Friday, 8 June 2018


On the Margins of Great Empires

Selected Poems
Andrew Duncan
Published in June 2018 by Shearsman Books

Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly. It is strong and active with the questions of power which underlie the strength; the instrumentalism of language is put under sustained pressure, both of invention and expression, and the outcome is negotiated closely across a wide range of historical predicament and moral passion. The method is conspicuously unoriginal, but its uses are strikingly productive and grand. – J.H. Prynne (1982)

Peter Porter, in a letter to Simon Jenner, 2003:

We talked on the phone about Eratica a little. .... But this letter is really about one thing, namely Andrew Duncan's Skeleton looking at Chinese Pictures, which I have been reading at intervals now for some time. I think that certainly it is a remarkable book and I also recognize that I must inhabit a shamefully restricted part of the literary world for me not to have encountered his poetry before this[.] …
What I admire most in Duncan's work is his willingness (indeed enthusiasm) for not confining things to any sort of ghetto. He likes as much history and mediaevalism as Pound but he also aspires to a contemporary concern for life in our modern mercantile mess. His chief fault, it seems to me, is a sort of verbal vertigo: too many words spin round and round[.] It's excellent the way he refuses to be cowed by any sort of notion of appropriateness or decorum, so that runic and traditional poetics mix with the city of London and sexual turpitude in modern life.[…] There are many properly 'big' poems  – something which doesn't get attempted sufficiently these days, presumably because it gives hostages to fortune.
if I say that I am reminded at times of Peter Redgrove, Lawrence Durrell, and even David Jones, with a touch of a more unbuttoned Geoffrey Hill, I am not implying any kind of influence ... It is certainly a rich book and now that I have marinaded my mind in it, I expect to return to individual poems with greater pleasure and understanding.

(AD) So this replaces the 2001 volume which is out of print. A lot of the poems post-date 2001.
The title comes from a book by Mircea Eliade, adapted. It is, directly, a line from “When history becomes myth”, a poem which uses themes from L’√©ternel retour. The reference is to folk cultures untouched by metropolitan literary systems.
Eliade says so many peoples were doomed to suffering and disappearance “because they live in the neighbourhood of empires perpetually striving to expand”. This phrase became “on the margins of great empires”.
There is a sentence in that 1982 Prynne letter “the displaced feeling corresponds to the Randgebiete and Randsprachen of an internalised but hostile imperium”. The German words are in the title of a book by Wolfram Eberhard, which approached the history of Chinese society through an idea of highly different regional components which contributed different things to the rising farming/ urban/ State complex. I was studying Chinese briefly, for about six months, in 1976, I spent time in the Oriental Studies library at Cambridge, and they had Eberhard’s book. The words mean marginal regions and marginal languages, and the phrase on the margins of great empires refers also to that Letter. I changed subject to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, and these really were Randsprachen.
The margins I am thinking of are not doomed to disappearance, I don’t think, just quiet under the huge din of megalopolitan cultures.

In the margins of the great empires
provincial cultures turning slowly on themselves,
a self-locking aggregate crossing the rim
of recurring. The abiding, the filling. Tales
in the prison where Campanella was held.

at the place where nothing is altered, the bottom
of a great lake.
Let us enter the greater forgetting
far from the decay of forms
mere laggards in the march of high ideas.
Disposed in the likeness of goodness
descend in the likeness of companionship.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The prism of my crystal fears: a new angle on New Romantic poetry

It is almost 20 years since James Keery re-invented the study of the New Romantics with his work “Sch√∂nheit Apocalyptica”, and the era of sensational new interpretations has given way to a more solid phase of cataloguing and labelling the finds. But I am offering a new line on the poetry – not to cast into doubt the findings of modern research, by Keery, John Goodby, Nigel Wheale, and others, but to shed light from a different direction. This is by approaching the poetry from cinema.
There is a whole line of cinema criticism which presents British cinema as succeeding only where it is realistic and frankly faces social issues. Bypassing these is taken as a sort of evasion of responsibilities, a refusal to honour your debts. Lindsay Anderson seemed to believe, at his desk, that understanding the arrangements for finance and censorship in the British industry, grasping British social problems, and making great films, were roughly the same thing. One cannot get far with this subject without mentioning Julian Petley’s 1986 essay “The Lost Continent”, where he suggests that the climactic form of cinema is not realism and even that there is a current of English cinema which has avoided realism and reached quite other goals. This whole debate is highly relevant to Apocalyptic poetry and its frank rejection of realism and social relevance – and suggests a link between that stance and certain highly emotive and assiduously forgotten films of the 1940s.
This line of cinema is described in The British Cinema Book, a collection edited by Robert Murphy. Two passages are of special interest. One quotes the producer Herbert Wilcox: he made “happy, unclouded pictures. We do not want sadism, abnormality, and psycho-analysis” and clarifies “What he was referring to was a loose group of psychological melodramas (usually crime thrillers) which could be classified as British film noir. The central type in these films was the misfit, often a fugitive […] always tormented, desperate, unable to find a safe haven or a secure identity. In some films these protagonists begin to doubt their own sanity, and the result is breakdown or uncontrolled violence […] the actor who most often embodied this type was Eric Portman.” Portman was the Nazi submarine commander in 49th Parallel. He “starred in Great Day (1945), Wanted for Murder (1946), Daybreak (1946), Dear Murderer (1947), The Mark of Cain (1948), Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and The Spider and the Fly (1949). In all these films he played tormented, sexually insecure failures.” ”Leonard Wallace noted that Portman had a large female following: ‘It’s the strength being harried and tested by circumstances that really gets the girls suffering for him … No-one is better than Portman at expressing with a haunted, tortured, expression of the eyes and face otherwise taut and immobile, the inner bitterness of a strong man’s soul.’ Picturegoer readers, presumably from both sexes, voted him into fourth place in the 1947 poll for his performance as the tormented serial killer in Wanted for Murder.” Another chapter in the same book (by about 40 film scholars) also recalls Portman: “his intellectual forehead, hooded eyes – now cloudy, now gleaming – and tight yet sensual mouth suggest ‘ordinary people’ thoughtfulness.” “In Wanted for Murder he plays the Hyde Park strangler, and attributes his murderous drives to his hangman forefather (hereditary tendencies? Or morbid imagination? or both?).” In two films where he is the rival of Maxwell Reed, he is “suave, supercilious, secretive, rational, deadly jealous.”
Fans of Apocalyptic poetry will recognise many of these traits in the poetry we like. It would be crude to state that the fugitive’s exclusion from society echoed the Apocalyptic rejection of the State, the war effort, science, reason, and so on – but not untrue. While the analogies with dreamlike thrillers split the poetry, since only some of the poetry fits inside them (notably Thompson, Barker, and Beecham), the popularity of the films suggests first, that we would have Apocalyptic poetry even if there had been no manifestos, secondly, that we do have to allow for an element of the public mood during a finite period of the 1940s which fuelled art, in various genres, with specific predilections. How could Portman be fourth most popular star of 1947 for playing a serial killer?
Portman was not the cineaste who gave rise to this whole line of films, he was just an actor who had certain qualities, of ambiguity, high intellect, and anguish, among other things, which were necessary to carry these strange and perverse plots. Evidently, over a period of roughly three years, he had a “drawing power” which meant that this was a commercial formula and that people bought tickets because they knew that a film with Eric Portman would carry certain moods and that is what they wanted. In Daybreak he plays a hangman whose wife is involved with the thuggish and yet sexually charged Maxwell Reed. He fakes his own death to frame Reed, who is convicted– and Portman visits him in his cell, before carrying out the final act of revenge. In a compromised ending, Portman confesses rather than completing the story.

Corridor of Mirrors is related to French films by Jean Delannoy and Jean Cocteau, as the write-up in ImDB says. “In Corridor of Mirrors he plays a rich mystical aesthete who thinks he murdered Welsh beauty Edana Romney in a previous life. In effect, he frames, and then hangs, himself.” The text on the cover of the DVD tells us “Mangin [Portman] becomes obsessed with his new muse believing she is the reincarnation of his lover from a former life, whose portrait hangs in his home. He adorns Myfanwy with antique jewels and precious fabrics, making her the double of his first mistress. As their relationship escalates, Mangin’s controlling nature becomes too much and during a sumptuous Venetian-style ball he has planned for her, Myfanwy rebels against his brainwashing and tries to run away…” Mangin was recuperating from wounds after the First World War when he received the insight that he had lived before and loved a woman who looked exactly like the Edana Romney character. The unstated link between prophecy and PTSD or shell-shock is significant. (Cocteau made a film of Beauty and the Beast and Corridor is a version of Bluebeard.)

The writer and producer was Rudolph Cartier, better known as the producer of all the first three series of “Quatermass” on television. To be exact, he co-wrote the script with Edana Romney, the female star. The words “antique jewels and precious fabrics” and “sumptuous ball” are code-words, people in 1948 simply wanted to see these things no matter what the plot of the film was. (Cartier was Austrian and directed, as Rudolf Katscher, a 1933 Peter Lorre film, for UFA.)

The agreed break-through moment is around 1933. George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and David Gascoyne are starting to write poems in a fundamentally new style. This was the substance on which the theory of Apocalypse, in 1937 and later, was founded. It had tendencies in common with Surrealism – which was of all things a productive idea, one which spread in a thousand directions. My argument is that the Surrealist line in cinema produced a kind of film in the mid-40s which coincided with Apocalyptic poetry because this too had Surrealist DNA. But also – the poets watched films.

As is well-known, the 1943 American film Night of Fear starts with a sequence in which the protagonist enters a room full of mirrors, apparently in a trance, to kill someone in an act for which he has no motive. The next day, he has a memory of it but thinks it was a dream. I wanted to address the link between a corridor of mirrors and a room full of them. Both are an excuse for exotic and ambiguous sequences of visual information. Both tend to abolish the outside world of objectivity – the actor is as it were trapped in his own head, advancing only into mirrored space. But also, to expose the presence of Surrealism in American popular cinema – in a sub-genre of film noir where the hero is carrying out dream-like actions, under the influence of concussion, hypnosis, or traumatic dissociation. This is not presented as the free dissociation of the Parisian surrealists. Nor, due to censorship rules, is it presented as due to drugs – we have to imagine the trance-like and suggestible states of various noir heroes as taking place without drugs. Key elements of certain New Romantic poems were thus present in cinematic culture. In the novel, significant examples of dissociation and involuntary but compulsive action are in Hangover Square (by Patrick Hamilton), and Traitor’s Purse, by Margery Allingham. In Allingham’s novel, the hero has concussion and amnesia, only able to follow a plan he does not understand and to escape from the police, who want him for murder. These plots noticeably resemble the stories of many Apocalyptic poems, where the protagonist is moving through the plot of a dream or an allegory, hunted by terrible dangers, unable to plan rationally but able to utter unnatural knowledge of Fate. The original Apocalypse, of John, can be fitted back into this realm, as an allegory involving prophecy, involuntary and inexplicable knowledge, visions which are partly paranoia.

If we take a passage from a Dunstan Thompson poem –

Where skullbone banners, no pity flags, are flying
Before the cruel and radium caves, he lairs
His treasure. There, while jackals scream, Lord Vulture,
Wing caged in crystal, sings his subtle airs
Of praise, recalls how orchid adder hissed
Above the crypt when lion and lover kissed.

Nightmare is livelong by a never-ending:
In the most mandrake forest, I walk, love lost,
Through panther grass towards no good morrow. Agave
Leaves like hundred years impale my ghost
On yesterdays of youth. At crossroad stands
The strangler with his four and frantic hands.
(“Lament for the Sleepwalker”)

this resembles Night of Fear because of the four hands (two people trying to strangle each other in the mirrored room) and the sleepwalking quality. But the striking resemblance is in emotional ambience. Whatever the brilliance of Thompson’s language, the tone is one of hysteria, doom, persecutory anxiety. The raw material of Night of Fear is also what Thompson is drawing on. Film and poem have the same high pitch. (The image of a bird’s wing trapped in crystal also appears in a poem by Audrey Beecham, “Whose blunted beak has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.”) Thompson and Cornell Woolrich, the source writer of Night of fear, were in the same place, hearing the same music.

Corridor has a protagonist, Paul Mangin, who is animated by involuntary and compulsive actions due to re-incarnation. This is a variant on hypnosis, dissociation, drugs, etc. It is, however, the exit of a man from daily life into a myth – which is what the Apocalyptic poets were trying to bring about. (The model was certainly Delannoy’s L’eternel retour rather than recent poetry.) The reincarnation theme, illustrating a fantasy about love outlasting death, was present in popular films quite outside film noir – for example The Man in Grey and Morning in Mayfair. In Corridor the scenery is a house which is quite literally created by the protagonist as the realisation of a dream, a besetting vision. Objective scenery is thus replaced by dream symbols – mimicking what the director of an art film might do, and this is a step towards an English art cinema, but also mimicking a large number of New Romantic poems where the action is taking place in a dream landscape. A fully realised art film would be an apocalypse – an unveiling of what is hidden, where the unknown exhibits itself in highly sensuous and yet irrational form. We are entitled to imagine New Romantic poems being recited by Portman. In the mansion, there is a corridor of mirrors – behind each one is a 16th C style dress – for Romney to wear, as she opens each door. (The echo is of Bluebeard, but what we experience is unchained narcissism.)

Watching Corridor has a strong retrospective colouring for someone who watches Hammer films: because their standard scene of the travellers entering a magnificent castle from which the host is mysteriously absent is so clearly taken from Corridor. The standard costume of the vulnerable female stars is also derived from the brocaded dresses worn by Edana Romney. Corridor is a women's picture: there are almost no scenes without Romney, and her affair with Paul Mangin is viewed entirely from her point of view. She dresses up, tries on jewels, and looks at herself in the mirror, and Mangin is present mainly as a spectator for her display.

Nigel Wheale has already written expertly on the links between Michael Powell’s “A matter of life and death” and a sequence in Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears. There is another style of cinema, the melodrama associated with Gainsborough Films, which has links with Forties poetry and which needs to be brought in when we are considering the tenor of the time. What I am saying is that we need to look beyond the high-budget romances of Gainsborough and consider also the paranoiac and dreamlike noir which seized on Eric Portman as its face.

The movement “Apocalypse” had legitimate sources in Lawrence, Berdyaev, in the critique of merely sociological literature, in Personalist theology, and so forth. But some of the poems also bear noticeable resemblances to scenes in the films of the time. The view of film historians is that, although the Forties saw a great number of realistic films, in which the techniques of the documentary moment were adapted into fiction which reflected the objective nature of the war and of military technology, the cinema audience also wanted escapist films – to get away from rationing, bad war news, the absence of lovers on war matters. A larger share of the audience at home was female – without simplifying too much, this inclined film-makers to have female protagonists, to make melodramas, and to use luxurious settings (especially clothes). Since the 1960s, maybe specifically since an article by Andrew Sarris in 1963, historians have tended to agree that the practice of film history in mid-century devalued women’s films and devised several negative aesthetic categories into which women’s pictures could be safely put.

The memory of L’eternel retour is clouded by its role as something which was aimed to please the Nazis. The Nazi grip on the French film industry, during the Occupation, was especially hard. The title is a translation of die ewige Wiederkehr, a phrase used by Nietzsche. The neo-classical composition of the visually gorgeous film was arguably a homage to the neo-classicism of Nazi visual art, such as Arno Breker sculptures. Even Jean Marais’ fair hair was interpreted as a homage to Aryan values. Pushing that idea away, we can agree that the utter material deprivation of France during the Occupation, with the occupation administration confiscating everything to support the German economy, favoured a stylised genre of spectacular fantasy film, of which Delannoy was the chief director. (The exactions were part of the peace conditions accepted by the Vichy government and affected the unoccupied zone as much as the occupied one.) The point is that war conditions favoured luxurious dreamlike fantasy, even if democratic countries also had a dominant line of realist dramas involving ordinary people. When we see English poetry involving mythic fantasy and super-sensuous images, it does resemble certain Forties films. A more fundamental aspect of Apocalyptic poetry is the focus on the self and its subjective states to the exclusion of objective factors and even realism. This is easily detached from the “ideological ground” of living in a permanent state outside history and inside apocalypse, as argued by Berdyaev. Indeed, we can quite easily attach it to melodramatic films – both the lush Gainsborough romances of the period and the dark thrillers in which Eric Portman starred. We can even see it as a protest against the close-down of the consumer economy for the benefit of war production (and expenditure on aggression).

We can list various narrative settings:

The hero is a prophet and focuses the true forces of history as knowledge which he utters in this state (Gascoyne)
The hero commits murder in a trance-like state, possessed by hypnosis or morbid heredity
The hero is sleepwalking
The hero is enacting a myth under the influence of ancestral dramas
The hero is acting irrationally under the control of l’amour fou

Obviously these are quite different, but they all have in common the disappearance of reason in the surrender to irrational compulsions. I would like to add the spirit possession described in Kathleen Raine’s poem ‘Invocation’. James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Glass Fable’ (published in Poetry Quarterly in 1943) describes a dream which affects two people, who travel to the same place to meet.

He rises, slowly, in a long,
slow trance
ritual, receptive
an iridescent manuscript
is buried in the tomb of his loins.

While we would not normally see Kirkup as an Apocalyptic poet, he is very close to some of the poets we have mentioned. His poem takes the male lovers to a palace made of jewels – this is a literal echo of the jewelled landscapes of the Biblical Book of Revelations, but also resembles the “precious jewels” of Corridor of Mirrors. This would redefine Revelations as a spectacle film in the line of L’eternel retour!

The crystal floors are deep, and spring
from wells of molten glass, the rooted walls
that fluctuate are fluted coral cliffs
rising from the antipodes, and lift
diminishing perspectives, turrets, towers

The effect is as if the molten glass were semen, and the frozen glass were a social surface, a place where two male lovers are happy – which is threatened with collapse (“pour in avalanches down/ deep deliquescent graves”). The crystals are a climax before it happens (so to speak). Fable also includes a corridor of mirrors. The link of prophetic trance to noir paranoia is a stretch, but Gascoyne’s diaries of the time show the kind of character who inhabits sleepwalking film noir: anxious, drugged-up, hyper, obsessed, vagrant. So the besetting impulses of Night of Fear connect to the dreamlike beasts of Apocalypse (where heaven has a "sea of glass").  Is Kirkup's the same glass as in the corridor of mirrors?

There is a group of poets who fall outside the well-defined Apocalyptic realm but who represent an obvious shared ideal, one which is typical of the Forties. We might benefit from defining another centre of attraction for poets, and temporarily masking out the Treece/Hendry statement of ideals. There is a whole anti-realist hemisphere of the world. If you make Raine, Barker, Beecham, and Kirkup the centre, you develop a different map.

John Goodby’s work on Dylan Thomas’ Notebooks, especially, has emphasised that the key developments were around 1933. So how do we align this with a line of cinema that patently wasn’t there until 1945? I think we have to re-think the development of Apocalyptic poetry. It was a broad movement and the subdivisions could be of great importance. As for the end of the movement (and James Keery has been collecting Fifties Apocalyptic poetry on a large scale), the end of the tormented/fugitive hero film cycle (and the effective end of Portman’s career as a star) suggests that this was a brief flare-up, and that public taste moved on. (Some of the thematic material migrated into the genre of horror film.) The Fifties saw a new sensibility, family-oriented, Christian, aimed at reconstruction and the revival of trade, etc. A group of works, in painting, theatre, cinema, and ballet as well as in poetry, went out of fashion and was buried and forgotten – ready to be salvaged to memory in the 1987 New Romantic exhibition, or later. (Poetry written in 1933 or 1935 could not be a protest against the deprivations of the war economy – this is a puzzle.)

I think we have to consider a new definition of Forties poetry in which "total subjectivity and access to a egocentric Sublime" are the key terms, and which is still sharply visible when we contrast 70s publications by those poets – so Raine, Gascoyne, Barker, Jack Beeching – with other publications, in the 70s. This sidelines the straight Apocalyptic line, with its derivation from Berdyaev. The consequence of passivity and steadfast belief in feelings is that this manner erases the masculine – it converges rather clearly on the (traditionally) female genre of melodrama. It is not straightforwardly gay poetry (or gay cinema), rather it advances into a territory where the oppositions are erased. 

[Many Forties pictures arrived on a memory stick which I acquired I know not how, perhaps while sleepwalking. One of these is Frenzy (Vernon Sewell, 1945?, aka Latin Quarter), which has much the same plot as Corridor of Mirrors. A sculptor kills a model to put her inside a sculpture which records the image of his dead former beloved, etc. Although I am a Derrick de Marney fan, in a modest way, I admit I couldn’t watch this – it is too similar to Roger Corman’s Bucketful of Blood, and I couldn’t take it for that reason. Also the plotline is much like an ancient Janet Gaynor film (possibly Street Angel, 1927). All too obviously, the young woman inside the stone is like the wing inside the crystal. I intend to watch this batch as time allows, and it does include three Eric Portman films.]

[I was distracted by a minor character in Corridor. As the couturier, he struck me by his slyness, perversity, and the ambiguity and tension which he gave to his lines. After searching a bit, I realised that I had recently seen him in two other films (the 1952 Pickwick Papers and The Return of Paul Temple) and also that there was an infantile memory, as he had played the sheriff of Nottingham in the long-running Fifties TV serial of Robin Hood. This was an early example for me of being fascinated by the villain and bored by the psychological blankness of the hero (Nigel Greene?). Wheatley was an astute actor who could suggest complex and not necessarily pleasant twists of his personality in brief screen appearances. ]

Friday, 6 April 2018

The short sharp anguish of silks: Brian Marley 

This is a poem from the sequence “Bargain Basement Sonnets” from Springtime in the Rockies by Brian Marley.

With steam striking his jug-handle ears, our
new luggage, smell of old newspapers in
the hall – surely something vivid must happen
without a slump in torpedoing the twentieth century
'Courage, Morris, courage...’ I neither neglect
to brush my teeth nor prune a handful of stars in
the early evening – as such, I know one true
particle in the mystery of bone-setting old
ceramics; the motionless dark, occultist
theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining
and I am (in my soupy way) blocking the nerves
from their coffee-veined stimulus – droning cellos!
The known-to-be-positive by reason, adjusting
a small knob – will frenzied faces appear on
our scanner? Duplicity, when peering up the
gun barrel, fingering the trigger: memories
are made of this!

It occurred to me to explain this poem. First, although it appears in a series it does not seem that the earlier poems in the sequence supply a context for it. A first approach might be that the poem offers discrete moments: a film of snippets which are not meant to explain each other.  They are also not complete in themselves, so we could try to restore them to a fuller context. This is also what the unconscious impact of the parts is: they are extremely rich in implication, and evidently they have been selected for this quality. So the start has a house, evoked in three senses. The old newspapers suggest banality. That is why the speaker wants something vivid to happen. The “courage” line is evidently a quote from something, probably a film; we don’t find out who Morris is but the meaning is simply “keep your spirits up”. It’s like “Sparkle, Neeley, sparkle!” The perspective widens out into a whole historical era – still dealing with banality, both a slump in fortunes and torpedoing, i.e. sinking the prospects of, the time the speaker is living through. I neither neglect to brush my teeth – this is a symptom of depression, perhaps, the pruning is less clear but the stars have to do with wishes and with personal fortune, again. Pruning them means aiming for order rather than exaltation. “Bone-setting” old ceramics must mean mending breaks in them; somehow the teeth evolve into the stars and the stars evolve into particles of porcelain (or whatever). Sensing “one true particle” gives you the ability to make super-accurate mends. The occultist theorem remains to be guessed at, the crumbs are left over after you have mended the ceramic, apparently without flaw. “occultist/ theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining” could describe the idea that “nothing is perfect (or) nothing can ever be restored to its original perfection” and this could be an “occultist theorem”, depending on how it is worded.  The pruning stars could be negligent perception – a glance which only registers 90% of the stars. The speaker does not so prune – this is why he can detect a single particle when gluing broken ceramics back together. Soupy means lacking firm structure and this is why the poet is blocking nerves (probably his own) from clear signal, despite the stimulant coffee. The droning cellos are a woody and indeterminate signal. The reasoning that something (a day, a city?) is positive is still part of the theme of wondering why we feel groggy, and the rational override is perceived as a knob affecting the image on a screen. Mood affects perception in the way that the tuning of a TV set affects the image. One also peers down rifle sights, and the duplicity is either ambiguity of experience or a trick by which we try to distract fate from imposing its wishes. The composite of these cognitive operations is stored experience, memory. But, after trying to reason himself into positivity, the speaker is contemplating suicide by gunshot.

The poem rushes through constant shifts of perspective. It does not settle down to a single one – we are knocked off our feet and never get to recover them. The film is as if taken from a camera which is rapidly rotating. The whole is an account of subjective feelings, as well as sliding through subjective transitions. It is dizzying. We also have to ask if the style has a social coding as a marker of belonging to a group of people united by stylistic values. This is elusive at this interval of time, but the composition is reminiscent of poems by Asa Benveniste, Tom Raworth, or John James, for example. There is a unity of sense, the discontinuity is in moving between different figures of speech, each of which feels like a leap of sense. The tempo has strong affective associations for me – it’s like the sound of some very swift-footed musician. The emotional timbre is clear but its melancholy is in contrast with the emotional feel – the style gives out blasts of insouciance, buoyancy, light-heartedness. I don’t find that analysing the explicit content of the poem helps very much.

Marley is a byword among the fans of Seventies poetry for writing that extraordinary book, Springtime in the Rockies, in 1978, and for vanishing from the scene shortly afterwards. The book Resurgam. Six Poems lists Springtime so may be later – although also dated 1978. Poetry Review (vol. 69, no.2) included an amazingly stupid review of Springtime so this may be connected to Marley’s exit. The review header lists six titles but the review only covers four– it looks as if the text was cut but someone forgot to cut the header block as well. It takes on four titles in under 500 words, this too was stupid. The message was that “the poetry scene is staffed by stupid and insensitive people and we are in charge and are going to make sure that anyone else gets driven away”. Marley was born in 1953 so must have been 25 at this time. I suspect he took this message on even if it wasn’t the idiocy of Poetry Review, specifically, which depressed him. Here is a poem from Resurgam:


This certainly brings us back to
the short sharp anguish of silks
blood dripping from the eyeballs
fire raiding the tranquil states
an obelisk erected before moon
peeps itself as a romantic image
in the calm waters of the Pacific
dedicated to the first words
of beauty rampant
a lust for the ceremonial inherent in catheter
clumsy perspiration rising at
my fingertips
I dive into canyons
drawing the snapping sail of knowledge
that length of gold tassel pulled
through the curve of both nostrils
colouring gently at her immodesty
this is what is meant
by artful dodges
open to the parp of honked horns
when the first archangel passes over

The booklet has two poems called “Rubble”. I wish he would come back. Sparkle, Marley, sparkle!

Friday, 30 March 2018

Audrey Beecham and melodrama

Themes. Research into melodrama and women’s pictures has uncovered a set of conventions which on rotation seems to relate to a style of poetry being written in the 1940s, and further to expose a shift of the rules which moved this style into the past. Thinking of which film actor or actresses should deliver them is a way of thinking about or describing poems. This line also sheds light on mid-century British women’s poetry, an area which I have been trying to research.

It probably isn’t important to explain why mid-century women’s poetry was no good, since everyone accepts it. However, even in the Fifties you have significant work by Kathleen Raine, Kathleen Nott, and Beecham. It is of interest to ask what imperatives of the time they said No to. Audrey Beecham’s 1957 volume The Coast of Barbary fitted very badly into the scene of Christianity and affirmative culture around it:

The rootless, fastly bound to the rounded earth
Are dragged by tides and shoulder-glancing moon.
In childhood they renounce the tarnished spoon
And dance upon a howling rim of mirth.
By centrifugal force spinning from birth
Taunted and driven by a half-learnt tune
They spill their sands out for the singing dune
Or wander through uncharted wastes of dearth.

(from poem 1 of the 'Sonnets of the Twelfth House' section) Fitting in badly was basic to its being brilliant poetry. Centrifugal means nonconformist. People emotionally dragged by the moon are also called lunatics. Renouncing the tarnished (silver) spoon means rejecting your parents, part of a bad childhood. The music which should guide their steps is the tune they can’t quite get hold of. By being so overwhelmingly negative in emotional timbre, this reveals what continents of experience are opened up to sheer egoism. It leads out of affirmative culture – other women’s poetry of the mid-century is generally conceded to be unproductive and trapped inside values which made art difficult. I should point out that the 'twelfth house' is an astrological term glossed by the poet as 'The twelfth house signifies secret or private enemies, prisons, captivity, bondage, evil spirits, torments... this is a Cadent falling house'. Again, “It hath signification of private Enemies, Witches, Witchcraft… it is the House of Self undoing.” Beecham was part of the New Romantic movement, and her first book did not appear until 1957 partly, we suspect, because of that affinity. The dust jacket has Kathleen Raine saying “Her vision is of the dark, sinister side of feminine experience[.]” The title is glossed inside via a line from Vergil which describes a barren and hostile shore, and:

I am tired land and poor [...]
Piracy has played beneath my skylit eyeholes.
Men were enslaved to pass their lives in pain.
Monkey tribesmen clustered on my shoulders
Many times enriched my dust with richest rain.
(‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’)

The literal meaning of the passage seems to be about monkeys pissing on the sand. This would be in effect a parody of procreation: not seed but urine, not humankind but monkey, not soil but dust. This is not what you expect in a poem of 1957. The ‘rain’ could possibly be blood, expended in some tribal feud. The speaker is the Barbary Shore, the land itself, around Tunis, Algiers and Tangiers. The curse underlies the whole book, the Desert Shore is barren because of past transgressions. The “eyeholes” are presumably ports, openings on the outside world. We wander the desert shore in an abiding state of longing for earth, woods, and sweet water. The ‘Sonnets on the Theme of Love’ seldom deviate from a steady shriek of horror and loathing. Sterility of the earth points to a drying up of fertility and nurture – as the feminine virtues, thus also to a radical exit from feminine nurturing into disruption and, apparently, misery.

Barbary is isolated, not just among mid-century women poets, but also among works of New Romantic poetry. Light can be shed on it via 1940s melodramas, a line of British films which was identified with women and loss of restraint, and by-passed by male critics more interested in theory, documentary, and social issues. Nonetheless there is a line of English film critics facing up to the irrational and enjoying it. Alan Lovell’s view on this is worth quoting: “I remember preparing for a course in British cinema by reading the plot summaries of all the films made in 1946-7. What appeared to be a melodramatic current stood out. Many films seemed to be marked by extravagant plotting and characterisation. The dramatic forces which shaped the dramas were emotional and large-scale, the fictional worlds marked by erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships.” So far we have a good equivalent for Thompson and Beecham. But Lovell goes on “Seeing the films produced a huge disappointment. I quickly became aware of how the elements which had interested me were downplayed and made safe by the writing, camerawork, acting and direction.” Of course, he is right, and we have to consider whether English creativity found it easier to succeed in less interesting styles. Now some plot summaries of certain films starring Margaret Lockwood. “Madness of the Heart (Charles Bennett, 1949) bombs for the opposite reason: cinematic overload. Margaret Lockwood hesitates between the convent life and marriage to a rich Frenchman, shrinks from his viciously snooty family, loses but then regains her sight, she feigns blindness to entrap her murderous rival[.]” “In Bedelia, (Lance Comfort 1946) Margaret Lockwood is a Riviera socialite who poisons her three husbands. In The Wicked Lady, as a cavalier socialite, she poisons an oppressively puritanical old servant (Felix Aylmer)[.] [Lockwood is also] in Jassy, where her devoted mute maidservant (Emma Canon), thinking to help her mistress, poisons brutal Basil Sydney, inadvertently framing her.” In The Man In Grey (1943), she plays Hesther: “Hesther is an adventuress. Bereft of social status, she attempts to usurp Clarissa’s position. [Rohan marries Clarissa but] Their contacts are characterised by passion and physical aggression, leading finally to his beating her to death when he learns she has murdered Clarissa. The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of the component of cruelty[.]” Fairly obviously, suffering is central to these plots, and inflicting suffering on others, in the pursuit of love or wealth, is the other main preoccupation. No less obviously, this matches exactly with the interests of Audrey Beecham in Coast of Barbary. (paraphrases quoted from film historians Marcia Landy and Raymond Durgnat) Quite apart from being avant garde, she is thoroughly connected to Gainsborough melodramas and to cinematic appetites which had become completely hors de combat by 1952. While this was a genre which was only around for half a dozen years, Lockwood certainly wasn’t the only star making this kind of film, and a much longer list could be developed. In Wicked Lady, you will doubtless remember, she also becomes a highwaywoman, robbing coaches in a mask just for the thrill of it. This is a bit like Jane Russell in Son of Paleface and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, although the differences are equally important. When Beecham writes

But after death their wasted days shoot stars
Across the jagged course, the Dragon’s Tail,
And light the chain of chasms where their fall
Sundered a plain. The livid cage-like bars
Wherein they blundered will dissolve like hail
And carrion fate resolve in clarion call.

('Sonnets of the Twelfth House')
it is apparent that key features are unhappiness, those Twelfth House feelings, and passion: the tone is completely undetached, it is frustration which blows up eventually to geological scale – tearing the landscape apart. The poem is about passion surviving death. This matches the luxuriously staged suffering of 1940s melodramas. Another poem about passion after death is ‘Fossil Bird’:

A changing world fell on me as I slept:
Yet, crushed in two dimensions, have I kept
The pattern of my predatory lust
Impregnable against the earth’s slow rust.

She says the rock “has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.” I looked at a whole lot of poetry written in the 1970s, and found an isolated group of poets who wrote in a melodramatic style, like Beecham’s, and who had all been active in the 1940s. I think we have a generational shift whereby poetry in this manner ceased to be written, and this is co-ordinated with shifts in acting style and in the wider cinematographic array of British films, advancing during the 1950s but stemming from a documentary tradition which goes back to the 1930s or arguably even earlier. The poets who continued to write in this florid manner were Jack Beeching, Kathleen Raine, and George Barker. Take this passage from Beeching:

Mordant on retina as acid smoke,
Hot dreams of eremite, or prisoner,
Degrade the vigil with a Judas kiss.
Only a lover’s bodily embrace
Tattoos a never-fading cicatrice.
(from “Words and Deeds”)

This was published in 1970, but is strikingly like Beecham’s 1957 poems. It sticks out in 1970, because it is surrounded by poets whose style it has nothing in common with. I would like to quote a poet who faded after the 1940s, Dunstan Thompson wrote a poem which equates sex with being devoured:

The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges – killer cat – my heart.
Green is the hanging moss, and green the jungle
Creeper: green where the gold plantations part
Their bamboo branches for a murderer's head.
In green courts he eats meat from the green dead.

See, like a rajah, how he ravens fine food.
The long claws fork their lightning; diamond, his teeth,
Glitter of jewel jaws, dazzle–glaze their mirrors
Black blood and purple, stained points of glass. Beneath
Lascivious fur, his regal muscles flex,
Digesting fire, the marrow root of sex.
(from 'Lament for the Sleepwalker', in the volume of that name, 1947)

This certainly involves “erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships”. It is melodramatic, not just because it favours glamorous suffering, but because of its divine egoism. The world outside the poet and the loved object simply does not exist. This relates to star cinema, something which is unusual in Britain, but which was certainly there in the 1940s, for Gainsborough Films. The arrival of a documentary attitude, stressing the objective aspects of life, made this sort of poem impossible. A radical and pioneering recall to awareness was Julian Petley’s 1986 essay “The Lost Continent”, a voicing of a suppressed line of English cinema which uses that key phrase, “always received critically with fear and disapproval”. Petley does what is hard to do in the daylight, he advances into a position where melodrama is normal and everything else is frustration. We have to go through this position to get to a proper evaluation of writers like Beecham and Thompson.

Beecham published a second book in 1980, A Different Weather. It does not add new themes to the first one and it feels like a room of 1957 which has clung on to its space. It is good in the same way:

Praise be to that most powerful bird of prey
Who rose from the smoke of equinoctial foam
And carrying a rose at whose single heart love lay
Laid it upon a heap of stranded stone
Boulders herded in swirls and dumped by the sea.
(‘A Different Weather’)

The poem “Four Portraits in the Manner of Francis Bacon” is interesting because it puts Beecham in a context, even if it is a sub-world of Fifties London. This portrait is “The Bone Man”;

A bird’s frame is white and yet grey and of bone
A bird’s beak is stiffer and dryer than stone
Yet this man is greyer and far more skeletal than
Any cluster of parched bones to wet which
A screaming stream ran.

Again, this reminds me of Dunstan Thompson. The two stanzas I have quoted use the same basic imagery: stones, water, birds, prey. Beecham keeps saying the same thing, but it becomes less elusive and more convincing with repetition.

Jim Keery has responded with one of Beecham's never-reprinted poems, from 1940:

Norway Poetry London No. 3, November 1940, pp.47-48.

Once the sound of its drum has burst the eardrums
And the loud shriek anguished at last to silence
Love of itself is vanquished;
But the relinquished
Hold of the lover sleeping binds the mind
To levels lower and to those more stale
Than pools of stagnant rain beneath the earth.

Spain, our ace, was tricked by molten gold:
And our sly trail unrolled on Europe’s map
Slugged action, flounders now through snow
To race the waiting bomb-burst of our hearts.
The rhythmical stop-go
Of fate’s two eyes suffice to hold us back
From any courage which would jeopardise
The bonds which hold our honour to a rack.

O England, may your blight of boredom melt
Like sweat of love, and may your wind ride up
Above the doldrums of a boring war
To blast the flags that flap in national shame
Out of the sky
And cheer the hands that fail
And fall from masts.

People are agreeing with me that Beecham was good. (Does “Love of itself is vanquished” mean “the excessive narcissism of my ex-lover has collapsed” or “excessive pain has made me unable to love again” or “love destroys love” or “my illusions about you are over”?) Does the bit where the wind “cheer[s] the hands that ... fall from masts” have the wind make the sailors cheerful as they fall from the rigging, or utter cheers of appreciation as each one falls?) The thesis I set out with was roughly that “mid-century women poets had an ideal of being ladylike which they put through in poetry and which proved to be a tangle of inhibitions which made their poetry faint and unmemorable”. I got this idea while listlessly watching old English films and thinking how unimpressive the female stars were – refined but faint. Beecham could prove this idea because her poetry is impressive but at the same time malevolent, barbaric, unrestrained, perverse, etc. I don't think this proves any idea of why the others were no good. If we take 4 women poets of the 1950s (Roberts, Beecham, Eithne Wilkins, Kathleen Nott), none of them is in the standard anthologies (Allott and Lucie-Smith). Only Beecham is writing in a melodramatic way. The striking thing is how forgotten they were, by the living literary opinion I know about. Wilkins never got a volume out. More effort is needed to dig up the poets who were forgotten by the “family values” culture of the 1950s and the mod superficiality of the 1960s. Nott and Beecham in particular should be recovered (see postings on this blog), but there may be others I don't know about.

The problem with the big grand music of the British Poetry Revival, whereby everything happened after 1960, is that it buries the poets of the 1950s. I have been guilty of this. The dominant culture of the time was repressive, conformist, privately pessimistic. Poets who were crushed beneath it should not be blamed for inventing it. The Fifties were full of frustrated and rebellious people, and it was those people who made the Sixties happen.

Beecham's most famous poem is “A Spell”, which is a curse of the lover or ex-lover (published around 1947? and in the Rexroth anthology 1948, then called “Exile”). Jim Keery pointed out that this is like the curse with which Kathleen Raine cursed Gavin Maxwell in 1957 (and which he wrote a book about, Raven seek thy brother). I am not sure this belongs to the history of poetry, but it is a bit linked to the spell-forms which dominate Raine's terrific book “The Year One”, 1951. These again were copied, formally, from the Hebridean spells and charms printed in the “Carmina Gadelica”.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Valley of the Dolls

I got a DVD of “Valley of the Dolls”, a 1967 film based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel about the bad outcomes for some young women, in the early Sixties, who had extremely conventional ideas about the role of women. I bought this because it is from the era of films I like to watch, but also because it is an example of a story about the oppression of women before feminism was on stage. At least, that was what I was expecting. Susann’s novel has sold 31 million copies. The film was the kind of thing which no boy my age would have dreamt of watching, when we were 12 or 22. This is partly why it was important to me to watch at age 61. I didn’t understand the problem.
The story is about young women at the higher end of the entertainment industry: "the “valley” is not a place but a narcotized state of mind, and the “dolls” are the pills that rouse them in the morning and knock them out at night." One is a singer and actress, one is a “showgirl”, one is a secretary who becomes an advertising model, the “Gillian Girl”, for a line of cosmetics and accessories. The dolls are barbiturate capsules, which were shiny and coloured. But also, more obviously, the young women, who actually look like dolls and take great care of their hair and clothes at each point. Dolls are mainly bought for girls and reflect their ideals of beauty. But is hardly deniable that these ideals are also desired, or demanded, by boys and men, not least film producers. The problem that reaching an ideal is also an act of compliance and submissiveness cannot be evaded. The actresses could influence the way their viewers did their hair and fixed their clothes as well as illustrating a story about young women following false ideals.
The film opens with an arty symbolic sequence. Voice: “You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls”. Wire figures are seen on a mountain slope, then shift shape to become pill capsules. The powder spills and becomes snow. The poster says “instant excitement, ultimate hell ". Sharon Tate gets fourth billing.
I picked up a copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter, about the “Manson family” murders in 1969. Bugliosi was the DA who prosecuted the Tate-LaBianca killings, and he interviewed a number of the young women in the Family. Bugliosi says (p.172) “[T]here was a sameness about them that was much stronger than their individuality. […] same expressions, same patterned responses, same tone of voice, same lack of distinct personality. The realisation came with a shock; they reminded me less of human beings than of Barbie dolls.” (He had just interviewed Lynette Fromme, who was not convicted of a crime until years later.) The Family women were like that because they were under the control of a Hitler fan, obsessed with domination, who thought women were the lowest form of humanity. So why were Susann’s characters also like dolls? To answer that needed the arrival on stage of feminism.
Part of the impact of ‘Dolls’ is that the characters are so ordinary. The conclusion is that the social system does not work for ordinary people. This is so different from stories about how society rejects someone completely exceptional. That does not have political implications. The actresses in ‘Dolls’ did not have much of a career, (simplification – Patty Duke did). The film’s power derives partly from its banality, and from the lack of understanding by the lead characters of what is happening to them. Something you heard a lot in the Sixties was a tale about barbiturates, as numbing people to feelings and being used to blot out problems rather than solve them. They were mainly prescribed for women and the tale went on to say that it was the loneliness of housewives (the detail about being on housing estates miles away from town where there was no neighbourhood life was often added) that made them customers for pills whose function was to make anxiety go away. Everyone knew that they were mainly prescribed for women. It followed that millions of ordinary people were having a really bad time leading their ordinary lives.
The usual account of Sharon Tate is that she had little talent as an actress but was incredibly good-looking and had a sweet and trusting personality. In a way, Dolls would be less effective if the performers were more talented and more able to defend themselves – the camera picks up a combination of naivety and glamour and this gives the story its momentum. The usual story about Jacqueline Susann is that her clientele were badly educated and badly informed about culture – this adds further substance. This audience could see themselves on screen and they were also from the social group which used large amounts of barbiturates (continuing while the government, or civil society, failed to solve the problems which were making them anxious).
It is normal to see the take-off of feminism as starting in 1970. Prior to that, you have a genre of women’s pictures, which according to a rather well-known narrative were written out of history by critics obsessed with montage and the greatness of self-willed directors. I am not sure about the dates, but Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema (1968) gives high praise to figures like Douglas Sirk and John M. Stahl, evidently part of a process of making women’s pictures central to a new Hollywood history. Quite a theme of women’s pics is the centrality of suffering. ‘Stella Dallas’ (made in 1925 and re-made in 1937, which is the version I saw) is an example. Even cynical producers recognised this as good box-office. Women cinema-goers liked to see this subject matter. The conclusion that they liked it because life had been unfair to them and inflicted outlandish suffering is not hard to reach. That means that the plot material of Hollywood melodramas, already in the Twenties but probably in Griffiths films even earlier, supports the feminist case and just needs social and political argument to take it on to feminism. The sequel, that a liberated female audience would enjoy watching suffering much less, probably holds true for cinema of the past twenty years. They don’t make a weepie like they used to.
The tradition of marketing folklore would also attribute feminine interest to films with lots of dancing and films with expensive clothes, among others. ‘Dolls’ is glamorous throughout, it has a kind of glaze like a TV screen. Is this like the layer of numbness and no-contact which barbiturates lend to someone’s mood? Perhaps. Films had to be as affluent and glamorous as advertisements in order to avoid seeming dowdy by comparison with them. Film sets were carefully set out to be like advertisements. There was a line also of films that showed poverty and poor homes, but Dolls is quite rigorously at the affluent, ad-imitating, end of the spectrum. Its look is like a shop window in an up-market store, and the actresses look like mannequins.
Bugliosi gave attention to the possibility that, after members of the Family killed Sharon Tate in her home, they took some of her clothes and wore them in the squalor of the derelict ranches where they lived. This was never proved. Family economics did not allow for young women to go shopping for clothes (gun acquisition was higher up the list of priorities). Drawing a link between the critical fiction of ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and the deluded reality of the murder of Sharon Tate is always doubtful. But drugs are a link – the Manson thing would not have happened without copious amounts of LSD, and Susann’s novel gives a central role to barbiturates. So, both stories are about heedless over-consumption of laboratory-made drugs.
Roger Ebert said in his review “Some moments persist in the memory, however. The scene in which Sharon Tate does her bust exercises, and most particularly the dialog at the end of that scene, should be preserved in permanent form so future historians can see that Hollywood was not only capable of vulgarity, but was also capable of the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization. I can't believe that scene. I really can't.” Also “As for the young men in the cast: They all apparently go to the same barber and tailor, and their mothers must all have been frightened by Robert Cummings. I couldn't tell them apart.“ A feature of women’s films is that the men are well-groomed but featureless, like dolls. In scenes, their dialogue is colourless because it has not been the subject of intense fantasy, whereas the women’s dialogue is striking and memorable because it is the product of long fantasy and so speaks to a level of fantasy and role-playing in the audience. Vanity Fair spoke to actress Lee Grant, 40 years on: “Chimed in Grant, “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made.” [Patty] “Duke, in interviews, credited the gay community’s championing of the film as the primary reason for its longevity.“ I don’t know if it works as a gay film (if you imagine the women as gay men?), but the reasons it doesn’t work as a feminist film are three. First, it is full of malevolent female authority figures. (Steinberg, the senior secretary at the theatrical lawyers where the film starts, is benign.) There is no space for experience reflecting on gender inequality because the older women are unilaterally dedicated to controlling and exploiting other people. Secondly, men aren’t blamed for anything. They don’t even behave badly. We never see any scene that shows a doctor prescribing the barbiturates (or the “uppers”) or being taken to task for their decisions in facilitating addiction. Third, the conception is intensely narcissistic. The events arrive as Destiny and this leaves no space for relating them to a social system, which could be changed and which was in fact changing with incredible rapidity in the twenty years up to 1980. Nobody ever asks why. I am not saying that nobody can ever get rich, but the stardom of all three characters removes them from comparison with 140 million or so American women and blocks out any thoughts about the medical arguments against tranquillisers or about patriarchy. In an article of reminiscences, Michael Korda reported Susann as saying to him that the reason for making the characters suffer so much was that they were rich and went to great parties and met many interesting people, and the readers of her book would only tolerate this if they suffered and suffered. So part of the reason why there is no feminist analysis in the book is that it is founded on class resentment. The book is directed by a sort of dissolved left-wing sensibility with the texture of warm ice-cream. I am not sure I buy this, or at least I think that the formula of "extensive suffering in expensive clothes" works for most women's pics and not for this reason. This re-opens the question: why do female lead characters in women's pictures have to suffer. (We could start by looking at pictures aimed at women which don't have suffering. Mitchell Leisen specialised in this kind of film.)

Richard Quine’s “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964) is an obvious comparison to Dolls. (No, haven’t seen this one.) It has quite different views of the priorities of ‘career girls’ and as this suggests Dolls embodies Forties values more accurately – in the novel, the events run from about 1945 to 1965, and the film has compressed this (to avoid showing their fab young actresses ageing). It may be that a best-seller has to express conservative social values in order to achieve comfort and a fantasy state. You aren’t meant to stop thinking about the characters and start thinking about social issues.
The Internet says that Judy Garland was hired to play the “Helen Lawson” character (the brutal musical star). Note that one of the central characters is a singing star whose life goes off the rails because she is dependent on uppers and downers to get through the day. The Net says that Garland was fired or resigned, also that Robson made her wait until 4 pm before doing her scenes and she was drunk by that time (whereas she was sober at 8 am). The story that Garland was fired for alcoholism from a film largely about the story of Garland’s pill and alcohol dependency sounds too good to be true. The story that Robson set her up to get fired makes sense, and again the film could have failed for being too real if you had had a real-life victim of pills in the middle of it.
What are you left with if you remove the suffering? I would say “nothing”, but the real answer would be “a musical about shopping”. That again translates as “an advertisement with music”. You even get this inside the film, with the “Gillian Girl” campaign. Neely catches her husband in the swimming pool with a naked girl. This would be a lot more moving if they were living in some house that didn’t even have a swimming pool. I was disappointed with the film, and if it isn’t moving part of the reason is the glaze of affluence which covers it. Robson arranges the story very lucidly and with great attention to variety and pacing. Yet the story drags. What the look of the film reminds me of, now, is an expensive department store in Nottingham. Every object is tasteful yet luxurious. The space welcomes you in. Yet it’s too shiny to be home. Was Robson wrong? The department store is planned to lure women into a state of mind where they spend money on largely unnecessary objects. If it works in the department store, it probably works in the film. The film sells an object, itself. If he had gone for a more documentary feel, the film probably would have more emotional impact, but it might have lost 90% of its audience. I think the affluence is what suppresses the emotional impact of the events. Jennifer kills herself with an overdose in the Bel Air Carlton hotel. Tate acts the scene leading up to coma (and release?), entering the snow at the end of the valley, beautifully. She had a very expressive face. But, in the Bel Air Carlton? "She learnt that she had advanced Hollywood's Disease while piloting her private helicopter to Chamonix wearing white Dior salopettes." The film is prissy and affluent, not vulgar.
The pattern for women’s pics is to focus on “promo videos”, fairly short scenes which are intensely emotional and egoistic, which break inhibitions, abandon reason, and which are designed for frequent re-living in fantasy form. (Clothes and grooming are also vital.) The sequence where a very young Neely O’Hara in rehearsal makes cynical theatre workers stop work and be knocked out, and where the big star insists that she gets fired because she is going to steal the show, would be an example. These scenes tend to re-appear in many different films, and as this would suggest women’s pics tend to lack narrative logic, the objective framework is neglected while effort goes into the ‘video clips’. Fantasies are much briefer than feature films. If ‘Valley of the Dolls’ out-sold every other women’s pic of the Sixties, it is partly because its objective framework is so uncompromised. Mark Robson deserves credit for this. You have the emotive scenes, but the film picks itself up and moves in after each one.
Sarris says “Among Val Lewton alumni, he [Robert Wise] occupies a middle position between Jacques Tourneur at the top and Mark Robson at the bottom”. This goes back to about 1942 when the studio wanted a releasable edit of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and they got people who had edited “Kane”, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, to do this. Welles had skipped town and wasn’t going to do the work. If you subscribe to the “auteur” theory you automatically believe that the editors were betraying Welles and that “Ambersons” was a great film until it was edited, not turgid, dimensionless, and anti-climactic like the version we actually have. So you despise Mark Robson, as part of club membership. Sarris doesn't even give him an article of his own. Actually if he did “Peyton Place” and “Dolls” he was making “women’s pics” and so unacceptable to auteur critics in the first place. Thomson says of him “Robson has oscillated between styles and genres. He indulged in a spurious, Kramerian realism […] but, without missing a step, he abandoned that for the most calculating sentimentality […] or a special taste for best-seller vulgarity.” This is typical of what “serious” film historians say about directors of women’s pictures. The Criterion film website says "he was often more than competent", which is not kind. Having just watched the film, I don’t want to go out to bat for Robson. Allegedly Jacqueline Susann told him the film was shit, and I find this story easy to believe. I want to re-evaluate women’s pictures but not by denying their flaws. They were free of macho stupidity, but that isn’t quite enough. I am not persuaded that either Peyton Place or Valley is vulgar. I have seen very few of Robson's 34 films but at least I am willing to watch. The 1957 film 'Peyton Place' gave rise to a TV series with Dorothy Malone – according to the stories around Malone's obituary in 2018, it was the first TV soap opera, the founding moment. Both 'Peyton Place' and 'Dolls' were filmings of huge best-sellers by women writers. Robson could not become the auteur of these stories that everyone knew, he could only stage them. 'Peyton Place', the film, is also pre-feminist.
It would be nice to say that since the advent of feminism massive barbiturate prescription has disappeared and the social problems of the ‘Valium Estate’ and other depressed areas have been solved by collective action. I am doubtful about this and suspect it is more that barbiturates have ceased to be news and don’t get novels written about them. Fashions in anxiety-suppressants have changed.
I see that even if Susan Hayward had had 30 years in Hollywood prior to ‘Dolls’ (was she really only 19 in 1937?), I haven’t seen any of her films except Dolls (and Nicholas Ray’s rodeo film). She plays the leathery star of musicals who fires Neely O’Hara, at the start of the picture, for being too talented. At the end of the film, O’Hara is a star and fires a young soubrette for being too talented. When she does this, her agent/boyfriend walks out, it’s a moral gesture. So, two malevolent female authority figures, but that isn’t even the full count. I actually wrote about “women’s pics” in the Eighties sometime, but I realise that even now I just haven’t covered the ground, I would have to watch hundreds of films to develop a history of the genre.
Sarris’ index of significant American films (at the back of American Cinema) has about 5000 titles but not Valley of the Dolls. Forty-two years ago, I was getting interested in film history and acquiring a huge list of films I wanted to see, from the books I was reading (by David Thomson, more than anyone). Having watched a thousand of them now (probably a lot more than that), I can’t take the project any further. Moving to Nottingham in 2005 put an end to it. Retiring has reduced my disposable income to poverty levels. But I can scarf up cheap DVDs from a stall in Arnold Market. I can buy occasional DVDs on-line – ‘Advise and Consent’ followed by ‘Valley of the Dolls’, in the past few months. Maybe I can get onto some John M Stahl as years go on.