Recently, I learned about the other Princess Cornflakes. It is an independent French film, an “extra-large fashion comedy” by Antoine Asseraf and René Habermacher. You can see it here. I just watched it and from what I can tell, it’s a parody of girls aspirations to be beautiful and perfect models when they grow up, sort of a mini-Jane Campion. It’s creative and features special-effects scenes worthy of 50’s pulp fiction such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. I enjoyed Princess Cornflakes very much and I’m proud to share a name with this production.
People often wonder why I was an art historian, and why I took Visual Culture classes. There is nothing
lucrative that you can do with art history. And visual culture must be the silliest subject in the world. I mean all you are doing is looking at pictures, right?*
Yes, I know, your 5-year-old can look at pictures*. But that doesn’t make him a cultural critic. That doesn’t give him an understanding of the language of the visual world (visual semiotics and semantics) and the ability to analyze the power of images over popular culture. That is what we do in art history.
This might not seem so interesting or useful. I mean they are just harmless pictures, right? Why would anyone want to criticize pictures? Well, some pictures, like children’s illustrations, or paintings, are fairly harmless. But the majority of pictures that we see every day are not art or illustration. Most of the images we see today are advertising, and I believe advertising must be criticized and historicized. That doesn’t mean that we have to think ads are “bad”. But we should see ads for what they are, an attempt to sell us something in a very seductive way. Sometimes ads are cool. But they aren’t art.
I was recently thinking about those great 1990’s ads for Guess jeans (Georges Marciano). They were so beautiful. They looked like dramatic films stills and they featured top models like Claudia Schiffer or Anna Nicole Smith. They usually had a very “American” feeling to them, like something from a western. But others were very European like an old Italian realist movie. They felt gritty and cinematic.
It occurred to me that a major influence on the 1990’s Guess ads was John Houston’s 1961 film, The Misfits. You know the one with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. If you don’t know it you should see it. It’s set in the American desert and tells the story of a divorcée and some struggling cowboys in Nevada still trying to live the frontier life in the 1960’s, but probably well on their way to just becoming trailer trash on the outskirts of Las Vegas in a world where global distribution and spreading suburbanism was killing the frontier. It’s a study of the end the cowboy persona and the American idea of “freedom” that came with it.
The Misfits and those Guess ads have so much in common. Passionate love, beautiful dumb people, and a gritty, black-and-white environment. But I would say that the Misfits is art and the Guess ads are not. John Huston, filmmaker of the Misfits, wanted to say something about how the frontier no longer fits daily life. Like an advertiser, he used beauty to make his message attractive and seductive. But his message was so much more thought provoking than the Guess message, which is simply “buy jeans”. But I don’t think much more of an argument needs to be made for these differences.
But lots of people who grew up on the Guess ads (like me) stop there and see the ads as iconic. The ads do have the feeling of the film, but they are derivative. They only communicate how the film looked, and not Huston’s overall message. To get to the message, you have to think harder and find the thing in history that influences the ads. But in our visual world where new images are constantly replacing old ones, we are not conditioned to look up the older things. We are so caught up in watching the ever-changing slide show of new images, some of which make us forget the past, but many of which, like the Guess ads, evoke it. These “throwback” images represent consumer culture’s obsession with nostagia that post modernists like Fredrick Jameson referred to as the “historical amnesia”.
And it’s cool. After all, we don’t want to overanalyze and over think things. And yet, sometimes being constantly entertained gets old. We start to wonder if we are making our own choices any more. That is why I personally love old images and old things. I love to see what people watched on TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I love to see the products they bought, the brochures they looked it, their flowery kitchen wallpaper, their speech and lack of clever irony. I even love more recent old things, like techno from the 1990’s. I think it’s important to try to remember or research how people behaved in other eras. And I’m not just talking about cool hot rods and rockabilly music or raves and pacifiers. I’m talking about the boring everyday aspects of a past era. How they might only have had one telephone in the house, or a girl might only have had two dresses because clothes were made in America, the little forgotten details.
So overall, art history is good and useful. We see lots of images – art primarily. We see how they have been received through history. An understanding of these older images serves as a triggers for memory when we are looking around our highly mediated environment, so that we can demystify popular advertising images and understand where they came from, and we don’t get too swept up in the seduction of novelty, like hapless cowboys trying to live in a romantic past that doesn’t really exist.
* Here is the rest of my diatribe about your five year old. It felt like I was getting off-topic so I made it a footnote: Your dear child CAN make something that looks like a Rauschenberg, or a Jackson Pollack (more likely a Pollack. Rauschenbergs were really complicated multi-media collages and most 5-year-olds couldn’t do the nailing or sawing involved). What your 5-year-old cannot do is make them at the right historical moment. Your kid doesn’t understand the evolution of painting over hundreds of years, and the “art rules” that were in place up until the 50’s that caused manipulating paint in a seemingly haphazard way to be so revolutionary. Sorry. Your 5-year old is not avant-garde.
When I was a child I had a special connection to certain interiors. I would imagine a world within the walls or in the far corner of the room, the odd places where nobody looked. I loved interior spaces that were small and irregular, high up, or just weird. My parents used to go to a thrift store in Long Beach, California, which I remember quite well. They had furniture arranged up on some old scaffolding (at least that’s how it seems in my foggy memory of my experiences at age 5). For some reason I always wanted to climb and explore around there, with the old things it seemed like a different world. That memory still gives me a very nostalgic feeling.
Another weird interior was the doll museum in the back of Dooley’s Hardware store in Long Beach, CA. It had old porcelain toys and dolls in glass cases and seemed like it was a secret place. I would spend hours there. At Christmas they would decorate it and it seemed so magical and perfect.
Of course I loved the doll house which my mother made for me. It was an imperfect, homemade little space full of old-fashioned Victorian furniture which I collected for years – a coal-burning stove, velvet sofas, a tiffany lamp, a little toilet with brass pipes and a lion claw’s bathtub. It was my perfect, miniature little world which was nothing like the Southern California ranch that I grew up in. I can relate to that episode of the Twilight Zone where the man falls in love with a dollhouse doll who comes to life for him at night.
David Lynch seems to understand the hidden psychological power of interiors and furniture. He understands how rooms come to life and hold secrets. I love Dorothy Vallen’s apartment in Blue Velvet.
The exterior is run-down and seedy. It’s a big building in a small town (another obsession of mine) and I read that it was built in the 1930’s by an architect who was inspired by buildings he saw in New York City. It’s in a neighborhood that seems abandoned except for underworld gangsters who make unwanted visits in the middle of the night. The interior walls are deep 1930’s mauve with rounded beige furniture and elegant plants in shiny brass planters. There, in the shadowy “noir-ish” 1930’s elegance, lives Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) a woman who holds a secret that two teenagers feel compelled to discover. The velvety furniture cast a rich loungy hush over the entire room and seem to keep her secret with her.
Dorothy Vallens never seems to leave this apartment, except at night, when she goes to a place that is equally weird and shadowy, a mysterious old theater with red velvet curtains where she sings her famous performance of “Blue Velvet”. It seems blurry like it is 3 AM or a dream and she is lit by blue light as she sings. In that scene Jeffrey and Sandy (Kyle MacLaughlin and Laura Dern) sit watching her, transfixed and transported out of their familiar daytime world of school and bright sunny small-town life. Jeffrey stares at Dorothy as Sandy watches him, jealously aware that this older woman’s sexual power is taking possession over her teenage boyfriend. The old decaying theater is a symbol of jealousy and secrets and night-time visits.
The bedroom where Laura Palmer lived is another example of Lynch’s powerful interiors. Laura Palmer is the beautiful high school prom queen who is murdered in the beginning of the Twin Peaks series. She lives in a cute little house in a small town in Washington. Her bedroom is bright and tidy, a portal between childhood and womanhood with the frilly bedspread and doll collection, (including a clown doll that makes it all the more disturbing). Because the sexually precocious Laura is dead already in the movie, and kept her experiences secret to the grave, her bedroom becomes an ironic shrine, a child’s room inhabited by a teen who would never reach womanhood, but in many ways already had.
I love old rooms of any sort. I love velvet furniture, old peeling wallpaper, old pianos, and crumbling theaters with velvet curtains. I don’t like to update the places where I live. In my den is the original wood-paneling from the 1970s. The decor is kind of Brady Bunch – bright colors and thrift store art. If I ever get more money perhaps I will replace it with 1930’s club furniture. But more likely I will have to wait until I find a perfect untouched old brick apartment with a fire escape in a forgotten town somewhere in America.
I just spent the past hour in an unexpected TV-viewing encounter with Paul Morrissey. For the uninitiated, Morrissey was Andy Warhol’s film director and made many of the films starring Edie Sedgwick, such as “Chelsea Girls”, “Trash”, “Flesh”, “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”, etc.
As a long-time (20 years) devotee of Warhol, Edie, the Velvet Underground and all things Factory, I obviously had a lot to ask Morrissey. His responses were unexpected in many ways.
Obviously the first thing I asked about was Andy Warhol. Seems like everybody has a strong opinion about Andy. “Andy was materialistic”, “Andy was obsessed with stardom,” etc. Morrissey observed that what you hear about Andy is mostly the media’s fabrication of him, since it has become fashionable to make him into a total charicature. Morrissey himself recalled Andy as being a very challenged person. Andy was dyslexic. Andy had difficulty speaking. So, when he met people on the street Andy always had a few handy one-liners in his back pocket – “Can I take your picture?” “Do you want to buy a copy of my magazine?”, etc to distract people from starting a conversation which may reveal his communications failures.
Being a self-titled bohemian girl (OK, houswife), I obviously asked Paul about Edie. Edie was always one of my idols. Morrissey basically repeated what you often hear about Edie. She was a rich, pampered girl. She was incredibly good-looking. She had an amazing body. She was very disturbed as a result of the way her family treated her, but also thanks to the asylums where she had been continually sent and the drugs she had been given there. I was surprised that Morrissey actually liked “Factory Girl”, which I had heard described as “Edie for dummies”. However, he said that the portrayal of Bob Dylan was completely inaccurate. The film made Bob out to be a moral hero, putting down the factory crowd for their speed and hard drugs and begging Edie to leave Andy, a “bloodsucker” and come with him. According to Morrissey, Bob invited Edie to Woodstock and there he gave her heroin. Bob was apparently no better than any of them.
Surprisingly, for a Factory regular, Morrissey didn’t take drugs. Here is what Andy said about Morrissey (from warholstars.org)
“Paul didn’t take drugs – in fact, he was against every single drug, right down to aspirin. He had a unique theory that the reason kids were taking so many drugs all of a sudden was because they were bored with having good health, that since medical science by now had eradicated most childhood diseases, they wanted to compensate for having missed out on being sick. ‘Why do they call it experimenting with drugs?’ he’d demand. ‘It’s just experimenting with ill health!'” (POP118)
Warholstars goes on to say that although Morrissey himself didn’t take drugs, he was known at the Factory for making films of people shooting heroin. Did those people want him to film him like that? I doubt it.
Morrissey’s strongest opinions are about pop culture and rock and roll and the way this has affected society. Basically, he hates rock and roll. He says that after the first few good acts of the sixties: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, then rock and roll was ruined. It produced a mentality of chaos, sexual promiscuity, and a drug culture which has completely destroyed young people. Basically, his rhetoric is that of the conservative right wing or the 1950’s establishment. He hates rock both socially, for encouraging promiscuity and dissipation, and aesthetically, because rock’s hard relentless beat is ugly, discourages healthy critical thought and just reduces people to animals. He compared the youth rituals of listening to a rock concert, dancing and having sex to a Nazi or communist rally. As we watched Grace Jones sing in a new wave reunion concert, Morrissey praised disco which caused music to become melodic again and broke the destructive trend of rock.
I observed that today, with 1 million different channels for expression on the Internet, there are endless producers but no audience. He blamed this again on the 1960’s rock culture. Thanks to drugs and rock, kids today have damaged their nerve endings so that they need constant stimulation and cannot concentrate on slow culture. There may have been some truth to this, but it was a bit ironic that Paul himself was busy channel-surfing on a large screen television as he spoke.
My conclusion about these points of view coming from the man who used to produce “The Velvet Underground” and hang out at the Factory was that obviously he has seen so many people go down the tubes when their habits caught up with them, that he reacted viscerally.
He condemned me when I told him that I had loved garage rock for about the past 20 years since I was about 15 and had discovered the Velvet Underground, and about my father, a record collector and rock and roll historian who had dedicated his life to the music. He disagreed with my opinions that rock is necessary for young people as it helps them express their natural angst. Well, you can imagine his response. I was just a knee jerk fundamentalist liberal. OK, we went around with the same old tired arguments for some time. Still, he let me express my views – that rock was cathartic and powerful, and sometimes that was what we needed. We don’t want to listen to pleasant , melodic music anymore since frankly, life has not been pleasant and unified since before WWII.
Like just about anyone else, Paul Morrissey is good and bad. For all his right-wing opinions, he was a surprisingly pleasant and humorous man. He was about 70, Scottish descent, good-looking and altogether very smart and astute. He continues to be a well-respected film artist amongst those who look beyond the mainstream blockbusters that fill our cineplexes and minivans.
I just saw this film about the rise and fall of Tony Wilson and the Madchester music scene. This was one of those films that did something to me. It was haunting. I think this is because it shattered my assumptions about the history of pop music as I knew it. For one thing, the film presented the early punk bands like Joy Division or Buzzcocks as just a step on the way to the madchester scene of Happy Mondays and eventually house/dance/dj music. I had always assumed that punk was more important and that dance music was just a passing trend, after this film I’m starting to think it was opposite.
In a way the film presented Happy Mondays as the last rock band. The narrator, playing Tony Wilson, even remarked in a scene in his Hacienda club in Manchester, the very moment when the audience no longer applauded the band, but instead applauded the DJ. This is a very important and very postmodern moment, marking the death of the author in a visible and historical sense. Punk may be more revered and fondly remembered today, but I think that the time will come when we will look back on the Happy Mondays, and the emerging club scene and realize the revolutionary importance of that music as well.
In fact it seems strange that Happy Mondays and the house and techno and rave music scene that they spawned are 17 years in the past. And what have we evolved to? War and the “fight against terrorism” and a world where all we care about is getting good ol’ American tax cuts and driving around the strip malls in our SUV’s (which are the biggest on the road) and where our kids must turn into little hard-working adults by grade 6 due to the “No Child Left Behind” laws. It seems like there is no more of the idealism about the redeeming power of music or communal love or even hedonism left from the hippie or rave scenes, just a boring materialistic world where all we can think about is how to protect ourselves and get home equity. But I’m not pining for the “good old days”, I’m impatient for the future. It seems to me as if we will encounter hippies and ravers at some point in the future, after we have evolved a bit more. They were only visiting before by some mistake in the time-space continuum.
But revolutionary importance and SUV’s aside, I’m just glad that the film reminded me of the Happy Mondays. They were an interesting band, equal parts drum and bass dance music, and equal parts rock. They sound at once like something you’ve heard before and like nothing you’ve heard before. And then they have Bez. Bez is their dancer, mascot, psychedelic guru. I’ve never heard of another band with a mascot who just dances and plays maracas. That alone makes the Mondays worth knowing.