Mothers on the Line: The Allure of Julianne Moore
by Cüneyt Çakırlar — Nottingham Trent University
March 14, 2016 – 12:33
This audiovisual essay explores Julianne Moore’s on-screen image as an unconventional maternal embodiment. Throughout her career, what has considerably marked Moore’s star image is, I contend, not a particularly authentic signature in her acting style but the thematic and erotic investment in her appearances cast as maternal women of grief, ambivalence, transgression and detachment. My exploration in this video capitalizes upon this maternal erotic and treats it as the core component of Moore’s persona. Through expressive use of editing and sound, the video operates within an expository poetic mode that appropriates the tribute/compilation format and tackles different analytical scales of sampling and audiovisual interpretation in star studies. The piece attempts to articulate a performative approach to expose the thematic continuities in Moore’s performances of mothers (or mother-substitutes) and to queer the on-screen operation of her maternal image.
A crucial marker of Moore’s star image is the affinity it bears with gay and lesbian spectatorship, or what Brett Farmer conceptualized as “matrocentric gay cinephilia” (2000:153). In post-1990s queer filmmaking, the maternity Moore’s characters seem to (dis)embody had often been used to facilitate a genre-bending pastiche-effect with particular references to camp and/or melodrama-as-genre. Todd Haynes, for example, casts the actress as either an embodiment of camp maternal excess in Far from Heaven (2002) or a physically shrinking body of radical dis-identification in Safe (1995) which is “deeply connected to the materiality (and the metaphoricity) of mothering” (Grant 2013). Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace (2007), however, sexualizes Moore’s character as the manipulative incestuous mother in contradiction to the classical maternal melodrama’s deferral of the mother’s sexuality. Finally, Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Carrie (2013) amplifies the tense mother-daughter relationship in the original movie and eroticizes the abusive, self-harming mother Moore performs.
These tropes of motherhood extend to a considerable number of films that do not invest in queer authorship, which also reflects Moore’s ambivalent position and mobility as a star in the film industry. Glyn Davis suggests that the actress’s “ability to move between different areas of production registers the crumbling of the distinctions between them [and] serves as a valuable index of the shifting nature of independent cinema in the US” (2011:22). This mobility turns the prevalent maternal erotic into a curious case to be explored in an audiovisual compilation form. The theme of sexual ambivalence and transgression in Chloe (2009) and The Kids are all right (2010), the sexualization of women grieving the loss of their children in Don Jon (2013) and Boogie Nights (1997), and the narration of maternal neglect, abuse and abandonment in Freedomland (2006), What Maisie Knew (2012) and The Hours (2002), do all address the female protagonist as a “mother on the line” i.e. a subject that transgresses the norms of motherhood/parenthood.
Appropriating the tribute form, this video interweaves Moore’s appearances as mothers (or sexualized mother-substitutes) and complicates the moments of maternal affect in them. Through the very act of compiling a diverse sample of these performances, the audiovisual essay aims to provide what a written scholarly analysis could not articulate as effectively: a condensed, affective experience of Moore’s characters operating within the uneasy nexus of maternity and sexuality. While the poetic mode in this work may be said to “evoke a subjective experience of spectatorship” and to function as homage or an enactment of fandom in its “attempt to incorporate as many exemplary moments as possible” (Grizzaffi 2014), the compilation’s montage and thematic focus within its breadth of sampling accommodate an analytical impulse and exposes the maternal as the constitutive element of Moore’s star image. In other words, the compilation prioritizes not an eclectic supercut homage to Moore but a structured narration of tropes, thematic resonances and dissonances that her acting career has accommodated with reference to the drama of maternal attachment/detachment and desire. Video essays, as Creekmur also suggests, can “function, even if poetically, as forms of analysis drawing our attention to the kinds of concerns already familiar from more conventional film scholarship” (2014). Harnessing the personal/libidinal in various ways, the poetic tribute, as an essayistic mode of addressing, say, the cinematic construction of a star’s sexual allure or charisma, can flirt with the expository and the analytical.
Alan Lovell argues that “film stars are improbable candidates for carrying out the ideological task assigned to them” (2013: 261). In his quest for an alternative framework in star studies, the scholar prioritizes performance and aesthetics over the demystifying ideological analyses of stars. Resonating with Lovell’s argument, an audiovisual compilation, through its essayistic “openness” as text, bears the potential to give a critical account of stardom without a stable ideological closure of a “star-identity”. As an alternative to conventional academic scholarship’s attempt to contain stars discursively, the poetic exposition as a videographic register can produce new critical insights to the ideologically unstable and messy textuality of stars – by generating an audiovisual map of affects for their allure. In this sense, this work produces an erotic map of maternal affects in Moore’s performances to demonstrate their collectively formative role in the overall star-text regardless of the individual ideological operation of each film and its framing of motherhood (as, say, misogynistic, feminist, queer, heteronormative, or homonormative).
I open the video with an anxious birth scene, which also opens Peirce’s remake of Carrie. The piece then meditates, in an episodic manner, on various themes of mother-child attachment and maternal erotics by providing a rich selection of scenes from the films Moore acted in. In I. UNION/DISSOLUTION, the scenes of the happy mother-child union are followed by the dramatic moments of its dissolution through scenes of alienation, abuse, frustration, abandonment and grief. In II. THE [MATERNAL] ALLURE, the video first cuts to the sex scenes where Moore’s maternal aura, or her “mothering” presence, is eroticized by means of cross-generational love and implications of incest (The English Teacher, Don Jon, Savage Grace, and Boogie Nights). These scenes are followed by the homoerotic encounters in Chloe and The Hours, which function as transgressive moments for the straight mothers Moore performs. In this section, the theme of sexual ambivalence and transgression is maintained by cutting to scenes from The Kids…, where we see Jules, a “happily coupled” lesbian mother performed by Moore, and witness her confused reaction to the affair she is having with the “biological father” of her children. The section ends with a threesome scene from Savage Grace, which shows the mother in bed with her son and her best friend. In the final section III. KILLING, the erotic union with the mother dissolves again – this time with acts of killing, where the emotionally overwhelmed son/daughter attempts to kill the manipulative/abusive/disappointing mother.
Registering different forms of affect and excess, the soundtrack of Far from Heaven and the four films, namely Peirce’s remake of Carrie, Kalin’s Savage Grace, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, function as central narrative motors in this audiovisual essay. While the mothers in Far from Heaven, Carrie and Savage Grace can be considered as objects of queer spectatorial desire, the grieving mothers in Boogie Nights and Don Jon (Amber and Esther, respectively) function as “sexed-up” mother-substitutes, or "MILFs", who, being phantasmatic objects of a projective male gaze, channel their unfulfilled maternal desire to new, sexual objects. The incestuous erotic of “mothering” embedded in these two characters is being literalized, if not queered, in Tom Kalin’s powerful depiction of Barbara Daly Baekeland’s complex incestuous relationship with her son in Savage Grace.
In order to amplify the complexity of what Moore’s star image incorporates as the drama of maternity, I used Elmer Bernstein’s score that was created for the original movie soundtrack of Far from Heaven, Haynes’s pastiche of the 1950s women’s film. Spanning the two main sections of the video, the deliberate repetition of the score acts as a “sonic citation” and mimics the expressive use of music in classical maternal melodramas to match the on-screen emotional excess. This is to create a performative continuity, friction and confusion between the various forms of excess that Moore’s maternal image enacts and what melodramas conventionally register as excess. The performative friction I attempted to construct here between visual and sonic registers resonates with Michel Chion’s notion of “forced marriages between image and sound” (1994: 188-9). In the first half of the piece, the pathos of mother-child union and that of its dissolution appear to sit harmoniously with Bernstein’s score and its allusion to the melodramatic soundscape. However, the score continues when Moore’s maternal persona is being visually eroticized and sexualized (with implications of incestuous desire, sexual ambivalence and/or of female homoeroticism): Bernstein’s moments of sonic drama and climax are “forced” to amplify the sexual pleasure and desire of Moore as the amorous mother/mother-substitute on screen.
The maternal characters that Moore has performed in various production registers of cinema have appealed to diverse audiences. This video attempts to locate that multivalent maternal allure in a poetic audiovisual form. My exploration resonates considerably with what Richard Dyer emphasizes in his recent review of Jaap Kooijman’s video Success: the potentials of videographic modes in contemporary star studies to “insist on … allure in the face of critique” and “to critique affect by means of affect” (Dyer in Kooijman 2016, my emphasis).
Cüneyt Çakırlar is a lecturer in Communications, Culture and Media Studies at Nottingham Trent University, UK. His research practice has focused on transnational sexuality studies, erotic/exotic in visual cultures, and trans-regionalism in contemporary art practices. He taught on queer aesthetics and film at UCL (UK), Bogazici University (Turkey), Istanbul Bilgi University (Turkey) and Koç University (Turkey). He has published articles in Critical Arts, Paragraph and Screen, and a co-edited volume, Cinsellik Muamması [The Sexuality Conundrum: Queer Culture and Dissidence in Turkey] (2012), focusing on cultures and politics of sexual dissidence in contemporary Turkey. Çakırlar also translated Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter into Turkish (2014). His most recent research focuses on Werner Herzog’s documentary filmmaking, MILF/DILF stardom, and the aesthetic in the Bersani-Dutoit collaboration.
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Creekmur, Corey. “On the Compilation and Found-Footage Film Traditions of the Video Essay”, [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies 1:2, 2014. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/06/28/compilation-and-found-footage-traditions
Davis, Glyn. Far from Heaven (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011).
Farmer, Brett. Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).
Grant, Catherine. “Un[Contained]? On Todd Haynes’s [Safe]”, Filmanalytical, June 17, 2013. http://filmanalytical.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/uncontained-on-todd-hayness-safe.html
Grizzaffi, Chiara. “On Video Tributes”, [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies 1:2, 2014. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/06/23/video-tributes
Kooijman, Jaap. “Success”, [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies 2:4, 2016. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2015/12/29/success
Lovell, Alan. “‘I Went in Search of Deborah Kerr, Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore but Got Waylaid …’”, Contemporary Hollywood Stardom, edited by Thomas Austin and Martin Barker (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 2003), 259-270.