My favorite Elizabeth Taylor is a version of American Tragedy

by on Mar.23, 2011

Two homages to Liz emerge from her role in perpetuating the versioning of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy in film (for her, Stevens’s A Place in the Sun and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma) and fiction (Steve Erikson’s Zeroville), excerpted below:

Jacques Rancière, “The Saint and the Heiress”

And if George Stevens hadn’t used the first sixteen-millimeter color film at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, undoubtedly Elizabeth Taylor’s happiness would not have found a place in the sun.” The viewer of Histoires du cinéma recognizes in this declaration Godard’s manner of making incisive juxtapositions (rapprochements à l’emporte-pièce). And in this, undoubtedly habit has already had a share in things. She says to herself that it’s indeed interesting that before tackling the cinematic version of An American Tragedy, George Stevens had accompanied the advance of the American army and filmed the death camps in cinema. But she adds here the feeling that, if Stevens had spent the war as an announcer in New York or a parachutist in Burma, this would have ever so slightly altered the way Elizabeth Taylor, in A Place in the Sun, portrayed the beautiful heiress overjoyed by her idyll with the young Rastignac played by Montgomery Clift. Having thus sorted things out, she awaits the provocateur’s next telescoping and prepares herself to handle it in the same way.

But the director doesn’t mean it that way, and a new image comes to bring literariness (littéraliser) to Elizabeth Taylor’s place in the sun. She now appears to us shadowed, iconized in a circle of light that seems to outline the imperious gesture of a painted figure apparently descended from the heavens. Her suspended position would logically make her an angel. But the halo, the watchful expression and the red cape fringed with gold apparently belong to  a saint. The fact remains that saints rarely descend from the heavens, and one hardly sees why this figure, in which we recognize the hand of Giotto, defies the law of gravity for material and spiritual bodies.

Thus the pasting (collage) of the sacred painted image onto the profane film redoubles in its bizarreness—both visual and semantic—the excess of the conceptual pasting that connected the lightness of the star to the horror of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. It’s not a matter here, therefore, of one juxtaposition among others. Between the “excessive” conceptual pasting and the impossible visual pasting, the whole enterprise of Histoires du cinéma is emblematized. In the triangle that connects the cadaver of Auschwitz, the cinematic body of the star and the painted celestial apparition, the three major strands of Godardian construction actually come together in a knot: a thesis on what the century has done to cinema; a thesis on what cinema has done to the century; and a thesis on what makes up the image in general.”


Steve Erikson, Zeroville

“On Vikar’s shaved head is tattooed the right and left lobes of his brain. One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other’s arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, he the male version of her.” (15)


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