Saturday, 24 April 2010

Film as the skin of imaginary organs; or, chichi

Film as the skin of imaginary organs; or, the cinema of chi-chi

When I heard that the Conference was planning a Day Symposium, I naturally assumed that this was a symposium about Doris Day, and I poured out my long pent-up feelings about Doris in an intense lyrical prose poem. I was appalled when Rod and Kevin told me last night that it wasn’t about Doris, and that I would have to make something up which was vaguely relevant to the programme. The solution I chose, between two moments of vagueness and over-excitement, was to talk about John Wieners, a man who loved cinema. Wieners published a book called Behind the State Capitol, or, Cincinnati Pike' which he describes as 'cinema decoupages, verses, prose insights', and which includes a number of pin-up board style collages of star photos torn from magazines. The question we have to address is whether his vein of wonderful poetry ended with, roughly, Asylum Poems, and the later Behind the State Capitol, with its generally optimistic tone, free associative logic, and affinity with the air of films and glamour magazines, is unworthy - and part of the onset of an illness. This admiration was quite inseparable from his transvestism and the feelings evoked in his poem called 'Feminine Soliloquy'. He wrote another poem called 'Acceptance':

Should I wear a shadowed eye,
grow moustaches
delineate my chin

accept spit as offering
attach a silver earring
grease my hair

give orders to legions
of lovers to maintain manhood
scimitars away as souvenirs?

With someone whose vest is trans, it is forbidden to ask the obvious question. He relies on the domain of the symbolic, as we do this morning. The avoidance of clear lines is called chichi, and we are now adopting a manœuvre of incomplete frequent and ornamental gestures called chichisteria. Larousse gives as the base meaning of 'chichi', artificial hair. Now a clip from Mitchell Leisen's 'Easy Living'!

(a finically dressed fussbudget of a certain age staggers up a vast staircase bearing an armful of milliner’s boxes higher than his head. His demeanour suggests alarm, indignation, mimosa-like sensibility, incompatible and constant impulses, a moral decorum which has to reassert itself all the time. He rings at the door of Jean Arthur’s suite, falls into the room, and casts his burden on the floor, crying “There you are my dear. Now, just pour yourself into these and fall down in a faint.”)
That was Franklin Pangborn. I suppose what we have to consider is the survival of hysteria, the link from hysterical symptoms to temporary body parts to elaborate dress. Chichi lingers on ornamentation, in contrast to tight, milled, hard objects, with single axes. Behind the State Capitol is like this:

Stock control of miracle fjord, intergovernmental clusters, des objets your gifts in our
arsenal an immemorial day April 5th 1973 and April 6th
means far richer happiness than man's kiss or sex.
Could three telephone calls Andrew, John and Charles
cost memory to reside in fatigue facing photograph

of my only one, he and I perpetually wed as
Shinto handsmen to wisdom, perfected and trust

Stars, planets, orbs precede streets or
paths, vertical pink paean petals, table, o guru
leadership, worldliness ascend after perusal
yesterday reconstruction. Earlier this century, 50 years.

boardwalks of Los Angeles welcomed home from the Panama Canal
Portraits in Vogue prove it. Pajamas, perukes, and thé palaces of afternoon.

(from 'To Barbara Hutton').
A verbal style with many detours, frills, pointless ornaments, with no axis or focus. Hindenburg tells us that an offensive without a schwerpunkt is like a man without character, and in this sense Wieners is a chichi without an armoured tip. I can't uncoil these sentences. Gene Autry recorded a song called 'Buttons and Bows':

east is east and west
and the wrong one I have chose
let's go where you'll keep on wearing those
frills and flowers and buttons and bows
Rings and Things and Buttons and Bows

let's vamoose
where the girls keep using
those silks and satins and linen that shows
and you're all mine in buttons and bows

give me eastern trimmin
where women are women
in high silk hose and peekaboo clothes
and French perfume that rocks the room
and you're all mine in buttons and bows.

This is about feminine charms, but all it mentions are objects, not actual females. A male person could acquire these secondary attributes quite successfully. Perhaps buying them from Woolworths, owned by Barbara Hutton. These froufrou objects point out that idle ornamentation was feminine, in that cultural context, and say everything possible about Wieners' style in Behind the State Capitol. Let him say it.

'On the Orientalia Line Ltd sped the gargantuan for this earth, the demure, the graceful, the gracious hostesses and hosts embarked during courses, that were found perilously upon the wilder shores of love.'

The movement of sense in both quotations is obviously related to the schizophrenia for which he was treated later in life. But maybe we should get on to a film example. One of the stills in Behind the State Capitol is from 'The Song of Bernadette'.

(A 14 year old girl wearing peasant clothes and an expression of dream-like stupidity is led by gendarmes from her house and through the streets as neighbours cry from upper windows, ‘Madame Flaubert! They’ve arrested Bernadette!” She is wearing a capulet, a cape-like head covering. Now she is in a large office where Vincent Price tells her “I am the Imperial Prosecutor. Do you know what that means?” and tries to make her deny her vision. He threatens that, if he fails, she will have to face the Chief of Police, a much less decorous man. It will be bestial, it will be terrible. He shudders to think of it. Bernadette looks scared but does not give in. Analogous scene with Jacomet, the chief of police.)

I was cueing this film on a video belonging to Suzanne, a psychotherapist, who after a certain point referred to Oscar-winning Miss Jones as 'a psychotic drip', and added ominously that 'psychosis is catching under some circumstances'. This film is no more than feebly adapted to contemporary taste, but obviously meant a lot to Wieners. He refers to it three times in State Capitol, as well as including a still from it. The poem 'What happened to the mind of Jennifer Jones' is about what happens in the film. Bernadette Soubirous was a peasant in clogs, unable to speak French, to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Lourdes in 1858. Wieners saw his own life in these terms. The story is somewhat less about the Blessed Virgin, and more about how no-one believed Bernadette at first, not even her sister Marie, her father scolded her for trying to make herself important, and finally the mayor, the town prosecutor, the bishop, the Vatican, etc., all believed her; what we could call the legitimation process. She was made a saint in 1933. We all have Imperial Prosecutor figures telling us our poems are just attempts to show off and make ourselves seem important. To the point of taping a message "Vincent! Don't be so mean!" to the bathroom mirror. “Das Lied von Bernadette” was a novel by Franz Werfel, who was Jewish in fact. The word schmalz possibly means kitsch for uneducated Catholics as prepared by intelligent Jewish writers and composers. As we know, schmalz means ‘dripping’. Werfel came from Prague but lived in Vienna and absorbed late 19th C Austro-Hungarian attitudes on a grand scale, including the pressings of Catholic religion, retrieved from the carcass rather as schmalz is won from geese. Werfel was married to the widow of Gustav Mahler, who was also married to Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus. He wrote the Bernadette novel in Los Angeles, the schmalzing pot of the European peoples. Wieners wrote a poem which I believe is closely related to this film, called "l'Impératrice":

who sits supreme above all human ecstacy.
nine star circle of dominion about
her head
crown of heaven atop it.
Who falls not, but smoke
incense to her eyes, our acts held in claws
of falcon at her right hand.
Sceptre and pole, cross and globe to her left.

Lily growing out of hip,
half moon crushed to quarter
under bare foot
lady of the blue robe

Scent of sperm, cloud of devotion to her nostrils.
And pale
wings of heaven behind
her back.

It's impossible to think of a figure in a blue robe without thinking of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Wieners received a conventional New England Jesuit education, as he puts it on the jacket of his Selected Poems. We have to ask what the role of religion is in his poems. The simplest answer is that he was portraying his own life as a saint's life, filled with miracles, with incredulity about the miracles he witnessed, and with calls from the other side which he couldn't foresee or resist. He was Bernadette; he was Jennifer Jones. These are two of the miracles. The Empress is literally a tarot card, admittedly with iconographic details rather different from those in the poem; but we are not in the realm of accuracy here. He is re-enacting the apparition of Lourdes. In the Bernadette poem I mentioned above, the first stanza is about the Rolling Rock, possibly the most exclusive club resort in North America. Maybe this doesn't connect to Lourdes at all. But, since Rolling Rock is by a lake and there is a beer named after it, while Lourdes is a resort and you can buy bottles of the holy water, there might just be a link.

The Bernadette story as told in the film is one long loyalty test – something bizarrely egocentric and even self-indulgent. The parties line out and denounce each other in wonderfully elaborate and official terms. The issue of ‘did she really see a vision?’ does not really ask for theological solution – it puts Bernadette herself securely at centre stage. It may be that Wieners was so taken with this idea that he unconsciously “staged” a faction struggle about his own poetry – adopting writing strategies which were non-functional at one level (appearing vague, irritating most readers) and functional at another (drawing attention to the author, inducing loyalty contests, setting up a filmy layer of symbolism which only the ‘sensitive’, the ‘initiated’, could see).

The question of ‘is there really anything to see’ is likely to remind us of Jackson Pollock, presumably the most famous figure of the American avant-garde during the 1950s, when Wieners was forming his style. Pollock's obsession with chance and the transient surface of the visual and the mind sheds a direct light on Wieners' preoccupation with the rapid diary form. The publication of a 1960 diary (as 707 Scott Street) makes it likely that all his poems were won from diaries, and that the later ones were less edited than the early ones. His receptivity to all kinds of material firstly allowed him to take on movie magazines, glamour photos, details of social ceremonies, etc., but secondly makes his late work impossible to describe adequately. This is where I set aside my judgment - generalisation is just unsatisfactory. Is Rolling Rock linked to Lourdes - or did he just switch channels on his TV?

Bernadette wasn’t actually a martyr – her experiences were actually rather sweet, light-hearted, girlish, even bucolic. My guess is that the martyrdom story fastened to Pollock did him a lot of good – it’s quite possible to read his mature work as decorative, intimate, and flowery. I like those paintings, which are repetitive, nonfunctional, and intuitive – a quick examination of Behind the State Capitol shows that it is, precisely, repetitive, nonfunctional, and intuitive. I can’t condemn it straight away for having these qualities. Only detailed examination would show whether the poems are successful. Wieners wrote:

Rise, shining martyrs
over the multitude
for the season of migration
between earth and heaven.

rise shining martyrs
cut down in fire
and darkness,
speeding past light
straight through imagination's park.

In the smart lofts on West Newton St or the warehouse district of San Francisco, come, let us go back to bequeathed memory. What I remember about Wieners in San Francisco comes from Geoff Ward's great essay, 'Literary San Francisco and the poetry of the excitements'. Geoff actually went to visit the Hotel Wentley, the cheap rooming house in Polk Gulch where Wieners wrote the Hotel Wentley poems. As we know, another hotel was the Hotel California, and another was Grand Hotel, my favourite Garbo film. One of the stills is of Garbo. Possibly from 'Anna Christie', but I couldn't get a video of that.

(a faithful maid enters a super-luxurious hotel room to wake up the ballerina before her evening performance. The dancer wakes up as the room floods with light. She is dazzlingly beautiful, stricken by some spiritual anguish, and wearing a full-body robe or peignoir in some glossy, sheeny, oiled material. She complains that she is so tired and even veronal does not work. As pearls, furs, and orchids flow through the room, she reminisces about the Imperial Court and wonders whether the audience love her enough, whether they are worthy of her, and whether she will dance tonight. After a thorough discussion of these issues, she resolves “Gruzinskaya will not dance tonight”.)

We all have evenings like that sometimes. In the London gay community, someone given to panic and introspection beyond a certain point is called Greta. Harraps gives for chichi also 'to put on airs; to make a fuss, a bother; to put difficulties in the way.' Being constantly obstructive is one of the symptoms of hysteria, according to the reference works. The first film I ever saw was in a convent. I was at the nursery school attached, and when it was the Mother Superior's saint's day, they showed a film on a projector to celebrate. This included us four year olds. The film was 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. I don't recall any specifically Catholic dramas. This was shortly before I became fixated on Doris. This was a long time before I understood film as temporary identity, or adolescence as a dream of imaginary organs arriving as if brought by a cherishing supernatural intervention. Simon Pettet told me he saw a film of Wieners, circa 1965, reading in the ruins of the burnt-out Hotel Wentley. Maybe the building Geoff saw was a more recent one.

Film originally means a membrane, a fine skin through which an inside is visible. This could be extended to textiles. Early meanings of the word 'film' include foreskin, maidenhead, and retina. The OED cites its use in translations of Epicurean writings, as 'often applied to the emanations from the surface of bodies which in the philosophy of Epicurus were supposed to be the objects of perception.' 'Those superficial fleeting films of bodies.' 'The films of Epicurus... are the productions of human fancy.' Clearly there is a link between film and temporary organs, also called chichi.

This brings us to the concept of Diaphaneite, as expounded in that key paper of 1864 by Walter Pater. He sees beauty of spirit as visible in the outward form of certain creatures. Their skin is diaphanous, or the way they move. One of the things he says seems to be about Wieners. 'Here there is a moral sexlessness, a kind of impotence, an ineffectual wholeness of nature, yet with a divine beauty and significance of its own.' Neutralised by equipoise of gifts, Walter says. Not wholly a woman, then. But he always made the scene. Pater seems to be developing a gay theology whose doctrine is exclusively visual.

Wilson Knight published, in 1962, a book called The Golden Labyrinth. A Study of British Drama, whose central theme is that "seraphic equivalents, often in what we may call bisexual disguise, with suggestions of a state beyond sex, like 'the angelic heaven'" are figures which run throughout the history of drama, from Dionysus on down. Through it all 'runs the one golden thread of the seraphic'. He also holds a belief that the voices who speak through spiritualists are really the bisexual spirits of the blest. Further, 'The most striking advance of modern drama… is its use of Spiritualism or other kinds of extra-dimensional insight.' In another book, he sheds light on this by quoting the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians saying that only those who are neither men nor women can enter the kingdom of heaven. Evidently, the bisexual seraphs have passed this test and are the voices who talk to spirit mediums, who perhaps feed poets their words as well. Could we consider Wieners as someone halfway towards this state, able to breathe through the pipe its language pours down?

Hysteria has often been linked to shamanism. Edward Carpenter, the pioneer sex reformer, believed that all shamans were gay, as he expounded in his Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk, 1914, where he seized on early accounts of cross-dressing medicine men to produce a theory that all cultural creation - all social progress, actually - was due to holy individuals of a third or intermediate sexual status. Significantly, most of his examples came from North America. This was where Knight got his troupe of hermaphrodite seraphs - as well as from Pater. We would admit a link between hysteria, ecstatic religion, prophetic trance utterance, and early dramatic performances. Maybe we should think of theatre primarily as travesty and transformation, of costumes as temporary alterations of the body shape. Spirituality and normal sexual activity do seem to shun each other's company. But Knight's nympholepsy is private to him, and could be retrieved as an authentic example of l'amour fou and erotic hallucination. He quotes a passage from 'The Monk', by MG Lewis, a Gothic novel.

'At the same time the cloud disappeared, and he beheld a figure more beautiful than fancy's pencil ever drew. It was a youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: a bright star sparkled upon his forehead, two crimson wings extended from his shoulders, and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played around his head(.)'

Lewis' picture, anticipating Wieners' Empress poem, seems to be a pin-up - although there were no pinups in 1796. Perhaps the pinup has a partly religious origin, in portraits of female saints. Perhaps these diaphanous figures were flying through the air until the cinema screen provided a kind of flypaper for detaining them in flight. Could pinup be an obstinate and rather unshaven dialect reduction of epiphany?

State Capitol involves a lot of social contacts merely for the purpose of making contact, and a lot of language which is inflated because it is really an exchange of honorifics rather than a record of essential facts. MAK Halliday, in one of those great sociolinguistic quotes, says that the primary function of language is to display status. We might modify this to say that its primary function is to signal prestige two ways- something more benign. Poetry is an intensification of language - and I suspect that poetry, over much of its history, has also been an intense form of status signalling. Typically, it recorded gifts, the primary quality of the aristocracy being generosity. We may find it helpful to think of Wieners' later poems as gifts signalling status. Their language is flouncy; it doesn't record essentials because the situation is permanently one of leisure - he has discovered that the Leisure Age gives us time to be filled. The act of filling that time is the exercise of freedom. You enjoy that time as long as you feel good about yourself - a condition for which perceived status, acceptance, verbal praise, are vital supports. Inflated language is fit for purpose - we are enjoying leisure, not hurrying toward its end. Wieners has, with these film poems, assimilated to the world of magazines, pinups, and television. He is recognising the new age rather than disappearing into a private and pathological condition. The problem of incorporating the beautiful into your home was not faced by John alone.
(clip of Doris as interior designer in 'Pillow Talk'. 'The last thing you want in Scarsdale is a fertility symbol.')
I think we might unpick his earlier, heroic poetry as well as getting lost in the lush ruffles of State Capitol (and the later texts of Cultural Affairs in Boston). I think we are getting further away from the existential integrity and anxiety of the 1950s all the time. The artist's journey into the interior now seems more like tourism and less foolhardy than in the days of Abstract Expressionism. I don't want to undermine that era - just to point out what modernity, with its affluence and mass access to higher education, means to us, now. I think some people don't like the late work because it doesn't include enough suffering. What is this about homosexuals suffering? is this suffering a task - something passed down, or accepted, in accordance with a work ethic? What does it buy you?

The falcon mentioned in the poem reminds us of another stylised bird of prey. There is a moment in 'The Maltese Falcon' where Bogart, after humiliating Elisha Cook Jr, refers to him as “that little gunsel”. This is a moment of truth in that dance of deception, as gunsel is derived from a Yiddish word affiliated to German gansel, ‘little goose’, and refers to a young male homosexual, silly and in need of a protector to follow around. Something of the real politics of that film emerges, almost in mirror writing, in this word; and one of the forgotten structures of the classic gangster tradition. As they say, what's sauce from the angel is schmalz from the gansel. Maybe not all gunsels simply vanish off screen. Maybe some of them grow up to be geese, with wings. There isn’t much schmalz on a falcon, but maybe a bird covered in lead and made on the inside of gold encrusted with jewels isn’t so different from a bird rich with schmalz on the inside and covered in beautiful white feathers on the outside. Werfel gave a speech at Davos in 1918 where he told the workers 'Comrades! what calls itself art today, is the shimmering ring of fat on the capitalist soup.'

The classic work on the subject is of course Hergé de la Tour de Chichi's 'Strike of the Tower falcon: Ismaili erotic poetry, the heresy of the Maltese Priory, and the Jesuit educational tradition' with the accompanying recipe book. Hergé was the descendant of Louise Mouton-Rothschischi, the inventor of the word chichi in the belle epoque. After an early career in interior decoration, he became a cineaste and psychoanalyst, who insisted on treating his patients while watching Loretta Young films on his clinical projector.

To save effort, I'm going to quote from his paper 'Symptomatic membrane, or the wet blouse as social field in Howard Hawks, John Woo, and Terence Fisher': "Enough of the spurious jacobinism of directorial high command. Events on the phantomatic membrane are the outer of a grand inner, gunpowder fired through a net, unthwarted trains of action learning to build themselves as scenarios. The film is an impartible object-scene where partial projections of allotted parties litigate for control. What are we seeing when our gaze traces movements on screen? Ejectamenta from a world of baffled light. The pellicular surface as discharge of human pollen into a solar atmosphere, billowing and capturing dislocated energies. Hormones are temporary organs on the inside, swarm forms which develop structures visible on the outside. In puberty, certain hormones build entire new organs, the realisation of the masculine and feminine. These are not simply coups of temperament, although on a particular afternoon they might seem like that, especially in hot weather. They are a hysteria which lingers, a phantom caught by nervously rich skin. The lines of Mannerist ornament represent unchannelled currents on the periphery of two bodies which issue as temporary yet firm swellings."
Thankyou, Hergé. That's absolutely masses. And we have to stop there as well.
bibliographyGeoff Ward, Literary San Francisco and the poetry of the excitements. Critical Quarterly, vol 36, no.3.
Walter Pater, Diaphaneite (in Uncollected Essays).
-'Winckelmann' (in Studies in the Renaissance)
G Wilson Knight. Symbol of Man in stage and studio.
- The Golden Labyrinth.
Séraphine Nuage. Le sortitilège. Louise Mouton-Rothschischi et ses confections de fantaisie. (Editions Froufrou, 1947)
Hergé de la Tour de Chichi. Le chichi des hachichins. Détours ismailites et fumées arabesques. (Editions de l'apres-midi, 1990)
- 'Symptomatic membranes' (Baton Rouge Film Fan, June 1958)
- 'Tower falcon striking' (Little Rock Film Student, July 1980)
MAK Halliday, Language as social semiotic

Wieners' abject failure to include a still of Loretta Young in his pinups prevents me from making a connection to the Virgin of Loreto. As you recall, the Santa Casa, the house where the Blessed Virgin was born and lived, was miraculously translated to Loreto, an apport from the Holy Land, in 1294. Pointing out the reliance of the Church on hysterics and hallucinators for its basic narratives. The original Loreto was reproduced in many parts of Europe; there is one in Prague, for example. The idea of recreation of a cosmically key event in your own neighbourhood is important in Catholicism, and buying movie magazines is also an act of devotion. The idea of a household shrine brings us to Wieners' scrap-book for private devotions. In Munich I saw shops full of garish objects for decorating pious Catholic homes; the word kitsch is Bavarian, and is said to come specifically from these frightening objects. The practice of building household shrines goes well back into the Middle Ages, but it was the attempt to cram the polychrome brilliance and illusionist effects of the Baroque into small portable sculptures which really spawned a horror.

This was written as a lecture for a conference in Cambridge, I don't know when, maybe about 2003. I don't have the technology to include the film clips into this web piece. Also that might involve copyright problems. Wieners was of importance to Jeremy Reed, Barry MacSweeney, and John Wilkinson, a strange grouping. Geoff shared a house with John Wilkinson when both were students, circa 1973 or 74, and Wilko was doing a PhD on Wieners. I imagine Barry got into Wieners through Prynne, who was a heavy Wieners fan and had original editions of his work from the USA. I chose this style because I thought it would irritate the Cambridge bien-pensants more than anything else, and something about that town makes me surly. I knew Rod and Kevin would be with it, but there is a faction in C**b**ge of the Hanging Bishops of Modernism.

This is related to various writings on Jeremy Reed. Jeremy wasn't exactly influenced by Wieners but used him to unlock a range of possibilities.
If you venture into You-tube, you may find a lot of mitchell Leisen, including a clip from a film "Murder at the Vanities" (1934) which has Gertrude Michael singing "Sweet Marijuana". 'I wait alone/ in the Mexican sunlight'. Poignant! and yet ravaging!


  1. I haven't read this fully yet, but in the over-spilling of my enthusiasm, wanted you to know that I have been reading your bits & pieces online for at least three years, and that I discovered this blog through looking for articles relating to John Wieners, & that therefore I am extremely happy to have found this piece by you, particularly one which tallies with my own thoughts so directly. I am presently hoping to get hold of Angel Exhaust issue 11, listed as a dream date with John Wieners, as I am guessing that there is content related to him in there? I am writing a Master's dissertation on him.

    Keep up the great work with the blog/mag either way.


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