by Johannes Goransson on Jul.27, 2012
“I think of Byzantium, not as a historical location but as an imagined one, a sublime decaying one, a supersaturated one in which gold and garbage fumes pours out of every orifice, a stinking glamorous temporary eternal.” – Joyelle McSweeney
“At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of the cadaver is also the strangeness of the image.” – Maurice Blanchot
Did I write about Lana Del Ray yet? I don’t think so, but I’ve thought about it plenty this summer because I’ve been listening to her record constantly (and when I’m not listening to it, I’ve been listening to my young daughters’ rendition of it, nothing like a 5 and a 2 year old shouting “I’ve got summertime sadness” over and over): Death, Art, Beauty and Decadence.
I love the video for “Born to Die” because it works so well with not just this particular song but the entire album. It begins with a shot of of an elaborate church interior, suggesting an equation of the music/sound with space, and an elaborately overwrought, highly visual space at that. This is the “Temple of Art,” and – if you don’t mind me mixing up my Tennysons – Lana Del Ray plays the part of the Lady of Shalott, seemingly installed in Art. When she begins to sing, the camera find her in this temple: her voice is equated with the image of her body. Her passivity – almost enshrined, petrified in her throne – further suggests the way she belongs to this ornamental, Byzantine (almost) space.
The song begins: “Feet don’t fail me now/take me to the finish line.” An interesting way to begin a song – by calling for an end. Especially odd since her petrified position in this afterworld world suggests she’ already crossed the finish line. Like Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Lana Del Ray’s speakers – in this an other songs – seem to create their own plots retrospecticely, anachronistically from beyond the grave. But as they create the plot, they come alive again – taking on a very much “undead” quality, as images.
And the plots they thusly generate – like in most of the great gothic novels of the 19th century – are excessive: there is too much of them. Think of Laura Palmer having been a druggie, a dealer, secretly writing all kinds of diaries, secretly organizing stuff for recluses and “meals-on-wheels” etc. In Del Ray, she’s constantly putting on makeup and red dresses and drinking kristall as if to inhabit and exhaust the video-girl imagery of hip hop videos.
The video of course overtly invokes Laura Palmer, as her secretive/revealing gestures invoke the gestures of Laura Palmer in the famous “black lodge” scenes (the black lodge needless to say fitting into the Byzantine space, the ultimate necroglamour movie house):
Everywhere (in magazines, great literature, the grocery store, the movies etc), we are told to find ourselves, nurture our inner child, unleash our imagination, have mindblowing sex, do yoga, get in shape, become who we were meant to be, really realize ouselves, really communicate our thoughts effectively, to be sincere to ourselves and others bla bla We have to realize ourselves. Reach our full potential. This is all based on interiority and agency.
About halfway through, Lana Del Ray sings: “I was lost now I’m found” (another cliche made strangely affecting). It is as if dying is the only way of realizing yourself. In both Twin Peaks and “Born to Die,” Laura Palmer and Lana Del Ray do not have interiority. As either Danielle or Carina said in a post a while back, girls don’t have interiorities, they have “secrets.” “She’s full of secrets,” the little man says about Laura Palmer (as her own double).
They gesture, they have stories and images, they have Art, but this Art also has them. The art seems to generate an atmosphere in which they cannot act at all, they are completely lead by their “melodramatic” ambience, an ambience which seems to lead to a very volatile sexuality and violence. What produces what is never clear…. Does the sex cause the car crash? Etc. Although, these characters seem uncannily without “emotion,” the atmosphere that penetrates the work are, as Carina pointed out in her post about Del Ray, deeply affecting, “melodramatic.” It’s just that emotions don’t seem to belong to the interiorities of the individuals, but to the space that penetrates/interpenetrates them.
This doomish atmosphere – as well as the name – to me invokes probably even more another femme fatale, “Carlotta Valdez” from Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo”:
Here we see Scottie entering another palace of art to find the wife of his client sitting in front of Carlotta’s portrait (note the flowers have been displaced in Del Ray’s video, from the hands to the hair), where she becomes supposedly so hypnotized by this image that she enters into a deathy-doomy atmosphere where she has to kill herself. But as in Twin Peaks, where Laura Palmer’s doom seems to generate relationships left and right, it’s precisely in her doomed curse that she and Scottie fall in love; they are both under the spell of an image.
But of course, Scottie is fooled by the image. That’s not the real wife (“Madeleine” I think her name is), but an actress. Unfortunately, Scottie is now in love (under the spell of) with this actress faking (image-making) the wife under the spell, and unfortunately he’s able to spot the actress in her new (ie “real”) costume and progressively manages to get her back into her old (Carlotta-doomed) costume; when he’s finally managed to get her into this costume, he solves the crime, but solving the crime leads to the real death of the fake Madeleine. Phew. So in the end the costume really does work, it kills the woman who is under its spell. He completes Carlotta’s spell. Creepy!
As Lana Del Ray and David Lynch, Hitchcock’s movie is pretty complex in its treatment of Art, Costume and the Image. His movie could be seen as both “iconphilic” and “iconophobic” (to use WJT Mitchell’s distinctions from his seminal book, Iconology). There’s both the proliferation of images and a distrust of that proliferation as seduction, as manipulation, as immoral.
We’ve talked a bit about images on this blog lately, both Carina and James noting how image are considered largely tasteless, kitsch. They are generally seen as manipulative and ideologically unsound (See Marx, Karl or language poetry), and almost always excessive (you have to “earn the image” in workshop cliche, you must make that expenditure useful, put it back in a protestant economy!). Both James and Carina suggested this had to do with a discomfort with “surface,” and I think on some level this is correct.
But I also think the image is what troubles the very idea of a surface. And in both Greenbergian and post-langpo high taste, the image is crass precisely because it’s NOT surface; it’s not “just language” but language making up stuff, it’s not just paint but paint imitating stuff. The idea of the “image” is particularly difficult in language and perhaps in poetry.
In my epigraph to this blog post, I gave a famous Blanchot quote that is important to Daniel Tiffany’s Radio Corpse (a book about Pound’s idea of the image and the relationship between his crass/kitschy decadent verse and his later modernist work), which is about this very troubling. I might return to that point, but for now I’d like bring in another of my favorite quotes from Daniel’s criticism, in this case what Hermann Broch says about kitsch: it is “lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.”
Kitsch has a body, art has a system; and this body is lodged – as in a horror movie – within High Art. For those of you who have read my posts about the foreigner as kitsch, this should come as no surprise. In the case of Vertigo, we can say that Carlotta (a kitsch foreigner many times over – imperial, dead, art, anachronistic, ruse etc) is the foreign body inside of the movie as a whole. But as fake/dead/kitsch she seems to post-death generate the ultimate plot with all of its twist and turns, generate its excesses of mediumicity and pageantry. And in the end, Carlotta – at least for me – overwhelms the whole story about the crime etc; she’s the fake story that is more affecting that the supposed real story.
I also wanted to say something about the connection of all this to Gustav Klimt’s beautiful (and the original kitsch) paintings and to Dracula (especially the Coppola version, which I just watched again for the first time in 20 years… Did you know that my favorite Monica Belucci played one of the vampire ladies! Perfect. I can’t find my post about her or I would link it here.) But maybe I’ll get to that later. I have like a ton of posts in my head that I should write out before school starts.
Oh, one more thing. Whenever I tell people I’ve been listening to Lana Del Ray they says, but she’s so fake, or she’s not real, or she’s not authentic. Yes, I say, she does not convey a sense of interiority or agency. That why, as Carina so eloquently argued, she’ the new new sincerity.