Summer and the movies, by Paul Pescador
1. We’re sitting in traffic. It’s the first day summer. No, thats not true, its the first day that June gloom has burnt off and the heat has set in. We’re sitting in the car stuck in gridlock traffic. It’s Saturday and we’re trying to get to the beach for a birthday in Malibu. We’re dead silent; frustrated and exhausted by the heat and traffic. We sit and listen to Siri read us directions as she sends us on and off freeways. Somewhere between the 101, 105, 405 and the 710 intersection, I remember why I never go to the beach. The traffic is like Godard’s film Weekend (1967): miles and miles of traffic and car accidents. I shout out, “There better be a dead body!”
When I think of summer, I think of Jacques Tati’s film, Mr Hulot’s Holiday (1954). Mr Hulot’s Holiday takes plays in a French beach town during a summer holiday. The protagonist, Monsuier Hulot (played by Tati himself), is a fumbling middle-aged man who wanders around with his trilby and pipe. We rarely hear him speak, as his humor is action-based. Hulot is reminiscent of characters developed by silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton: underdogs and outsiders who constantly get themselves into trouble by pestering others. Most of the film’s characters don’t really develop — they are more types than characters: a sneaky kid who pull pranks, a naive shy heroine, and a grumpy waiter who constantly gets frustrated when anything goes wrong at the hotel. Although they are not fully developed as characters, I find pleasure in watching them. Each scene of the film is a vignette; and Hulot’s Holiday feels simple, like a Sunday comic strip. Two women come out of their bedrooms only to realize they are wearing the same outfit. A distraught member of a funeral ceremony accidentally use a flat tire as a wreath. Hulot’s rowboat breaks apart and is mistaken for a shark by panicked sun bathers. Tati constructs his banal jokes, and then repeats them, again and again: A loud plopping noise issues every time the dining room door swings open. A taffy vendor makes taffy with his hands, and every time the candy turns, he catches it before it drops to the floor. We find pleasure in the suspense of waiting for the vendor to mess up and ruin his taffy.
Mr Hulot’s Holiday is shot in black and white. We see tourists sitting at the beach under their striped umbrellas and towels. Everyone in well cut, high-waisted swim suits with big hats, the soundtrack is soft jazz. It’s now July and it’s hot in my office. I miss the sound of the ocean on a warm sandy beach. I miss my toes lodge into the floor where I feel grounded. I miss the sweet scent in the air of waffle cones from an old fashion ice cream shop down the road. I imagine holding one of those large cones as the cool milky ice cream drips between my fingers. I place my face into the cool cream and slurp it up. As a child, I hated going to the beach. I was a prissy kid who hated getting dirty. While I liked sand castles, I would always get frustrated by my inability to create anything. My high hopes that I could create some massive realistic forms would be dashed; my efforts always resulted in a pile of dirt with sticks jetting out; ugly abstractions, which quickly got washed away by the ocean. When I was in middle school going to the beach was another nightmare, as I felt quite uncomfortable with my long lanky body and round Latino hips. Whenever I would go to the beach, I would wear long sleeve and long pants to keep my skin pale and light. My family would make fun of the fact that I was drenched in sweat. I would ignore them and read my stack of Michael Crichton books.
Growing up in the desert, I rarely visited the ocean. We didn’t own a swimming pool and my brother and I would constantly try to convince my parents to build one; a plan that never succeeded. On super hot days I would go to a friend’s pool. I never was a good swimmer and would kick along the sides. In these pools, I learned about other boy’s bodies, staring at them or gripping onto to them as as we jumped off the diving board. The touching of genitalia underneath the water.
2. I’m in the desert visiting my brother for the weekend, while my mom is gone on vacation. I take him to Islands, a tropical themed burger joint, to the Westfield mall and to the new Palm Desert Art Museum to see Godard’s Contempt (1963). The theater is small, and feels almost like a conference room. The projector is smaller than my television at home, so we sit in the front of the three row theater in order to make sure we can read the subtitles. Most of the other viewers are retirees who speak about seeing the film when it first came out. A group of young hipsters from the local community college come in sit down and watch for ten minutes, then get bored and leave. This worries me about my brother, who normally can’t sit through movies. I’m worried about him making through this one as it’s slow. I don’t have the same level of patience as my mother does with him, and I warn him if he wants to walk out he can wait in the car.
The film begins with the image of Brigitte Bardot’s bare butt facing the camera for five minutes without the camera cutting away. In film school, I was told that Godard’s production company told him his original film cut did not have enough nudity and so this opening shot was added to appease them, while also saying “Fuck you.” The film feels angry, about the emotional and physical messes that the character loathe but can’t let go of. Conflicts circle and begin again. “I love you! I hate you! I’m sorry!” Characters seem to wander around the same room, undressing and then redressing, putting on wigs and changing again, performing a variety of situations that never resolve. Dishes are broken and then left on the kitchen floor. A gun is pulled from a bookshelf but is never acknowledged or used. Montages from moments we have just seen minutes before play, a deja vu. Time collapses onto itself through repetition and memory.
Similar to Tati, Godard heightens the banal. We hear the same soundtrack pass in and out of a scene, heightening emotional intensities of minor moments that without the music would have no weight. We are asked to hone in on the quotidian — these are the moments breaking apart their relationship. Either way he feels fucked. Women are objects for animosity in Godard’s films, they are misunderstood and need to be destroyed and controlled. They are slapped. They are thrown under cars. They are used as tools for revenge.
I imagine myself as Bardot wrapped around a towel wearing and a short black wig. I ignore him, because right now we don’t understand one another. I’m on the phone with my mother and he’s on the phone with the film producer. He wants me to make the decision whether to take the job, because he doesn’t want to make the decision himself. He doesn’t want to be responsible for the breakup.
3. I am sitting in a pool in Santa Clarita, its the day after the Fourth of July. I am on a ranch which is surrounding by goats, llamas and gay men. Even though I’m no longer drinking, I have a margarita in hand. Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1987) is playing and the pool is full of men. Though its dark, across in the jacuzzi I see bodies rotate, twist and turn. Loud groaning can be heard over the sound of the Carpenters. I’m in the mood for corn on the cob and get out of the pool to find some. I call to the friends I came with, but their bodies are wrapped between everyone else in the hot tub. I grab plateful of food and gorge in front of the projector. At first, Superstar feels super campy and overwrought. The director uses stock footage of the holocaust to stand in for Karen’s emotions and anorexia. As the film progresses, I adjust to the film’s styling as I begin to sympathize with Karen’s mental illness, played out with Barbie dolls. The figure of the hand is a central form. It’s a vehicle for implied action: to sign a deal, to pick up a phone, and to force vomiting. Bulimia is never shown, but we watch Karen struggle to eat anything besides salad, ice tea and Ex-Lax. Actual bodies are masked through child’s play, creating a veil through which we can speak of actual problems.
As the film progresses, it expands beyond the struggling singer and presses upon the political climate of the 60s and 70s. The Carpenters perform for president Nixon, months before Watergate. The film makes the claim that the Carpenters was a social bandaid, diverting attention from Vietnam, instead focusing on happier times. As someone who was born after Karen’s death, I never thought about the Carpenters as ideal, for me the music was more complex and rooted in the hope for a nostalgic past, which can never be obtained. No one could sing about happiness so sadly.
“Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby?”
The film is so much about an internal ugliness and the restriction of the body through control. Karen controls her eating. Karen is controlled by her parents, who let her move out of their home. Karen is hassled by her brother who blames her illness on problems with their band. Guilt. Oppression. Isolation.
Watching Superstar, I think about Sadie Benning’s early video works, specifically the video, It Wasn’t Love (1992) which Benning shot with a pixelvision camera at the age 15. The video is also created with Barbie dolls played against the sweet sounds of 50s pop music and focuses on “bad girls” coming to Hollywood. The dolls take turns “play” posing for the camera as they enact the rebel, the gangster, the ’50s crooner, and the heavy-lidded vamp. She tells stories of teenage heartbreak and queerness, while shooting the video in her bedroom in inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her private refuge from homophobia.
The drive from Santa Clarita is long, the window is half open and cool air seeps through. Radiohead plays from the front seat. I sit in the backseat, body passed out on top of each other drunk and worn out from sex. I’m eating a bag of gummy worms and sipping someone’s water, rubbing his head as he sleeps on my lap. I look up as the news comes on the radio; a man has been attacked by a shark off the coast of Manhattan Beach. The victim tells the news reporter,“I felt the shark biting into me and I thought, “This is it.” The victim was swimming with a dozen friends when the shark got ahold of him. Apparently the irritated shark had been caught onto a fishing line and had been thrashing around for over 40 minutes when it bit the swimmer. The man punched the 7-foot young Great White shark’s nose and swam away.