ALONE, TRAVELER? by Imogen Smith
On THE SAVAGE EYE
A woman in white walks alone down a dark street. Her bouffant dress, huge ermine stole and blonde hair shine in the lamplight; the bell-shaped skirt casts a pool of shadow on the asphalt around her white heels. She is striding away from the camera, into the ink-black night smeared with neon and street-lamps. It might be a still from a late-fifties Joan Crawford movie: the aggressive width of skirt and stole, the spotlight on an isolated woman, the hard shimmer of the urban nocturne.
It is, instead, a photograph taken by Vivian Maier in Florida in 1957. Maier, who spent most of her adult life working as a nanny in Chicago, was unknown until after her death, when thousands of her photographs, stored in a locker that had been auctioned off for non-payment of fees, were discovered by John Maloof in 2007. They revealed a street photographer with a prolific, sensitive, and confident eye—though she never sold or exhibited any pictures during her lifetime. She focused on many of the usual subjects—children at play, the down and out, couples, solitary women, and the abstract geometry of architecture and shadows—but she had an unusual habit of inserting herself into her pictures. Sometimes it’s only her shadow falling into the frame; often she captures her reflection in a store-window, or even a mirror being loaded onto a truck by moving men. Her Rolleiflex is always around her neck, held at chest height, the lens looking us right in the eye; her face above it is no more expressive than the machine. She doesn’t compose herself, or work any flattery on her face from without or within. She presents her plainness plainly to the judgment of the camera.
Looking at Maier’s photographs in a gallery exhibition and pondering the odd way in which she kept herself hidden yet secretly refused to be invisible, I found myself thinking of lines from Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, when the young heroine tells a man she has met: “A girl is more lonely than a boy. No one cares in the least what she does. Nothing’s expected of her. Unless one’s very pretty, people don’t listen to what you say…And that is what I like…I like watching things go on—as we saw you that night when you didn’t see us—I love the freedom of it—it’s like being the wind, or the sea.”
With Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf would create the quintessential literary “flaneuse,” the woman as walker-in-the-city: a mobile, solitary, and imaginatively engaged observer. She wrote in an essay, “Street Haunting: a London Adventure” about the joys of wandering, leaving the confines of one’s own life and personality and drifting on a tide of stories, of other people’s lives. Flanerie, the modern pleasure of aimless urban walking and looking, was a side effect of cleaner streets and electric light, commercialization and the modern culture of spectacle. Female flanerie was far more momentous: for the first time, respectable women could venture alone into public spaces and move among strangers. They were no longer bound to interiors—those rooms that Woolf compares to protective shells. When Lucy Snow, in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853), comes to London for the first time and wanders alone around the City, a masculine realm of finance and trade, the walk has all the newness and adventure of an explorer’s sea-voyage. It also distills the intense isolation of one of literature’s loneliest heroines.
For the flaneuse to replace the streetwalker—the woman as consumer (of images) rather than as seller (of herself and her own image)—represents a crucial shift. Both Maier and Helen Levitt, arguably the greatest of all street photographers, were shy and private women who nonetheless prowled the streets fearlessly, “seeing things go on,” collecting the faces of strangers.
The nature of street photography is that it always reveals people betwixt and between: in mid-stride, on their way somewhere, temporarily pausing, stopping to glance, or improvising a private space—eating, chatting, sleeping—within the flux of the street. Looking at these freeze-frames plucked from the flow of time, it’s easy to imagine that life is really like a film, made up of individual still images. But no human eye can ever see what the camera’s eye reveals, the arrested moment cut off from before and after; the moment alone. Every photograph is something salvaged, but also a record of something lost. Cartier-Bresson called a photograph “a vestige of a face, a face in transit.”
Faces in transit are the first thing we see in The Savage Eye (1960), as passengers disembark from a plane onto the tarmac. This independently-made film combines documentary and staged footage, and initially the overlap is disorienting. It’s obvious that the passengers are real people, and to eyes expecting a Hollywood movie their ordinariness is exotic, alien. The hard, flat light of Los Angeles exposes their faces instead of sculpting them like movie lighting. Their warmth is real as they greet their families and friends, hugging, kissing, talking volubly. But we can’t hear them: they are separated from us by a pane of silence. Instead we hear a sonorous male voice intoning a god’s-eye narration overlaid on the documentary footage. The voice singles out one of the passengers, an attractive blonde woman whose solitude is emphasized by all the reunion embraces. The voice questions her:
As the camera moves closer to her, it reveals the brittle tension in her worn face.
“Because the touch of human skin makes me sick.”
From this interrogation we learn that the woman, Judith (Barbara Baxley), is divorced, having caught her husband with another woman, and has come to L.A. alone, fleeing the intrusive sympathy of friends. This opening scene establishes the strange nature of the film. There is no direct dialogue (with the exception of a single scene), only the voice-over exchanges between Judith and the male narrator, who tells her he is “your angel, your double, your conscience, your god, your ghost.” (Gary Merrill—identified in the credits as “The Poet.”) The intensely heightened, lyrical language floods over the naked images, at times bombastically overwrought, at other times pithy, as when Judith says of her apartment complex, “Half the women in this house live on bourbon, cottage cheese, and alimony.” The restless, ugly, hypnotic documentary footage surrounds and drives the spare yet compelling story of Judith’s lost year. There is always tension between the interior and exterior, subjective and objective, the fictionalized and the factual, but the lines are never clearly drawn.
Ben Maddow, who wrote, produced, and directed the film with two others, was a poet who had worked during the Depression as a Bellevue orderly and an investigator for the government relief program. Though he went on to write screenplays for well-known films like The Asphalt Jungle, he got his start writing narration for documentary films. Approaching the task as a poet, he developed an ability to fit words to the rhythms of film, and stressed the importance of using words to “modify” images, rather than the standard newsreel format of having images illustrate words, or words describe images. Maddow was connected to the Film and Photo League, a left-wing organization that was eventually blacklisted, and he too would be blacklisted for a time, during which he is credited with writing or working on an array of major films (Men in War, God’s Little Acre, Johnny Guitar), mainly with Philip Yordan as a front—though many of his credits can’t be confirmed. The Savage Eye was a collaborative effort with filmmakers Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick, and three cinematographers, Jack Couffer, Haskell Wexler, and Helen Levitt. But the unusual style of the voice-over is surely Maddow’s.
The heavy use of voice-over in postwar Hollywood movies can be attributed to the importance of wartime documentaries and the new concern with factual realism that led to location shooting and the popular semi-documentary style (often focused on the processes of government agencies.) But film noir introduced a second form of voice-over: the subjective, first-person narrator. The Savage Eye takes this stylized interiority, pioneered in films like Force of Evil, Out of the Past, and Raw Deal (a rare case in which the narrator is female), and pushes it to its furthest extreme. The Poet is a unique creation: far from omniscient, he is purely a questioner, a bodiless being trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of humans, rather like the angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. (Unlike them, he cannot overhear people’s thoughts, but depends on Judith to interpret for him.) Judith does not speak spontaneously, but must be drawn out. Her sometimes terse, occasionally irritable replies emphasize her intense withdrawal from human contact. She is a woman utterly adrift, without direction or goal. She neither seeks nor finds love. With her tightly controlled demeanor, she does not invite pity.
Watched without sound, the film reveals the same core, though some details, and some of the intimacy we feel with the central character, are lost. It is still a relentless portrait of alienation, a visual treatise on the ways people seek connection, or distraction from loneliness. That the film uses a woman as the central embodiment of alienation is surprising. Female solitude is a rare subject in art; lonely women characters are common enough, but willfully anti-social loners are typically male, owing to the cultural assumption that men have a fundamental need for independence, while women invariably put more value on relationships and social bonds. (That assumption is contradicted by my own experience or observations; I know more women than men who live alone and like it.)
Thoughts of “Early Nothing,” Gloria Grahame’s verdict on hotel room décor in The Big Heat, come to mind with our first sight of Judith’s furnished room, with its drab generic fixtures and harsh, grimy light. It looks very much like the L.A. hotel room where a killer-for-hire kills time in Murder by Contract (1959, another script Maddow is alleged to have worked on), one of a handful of films from the end of the fifties—many focusing on hit men, like Blast of Silence and Siegel’s The Killers—that replaced noir’s haunted, romantically obsessed heroes with freeze-dried men meting out chillingly bland violence. These films are the cold gray ashes left behind as the noir cycle burnt itself out.
The Savage Eye, despite its late date, feels more like a document of the raw material from which noir was forged: the despair, anxiety, and disgust provoked by the mid-century city. Judith’s isolation is self-imposed, a revulsion from physical contact that springs, at least in part, from her vision—actual or imagined, it’s never clear—of her husband’s coupling with another woman. She retreats into nothingness, leading a life of such aimless vacancy that it suggests religious asceticism. In the furnished room we see her repetitively polishing a circular mirror, rubbing at her own reflection with circular motions, as though trying to erase herself. In a plain white nightgown, she unfolds one of the twin wall beds, lies down with the lamp still burning, and finally begins to cry in utter desolation.
Barbara Baxley, a prolific actress in television, gives an uncanny, faultless performance that never feels performed. She has the looks of a sit-com Mom, with her trim figure and doll-like features—but the fine lines, even the pores of her face and the tiny blonde hairs on her upper lip are visible in close-ups; the camera almost forces us inside her skin. Her eyes are too big, her mouth small and prim. Her face is smoothly set, its cool composure dissociated from her confessional voice; a voice that combines a little-girl timbre with dry weariness. Gaps in the voice-over are filled with anxious, uneasy music. The continual rumination and explanation, the ceaseless back and forth of questions and answers, demonstrate Judith’s inability to erase herself, to become nothing, to “see no one, talk to no one.”
She is always seeing people. Judith is the camera’s object, and we gaze long and hard at her face, but she is also the camera itself: we see what she sees. The camera is not subjective in the clumsily literal way of 1940s point-of-view experiments like Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage, but in the sense that everything it takes in is filtered through Judith’s mental state. Everyone looks sad, desperate, tawdry. But are we seeing their sadness or hers? If Judith doesn’t come across as a flaneuse, it is because her reaction to her surroundings is revulsion rather than curiosity. She seems most at ease when she is cruising the freeways in her convertible, one of the countless Angelenos who hurtle through the atomized city. The ugliness of the built environment, the infrastructure for rapid travel, and the mixture of exhibitionism and withdrawn indifference in public behavior all suggest the decay, if not the demise, of flanerie and street life. But Judith is, despite her apparent aloofness, a woman who takes in and absorbs the city, in all its acrid poison, and who ultimately accepts it all, like a camera with its shutter open.
If The Savage Eye is, as the title suggests, a film about seeing and watching, it is also a film about the body. From the almost religious atmosphere of the beauty salon where women tend to their physical appearance, to the laying on of hands in faith-healing ceremonies; from audiences slavering over the entangled flesh of wrestlers to the mechanical procedure of loveless lovemaking; from airport embraces to the transfusion of blood from one body to another, the film illustrates the attraction and repulsion, necessity and horror of physical contact.
There is a peculiarly ceremonial aspect to the film’s set-pieces; people engage in these rituals to ward off the lonely, aimless, diffuse, random nature of urban life, which the film illustrates just as clearly. In between the major sequences, it keeps returning to shots of people loitering in vacant spaces: old men and women sitting in lawn chairs and on benches doing nothing; bickering, reading, blowing their noses; eating in miserable late-night cafeterias; standing around in pool halls. Homeless men sprawled on the sidewalk; drunks being arrested; dazed accident victims with blood on their faces. The activities that provide an antidote to this solitude, boredom and violence have a numbing, trance-like quality, like the drowsy midday bar where Judith silently drinks a cocktail. She goes regularly, once a week, to a gambling parlor where crowds sit around tables playing cards, a hazy, softly humming limbo of shuffled cards and clacking chips. Asked by the Poet to read the players’ thoughts, Judith states the obvious: “They say, and I quote, ‘If you’ve got your money, and you’ve got your health, what do you need someone to love you?’”
There is a notable absence of children in the film (apart from the opening and closing scene), highlighted by Judith’s admission that the children of her marriage were “killed” she says. When asked how, she replies. “The usual way: rubber, miscarriage, misconception, the knife.” Like Eliot’s “Waste Land,” the film is suffused with a mood of barrenness, decay, sterile sex, and lifeless life. The elderly women who visit a faith healer bring a litany of physical complaints—arthritis, failing vision, fractured ankles, enlarged hearts, and nerves, nerves. Los Angeles, the most dispersed and centerless city, appears in hazy panoramas with scraggly palm trees and telephone wires against the sky, freeways ceaselessly streaming with cars. There is spectacle—a plaster Sphinx, a crowd watching a woman walk in a giant hamster wheel, a store window displaying women’s underpants with naughty phrases embroidered on them—but no vitality, no purposefulness. The only people in the street are the ones who have nothing else to do. Judith, who is supported by bi-monthly alimony checks, kills time shopping, driving around, having her hair done.
At the beauty salon, she sinks back into the childhood pleasure of being taken care of; as her hair is gently brushed back from her face she closes her eyes in a rare moment of peace. In this dreamy, silent place, women get manicures, pedicures, facials; have their hair curled; work out on exercise machines; stretch and fold their bodies into yoga poses, trying to remake or break free of their physical forms. These images, like the close-ups of women’s scrunched-up faces as they do headstands, could be comical, but instead seem grave, bizarre, and faintly disturbing—culminating in the solemn, grotesque image of a woman undergoing a nose job. Is it a violation to photograph women in these private, unflattering moments, or to film the man emerging from a smashed car, or the corpse swathed in sheets?
If the camera can be intrusive or cruel, it can also be liberating. Unexpected images of vitality come in a scene of transvestites in spectacularly gaudy, carnivalesque costumes and make-up, dancing in the street and vamping for the camera. They express the joy of being looked at, of revealing themselves in their glorious plumage. Like the wrestlers in the ring and the stripper, “Venus the Body,” they are performers, and they have a confidence and self-sufficiency unlike the audiences watching them. The crowds at the wrestling match are savage indeed, squat old women and pimply young men yelling abuse through megaphones made from crumpled paper cups. Men leer and smirk at the stripper. People clutch and stroke their pets. Women touched by a faith-healer go into convulsions, babbling in tongues and screeching like steam valves. The hungry void within all these people who dwell in nothingness breeds a desperate energy that must be expelled. Even Judith, aloof and desireless, finally succumbs to dating a crass, heavy-set married man (Herschel Bernardi). There is a harrowing shot of her squashed, averted face as he forcibly kisses and nuzzles her. After they sleep together, she tries to purify herself in the car wash.
“The sky smelled of cigars and coffins,” she recalls of the morning after. “I was a thousand years old. Zero. No one loves no one.”
Judith’s redemption comes through the shattering of her body in a car wreck. Swathed in bandages and plastic in a trauma ward, she dreams of running through a long, white-tiled traffic tunnel in a chiffon party dress. She has to decide whether to live or not. She hallucinates dismembered mannequins—lifeless, idealized female figures—and then the transvestites’ party, a lurid but celebratory response. As her body lies in the hospital and her mind roams through a phantasmagoric city, Judith acts out the tension that has tugged at her all along: between looking and being looked at, being an object and being an observer. In the final movement of the film this dissociation between performer and spectator, between hungry energy and passive nothingness, is healed. As Judith recovers physically, she also recovers the ability to fully inhabit her body and at the same time reach out in imaginative sympathy to the world around her.
It is the simple physical acts of being cared for that abruptly reverse her spiritual nausea. A nurse patiently feeds her some white, pudding substance with a spoon, and the moment recalls the image of her hair being brushed in the salon: her face is at peace, but also enlivened by a childlike pleasure at the extraordinary realization that human beings will do this for each other, tend to the sick and the broken. She envisions the men giving the blood she receives in transfusions—black, white, Mexican, tattooed tough guys, Bowery bums, lying stretched out on tables, opening and closing their fists as the blood flows from their arms, their faces blank and angelic. They are her “secret lovers,” whose strength, born of hate and hard luck, feeds her. Watching children play on the beach as she recuperates, she prepares for rebirth: “I’ll come to the world like a bride, and a stranger.”
To be both a bride and a stranger—both detached and engaged, intimate and unknown, embraced and free—is an elusive, radiant vision for the woman alone in the world, the urban observer, and the female artist.
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