An episode of Stendhal syndrome as a death premonition in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996): the relationship to dream and death imagery in Roman art.

Rev. September 22, 2016.

Though I don’t care for Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) as a movie, its opening sequence, where Asia Argento goes into the Uffizi gallery, and then has a kind of panic attack, as evidence that she suffers from Stendhal syndrome, since it was triggered by an overly emotional response to art, is of interest. The most interesting thing in retrospect, seen back from my current interest in Roman sculpture, as I try to parse out the various agencies involved (lately discovering that official statues put up by aediles were called, only, signa; that the Greeks apoballistically catapontized statues into the away-place of the sea; that the round of damnatio memoria was deep and long, all interesting things), is that not only does the sequence serve as a miniature version of the movie, that is, as a premonition that she is to be raped, and go through a near death assault, and also an intuition that the man who is going to do this is in the gallery watching her, but it seems to correspond with the stages, as I have tentatively worked them out, of how Romans made use of sarcophagi relief to project an idea of the various veils of demateralization which one had to go through to get to death itself. As I figure it, the Romans imagined that one passed from life to death through the agency of a dream state, and from shallower to deeper. The most shallow stage, the entry as it were into the altered state of dying, was, if I can place my dream theory over it, the entoptic, a mere wobble, announcing entry, and thus the strigulate pattern, one of my favorite art forms. Then past that things got a bit deeper, and for that they went through other veiled in-between or duct spaces, and these were all busily symplegmatic, and included mythical themes, with the themes too often referred to by scholars, battle scenes, processions and then nautical thiasos scenes. The problem is, what was the sequence? What, that is, did the descent start with, and with what did it end? My guess has always been that it ended with the sea, and the bottom of the sea. Lindhauf’s notion that the sea for the Greeks, ideas likely inherited by the Romans, was productive near to shore, but then transitioned to becoming a polluted space, and then, beyond that, an away-place, into which something could be thrown and it never come back, provides a model for thinking of the progress through stages of the sea as a passage to death as evidenced by thiasos scenes on sarcophagi. But, the question remains, what was the sequence?

Strangely enough, Stendhal Syndrome suggests that by some unspecified influence Argento unconsciously extracted from deep in his Italian mind some occult knowledge of the sequencing. In the beginning, Asia is loomed over by the imposing power of figures, authorities in the living world. First we get Dante, leading her in

stend 1then we get a monster

stend 2and then we get the underside of the copy of the David outside the Palazzo Vecchio

stend 3and since she presents herself as a tourist without great knowledge of art history, and would be responding to triggers in art that might cause her some anxiety, it is whispered in this shot that she is looking away from the underside of his testicles, and his penis, and the dark area between his legs, meaning, it makes her think of sex, perhaps embarrassed by it

stend 4Then she is also waiting in a crowd in line, and again standing there in a mass of people, all the hot, sweaty bodies, it is sometimes too much. She seeks relief from it by looking up, but what she sees makes her spin begin

stend 5Argento would’ve known, I believe, that in Euro horror and also erotica a spin of the ceiling rococco fantasies, of the cloudland of that world, represented in movies, the female orgasm, as it did ith Barbara Steele in Terror Creatures from the Grave

stend 6And did too in Radley Metzger’s Alley Cats, where a dream montage in the entoptic state is kept there, disturbing her sleep, by the rococo molding of the ceiling

stend 7What this means is that she is already, before entering, in a state of heightened sexual anxiety, of uncertain origin, and in a possible onset phase hypnagogic state, all likely simply because she is a young person with a body without yet entirely having worked out how to be comfortable in her own skin.

There is an odd pause, before she actually goes in to see the art, and that is that she stops to look out at the river, over the Ponte Vecchio, and what viewers might not know is that she is also looking at the DeMedici passage, the top floor of the bridge, then zigzagging all the way through the passage, and so this scene serves to mark that she is entering into a passage, her mind and heart are, in this tour of the museum, going somewhere (I should also note that in my personal encounter with the pictured structure I staid a night in Florence, after, in 1979, we had failed to find a room in Rome for the next day, and so we decided not to go ahead. I got up the next morning and shocked my travelling companions by telling them at the train station that I was headed home, getting on the train going in the other direction. This came after a deep crash of mood, which I used to have in those days, when enthusiasms would soar, then crash, and lose meaning, and then I’d go into a deep swoon, and make a rash decision, like that one. Also, that night I had a dream in which I imagined the closet of my tiny room opening up into a passage that, I was so close to the museum, allowed me to get into the museum and run through the galleries by myself, unencumbered by the tourist crowds, and it is quite possible that this dreamy intuition of the existence of the actual DeMedici passage, a device also used in the Dan Brown novel, Inferno, but also in the movie, I think, Open City, that this imagery contributed to the idea that, getting up next morning, if I was not going to have it right, I did not want it at all, so I turned back, ending my 1979 wanderjahre, this then being the turning point. So, it is extremely odd to me, on a personal level, that this scene communicates to her that she is to go through a passage).

stend 8Then she gets into the art, and the art has to be counted as the beginning of a passage into the dream state, diving down into deeper and deeper states of altered consciousness, and it starts with a battle scene, Uccello

stend 9and in her mind, she hears the battle, the clashing of arms

stend 10the firing off of weaponry

stend 11it disturbs her, but also immerses her in an intensely physical and chaotic situation that modern men and woman can hardly grasp as realities. The same sort of battle scene was pictured on sarcophagi. Why would battle scenes be pictured on the front of sarcophagi?because they are symplegma of bodies, but, as such, they represent to the living an intense experience that they might have thought unendurable to them as living beings, but, so, for that, entering into an intense experience, imaginging oneself in a battle, in the middle of it, offering one a possiblity of, in passage to death, even being a hero, or having a trophy made of oneself, all of it would be a glass onion-like transition from light to lower sleep, to dying, in this context. Thus, this model suggests that the first, closest to consciousness stage of sarcophagi representation is the battle scene, with all those bodies, all that blood, all that dying,

stend 12And in that realm one is partly stripped of one’s full phyiscality, to become a mere trophy, a relic of some stripping off experience,

stend 13

Next, then, she passes into the Botticelli gallery, it was the same in 1996, as it was when I saw it in 1979, the last time I saw it

stend 14she seems wary, and, it is true, young people are wary of the masterpieces they have been told all about, but don’t quite get. I know I was deeply intimidated, and worked hard to overcome the postcard status that overwork of scholars on these works imposed on my appreciation at that age. She immediately latches onto the Birth of Venus, identifying with her

stend 15This painting, of course, has an occult sexual undertone that would have bothered her, or at least made her go ick. Venu’s father masturbated into the ocean, it foamed up, she was born, and so on (This is explained in the Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), and in mythology too). The painting was also hung in the bedroom or adjunct rooms of DeMedici princesses as a marriage picture to bless their fertility, and wish them bounty in terms of children. But, perhaps, she, nervous in her body, focuses on the nudity, and that she is having to cover it, it is a picture, for some women, of embarrassment, the venus pudica modest pose

stend 16the fact that in recitation of the tale castration-masturbation was mentioned would also possibly then give sexual meaning to her musing upon it, as it also, like the battle, comes alive, she focuses on the blowing of the wind figures

stend 17her eye then tracks the blow and catches the blow of her hair, which she thinks she sees move. This, on the surface, is not quite what is happening, as he is blowing on the shell, blowing it ashore, but as a spring breeze on her body, and hair, this could have waking-up-sexual-feeling spring fever connotations, and his mouth even could suggest to her oral sex

stend 18she then complicates her problem by immediately moving to another one of Botticelli’s marriage paintings, also using flower and seasonal wind imagery to talk about sex

stend 19she sees her self reflected at the feet of the graces of Paris, blue, now, in reflection

stend 20that means that she has moved mentally into the picture, and identifies with one of the goddesses, or stages of the goddess, as she matures from early to late spring, at least by the calendar reading of the picture

stend 21but then she cannot help, having previously fixated on a male wind figure blowing at the Venus, fixating again on a slightly more robust, blue-bodied male, blowing on a nymph, and having an immediate, alarming impact, as the nymph, as the figure of the first breath of warmth in the spring, begins to turn, like Daphne, into a flower, with, the flowers growing out of her mouth, a violation (and later Kretschmer would rape her with a razor in his mouth)

stend 22the alarm with which that frightened, what is happening to me? nymph gazes at the menace of this figure’s strange blue chest, foreshadows, or picks up, a sea theme

stend 23and she is so consumed by the mystery of whatever strange sexual activity is going on here, relative to the push-pull of her own sexual uncertainties, that she now reaches out to try to touch the picture, visually no longer reflected in the picture as a gazer from outside in, but trying to enter into and through the picture, but the alarm goes off, and she is chased away

stend 24all of this suggests, though the Venus does have a nautical theme with a framed shell used in the thiasos, that the next phase downward entering into dream in Roman death was passing through a mythological nymph scene for its state of visual nympholepsy to carry one deeper into dream. Thus, I place mythological scenes as second behind battle scenes, at the bottom of the glass onion

stend 25And here a theme of entering the underworld, Persephone

stend 26

And then she runs into the next gallery, where, something of a red herring, she is frightened by Caravaggio’s Medusa. This is partly a joke, partly an attempt to figure out exactly what stendhal syndrome was. It is generally overemotional involvement with a painting so that one becomes all emotionally and physcailly worked up, to the point perhaps of sexual excitation and fainting. But, more specifically, it could be read as a modern day counterpart of the medusa problem, the gaze looking back on you, and turning you, deer in the headlights, to stone. In any case, this plays an apotropaic role here

stend 28it then causes her, like a mirror, to respond in kind, and scream, and faint

stend 29but the actual dynamic of her fainting, with her sweating by this point, is that she has, in looking away from it, one more spin in the ceiling effect

stend 30then tries to steady herself by grounding herself in Brugel’s famous picture of Icarus, the boy who flew too high

stend 31but in her fainting spell state, it coming on now, she utterly ignores the stabilizing aspect of the picture, to zero in on the boy’s legs, falling in the sea (Auden’s unimportant event)

stend 32at this point, rather ugly detail, we see that she is indeed being stalked in the gallery, by a young man who, seeing her weakness, targets her

stend 33as she faints, the picture bubbles up and dematerializes as watery and moving away from her, she is going into the picture, going, therefore, down the whoosh of the dream space

stend 34and then out and down into the space, out to sea, an Argento device of some vintage now

stend 35backdropped by world maps, she faints

stend 36her unconscious body now imagines the spell from the inside out, and given the imagery that it lost consciousness in, her fainting down in the gallery is seen by her inner eye as a plunging into the ocean

stend 37when she hits her lip on the table, marble

stend 38she imagines that as hitting rock bottom, the bottom of the sea

stend 39then she achieves dream consciousness inside the deep sleep REM state

stend 40and now a harbinger comes to her, meaning that this is in fact a prophecy dream (the Romans believed that Morpheus could come to you with prophecy, only in deep sleep), and it is a large grouper, a very odd effect

stend 41and the truly strange thing, but true to dream, is that, while she sees it far off it is an anatomically legitmate grouper

stend 42but then when it comes into her space, her dreaming space, she immediately personalizes and humanizes it, so that suddenly the same fish looks like a kind of human figure, which is truly weird

stend 43then, at rock bottom, and the bottom of the dream, she kisses the fish (this then a premonitoin of Kretschmer again)

stend 44and then surfaces

stend 45What this means in terms of the movie is that she has witnessed a foreshadow of her plight to come, her rape and near death experience. But, then, in the broader sense, a sea experience is placed after a battle sequence, and a mythological sequence, because while the first veil represents raw fear of death, the second veil represents anxiety at losing one’s body, but the third veil, the sea, represents surrendering one’s body, and moving down and out through accessible sea to away-place never to return from sea, and for that this sequence is a modern day thiasos, which shows her image engaged with sea creatures, and carried along by them, until they arrive at a place of sacred marriage, and then she would die, but here has the premonition of death.

In Roman sarcophagus art, this descent would start with the strigilate form, the wobble, the equivalent of the sparkle on the image of the sea in the painting above

stend 46and more abstract, like the computer digital image

stend 47Then, as it was when she fainted, she imaginging herself diving in, the figure would emerge, in the lattice, to show the entry into the whooshing state, here actually was often a quotation of the Phaeton in sarcophagus art

stend 48with a close up on the fall

stend 49and she would encounter strange sea creatures like hippocamps, psychopomps leading her down in

stend 50

and these would be reinforced as psychopomp prophecy figures by the figures on the side

stend 51Then her image would be paraded through the sea, to its rest, like a thiasos funeral

stend 52and through it come to the bottom, the palace at the bottom of the sea, where she would be sacredly married to the god of the sea, Poseidon, perhaps in her imagination to kiss her (at another time, I will explore what Lucan has to say of this)

stend 53and then by that enter into death, the palace at the bottom of the sea

stend 54which I see as the doorway to death, at the end of the dream state, as stated before, entering into the death under-the-bottom underdream state which is where the Romans imagined the actual underworld to lie

stend 55

Meaning that the larger sequence of images in Anna’s museum experience as a whole represents a premonition of death, but her actual fainting as imagined as dropping down through the sea, to have a mystic prophetic encounter at the bottom of it, perhaps the place of prophecy, is imagined as a near death experience, and this then is the genius of the sequence, it’s the whole movie in a clamshell. This particular parallel gives me the sense that the Romans imagined the sea as the ultimate place which you had to pass through in the transit of the afterlife in order to get to the peaceful underworld, which was in a palace under the sea. The sole purpose of this note was to underscore that, though on the surface this whole sequence, showing an attack of stendhal syndrome, is a premonition of her troubles to come, to give it depth both in dream and cultural history Argento somehow made use of a sequence that echoes strongly on the models developed by the Romans to explain how one dies, where one goes, how one gets there, and what happens at the end of the transit, which is quite interesting.

Extra! Extra! Kennedy is Slain, headline, The Milwaukee Journal, November 22, 1963

written, November, 2013; posted on the Centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy, May 29, 2017. Note: this essay intended as a chapter in Exposures: the 50 Images That Changed My Life.

kennedy centenn

It is just the front page of a newspaper, with a large headline. Looking at it today, if you can find one, it is merely memorabilia. We stand in the present, and remember. What it talks about is so far back in the past, it cannot hurt us anymore, it is part of that great abstract washing machine of a place called ‘history’ where, we imagine (which is why history is so uninteresting to Americans?), what happened no longer has any influence on our lives. In this scenario, the person in the present has the power of his living self to reduce the issue to an image, it is weak, fading, made weaker in time, as yellow as the newspaper on which it was printed, depleted of its immediacy and power. Why, then, when I think back on the images that changed my life, I include this image on that list? Why when I see this image, the front page of the Milwaukee Journal, November 22, 1963, do I get a chill, an uncanny frisson of eeriness but also a creepy sense of proprietary attachment come back to me? Why, for me, does this image make my body tingle, like all of it is a leg fallen asleep, and thus make it difficult to wipe away the tears that it inevitably causes to well up? There is nothing distinctive about the headline, Kennedy is Slain, but it does have an Extra! Extra! on it, which you do not see every day. And then no sooner does the page drop below the subtitle headline, than it goes into the stiff straight reporting that was in style then, way, way before time of 24-7 commentary on the news. Even as a page of newsprint, as a front page of an historical event, for itself, it is hard to say that the editors came up with a distinctive work of layout. There is a certain before and after element to the contrast of pictures, but not much else. If newspaper layout, and headline writing, is an art, this edition could hardly be said to be artful (the pieties of new journalism having not yet arrived, Death in Dallas, It Tolls for Thee, Gone with the…..none of that yet). So, it is not due to any inherent aesthetic quality that this image brings it all back. Why? then, does it do that?

It does that because of who I was and who I am, where I am now and where I was then, and, most importantly, because of what I was doing on that day, and how I related to it then, and how I relate to it now. Everyone always says that, when something historical happens: you will remember where you were when you heard the news. In fact, I do not remember, exactly, where I was, when I heard the news. I suppose that I was in school, in 1963 that would be, I seem to think the fourth grade. The principal made an announcement, a nun said something, and after that? to be literally honest, I do not remember. So, the parlance of remembering where you were, it does not work for that image. That image, that headline, was not even created yet. In fact, is only it in the making of that image that my memories take form. I was, at the time, a paperboy, I delivered the Milwaukee Journal. My brothers owned the route, and my twin brother and I (age ten) worked for them. The route encompassed twelve square blocks in suburban Shorewood, located just north of the city line of Milwaukee. What this means is that when all the other kids in school heard the news, they then were able to secretly celebrate that school let out, then go home and pretend to be upset while they watched TV. When I heard the news, I had a problem. When was the paper going to be delivered to us, so we could deliver it? We found out pretty quickly, though I do not remember when, that since the assassination had happened at 12:30 p. m. central time, and the paper for the afternoon edition was usually printed in the middle of the night, they had decided to tear up the prepared day’s paper, and quickly prepare a new front page for it. This meant that the paper would be late, and we would have to deliver the paper late. Immediately, then, the event acted on us directly, and negatively impacted us. We were knocked off our feet by the event, and forced to wait patiently for the day to play itself out. I wish I could script a movie of how that afternoon played out, I cannot. But I suspect that being in a passive position, immediately knocked off balance by it, opened up some negative space in our life that may well have made the news hit home harder and that headline, when it arrived, still more significant. So that is the first thing, that front page caused me an imposition, it controlled us, and affected my immediate life.

And then, there is another, broader issue, one I hardly appreciated at the time, or could even comprehend. And it has to do with media and framing, and which media means what to people at a certain time. In 1963, TV news was still the new kid on the block. It was still getting its sea legs, and figuring out what form it would take in the national mind. Live vigils in Special Reports were relatively rare, and, when they happened, it was a Special Report. The minute you saw that Special Report headline on the set you knew that, whatever it was, it was serious. That the Special Report broke in on regular programming, “we interrupt your regular programming to bring you a special report from CBS news,” you knew it was serious, you stopped doing what you were doing, and you listened. I did not see the iconic moment when Walter Cronkite came on the air on CBS and reported the news, nor the moment that I am sure will be the one image that cannot not be shown in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of that day, him ever so briefly, glancing up at that clock, taking off his glasses, and choking up, having reported that the president is dead. I was in school, for us, that moment came second-hand, through a loud speaker placed on the wall above the blackboards (actually, they were green boards). By the time we got home from school, everything on TV was a Special Report. I suppose we sat and a held a vigil over the news, but we were also waiting for the newspapers to arrive so that we could deliver them. So, TV was the new thing, but, and this is the kind of thing you can only become aware of in times afterwards, the newspaper headline, black and white, was still what most people needed to convince themselves of the reality of the thing. When news like that is heard, there is always the “I can’t believe it” phase, and TV seems well attuned to the blank dread curiosity and shock of that phase, as we sit and wait for further details. And then there has to be a moment when you have no choice but to believe it, and it sinks in, it is real. TV may have accommodated shock, but newspapers made it real. The newspaper headline was the report in black and white that forced the news to at last sink in. It was the news that confirmed the news, that finally forced you to acknowledge, yes, it has to be true. As a result, there we were, sitting at our kitchen table, and Walter Cronkite was giving us the news, but it was only us, the paperboys, who would make it real for the people on our route. This is the only explanation that I can give for why this headline remains one of the images that marked my life. And this is why I have come to believe this to be true.

The papers came late to us that night. We subbed them in the dark, in a mood of hurry and emergency, but with a sense of duty, people were waiting, they would be angry, they needed to see it in black and white, they needed to read it, they needed the Milwaukee Journal to tell them that what they were hearing on the airwaves was written down, recorded in history, and true. At the time, I only delivered one side of one block of the route. I know which one, the west side of the 4400 block of North Farwell Avenue in Shorewood, Wisconsin. Down on our end of the block, at the Kensington end of the block (and it might interest some readers to know that while my mother passed in 1987, my father in 2001, my father’s second wife lived in the same house until just last summer), there were the Auckleys, and the Conways, and the Goldsmiths, and then things get a bit more fuzzy on the other side of the hedge on the Goldsmiths driveway. But these are the houses that I delivered that paper to. Sometimes the paper was quite thick, in which case we would carry them on top of our heads like African women headed off to market with their baskets on their heads and have to edge them gingerly off the top of the pile and drop them down on the porch. Then we would either kick it under the welcome mat in front of the front door, or place it inside the door, if previously instructed by the owner to do so. We did not go in for any of that paperboy stuff you see in the movies when some white-picket-fence Spanky rides by on his Schwinn with an inkprint smeared canvas bag on his shoulder flinging folded papers onto the front lawn or even into the trees. Not us, we delivered them by hand. But it was still very rare when we ended up handing the paper to the man of the house, or his wife, out looking for the paper. And we were always on time, delivering the paper by at least 4:40, so they rarely had to wait, never putting pressure on us not to be late. But that night we did not finish subbing til at least 6:30, it was dark (subbing, by the way, for you nonpaperboys, was when, the paper being delivered to you in two parts, you had to insert the midsections into the front sections, and do that a hundred or more times). And here is where the paper and the image of that headline begins to morph into something in my memory closer to an engraving on the gyri of my brain. The headline was by no means that dramatic, though I doubt if we understand what the word “slain” meant, and, in any case, that was a pretty formal, very word-bound way to say it, maybe the editors thought that it added gravity to the news, maybe they had to look up a fewer-lettered synonym to “assassinated,” Kennedy is Slain. But then that odd, grave, resonant, almost antique word, it was not just experienced by me once, but twenty, thirty, fifty times, as I subbed the midsection into it, Kennedy is Slain, yes, but also Kennedy is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain….. is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain… is Slain is Slain….. is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain is Slain. Do I make my point? (I do love those Read all about it sequences in old movies, but that is another article). And then, that K, that S, they were scratched with urgency, irritation and impatience, this was not the written word, but the shouted word (the age of the newsboy standing on the street shouting out the headlines, a beloved image in so many movies, was gone by that point in history), it caused friction, it screeched, like bad brakes, as we subbed it through, picked it up, put on top of our heads, it was cold, it was dark, and we set off into the dark, to do what had to be done.

And then, the last surprise, if I remember correctly, and this is the detail that tells me that people needed the newspaper to make it real back then, usually, I was met with welcome mats and screen doors, that night I was met by people, several people, of the thirty or more houses I delivered the news to that night, were out at the door, looking for the paper, impatient for it, maybe angry at me for being late, and I handed it to them, directly, and I saw not only the icon perfectly coiffed hair of the president and his somewhat sad eyes and solemn demeanor, but their responses, and their actually taking the paper in their two hands, and reading the headline, and sinking, knowing it was true. This means that in addition to being a headline, that page is a mirror of that personal public response, taking into it their response and sadness. It is impossible for me to separate that image from that response. For this reason, that face also looks remarkably sad, like a premonition, absorbing into it the sadness of the people on their doorsteps. And sadness was pretty much the universal response.

There were a lot of Republicans on that stretch of Farwell Avenue on that night, but they too, this was a tragedy that transcended all that. I am not entirely sure, however, that I had (I was ten). I bring up the sectarian side of things because reinforcing this mission was the fact that with it I delivered news of a kind of cultural defeat. We were an Irish Catholic family, bent on assimilation, we were solid Kennedy Democrats, both my parents voted for Kennedy in 1960, but that was not an entirely shared opinion in the neighborhood. During the 1960 campaign I began to collect campaign memorabilia, and bought a three by three inch Kennedy for President button which was my pride and joy. But one day I made the mistake of wearing it under my coat when we went over to play at Ricky Nelson’s house, yep, that was his name, and his older brother got a glimpse of the button and said, “we don’t let anyone wear that kind of thing in our house, we’re a Nixon household,” so he took it, and never gave it back again, an incident that I sometimes think is the source of my abiding hatred of Richard Nixon, it’s true. Another memory of the 1960 campaign, Kennedy came to Milwaukee and we went out to the “road leading to the airport” to see him, and from that I carry in my brain a memory of him, can this be? standing up in the moving car, and waving, and his red, red! hair blowing in the breeze, an archetypal image of leadership, of new times. Being a Kennedy Democrat was an honor, that we were Irish Catholic too, it meant that we could be anything (at ten, you heard nothing about Marilyn, and barely understood the Cuban Missile Crisis). So, these two images of Kennedy were in my mind, and now they were, on that night, being expunged by a much more solemn, tragic, posthumous image. But I know they were in my mind because, in addition to being a mirror to customer reactions, their faces printed on his, those other images were printed on that black and white image, I know this because before I fished for an image of this headline on the internet last month and was content to only remember it I had gone at least twenty years convinced that the image on the paper that night was in color, and bright red color—but that was likely a memorial edition on the weekend). This must mean that I confused those images with this one, and made this one into the icon that represented all of them, and perhaps I had already done this by that night.

But regardless of these fierce divisions, there was no Democrat or Republican on that night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as immediately experienced by a ten year old paper boy. Of all the people who took the paper from my hands that night, I remember only one. It was the woman who lived on the other side of the hedge at Goldsmith’s driveway, in the small white bungalow, hiding on the other side of the hedge, four houses in from the corner. She, I remember distinctly, said to me, looking at the headline, “how terrible.” And what this all means is that, in a strange way, unlike any other night of my long career of delivering newspapers, I became the deliverer of bad news, I was the face the people saw, delivering that news. I wasn’t crying out Extra! Extra! (but it was pretty thrilling that the paper had that headline, I do not think I ever delivered another Extra! Extra! (three days later Lee Harvey Oswald being also “slain” only merited one Extra!), but I might as well have been, I was the one with the power of the messenger, they were passive recipients. And it was personal. By circumstances, I was placed in an unusual position, which changed my relationship with the news and the routine act of delivery of the news.

Of course I only know in retrospect how dramatically this assignation of agency onto me impacted the way I view the world, and the intermedial scaffold over life that I am comfortable with, and other arrangements that I am not. For one thing, I kept that headline, and all the papers and magazines, and memorial editions, of that weekend. And I may have kept them for years. Subsequently, I also began to keep newspaper headlines for all sorts of news, including earthquakes in Alaska, and all the Space Program efforts in the 60s. I kept a large scrapbook, which I might have started that weekend, for which I would cut out the headlines and arrange them on the double page and paste them in. When that became too time consuming (or was taken over as a practice in support of the Beatlemania, which very quickly soon after overwhelmed us and carried us entirely away from the whatever trauma we had suffered on that day), I would keep the whole paper, and then stacks of extra papers. I think I thought that if I kept the headline, that would make it important; and if I kept the full paper, that made it even more of a collectible (sadly, I see that old newspapers do not sell for very much at all on ebay), and that if I then kept copies, and left them unopened, untouched (I think here I was assigning to newspaper souvenir keeping the values of stamp collecting, which I did too), that would make them more valuable, and hold the history in them more firmly in memory. This habit, this need to keep a precipitate of the news in paper form, in a kind of document, of a newspaper, that made it real, persisted even on up to 9/11, when I surprised myself, at age 48, by keeping and collecting all the newspapers of that day (as if others were not also reporting the news, and the future residents of New York 1,000 years from now would need to discover my few papers kept in a file in storage by me in order to know what had happened that day; and, of course, now everyone accepts TV news as the confirmation of the real, and newspapers come out the morning after, with a decidedly secondhand feel to them). Only in the past two years, forced by another move of residence, does it appear that I have at last overcome a lifelong need to build up a Collyer’s mansion nest of hoarded newsprint around myself to convince myself of the reality of the news and also that I lived in history as expressed by the news and that I was the personal messenger of that news.

I also believe that this experience caused me to see the real as what was in the newspaper. That is, I did not envision private life as something separate from the newspaper, but as a profile or reflection of what is in the newspaper. At various times in my life I have felt some essential anxiety about the meaninglessness of private life, and everyday life, and the only way I have known to lift myself out of what I viewed as a trough of meaninglessness was to align my interests and concerns with what was being reported on in the newspaper. I suppose this is a variant on the aesthetic decision by writers like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote of the 60s to write “faction” while the journalists felt, in the new journalism, Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, they had to write like novelists: an attempt was made, converging from two directions, to make reality about the news as it affected daily life. This problem I have ascribed to the middle class problem that people do not feel like they are part of history or living in history and so seek out celebrity sightings or milling about courthouses to be “part of history” and so where there is no sense of a reality of prototypes in life, then the media which conveys news from that reality becomes the reality, so newspapers became reality itself. Every time I have had a personal problem, I have pulled myself out of it by latching onto something going on in the news (in July, 1979, I tumbled into what I view as my only long-term bout of depression, and how did I get myself out?, by going to see the Pope in New York, and not only see him, but see him, in person, nine times in two days!). (this disorder has become such a pronounced element of American life, our historical loneliness, framed by our utter lack of a sense of history, that I had to laugh at a person asked why he had gathered at the courthouse where Jerry Sandusky of Penn State was being sentenced last year, and his response was that he wanted to be “part of history.”) It’s a wonder I have not ever become a stalker or a town crier. I called it “modernism,” aligning one’s private life to the issues of the day, in the life of a news junkie. This kind of dilemma causes people to look to newspapers to tell them what to go see or to do, without which they do not have a clue. For me, it was on that night, at that moment, that the news became reality. I have never got over it.

And there was another thing. Thinking on this in reverse, if the newspaper is what documented the event, and made it real, then TV was just live, and the raw video of the event as it was happening. If the newspaper made it history, the TV was still all experience, live. Later on, and up through today, I love LIVE TV. I am of the generation that thinks that LIVE TV is almost like being there. When I watch LIVE TV the TV dissolves, the media vanishes and all space becomes immediate (or mediated?), and I pass through the screen and out to London or wherever and I am there, this is magical thinking, but I know that I believed this when I was younger, and still might now. These are odd twists of intermedial relations that have plagued me for my entire life, and I have to believe that the tumblers fell into place on that evening, a long time ago.

This stance in time, if you will, lifting daily life up by connecting it with what’s in the news, and then seeing Live TV as the portal that made that possible, that afforded you a chance to pass out through the medium into the reality beyond it, was, finally, given it’s tone and temper by the content of what was being reported on that day. Live TV, yes, as raw, but also Live TV as a scar, a rent in the fabric, a tear, a bruise, a blow, a trauma, a kind of spirit trap. In truth, on the day itself, I only remember the headline in the newspaper, and very little or almost nothing of TV broadcast. The TV part would come in at around noon on the Sunday after (the assassination on a Friday). I have a memory of all of us, myself and my brothers and sister, sitting in the downstairs den in front of the TV, a classic 60s furniture TV, the kind you sat on the carpet in front of and watched (how odd, ours, though, was not color). There was another live report, they were going to be taking the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from one jail to another, down in Dallas, and we had a chance, in that interval, to see the psycho who did this horrible thing live. He comes out, and then, as everyone knows, Jack Ruby stepped into the picture from the lower right hand corner (I don’t have to replay any tapes, I know this), and shot him dead, right there on live TV. How did my parents react? my memory of this event confuses somewhat with another from the decade, which I have a clearer memory of, that was in March, 1968, again we are all in the den sitting on the floor watching TV, when Lyndon Johnson was giving a very boring speech, no one was paying any attention, and then he tossed in the last minute surprise, “I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for,” and all I remember is my dad (46 at the time), who was upstairs shaving, running down stairs, shouting, “he’s not running, he’s not running,” in both cases there was a commotion, shock, astonishment, a what did I just see? or what did I just hear? shock that made the news jump right out of that television screen and grab hold of us and let us know, this is what the world is like–murder, mayhem and chaos. How did my parents react? the only thing I know is that they did not rip us away from the TV, but let us try to absorb what had just happened by just keep on watching.

When in mainstream mythology of American life one hears about the 60s, it’s always the 60s as lived by the men and woman who were in their 40s in the 60s, or in their 20s in the 60s, in college in the 60s, the 60s of the children of the 60s, kids, teens, you don’t often hear about those 60s. Piaget, the child psychologist, says that at ten a child enters the concrete rational stage, as I have put it over the years, it is at ten that suddenly the world of the child is reformatted according to the calendar of the adult world and you remember every day passing, day by day, that Wednesday comes after Tuesday, and that Thursday comes after that, that November is after October and December after November. Either way, you begin to emerge from the dream of childhood, into the wakeful adult world: and for children my age, who were ten years old on that weekend, we were slapped awake into a world of chaos, and the 60s from our sitting-on-the-floor perspective seemed to be nothing but chaos for the rest of the decade, all the way through a remembered line in Los Angeles, “Now it’s onto Chicago and let’s win there”, and a raucous night at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, with the expression ‘the country is coming apart at the seams’ repeatedly summarizing the view of the decade from the floor in the front of the TV watched by a child or a teenager. We did not care about communism, or Cuba, or civil rights or free love (we were made to care about the Space race, but didn’t really, or maybe that too was a symptom?), all we saw was that the world was in chaos and all we ever heard was that ‘this country is coming apart at the seams.” (well, we also took a ton of escapist entertainment too-see other entries). In this, then, Live TV was not just a portal to real life, out there, but it was a dangerous portal, a perilous journey into a wasteland of malice and hatred (perhaps as after JFK’s death the country cultivated the myth of Camelot, this viewpoint is why in college I studied T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, and Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the quester in the wasteland, the world was the wasteland, after Camelot. Campbell actually wrote about the JFK funeral, remarking that in its orchestration of the ritual Jackie Kennedy showed insight into the mythic dimension of the death of a leader, noting in particularly the mythic quality of the riderless horse, suggesting that the ceremony had a healing purpose. It is also in sympathetic communing with the veiled Jackie at that event, her stoic demeanor, that Andy Warhol extracted some of his most moving pop art pieces (I know that my mother admired Jackie, and maybe dressed like her, mostly I know this, however, because when she later married Aristotle Onassis, Jackie was dead to her). I dutifully kept the memorial editions of LIFE magazine, and remember seeing the picture of John John give the salute, but the actual funeral? I was too young to take it in. And what this lack of memory means is that my memory was stuck on the events of Friday and Sunday, and took no solace from the ritual of the funeral, which vanishes as mist in my memory (in fact, I tend to accept the orthodox view that it was only Beatlemania, beginning one month later, that swept us away from negative dwelling on the national grief, off on a magical ride of escapism, away from America, away from the American 60s). The only element of my behavior of the time that maybe reflected my need to make order out of the chaos was that I became something of an election nerd and have somewhere a notebook in which, sick in bed on election day, 1964, I began to listen to the radio in the afternoon, I want to say my first entry was made at 12:30 p.m. and recorded by hand, check by check, how many votes Johnson was getting from this or that state, Alabama, 56 votes, South Carolina, 98 votes, on a tally sheet of all fifty states, as if to personally see to it that he was elected and some sense of normalcy was recovered (I might also say that for this same reason the only thing I desire out of any great upsetting change is that things return to normal, I am almost like a country peasant in a Dracula movie like that).

For all of these reasons, but, theoretically, because of the way the experience of the headline reversed the polarities of its delivery, and made me its agent, the source of the news, the one given the task that night to make it real, and because it then reflected in it personal public response, and then too because it confirmed as real what I was hearing on live TV, then because it was quickly reinforced in horror by watching a live snuff film on the Sunday after, all of which shocked me, or, at least, locked in place part of my thinking about how to live in time and space, the front page of the Milwaukee Journal, November 22, 1963, Extra! Extra! Kennedy is Slain makes my list of the 50 images that changed the way I see the world.

Tiers of pictures and the specular gaze in Fiend without a Face (1958).

Rev., March, 2017.

In exploring the complicated etiology of the shower scene, one of the most tried and true tropes of horror movies, the manifestation of it in the 50s is quite comical, and a forerunner of a more explicit time to come. In, for example, the quite good, because daft, 50s sci fi horror, Fiend Without a Face (1958), there is one moment when Jeff goes to see the girl assistant of the professor doing evil work in town, and when he knocks on the door, there is no answer

fiend 1then, when there is no answer, there is an open door, and, against his better judgment, but perhaps out of concern for her, he goes in, and asks around, anybody home?

fiend 2there is, in fact, someone home, and this scene I have seen in several pre-1960 movies, but she can’t hear him because she is taking a shower. Then, when she gets out of the shower, and grabs a towel, there is a hint of nudity, which turns up the temperature of the movie

fiend 3and then she, not knowing he is there, walks right out of the bathroom into her mainroom, to change her clothes, and then, shock, realizes that she has company, and is horrified

fiend 4she later, after making herself presentable, comes back out, but still in turban and robe. If she had wanted to shut him off completely, the logic of the 50s says, she would’ve dressed back up completely, but here she sashays out in a kind of cute way to let him know that it is OK that he has accidentally taken a giant step into her intimate space, by seeing her all but naked, and by being able, by that, to imagine her naked, and in this partial recoup she is only saying, it’s ok, but on my schedule.

fiend 5 Now, the fun part of this is that in her shock, the pictures do some whispering, of what is not being shown, as here there is a dark landscape, bespeaking the body under the towel

fiend 6and here is a mountain range which, above the gulf of her open mouth, reminds us that at the peak of her grasped towel she is one hand of surprised release from nudity, and her hand is on her breast, holding everything together by the breast (these are tropes of almost-nudity or imagined close-to-nudity that are ingrained in the adolescent imagination, and still today are toyed with often in who-me comedy of innocence scenarios in pornography).

fiend 7he then turns away from the slammed door, embarrassed to have caught her thus, but also, the pictures tell, excited and interested in what he almost just saw

fiend 8and this is confirmed by, on the wall to the right, a Fragonard like print of a romantic rococo scene, which signifies that she is a sophisticated, erotic young woman

fiend 9when she reappears, not at all offended at having been, as this device is called in the movies, “the bride stripped bare,” she gives him the erotically amused and charming woman, over the offended woman for her privacies having been intruded upon by an oaf

fiend 10but, of course, the punchline of this scene is that the romantic element of the caught-in-out-of-the-rain unintentionality of their having been thrown so quickly into intimate space, is that he denies that it has any ulterior meaning, and so when the local accuses him of tomcatting her, ie flirting with her, his offended pride, and caught-out truth, causes him to fight, with the fight profiled by a genre scene again of the 18th century sort in the outer hall

fiend 11the scene ends with him being embarrassed, and caught in a moment of emotional surprise, just as she was caught out earlier in a moment of emotional surprise, and in both cases the circumstances of their cute pushing-together has stripped bare layers of decorum that might have taken some more time to unpeel, and, the picture between them now says, they have entered into a relationship, there is a warmth, and an erotic charge in the space between them

fiend 12It goes without saying that all Universal International influenced 50s horror or sci fi movies were sexist in an obvious way. Heck, the official at the base, in his fricking office, even has pinups on the wall!

fiend 13There is another interior space in the movie and that is Professor Walgate’s, which is a classic all but English country house assemblage of all the armaments of his nature. It includes, straight up, Mary Shelley portraits (signifying trouble coming to the woman of the house), and cameos of the same to reinforce the fact that, with his entry into the scene, and knowing that she works for him, Jeff’s concerns now are of course, about the case in general, but he is really deep down worried about her, and will do anything, the knight in shining armor, to protect her

fiend 14The Mary Shelley portrait all but haunts him like a thought balloon, hovering over his head

fiend 15later, when he goes back for the real story, it is lit up, indicating more concern

fiend 16and then when he begins to tell his tale, still lit up, we see that he is truly old school, from another generation, he has an odd array of two oval Mary Shelley portraits just either side of the mantel, flanking the porcelain dogs, and this seems to speak of both her and him being in trouble

fiend 17 It is important that when she shows up for these last scenes in the parlor, she has stopped dressing down and fending him off, but is now dressing up, and has her bullet breasts blazing, lit by a lamp

fiend 18It;s likely she finally melted and fell in love with him when she realizes, in this shot, entirely halo’d by the Mary Shelley picture, that he is doing something mainly to protect her, that he cares about her, and cares a lot about the fact that all this business has put her in harm’s way

fiend 19In addition to this, there appears to be another middle ground in the use of pictures in the background to bespeak what is really going on. In one shot, he is back in the corner, trying the phone, and here genre pictures support him

fiend 20or rather, there is one, on the left, rococo romantic scenario, representing his interest in her, and then on the right, a barnyard scene, not unlike the one on the wall of the bedroom where Lincoln died in 1865, and this sort of genre picture from the 19th century usually was a duty picture in the sense that is simply and iconically told middle class folk what their daily duty in life was, to do their job

fiend 21The interesting thing is that there is some evidence that the standard genre print of a British sort was used to represent the regular life of the town, that everyone is upset has been interfered with by some foreign force. When the local doc gets it his stairway is lined by these standard genre scenes

fiend 22and the predictability an humdrum everydayness of them bespeak his being responsible and doing his job

fiend 23he has one up top too, above, and then, when he hears a noise, the ordinariness of the everyday scene makes the contrast with the invisible man schtick of the scraping invisible brain monsters on his carpet all the more pronounced, and horrifying, as an intrusion of otherness into their lives

fiend 24and then, carefully parsing the prints, there is a fourth level of meaning in the supporting prints, as, when the attack gets underway, and the military men jump into action, and the room has to be boarded up, and is used for defense, attention shifts to the walls opposite the professor’s citadel of English country house propriety at the hearth, and all we see are prints of roman ruins

fiend 25and they profile the setting up, the assembling of weapons, the emergency of the situation

fiend 26and even the boarding up the boarding up of the windows

fiend 27but, more importantly, the shot of the boarded up window, is not unlike a curtain or veil, a classic washover shot, or block out, shot which announces that the pictorial order which has been established as a the norm throughout, up to this point, is about to be exploded, so get ready, it wipes the slate clean, nothing you have seen will prepare you for this

fiend 28and then we go in through the chinks and see the horror, the brain creatures are visible (this is beautifully managed)

fiend 29and then the whole battle is waged inside the parlor universe of tchotkes and pictures, with the brains coming flying in, and landing on the furniture, replacing the porcelain, as if the porcelain come alive

fiend 30and there is one, obligatorily, symbolizing the ultimate intrusion and vulnerability, invasion of the hearth, one comes down the chimney, and is in the fireplace area, the central hearth spot of parlor life

fiend 31and then, finally, though they attack others, what they are really after is the girl, and they get her, though she is saved, but, please note, this happens right in front of the Mary Shelley portrait, which warned us that she was in trouble, and in front of the lit lamp, which informed us that her danger level at present is high and immediate, now the oval materializes and is animated as the ultimate figuring out of the portrait into an xray vision of its invisible threat

fiend 32even better is that it is left to her to freak out, using repulsed body language, I cant believe that thing touched me, to represent what the men are not entirely allowed to express, bodily, complete and utter disgust and horror at this bizarre thing we are seeing in front of our eyes.

fiend 33In this pose, with her figure in profile, and her breasts profiled in particularly, I am reminded of a pose in the shower sequence, the washing of the hair pose in which, in a classic shower sequence, woman, and, by her representation, mankind is most vulnerable, physically, to stab in the back or crawl up under the undercarriage threats, and this is a kind of formalistic realization of her need for someone, Jeff, to take care of her, it is her completely coming undone, to require love from him, protective love, to save her. But it is like her in the shower. And her exposure, her stripping bare, to be entirely vulnerable

fiend 34And now, this brings us back to the bigger scenario of these movies. All of these movies were superficially sexist, but also had “deep sex” scenarios, in other words, they were deeply Freudian in an ersatz sort of way. When Jeff is at the door, it is odd that the window is round

fiend 35It is also, in its pattern, either seeweedy, or firey, either way, organic, and also note that his left shoulder is turned to it, as in Greek mythology a ceremony in which the genitals of a fish or whatever were cut off they were tossed behind the left shoulder to rid of them, not to be looked at, meaning that he will never, ever, admit to what is clear here, that the window represents her vagina, as does the dark ajar open doorway. This is, then, another example of deep sex specular vision (visualization based on close-ups of intimate body parts), which got its start in the 50s

fiend 36and then acknowledging that this movie is filmed in the formalist era, and all things are formally aligned, there is an earlier scene where the nuclear power is upped at the plant in order to improve the range of the Canadian base so that they can by radar peek over the Pole to get a look at what the Russians are doing on the other side of the earth, and the radar is round, and the invasive gaze is going over the North Pole

fiend 37And then while the US base is denying is upped radioactivity is causing the problems in the town, the townspeople have already decamped to a more readable, bodily, murderer model, thinking an overdosed madman from the base has broken lose and is killing, but then it turns out to be even crazier than that, it is madman trying to materialize thought, and then doing so, but invisibly, but then if they turn up the nuclear juice even more, they will see them, and all of this is all about mentality, and thinking and while everyone gathers about to hear the outer layers of the plot, and the mad science, outside the actual science, outside the townspeople’s urban legends, outside even the implied horror of a mental vampire, he is thinking about all the brains buzzing all over everywhere about her

fiend 38 and, sure enough, after all the materialization of all the brains, or the brain of the dirty old man professor thinking of his assistant, is quashed

fiend 39he gets the girl (it is also to be noticed that the attack of brain vampire against her, and her brushing it away from her, so close to getting vampirized, resulted in her putting down her hair),

fiend 40and then as one by one the cast leave, they all get between him and her, as if him getting the girl is the biggest event in the whole movie, and the whole point of the movie, and the whole thing was in fact nothing but a runaround pretext to create an emergency in the context of which an unapproachable woman could be stripped bare, and made warm and accessible, and love comes their way. The snickers and goodbyes at the end, in the love space between their faces, the crotch, as it were, of their new connection, are so over the top and a bit salacious, that it all but certain they are talking about sex, and him maybe, on that dirty slimy floor, getting all dirty and slimy with her

fiend 41in sexual intercourse and ejaculation and coming to both’s happiness, ever after

fiend 42is it possible that it was all a “comedy of innocence” (Meuli by way of Burkert) pretext set up to find a less who-me insulting way for an upstanding man to find and mate with a difficult to approach girl, turning all Canada as it were into her body, and the Pole itself her vagina, according to the logic I have detected in so many deep sex specular gaze movies of the times?yes, I think, in Fiend Without a Face, it is.