“I have been memorizing this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”
The passionate yet tender way Greta Garbo pronounces the word “room” in the above quoted scene from Queen Christina, scene which was rehearsed and acted with the precision of a metronome, may cause some viewers a reaction varying from simple outbursts of admiration to fully fledged obsessions, satisfied only by locking oneself up in a room with a full Garbo boxset. I envy those discovering Garbo’s films for the first time.
Film scholar and all-around superstar Molly Haskell defines two types of the Hollywood woman: the superfemale and the superwoman. The superfemale, as exemplified by Norma Shearer, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, manages to survive, and sometimes thrive, in a society ruled by men while keeping her ‘womanly’ attributes, i.e. her femininity. The superfemale has a higher than average intelligence, often more so than that of her male counterparts and she isn’t afraid to use it to her advantage. The superwoman, while also highly intelligent, discards her femininity altogether or merely toys with its conventions, often turning them on their head. She adopts male attributes in order to gain respect in a man’s world. Examples of the superwoman are Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, Ruth Chatterton in Female (although she will eventually have to play being a superfemale in order to win over her man who wants just a woman, not a superwoman) and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina.
Greta Garbo embodies the superwoman par excellence. In a male dominated world, there are few examples of the superwoman character that illustrate Haskell’s definition more perfectly. Before the Hepburn’s flaunting of the conventions of femininity there was the Garbo embodiment of androgyny in its splendour. Although she is dazzlingly beautiful in the classical sense, Garbo has an extra quality that transcends sexual labels of femininity going so far as to define gender fluidity in a pre-feminist cinematic era. Her Queen Christina can rule like a man, act like a man to the point where she is mistaken for a man. She can love both like a man and a woman. She also loves both a man and a woman with almost the same intensity (Pre-Code at its finest). In Queen Christina, Garbo’s character can also live like a man, a privilege very few other Pre-Code female characters can boast. Her strength allows her to love whoever she wants, regardless of the consequences. The end of the film sees her defiant and triumphant, taking her destiny into her own hands. True, her lover lies dead and she has had to abdicate the throne, but in the end, she has won her independence. Loss of love for Queen Christina does not translate into loss of identity. Unlike many films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the unconventional Pre-Code ones, Queen Christina shows defiance in the face of defeat, ensuring it is temporary and that even the loss of love will not deter a strong woman from her original plans.
However, despite the promise of feminism that came with the freedom and occasional sexual adventure of the early 1930s, the new woman didn’t arrive. She was merely ogled at, previewed, modelled then taken off production. Even with the female form and substance in high profile as she was during what were the ‘women’s pictures’, her multifaceted persona didn’t allow for a full flourish, for the soil wasn’t ready. It would take another great war, decades of kitchen drudgery and hundreds of “women’s pictures” in which the heroines had to be femme fatales, wives, mothers, whores, but mostly asexual goddesses fetishized not only by a public, who felt ‘stuck’ with too many screen sirens and not enough American heroes, since they were off to fight the war, but also by their on-screen partners.
Molly Haskell also makes a case against the "women’s pictures" label. She is right in claiming that the denomination of "woman’s pictures" was detrimental to a film’s being taken seriously by both audiences and critics. Having a film labelled as such made it unworthy of full praise or less of a contender to be seen as not only proper art, but even proper entertainment. There has always been a stigma that accompanied labels such as “woman’s picture”, “like a woman”, “girly”, “like a girl”, implying that there was something inherently wrong with said film, feeling, mode of expression. We are finally starting to realise the shortcomings of our language, which has been inherently patriarchal. For instance, film scholars have regularly avoided the term “actress” because they felt there was something demeaning about it, denoting cheapness, or a statute lesser than that of an actor.
In the English language there’s also been the word “starlet”, suggesting a lesser star, but only to define and denote a woman. We’ve never heard of male starlet, indicating that the occurrence was too rare to earn a name. If a male actor was not an A lister, he would be referred to as a B picture actor, but never a starlet. Thus, we are biased against gender from the get-go. In a post #metoo era, perhaps it’s time to invent a more inclusive vocabulary too!
Summer rain, check. Perfect bodies apricating in the sunshine, check. Great characters, check. Great chemistry, check. Great soundtrack, check! Call Me By Your Name will go down in history as one of the most sensitive yet passionate love stories that have graced our screens this past decade. It transcends gay love, it soars above simple lust and explodes in the stratosphere with delicate yet multi-layered emotion, like a precious and precocious child. Like Vimini, Elio’s neighbour in the novel, who unfortunately didn’t make it into the film version, Elio and Oliver’s love story is young, intelligent, ephemeral, but unforgettable. For those in love with the film, reading the book offers another layer to the story, at times comforting, at times unsettling. The book can help one say goodbye to two beloved characters, or at least postpone the farewell until one feels compelled to start the journey over and bask in the sunshine of a perfect Italian summer. Let’s go back one more time, shall we?
The story of Call Me By Your Name takes place in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983. The seductive and intimate connection between 17 year old Elio and 24 year old Oliver is marked from the beginning of the film, when Elio has to give up his own room for the new PhD student, Oliver (l’usurpateur) who comes to live with Elio’s parents during the summer. The intimacy and allure of having someone sleep in his bed is at first apparently alleviated (or is it deeply exacerbated) by Oliver’s aloof attitude and the carefree way he says goodbye, with a simple “Later!” Elio finds this arrogant and offensive, but the rest of his family disagree and so do the other townspeople, whom Oliver befriends with incredible ease. Here, an insightful observation made by Elio’s father, namely that Oliver is a shy person, surprises Elio.
Too shy to make the first step towards knowing Oliver, Elio sees him as everything he is not: a confident, popular, handsome, highly intelligent man, while he himself feels inadequate and deeply insecure. His insecurity may translate to some viewers as arrogance, as he mopes around the house, apparently displeased with his surroundings. But just as Oliver seemed arrogant to him at first, this is a façade. Before long, Elio’s feelings towards Oliver evolve into something which he cannot express yet cannot conceal either. “Is it better to speak or to die?” he astutely conceals his question as a quote from the Heptameron. He fears rejection, but he fears uncertainty more. In a rare flirting scene, made all the more beautiful by its uniqueness, Elio shows off on the piano: after having strummed a Bach piece on the guitar, Elio takes Oliver inside to show him the same piece played on the piano. “You changed it”, Oliver exclaims. “I played it as Lizst would have played it”. Oliver asks: “play the thing you played outside”, Elio changes it again: “I played it the way Buzzoni would have played it if he’d altered Lizst’s version.”
“And what’s wrong with Bach, the way Bach wrote it?”
“Bach never wrote it for the guitar”
This scene captures perfectly how both characters are at the same time playful, yet unsure about playing a real unaltered version of themselves. Oliver tries to find the real unaltered version of Elio, yet Elio is too afraid to show himself as the shy boy he really is, so he dons all these masks, hiding from Oliver behind all his knowledge of classical music, hoping that Oliver would still prefer the original. Indeed, he does and when Elio does play it “the way Bach wrote it”, he adds with a smile that radiates innocence and playfulness: “he dedicated it to his brother”. How can a flirting scene be so innocent and passionate at the same time?
When his admiration and envy for Oliver turns into an almost unbearable passion, Elio sneaks into his bedroom, which has now got the marks of the new person living there, a person new to Elio, yet somehow familiar. For some people scent serves as arousal. Elio seems to be one of those people, for he is smelling Oliver on his newly laundered swimming trunks, craving him from every pore. Perhaps he is tasting the molecules of his unapricated skin. It is a scene pulsating with sensuality and the curiosity of a love that just begins to take shape.
As the Elio and Oliver begin to reveal their true feelings to each other the mating dance is evident, yet not dull. “For you in silence, somewhere in Italy in the mid 80s”. The will they/won’t they game stems not only from both their insecurities, but also from the stigma that being gay carries, especially in the 80s. Oliver says that he knows himself, and that they should be good and not do the unthinkable and sleep together. Yet the attraction, the perfect chemistry is too strong for either of them and it wins. It allows them to ignore all that’s been holding them back, all that’s been holding back all the previous Olivers and Elios from time immemorial. When Elio and Oliver make love and they call each other by the other person’s name, it feels that all unrequited love from the beginning of time until that point had been vindicated. It had finally happened. Love won.
For anyone who has ever experienced the thrill of a first love, the deliciously furtive midnight encounters and passionate embraces, Call Me By Your Name is an almost perfect film, a film which emanates nubile love from its every shot, every summer-by-the-pool orchard-revelling scene. It not only transports the viewer to a world where the perfect first love exists, but where the ideal parents are also there to let you roam free, make your own mistakes and be there for you when you come home with your heart broken, as they knew you would. This is one summer romance that has been so beautifully transported from the pages of the novel onto the celluloid, written with gravitas and sentiment by James Ivory and pieced together by the loving hand of Luca Guadagnino. It takes one’s breath away, it makes one relive their first love vicariously through those of Elio and Oliver. It leaves the viewer with innumerable questions all sprung from love, all having love as their answer.
Is it really possible to meet someone one day that is your equal in every respect? Your mirror, your brother, your friend, your father, your son, your husband, your lover, your equal, yourself? Does this form of love exist in the real world or is it a figment of romantic poets too romantic and with tragical imaginations? We are told that real love takes work, that one needs to be ready to compromise if one wants to have a real long-lasting relationship. But does one want a long-lasting relationship? Or does one conform to glimpses of happiness, so perfect that can make up for lifetimes of loneliness? Is a long-lasting relationship too mundane for romantic lovers? Is the completeness of a perfect love too intense to be longer than a day or a week? Do people still dream about one or two perfect days they had over the course of a lifetime and wonder what might have happened if those days had been ten or twenty or a thousand? If there had been ten thousand perfect days would they still count as perfect? If Elio and Oliver had extended their relationship over the course of many more summers, many more Rome days, many more perfect days, would they have discovered that they weren’t as in perfect harmony with each other as us, the viewer were led to believe?
So many questions arise and so many hurts are healed, and many more hurts are found. Is such passion ever real or has Andre Aciman created yet another utopia for us romantics to swoon over? In the end it matters not, for the perfect summer love Elio and Oliver lived with such intensity is enough to last a lifetime.
Having now finished reading the book I feel I’ve been violently bled dry of all emotion while at the same time had an avalanche of emotion dropped on me. All happening in quick succession: meeting and falling in love with two great characters and saying goodbye to them, while feeling their pain, joy, passion ecstasy, growing up, growing old, loving. Living. Loving. Love. There is nothing more sacred than love.
As I wrapped up recording an episode of my podcast that I do with my friend Nick, anxiety enveloped me. I remembered a hundred things that I hadn’t said, that needed to be said, that both these incredible actresses deserve to have said about them.
Regardless of who your favourite is, they are both equally deserving of praise. They were both consummate professionals who dedicated their entire lives to their craft. This may be why they found it so hard to retire, to stop working. They were workaholics extraordinaire, driven by their own ambition to achieve greatness and perhaps to redefine it.
We’ve just commemorated 43 years since Joan Crawford’s passing and here we are, still talking about her feud with Bette Davis. In the TV show Feud, written by Ryan Murphy, a fictionalised version of Olivia de Havilland talks about a feud being about pain. While this might be true, one would expect in the case of this particular ‘feud’ that the pain should be directed at Hollywood itself, not at each other. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps this was even a made-believe feud that had the media enthralled, just to highlight this pain.
Where might this pain have stemmed from? Injustice suffered during the studio system. We know that both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had problems with their respective studios, MGM and Warner Bros. They didn’t get the support they needed and deserved at the time they needed it. Bette might have won her first Oscar for a film done with Warner, but it was a consolation win for a much better performance that she did when she was on loan with RKO – Of Human Bondage. Joan Crawford’s career at MGM was heading into oblivion after a series of poor films that did not fit Crawford’s star persona.
One must remember that back in the 1930s and 1940s films were mostly about stars. The job of the studios was to find the right story to fit in with the right star. This was mainly since each star was a type, a type that audiences could identify with. Thus, the studios were after a star vehicle, a story that would be fit for a Gable, a Harlow or a Crawford. Despite Crawford being Crawford, a luminous presence on the screen, she could act. She was able to bring her fierceness to every character she portrayed. She was also able to attract the audience sympathy, who despite not always able to identify themselves with her (as she was always a star both on and off screen), they were always able to understand the hard work she would put into her roles.
Davis’ star vehicle was late to form. A glimpse of what made her a star might have been seen in The Cabin in the Cotton. Of Human Bondage garnered her a write-in nomination for an Oscar after a nationwide indignation at her not being originally included caused an uproar (which is extremely well documented in Be Kind Rewind’s video). One would have expected that following Of Human Bondage people and, more importantly, Warner Bros studio would understand what Bette Davis’ star persona was and give her better parts. This would not be so and Bette Davis, just like Joan Crawford would fight studios for better roles for most of her career.
Perhaps this is the pain and this is the feud that the media should have focused on all these years ago. Crawford and Davis weren’t friends, their dislike of each other perhaps stemming from their being such different characters in real life, with different upbringings. In most of her interviews, Bette Davis comes across as someone very straightforward, who doesn’t mince her words and who always speaks her mind, at the risk of being rude. Joan Crawford, on the other hand, appears as the picture of diplomacy and politeness, very calculating and always very stylish. It evens begs the question: who was Joan Crawford in reality, if she ever existed? I believe Lucille LeSueur was dead and buried the moment Joan got her new name and a contract with MGM, so we might never know who she could have been if she hadn’t been Joan Crawford.
Their mutual pain of having spent their lives fighting for their careers, never satisfied with their lot, always trying to prove something more, to reach the next level and the one after that, is perfectly illustrated in the show Feud, which, despite taking perhaps too many liberties with the material, succeeds in presenting us with a more personal view on these two remarkable women. All this time they could have even been friends, if only Hedda, i.e. the media, hadn’t stuck her nose in!
Vincent Price is a legend, a denomination that sits at the crossroads between ‘absolute legend’ and ‘legendary actor’. He is more than just a legendary actor and perhaps less than absolute legend in the humble opinion of this writer, the latter denomination being reserved to Buster Keaton, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and maybe a couple others (Christopher Lee). Yet, his name alone strikes fear, awe, excitement and reverence into the hearts of film buffs of all ages, languages and creeds. Despite that, I found myself realising with consternation that I had never seen Witchfinder General, a film so inherently perfect for Vincent Price’s star persona that one cannot imagine anyone else in the role. His quiet, polite yet absolutely evil and almost psychopathic Matthew Hopkins stands out as one of the most powerful and disturbing performances of the last century.
Directed by Michael Reeves, this film is a great example of “less is more” when it comes to acting. Vincent Price plays villainous Matthew Hopkins, a real-life witchfinder who in just three years killed around 300 people considered to be witches, most of them women. Witchfinder General finds Hopkins touring the country looking for witches and getting paid for each killing committed. The charges are of course trumped up and in this Civil War ridden England law does not mean justice. Law is as corrupt as the men enforcing it and it sits above chivalry and even above religion. This is readily apparent when a priest is accused of witchcraft. The reasons for his elimination are unclear, and yet he soon hangs. Indeed, the plot of the film is not as strong as Vincent Price’s performance and we feel that every moment he is not on-screen is a moment wasted, for his presence is as magnetic and exhilarating as it is filled with danger. Price’s Hopkins is an insidious character, devoid of any endearing traits. We find ourselves unable to identify with him, yet we cannot look away. He is corrupt, but stylish, like a 17th century painting come to life. He is cunning, impenetrable, unrelatable but ultimately fierce and fearsome. He acts as if he had a protective cloak shielding him from the uneducated masses and even from the blade of virtuous soldiers, as if he knows he cannot be killed, regardless of how corrupt he may be.
The film may be regarded as a veiled satire addressed at the institution of the Church, yet the characters presented in contrast with the monstrous yet poised and perhaps even suave Hopkins have little redeeming features, not enough to be considered heroic. Ian Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall and Hilary Heath’s Sara are unfortunate lovers whose peace is disrupted when Sara’s uncle, a priest, is charged with witchcraft, tortured and hanged. They are the heroes with whom the audiences’ sympathies should lie. Unfortunately, they remain rather simple characters while Hopkins and his side-kick Stearne, a less sophisticated version of Hopkins himself, terrorise East Anglia with quiet and unrelentless devotion and spine-chilling precision. Matthew Hopkins resembles a surgeon with his trademark white gloves, who instead of saving lives, condemns them to long, painful deaths.
Hopkins’ partner, Stearne has much less of an imposing presence on-screen. However, the essence of his evil character matches that of Hopkins. He is uneducated, coarse, brutal and loud, announcing from the beginning the type of person he is: a one-dimensional mercenary. Although dangerous, he is the danger one can see coming. The difference between him and Hopkins is made evident through the way both interact with Sara. While Hopkins need only glance in Sara’s way to make himself understood that he wants to bed her, Stearne has to take Sara by force. Sara understands who is the more powerful of the two men and yields to Hopkins in the hope that he will spare the life of her uncle. Stearne covets her too, but he finds he has to rape her, his seduction game lacking.
Hopkins, on the other hand, resembles an almost silent assassin, one who has the law on his side. Price’s almost charismatic villain who loves to torture and maim while remaining unaffected, perhaps even smiling might serve as the perfect villainous pattern for another bone-chilling polite yet deadly screen evil: Delores Umbridge, portrayed with exquisite wickedness by Imelda Staunton. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Staunton used Price as an inspiration for the role.
Surprising to find out that Price was not the first choice for the role of Hopkins, a role which he embodies with a silent dignity which stems from the confidence that the law is on his side and that he is untouchable. Through his clothes, posture and speech, Price’s Hopkins is a perfect gentleman on the surface, the embodiment of the upstanding moral citizen. He doesn’t show the viewer what he takes pleasure in, but through the graphic details of torture, murder and rape, one can understand how the vileness, depravity and sadism are externalised. What is also surprising is that in a film rife with screams of pain and death, when death comes to Matthew Hopkins, he doesn’t utter a word or a scream. He is almost inhumanely evil, which makes his presence all the more chilling.
The film is filled with seemingly gratuitous torture scenes, which were not well received at the time of the film’s release. However, I believe they help depict the real-life atmosphere of terror that reigned over England during the Civil War years and what it fails to achieve through the costumes and set pieces, it makes up for in gore. There’s a reason this film has gained a cult following since its release in 1968 and it has perhaps less to do with the production value and more to do with the screen presence of an acting giant.
It’s been 42 years since Susan Sontag’s book On Photography was firstly published and, although the various forms of art, media, entertainment in general have experienced changes, the essence of photography as art and as mode of expression remained the same. In some ways, Sontag’s writing about photography serves as a prophecy of what society has become vis-à-vis both the concept of photography as an art and photography as an instrument or medium. She astutely makes cases for the various ways in which we can look at photography as an instrument; at the same time, with every word she uses to describe photographs and the mastery of photography, she betrays a love for photography as a form of art (“Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art”)
The book itself is a collection of 6 separate essays, each of them focusing in turn on social, cultural, historical and artistical aspects of photography. The subject of intermediality is approached on many occasions to illustrate the multiple disciplines which have benefited from the use of photography: art, history, medicine, politics (propaganda), criminal investigations, etc. Reading her analysis of works which are long past even to her, one can’t help but make a parallel between the timelines and the various media. Here we are analysing the written commentary, i.e. non-visual medium, which details the histories, trends and sensibilities of another medium which is extremely visual – photography. By reading Sontag’s appreciations on the photographers she mentions, one also learns the history of photography, as a medium, as a form of art and as technology. Indeed, her treatise is extensive and rich in detail. She selects a number of key photographers, all pivotal in establishing photography as a respected art. Geographically, she centres around the United States of America at the turn of the 20th century, which, with its ‘melting pot’ of cultures, served as an extraordinary subject for many artists willing to experiment.
Sontag bookends her collection of essays with a focus on the allegory known as Plato’s Cave, making us aware, from the start and at the end, of the role of photography as a projector or a simulator of reality. She gives a historical overview of the use of photography since its invention, looking at the camera as an instrument of expression used initially by Victorian societies and how this use has developed over time. Thus, an image starts with being a form of reality, “a mere image of the truth”, but then becomes memory, souvenir, and a way of connecting with both the past and other worlds. An image can transcend both time and space. Sontag also deftly analyses the cultural ramifications and the impact that came with the invention of such a powerful tool. The issue of agency is raised, Sontag pointing out that “The person who intervenes [in an event, i.e. the agent] cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.” Moreover, Sontag suggest that the camera can be both an extension of the photographer’s mind, their sexuality, of camera as phallus – Blow up, Peeping Tom, and an instrument, camera seen as weapon: “just aim, focus and shoot”. In this metaphor of camera as gun, Sontag goes further: just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” From camera as gun, to photography as instrument of morality is only a tiny leap and indeed Sontag reiterates the idea in the same chapter: “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and can help build a nascent one.” Sontag’s words on the oversaturation of photography in the 70s society seem almost prophetic for a 2010s society, suggesting that, more than with any other technical invention (except perhaps the Internet), photography is a dual medium, a complex tool that can have incredible artistic value, but it can also turn us into “image junkies”. Sontag points that “the knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist […] a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom.” Indeed, it seems that we have achieved and surpassed the saturation point described by Sontag as “the industrialisation of photography [which] permitted its rapid absorption into rational – that is, bureaucratic – ways of running society.” We now have Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms in which we see thousands of photographs every day. These help to sanitise our reality, anesthetise us to the atrocities that happen in the world as well as make us covet and fantasise about specific worlds, products, experiences that are advertised to us. The idea of nearness and isolation is poignantly illustrated in Sontag’s last chapter, The Image World, as she debates on the relationship between photography and the world, between the camera and the people taking photographs. In a time like today, where we get bombarded with photojournalistic images almost every minute of every day, through the usual social media channels, the “newness” of the news and the reality of the photograph lasts only a day, if that. The need for replenishment of information as well as distraction in the form of entertaining images is more acute than ever.
Sontag’s second essay, entitled Seen Through Photographs, Darkly raises questions of identity, artistry and humanity while experimenting with the concepts of beauty, grotesque, ugliness, all the while suggesting that the complexity of human nature cannot be encapsulated in one world. Artists will need a parallel world, which will be unearthed through their art. In this chapter, Sontag brings Diane Arbus and her body of work into focus, highlighting her preference for ordinary, yet extraordinary subjects. The way Sontag describes Arbus’ photography compels one to stop reading and go look for Arbus’ work. It is indicative of photography as an art form by excellence as well as a social commentary of America at specific point in history. The recurring theme in this chapter is both the damaging effect of labels and their boundaries. The author questions the definitions of beauty, normality, what is ugly and what can be perceived as conventionally beautiful or not, thus challenging the societal norms at the same time. Sontag uses Arbus’ work as illustrative of a deeper understanding between the artist and their work and her active choice of focusing on the less known individual types in society, the marginalised and the stigmatised. This is rightfully seen as a social commentary as well as a take on morality: art changes morals – that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.” In refusing to accept the boundaries set up by the society, the artist looks to set up new rules, create new worlds and expose new truths.
“Arbus’s work expressed her turn against what was public (as she experienced it), conventional, safe, reassuring – and boring – in favour of what was private, hidden, ugly, dangerous and fascinating.” What is still striking to us in 2019, is that the norms are still very difficult to break, the marginalised are still seen as ‘the other’, there are still societal rules, boundaries and labels, which make life difficult for those members of the society which do not conform to the standards of beauty or normality. However, there is more tolerance and fluidity, more acceptance and less conformity in society nowadays, which seems to have lessened the spirit of controversy diversity championed by artists such as Diane Arbus.
The third essay in the collection, Melancholy Objects, carries on the same path as the previous chapter of presenting the photographers as historians and anthropologists, as well as artists, looking for something to move them, to capture their attention and make them want to “memorialise” it. The notions of class divide as well as race are raised again, in a more detailed way, exemplified by photographers such as August Sander, A.C. Vroman, Roy Stryker and Berenice Abbott. The photographic trends continue to relate almost exclusively to the United States and it is almost surprising to see the breadth of subjects tackled through only one medium: class struggles, a disappearing race (the Native Americans), the emergence of photography as both a tool for advertising and a useful instrument in helping change some of the social injustices committed, all forming what Sontag calls “the human landscape”. Moreover, Sontag brings to the fore the idea of photography as “Surrealist abbreviation of history”. She also declares in this chapter that “America, that surreal country, is full of found objects. Our junk has become art. Our junk has become history.” But, as she fervently likes to remind us, what makes photography art is the passage of time. What is interesting to note is how personal a photograph is. Sontag always refers back to this concept when discussing the medium of photography and what it means to us as humans, what it means to us as historians, social scientists, anthropologists or simply amateurs, curious about how life was well before we were born, before instant access to a camera and dozens of filters at the touch of a button. The idea of sentiment is always intertwined with the concept of photography: how it made us feel as viewers, how the photographers discuss it, explain it as creators, how the subjects felt or must have felt as the people immortalised on a square piece of paper. Even on a societal scale, the idea of photography has a deeper meaning, more than just a moment in a time long past. The photographic medium will always carry a message. That message will change, just as the society observing it will change, but the notion of photography as a carrier of message will remain. Sontag reiterates this when she ponders that “a photograph is only a fragment and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading.” It remains up to us to read it. To further the point on photography as surrealist art, Sontag explains that “the rallying point of Surrealism [is], the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough.” Therefore, the photographer’s continuations to transform the present into past, or an alternate past reality will automatically render the present a banal reality, perhaps robbed of the passion which the photographer has dedicated to their art.
What Sontag achieves with her lengthy and passionate descriptions of famous early photographers, photography trends and the history of photography is to inspire one to go look for the photographs and photographers mentioned. Once this has been done, the comparison to what we consider photography nowadays is striking. As Sontag herself mentions, with the passing of time, any photograph becomes a work of art. More so, those taken by masters at their craft such as Steiglitz, Jacob Riis, Diane Arbus and few others, who manage to capture the essence of an era, a social class, a sentiment which remains ingrained on that specific piece of paper for all posterity to marvel at and wonder “was life really as portrayed in those pictures?” Sontag makes a point of highlighting that asking the question about the past is something not entirely straightforward. A photograph is a reproduction of a certain moment in time and we can only speculate on the conjectures which led to that moment. Comparing famous photographs of old to all the output we get bombarded with every day as we check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it may strike us that the reality of the old images is more relatable than those we see on the internet. With the advent of Photoshop, we are also warned to “take everything with a pinch of salt”, encouraged to double check the validity of an image that we find circulating online. The old photographs are sometimes easier to validate than the new ones, especially those by famous photographers. With few exceptions, they also seem to make a bolder statement. In the last 30 years or so there have been few photographs capturing the life of the contemporary individual the way Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Vroman, August Sander have done in the ever so distancing past. A point needs to be made that the contemporary individual doesn’t need to be “captured on camera” anymore. They will willingly broadcast moments of their lives, important or not, embellished (with extra aesthetical filters added for good measure) to be made as photogenic as possible. We are all hidden behind screens, projected onto screens, slimmed down, filtered through various applications, all aimed to make us look our best. Sontag’s point about capturing “what is beautiful” and not what is ugly has somehow lost its potency in a world where we are chiefly interested in what is beautiful, be it artificial or not. We might find it is artificial most of the time. We might also find that what is naturally beautiful becomes banal, just like the natural sunsets she speaks of, which we’ve all become so accustomed to. But what she meant by “beautiful”, I believe, was the essence of the human condition. The majority of the photographers mentioned in her essays focused, through their work, on documenting the lives of real people, “the famous men” (forgotten men) she references when she talks about the “documentary photography for losers”, Walker Evan’s photographic collection Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
In the chapter entitled The Heroism of Vision, Sontag once again analyses the idea of beauty as seen by various photographers of the early 20th Century. In this chapter she focuses on Edward Weston on and Paul Strand, and their body of work, noting that “Weston’s images, however admirable, however beautiful, have become less interesting to many people, while those taken by the mid-nineteenth century English and French primitive photographers and by Atget, for example, enthral more than ever”. Indeed, if one is not familiar with Edward Weston or Paul Strand, one would not fully understand the impact their work had on the future of photography. They, together with Alfred Stieglitz, who was offered both praise and scrutiny in Sontag’s previous chapters, are considered the fathers of modern photography as we know it today. The chapter dedicated to Weston and Strand would not be complete without a discussion about the Bauhaus School and the theories and aesthetics of modernity as well as the new emerging trends in both photography and painting. Sontag argues that “in the present historical mood of disenchantment one can make less and less sense out of the formalist’s notion of timeless beauty” and her words have never sounded more prophetic. Even though what has in the past been considered beautiful (a nice shot of a sunset or sunrise), it has now become banal, so the artist must strive to find beauty through new and innovative means. Sontag reiterates: “the most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit. At the very least the real has a pathos. And that pathos is – beauty […] Along with people who pretty themselves for the camera, the unattractive and the disaffected have been assigned their beauty.” This can only be a strong argument in favour of regarding photography as a form of art. Moreover, both ideas of “beautifying” the subject and “naturalising” them or making them appear as close to reality as possible, have transcended the medium of photography. One feels compelled to draw parallels between the face portraits by Paul Strand and a carefully shot sequence from Luis Malle’s quasi noir melodrama Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) – namely one where a desperate and love hungry Jeanne Moreau, wearing no makeup, walks aimlessly through the streets of Paris looking for her lover. The naturalness and beauty of that scene would serve as a precursor and inspiration for the French New Wave which soon followed.
The importance of text accompanying photography, context and captions is raised by Sontag, adding that commentary to a photograph or a collection of photographs is sometimes necessary in order to understand what we are seeing. She quotes Godard and Gorin, as they discuss Jane Fonda’s famous Vietnam photograph: “This photograph, like any photograph is physically mute. It talks through the text written beneath it.” Indeed, the captions of a photography can make all the difference, particularly when referring to abstract photographs, which Edward Weston was the first master of.
In the chapter entitled Photographic Evangels Sontag returns to analysing concepts of reality in photography and addresses once again the issue of photography as art. She also brings technological achievements to the forefront of the debate, without which modern photography and photography in general wouldn’t be possible: “But as cameras get ever more sophisticated, more automated, more acute, some photographers are tempted to disarm themselves or to suggest that they are really not armed, and prefer to submit themselves to the limits imposed by a pre-modern camera technology – a cruder, less high-powered machine being thought to give more interesting or expressive results, to leave more room for the creative accident.” 
Inadvertently touching on Baudrillard’s future theory of simulacrum, Sontag writes: “although no photograph is an original in the sense that a painting always is, there is a large qualitative difference between what could be called originals – prints made from the original negative at the time the picture was taken – and subsequent generations of the same photograph.” Despite there not being an original, the idea of authorship (with no visible signature, of course) is explored in detail in Sontag’s essay. She continues her argument by saying that “superseding the issue of whether photography is or is not an art is the fact that photography heralds (and creates) new ambitions for the arts. It is the prototype of the characteristic direction taken in our time by both the modernist high arts and the commercial arts: the transformation of arts into meta-arts or media.”This statement sounds somewhat prophetic to what we’ve experienced since Sontag wrote her essay. The direction taken has somehow departed from what is known as art very much in the realm of media, mass media and more recently social media. The surge in photographs and collages which have evolved into what is now called memes is a significant mark of our times. While memes cannot be talked of as art (not yet), their importance is not to be understated, as their political, satirical messages carry a weight greater than that of the traditional art which can be found in a museum. The main reason for this is their accessibility as well as their influence with the younger generations. They also share a few characteristics with the post-modernist aesthetics and thus might be regarded as art form in due course.
Sontag beautifully bookends her collection of essays with references to Plato and the idea of reality, artifice and the role of photography as a medium to project reality. One can also look at the role of photography as a form of art capturing more than just reality: surrealism or simply faces, objects and moments that stirred feelings in a human being, prompting them to pick their camera and immortalise them. “Our ‘era’ does not prefer images to real things out of perversity, but partly in response to the ways in which the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened, one of the early ways being the criticism of reality as façade which arose among the enlightened middle classes in the last century.”
The book is completed with an appendix, a collection of quotes which capture the truth, the art and the sensibility of photography and of media. Among them sits one which perhaps resonates with us, as media historians, more than others:
“The media have substituted themselves for the older world. Even if we should wish to recover that older world, we can do it only by an intensive study of the ways in which the media have swallowed it.” (Marshall McLuhan)
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 21
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 12
 Ibid. p 15.
 Ibid p 21
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 41
 Ibid. p. 45
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 68
 Ibid. p. 69
 Ibid. p 71
 Ibid. p 80
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 101
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 102
 Ibid. p 102-103
 Ibid p. 108
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p 124
 Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977, Penguin Books), p. 149
 Ibid p 160
The best Easter memories are centred around the nucleus that is my grandparents’ home. Yes, there was a lot of convention and religion, but there was also endless amounts of love and ritual. Oh, the power of the ritual is strong. On the ‘good Thursday’, the Thursday before Easter, we’d all congregate at church to hear the 12 gospels – 12 stories chosen to describe the events around the capture of Jesus, the Messiah. These 12 stories were by 4 different authors, the famous evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I remember that some of the stories lacked continuity, the details from one not matching with the others. I never asked anyone about it, but I remember reflecting on it and thinking that it must have been due to some poor translation and the centuries that passed in between the time of the writing and that of the reading. Yes, the seed of doubt had been planted in my head. As wed’ listen to these 12 gospels, we had to pay attention, focus with all our might and pray. Once one was over, we would tie a knot on a handkerchief. By the night’s end we would have 12 knots, 3 on each corner. Through the year, as we encountered hardship or had some ardent wish we wanted come true, we’d whisper the wish to the discreet winds and untie a knot. If we had truly paid attention to the gospel, listened with all our might and prayed, the wish would come true.
In reality nobody could tie 3 knots to one handkerchief corner. We had all tried and failed, ending up borrowing pieces of string from our comrades on which to tie our knots and place our hopes. Nobody knew how this knot superstition came about or why one had to use handkerchiefs instead of ordinary pieces of string. What we knew was that if the wish didn’t come true was either because we’d used string not the desired godly material – the ‘chief, or because we hadn’t paid enough attention to the gospel. Yes, this is the reason a pre-teen would go to church on the godliest of weeks – Easter week. I remember being in church, kneeling, for you had to be kneeling during the gospels, looking up and seeing the screwed-up face of my friend, struggling to tie yet another knot in a handkerchief that was already bursting with holy knots. She would give up soon thereafter and beg for a piece of string. On our way home from church we’d fantasise about the potential knot-worthy wishes we had, all the while feeling elated that we’d been to church and were now fully in touch with our spiritual selves.
Religion was a big part of my life growing up. Even now, words like Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday stir fond memories. Silly, but still fond. The power of a ritual is stronger than we care to acknowledge. It’s why we still have religion. All of us still pray to an imaginary god. The first thing most of us do in the morning, here in the ‘civilised world’ is to grab our smartphones and check social media. It’s a ritual which for some has evolved into an addiction. In the old desolate world of religion, where I grew up, the ritual of the media is still observed, but so is the ritual of church going, mass and prayer.
Palm Sunday is the Sunday when, according to scriptures, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He was hailed as a hero. People carried palm branches and placed them in his path to express their devotion and awe towards him. He was hailed as the Messiah, son of God, King of Judea. “Hosanna!” they would shout. I knew that word as a child, but I hadn’t learned the full meaning of it, the blind and fanatical devotion to an idea. Less than a week later he would be captured, tried and crucified. Or so the scriptures say. In my country we don’t have palm trees. Instead, my grandmother, together with all the ladies in the village, at the instigation of the priest, would bring willow branches to church. These would be blessed and turned into special willow branches. Once sanctified, they would be taken back home and pleated around the icons on the wall. My grandmother still has a special wall on which she’s pinned up a large number of icons to which she prays daily. The wall is facing east of course. It is believed that east, where the sun rises, is where Heaven is. Yes, sunset is where Hell resides, with all its dangerous devils that tempt people into doing bad deeds.
Superstition is a human construct without which most of us can’t live. The superstitious rituals around Easter made this holiday almost as special as Christmas and the memories of it all the more bittersweet. Even though I was a child, I was made to keep Lent, to give up sweets and other favourite dishes, to purify my sinful soul. Palm Sunday marked the fact that there was only a week to go before we could all binge on incredibly rich and fatty foods. My mum and grandmother would spend the entire week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday cooking industrial amounts of food, which nobody was allowed to even taste until the designated time – 5 am on Sunday, right after returning from church, having “gotten the divine Resurrection light!”
Religion is more ritual than belief. We do it almost automatically, without thinking, just as we grab our phones in the morning to check social media. It doesn't make us better people, but it does bring a level of comfort without which some minds would be lost.
Catching up with old friends, even virtually, always fills me up with nostalgia over time passed. We aren’t young guns anymore, starting out in life, thinking we know everything and finding out we know nothing. We’ve been there. We found out we knew nothing. We now know that, at least. We’ve also changed, and nothing accentuates the transformations suffered over the years more than a long talk with an old friend. I used to be kind and patient, he said. Those were the things he praised me for. Kind and patient. I should have seen it as a compliment. Instead, it felt like a slap in the face. I used to be kind and patient, all the good attributes for someone who’s very dim. They are kind because they’re not bitter with the world’s reality. They are patient because they’re not curious and anxious about finding out all the world’s truths. Being kind was something I’ve been striving towards and hearing someone call me that is indeed lovely. But being patient, when I know I’ve just failed being that, feels like a step back, a regression. I wish I could be wise enough to be patient and kind. Instead life has made me angry and hasty. I rush doing things because I feel I am running out of time. I’m in my 30s and people much younger than me have arrived to where they needed and more importantly, wanted to be. Yet I am bargaining with myself as to what it is I need to achieve by this age. Once I’ve passed a certain age, a new bargaining process begins and I am running out of examples of late achievers. Yet, I’m told it’s not a race and slowing down might have its benefits. At the same time, when you’re past your early-twenties, your mid-twenties, heck, even your late-twenties… your excuses are running out. You find out it was a race after all and to quote Pink Floyd “you’ve missed the starting gun.”
Here I am, left with “patient and kind” stapled on my forehead, when I’m anything but. I am looking back at my patient and kind self. Do I want to go back to that or keep running with the angry impatient self I’ve got? Would it make a difference in the… long run?
I feel my heart rate going up. I’m blaming the coffee and unspent energy throughout the day. My smartwatch tells me I’ve only burned 1245 calories today. Only 500 steps and yet I feel exhausted. Outside the window there’s a constant flickering light coming from somewhere undetermined. It looks like an ambulance light, with its amber waves of danger spreading across the neighbourhood. I can’t see the ambulance, just its emanating light, like a bodiless threat, all encompassing. What has happened? Who needs the ambulance and why? The light keeps hitting against the window, as if to awake me from apathy. I’m awake. Are you? What shall we do, now that we’re awake? There is no siren yet, just the sound of traffic. People go about their business, as normal. Is it normal? Will there be a new normal soon or shall we go back to the old normal we’ve known for so long, the normal that led us to this situation?
What situation, do you ask? The one where a divine or maybe not so divine intervention released a new virus into this world. One that can and will mutate. One that’s already wreaked havoc with so many lives. One that was not considered a big deal until quite recently. And yet, panic has now set in throughout the land. Suddenly the siren outside reminds everyone we’re not living in normal times. The heart races even faster. The siren sounds the same as always, yet the wail feels heightened somewhat. Is the army out on the street already? The quiet streets aren’t calm. The siren has stopped, but pulsating light at the window has burst in through the curtains. Here it is dancing on the ceiling and the walls. It reminds me of the apocalyptic fresco one always finds outside orthodox churches.
Is there a silver lining in all this? Maybe, just maybe this imposed or self-imposed quarantine might lead to an assessment to our condition as humans. We’ve been living like gods, superstars. We are all the protagonists of our little daily narratives that unfolds on social media. We live our lives in the limelight now more than ever and we’ve built egos “the size of cathedrals” (to quote the devil in one of my favourite films). The rush of doing things has taken the place of in-depth thinking and self-reflection and, in spite of what some might say, there can never be too much thinking. We are guilty of too much bad thinking, which infringes on our time and simply leaves no room for any positive thinking or self-reflection. Maybe we could find time to do that today. Maybe we could exercise some patience, wisdom and kindness instead of anxiety, anger and fear.
I have never been a fan of Lady Gaga’s music, although I must admit that she is a very talented musician. She is, I believe, one of those rare artists who, despite having recycled various images from various other outrageous pop and rock stars (Madonna, Marilyn Manson), is writing her own material instead of having an army of producers behind her success, which I respect.
Lady Gaga has been recently quoted as having said that she wanted to be an actress first and singer second. Although I am more than slightly envious of her talent as a singer, I must say she has convinced me much more with her abilities as an actress. Her choice of feature debut is an appropriate one, which has given her room to showcase her talent as a musical performer, with the added bonus of stripping away all the Lady Gaga layers and artifices that her ‘little monsters’ are so used to. She is laid bare in front of us and what we see is genuine and genuinely moving.
A Star is Born is in its fourth incarnation and probably its most visceral since that hair-raising dressing room speech in the 1954 version. The film, directed beautifully by Bradley Cooper in what is surprisingly his directorial debut, follows the well-known Star is Born narrative (legend has it that it was inspired by real life marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay): established star has a drinking problem and he’s on a downward trajectory when he meets aspiring star who turns out to be his soulmate.
Lady Gaga plays Ally, the aspiring star in a way that makes you forget she’s the super mega pop star half the planet idolises. She is convincing as an insecure singer-songwriter who, despite dreaming big, won’t sing her own songs and thinks her nose is too large. When country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets her at the drag queen show, she is performing La Vie en Rose, a homage to the great French singer Edith Piaf. Only after spending some time with him does she confide in him and sing one of her own compositions, in what may be one of the most romantic scenes ever to take place in a parking lot.
The romance is tumultuous, marred by drunken stumblings that translate into full on arguments, but ultimately the love between the two rises above Jackson Maine’s inner demons, at least for long enough for the two to marry. Ally becomes the successful singer Jackson had predicted she would become, soon carving a name for herself, independent from that of her husband. It’s important here to highlight that the musician Ally aspires to be and ultimately becomes is a very different one from who Lady Gaga is as a musician. Unlike Lady Gaga, Ally is shy, less ambitious and has to be convinced to believe in her own values as an artist, which is why Jackson’s role as mentor is all the more important.
The narrative isn’t forced, despite playing slightly like a Cinderella story. It has enough humour, heartbreak and naturalness to pull the “this could never happen” element off. My only criticism is the added element of Ally’s manufactured star persona. The film hints slightly at her having sold her artistic integrity for fame when it shows us an orange haired Ally performing an R&B style song, half naked on SNL, but doesn’t follow that idea up any further. I believe the story was already rich enough without suggesting that Ally’s star image wasn’t what she wanted, but what was imposed on her from a manager with dubious intentions. At the same time, one might argue that without Jackson’s guidance, she wouldn’t be strong enough to stand up for herself and the type of music she wants to make.
I shall not spoil the film for the 1 or 2 people who aren’t familiar with the narrative, but it’s a rollercoaster of emotion, harmoniously performed, directed and shot. No wonder Lady Gaga found it so hard to shake the character off at the end of the day. As an added bonus, Sam Elliot’s in it.