Filmmaker Nicholas Ray had a singular talent for distilling desperation into bravura cinema, and his 1958 feature, Party Girl, warps the structures of Hollywood spectacle into a searing portrait of anxious romance. A companion piece to Johnny Guitar that trades the trappings of the Western for 1930s gangster narrative, Party Girl depicts the fragile romance between a showgirl and a mob lawyer, each desperate to escape the dead-end lives they’ve built for themselves.
Party Girl shares some of the DNA of the Cinemascope movie musical, but its core impulses come from the sweaty anxieties of film noir. Party Girl‘s introductory chapter, which shifts from a luminous showgirl number to a menacing mob party to a brutal suicide, anchors all that follows in a state of existential panic and dread. Cyd Charisse’s dance numbers recur throughout the picture are as vividly staged as any to emerge from classic Hollywood, but Ray and his collaborators twist them from crowd-pleasing spectacle to depictions of dangerous desire and entrapment. Charisse’s Vicki Gaye survives by dangling herself before tigers.
For all of its many luminously photographed sequences, the scene that left me reeling is an exterior scene set at a Chicago drawbridge sheathed in darkness, its blue steel beams towering over the film’s lovers, its moving machinery looking like it could crush them at any moment. Speaking with Cyd Charisse’s Robert Taylor, playing mob lawyer Thomas Farrell, talks mournfully of the foolish machismo of youth and the agonies of aging. Together, they are two people lost in an inhuman city, dreaming of being two different people in some different place.
Globalization has not made (nor can it ever make) a uniform, universal culture, but, in 2019, is it truly possible to conceive of a city or town or neighborhood functioning as a thriving cultural space with a relatively firm cultural boundary?
I’m not sure that it is, at least not in the technologically developed world. In this, the Internet Age, culture is more complicated and ephemeral than ever. As we now have the luxury of building communities beyond those in our physical vicinity, we now belong to overlapping communities, many of them virtual. Even when culture now has some kind of physical, localized manifestation, it is the expression not of a singular, geographical culture, but functions as a shared reference point between overlapping, decentralized cultures.
Celebrity is an inherently toxic phenomenon, but YouTube celebrity is one of its worst manifestations.
It’s a form of celebrity for which “selling out” is effectively impossible, because it is a kind of celebrity that can only come into being through the mechanics of “selling out.”
Mount Vesuvius in Eruption by J.M.W. Turner, 1817
I become very sentimental when Christmas arrives, and I say that without shame. There is so much else in the world that invites me to embrace cynicism and it’s a relief to be pulled away from that.
Christmas is a holiday that extends from the hope that transcendence might enter the human sphere, that our existence might not be defined by entropy.
I wish you all a very merry Christmas.
Madonna of the Dry Tree by Petrus Christus, c. 1462–1465
Paul Verlaine, Bibi-la-Purée et Stéphane Mallarmé at the Café Procope by Serafino Macchiati, 1890
The Fall of the Damned by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1620
Whenever we discuss the experience of “reading” as we recognize it today, it is always important to keep in mind that we recognize as “reading” is a relatively young phenomena in the history of humanity, one that only exists because of the technological invention of the book. What past civilizations understood by “reading” often looked very different (and, it should be noted, literacy itself was generally the domain only of the privileged).
Still, I find my affection for sustained reading experiences–by which I mean focused reading for thirty minutes or an hour without interruption–growing deeper in our age of sensory onslaught. If reading does not exist in opposition to what we think of “technology” (indeed, the technologies of our age are very reading-dependent), sustained reading, whether you do it on a codex or a Kindle, forces us into a different mode of engagement than many of the technological structures we utilize and inhabit on a daily basis, structures that are designed to distract through stimulation. In a world of seemingly endless noise, sustained reading increasingly feels like a respite.
The Head of Saint John the Baptist by Francesco Cairo, c. 1635