KkK

 

Paul Rooney

Souffle

He looks like an accident in a cartoon, his head all mummied up in bandages, apart from circular holes for his eyes and mouth, with two small holes for his nostrils. Arthur Hamilton is sitting up in his hospital bed after his surgical operation, a rag doll in silk pyjamas. His vocal cords have been screwed around with so as to change the sound of his voice, but he cannot speak yet; all that comes out from his mouth hole is the sound of breath moving through torn vocal cords, like the far away hollow roar inside an old conch shell.

After his operation, Hamilton’s doctor says he will be very happy with his new life. Hamilton is a banker, who a few days before had received a phone call from a dead man, or someone he thought was dead, who had recommended a mysterious ‘organisation’ that arranges for people to ‘die’ and be ‘reborn’ with a new identity. So because he was unhappy with his life, Hamilton had decided to take up the man’s recommendation and become a ‘reborn’. And there he is, all wrapped up like the end of a wooden torch, ready for a lit match. As well as his face, his teeth and fingerprints are also new, the doctor explains to Hamilton, and even his signature will be different, as they have altered the tensor ligaments of his writing hand. Then Hamilton’s face bandages are twirled off by the six million dollar doctor, his chair is swung round to face a mirror, and in it Hamilton confronts the scarred – but handsome – face…of Rock Hudson. He is still not speaking, but a tear runs down his pretty cheek.

His doctor is the same actor who played Oscar Goldman, the man who put Steve Austin in TV’s Six Million Dollar Man back together.

In the black and white film’s next scene, a psychoanalyst plays tape recordings to Hudson of himself (recorded when he was still Hamilton) under hypnosis. After he has been under awhile, he tells the shrink that he has always wanted to become an artist. The analyst calls this a ‘subconscious idée fixe’. Then Hudson is kitted out with all the trappings of an artist’s identity by the ‘organisation’: art school diplomas, a previous track record of exhibitions, a portfolio of work, and a nice new high-brow name – Antiochus Wilson. ‘Your subliminal desires will have free vent through your art works’, the psychoanalyst tells him. Wilson is taken down to his new live-in artist’s studio in Malibu, over-looking the beach, provided by the ‘organisation’. He is provided with a butler called John to help him have a smooth switch to his new life.

The Hudson film has shots of Wilson struggling away mightily with a canvas on an easel. He is disheartened, we can tell he feels like a fool, but he is getting encouraging compliments about his artistic attempts, now and again, from the butler. John Frankenheimer, the director – big on fish eye lenses, weird camera angles – originally shot much more material for this ‘artist’s studio’ section of the film, and that unused footage was recently dug up in the Paramount studio vault. This new footage starts with Wilson’s frustration at his attempts at painting, and he is about to abandon his canvas altogether. But in this newly re-discovered section of the film the butler suggests to Wilson a way out of his artistic cul-de-sac. He urges him, pleads with him, to think about drawing as a gradual way of becoming an artist: ‘the informality of drawing could free you from any anxiety you may have about your aesthetic and technical inexperience’, the butler says to him. After that there are shots of Wilson sketching and scribbling with different types of pencils and crayons, collecting pictures and headlines from newspapers and magazines, and spreading them all around his studio until there is nothing but paper everywhere. Over some time, he arranges all of the material to form three different bodies of work, a separate wall for each, with the larger objects spilling onto the floor in front of each wall. The bodies of work are very different. So different, that the studio now looks like three artists are sharing the space.

We then fade to late evening a few weeks later. The reflected light from a 16mm film projection bathes the face of Rock Hudson’s Wilson, his expression rapt with enthusiasm. It seems that Wilson, who is screening this artists’ film for John one evening, has made the film himself.

The little 16mm film’s camera work and editing is remarkably sophisticated for a first attempt at film-making. It’s plot is centred around ‘Charlie Trucker’, a small sculptural figure that Wilson has made out of flotsam found washed up on the beach outside his Malibu studio. At one point we see the edge of Wilson’s arm as he manipulates Charlie from behind, presumably a deliberate faux pas. Throughout Wilson’s little film, all explanation of the plot’s development, or the character’s speech and thought processes, are conveyed entirely through a voice-over by Wilson himself. As we see Charlie’s head bob from side to side with a steady rhythm at the start of the 16mm film, the voice explains that Charlie is a truck driver turned actor, in his late thirties, but he feels ten years older. He needs a new direction in his life. His recent membership of a Mexican History re-enactment society in Santa Fe had given him a new self respect, through his talent for impersonation and the assumption of new identities: he enjoyed forgetting himself in the re-enactments, and found it difficult to have to remember himself again. He has acquired an impressive permanent Pancho Villa moustache that reminds him constantly of what he could be, that keeps him hovering between his lives, that stops him from being marooned in an old life he has come to despise. Inspired by the re-enactments, we are told, and after being ‘discovered’ by a talent agent, Charlie then gave up the trucking and took up acting for a year or two, even appearing in feature films. But despite all of this – or perhaps because of the promise that these opportunities offered, which has somehow been betrayed – he feels that there is still an empty space in his life, and that this space, if anything, has grown bigger. Like a muddy quagmire on an Illinois dirt track that is gouged deeper with every truck that passes through.

‘My head is made out of what could be a toilet ball cock,’ Wilson says, in the voice of Charlie – an almost inhumanly low growl, but with an attempt at an upper-class English accent – ‘Pebble scuffed plastic. It is really a fishing net float I think. Look,’ says Charlie as he point at his head, ‘it has a rudimentary expression drawn on it in black felt tip: a jagged, pained smile. A slack signature scribble. There is a mistake-mouth that has been crossed out sitting above it: a black moustache. Two large eyes. Indelible twirls. The rest of my body is composed of driftwood, fragments of cloth, rusting tin cans. I make constant jerky, side-to-side movements. Non-stop bad dancing. The movements indicate when I am speaking or engaging with my environment in some way. In executing all of my roles, it is my surprising versatility as an actor that I value most. Which sets me apart.

‘I am standing smoking this ‘cigar’, which is actually a brown roll-up cigarette. Standing in the centre of a room on a faded pink rug. Tinned salmon colour. As you can see, this is not an actual room, but a whitewashed cardboard model of an artist’s studio. Species of Spaces. I notice the titles of books on the wall-mounted bookcase. Sexuality and Space. A small low table has a smashed plaster bust scattered across it. Leaving chalk dust on old varnish.’ There is a cut to a detail, a blue painted eye staring blissfully upwards from half of a plaster face. ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony,’ Charlie continues, ‘Sculpted curls. Mortalité humaine.

‘An indefinable feeling of discomfort is now spreading right through my being. Like a sudden icy gust of air in a lift-shaft, through taught descending wires. L'abîme est chez nous. It is the anxiety of not knowing. Of not being able to really know someone else.’ Though partially shrouded by a cloud of cigar smoke, Charlie’s face is reflected in the glass of a picture on the wall, a drawing of a dreamlike forest. ‘My reflected face has not changed its expression, of course, but the jerking movement of my head provides evidence of my mental struggle. Acting, after all, is the art of expanding the possibilities of the body. The body is everything. Jerking. Taughtness. Pain.’

Inside the rudimentary set, as Charlie’s thoughts spill out, a tennis ball headed wooden figure in a long dark coat is sitting directly behind Charlie in a wooden chair. The figure’s hair is made of a short length of frayed plastic rope; his coat resembles a dressing gown due to it being made out of fragments of a beach towel. This is James from the ‘organisation’, which has carefully selected three ‘life choices’ for Charlie to peruse. The ‘organisation’ normally select one new life for their clients, but in this case Charlie, through long and difficult negotiations, has persuaded the ‘organisation’ to let him choose from a selection of possibilities. So James is taking Charlie round three artists’ studios, after which he will choose one of the artistic practices, and with it an entire identity: Charlie will then ‘become’ that artist.

‘Reminders of death. Death and dissolution. Everywhere. I am studying the studio space. Preoccupied by the thought that my old self would be systematically rubbed out in a matter of days. Airbrushed. Fait accompli. I will try to use personal experience to aid my performance. This will be very useful. To identify with the emotional life of the character and portray it.Honi soit qui mal y pense. Anyway. I was thinking of the plans they had for my old self. The ceremony of a staged death from hypothermia whilst filming a scene in a walk in refrigerator in San Francisco. Door shuts. Lock sticks. A body stiffens. Afterwards a funeral. In my beloved Juarez. All laid on by the men from the ‘organisation’ with their tennis ball heads and dressing gown coats. Yellow fuzz stubble. Felt tip features. I look at a photograph on the studio wall of swarthy men carrying a coffin. And it is difficult to avoid thinking of how the ‘organisation’ will achieve my erasure without suspicion. Surely they would need a real body, a real corpse, to stage my death? A real frozen double? That was the only way. And would the artist who’s identity I chose after these studio visits, will they not have to die? If all three of the artists were not dead already? Mais certainement.

‘I watch James’s tennis ball head sipping coffee. The white mug is minuscule, it has been sellotaped to James’ twig of a right arm. The mug remains still in front of his chest as his tennis ball head constantly shakes, as if to a silent samba rhythm. James recounts to me the results of my hypnosis. Earlier that week I had been lying on a psychiatrist’s couch, my face displaying my usual look of wide-eyed, crooked smiled agitation. I was fully immersing myself in the moment of the character. Trying to gain spontaneity through an understanding of the scene's circumstances, in this case, that the ‘organisation’ was using hypnosis in order to tease out the details vis-à-vis my desire to become an artist. On the couch, James tells me, I had repeated the phrase, “My dreams are a liquor,” a number of times. Slurring words. I also talked of a dream I once had but had forgotten. In it I found myself in a bathroom with its walls full of drawings of human faces and animals. Coming alive. Emerging out of the walls. Some kind of griffin flexed its claws above the bathroom radiator. A severed finger beckoned from a window ledge. Swinging bodies hung from scaffolds. At the end of the dream, I saw ectoplasm coming out of a man’s mouth, but on second glance, I realised, this was vomited beer frozen as if in a photograph. Puissance de la parole?

‘After James describes my dream, I start to understand why the ‘organisation’ had chosen that particular studio as the first space to show me. My thoughts are confirmed after I go to the bathroom. I see many bizarre forms drawn in felt tip directly onto its walls. Like templates for my own dream. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. In the main studio space a book of Botticelli’s drawings of the Divine Comedy sits on a shelf, to the right of where James is sat as he talks on the phone to the ‘organisation’. My tin hand then hurriedly flaps through the Botticelli monograph pages. Graceful swirls. Angels and devils. I glance around the studio again and wonder how I can go about making my choice. Is this the artist I should become? I cannot help feeling like St. Michael himself, picking over the debris of a solitary life at the Last Judgement. Weighing a soul of the legions of risen dead. Expected to give the signal for salvation or damnation. On a momentary tilt of a divine balance. I will try to make an emotional investment in every scene. I am then free to react. As the character would react. A tin hand shakes.’

Charlie is driven by James through rush hour traffic in the ‘organisation’’s black Cadillac, which is remarkably realised out of salvaged driftwood and gloss black paint. They reach the next studio mise-en-scéne. The floor in the studio is filled with a paper ‘mountain’ covered with small computer screen arrow icons, a drawing as a kind of geological shift. Images fill one wall, but there is a more restrained aesthetic to the information pinned up than in the previous spaces. There are ink drawings of horizontal lines, water smudges all over them, that look like they have been left out in the rain. A delicate code, like organic musical notation, the notes all flower shaped splashes. It is clear now that the shots of the drawings and photographs are cut-in shots of real walls in Wilson’s own studio.

‘There is a photograph of what I think may be a flower filled corridor in Staglieno cemetery, Genoa,’ Charlie says, ‘A giant neo-realist sculpture park of weeping figures and morose angels. I recognise it because I have been there. Years before.’ The sound of swirling woodwind instruments fills the soundtrack at this point as Charlie reminisces. ‘I remember the pounding of the heavy Italian rain on the roof of the alleyway of tombs. The acres of musty floral commiserations. The way Massimo smiled at me on the path lined with trees...

‘As I return to the present from the force majeure of reverie, I start to realise something about the things in the studio space. That they seem to be moving from one state to another. Translating across forms. From mist to rain. From weather to drawing. From computer screen icon to sculptural object. These arrows, diagrams, inkblots, squiggles: were they simple shorthand? Standing for what is remaindered in the process of translation? Are they signs for what is lost in the shift from one unrepresentable, ungraspable thing to another? Or did they represent the shift itself? The hovering. Unable, or not wanting, to decide between states. Between lives.

‘I am trying to discover the character's objective in each scene. I then catch a glimpse of my own round, crudely featured face. Dots and squiggles reflected in the studio window. I can’t help thinking that I look more like Groucho Marx than Pancho Villa. I had thought the same thought a thousand times before. I then try to imagine the new face. The face that will smile at me from the mirror after my forthcoming operation. The profound anxiety that I have felt since my visit to the first studio space suddenly deepens. It’s as if I have stepped off a curb, without seeing it coming. My heart flutters beneath my driftwood rib cage. Trapped wings. Hélas pour lui.

‘I am having a terrible, sudden realisation of what I have chosen to do. As I said, emotional investment. That is the key.’

Cut to the next studio. As his wide-eyed pitch-black gaze moves across the artist’s studio wall, Charlie, continuing to deliver his deep voiced commentary, notices connections between some of the things pinned up; it seems to him that a strange intuitive visual logic has organised the material. There are three images for instance, of darkening sockets, dead heads. One with a man with a black eye on it, one with the sunken eye holes of a skull, and one with a man with black mascara beneath his right eye. A man with sunglasses continues the theme.

The camera pans close in to the images. The circular motifs proliferate, become more abstract. Repeated scientific molecular diagrams echo abstracted circular coloured patterns on other sheets of paper, which in turn are echoing round money-off stickers and images of pizzas on garish flyers. The wall is an explosion of cuttings from magazines, photocopied texts, diagrammatic drawings, all of it massed together, creating a home-made wall paper of detritus. It appears as if this excessive wall coverage is approaching an artwork in itself – representing more than merely a preparation for something else, some future, more resolved piece.

It is clear to Charlie that throughout the mass of images and words on the wall are various mediations of the historical and the political. Soldiers carrying bodies, a ‘bomb horror’ headline, cartoon blood splattered over a Stop the War flyer. It is like a visual outline of a society’s unconscious fears and desires, Charlie ventures to himself as he jerkily strokes his black moustache with a crooked finger. He continues to muse about the excessive information, it’s apparent engagement with the equivalent thrills of consumer culture and military adventure, thrills that we need in order to fill some hole inside us. A desire that can’t be contained, Charlie thinks. A dark hole that cannot be filled.

The day of atelier visits is finished. Charlie now has to choose his new identity.

As we see Charlie sitting in James’ Cadillac in a traffic jam, drinking coffee from the man from the ‘organisation’’s thermos flask, Wilson, in his own voice, stresses that Charlie wants to move to a new life with a gain, not a loss, in the translation. Like a lover giving himself for his beloved, controlled by an indefinable force, erasing himself to become anything his lover desires, Charlie would give himself for art, and he would find himself, his new self, in that gesture. That, surely, was what would happen; the ‘organisation’ knew what they were doing. Even if he did it badly, even if he only half understood, only half impersonated the artist he was to become, it would be better than what he had started with: Charlie Trucker, the old life. Anything but that.

No, it would all be fine.

But then again, the voice-over anxiously continues, Charlie is not faced with a simple choice between three sets of finished artworks stamped with three identifiable sensibilities that he can assess, weigh up, and try on for size. No, what he is left to conjure with after his tour is the provisional nature of such artist’s studio spaces, filled as they were with fragmented, runic clues pinned around walls and stacked on bookshelves, evidence of artistic works rather than the works themselves. The studio spaces were full of different kinds of ‘drawing’, but drawing not just in the sense of linear preliminary sketches of visual ideas: the studios seemed to Charlie like a provisional spatial outline made out of scrawls, printed texts, objects, photographs; an indecipherable diagram in space for work not yet made, or made and removed, or hidden. Or abandoned. But the ‘organisation’ had told Charlie that this would be better for him, this would in some sense bring him closer to the process of making art, and to the ‘real identities’ of the artists. Maybe the ‘organisation’ was right: the studios displayed manifestations of open, provisional thought processes, the exploded debris of thinking. And is it not better to experience thought as flux, as a movement through the air, glistening as the sun catches its spinning shapes, rather than as frozen, like the photograph of a bomb blast cloud he had seen in one of the studios, stopped forever in that moment’s dark, billowing nimbus? Wilson’s voice-over struggles to articulate the complex thoughts in Charlie’s mind, and then goes on to tackle the problem of trying to describe the unique atmosphere of each of the studio spaces, the intangibly different spatial experience of light, smell, sound, in each place: the transmutable plasma for provisional thoughts.

The ‘Charlie sequence’ was cut from the final edit of the Frankenheimer film. The director possibly felt his authorial control had been undermined by Hudson’s input into the sequence. But whatever the truth of it, the final version of the film, released in 1966 under the title Seconds, has a simple, clear-cut finalé. Wilson becomes disillusioned with his new life, which is as controlled as his old one had been, though this time the people doing the controlling are the ‘organisation’. There was no chance of  ‘creative expression’ in Wilson’s new life. In the final version of the film Wilson gives up, admits defeat, and tries to get the ‘organisation’ to do a rebirth on him yet again. To get himself one more try.

At one point in the final edit Wilson goes to visit his wife, or Hamilton’s widow, in the guise of an artist who is an old buddy of her husband. He asks her for a photograph of Hamilton (his ‘old self’) so that he can do a drawing from it, and somehow re-connect with his severed self, and with normal life. The film ends with Wilson screaming as he is strapped to a surgical trolley: he is not going to be rebirthed this time, instead he is to be turned into a corpse for the faked death of another reborn. He screams helplessly, pleadingly. And after the film is over, we are left with the reverberation of these terrifying sounds. Seconds – despite all of the re-edits, and the complete erasure of that ‘Charlie sequence’ – was one of Rock Hudson’s favourite films.

At the start of the Charlie sequence, after talking about Charlie’s interest in Mexican history re-enactments, Wilson explains more about Trucker’s origins, which seem to closely parallel those of Rock Hudson himself. ‘Charlie Movie Star’, as he liked to call himself, had started out in life in the deep Midwest of the US as Charlie Harold Scherer JR, and was later adopted as Charlie Fitzgerald. During the period when he was working as a truck driver, and indulging his enthusiasm for impersonating Pancho Villa, Charlie was discovered by a talent agent named Willson. Humphrey Willson gave Fitzgerald the brand new, super-manly name of ‘Charlie Trucker’, and carefully fashioned a bright shiny new image for him, including newly felt tipped features. Willson took care of the publicity information that accompanied Trucker’s early films, even inventing a past for him, including a fabricated story that the actor had been discovered working as a postman delivering letters to the house of a film producer. To stop any rumours about Charlie’s homosexuality, Willson also had him court and marry Willson’s own secretary, Phyllis. Immediately after the inevitable divorce that followed, Charlie started renting a house directly overlooking the gay beach at Malibu. It is at this point, with the offers for films drying up and TV detective dramas looking like the only career option available to him, that Charlie meets James in a downtown massage joint. At that moment a new dawn breaks for Charlie, a first ever dawn over the flat, barren landscape of Charlie’s darkened soul.

‘Il pense encore. New doubts have been gradually sown in my mind as I have been swilling the dregs of coffee in my plastic cup, James’s Cadillac purring around me. My mind now germinates questions. From deep inside the character, I enact, mentally, his dilemmas. How can I possibly choose? How can I even summarise one of the artistic identities displayed in the studio spaces I have seen? I think about the tangle of representations and emotions that shape any human sensibility. How could it ever be possible to assume someone’s mental clutter as your own? And totally forget the clutter that is your self? All is debris. Enfants perdus. I look at my cigar smoke as it gives shape to my spilling breath. I suddenly see myself in that breath. I see any identity I possess as an exploded spray of particles. Dust and shards. Dangerous fragments glittering in the light. Moving up and away. Endlessly.

‘Yes. It is clear.

‘And I shudder at this clarity. Indeed, my whole body is shaking. Like a voodoo fetish in a manic shaman’s grasp.

‘I now realise that our identities must remain sketched marks. Caressing but never defining a form. Blown shrapnel, scattering but never landing. Drifting flotsam dispersing but never reaching the shore.

‘To land, to reach definition, is a kind of death.

‘But maybe that was what I wanted all along. Not to die, but to live the simplicity, the comfort, of a life clearly outlined. That is what I want now. It would be a small death, in a way. But it would be a life too, and liveable. And not like the old life, that was so complicated, so dispersed it was hard to see any outline at all. But a life I could really perceive. Anyway, it is too late for all this. For all of these questions. I have made my decision. I must go through with it. But I cannot go through with it…I am thinking these breathless thoughts…and I…I am becoming hysterical…’

Charlie’s limbs flail wildly. The mouth on his ball shaped head has now been formed into an open circle. The shape a mouth makes in order to shout. Or to scream.

‘Something worth noting here,’ Charlie continues, as an aside, ‘I am totally in control. The only thing I will ever have control of in a performance is my own body. There is never a direct line to emotions in a performance. Only to the body. By which I also mean the lungs, the voice. And yes, le moment supreme…flailing…screaming…’

James pulls over and stops the car because of Charlie’s alarming condition, and just as he pulls up, a blow from one of Charlie’s stray arms knocks James out cold. Charlie immediately recovers his composure, gets out of the car, and calmly walks down the street. A close up shot of Charlie’s still jerking head, glaring boldly into the camera as he walks, suddenly pulls away upwards. We now look down on Charlie as he stops and looks up into the sky. This shot is abruptly interrupted by the white, scratched frames of the end of the reel, the end of the 16mm film itself. And we can barely hear it, but it is there in the last few seconds of the sound track. A muffled, blunt sound. The sound of Charlie’s distant voice. Laughing, manically, in defiance.

Rock Hudson’s Wilson then announces to his butler John the title of his little film:Fin d'Haleine. As the French say. He goes on to explain that he does not understand the French language. He is attracted to it all the more because of this. Because of the mystery of it. Wilson explains that he had often wondered what would happen if a language, an entire culture, aspired to become another. What if American English suddenly became French? Without warning? And we all started speaking another language. Without understanding ourselves. Foreigners in our own heads.

Charlie Trucker was physically transformed by Humphrey Willson when he first discovered him. The transformation was also an act of extreme will power for Charlie himself, it has to be said. He was taught how to stand, sit and walk, and was given a hard punch to the middle of his driftwood-spined back every time he stooped. His Midwestern accent and stammer were erased, and one vocal exercise had Charlie repeatedly rupturing his vocal cords, so that his voice became half a tone lower each time they healed, giving his voice a deep, manly tone. This was done through ‘bawling’ sessions, repeated over and over for several painful weeks, which required that Charlie scream at the top of his voice non-stop for thirty minutes at a time, until his voice was shrunk into a hollow, lacerated whisper, and he would stop, exhausted, breathless. Or as the French have it: a bout de souffle.

Paul Rooney © 2006 - 2008

Many thanks to Jeremy Akerman, Michael Curran, Brighid Lowe, Tariq Alvi, Rock Hudson.