values—and by extension, consumer culture in general. The central character, Ira Ewing, is an alcoholic, the husband of a wife who has grown to hate him and the father of “Voyd,” apparently a transvestite. His daughter, April, an aspiring actress, is shockingly promiscuous. Ira’s professional success has come at the expense of his moral failure, with his ruined family used by Faulkner to symbolize the depravity and lack of traditional values found in Hollywood.

Hollywood fiction dates to the mid Teens (Springer identifies a story first serialized in Photoplay in 1916, titled “The Glory Road,” as the first Hollywood fiction, that is, a story that uses Hollywood as a means of cultural complaint). There are many famous moves about Hollywood; a few such examples include Ella Cinders (1926), What Price Hollywood? (1932), A Star Is Born (1937), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and In A Lonely Place (1950). But given that fiction critical or satirical of Hollywood emerged so early in its history, popular songs critical of Hollywood, historically considered, came rather late. I’ve listed a few of these songs below; some of them, such as the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” are rather famous. There are many other good songs not listed here, of course, but all of the songs rest upon a tradition decades old before the songs themselves were ever recorded.

Songs Of The Golden Land:
Buckcherry – For The Movies
The Clovers – Love Potion No. 9
The Doors – L. A. Woman
The Eagles – Hotel California
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
The Kinks – Celluloid Heroes
The Misfits – Hollywood Babylon
Phil Ochs – The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles
Poison – Hollyweird
Stan Ridgway – Beloved Movie Star
Boz Scaggs – Hollywood
Bob Seger – Hollywood Nights
Elliott Smith – Angeles
Supertramp – Gone Hollywood