Amber Waves of Brain
Essays by William E. Jones
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Berlin Flash Frames derives from original camera rolls of 16mm film in the National Archives of the United States. The US Information Agency commissioned two cameramen to shoot this material around the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall. The USIA’s official mission (in the words of its website) is “to explain and advocate US policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures,” i. e., to make propaganda. If this footage from Berlin became a specific propaganda film, I have not found it yet, but I am sure I have seen some of the shots in various newsreels and other USIA productions.
One of the cameramen responsible for this footage, Riecke (no first name given), photographed dramatic scenes featuring a handsome, dark-haired actor in a studio. This actor appears briefly with a hand-held slate in front of his face, something unlikely to happen in candid documentary footage. The slate identifying the take is not a clapperboard. No synchronous sound was recorded during production. The only sound accompanying this footage could have been voice-over narration and music. Spectators were never meant to hear the voice of the actor, who may not have been German. Behind the actor, there is a map of Eastern Europe; on it the outline of Czechoslovakia is visible. In a reverse shot, a map of the German Democratic Republic appears above and behind a pair of men costumed to look like bureaucrats. The conversation staged on this set is meant to be understood as taking place in a government office in East Berlin, somewhere an agency of the US government would not have been allowed to shoot. In the context of a newsreel, spectators might have believed this scene as a faithful representation of a man applying for relocation from the Soviet Zone of Occupation to one of the western zones. In its unedited state, the scene reads as false.
The process of falsification becomes most obvious around the flash frames. A flash frame is produced when the mechanism of a film camera slows down just before coming to a complete stop, thereby overexposing a bit of film stock – often no more than an eighth of a second – in between takes. As a camera is turned off, actors often relax, or extraneous figures enter the frame. These unguarded moments revealing the workings of dramatic filmmaking are not intended for a spectator’s gaze. Seeing them casts the whole endeavor in doubt. For this reason, a professional editor would have immediately cut out and set aside the flash frames in this material. By the prevailing aesthetic standards of 1961, they were of no use whatsoever.
The handsome actor also appears in exterior footage of crowds waiting to submit paperwork to officials in West Berlin. They may have been applying for housing assistance or for relocation to the Western part of Germany. The actor approaches people in line to ask for directions and advice as a way of making conversation. The bystanders in these scenes were not performers and were not supposed to have been aware that they were in a film, though some noticed the camera and looked directly into it. A few of these patient souls “bought” the performance of the actor who approached them. Others probably took him for a spy.
Thrusting actors into real life situations has been a consistent strategy throughout cinema history, mainly in comedies, but it is perhaps most appropriate to compare these scenes from Berlin in 1961 with other scenes shot in Germany a few years later by Edgar Reitz for Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von gestern (Anita G.), a. k. a. Yesterday Girl (1966). Anita G. (played by Kluge’s sister Alexandra) interacts with people in the world who may or may not be aware that she is a fictional character. In Kluge’s hands, the strategy has an effect of estrangement, producing a shock reminding us not only that we have been watching a movie, but also that movies are a part of the real world, and that the people who make them must take a stance toward it, whether they acknowledge this or not. Significantly, Yesterday Girl was shot with direct sound. Unlike the cameramen of the USIA, Kluge allowed his actor to have a voice.
Politicians spend their careers among groups of people who may or may not be aware of how much they have in common with handsome actors. Representations of politicians combine elements of the fictional and the non-fictional; their public appearances are all potential photo opportunities. One such photo opportunity appears in the USIA footage. Willy Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin, later Chancellor of the Federal Republic, takes a group of people to see Checkpoint Charlie. They ask Brandt questions, and he responds with emphatic earnestness. Once again, there is no sound. A politician’s main asset, the voice, was not recorded. (Did Brandt realize that there were no microphones present?) Only this group and the cameraman Riecke heard what Brandt had to say. It is highly unlikely that any finished film made from the footage would have communicated the substance of the interaction or would have acknowledged it as anything but “for show.”In the work of a second cameraman, Jürgens, the film of Berlin in 1961 becomes something closer to a documentary. Jürgens shot exterior scenes, and due to sunlight leaking through the eyepiece of the camera, his flash frames are generally brighter and of longer duration than Riecke’s. Jürgens’ are also more complex, due to his habit of dropping the camera slightly as he released the button that engaged the motor. Over and over, as a flash frame begins, there is a brief downward tilt, creating a few frames (about a quarter of a second) of motion blur. The distortion has a dreamy quality. It looks as though the scene is being wiped away, only to be restored almost instantaneously in the next take. This unintentional formal effect, no more than an annoyance to the film’s editor, was what originally attracted me to the footage.
The frames on either side of these peculiar flash frames are just as compelling, if more prosaic. Among the subjects of these shots are soldiers of the occupying forces, including American GIs grinning in close ups; Berliners going about their business at the boundaries between occupation zones; and most important for the filmmakers to capture, workers building the Berlin Wall. This last sequence has the quality of surveillance footage. The film shows that at one time, it was possible to reach out and touch people on the other side of the wall, as American and Soviet soldiers could have done, if they hadn’t been armed and on alert. The East Berliners building the wall remained aloof while doing their work. As soon as they realized that they were being filmed, they quickly turned away. The workers knew that they were going to be in a Cold War movie, and they were reluctant to cooperate with its production, because they also knew that this particular movie would present them in an unflattering light. They may even have sensed that things would end badly for their building project. If this was the case, they knew more than their bosses, as workers often do.
The Berlin Wall separated not only two different economic and political zones, but two different historical times. The city of West Berlin became the shining example of The Free World, a capitalist showplace entirely surrounded by the territory of the German Democratic Republic. But the city was always on life support, even after the celebrated Berlin Airlift. It needed help from the generous Western Allies and the Federal Republic in order remain open for business, but its value during the Cold War was never economic. West Berlin was a symbol, a propaganda tool, and an immensely successful one. How could the administration of the GDR not have known that the Berlin Wall, though effectively stopping the “brain drain” of the professional classes to the West, would ultimately be a publicity debacle of tremendous proportions? They saw things in terms of another historical narrative, and the image they presented to the capitalist world was of little concern to them. They had no way of knowing that by the end of the 20th Century, it would be the only world that anyone but the most besotted idealists could imagine.
The silent document I have described, labeled “Berlin 1961” in the collection of the National Archives, has little accompanying description, thus it gives rise to speculation. In an attempt to understand it, I have watched the film many times. The footage reveals more with each viewing, though what it reveals is not what the sponsors of the film intended. A wall is constructed, but so is an image, an image with a political use: propaganda.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
The first time I saw Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, I parked beneath it without realizing what it was. At that time (1992) the place was a construction zone, since work on Ricardo Legorreta and Laurie Olin’s renovation of the ground level features of the square had just begun. This project was the last in a series of radical transformations of what had once been the intersection of the Camino Real and a small stream. Dedicated as public space in 1866, the square was called St. Vincent’s Park (after a college across the street), then Los Angeles Park, then Central Park, and then Pershing Square, in honor of the World War I general. After this final renaming, the park was planted with a great variety of exotic flora, adding shade and visual interest to the plan of John Parkinson, who later designed City Hall and Union Station. This was the fashionable Pershing Square, one that gradually fell into desuetude as businesses, cultural institutions and the wealthy residents who patronized them left for less densely developed parts of town. After World War II, there were repeated calls to do something about Pershing Square, which had become a gathering place for vermin, drunks and homosexuals, who made use of the trees as cover for cruising and sex. My father lived in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and he used to say about the city, “It was famous for its fruits and nuts. There was a nut on every street corner and a fruit behind every bush.” I imagine he was referring specifically to Pershing Square.
In the words of the historical signs currently in place, Pershing Square was “brutally excavated” in 1952 for an underground parking garage. Though the new plan was rather barren compared to what had existed before, there were still signs of life in the decades after it was completed. Pershing Square was the site of informal public gatherings, protests and festivals, though the centers of gay cruising had migrated west. The area experienced hard times once again, and an expensive attempt to make it attractive for the 1984 Olympics had no lasting impact.
After two separate design competitions and two years of construction at a cost of $14.5 million, Legorreta and Olin’s Pershing Square project was finally ready for public use in 1994. At that time the result, with its masses of multicolored concrete, a path shaped like a fault line, and a gigantic water feature, must have appealed to someone. Today it’s much clearer that the forced whimsy of the visual gimmicks and the strict sequestering of foliage and public sculpture behind barriers give the effect of a postmodern concentration camp. There is plenty of seating arranged theatrically in semi-circles and straight lines, but there is no spectacle to see, aside from pedestrians walking across paved expanses between signs that read “Keep off the grass” and “This space is reserved for private use.” The square offers little shelter from the elements – mainly relentless sunshine during mid-day – and nowhere to hide from surveillance. It makes life a little more uncomfortable for the homeless and mentally ill people who are the main population using the park after business hours. As in a science fiction scenario, those visiting the subterranean regions need have no interaction with the other elements of society occupying the surface of this hellish planet. I don’t drive anymore, so the parking garage is of no use to me. When I get out of the subway at Pershing Square station, I generally avoid the aboveground features of the park, which have an unpleasant, fortress-like aspect from that angle. I can also think of a half dozen other places I would rather go within three blocks of the park. As most other recently redeveloped urban spaces do, Pershing Square segregates the social classes, and the means by which it achieves this goal brutalize everyone.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Published in frieze, Issue 129, March 2010, pp. 21-22.
I first saw Ten Minutes to Live (1932), directed by Oscar Micheaux, about fifty years after it was made. At the time, the film gave me an overwhelming impression of strangeness that had nothing to do with camp or kitsch, or any of the other aesthetic categories that might diminish or limit such a unique experience. Every second was (and is) riveting. Micheaux’s films are set in New York or Chicago or in the backward American hinterlands, but they also unfold in a dramatic space constructed by a man who, in terms of aesthetics, inhabited his own world. No written description can prepare a spectator for seeing Micheaux’s films; they are too complex and too remote from the mainstream that issued from the innovations of D.W. Griffith to be summarized in that way. With the passing years, Griffith’s infantile politics have become apparent even to the most benighted spectators, while Micheaux’s blunt impertinence seems fresh and contemporary.
Ten Minutes to Live is a film in two halves announced by old-fashioned intertitles: “The Faker” and “The Killer.” Much of “The Faker” consists of scenes of nightclub performances, shot with a static camera in synchronous sound and in single takes. A jazz band plays and people dance brilliantly, with joy and abandon. One of these musical numbers lasts a mere thirty seconds.
Pursued by a murderer, Letha Watkins, the protagonist of the second half of Ten Minutes to Live, takes a taxi ride from New York’s Grand Central Station to Westchester County. This long sequence has only one soundtrack: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony accompanies the action, but each time a car horn honks, the music cuts out completely. Letha arrives at her home in Westchester and pauses to smoke a cigarette. Micheaux represents this simple action in six separate shots. While Letha is on screen, it is as though time expands to allow greater attention to her gestures and to the play of light through the smoke and on the fabric of her dressing gown.
In order to conserve film stock, Micheaux went to great lengths to avoid shooting expensive dialogue sequences with synchronous sound. Near the end of the film, the murderer, Morvis, observes his potential victim Letha in her home talking to her boyfriend. While the lovers speak, Morvis is on screen; during pauses in the dialogue, the lovers are seen caressing and mugging silently for the camera. Morvis stands in front of a painted backdrop that appears in no establishing shot, so it is unclear if he sees the lovers from his position. The lovers’ voices accompanying Morvis’s close-ups suggest that he hears them, yet this is impossible. Morvis is a deaf mute.
Later, Morvis carouses with a treacherous woman at her house, but they are interrupted by a telegram announcing that policemen have surrounded them. The telegram comes from Morvis’s mother, who calls him a fool and informs him that he has been betrayed. Morvis abruptly turns on his female companion and a chase ensues. The chase goes in a circle, up and down the same staircase, as in a cartoon gag.
The scenes mentioned above bring to mind moments of rupture in a Jean-Luc Godard film, or Andy Warhol’s sound films, or vast sections of Doris Wishman’s exploitation oeuvre, yet Micheaux directed films decades before any of them. The only contemporary whose work Micheaux’s resembles is Dziga Vertov, and indeed, the scene of Letha smoking looks like a delightfully fetishistic out-take from Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Did Micheaux see Vertov’s films? Nothing is impossible, but this is highly unlikely.
What I have described may not give a clear indication of Micheaux’s body of work as a whole, because Ten Minutes to Live has little of the caustic drama that distinguishes his other films. Black characters strive to improve their lives, but antagonists thwart them at every turn. The white characters, when not naïve and well-meaning, operate with vicious impunity. Within Our Gates (1920), Micheaux’s politicized response to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), contains a lynching scene that prevented the film’s exhibition in the American South. Almost entirely suppressed in the US, the film was believed lost until it was rediscovered in a Spanish film archive in 1991. Body and Soul (1925) presents the story of a preacher – played with relish by Paul Robeson in his first starring role – corrupt enough to be familiar to modern audiences accustomed to ecclesiastical venality and hypocrisy. God’s Stepchildren (1938) transforms John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) into a tragedy of extraordinary power; it ends with a woman who has abandoned her child taking one last look at him before she drowns herself. In Birthright (1939), a black man with a Harvard degree tries to found a school in his sleepy hometown, but he gets swindled; only a bequest from the town’s richest man (who may have been in love with him) can deliver him from his predicament.
Inflammatory on principle, Micheaux attracted the attention of censors, and as an independent filmmaker with no studio to defend him, he was completely vulnerable to their whims. Historians have theorized that most of the odd devices in Micheaux’s films are attempts to wrest coherent narratives from material that had been utterly mutilated by racist bureaucrats. This might have been the case with Ten Minutes to Live, which runs a scant 58 minutes, although I am not quite sure.Apologists call Oscar Micheaux a pioneering African American filmmaker who did his best with limited resources, but whose works – it is sometimes implied – are rather inept. His achievements are undeniable: he was the first African American to direct a feature film; having directed over 40 films, he was by far the most prolific black filmmaker during the era of segregation; and furthermore, he was the only one to thrive during the transition from silent to sound cinema. But his films cannot be reduced to these facts, nor can they be comfortably assimilated into an historical narrative. To this day, no one has given a completely convincing account of why Micheaux’s films look the way they do. They remain mysterious cinematic objects. By now, I have seen most of Micheaux’s surviving feature films, some of them many times, and these viewings have only confirmed my original intuition: that all of his films’ formal eccentricities are the result not only of a perverse sense of humor and a bracing contempt for authority, but of sustained reflection and practice. America’s mainstream film culture, worshipping money and status above all else, has thus far been blind to the true virtues of Micheaux’s work. His controversial subject matter and radical film form have stranded him outside the official version of film history. I believe Oscar Micheaux is the greatest American filmmaker, and I hope that one day my claim will not seem outrageous at all.
Jack Coe hitchhiked across the country to San Francisco, where he found Hibiscus being crucified on the beach. Hibiscus had just broken away from the Cockettes to form the Angels of Light, and Jack became his disciple. The Angels of Light were committed to performing for free and feeding their audience. One performance included a meal of bananas and red wine, a kind of sacrament of phallic worship. Hibiscus, born George Edgerly Harris III, began his adult life as a peace activist. It is he who was shown putting a flower in the gun of a National Guardsman at a peace rally in a famous photograph from 1967. After his time as a Cockette and an Angel, Hibiscus allegedly appeared on a television soap opera (under another name, obviously) and finally became what one friend described as a “label obsessed Manhattan queen.” But during a few incandescent years, Hibiscus transformed himself and his fellows into something truly extraordinary.
This piece was written and read aloud for X-Tra magazine’s “One Image One Minute” benefit in January 2010.
The promotional literature for Enterprise Square USA, part of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, announced “an Epcot style attraction that uses imaginative settings and dazzling special effects,” a place where “thousands of individuals experience a small taste of the vision for free enterprise.” This description, promising a taste of a vision, implied synesthesia and conjured an image of hallucinogen-fuelled tributes to Milton Friedman. While Enterprise Square failed to deliver that sort of cockeyed sublimity, it nonetheless deserves its own special place in the pantheon of Bible-Belt kitsch oddities.
A propaganda tool in the waning years of the Cold War, Enterprise Square had as its pedagogical goal the countering of “socialistic” ideas about economics circulating among America’s youth and their teachers. The attraction was the brainchild of Robert Rowland, director of the American Citizenship Center, a group of Christians who conveniently forgot Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and raised selfish ambition to the level of a theological principle—in other words, people who came to power with a vengeance with Reagan’s election to the presidency.
Despite the triumphalist euphoria at the time of its opening in 1982, Enterprise Square became dated almost instantly, as though its designers had never realized that the capitalist spectacle out in the world was already so powerful, adaptable, and polymorphous that it could not be easily tarted up for kids or adequately simulated in a building on a college campus. Entirely contrary to the agendas of its directors, the strength of Enterprise Square lay in its contradictions and failures, in the manner of the vernacular surrealism already plentiful in the Oklahoma City area. As a unique tourist attraction, it succeeded brilliantly, but how it ever functioned as pedagogy remains a mystery.
Visitors to Enterprise Square passed through various themed galleries, starting with America’s Heartbeat Rotunda, a multimedia bombardment reminding spectators that all parts of our lives have an economic aspect. A montage of disembodied voices, accompanied by dozens of flashing backlit transparencies, produced a portrait of that idealized economic unit, a “typical” nuclear family. At one point, a picture of a bride and groom appeared while a female voice cooed, “a perfect couple, and he just landed a great job.” In case the theme of marriage as a financial transaction akin to genteel prostitution escaped anyone, another female voice later shouted, “Spend! Spend! Spend!”
The Hall of Statistics was intended to impress upon visitors the sheer magnitude of the capitalist system. Several signs featured running totals of objects produced and consumed, for example, estimates of 200,016,000 eggs and 33,984,000 bricks laid in the previous twenty-four hours. Above a stock photograph of a boy in a baseball cap about to bite into a weenie, a provocative sign read, “Since 6 p.m. yesterday, there have been 60,264,000 hot dogs eaten.” This tally must have included the entire United States, but still, such consumption staggers the imagination.
The following gallery, with the cumbersome title Free To Be What You Want Under Our System, presented comedic films about professions into which a visitor could insert himself via closed-circuit television cameras. A doctor whose patient wakes up from anesthesia on the operating table and a policeman giving a granny a speeding ticket were but two characters representing possible careers available for rehearsal.
The Hall of Giants, presenting worshipful versions of monopoly capitalists’ lives, was (appropriately enough) the largest gallery at Enterprise Square and a focal point of the exhibitions. A group of enormous busts with interior spaces large enough to walk through paid tribute to figures such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. Presumably aware that such an exclusive group might appear sexist or racist, the planners of Enterprise Square also included Booker T. Washington and Helena Rubinstein as Giants. In the corridor leading up to this capitalist Valhalla, an effort at inclusiveness led to some especially bizarre choices. That space featured the also rans of a capitalist selection process, including John D. Rockefeller, who truly belonged with the Giants, but whose story and visage must have been judged to evince little redeeming human value. Other lesser giants included AFL president Samuel Gompers (an okay guy even if he didn’t play for the right team) and, most inexplicably, Emily Dickinson. Perhaps Enterprise Square meant to suggest that the reclusive American poet would have been a great capitalist, had she only left her house more often.
Beyond the Hall of Giants lay the Remarkable Supply Shop for Demanding Donut Dunkers, an interactive display staffed by a student worker. In a set like that of a game show, visitors voted for how much they would be willing to pay for doughnuts, which appeared to be circular hunks of plaster painted pastel colors such as periwinkle blue. A remarkably crude robot figure (more of a puppet, actually) presided over this speculation in doughnuts.
After passing through a pop art–themed gallery with large Campbell’s Soup cans and pseudo-George Segal sculptures, visitors reached the Great American Marketplace, one of Enterprise Square’s most celebrated exhibits. Large one, two, ten, and one hundred dollar bills with animatronic portraits in the middle formed a barbershop quartet singing the praises of the capitalist system, occasionally to the tune of “America the Beautiful.” In this musical interlude, “freedom,” a word much in evidence in the previous galleries, was drilled into spectators’ minds with merciless repetition, leaving no doubt as to the importance of the term in the vocabulary of free-market dogma.
To clarify what kind of freedom was at stake, the next gallery featured a multichannel video montage synched up to a tirade against government regulation. The video monitors were arranged in the shape of a face curiously inhuman in its features. With what looked like a bowler hat and an animal’s ears, the display brought to mind a cartoon bear as imagined by René Magritte.
The Magritte bear’s presentation was surreal in more ways than one for anyone with a grasp of economic history. His discourse of nostalgia for a time before the government interfered with big business did not acknowledge that the last moment of unregulated American capitalism was in fact an utter disaster: the run-up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the worst depths of the Great Depression that followed. By the time of Enterprise Square’s debut, the notion of a free enterprise system as synonymous with laissez-faire capitalism was no less an imaginative work—a leap of faith, even—than seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich.
Collective neoconservative hallucinations, while they animated American politics, were conspicuously lacking in drama at Enterprise Square USA, not least because its multimedia displays often malfunctioned, and, as in the department stores of the socialist East, its gift shop contained virtually nothing to buy. At a doorway to one of several galleries in a state of desuetude, a sign read, “Pardon our mess. Enterprise Square is moving into the 21st Century.” Alas, it didn’t move very far. The entire facility was closed for renovation in 2000, and two years later the administration of Oklahoma Christian University made the decision to close the attraction indefinitely.
Constructed at a cost of $15 million, the Enterprise Square building is the largest and most expensive on the Oklahoma Christian University campus, and the school is currently in the process of raising another $10 million to turn the premises into something else. Apart from a few offices and art studios, it’s still used as storage for the old exhibits of Enterprise Square USA. The projected reuse of the building as the Academy of Leadership & Liberty may not possess anything like the same attraction for connoisseurs of outdated technology that Enterprise Square USA had, but it will almost certainly have the virtue of being easier to maintain.
The new Academy will house permanent exhibitions such as the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame and the America’s Call to Freedom Collection. The latter consists of 214 pieces of art by Sam Ingram, a naval career officer who turned to art in his retirement. His work depicts stories from the Bible, scenes from the American Revolution, and the romance of the American West—in short, the whole reach of human history as envisioned by a Christian capitalist whose world view is consummately Middle American. Most of the collection is predictable patriotic figurative painting of an inspirational variety, but occasionally Ingram vents his resentment of America’s cultural elite. There are a few bizarre ventures into Pollock-style abstraction (including one entitled “Mexican Diarrhea”) and a cartoonish fantasy of a hirsute, effeminate Abstract Expressionist painting with his foot. The best of Ingram’s works recall the style of Paul Cadmus’ tempera paintings, though in more garish colors and without the sense of homoerotic frisson. While not as redolent of pathos as the broken-down spectacle of Enterprise Square USA, these monstrously tasteless paintings may eventually attract their own devoted fans.
Published in an edition of 100 to accompany the Curt McDowell exhibition, an uneven dozen broken hearts at 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco, February 15, 2009 – March 29, 2009.
I hate The Beatles. As Futurama’s mock-cuddly monopoly capitalist Mom would put it, they make me want to puke my face off. I suspect this has some connection with “Love Me Do,” the first single by the Liverpudlian mop-tops, released in the land of my Mom’s people (England) on the day I was born. Astrologers may impute cosmic significance to this coincidence, but as I know less than nothing about such matters, I attribute my perpetual resentment to years of brainwashing.
My earliest memories of commercial radio broadcasts are of The Beatles. They were truly unavoidable during their existence as a recording entity, and instead of fading away after their dissolution, they only seemed to loom larger in the public mind. There were the solo careers, the publicity surrounding various lawsuits, and with a crushing inevitability, the continued broadcast of their music out of a sense of mourning. Around this time, popular music began to look back on itself — always a bad sign — with various nostalgia crazes, revivals, and worst of all, the enshrining of the “greatest” in monstrous social Darwinist play lists and anthologies. For a moment in the mid-to-late 1970s, Punk would dissipate some of this fatuous piety, but the disturbance of business as usual was only temporary. I mention piety, and that is precisely what it was. The Beatles, their music, their images, their achievements, their chart positions, ad infinitum, became a new catechism for people who really could have been doing better things with their time, like making Molotov cocktails or teaching their children how to read.
In strictly practical terms, brainwashing was an impossibility, as the CIA (and the various North American psychology departments it funded) eventually discovered. The Communists were never capable of foisting Manchurian candidates upon us. Pure coercion did not lead to pure obedience. Pleasure was a far more effective tool of domination, as the great figures of public relations had known since the 1920s. The Eastern Europeans came around to this position some decades late. The Slovenian rock band Laibach released their version of The Beatles’ Let It Be in 1988, just before the definitive collapse of state socialism in the East. Laibach’s previous efforts embodied an un-ironic worship of authority taken to such an extreme that it became — so their fans claimed — something else. But there were no clues that it was all a send up, no moment of respite from the numbing seriousness, nothing to make timid westerners feel smart and superior. When Laibach chose The Beatles as the heroic figures at the center of their English language debut, it came as a surprise to those expecting Stalin or Hitler, but it shouldn’t have. Compared to the greatest (i. e., biggest selling) popular music group in history, authoritarian leaders were mere amateurs in matters of transforming human consciousness.
Twenty years before Laibach exuberantly “murdered” The Beatles’ songs, Curt McDowell presented the Fab Four dead on the slab. In his painting, all four Beatles have their chests cut open for an autopsy. Their remains are expressive and do not have the look of morgue meat. Paul clutches his abdomen, as though he felt the coroner’s incision. (Or perhaps Linda’s vegetarian cuisine did him in.) John has his arm around Paul, who inclines his head toward John’s. Ringo seems to be sniffing Paul’s armpit, or perhaps he is getting closer so as to be included in John’s embrace. Only George strains to get away, as though the prospect of a group hug was too much for him. McDowell painted this post mortem tribute to The Beatles during his first semester at San Francisco Art Institute, around the time he realized that his true métier was filmmaking.
We know the approximate date of the work because of a pendant painting of a calendar page reading November 1968. During this month, McDowell saw a copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins, which had recently been released in the U. S. The cover featured a photograph of John and Yoko in the nude. Within the mass of John’s untrimmed pubic hair, one can clearly discern his untrimmed penis. McDowell noticed this and revised his painting accordingly. He added a foreskin to John’s penis, but not having seen the other Beatle members, he left them alone. In the painting they appear circumcised.
Born in the region of the United States where circumcision is most common, McDowell may have been unaware that English baby boys are not routinely circumcised unless religious parents insist upon it. He used his own penis as a model for The Beatles’ penises, as can been seen in the photographic studies that McDowell and a friend made in preparation for the painting. This localized gesture of self-portraiture accounts for the curious uniformity of length and width — something extremely unlikely for any four unrelated men — in the painting’s four penises. It hardly seems possible that McDowell, who first came to San Francisco from Indiana in 1965, had not seen or touched a whole variety of foreskins before making this painting. Perhaps he had simply never had sex with Englishmen.
By performing a painterly mutilation of The Beatles’ genitalia, McDowell has unwittingly transformed three of them into Jews. He thus calls attention to the circumcised man closest to the boys, Brian Epstein. Manager, owner of a chain of record shops, master manipulator and mother hen, Epstein is widely regarded as one of the two chief architects of The Beatles’ success, along with George Martin, who produced their records. A depressive, frustrated homosexual with a weakness for rough trade and a mother with the exquisitely improbable name of Queenie, Epstein was a product of his age. Until the last month of his life, he lived the criminalized homosexuality that had been bequeathed to England by that vicious old Queenie herself, Victoria. Reputedly madly in love with John — a love that some say was once consummated unhappily — Epstein experienced a closeness with The Beatles that was necessarily platonic. He could never lounge around naked with “the boys,” feeling John’s arm around him, casually enjoying physical intimacy. In a sense, McDowell’s painting corrects this slight and dispels the homosexual panic by presenting three circumcised men, three Epsteins, who lie with John, each waiting his turn for a hug from him. With open chests, they have exposed their hearts completely to each other in a utopian if lifeless fourgy.
In 1967, Brian Epstein asked an English homosexual of another stripe, Joe Orton, whose plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot had recently scandalized London theatergoers, to write a film vehicle for The Beatles. Orton seemed like a properly subversive choice to sustain the film career of a pop group that had quickly become an institution. A working class kid from Leicester, Orton escaped from provincial council flat hell with a scholarship to RADA, then escaped from school with an older man named Kenneth Halliwell. Not content with the domestic joys to be had in an Islington bed-sit, Orton constantly prowled for sexual hookups around London. Never in the closet, always on the make, Orton was the model for a generation of gay men who would leave homosexuals like Epstein in the dust. That is the myth, anyway. In fact, Orton lied about his age, and was a year older than Epstein. The two of them might even have frequented the same cottages, or public rest rooms, in search of sex. Unfortunately, neither lived to see what followed the decriminalization of homosexuality. The two died within a week of each other in 1967, Epstein by accidental barbiturate overdose, and Orton famously at Halliwell’s hands.
Like the penises in McDowell’s painting, The Beatles in Orton’s screenplay, Up Against It, are almost indistinguishable. Orton didn’t even bother to give them separate names. They act as a team, and at one point, they end up in bed together. Brian Epstein was not amused. To give Orton “notes,” Epstein called him on holiday, while in bed with Halliwell and a couple of Tangiers’ handsomest boys.
Epstein: As I understand it… [The Beatles] are all in bed with each other. No no no no no no.
Epstein: Why? Because these are normal, healthy boys.
Orton: I take it they all sleep together.
Epstein: They do not.
Orton: Ooh, but they’re all very pretty. I imagined they just had a good time. Sang, smoked, fucked everything in sight, including each other. I thought that was what success meant.
Epstein: Mr. Orton, success means… well, it means respect for the public. Besides, one of the boys is happily married.
No one could possibly know what, if anything, actually transpired between Orton and Epstein. The dialogue above is from the film Prick Up Your Ears, based upon Alan Bennett’s script, an adaptation of John Lahr’s Orton biography, which was based in turn upon literary agent Margaret Ramsay’s Orton diary typescript, which derived ultimately from the original diary of Joe Orton. The scene as it was imagined for cinema might contain not even one iota of truth. The version that can be substantiated by historical research is blandly prosaic: the Up Against It script was returned without comment. Orton’s response to The Beatles and their manager: “Fuck them.”
The fictionalized scene may be untrue in detail but not in spirit. Paul McCartney once talked about the aborted Orton film project in an interview with Roy Carr:
The reason why we didn’t do Up Against It wasn’t because it was too far out or anything. We didn’t do it because it was gay. We weren’t gay and really that was all there was to it. It was quite simple, really. Brian was gay... and so he and the gay crowd could appreciate it. Now, it wasn’t that we were anti-gay — just that we, The Beatles, weren’t gay.
Paul, who may well hold the record for number of instances of the word “gay” in a single utterance, could simply not stop making himself perfectly clear. Brian Epstein, it seems, was not the villain of the piece after all.
In one of his few large-scale paintings, Curt McDowell managed to accomplish what a modern English dramatist, buckets of Hollywood money, and sadly, the man who loved them most could not accomplish: he got The Beatles to lie down naked together for all the world to see. And he had to kill them to do it.
- William E. Jones
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