Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Dead Ringers

Even in my most productive weeks, in ten of my most productive weeks, I cannot compete with Nathaniel R's indefatigable productivity. If you know Nathaniel, you know he is always fretting that his site traffic will collapse, or seeking ways to give his readers more more more. He is so extraordinarily generous, it makes me tired just thinking about it, which is why you should donate.

Most recently, he has been laboring even harder than I have to make sure you know about my new book, The Desiring-Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema, which I started working on within a year of meeting Nathaniel in 2002.  Already he published this interview I got to do with top-flight film critic Tim Brayton about the book's ideas, its contexts, and what I hope people might get from it (which was a joy to do).  Today he is hosting a new installment of his delicious Hit Me With Your Best Shot series that is also designed to plug the book by showcasing the subject of its first chapter, David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, an eerie film noir in crimson and blue, chrome and rue, starring two twin brothers as each other's homme fatal.

I'm delighted to see what his other contributors select as their favorite shot in this deliriously gorgeous movie, shot by Peter Suschitzky, the same cinematographer who lends chic, subtle macabre to all of Cronenberg's pictures.  Suschitzky also gave us the fluorescent slash of light sabers in The Empire Strikes Back, the farcical flatness of Mars Attacks!, and the scary, rock-and-roll martyrology of Peter Watkins' Privilege, a clear and underseen precursor to the film that closes my book, Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine.  I suppose I'm being predictable by picking a shot that already illustrates my chapter on Dead Ringers.  But since photo captions in academic books typically keep to a bare minimum, I thought I'd say a little more about why I selected it, and what I find more generally artful about the shot, and why I relish as gruesome and disquieting a film as Dead Ringers, and what you might hear if you dip into conversation with The Desiring-Image.

These are the gynecological tools that Beverly Mantle designs for operating on "mutant women."  They wheel into this shot from just out of frame, staggering the eye with their horrid shapes while flattering it with their texture and detail, and with the precise, elegant framing Suschitzky achieves even from this spontaneously-arriving element.  The plot logic behind these implements is even more revolting than their fanged, spindly appearance: at this point the drugged-up and heartbroken Beverly believes that all women's bodies exist in a state of grievous mutation, which only he can assess and emend, using these devices.  Soon enough, we will learn that Beverly perceives himself and his own twin brother to be mutants, and will "operate" on Elliot accordingly.  No points for guessing that this goes badly.  Cyril and Stewart Marcus, the New York gynecologists whose true story inspired Dead Ringers, did not in fact smelt such alien technologies, though they did die together under mysterious circumstances, and one of them did leap atop a female surgery patient in a narcotic haze to huff her anesthesia, as Beverly does soon enough in this scene.  If you want to know more about the Marcuses, read the "Dead Ringers" chapter of this book, and feel bad for Rosenbaum that he gets no credit of any kind in Cronenberg's film.

My book is about queer cinema from the late 1980s to the present, and its biggest goal is to define that rubric so that it doesn't only or even primarily equate to "gay and lesbian film."  Instead, I want the phrase to suggest an expansive, debatable, fluctuating range of movies that use story, style, and structure to throw their audiences out of easy assumptions about what any desire is, how it works, who feels it, via what promptings, how abruptly it might shapeshift, and how cinema helps create it.  I wrote two chapters on Cronenberg because he's more or less our poet laureate of shape-shifting bodies and weird sexualities, though Dead Ringers marked something new for him in the wake of Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, and their ilk: rather than douse us in the plasma and viscera of bodily change, Dead Ringers uses uncanny atmospherics, brooding performances, and objects like these tools to imply total overhauls in desire and embodiment.  As the best horror movies know, and some of the most erotic movies do as well, what we imagine for ourselves is often scarier and sexier than images can show us.  Beverly's tools are unnerving, then, because they force you to conceive of the body they would fit: an ingenious cinematic trick, though not one that every viewer will want to try at home.

I remember being in high school watching Dead Ringers in my uncle's bedroom (he was an art student, only a decade older than I am), and feeling that even without any outwardly gay storyline, the movie clearly thought that bodies, sexualities, and all manner of bonds between people were enigmatic, mercurial, dangerous, and for all those reasons exciting, even when they meet undesirable fates.  You can see that here in how Suschitzky lights the metal tools with just enough glare to look beautiful against the plush red fabric, even as they portend undeniable terror.  You also sense Cronenberg's trust in his conceptions and his weirdly anti-sensational acceptance of mutation even in a film as rococo and tabloid-derived as Dead Ringers.  His camera does not do what most directors' cameras would do: slaver in panning close-up over each tool in ghoulish montage, forcing deep shadows upon them, drowning them in menacing music.  The movie confronts psychic unease and erotic alterity with a bracing equanimity, which inspired me to do the same thing in my book, and hopefully in my life.  After all, if a film can face a psychic and erotic viewpoint as grotesque as this one and maintain a patina of curiosity, of frankness, of understated wonder, surely there can be no sexual truth or lack of truth that's impossible to face up to?

Had Oxford rejected my suggestion of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in aqueous spandex beneath silvery light as the cover art for The Desiring-Image——and please thank designer Sally Rinehart for this book's unbeatable look——I would have pushed for this image on the jacket. Whether tools for operating on mutant women yield the kind of image that moves units at Barnes & Noble I cannot say (although I do have a guess...), but I find this shot transfixing, and I so respect Cronenberg for allowing us to be repulsed and transfixed, which he obviously is himself.

While we're here, let's look at one more shot.

Back when I took my first crack at writing about Cronenberg, my essay thrived on its own indignation at how Cronenberg's mid-80s swerve into film adaptations—after making his name on original material—repeatedly took up gay texts only to surgically and ostentatiously remove the gayness.  Indulge me as I quote myself:
The scale of erotic recoding in these films astonishes and occasionally rankles. Although rumored homosexuals populate the film of Naked Lunch, its main plot privileges William Burroughs surrogate Bill Lee and his affairs with two women, avoiding in story, tone, or spectacle the novel's unbridled priapism and exuberant interpenetrations. While Crash finds time to linger on James Ballard having insertive sex with Gabrielle through a long, hideously scarred wound in her thigh, the film retreats from the narratively pivotal intercourse between James and the virile crash enthusiast Vaughan. To the extent gendered dichotomies survive in Cronenberg's cosmos, eroticism between women proves especially foreclosed. Naked Lunch visually occludes rumored liaisons between Joan Frost and her Tunisian housekeeper-dominatrix Fadela, and the clothed backseat caresses between Helen and Gabrielle in Crash are even more demure than those between James and Vaughan.
Cyril and Stewart Marcus were said to be having an incestuous affair with each other by the time they died, a rumor that Bari Wood and Jack Geasland dilate to lurid, intensely descriptive proportions in Twins, the pulp novel that Dead Ringers adapts (albeit in Cronenberg's typically freewheeling way).  The reason I eventually backed off that approach—in many ways arguing a totally opposite point—is that Cronenberg makes all sex, even sex which is putatively "straightened" from source texts like Crash or M Butterfly or Naked Lunch or Dead Ringers, seem enigmatic and only vestigially gendered.  When we observe the bed-shaking liaison between Beverly Mantle and Claire Niveau (Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold, in two of the decade's most indelible performances), the swooning pans, the tight close-ups, the heightened soundtrack, the unexpected props, and the rich palette of indigo, silver, and vanilla make it impossible, I think, to see this as a scene about a man having sex with a woman.  As is true of the collisions in Crash or the royal blue keys and boxes in Mulholland Drive or the brushstrokes in The Pillow Book or the caressing of skin in The Piano, Dead Ringers renders desire as intoxicating spectacle and idiosyncratic sensation.  The eroticism in the image derives less from who is having sex (and all of these movies take "personality" up to or past a breaking point) than from how it looks, sounds, unfurls, and plausibly feels.

Filming eroticism in that spirit is not the only important goal for a queer cinema worthy of the name, but it's purposefully the first step The Desiring-Image takes in (I hope) shaking up what we "know" about desire, how we imagine the bonds between theory and film, and how we relate what is sexually exciting or mystifying or confronting in cinema to what is exciting or mystifying or confronting in our lives.  Naked Lunch, Shortbus, The Watermelon Woman, Brother to Brother, Beau travail, and Velvet Goldmine all play starring roles in subsequent chapters.  Stick around, too, for dozens of cameo films (from Looking for Langston to Melancholia, Drawing Restraint 9 to The Tree of Life), for thoughts about queer coalitions and radical politics, for literary frameworks from William Burroughs and Tony Kushner, and for a whole lot of film theory, especially care of Gilles Deleuze. His conceptual tools are almost as weird as Beverly Mantle's medical ones, yet I find them equally entrancing, and much more productive.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, or you're willing to find out if it is, please buy the book!  It's on Amazon as well, though Oxford sees a little more moolah when you buy directly from them, and they have been angels to me throughout this entire process——angels——so consider shopping that way.

And by all means, check back in with Nathaniel's Dead Ringers-apalooza, and keep up with more of his Best Shots!

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Anonymous vv said...

Interesting post!

One correction, if I may. It should read "homme fatal" :)

8:45 AM, July 10, 2013  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Touché! Thanks for that catch.

11:08 AM, July 10, 2013  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I'm so fascinated by this topic (aka your book) but it also makes me a little wistful because so few films really seem to fit this definition, no? Films that take real risks and demonstrate real vision and idiosyncratic acceptance of the mysteries of sex (or the mysteries of anything really)

12:27 AM, July 11, 2013  
Anonymous Manuel said...

Needless to say, I'm scrambling now to order your book and devour it with such gusto as Claire... no wait, I can't even force myself into that Cronenbergian analogy.

That said, I am fascinated by the insistence that the film not just queers desire (there really isn't anything to ascribe such forceful action to) but reveals desire to be a queer thing.

As always, a pleasure to read your work.

8:33 AM, July 11, 2013  
Anonymous chexsystems banks said...

I am new to your blog and just spent about 1 hour and 30 minutes reading. I think I will frequently visit your blog from now on.

10:00 AM, July 26, 2013  

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