Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Reappraising The Night Porter

Photographer: Ray Spence

A conversation with a friend who is very involved in historical research on the Holocaust sent me back to The Night Porter, the controversial 1974 film by Liliana Cavani. My friend had not seen it, but was aware of the criticism levelled at the film when it came out, especially by Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian writer who had survived Auschwitz and allegedly committed suicide in 1987. When the film was released Levi said that it was "based on the idea Cavani has of sex. This has nothing to do with the camps”. No indeed, it has not. My friend thought it eroticised Nazism and believed it to be exploitative. I was not convinced by this.

I saw Cavani's film in 1976. I was way too young back then to really grasp it fully. But even then I understood that the film was not about the camps but about sexuality and an abusive relationship framed by the history of German fascism, which incidentally Cavani had earlier researched when making documentaries for RAI. I do remember being moved by it and finding Charlotte Rampling's and Dick Bogarde's performances most compelling.

So I watched it again after a long gap this morning, while waiting for a delivery - you know the kind of thing you have to be sitting at home waiting for, as no one can ever tell you the exact time when your item will be brought by the courier.

Photographer: Terry Slater

I enjoyed watching it, despite being really perturbed by it. Once again Rampling and Bogarde struck me as superb actors - she was perfectly suited to the role, with her lithe frame the flashback scenes in which she appears as a teenager at the camp are totally believable. And I discovered that there was a lot to be unpacked about this film, which perhaps appeared at the wrong time to be appreciated. Homo-erotic signifiers are scattered throughout the film, where we also see the intimate, though never physical, relationship of the heterosexual male protagonist with Bert, a homosexual Nazi - a reminder of the ambiguity of attitudes to homosexuality in Nazi Germany, where homosexuality was both promoted and suppressed.

Briefly, for those who don't know it, the film is set in Vienna in 1957. A group of former Nazis lives a tranquil, anonymous life, having escaped and having never been tried. Max (Bogarde) is one of them and works as a night porter in a hotel. They have their ritual formal meetings which they call 'trials', which end with a rehabilitation and destruction of all evidence, including the 'filing' of eye witnesses. Max was one of those Nazis who executed given orders but he certainly took pleasure in doing it and had a way of getting his own kicks at the camp - never named. Too small a fish to be hunted down, one of the many Nazis who would easily slip into anonymity, as many indeed have done. But guilty nevertheless. As he is awaiting for his 'trial' Lucia, a Jewish young woman who had been an inmate at the camp where Max used to perform his 'medical experiments', now married to an American conductor, comes to stay at the hotel. She is accompanying her husband on a tour. Lucia and Max immediately recognise each other. They had had an abusive sexual relationship back at the camp, one in which she and Max had also created an unbreakable bond. She was Max's 'little girl', willing to be because she wanted to survive. After some time and an initial resistance the two of them slip back into an intimate, passionate, doomed relationship which echoes that of the past, one in which they both re-enact the violence of the past mixing it with tenderness and genuine, if incomprehensible, affection. Cavani attempts to get inside the head of abuser and abused, rejecting black and white definitions of good and evil. There is a moment in the film which is very significant, where a chained Lucia in Max's apartment tells her interlocutor, who is trying to get her out, that she is there of her own volition. The ending is tragic, as can be expected.

Photographer: DG

What shall we make of this seventies art film? Is it truly to be reviled as suggested by its many critics?

No it is not. I dont even think that Cavani meant in any way to be disrespectful toward Holocaust victims by using the Holocaust as a frame. Cavani's Night Porter (the Italian title "Portiere di Notte" somehow does not translate too well into English as it really means Porter of the Night, the night being a reference to Nazism) is overdue for a reappraisal.

"In The Night Porter" writes Nick Impey, "Lucia is portrayed as liberated by her acceptance of a non-heteronormative sexual identity... Thus, the message of Cavani’s film is that a break from hetero-normative sexual identity can lead to release and equality in sexual couplings".

The message is relayed in a very disturbing way but anything that touches on human sexuality in a such a raw manner, depicting a co-dependent relationship is bound to be disturbing. The film often acts as a mirror.

When you watch yourself in the mirror what do you actually see?

Below is one of the most famous scenes of the film, in which Lucia performs Wenn Ich Mir Was made famous by Marlene Dietrich while at the camp
(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Let's talk about...casual sex

I was browsing my FB page and this article came up as a top story. It is a piece published in the online version of Psychology Today. It is by Stanley Siegel and it is entitled Why I advocate for casual sex. It is in fact a sequel to his previous In defense of casual sex which attracted dozens of comments, not all of them flattering.

"The more I practice psychotherapy" says Siegel "the more I appreciate that healing the mind and spirit is as much art as it is science...Sex is the window into our psyche". He then goes on to say that "when practiced intelligently and generously, sex has the capacity to help heal emotional wounds and rectify unmet childhood needs" and that he has often found that many "truths" about sex, and especially about casual sex, are none other than "entrenched myths". He goes on to list them:

1. Casual sex is devoid of emotion

2. It is reckless

3. The best sex is in committed relationships

4. Casual sex is sexist

5. Casual sex is dangerous because it spreads diseases
I will not repeat here Siegel's arguments in detail except to say that he manages to make a good case in defense of casual sex, countering each one of the above mentioned objections. So casual sex is not devoid of emotion, it is not reckless, it is not sexist, it is not a way to spread diseases - it is unsafe sex that does it, not casual sex, though I have to admit that sometimes the two conflate.

I was very intrigued by the responses to both the articles and I would like to invite you to read the comments - beware, some comments are quite insulting.

I remember some time ago Vena Ramphal's podcast in which she said that to pretend no emotion whatsoever was involved in sex was a fallacy and went on to disabuse us of the notion of a soul mate. I wrote about it in my post The myth of the soulmate. I am mentioning this again because ultimately the idea that there is such a thing as casual sex goes hand in hand with the myth of the soulmate. In other words to have a hierarchy in terms of one's sexual experiences leads to negativity.

Siegel is not saying anything so different from what certain spiritual teachers have also said. Monogamy is after all nothing more than a social construct. It should be a choice rather than an imposition.

Photographer: Charles Fennell

The word casual sex does have negative connotations and personally I would avoid using it, precisely because it is so open to misunderstandings. But the crux of Siegel's arguments resonates with me, to a great extent.

Ultimately I go along with Franklin Veaux's comment: "The fact is, if the people involved are healthy, then casual sex between them can be healthy as well; and if the people involved are unhealthy, then even sex in a committed relationship can be unhealthy. It's not committed vs. casual that makes sex healthy or alienating; it's the folks involved, their integrity, and their choices".

Wise words. Belated Happy Solstice Greetings and Merry Christmas, everyone!

(All photos unless otherwise stated are modelled by Alex B)

Monday, 19 December 2011

No Punk in Aceh? No Punk, period.

Photographer: Richard Plumb
Last week the media reported on an unsettling event in the Indonesian province of Aceh, in Northern Sumatra. Some 6o young punks were arrested by police and forced to shave their hairdos and undergo  rehabilitation. Aceh is ruled by Shari'a law and being punk is, apparently, a criminal act.
I reacted to this feeling quite sick. I am a former punk (NOT punkette, please!).  I no longer sport a red and blue hairstyle, my hair is white and getting close to my hips and I do not wear safety pins anymore - though my favorite jeans are falling apart, they are seriously torn and to me they are the best wardrobe item I possess.
But once a punk always a punk.
I still listen to the music (and the postpunk rock, including grunge, which has really become a connoisseur's thing, as it died in the 90s)
So you can imagine how upsetting it was for me to hear about the ordeal of these young people.
Punk is a global phenomenon and post seventies punk grows in places like Indonesia or Mexico. Punk is not dead, it just cannot die! It encapsulates a rebellious spirit.

Self Portrait
"The global punk rock scene provides a fruitful basis for exploring the multiple circuits of exchange and circulation of goods,people, and messages.  Punk can also offer new ways of thinking about international relations and communication from the lived experiences of people’s daily lives" writes Kevin Dunn from St Andrews University in his brilliant paper "The Punk Politics of Global Communication,or, It’s A Punk Rock Planet After All".
The  Clash, I can never have enough of them!
But let's get back to the issue at hand. Fundamentalist Muslims find punk sinful. But before you start inveighing against strict Muslims, wait a minute. Is this not similar to what the Daily Mail did in 2008 in a liberal western democracy? I mean, punk bashing is met with approval in liberal societies too. By the way Indonesia is not an Islamic country and there is a strong opposition to such acts as those seen in Aceh, the reaction against this in Jakarta has been phenomenal.
"Punks and metallers are seen as The Other. The mainstream populace – however fucked up it may be itself – always has and always will fear The Other. We always get the blame! " says an anonymous columnist writing for Thrash Hits.
I could not agree more.
(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Sunday, 11 December 2011

I feel authoritative,feminine and decisive...

Photographer: Caroline Michael

"I feel authoritative, feminine and decisive; in the mood to clobber Scargill, or take a ride in a tank...The Falklands goggles are yet to be seen on the catwalk" So writes Hermyone Eyre, in the ES Magazine of 9th December. All made up to look like Mrs Margaret Thatcher.
"I am 30, made up to look 50" she goes on. This is an empowering look, but worth recreating "if you are in your twenties, when looking older is still an advantage and pearls and bows come across as ironic. For anyone else it's a look to be followed not to the letter but in spirit. Have I made myself clear?" she ends.
I was reading this on the tube, during rush hours, when we were all packed as sardines - that transportation should be so bad in this country and this city in particular is but another legacy of Mrs T's policies.
I felt like throwing up. Forget about fashion capitalising on the film The Iron Lady which will open on 6th Jan, with Mrs Thatcher interpreted by the glamorous Meryl Streep. This article does not seem to have been written by someone endowed with any brain.

Photographer: Martina O'Shea

I am not happy about glamorising Mrs T. I lived through her time, I was summoned because I could not pay the bloody poll tax (£750 per year was impossible for me to find, I was a student!), I was there in the poll tax riots (which the film glosses over, in fact political commentary is non-existent in this film). I had my PhD viva on the day Mrs T. finally made her departure from number 10, the 26th of November 1990, and I remember coming out of my viva feeling elated because I had passed, to be greeted by a crowd of jubilant students - surely they can't be doing this for me, I remember thinking in bewilderment, I had not heard the news, I had been in a classroom with my examiners. They were celebrating Mrs T's demise of course, it all became clear in a flash. I joined in the big party.

I despise Mrs T's policies and what she stood for, the racism, the provincialism, the wanting to keep women at home to look after young children - nurseries places were drastically cut by her, the stereotypes she would encourage e.g. "single parent families breed criminals".

I remember the cold winter of discontent, the miners' strike, and the devastation and erosion of communities that the Iron Lady brought about.

A piece by Sarah Churchwell in the Guardian compares Marilyn Monroe, also the subject of a new film, My week with Marilyn, and Mrs Thatcher, suggesting similarities between the two "icons". Churchwell's piece barely manages to make sense, it's a bit like watching someone on the trapeze suddenly failing to grab the swing but then doing it, with difficulty, on a second attempt, when she finally states "as parables about powerful women, there are serious objections to both My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady. The latter often seems more interested in Thatcher's dementia than her career, and keeps putting her daughter Carol in the frame to suggest the moral of today's favourite sexist cautionary tale: career women ruin their children's lives. My Week with Marilyn falls back on the cliché that Marilyn's career ruined her own life, that her stardom destroyed her"

Oh well, she has suddenly realised that the comparison is not quite plausible after all and is trying to save face - "the most tortuous comparison I have come across in ages Sarah" says a commentator and another writes "I don't recall Monroe destroying a country's manufacturing industry and forcing millions of people into poverty - but I'm willing to be proven wrong, Sarah"

Who is behind The Iron Lady? Who wants a whole new generation of young Brits and Americans believe that the policies of The Iron Lady and indeed the Iron Lady herself are to be admired, something to aspire to?

Whilst I do think Meryl Streep is a great actress and no doubt she has brought much compassion in her interpretation of Mrs T, who in the film is portrayed as suffering from dementia (we see her life through flashbacks), I just cannot make head or tail of this film. Why now?

"I don't know whether it's a science fiction film or a horror movie. It's certainly not a documentary," said former Derbyshire striking miner John Dunn, when previewing scenes from the movie.

I rest my case.

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)

Monday, 5 December 2011

You shake your bum too much

Photographer: Martina O'Shea
She is ninety-five but she looks a little younger. She attends the old people day centre where I am contracted to deliver some dance therapy for the next ten weeks - still training, still studying, still having to go and offer free sessions on a regular basis and be assessed on what I do.
Easier said than done. Last year I was with addiction sufferers, mainly drug and alcohol,  and was glad when it ended, they really gave me a hard time. This year I have chosen to work with older clients -  is it because I have an elderly mother and am trying to come to terms with the fact I cannot be with her as often as I would like? A projection, or rather, a transference? Perhaps.  Next I'd like to work with women that have been in abusive relationships but I am not quite ready for it, I am still licking my own wounds. My final training will be with forensic, if I can build up the strength to endure being  in jail for one day a week for eight to ten weeks. The words of the young man I once met at a police station, while waiting to be interviewed, still resonate with me  "once that door is locked behind you, you'd do anything to get out".
So there we were, the lovely ninety-five year old, with a headful of  hair whiter than mine and a couple of younger women, including a very wispy  Russian lady who can dance hundreds of folk dances and is keen to demonstrate them - she did that at the first session and even sang and I struggled to keep up with her.
Photographer: PWPImages
We began the session and She did not want to take part, on account of her swollen ankles and other problems. She said she'd sit and sleep through it, and graciously "allowed" us to use the space. Which we did. We were in the middle of some game, listening to the music of the Andes and going off on an imagined climb when She screamed "STOP. You are doing it all wrong". We stopped, one of us turned the music down and She said: "None of you can dance. You all shake your bum too much" And then She told us how to dance the waltz and began to oversee that we were doing it properly. My job is to hold the space for the group, so this was fine. There were a few grumblings and some heated arguments on steps, and from there the session developed in a totally unforeseen manner. At the end of it all She turned to me and said that I needed to go to dance school again because I had been taught badly. You cant shake your bum like that, she repeated. I left the day centre feeling quite amused.
On the way back home I stopped at a shoe shop to get myself a pair of new high heeled sandals for pole dancing  and a pair of warm, flat boots for everyday use.

Photographer: Martina O'Shea
Shaking one's bum when dancing was regarded, once upon a time, extremely distasteful. And not just in European culture. I still remember the horrified look of my Indian classical dance teacher (I took some classes when travelling through India) when he saw me moving my hips - no, no, you dont ever do that, they only do that in Bollywood! This was accompanied by a grand sneer.
Now that I pole dance I shake my bum quite a bit - we do a bit of shimmying, not belly dancing style, but we do it as we get closer to the pole, then stick the bum out, take a step and do a spin. I love it.
Then when I go for my contemporary dance class the first thing I am told is that I should tuck my bum in, Alex what are you doing, the bum out is bad for your posture, bad for your spine and not at all 'artistic'- your pelvis should be in line with your shoulders and as you contract you push the breath down and as you release it comes up. Or something like that, I always struggle with the breathing technique.
So here I am, trying to reconcile different ways of being with my bum. The good thing is that at least I know when to tuck it in and when to stick it out, when to shake it and when to  keep it still. A small achievement, no doubt, but one nevertheless...