GLITTERING SCRIVENER

MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY'S MANUSCRIPTS, ILLUMINATED

A SHORT LIST OF MOVIES YOU WILL NEVER SEE

I wrote this essay a few days ago and posted it to my wordpress blog, but it occurred to me that i should post it here too - women, film, and the ways that storytelling can create inequality in the real world. 

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GRAY LINES

Cate Blanchett is a double-dealing politician who is secretly running a drug ring through the maritime trade of her homestate, Louisiana. Lupita Nyong’o is the crack investigative reporter who busts her, setting off a scandal throughout Washington and uncovering layer upon layer of corruption, up to the highest levels.  Federal policy on no-bid contracts is rocked, as are American notions of truth, justice, and blondes.  Best Picture Oscar, and shared wins for both Blanchett & Nyong’o in the Best Actor category. (Yes: Best Actor.) 

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong'o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong’o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

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Recently, I got into a rip-roaring feminist mood, which is not unusual. I am, after all, a woman, and a writer, and I spend a lot of my time looking at heinously genderskewed media, whether it’s film, theater, TV, or books. Most typically, particularly in the Award-Winning Categories, the ones that designate things Serious Stories For The Ages, there are piles of narratives about men changing the world. Check them. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers. We’re utterly used to seeing awards ceremonies during which, for example, ten (usually white, naturally) men stand up, and thank an audience for giving awards to their great art, art which almost always features a bunch of male movers and shakers. We’re used to seeing movies and plays about serious topics which have almost entirely male casts. We don’t even blink. Why would we? These are the kinds of stories that mean something. The equivalent movies (or media) with all female casts would almost certainly be marketed as chick flicks, be vigorously less serious, and would contain discussions of weddings and menopause. (How often, in a serious male-cast film have we heard a character say to another guy “I’m really having trouble with my prostate, man. It’s why I can’t focus on shooting that villain.” Things like this, regarding hot flashes, morning sickness and cramps come out of female character’s mouths all the time.)

This is how we’ve been taught to see the world.

These Award Winning films, plays, TV series, etc, are set in the science world, the financial world, the social justice world, the crime world. Sometimes they’re set in the near future, or in critical moments in the past. There are usually a couple of female characters in each of them. They’re always beautiful and young, and also they’re usually secretaries, interns, or cheated-on wives. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might be dead daughters, which means they’ve got a narrative arc with which to push their grieving fathers into the action that ultimately…changes the world.

Their only means for changing the world are getting injured or killed (to drive male characters toward revelation and revenge), getting married (to achieve “Important Because of the People In This Conversation” status), or getting the right piece of paper just in time to the guy who is ACTUALLY going to change the world, but who probably also has time to take a long look at her ass as she walks out the door, having delivered the missile codes.

This isn’t unusual to see, of course: this is Hollywood, and it is also mass media popular storytelling, which is why I regularly hit critical mass on it. These are the stories young girls are consuming. These are the stories that tell women what they can be. These stories, folks, are fucked up. They break us. Stories are how we learn to live.

Stories which calculatedly and carefully do not include active women tell us that women are not useful parts of society.

Do storytellers not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? 

Do audiences not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? That women change the world? That women are, indeed, as interesting as men are? Why are all the women offstage in the important stories?

Those last are rhetorical questions. The charitable interpretation is that we don’t realize, and that oops, we just need to have it pointed out. (It’s been pointed out. A lot.) The less charitable interpretation is that the system has been fucked for centuries, and that narratives featuring women as impactful characters have always been in short supply.

Oh, are you about to remind me about, say, Lady Macbeth? Okay. Point taken. Lady Macbeth is a complicated female character in a sea of male characters (who are busy changing the world), yes. She’s also a villainess who controls men with her vagina and ambition. She’s powerful. But she’s the dark side of Opinionated Broad. In tons of the kind of story-telling I’m talking about – mass market, mainstream, award winning, there’s a Lady M character, for whom no one really deserves a cookie. Lady M is easy to achieve. I’m going to remind you now that Lady M, opinionated broad that she is, also loses her mind and commits suicide offstage for her sins, late in Act 5.

Impactful female characters should not just be villains and secretaries, and  - category unto themselves - Beautiful Girls. They should also be complicated heroines, changers of policy, battlers against civil wars. But we’re used to putting one woman for every ten men into a story and feeling that we’ve done enough to show that there are women in the world, and that we know it.

Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world. Badly. I suspect many story-creators do not in fact realize this. Because they think of the world in terms of men changing it.

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WOAD

First century AD, and the world is in turmoil. The Roman Empire seeks to violently colonize the domain of Boadicea (Angelina Jolie), Queen of the Iceni tribe, in Wales. The warrior queen, painted with blue battlepaint, leads a revolt against colonialism, leading 100,000 troops against Rome, and defying the Emperor Nero. She nearly prevails, though in the end she dies heroically on the battlefield defending her country, and raising her fist in the air. She doesn’t have a husband. She leads male troops. In the end, her troops mourn her, and burn her body. The final shot is smoke. 

Angelina_Jolie_2

Angelina Jolie, Date & Photographer unknown, but looking like she could tear Rome with her teeth nonetheless. We’ll just pretend those lips are indigo blue.

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Films about Boadicea have been in development for years, and regularly seem to collapse. They’re expensive. Conventional wisdom – based on the prevailing myth about what important stories consist of – tells us that audiences will not come to a giant historical action epic focusing on a female hero. Why not? Would you go to see the movie I just described? I would. At this point in human history, we should have Oscar Contender movies about people like Ada Lovelace, Boadicea and many, many others. We need them. The last time there was a major Hollywood movie about Marie Curie, it was 1943. 1943!!!!! Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), often described as the world’s first computer programmer, has never been the subject of a major Hollywood film, though I’m quite sure people have tried. There’s never been a biopic about Josephine Baker, though it’s been mooted and collapsed repeatedly, with stars ranging from Diana Ross to Rihanna. The civil rights leader Diane Nash has never been the subject of a biopic, and indeed, is often edited from the action in larger depictions, despite her radical bravery, ferocious commitment to social change, and clear influence on the action. There are countless other examples of things that should exist…and don’t. Yet the male equivalents do.

Let me be clear here: What. The. Fuck?

Not only does this not make good sense in a There Are Amazing Women in the World context, it does not make sense in a storytelling context.

Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.

High stakes = better stories, right?

A female character going up against a world of men to fight for justice is more likely to have her life threatened than a male character is. Female characters often are put into stories to disappear. In the real world, women who fight for justice (or walk down the street), in any medium, are likely to be casually threatened with rape and murder. I am. Pretty much daily. Centuries of stories have taught men that it is okay to treat a female character like a walk on, that it is okay to reduce her lines to zero, to reduce her power to pretty, and to reduce her impact to whether or not she is hot enough to walk down the street in front of them. The same is radically not true for most men.

Thus: female characters fighting for justice, doing impactful things? Are actually working harder than than their male equivalents, because the deck is stacked hard against them. Why would we not wish to increase the stakes in our stories by featuring female characters risking EVERYTHING, as opposed to male characters risking their careers, or reputations?  Men typically get threatened with humiliation and loss of material possessions. Women get threatened with violence and loss of life.

The women who have changed the world have done it against significant, intense, life-threatening odds.

If that’s not Great Story, I don’t know what is.

***

I was having a conversation yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who teaches theater to teenagers. She’d been in a classroom watching group-created performances, seeing them for the first time, and was startled to discover that the teenage girls in the classes had cast themselves in improv roles in which they were nearly all dead or dying, women suffering injuries, raped, murdered, hit by cars, and otherwise destroyed. The only women who spoke tended to talk about men. The other role the teenagers had given themselves was the role of Hot Walk On.

This was, needless to say, not the case with the boys in the class, who all had lines and actions. But everyone had tacitly agreed that the women in the room were more important for their bodies than their brains, and for their capacity to motivate male characters into action, specifically by being sacrificed.

Why? Because these are the kinds of stories we recognize as a society. Because these are our current big stories. Because this is the fucked world we’re living in.

My friend taught her students about the Bechdel Test, and then talked about why female characters should be doing things other than dying. She gave them, it sounds like, the serious gift of revelation: you have a voice. You are impactful. You can play a character who is a whole person, not just a tool to help male characters achieve their goals.

You can change the world. 

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FALL PHENOMENA

A team of the world’s best scientists (Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek) are recruited to intervene when a meteorite is headed toward Earth. They must find a way to minimize impact – and their skills are put to the test when they discover that the meteorite is not celestial, but engineered material, and that someone on Earth has actually rigged the fall as an act of war. (Note: This is not a world in which all the men are dead. This is simply a world in which the most qualified scientists in this room happen to be women.) Their intern (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally distracts them with sex appeal, but is largely mute, though in a key moment, he does provide a single, startling line of insight.

credit: Mike McGregor / Contour by Getty Imageswashingtonkerry__130718174844michelle-yeohxn6nh9rx5ljvjlr

 There is no random shot of all these women together, so this is the lineup. Imagine them saving the world. 

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All these movie scenarios I’m describing are essentially gender-reversed plots of films we’ve felt totally comfortable watching. We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.

Really.

Yet the movie versions of us – the mainstream Award Winning versions of us – are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.

This is pretty crazy.

This is pretty sad.

This leads to female characters whose main event is offstage suicide. This leads to girls who do not realize that their main event can be anything they want, that it does not have to be pretty, nor does it have to be sexy. That it can, in fact, be about nothing but brain.

And…

Lest you think I am trying to create a non-entertaining universe of media, something that is all about politics and nothing to do with fun, I present you in conclusion with the following scenario, which will be familiar to you from years of movies we’ve accepted unblinkingly as popcorn and soda classics, as fun bubblegum, as the stories we want to see when we want our brains to be empty and then filled again with a bunch of pretty things.

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THE ROLLOVER

Sleek, impeccable and brutally charming, international con-artist Miranda Plaza (Tilda Swinton) violates parole to organize the perfect heist. Together with former partner Rene Lamar (Penelope Cruz) the duo employs 8 of their former heistwoman colleagues to pull off a gigantic multi-national bank robbery. The heistwomen are contortionists, lock picks, munitions experts. None of them use sex appeal to achieve their goals, but they’re smart and skilled, and the dialogue is rapid-fire, stylish, and fun as hell. Plaza’s ex-husband (an unknown) plays a minor role, the only male role in the film. But damn, he’s fine. 

So fine that this film – much as Thelma & Louise made Brad Pitt’s career – makes him famous.

See? I’m fair.

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012 – Do these two women not look like they’d pull off any heists they wanted to?

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Here’s a storified link to the series of Tweets that inspired this essay:#FeministBecause

YES, BUT


Even if it were true
Even if I were dead and buried in Verona
I believe I would come out and wash my face
In the chill spring.
I believe I would appear
Between noon and four, when nearly
Everybody else is asleep or making love,
And all the Germans turned down, the motorcycles
Muffled, chained, still.

Then the plump lizards along the Adige by San Giorgio
Come out and gaze,
Unpestered by temptation, across the water.
I would sit among them and join them in leaving
The golden mosquitos alone.
Why should we sit by the Adige and destroy
Anything, even our enemies, even the prey
God caused to glitter for us
Defenseless in the sun?
We are not exhausted. We are not angry, or lonely,
Or sick at heart.
We are in love lightly, lightly. We know we are shining,
Though we cannot see one another.
The wind doesn’t scatter us,
Because our very lungs have fallen and drifted
Away like leaves down the Adige,
Long ago.
We breathe light.

—James Wright, 1979

UNTITLED

Death is not an end to this,
This siren song, this midnight kiss
And all our pain to trade for bliss
Though endless strings of things to miss
A skein of yarn, the rain, the barn,
The kettle’s hiss.

Take me with you when you go
Your melting hands, your falling snow
And all these days, these joys, this woe
Train past beside us, rolling slow.
Your gaze still blue, your face, this view
What things to know.

Kill me, spill me, claim my soul
Its rising smoke, its burning coal
For all the years that we were whole
I’m willing now to pay the toll
At nearing dark, the searing stars
The central role.

Dying is no bitter end
The drive around a winding bend
And all the heights we’ve hoarded, lend
To those whose hearts need mending
The lights of earth, wild nights, bright birth
Sweetly sung surrender.

Dying is no death at all
These cooing doves, this ringing hall
And all our words, the soothe, the scrawl,
The deeper mercy of the fall
The herds still roam, a bird flies home
To heed her lover’s call.

— Maria Dahvana Headley
Written at Macdowell, 2006

BURROWERS - Alannah Currie. Fox Chair. 2008. 

So, formerly 1/2 of the Thompson Twins, at some point Alannah Currie took a huge detour, went to upholstery school, and began to make very weird and wonderful chairs. Which are also nests, burrows, curiosities in the Victorian mold, but hybrids. 
All the animals are roadkill, so memento mori. 
The chairs are roadkill too - begin-agains that Currie has deconstructed and then reconstructed, some stuffed with stories, some with hair.
Needless to say, I love them. 
A great interview with Allanah Currie regarding upholstery, death, and shifting lives: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/apr/26/homes
See also: Nicola L’s anthropomorphic furniture; Cloud furnishings; Moth bulbs; Rats Reaching for the Moon; Roadside Attractions. (and almost everything else on this Tumblr, too. There is common ground in my beloved things category.)

BURROWERS - Alannah Currie. Fox Chair. 2008. 

image

So, formerly 1/2 of the Thompson Twins, at some point Alannah Currie took a huge detour, went to upholstery school, and began to make very weird and wonderful chairs. Which are also nests, burrows, curiosities in the Victorian mold, but hybrids. 

All the animals are roadkill, so memento mori. 

The chairs are roadkill too - begin-agains that Currie has deconstructed and then reconstructed, some stuffed with stories, some with hair.

Needless to say, I love them. 

A great interview with Allanah Currie regarding upholstery, death, and shifting lives: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/apr/26/homes

See also: Nicola L’s anthropomorphic furniture; Cloud furnishings; Moth bulbs; Rats Reaching for the Moon; Roadside Attractions. (and almost everything else on this Tumblr, too. There is common ground in my beloved things category.)

The fantastic is no longer a property of the heart, nor is it found among the incongruities of nature; it evolves from the accuracy of the knowledge, and its treasures lie dormant in documents. Dreams are no longer summoned with closed eyes, but in reading; and a true image is now a product of learning: it derives from words spoken in the past, exact recensions, the amassing of minute facts, monuments reduced to infinitesimal fragments, and the reproductions of reproductions. In the modern experience, these elements contain the power of the impossible. Only the assiduous clamor created by repetition can transmit to us what only happened once. The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is a phenomenon of the library.

THE TEMPTATIONS OF SAINT LIBRARY - Michael Foucault, writing about Flaubert’s doomed novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony. 

The Temptation, as it turns out, was Flaubert in full geek mode: essentially a bestiary, a compendium of creatures meticulously taxonimized and sourced out of documents, paintings, and poems. He considered it a work of the imagination, but it is, apparently, a catalogue of the creations of other creatives. 

Which? Wow. I love this notion: Gustave Flaubert in a fervor, making lists of monsters, unable to control himself and just, totally, losing his way. This has happened, after all, to every writer, at one point or another. Lists! If one lists the contents of a universe, does that count as world-building? Surely, if one diagrams everything a world contains, there must be a story there, right? 

Alas, no. Oh, shit, the story became a sidebar to the monsters. 

I’ve not read The Temptation, but apparently it’s quite bad - over several days in 1849 Flaubert read it aloud to a group of friends, who frantically urged him to throw it in the fire. He’d been working on it feverishly for 4 years. Flaubert subsequently wrote Madame Bovary. However, he kept coming back to The Temptation (it was, after all, a Temptation), and finally, in 1874, he published it. 

I’m sympathetic and charmed by the notion of Flaubert worriedly cataloguing creatures as though he was an ecologist, trapping things between pages before they got away. The same impulse haunts me, every time I search vainly for something arcane that isn’t digitized, (as I am a hopeful hunter, I regularly assume everything I’m seeking has been added to the internet, SOMEWHERE, but no. Wrong.) or think frantic thoughts about the notion of technological obscurity, the demise of discs for clouds, the nervous child in me longing for the physical comforts of a library. 

Ultimately, Flaubert’s Temptation was translated into English by Lafcadio Hearn as well as being the basis shortly after its publication, for a series of magnificent lithographs by Odilon Redon. Not too shabby. The Redon illustrations are exquisite.

As for the book itself, I’m with Foucault here, in my tenderness for the tempted:

 ”Henceforth, the visionary experience arises from the black and white surface of printed signs, from the closed and dusty volume that opens with a flight of forgotten words; fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library with its columns of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight enclosure, but within confines that also liberate impossible worlds.” - Foucault. 

More reading: Colin Dickey's terrific article about same, The Redemption of Saint Anthony

Eyeball - Maria Dahvana Headley, 2013

It doesn’t take much to make a monster.

Eyeball - Maria Dahvana Headley, 2013

It doesn’t take much to make a monster.

TOTALLY SECRETIVE MAN-LIFTING WAR KITE - Samuel Franklin Cody, 1901
So, the notion of sky-spying isn’t a new one. There’ve been a variety of intriguing inventions specifically purported to quietly convey a passenger into a dangerous viewing zone. In this case, these kites were invented to bring a man within spying distance of various wicked things, including artillery.
Or, failing that, cause him to crash spectacularly into said wicked things, depending on the wind.
The Man-Lifting War Kite was created by Samuel Franklin Cody (not his real name - he changed it from Cowdery, because he was a fan of Wild Bill Cody) a one-time Wild-West show performer within Forepaugh’s Circus.

It was first patented in 1901, and offered to the British War Office for spotting services in the Second Boer War. He also developed a motorized kite, which he wanted to turn into an airplane, and was on the testing team of British Army Dirigible No. 1, the Nulli Secundus (England’s first powered airship.) Ultimately, Cody flew the first official flight of a piloted “heavier than air” machine in Britain. 
Here’s a terrific article about Cody. 
Here’s a photo of Cody’s common law wife, Lela Cody, the first woman in Great Britain to fly, in 1902 (or so?). I mean, look at this lovely shot, and the following, showing her skirt tied to preserve modesty…

See here for more on Cody’s kites - and some wonderful museum photos of one of them. 

Even more bizarre than these - and kind of lovely, too -  is the below, Samuel F. Perkins riff on the same theme.  In the top right corner, there is a “lead kite” which was flown first to test wind conditions. Then additional kites were raised one at a time, until there were enough kites aloft to lift a man with them. The pilot was reeled in and out via a winch on the ground. 

TOTALLY SECRETIVE MAN-LIFTING WAR KITE - Samuel Franklin Cody, 1901

So, the notion of sky-spying isn’t a new one. There’ve been a variety of intriguing inventions specifically purported to quietly convey a passenger into a dangerous viewing zone. In this case, these kites were invented to bring a man within spying distance of various wicked things, including artillery.

Or, failing that, cause him to crash spectacularly into said wicked things, depending on the wind.

The Man-Lifting War Kite was created by Samuel Franklin Cody (not his real name - he changed it from Cowdery, because he was a fan of Wild Bill Cody) a one-time Wild-West show performer within Forepaugh’s Circus.

It was first patented in 1901, and offered to the British War Office for spotting services in the Second Boer War. He also developed a motorized kite, which he wanted to turn into an airplane, and was on the testing team of British Army Dirigible No. 1, the Nulli Secundus (England’s first powered airship.) Ultimately, Cody flew the first official flight of a piloted “heavier than air” machine in Britain. 

Here’s a terrific article about Cody

Here’s a photo of Cody’s common law wife, Lela Cody, the first woman in Great Britain to fly, in 1902 (or so?). I mean, look at this lovely shot, and the following, showing her skirt tied to preserve modesty…

See here for more on Cody’s kites - and some wonderful museum photos of one of them. 

Even more bizarre than these - and kind of lovely, too -  is the below, Samuel F. Perkins riff on the same theme.  In the top right corner, there is a “lead kite” which was flown first to test wind conditions. Then additional kites were raised one at a time, until there were enough kites aloft to lift a man with them. The pilot was reeled in and out via a winch on the ground. 

- Edward Steichen. MELPOMENE - Landon Rives. 1904-05. Gum bichromate over platinum print
This photo of amateur photographer/painter/sometimes socialite, Sarah Landon Rives (born 1874, which makes her around 30 in the above and below portraits) of Virginia has always haunted me. It’s Melpomene, originally the Muse of Singing, who evolved into the Muse of Tragedy. I went hunting to see if I could find out anything of interest, and I did, a bit.
She was photographed in startlingly modern fashion by both Steichen and Coburn (below)  - and her image, which I assume to be something she chose, given the fact that she hired Coburn to set up a darkroom at her home, was completely contradictory to the typical Gibson girl look. In  both these portraits, she looks directly and unromantically at the camera. These were taken the year after her father, Alfred Landon Rives (a Confederate engineer) died. She seems never to have married.
She and her sister were the last of the Rives family to inhabit Castle Hill, their Virginia plantation.  Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy (a novelist, poet and playwright who wrote 24 books, Broadway plays, an erotic novel called The Quick and the Dead? which was about the hot passions of a new widow) had an extremely colorful life of her own, which included her second husband, the penniless and possibly not really a prince Prince Troubetzkoy being introduced to her by Oscar Wilde  - um, goddamn. I knew nothing about her til this research wander, but she’s pretty unapologetically wild herself.  See: The Temptress of Castle Hill and here, Francine Prose reviewing a book about Amelie and Archie Chandler, Amelie’s first husband and a scion of the Astor family, because why not. Amelie was married several times, and did really kind of whatever she wanted to do. 
Then look at this photo of her younger sister, because. Well. 
, 
-Alvin Langdon Coburn, Study: Miss R. 1904. Gum bichromate over platinum print









"The portrait’s subject, Sarah "Landon" Rives, presented a singular challenge to Coburn, whom she hired to set up a darkroom on the grounds of her historic plantation home of Castle Hill, in Virginia. Her gaunt face, tousled hair, and uncompromising stare emerge from the dark ochres of the pigmented print, intent on countering the vestigial ideal of passive femininity so common in the concoctions of Pictorialist photographers of the day."
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1933.)












A more typical portrait of Landon Rives:




And another:

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Landon Rives.
And see this: a self-portrait of Amelie Rives. Because, damn. Kind of irresistible, but absolutely the opposite sort of siren. She apparently made copies of this and gave them out. 

- Edward Steichen. MELPOMENE - Landon Rives. 1904-05. Gum bichromate over platinum print

This photo of amateur photographer/painter/sometimes socialite, Sarah Landon Rives (born 1874, which makes her around 30 in the above and below portraits) of Virginia has always haunted me. It’s Melpomene, originally the Muse of Singing, who evolved into the Muse of Tragedy. I went hunting to see if I could find out anything of interest, and I did, a bit.

She was photographed in startlingly modern fashion by both Steichen and Coburn (below)  - and her image, which I assume to be something she chose, given the fact that she hired Coburn to set up a darkroom at her home, was completely contradictory to the typical Gibson girl look. In  both these portraits, she looks directly and unromantically at the camera. These were taken the year after her father, Alfred Landon Rives (a Confederate engineer) died. She seems never to have married.

She and her sister were the last of the Rives family to inhabit Castle Hill, their Virginia plantation.  Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy (a novelist, poet and playwright who wrote 24 books, Broadway plays, an erotic novel called The Quick and the Dead? which was about the hot passions of a new widow) had an extremely colorful life of her own, which included her second husband, the penniless and possibly not really a prince Prince Troubetzkoy being introduced to her by Oscar Wilde  - um, goddamn. I knew nothing about her til this research wander, but she’s pretty unapologetically wild herself.  See: The Temptress of Castle Hill and here, Francine Prose reviewing a book about Amelie and Archie Chandler, Amelie’s first husband and a scion of the Astor family, because why not. Amelie was married several times, and did really kind of whatever she wanted to do. 

Then look at this photo of her younger sister, because. Well. 

image

-Alvin Langdon Coburn, Study: Miss R. 1904. Gum bichromate over platinum print

"The portrait’s subject, Sarah "Landon" Rives, presented a singular challenge to Coburn, whom she hired to set up a darkroom on the grounds of her historic plantation home of Castle Hill, in Virginia. Her gaunt face, tousled hair, and uncompromising stare emerge from the dark ochres of the pigmented print, intent on countering the vestigial ideal of passive femininity so common in the concoctions of Pictorialist photographers of the day."

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1933.)

A more typical portrait of Landon Rives:

image

And another:

image

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Landon Rives.

And see this: a self-portrait of Amelie Rives. Because, damn. Kind of irresistible, but absolutely the opposite sort of siren. She apparently made copies of this and gave them out. 

image

THE MOVEMENTS OF THE SPHERES - Paul Nougé, La Jongleuse, 1929
The poet and philosopher, Paul Nougé (1895-1967) was an influential (though now fairly obscure) member of the Belgian Surrealist school, and a cohort of René Magritte. He was a founding member of the Belgian Communist party in 1921.  Also a photographer, his images are pretty great. If inclined, you might wish to listen to this song, A New Way of Juggling, by Portland band Print (the) Seas, inspired by the image above.

- Paul Nougé, Woman Frightened By A Ball of String, 1929-30
My research - admittedly annoying flawed, oh, internet, you have such gaps when it comes to the women of Surrealism - tells me that the woman in the photos above is Paul’s wife, Martha Nougé (or at least, this is how she’s credited in other group photos of the Belgian Surrealists) who otherwise has little in the way of visible biography. However…
Here is a poem by Paul about Martha, translated (by William Kulik) and published long after both of their deaths, in 2006.
It’s got echoes of Joyce’s Nora letters, I warn you, if you’re easily offended by graphic - and it also has some insight into the way a man such as Nouge might look at his wife (as well as other women - woefully). And the way she might look at him. There’s something desperately intimate, and blind as well, in this narrative. 


Outline of a Hymn to Martha Beauvoisin
This blank page scares me
because I've got to fill it with so many signs
because I haven't lost a single drop of the life
I've shared with you

The drops of your life
or if you like or even if you don't
those delicate everlasting periods

So I'll get right down to the sunlight of our days

When did I see you for that famous
FIRST TIME?
I don't picture you the whole you any more
only your lower lip trembling
your incredibly white forehead
the yellow Poiret coat
and the odor of Jiky that male scent
That lesbian perfume

I remember you saying
(how I love the rich resonance of your voice)
you wanted to know if you could
sit on the mantel
I watched your hands that barely moved
your lovely tapering finger
and your nails

Now I have to tell
about the celebrated skin-tight
white dress
your breasts sticking out
and what you knew that I didn't
about your period
Then you smoked a cigarette
and started to cry
speaking of S ...
that you wanted to continue
to make love to him
then we were at it again

Martha don't forget the rue de la Tulipe
and the little street that opens onto the Galeries Saint-Hubert
where we came so many times
And remember while I had you
my finger was inside you
and yours in me
--your nails glittered--
while you beat me with your heel
between my cheeks

Don't forget Odilon-Jean Pierre
who surprised us
by candlelight

And rue
De Tabora

The banister and the staircase
were so beautiful

Where you aborted
by coincidence
on Bastille Day

I remember Achille Burgoignie
ogling your honeypot
I remember we started making love again
much too soon
I remember your lovely shadow
moving along the wall
your belly in pain
my father at the door bringing
I'm not sure what concoction
the picture of your brother I didn't even know yet
your family portraits
and the mother you had to be tactful with

You recall my jealousy you unquestionably suffered from
more than I did
true I made you wear a bra because
I wanted to hide your breasts from everyone
which I can't recall without getting a lump
in my throat
or rue St-Jean entered by a huge slanting sun
around six in the evening
opposite the shop window of Monsieur Brin Gaubast
where you saw yourself
and told me at long last that you wore
a little too much makeup

Funny how I show no respect for sequence
pressed by so many images

Where was I?
And who will I prey on now?

On you
Martha
for certain

For, as many have said,
life's a funny thing

I'm skipping years now
I'm on rue Franklin
thinking of that filmed procession
of that New Year's Eve
when we made love
beside the radio
which gave us the news
of the horrible war in Spain
--I still have the mark of your teeth
on my penis--
and I instantly
recall the first time
I had you from behind
You were kneeling on the edge of the bed
and in my mind's eye I still have the image of your back
more lovely than a grand sunset
and the look on your face when you turned
to see us one more time
in the mirror

(We don't need to fear repetition
we never tire of that phrase
"make love"
repeated over and over in the mind
like the magic tom-tom
of impenetrable forests
like Ravel's Bolero)

The night is over
it's starting to get cold
think of the ballet you danced with your fingertips
on the bare wooden table
of the opening bars
of the Toselli serenade

(And why be afraid of
the intimate reference
to personal despair
the knowing winks
too bad for those
who will not understand)

Now I understand
--and through what mental twists and turns--
the suffering I put you through
I had you blindfolded
cheated on you from the start
You were called Paulette
There was Jeanne Crickboom
and Billy with her shiny nose
There was that girl Breuer
loved so much that wound up--
through what mystery of the telephone?--
being connected with me
There was weeping Claude
always in someone's arms
There was Jenny Poteau
with her saggy tits
and her wide-open ass
There was Jeanne Abel who we share memories of
that may still be circulating on rue Markelbach

There are so many things
plus the horde
of little maids and old ones

(The exegete who later dives
into this poem
will not find swimming easy)

There's also the cafe on avenue Cortenberg
where you gave me Duchamp's address
on rue Campagne-Premiere where you told me
you made love to him
"just one time"

And Yvonne George who I loved so much
who taught you to piss in a toilet
the two of you watching the whore across the street turn a trick
Yvonne who went down on you
--I went down on her too--
poor little fool
a great life wasted
- Paul Nouge, 1953




- Rene Magritte, Portrait of Paul Nouge, 1927
See also, UNDERKNOWN WOMEN OF SURREALISM: Claude Cahun, Adrienne Fidelin

THE MOVEMENTS OF THE SPHERES - Paul Nougé, La Jongleuse, 1929

The poet and philosopher, Paul Nougé (1895-1967) was an influential (though now fairly obscure) member of the Belgian Surrealist school, and a cohort of René Magritte. He was a founding member of the Belgian Communist party in 1921.  Also a photographer, his images are pretty great. If inclined, you might wish to listen to this song, A New Way of Juggling, by Portland band Print (the) Seas, inspired by the image above.

image

- Paul Nougé, Woman Frightened By A Ball of String, 1929-30

My research - admittedly annoying flawed, oh, internet, you have such gaps when it comes to the women of Surrealism - tells me that the woman in the photos above is Paul’s wife, Martha Nougé (or at least, this is how she’s credited in other group photos of the Belgian Surrealists) who otherwise has little in the way of visible biography. However…

Here is a poem by Paul about Martha, translated (by William Kulik) and published long after both of their deaths, in 2006.

It’s got echoes of Joyce’s Nora letters, I warn you, if you’re easily offended by graphic - and it also has some insight into the way a man such as Nouge might look at his wife (as well as other women - woefully). And the way she might look at him. There’s something desperately intimate, and blind as well, in this narrative. 

Outline of a Hymn to Martha Beauvoisin
This blank page scares me
because I've got to fill it with so many signs
because I haven't lost a single drop of the life
I've shared with you

The drops of your life
or if you like or even if you don't
those delicate everlasting periods

So I'll get right down to the sunlight of our days

When did I see you for that famous
FIRST TIME?
I don't picture you the whole you any more
only your lower lip trembling
your incredibly white forehead
the yellow Poiret coat
and the odor of Jiky that male scent
That lesbian perfume

I remember you saying
(how I love the rich resonance of your voice)
you wanted to know if you could
sit on the mantel
I watched your hands that barely moved
your lovely tapering finger
and your nails

Now I have to tell
about the celebrated skin-tight
white dress
your breasts sticking out
and what you knew that I didn't
about your period
Then you smoked a cigarette
and started to cry
speaking of S ...
that you wanted to continue
to make love to him
then we were at it again

Martha don't forget the rue de la Tulipe
and the little street that opens onto the Galeries Saint-Hubert
where we came so many times
And remember while I had you
my finger was inside you
and yours in me
--your nails glittered--
while you beat me with your heel
between my cheeks

Don't forget Odilon-Jean Pierre
who surprised us
by candlelight

And rue
De Tabora

The banister and the staircase
were so beautiful

Where you aborted
by coincidence
on Bastille Day

I remember Achille Burgoignie
ogling your honeypot
I remember we started making love again
much too soon
I remember your lovely shadow
moving along the wall
your belly in pain
my father at the door bringing
I'm not sure what concoction
the picture of your brother I didn't even know yet
your family portraits
and the mother you had to be tactful with

You recall my jealousy you unquestionably suffered from
more than I did
true I made you wear a bra because
I wanted to hide your breasts from everyone
which I can't recall without getting a lump
in my throat
or rue St-Jean entered by a huge slanting sun
around six in the evening
opposite the shop window of Monsieur Brin Gaubast
where you saw yourself
and told me at long last that you wore
a little too much makeup

Funny how I show no respect for sequence
pressed by so many images

Where was I?
And who will I prey on now?

On you
Martha
for certain

For, as many have said,
life's a funny thing

I'm skipping years now
I'm on rue Franklin
thinking of that filmed procession
of that New Year's Eve
when we made love
beside the radio
which gave us the news
of the horrible war in Spain
--I still have the mark of your teeth
on my penis--
and I instantly
recall the first time
I had you from behind
You were kneeling on the edge of the bed
and in my mind's eye I still have the image of your back
more lovely than a grand sunset
and the look on your face when you turned
to see us one more time
in the mirror

(We don't need to fear repetition
we never tire of that phrase
"make love"
repeated over and over in the mind
like the magic tom-tom
of impenetrable forests
like Ravel's Bolero)

The night is over
it's starting to get cold
think of the ballet you danced with your fingertips
on the bare wooden table
of the opening bars
of the Toselli serenade

(And why be afraid of
the intimate reference
to personal despair
the knowing winks
too bad for those
who will not understand)

Now I understand
--and through what mental twists and turns--
the suffering I put you through
I had you blindfolded
cheated on you from the start
You were called Paulette
There was Jeanne Crickboom
and Billy with her shiny nose
There was that girl Breuer
loved so much that wound up--
through what mystery of the telephone?--
being connected with me
There was weeping Claude
always in someone's arms
There was Jenny Poteau
with her saggy tits
and her wide-open ass
There was Jeanne Abel who we share memories of
that may still be circulating on rue Markelbach

There are so many things
plus the horde
of little maids and old ones

(The exegete who later dives
into this poem
will not find swimming easy)

There's also the cafe on avenue Cortenberg
where you gave me Duchamp's address
on rue Campagne-Premiere where you told me
you made love to him
"just one time"

And Yvonne George who I loved so much
who taught you to piss in a toilet
the two of you watching the whore across the street turn a trick
Yvonne who went down on you
--I went down on her too--
poor little fool
a great life wasted
- Paul Nouge, 1953

image

- Rene Magritte, Portrait of Paul Nouge, 1927

See also, UNDERKNOWN WOMEN OF SURREALISM: Claude Cahun, Adrienne Fidelin

BEASTS OF THE DEVIL - Maria Sybilla Merian, Lizard from “Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium”, 1705. 
Look at the date. 1705. Yes, thank you. Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was a fabulous naturalist and scientific illustrator. Everything she did was beautiful, but also odd. The above lizard, for example? 
In her time, insects, her particular interest, were viewed as “beasts of the devil”
Merian was intrigued by metamorphosis, beginning with butterflies, and moving on to life stages of insects, with a lot of side interest in lizards, and various other creatures. Her early work was often used as patterns for embroidery - but clearly, she was interested in science as well as beauty.

-  Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5

Daughter to Matthaus Merian the Elder, who was a noted Swiss engraver and publisher, she was also stepdaughter to Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter. Clearly, both traditions moved through her work. When she was eleven, she engraved her first copperplate for illustration.  She married her father’s apprentice in 1665, when she was 18, and had two daughters with him. (Though interestingly, she seems not to have ever changed her surname.)

- Surinam Caiman Fighting a South American False Coral Snake 1699-1703 
In 1686, she moved to the Netherlands with her mother and daughters, and in 1690 divorced her husband. 
In 1699,  the now 52-year-old Merian - having  resided in the home of the Governor of the Dutch colony of Suriname and observed his tropical specimens (I have no idea quite how this happened - was there romantic involvement? Maybe?) Merian sold most of her belongings in order to travel to Surinam with her youngest daughter Dorothea. The result was the extraordinary Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium. 
She says - rather amusingly, given her clear passion for same:




“So I was goaded to undertake a huge and costly trip, traveling to Suriname in America, a hot and humid land where swarms of insects are there for the capture.”
She spent two years in Surinam, before returning to the Netherlands due to malaria. 





After Merian’s death in 1717, her daughters continued to produce fabulous work in the entomological field. Six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles bear her name. 

See this catalog from the Getty Museum’s 2008 Exhibition of Merian’s work. 
And more biographical information here. 

BEASTS OF THE DEVIL - Maria Sybilla Merian, Lizard from “Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium”, 1705. 

Look at the date. 1705. Yes, thank you. Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was a fabulous naturalist and scientific illustrator. Everything she did was beautiful, but also odd. The above lizard, for example? 

In her time, insects, her particular interest, were viewed as “beasts of the devil”

Merian was intrigued by metamorphosis, beginning with butterflies, and moving on to life stages of insects, with a lot of side interest in lizards, and various other creatures. Her early work was often used as patterns for embroidery - but clearly, she was interested in science as well as beauty.

image

-  Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5


Daughter to Matthaus Merian the Elder, who was a noted Swiss engraver and publisher, she was also stepdaughter to Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter. Clearly, both traditions moved through her work. When she was eleven, she engraved her first copperplate for illustration.  She married her father’s apprentice in 1665, when she was 18, and had two daughters with him. (Though interestingly, she seems not to have ever changed her surname.)

image

Surinam Caiman Fighting a South American False Coral Snake 1699-1703 

In 1686, she moved to the Netherlands with her mother and daughters, and in 1690 divorced her husband. 

In 1699,  the now 52-year-old Merian - having  resided in the home of the Governor of the Dutch colony of Suriname and observed his tropical specimens (I have no idea quite how this happened - was there romantic involvement? Maybe?) Merian sold most of her belongings in order to travel to Surinam with her youngest daughter Dorothea. The result was the extraordinary Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium. 

She says - rather amusingly, given her clear passion for same:

“So I was goaded to undertake a huge and costly trip, traveling to Suriname in America, a hot and humid land where swarms of insects are there for the capture.”

She spent two years in Surinam, before returning to the Netherlands due to malaria. 

page1image10736
page1image11008
After Merian’s death in 1717, her daughters continued to produce fabulous work in the entomological field. Six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles bear her name. 
And more biographical information here