IotD: Parker Tyler at Narcissus screening

From the Anthology Film Archives website, a delightful photo by photographer Katherine Bangs from a preview of the experimental film Narcissus by Willard Maas and Ben Moore in 1955.

Parker Tyler Marie Menken James Broughton by Katherine Bangs

Those pictured, from left to right, are pioneering queer filmmaker James Broughton, Julian Beck, the co-founder of The Living Theatre, painter and experimental filmmaker Marie Menken, and Tyler.

Menken and Maas were married, and their friend Andy Warhol famously called them “the last of the great Bohemians. They wrote and filmed and drank (their films called them ‘scholarly drunks’) and were involved with all the modern poets” (Nel 208). It has also been long rumored that Edward Albee based Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘s infamous Martha and George on the temperamental pair.

In his collection Underground Cinema, Parker writes at length about Narcissus, which he characterizes as a “Cocteau-influenced film:”

The myth of Narcissus and Echo is set forthrightly in a sort of city slum, a socially deserted warehouse district, where the hero is an infantile young homosexual living a hermit’s penurious life of wandering the streets, collecting toylike fetishes, and daydreaming… (219)

He goes on to state:

Narcissus is a serious and sensitive commentary on a deluded type of homosexual whose infantile withdrawal flows from mental and nervous instability. Without its mythological sensibility, however, the film would have achieved its poetic level” (219)

Anthology Film Archive also has a lovely gallery of stills from Narcissus, which I have long wanted to see but have yet been able. A few choice images:

willard maas ben moore narcissus still 1956willard maas ben moore narcissus still 1956willard maas ben moore narcissus still 1956willard maas narcissus 1956 4

Provenance

Katherine Bangs
“Portrait of James Broughton, Julian Beck, Marie Menken, and Parker Tyler, at the preview of the film Narcissus” (December 15, 1955)
Source: Anthology Film Archives

Willard Maas and Ben Moore
Stills from Narcissus (1956)
Source: Anthology Film Archives

Works Cited

Manchester, Lee. “Who’s the Source for Virginia Woolf?” Wagner Magazine, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Tyler, Parker. “History and Manifesto.” Underground Film: a Critical History, Da Capo Press, 1995, pp. 197–220.

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Spotlighting the “Mythical Lesbians” of AUNTIE MAME

auntie mame rosalind russell dvd coverSometimes a detail that appears in the frame of a film instantly seizes our attention and momentarily crowds everything else out–a situation I encountered during a recent rewatch of the 1958 film adaptation of Auntie Mame.

In the film’s second scene the young Patrick is introduced to his Aunt; she has misremembered her nephew’s date of arrival and he and his prim caretaker subsequently stumble into one of the lavish fêtes she regularly hosts at her extravagant Manhattan penthouse. Dumbstruck, the pair ogle the scene before them, and the film carefully showcases the wide range of eccentric individuals Auntie Mame associates with at the height of the hedonistic Roaring Twenties: a pianist playing ragtime while on his back, elderly Russian expatriates, raucous flappers, any number of “colorful” Asian and/or Middle Eastern figures in “traditional” garb–basically anyone conservative American audiences of the 1950s would likely find outré and/or politically suspect. As Mame careens through her rooms introducing her young nephew to anyone she encounters, she pauses momentarily to listen to the philosophical musings of one Acacius Page who is holding forth… to an indifferent room.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 3

But honestly I’m a bit hazy about the whole interaction because I was immediately distracted by the two other figures literally perched on the edge of the widescreen Technicolor frame: two older women, clearly coded as bulldaggers. I was equally mesmerized by their unimpressed glaring–they contemptuously amused by Acacius’s demagoguing–as by their chic fedoras, tailored pinstripes, and wide masculine lapels.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 5auntie mame lesbian party guests 6

Going back to take these screen captures, I also noticed that the pair exchange an eye roll and even a knowing wink when Acacius declares that the uniform at the children’s school he founded is to “wear nothing.”

auntie mame lesbian party guests wink 1

The appearance of these women–who never utter a line–reminded me of the fantastical and outlandish opening chapter of The Young and Evil, where the second line which reads:

“There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians.”

There’s lots to unpack here–which I do in my thesis!–one of which is the tongue-in-cheek presentation of lesbian women who indeed have been historically treated as “mythological creatures” (consider the widely circulated legend that lesbianism was never illegal in Britain because Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed). This isn’t a far cry from how they are presented in Auntie Mame, kooky “types” just as strange and “exotic” as a brownface maharajah with a monkey perched on his shoulder, intended to make the audience pop their eyes in wonder.

And yet, problematic representation aside, I have to admit I was still glad to see them there at all.

I also later realized I hadn’t registered that the same women appear earlier in the scene, foregrounded for several seconds during Patrick’s first glimpse of the party. Only this time they are smiling and sharing a laugh with another guest–a woman who presents as more femme, but on closer inspection sports neckwear that evokes a man’s string tie.

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 1

Slowing down the pace to capture images, it also became clear a small interpersonal drama seems to take place between the three, which include a disapproving grimace and indifferent drag on a cigarette…

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 2And for the briefest of moments, these queer ladies seem more than mere “types” and seem to possess a life of their own.

WORKS CITED

Auntie Mame. Dir. Morton DaCosta. By Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Perf. Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1958. DVD.

Ford, Charles Henri, and Parker Tyler. The Young and Evil. 1933 New York: Masquerade, 1996. Print.