Have a Good Time

January 11, 2016

Therese, Arthur, Curt, Carol, Brian, Tommy and Shannon

The first heavy news I got late on January 10th was that Todd Haynes’s Carol hadn’t won any Golden Globes. I felt this from the start as a frivolous sorrow, because I hadn’t expected to feel anything about the Golden Globes at all (to say nothing of more recent conversations about the Oscars). In the long last quarter of 2015, when I’d been waiting for Carol‘s wide release and almost starting to doubt its actual existence, I had even joked to a friend that when it finally came out and won all the awards and everyone was compelled to see it, the selfish teenager in me who had hoarded Velvet Goldmine, [SAFE], and Far from Heaven would harbor some resentment. Still: not a single statue. I tweeted: “it sounds as if there were bright spots but my heart goes out to anyone who sat through hours of ricky gervais to see carol win no awards.” And I’m sure it was awful, right? I wouldn’t wish that kind of defeat on anyone. But I did feel a flicker of unease for having written it that way, as if someone had died.

Evidence of omnipresence: there’s a shot in Carol that wouldn’t have meant what it did to me without David Bowie. Of course there’s no way to know what Haynes’s career would have looked like without Velvet Goldmine, or whether he would have adapted The Price of Salt. Even in a movie widely praised, though, for its scrupulous attention to aesthetic codes associated with 1950s New York, this stands out as a direct if brief self-quotation. Against a green backdrop that stands for a private space, a face appears in tight closeup, filmed from the right side, flushed, eyes directed to the bottom of the screen. Gravity is mobilized as a special effect, turning strands of brown hair into antennae that arc down and forward, toward the sign of the beloved. Twenty-four minutes into Carol, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is writing in her notebook the name of the woman who just took her out to dinner for the first time: Carol Aird. Twenty-one minutes into Velvet Goldmine, an English teenager named Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale, is staring at a fan magazine’s photo of a kiss between two glam-rock stars, Curt Wild and Brian Slade, while he listens to Slade’s new album.

There are countless beautiful shots in Carol, but, when I first saw it, this one restaged closeup had an effect on me that was immediate and powerful, and I started to realize that the two movies belonged together as studies in initiation. In a thoughtful piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, John Thomason argues for a way of situating Carol within Haynes’s filmography that would both extend and complicate a certain Haynesian orientation toward, on the one hand, films about women which rigorously explore familiar cinematic genres from within, and, on the other, films about men that begin with such genres and then appear deliberately to abandon them. (You could encapsulate the difference in scope between Carol and Velvet Goldmine by pointing to the objects that propel their narratives and circulate among characters: one is a pair of leather gloves left in a department store, and the other is a totemic emerald pin that has passed from artist to artist since it first arrived on Earth in 1854 with Oscar Wilde, who was an alien.) There are, however, other overlaps. In Carol‘s title role, as an older woman who teaches a younger one how to be a lesbian, Cate Blanchett charges each scene with a magnetism not wholly separable from the knowledge that she played Jude Quinn, the Bob Dylan who was a proto-Bowie, in Haynes’s I’m Not There. Before becoming Therese’s lover, Carol is the subject of her photographs, taken from a distance on a snowy city street as if by a tentative paparazza. Or by a fan. It’s a fact not lost on the queer kids of the Internet that one of Carol’s first lines to Therese, in the department store, is “Do you ship?”

If Carol, then, opens by exploring the way an initiation into same-sex desire can look like fandom, Velvet Goldmine insists from the start on conveying the way fandom can feel like love. This is the subject of Caroline Siede’s warm essay on the film for The A.V. Club. Siede’s piece resonated with me, because, while David Bowie’s music was never as important to me as its refraction through Velvet Goldmine, there was a period when nothing was more important to me than that movie. And I always knew that the way I felt about Haynes’s work was the way others felt about Bowie, or even the way the film had led them to feel about him.

On my own return to Velvet Goldmine, though, I’ve been struck again by the intensity of the film’s ultimate disenchantment with its Bowie surrogate, Brian Slade—the way it positions him, in effect, as having already died, with a legacy that amounts to a grave betrayal. I’ve been trying to think about how, especially in its last half hour, the film opens up into an affective space that is in some ways strangely similar to the space many fans have been forced to navigate in the last two weeks, as they’ve grappled, in many cases for the first time, with profoundly troubling facts from Bowie’s life.

(I would summarize these facts by saying that in the 70s a world-famous Bowie seduced girls in their early to mid-teens; that one of them maintained a positive view of her experience into adulthood; and that it’s possible to respect her testimony and her agency while condemning Bowie’s actions as rape. From the attempts I’ve made to enter online exchanges about this, I expect to lose some people on that last point, which is fine, but it’s not a point I want to discuss. There was also a separate rape allegation in Philadelphia in 1987. The woman asked Bowie to take an AIDS test, and the case was dropped without an indictment, and as a committed opponent of HIV criminalization I will say that the unqualified confidence with which some feminist Bowie fans have used those facts to dismiss the whole thing as a homophobic shakedown attempt has been another disturbing feature of the last two weeks for me.)

To be clear, Velvet Goldmine does not directly address or thematize sexual exploitation or statutory assault. Related issues hover around the film’s margins, in resolutely same-sex contexts. The narrator of one early section explains that a thirteen-year-old Curt Wild was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy after being discovered “at the service of his older brother”; and the same narrator sums up a short scene in which Brian Slade, as a teenage mod, seduces a significantly younger boy whose gold watch he covets, with the sentence “Style always wins out in the end.” When the film arrives at accusing Slade the star of betraying his calling and his fans, style, in a sense, wins out here too: the betrayal is figured in aesthetic terms, charting a cultural shift from the 70s to the 80s. It is Slade’s turn away from liberatory queerness, and—after a faked assassination and a ten-year silence—his assumption of a new identity, hidden in plain sight, as the rock god Tommy Stone. (Stone draws billions of viewers through global satellite shows, serves happily as a mouthpiece for 1984’s “President Reynolds,” and generally looks like the Donald Trump of 80s stadium rock.)

So the movie dramatizes a confused and conflicted mourning, and it does so largely through the figure of Arthur Stuart, the Brian Slade fan who has grown up to become a reporter assigned to uncover Slade’s fate. What Arthur and the film mourn is a broad utopian promise. One detail that stands out to me now, though, is the role played in both Brian’s career and Arthur’s investigation by a peripheral character with little dialogue named Shannon Hazelbourne.

a mask

The top two Google results for “velvet goldmine + shannon” are threads from two separate fan forums of the mid-2000s, featuring the respective questions “What’s the deal with Shannon?” and “OK what’s the deal with that Shannon bitch?” A little further down in the Google hits is “Shannon in Wonderland,” a subtle and generous work of fan fiction, which posits Shannon as an Alice figure and so poses the same question in more sympathetic terms: “When does Alice turn to malice?”

Shannon’s role in Velvet Goldmine is clearly defined as that of a young professional, but the aptness of the Alice analogy suggests a sense in which she allows the film to represent the figure of the “baby groupie” under erasure. To the extent that the movie sketches Shannon’s story, through scenes that grow out of Arthur’s interviews with others who knew Brian, that story is also one of initiation—even one that explicitly mirrors the younger Arthur’s—though not happily. She emerges as a named character halfway through, in the middle of a montage sequence depicting Slade’s rise to international glam stardom under the tutelage of his new manager, Jerry Devine. Shannon has arrived at Bijou Records to ask about a position as “assistant clerical aide,” but it’s precisely because she has no experience in wardrobe work—because her inexperience is seen as an asset—that she’s made the new wardrobe manager, just before Devine announces that Slade will start an American tour. She’s shown playing an increasingly important though often silent role behind the scenes of Slade’s career. (At a phantasmal press conference where he recites Wildean epigrams to uproarious laughter from American reporters, Shannon is the one holding the cue cards.) Later, at a Bijou orgy, she has an experience with Jerry Devine which is depicted as, at the very least, not enjoyable; she then sees Brian and Curt together in bed, becomes distraught, and forces Brian’s wife, Mandy, to swear to her that she’ll never tell Brian about her reaction to the night’s events. As time passes and Brian approaches his staged murder through clouds of cocaine, Shannon stays by his side, her demeanor hardens, and she ends up hustling Mandy out of his room when Mandy has come to deliver papers for a divorce. This, we learn, was almost the last time Mandy saw Brian, and it’s almost the film’s last view of Shannon.

with mandy

Then she reappears—in the present of 1984, twenty-five minutes from the end of the movie—as Arthur’s investigation into Slade’s whereabouts has come to a dead end. His digital search for name-change records has gotten him nowhere. As Arthur sits in front of the computer in his apartment and Brian Eno’s voice on the soundtrack intones “You’re so perceptive / And I wonder how you knew,” his gaze gradually turns from the computer screen to the chattering TV set in the corner, and to a local station’s interview with a triumphant Tommy Stone and his loyal press assistant, mid-tour. A series of slow zooms discloses Arthur’s growing interest in the press assistant. There’s a cut to a shot of a tearful Shannon, on the morning after the orgy, and Arthur starts to put things together.

Except there’s no indication that Arthur has ever seen Shannon before. Every glimpse of her in the film up to this point has been in scenes from Slade’s story recounted to him in conversation—and, even though it’s revealed that a younger Arthur was present at some of the events described to him in 1984, he certainly wasn’t at the orgy, or privy to the view of Shannon that the audience is now asked to recall.

I would hesitate to call this a plot hole or a self-evident mistake—as some viewers have done—given the film’s constant, exhilarating movement among styles, forms, and ways of imparting narrative information. (There are moments when the proliferation of ambiguous voiceovers makes Velvet Goldmine feel less like the reworking of Citizen Kane that it ostentatiously is, and more like an impossible collaboration between Derek Jarman and Terrence Malick. Tight plausibility doesn’t mean much here.) Nevertheless, as Arthur stares at these flickering images of Shannon’s face and then Tommy’s, and as the audience is asked to regard Shannon from an angle outside Arthur’s vision, it feels like a heavy displacement. The question is not just “I wonder how he knew” but what he knows, or what we know. Something has been intuited at this moment, as if by a sinister magic—something that seems to exceed the answer to any simple query about a pop star’s name change, and to assume an eerie resonance with discussions that have taken place this month, in the wake of David Bowie’s death. The movie turns on the revelation that a utopian queer dream and a patriarchal nightmare have all along been embodied, unrecognizably, in the same person; and the fulcrum for this turn is a silent shot of a young woman in tears.

Brian Slade is Tommy Stone” is a sentence never vocalized in Velvet Goldmine, and there’s a strong implication that it will remain publicly unspoken. The main agent preventing its disclosure is Shannon, and her exact motivations are never addressed. And so, in its move to mourn what was lost with Brian Slade, the film leaves her in a position that can only encourage the question What’s the deal with Shannon? while the truth of Brian’s new identity, in the last narrative scene, becomes a hushed secret between two men. After Arthur’s boss acts under mysterious orders to quash his investigation, Arthur goes dutifully to the Stone show, lingers in his memories from ten years before, obtains at least the private satisfaction of confronting Tommy after the concert with his knowledge, and ends up at a bleak nearby bar. Alone in the back room, he finds Curt Wild. Several things pass between Arthur and Curt in the scene that follows: a rueful acknowledgment of Brian’s transformation; the pin that once belonged to Oscar Wilde himself; and the hint of a possibility that Curt, like Arthur, remembers that the two of them have met before.

(It was a tryst on a rooftop after a concert heralding the Death of Glitter, a decade ago. Curt told Arthur: “Make a wish.” The scene of this encounter, which came minutes earlier in the movie complete with an appearance from the same flying saucer that had brought Oscar Wilde to Earth, self-consciously subsumes and culminates the erotic logic of fan fiction. In presenting the seduced fan not as thirteen or fourteen and female but as seventeen or eighteen and male, and portrayed by an actor in his mid-twenties, it arguably also participates in a larger, wishful fiction about the material conditions of 70s rock fandom. Watching it for the first time when I was seventeen or eighteen, I experienced it as one of the most potently romantic film sequences I had ever seen.)

Before leaving the bar, Curt delivers a final verdict on Brian Slade and his journey: “Well, I guess in the end he got what he wanted.” What Shannon might have wanted, and whether she got it, are among the questions that hang in the air as Velvet Goldmine ends with a burst of color and another beautiful song.

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

January 14, 2011

What Mother Gothel knows, and what Rapunzel sings

[Spoilers are below, but if you were going to see Tangled you’ve probably seen it already.]

Growing it out

Lauren Berlant has recently been publishing an amazing series of posts on combover subjectivity, and one (inadequate) way to describe the project would be to say that, if we’re approaching the anima in a certain way, then what people do with their hair can be especially helpful in allowing us to think through its incoherences and how we try to smooth them out and cover them up.  Hair and heads are hard to animate.  They are also hard to draw, color in, and set in motion on film—and so it seems worth noting that the most expensive animated movie ever made is one released at the end of 2010, the last Disney princess movie, whose narrative and affective strategies are woven around strands of impossibly long, impossibly blond, gorgeously rendered flowing hair.  It’s always interesting to see what artist-technicians reserve their energy for, what they’re waiting for their machines to be able to give them.  For James Cameron, it was aboriginal blue aliens who had breasts even though they weren’t mammals.  The less said about what it was for George Lucas, I guess, the better.  For Disney’s animation division it was Rapunzel.

I saw Tangled over the holidays at the same multiplex where the rest of my family (who are half English, if that’s relevant) were going to see The King’s Speech, a movie that stood out for me in the extraordinary, almost visceral lack of interest it inspired.  I’m sure it’s not out of the question that The King’s Speech has some valuable things to say about non/sovereignty and dis/ability, and that’s not a possibility I want to dismiss.  But still.  I just couldn’t get psyched, at that moment, about a film asking us to give two hours of full attention and sympathy to the English royal voice, when we can hear the voice and feel its effects whenever we want to, and often it’s more than a voice, it’s (say) a truncheon smashing the brain of Alfie Meadows.  So I decided to see Tangled mainly for three interrelated reasons.  First, if I was going to see a royalist fairytale, I wanted to see one that had no pretensions of being anything else.  (There are, intriguingly, a king and a queen who have a substantial amount of screen time in Tangled—and literally no lines: the silent sovereign might be what The King’s Speech fears most, but Tangled knows what kind of power can reside in that silence.)  Second, this royalist fairytale had anthropomorphized animals and opulent animation and the voices of Mandy Moore and Donna Murphy, come on!  And, third, I was curious about the way Avatar, released a year earlier, had been immediately seized upon and widely and insightfully written about as an ideological symptom, whereas Tangled—which, in addition to being the avowed final entry in a long and fascinating series, is in fact a more expensive movie than Avatar, costing a total of 260 million dollars (260 million dollars! 260 million dollars) had not to my knowledge received anything like the same kind of attention.  A brilliant pre-release post on white femininity by Renée of Womanist Musings (with a follow-up post addressing reader comments, and more on this shortly) was about all I had seen.

I’m sure part of it is that there are just plenty of great critical blogs I’m unaware of, and part of it is that Avatar was a more obviously exigent target in presenting itself as a “leftist” film, and part of it is that people have had a lot of other things on their minds.  But I did find myself also wondering if one reason why I’d heard about Tangled only a tiny fraction of what I remembered hearing about Avatar (or even Toy Story 3) was the same reason why the movie itself was retitled by Disney, after years of development as Rapunzel: you know; it’s for girls!  In any case, I’m here to report to anyone who cares that Tangled is stunning and complicated and, in its engagement with the Disney tradition and that tradition’s legacy of hegemonic white patriarchy, something like a disturbing national combover fantasy.  Like Lauren Berlant herself, I should say, I’m not uncritical of combover subjectivity as a sufficient model for thinking about how persons operate; but I’d like to suggest that part of Tangled‘s interest lies in the way it simultaneously relies on such a model for its characterization and its narrative maneuvers, and exemplifies it in the ideological work it can be seen to perform.

I. Gothel

A woman

who loves a woman

is forever young…

Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel”

While the hair in question here is Rapunzel’s, the actual over-comber, and as such the site of most of the film’s anxious projections, is Mother Gothel.  My first real post for this blog, which set Coraline and Avatar side by side back in March, was an underdeveloped attempt to suggest that something was going on with the rapid rise of the 3D computer-animated fantasy and the fixation, in the imaginations of the movies themselves, on alternative maternities that wanted to absorb you whole.  The role was played benevolently in Avatar by Eywa, the divine supplement for a Mother Earth who had been “killed,” and in Coraline, less benevolently, by the otherwise unnamed Other Mother, a 3D computer animator ghostly dollmaker who wanted Coraline to stay with her forever, at the cost of her eyes.  (Stay tuned later this year for Mars Needs Moms, in which aliens kidnap Joan Cusack because they need to “steal her mom-ness.”Tangled gives us a remarkably queer new entry in this tradition, in the form of a Gothel portrayed by the great Donna Murphy as a sort of Rose Thompson Hovick in reverse.  Utterly consumed by narcissism, this Gothel (as distinct from the Grimms’) kidnaps the princess from her crib and raises her as her own, in total  isolation, for the sole purpose of exploiting the magical healing and age-reversing properties that have been transferred from a flower into the infant’s hair.  18 years later, Rapunzel has grown into a thoughtful young woman who’s ready to see the world; Gothel, continually renewing herself through Rapunzel’s hair and voice, has blossomed into a campy, superbly passive-aggressive undermining stage mother whose stage is the cramped chamber at the top of a tower no one else ever visits; she fawns over an innocent stolen “daughter” while sucking her life out through the roots.

Mother Gothel’s narcissism is fascinating in its naked lack of any external motivating object, any audience other than Rapunzel and herself: before her princess leaves the tower and the story really kicks into gear, there’s no indication that she has any interest in relationality with anyone else in the world.  She wants only to hang onto youth, and she wants it only for Rapunzel and for herself.  The pathos of which is hard to ignore, and, at least in the first half of the movie, there isn’t a total absence of imaginative sympathy for Gothel, and so I was surprised and dismayed to see her meet a violent end, and in a familiar Disney manner: she’s wicked for wanting to be beautiful, now her true face is revealed; she sure is ugly, and it sure is a sign of her wickedness! The one character in Tangled who does win the audience’s sympathy after a fully dramatized critical-ethical transformation, a realization that he has been an unquestioning participant in an oppressive normative system and that his behavior can change for the better, is a white horse.  More on that whiteness in a moment.  What I mean to say about the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel is just that, first, as an addition to the “Wait, Are They Really Mother and Daughter?” canon, Tangled arguably ranks right up there with Desert Fury (to say nothing of Sexton, whose “Rapunzel” is an ode to stolen mom-ness that resonates with Tangled in some striking ways); and, second, that I suspect this serves to make Gothel a perversely perfect example of the combover subject, as described by Berlant:

The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially[,] confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

No active relationality.  Compare this with the barely restrained desperation in Gothel’s eyes when she realizes that it’s time for another song and another combover to make her younger … and then her blissful, other-negating relief as, afterward, she stands in front of the mirror with her companion.  “Rapunzel, look in that mirror.  You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady.  Oh look, you’re here too!”  At moments like this I could feel the audience bristling around me in an ecstasy of indignation, and I could feel the same thing in myself: we were upset because Rapunzel wasn’t being given her due, and because we knew that, title aside, this was her movie, and Gothel’s exquisitely captured and all-too-relatable just-so was taking it away from her.

II. Rapunzel

But why is it her movie, exactly?  Why Rapunzel and why now?  Why are we at the Mandy Moore tour?

I hope it’s clear I don’t mean any disparagement to Moore herself, asking that.  She really does act and sing beautifully in Tangled, and I’m glad she keeps getting better roles than Sadie Jones in License to Wed.  Moreover, for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t by any means say that her part in Tangled amounts to faux-girl-power posturing; Rapunzel really does wield her hair like a badass (and not just her hair, but also a frying pan, throughout virtually the whole film—a nice touch, and the source of lots of satisfying kongggs).  She really does get her friend and partner, the thief Flynn Rider (née Eugene Fitzherbert), out of as many scrapes as he gets her out of.  And she’s smart … or, as Bruce Diones of the New Yorker puts it, she’s “given a sharp wit and intelligent concerns: she doesn’t sound like a nattering teen-ager.”  (I’m sorry, but give me a fuck-ing break.  The social war on teen girls and the descent of much of the New Yorker into willfully archaic gendered awfulness continue hand in hand.  One of the things about I liked best about Tangled, actually, was its capacity to give Rapunzel both a sharp wit and a tendency to, you know, “natter,” or whatever, like a teenager who has thoughts that are hard to articulate and wishes that aren’t being met.  Not mutually exclusive, Bruce!  I’m also thinking here of Isabel’s guardedly sympathetic reading of The Little Mermaid at Feministe, one of my favorite blog posts of 2010.)  It could even be argued that Tangled adapts the story of “Rapunzel” specifically in order to give eloquent voice to a certain strain of girlie feminism: maybe you see my hair and think it’s only an imprisonment, but I’m attached to it, and you’re not, and it’s also a weapon, a ladder, an escape, a thick rope to tie up the  stranger who breaks into my house

Yet it’s at just this juncture that I think some points about how a particular kind of corporatized girlie attitude can get tangled up in whiteness most urgently need to be remembered.  Annalee Newitz kicked off the online discussion of Avatar at the end of 2009 by asking when white people would stop making movies like it; you could also ask when white people will stop making movies like Tangled, and the answer is probably that we just did.  Within the last two years, in fact, Disney has triumphantly released its first film with a black princess, and triumphantly said goodbye to its fairy-tale sequence altogether with a crowning 50th animated feature, widely heralded as a return to form, celebrating a young woman who faces all kinds of external pressures managing her hair.  These two gestures were not consolidated.  Which is why I think Renée is spot-on when she says the return to form really has to be understood as a return to color, or rather to the normative “non-color” of whiteness.

Nonhuman creatures become essential here, lateralizing characters’ attributes and defining a space where hair is something between dead and animated.  Among the problematic aspects of The Princess and the Frog itself, as Renée also observes, was that Tiana the black princess not only had hair that was decidedly less than kinky, she spent a good part of her own movie as a frog, and it doesn’t get much more hairless than that.  In contrast, Tangled‘s adorable chameleon, Pascal, is fully an extension of Rapunzel’s hair, the daemon to the golden compass that’s on her head: he’s constantly stepping in to finish what the hair has started, he changes color as swiftly and as completely as we might wish our hair did when we dyed it … and he bears additionally the reptilian trace of an archetypal, murderous, unmanageable female rage-in-hair that is, in this film, predictably, invoked only to be projected elsewhere, onto the one character who can safely be killed off.  As a hair extension, the chameleon is also, like the king and queen (and the whiter-than-white mime who plays a key role), voiceless.  It’s a marked change both from the frogs and fireflies of The Princess and the Frog, and from Sebastian of The Little Mermaid, and that’s arguably the kind of Pascalian wager on which this movie’s aesthetics depend.  “We have nothing to lose by making the companion creature a silent creature this time; maybe in twenty years our movie will look less racist!”

Even without Pascal’s help, though, the blondness of Rapunzel’s hair is so formidable as to be unsettling.  People get mixed up in hair here, but hair qua hair never, ever gets tangled.  We see Rapunzel brushing it more than once but it always looks perfect anyway.  At no point is it anything less than a supernaturally potent substance, somewhere between sturdy rope, honey, and lava, with the ability to untangle any problem that presents itself.  The mournful incantation Rapunzel repeatedly sings to activate the hair’s charms—first to restore Mothel Gothel to youth, but also, crucially, as a blonder-than-blond way of getting herself and Flynn out of a tight spot by lighting the way underwater—turns around the line “Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine“; and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that with these lines Disney unconsciously ventriloquizes the segment of white America that was raised on Snow White and Cinderella, would never see The Princess and the Frog, and wants its country back.  The open secret: the seams, the lacks.  If this sounds like an overreading, I would say it really is remarkable that Tangled should take place in an ambiguously medieval European fairyland that is (of course) anachronistic in every way, except (of course?) not quite enough to include a single character of color.

The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness.  Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel.  At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity!  Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations.  (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on.  Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)  They go on to help Rapunzel and Flynn escape from the tavern, return at the climax to offer their services again, and, at the end, realize their big gay dreams in a kingdom restored to proper royal order.  My first reaction to all this was to appreciate how ostensibly hypermasculine supporting characters had been queered; reflecting more on it later, I realized how queer they’d been from the beginning.  Their menacing costumes were really always just so much S&M gear, and the all-male space of the tavern (which is named The Snuggly Duckling) reminded me of something a friend had once said to me about a Christopher Marlowe play that was “very, very homosocial—no, wait, never mind.  Just gay.”  What we watch, then, over the course of Tangled, is the full recuperation of these white queers into a comic story that resolves itself with the necessary murder of a woman who has darker hair, darker skin, a shawl that sometimes looks something like a veil, and (in her monstrously narcissistic devotion to the girl-who-is-not-her-daughter) the wrong kind of queerness.  The gay ruffians “have some humanity” even before Rapunzel urges it on them, and then they’re happily absorbed into the royal state; the only figure who is finally denied humanity and thrown from the tower of the film’s sympathy is Gothel.  In this sense, Tangled demands to be considered in light of Jasbir Puar’s work on the rise of “properly homo” subjects in Terrorist Assemblages, and it starts to look more and more like the perfect major film release to cap off a year that saw the celebrated repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the resultant guarantee that, as Giovanni Tiso put it on Twitter, “[b]rown people worldwide can now look forward to being butchered by more people who are comfortable with their sexuality.”

 

 

To ask who gets to be counted as fully human, in this context, is to ask for whom the combover works; or, as Berlant says, “[f]or whom is there give in the system of norms?”  These are questions that haunt Tangled in an odd intertextual way at its dramatic climax, when Flynn Rider—separated from Rapunzel, trapped in the royal castle, and about to be executed—sees a miniature unicorn sculpture in the corner of his chamber, and takes it as his cue to realize that his friends from the Snuggly Duckling will rescue him after all, allowing Rapunzel to be saved by a traumatic, liberating haircut and Gothel to age a thousand years in a minute before plummeting to her death.  A tiny unicorn left as a calling card, as a sign that your life will have the fairytale ending you didn’t dare expect: if only for an instant, the voice that seems to echo silently across Tangled‘s landscape is Edward James Olmos’s, asking, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” and reminding us of the difference between the original release of Blade Runner and the director’s cut that excised the fairytale ending, and of all the differences that cuts can make, not least to our sense of whose story is being told, for what reasons, what’s excluded, for whom there’s give.  It’s too bad Gothel won’t survive the Rapunzel story…

These are also related to questions that I’ll try to take up in another post soon, on some of my favorite filmed things from the last year, and in particular a couple of short films that pose questions of their own about “humanity” and even what it might have to do with the humanities.  In the meantime, I’ll wrap this up by suggesting that in many ways, after all, maybe the more satisfying “Rapunzel” update of 2010 is “Whip My Hair”—the work of another young person whose power derives from some obscure alchemical combination of hair and music, who’s trapped in a classroom instead of a tower but who’s keen to transform it, and whose song, instead of looking back toward (or seeking to recreate) a kind of dubious fantasized coherence that’s felt to have been lost, is deliriously happy to go back and forth, in full acceptance and celebration of what is “fugitive and unraveled in ordinary affectivity and self-performance”—incoherence and hair’s part in it, a riot of blurred vision and color everywhere.  Whether it’s long or short.

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