Learning to Stand
by Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke — The University of Edinburgh; Independent Colleges Dublin
February 04, 2011 – 00:00
In his response to Cynthia’s post Kris brings our attention to a beautiful recent short film in the Dior saga by John Cameron Mitchell, Lady Grey London, starring Marion Cotillard, Ian McKellen and Russell Tovey. This film allows us to bring together some of the themes which have preoccupied us this week: relationscapes, stains, disability, autonomy and relationality, and queer aesthetics of existence, among others. The film initially shows Cotillard framed in an hourglass, the first of many objects – handbags, keys, hipflask, pen, sunglasses, plumage – to attach to her. Kris accordingly asks what we are to make of Lady Grey – is she a “desired object” or an “ideal object”? Possibly. One thing is certain – as she is introduced to us we notice that she has a distinctively Mitchellian signature. She is at various times strikingly similar to both Hedwig and Severin. Most importantly she is an attractor and a facilitator, what Justin Bond calls a “motherboard”, for lonely figures to connect to and touch.
The wheelchair-bound Ian McKellen provides more than “fleeting” but nonetheless also “problematic” moments of crip promise and possibility. The scene where Lady Grey caresses his right leg brace is stunningly reminiscent of Hedwig’s masturbation of Tommy Gnosis in the bath, but her mixture of pity and surprise when she realises that prostheses are all he “has to work with” faintly echoes Tommy’s shock at discovering Hedwig’s angry inch. The scene also makes sex slightly “ridiculous”, “de-eroticizing it”, and gets it out of the way (see John Cameron Mitchell’s interview with Henk Burger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrP-ufdjFds) to see “what is left over”. It’s a connective caesura: a Bataillean excess or useless remainder.
The loneliness and yearning frames the film. Cotillard’s character resembles Severin as she frantically draws for Tovey with what Karin calls a “need to see ourselves through our pictures”. Tovey in turn is also like Severin, left alone as he stains the walls with black ink in the image of Lady Grey’s face, the painting becoming an anamorphic blot as “semen/paint blend into a new work of art”. Also McKellen is left alone but (literally) erect at the end of the film, his eyes dancing and his face bathed in blinding white light, similarly to Sofia’s face during the “interval” as she finally orgasms. In the interview we mentioned above Cameron Mitchell talks about how his protagonists are caught between their desire for autonomy – sucking your own dick or having a clock-stopping but truly solitary orgasm – and their sheer inability to be fulfilled. Severin dreams of procreating “alone in the dark like a worm” and we first see Jamie “curled up in a worm shape” desperately trying to be “self-sufficient”. Yet, when he does succeed in self/fertilizing he “bursts into tears” because “the last thing he is is self-sufficient”. Many of Cameron Mitchell’s characters, he admits, are – like Tovey and McKellen— lonely, auto-erotic, flailingly “trying to connect”. A “paranoid reading” might suggest that they always remain the same, in the same place. But a “reparative reading” is also possible…
Cameron Mitchell’s films are full of grinning scars and gaping wounds, but wounds are eroticised and gaps become folds. Not unike the final Hedwig hybrid, Lady Grey may actually herself become-motion or become-fold at the end of this short film. As she enters the ferris wheel, choosing to be alone, she spins across the London eye “like a 45 ballerina” with her hands lifted toward the sky as the wheel itself “spins along its colossal circuit” (Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus, 2). The final line of the stage version of Hedwig is “lift up your hands”, and the character moves from being “the internationally ignored diva barely standing before you” to a beacon of gnosis, knowledge, standing up straight. Learning to stand means being self-sufficient, becoming-star. Cotillard’s is a biogrammatic “body-becoming-sky” (Manning, Relationscapes, 136) between the Eye/I and the world. Like Hedwig, Lady Grey, with her stellar headgear shines “like the brightest star, a transmission on the midnight radio” – she glows like the statue of liberty in Shortbus’ New York City. She is not an object but rather a living relationscape; she is London Lady Grey. There is “nothing in the sky but air” as Lady Grey/Hedwig liberates herself and learns to stand, finally.
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