Horror of Life byline, Sep 7 2013.
(Note: there be nudity in this entry).
Recently, I have been thinking of carpets. And conjectured that carpets represent a zone where the madness expressed in, for example, a mad scrapbook can spread. Then, too, however, I associate carpeting with comfortable at-homeness, and with regard to wide expanses of carpet, as a kind of wide open sea in that world, a zone of reverie. Also, in the past, I have associated the floor in, for example, a gallery space, as a sign of sliding signifiers, that things are falling apart, drifting off, away, losing momentum. But this is a formalist model. I require additional anthropological data to determine exactly what a floor might come to represent.
A good example of a most curious use off the flooring comes in the Italian nunsploitation movie, The Nuns of Archangel (1973). There is a good deal of sex in this one, and evil head mothers, and the like, but what is most striking is the attachment of the dear sisters to lying about on the floor or in bed. For example, when the Mother Superior dies, she is pallborne to her wake, not on shoulders, but dragged along the floor, to symbolize her abjection and humility
The fact that her feet hang out, and drag, intensifies the symbolism, she has been
killed by a power, and is truly dead. And then, even more odd, she is laid out
on a sheet on the floor, surrounded, rather intriguingly, by candles,
In prayer for her, the nuns also walk circles around this strange enclosure (and notice that her feet are unshod). The nuns are used to making use of the blank flat surfaces of things, to create meaning. At their long dining table, barren of cloth or utensil, rank is implied, as is distance and respect
There is a constant association between the other place they may lie on, a bed, and
the floor. When a new girl comes to be a noviate, her divestiture or her wordly
garments is a ceremony. She is sat upon the bed that thereafter will not see
And is inspected for her virginity, oddly, by the placement of this act in the room, linking her unviolated hymen to the unviolated space around the edge of her matress
When her devotion is doubted, she immediately kneels down on the hard floor, in
glass, again, the floor
The ceremonial aspects of the induction are, in fact, more fully instrumentalized, in Story of Cloistered Nun, generally a poorer movie that this one. That movie is less about exploitation, more about the reality. For that, the tortures are internalized into the décor of the convent. When the inductee shows up in all her finery, she is a stark contrast to the grim surroundings, and the roughly carved, almost acheitopoetically simple image of the virgin.
She passes through a gateway that rather unmistakably reports that it is the gateway to hell, or heaven by hell on earth
Elsewhere, the convent has a remarkably strange door, like a torture instrument
All of which communicates that she is leaving this world, and entering another. And the actual induction is much more carefully itemized, step by step. And several of the steps involve stepping out of her clothing, with a good show of nudity,
Her transformation is reflected in the glass, as a leaving off of this world
And then, as a specific step in her induction, she has to go spend some nights
alone, in a private cell, in a state of abjection,
And at the time of compline, she lies on the floor, again in the cross shape
The movie also ritualizes the hair shirt, and makes a more thorough property of it, as part of it
Then she suffers, and, if I recollect, balks
At which point, she has to reassert her submission to mother superior, who is evil in this one, by crawling or more properly worming her way with her body on the bare floor of the main hall licking it as she approaches, something like, you’re not worthy to lick the ground I walk on
So these initiations are floorbound in detail as well. In an equally bizarre floor-bound event, truly a work of ceremonial art here, the sisters later arrive to witness the induction of the noviates. They are nowhere to be seen, where are they? It is a Mike Kelley,
(note: this is a quite odd coincidence since I early responded to Kelley’s particularly Catholic parody of the Good Godder banners, devised by Sr. Corita, that arrived in the church in the 1960s, and which I always loathed as bad art; here, he may be channeling a yet deeper catholic rite. This also is mentioned because I also have thought of a visit we once made to recluse nuns in rural Wisconsin, which freakethed me out).
they are under the large black coverlet laid out on the floor,
Lying prostrate, in the position of the cross, in an arrangement, a battery of five touching crosses, a double act of submission, not only lying low, but, as if imitating the shadow of the crucifix on them, devoted to him
In their rooms, at night, however, the temptations of the reclining position, in bed, are many. Some sisters have taken men into their beds. Those that do not have men, make love to the bed. This one goes to bed in the nude
And then scrunches up her pillows and sheets into a poppet, a semblance of a
figure, a man, and makes love to that, in masturbation
In its abstractness, repeated in other movies, like The Antichrist, and in most scenes, of the time, of psychotic masturbation, the movie underscores the endless creativity of human beings when it comes to making much of little, of demanding a human response from inhuman surface (she may have been encouraged in the animation of a twist of bedsheet by the profusiveness of her pubic hair), and of the capacity to animate inanimate objects, even if there is only a very small suggestion of the presence of figure. The theme of minimalist animation of the inanimate is one of the most intriguing elements of nunsploitation movies. (again, I do not take an extramural dismissive attitude towards these movies, simply counting up boobs; I acknowledge that the movies pruriently exploit a genuine and difficult situation, with pathos in it, young women with normal sexual urges and without the vocation being farmed out to convents, and that they excel when they acknowledge their predicament or plight, and devise ways to ‘figure it out’ within the terms of their life).
The movie rather remarkably touches upon the erotic potential of soft surfaces, in
a world of hard floors and prostration, when the nuns partake of the annual
fest of tossing of the strawman, a scene rendered in Goya, it is a sheet, used
to toss up a figure, it is as if those who have impure thoughts, seek for it to
invest their sheets, and those who remain pure, seek to exorcise the soft
contours of their sheets and their foldings of any suggestion of figure, quite
Here is the Goya (at present this dance, since done by women, is a kind of conjuring for a man, from whom one of them will choose; among nuns, it was perhaps sanctified to refer to Jesus the Groom).
Just as there is a potential figurative dimension to the sheets of the bed, so the sheets can be sterner, and a kind of substitute floor, on which the only way a sterner nun will allow herself expression of eros is through punishment and an attempt to beat it out of her, here with a hair shirt, which in some authentic movies describe that as an itchy rope twisted around one’s torso,
It is interesting that both here, and here (where she is enjoying illicit sex)
The nuns keep part of their wimple on. Partly, this signifies to outsiders the
injured aspect of their fate, that they are stuck in an impossible situation,
having urges but not a vocation, so it represents the bandages over their
scars. At the same time, however, it renders them half-persons, poppets,
indeed, like the one being tossed, their bodies reduced by the environment to a
nuisance presence, which they seek to exorcise, but fail. By keeping on this
signifier of their puppetry even when committing violating sex, they
communicate their tortured, conflicted state. It’s impressively coherent.
Finally, those who cannot find a way to resolve their conflict in the sheets,
drop back to the floor, and lie on it, all night, in abject prostration,
offering up their discomfort as a way to ward off urges,
The movie then breaks its reverie on the floors and coverings, on the conflict between prone on the floor and prone on the bed, by having them, in their compromised life, discovered, and then tortured, and they are real tortures, none of which is relevant to floors, except that the last torture is saved for the mother superior, and she is humiliated, of course, on the floor
Therefore, in this movie, Nuns of Archangel, the floor represents abjection, discomfort, being reduced to something less than human, in service, for dropping off furniture, and the needs implied by them, and either torturing oneself or being tortured, to reduce one’s humanity in order to better serve a higher power. This highly anthropological analysis of the floor then would parallel my previous assignation of that site as a signifier of dissolution, but it does not correspond to analysis of it as home. Carpet, then, may civilize the hard cold floor, and mean more than most assume it does. To be continued.