Ever Since This World Began
|October 3, 2012|
by Masha Tupitsyn
The answer is in the way you use the mirrors.
In an interview in Index Magazine, Kathleen Hanna of the band Le Tigre talks to the writer Laurie Weeks about the female face(s) of music. Specifically, the facade of the female face when it sings. The face a voice has to put on to sing in the world:
Kathleen Hanna: I’m also really interested in women’s voices on old records, like Leslie Gore, or the Shirelles or whatever. They’re singing all these songs about following men to the depths of the earth, like ‘You can drag me down a flight of stairs and I’ll still love you,” but the quality of the voice always says something totally different. It reminds me of this Judy Garland special where she was doing the most fucked-up things — probably because she was on so many drugs. But every time she sang a happy song, she looked like she was going to cry and when she sang a sad song, she looked really elated. It was really bizarre to have her facial expressions contradicting what she was singing. And Connie Frances got raped and couldn’t even talk for several years. So I got really into what it would be like to be a woman with way more constraints than we have now, singing these really fucked-up insipid heterosexual love songs. How do you get your actual voice through that? It’s through the quality and the tone. Like, there’s sneaky stuff going on in the way they’re singing the lyrics.
Like Hanna, I am fascinated by the image of the voice—not just the image of the image—and what’s behind Judy Garland’s. What is the song (story) of the female face and what does it have to sing through? Live through? What does a song cover-up and what does it expose?
I wrote a story called “Kleptomania” in my first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, that blended real and imagined Hollywood. Partly a ghost story, “Kleptomania” summons the Hollywood repressed, a battleground of misogyny. In the first section, “Judy,” three inter-generational female movie icons meet for cocktails at a bar. As actors, as characters—it’s all mixed up.
I wrote about Judy Garland and Marnie while living in California. It was my first time there, and I came there to live. It was in California, as an adult, that I read Garland’s biographies and watched all of her movies back to back. It was as a child, in New York, that I became obsessed with Dorothy’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and the double lyric of the song.
In a deleted take from The Wizard of Oz posted on YouTube, Judy/Dorothy breaks down during her iconic song. She doesn’t sing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” she weeps it. Did they want her to cry like this? Did they push her too hard, for too long, for too many years? Or did her crying overtake her and “ruin” the take? The director’s response (at least on camera) is positive. In the YouTube clip, a wide-eyed, sepia-colored film still of Garland from The Wizard of Oz conceals the animate face that sings when the stakes are the highest. We can’t see Garland cry when she is singing, and when we do see her sing this song, on screen, she isn’t crying. The crying is left out of the scene. Image and sound split apart. Either the face is hidden, as in the case of the clip, or the face masks, as in the case of the visible performance.
What did Judy look like in this outtake? What we can hear is precisely what we can’t see and aren’t shown. My feeling is that Judy/Dorothy was supposed to cry during this scene, only not like this. Not this much and not this hard. Dorothy is finally going home, after all. She is sad about leaving Oz, but what’s calling her home is supposed to be stronger than the intimate bonds she’s forged on her odyssey. But the line between emotion and real pain—between the emotion you are asked to tread, to supply and to invent; to bring to a scene, and the real pain that shows up and intervenes; causing a breach in the fiction and a break in the breach (all the breaches that are enacted and received in a lifetime)—are devastatingly blurred. It’s too much for Judy, not Dorothy. It was often too much for her. These are Judy’s tears, not Dorothy’s, and they are not the result of the fiction of movies, but of the reality of having lived them and made them.
In “Kleptomania” I describe Garland’s voice as “a blue bird hitting the windshield of a car.”
During the edits for Beauty Talk, my publisher asked me to rewrite the sentence from passive voice to active voice, as if it were merely a simple case (and to their mind, error) of grammar.
But where in the active is devastation and toil reflected, I wondered, and how would it express what had happened to Judy? What was happening to her voice as well as all the happenings that her voice had always imbibed and tracked. That showed up in her face, which aged in a way that had nothing to do with straight chronology. It wouldn’t. So in the end I decided not to make the change.
It’s not just the act that’s an act. It’s the voice and the face, and the face of the voice. It’s the song, leaving us with so much to wade through, especially in the era of extra-features and culture as tell-all. An era where everything resurfaces, returns, doubles up—comes back. Language, along with the face, is a cover-up. It shows and it doesn’t show. It doesn’t show what it shows or it shows what isn’t really there. The face doing something at the moment it isn’t supposed to do it. The active covering up what’s passive. What’s vulnerable, at risk—at stake. What receives blows and cuts. If I’d have adopted the edit, I would have been just another male producer/director/biographer inserting and inscribing the active when the passive (the patient, not just the performer) is the truth. As if being a star automatically makes one a winner and an active agent; setting up a voice’s relation to voice that is exclusively active and in control. A voice in this case—in Garland’s case—is grammatical, literal and figurative. The English passive is periphrastic and derived from the Ancient Greek períphrasis “roundabout speech,” which comes from perí “around” and phrásis “expression.” It tells us how long it takes to get somewhere. It stammers, slips up, goes back and forth. The way isn’t straight. The voice cracks. The active voice is often the official story. It is wishful thing. The take that was used as opposed to discarded. Unlike the passive, which takes the long and the hard way; which doesn’t grammatically edit, photoshop or sidestep, using the active voice in my story about Garland would have resulted in yet another cover-up and evasion. Another performance, another strain. More makeup, more star—not a feminist intervention.
There is a lot of face in our culture today. Now more than ever. There is a lot a face is expected to do, but I can never keep a straight face when I watch Judy Garland sing. I’m not a singer or an actress, after all, so it’s not my job to. Yet regardless of vocation, a woman is still expected to perform, and is a natural performer—dissimulator—according to Nietzsche and others. If it’s not her gift, it’s her job. However, as a heterosexual, seemingly femme woman, I’ve been known to break and queer most of the codes when it comes to physiognomy alone, which according to so many men seems to defy convention based on the expressions I make or refuse to make. In graduate school last summer, a male professor and Palestinian filmmaker referred to me as the “girl who frowns when she sits in class.” When really, I was simply listening (which includes thinking) to what he was saying, and the process—the seams of thinking and feeling—that my face shows showed.
What truth are our faces allowed to tell/show today? Think of how men instruct women to smile while they’re walking down the street. If Hollywood and mass media are any indication, nothing is faked and enacted more these days than a face, especially a woman’s. A woman’s face is something she has to fake almost all of the time—from the wearing of make-up to the surgical enhancement and modification of facial features, to the lightening of eyes and skin, to the concealment of age, to the facial expressions we make or don’t make. Faking is not only the modality par excellence of late modernity, the fake/r (not the real or original, as Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy demonstrates) is the thing to imitate and strive for. And based on the 21st century fiction and artifice of celebrity consumer culture, there is no greater truth than a successful lie. Than a lie that functions and succeeds in public, even if and especially when it inevitably performs its disclosure-as-lie and breakdown-of-truth as just another show (Reality TV). The lie (or the secret of ideology) is no longer something to conceal, for, in the era of cynicism and instant commodification, dissemblance is the only truth worth telling (living). Truth, along with reality, is merely a performance, and vice versa, performance is reality.
Before we believed that a lie was the truth, we believed that what we were seeing was real, which means we believed what we were told. The fiction was not meant to be interpreted purely as fantasy or pure-fantasy, but as the ultimate-real. However, now that we know that the fiction is a lie, that the truth is a lie, we have learned to approach it as such. We live in the name of truth, even though, and because we know, the name of truth is fiction. We tell ourselves that it’s not that we have a more dishonest or corrupt relationship to truth, it’s that we have a different kind of relationship with the lie. That is, with the staging of truth.
In Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, time, to use the Surrealist’s phrase, is an object of multiple use. Multiple versions make reproductions out of everything and everyone, even if the everyone is the same person. The film exists and operates in the subjunctive. The subjunctive is the form of wishes, conditions, desires, and fantasies—rewrites and retakes. In Certified Copy a would-be marriage between Binoche and Shimell copy becomes a conditional real. In Kiarostami’s earlier film, Shirin, a character declares, “Back then it was an act. Today I am being truthful.” In this statement, time forks, splits and doubles. But the fork in the road/relationship also concerns the reality/appearance binary/double, where “husband” argues that the copy or apocrypha has the same value (value being the key issue here) as original/truth, but “wife” believes the opposite, making the two disjointed approaches to real and copy, reality and appearance, a gender divide and a sexual politic. This rift in perception is unveiled when Binoche takes Shimell to see the original painting his work on copy refers to. Perhaps Binoche is the original/real thing and Shimell is a copy that lives in a world of copies.
When I watched Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born for this essay, I broke down in tears almost immediately. Garland’s heartbreak is my heartbreak. A heartbreak of women watching women. Women being women. It is my invisible (off-camera) face coming undone as it bears witness to the brave face another woman puts on for the whole world. Garland is giving us her heartbreak so that we can survive and better understand our own. Songs and movies are records of the breakdowns that have already happened and that we can now, in the era of deleted scenes, outtakes, and DVD commentaries, watch over and over, both to our benefit and detriment. The heartbreaks we’ve survived and the ones we haven’t are inscribed in the breakdown of notes that are sung for all of us to hear, and by being sung both shore up and keep at bay just enough to make it tolerable for the rest of us to show and not show. Maybe it’s because I can see and hear how much Garland tried to keep it together for the movies. In order to make movies. How she could do it, and how she couldn’t. How much fell and falls apart as she performs, still. And how her voice splits and spites and faced all those cameras for all those years.
About the Author:
Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, cultural critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), The Force of What’s Possible (Nightboat Books, 2014), The American Tetralogy (Blackjack Editions, 2013), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (2012), The Encyclopedia Project Volume 2 (F-K) (2010) and Volume 3 (L-Z) (2014), and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), with additional works published by The White Review, The New Inquiry, Fence, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Boing Boing, Indiewire’s Press Play, Animal Shelter, the Shepparton Art Museum, and Ryberg Curated Video.
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