At the dawn of movie-making, there were no stars. Indeed, as film historian Michael Newton writes, the actors were:
“… puppets, mannequins, and not expected to reveal through their external image a complex inner life. Those early bioscope models were anonymous, subordinate to the piece of film itself; indeed, the earliest films were ‘performed by people who were anything but actors’, sometimes literally just folk picked up in a café.3 Erwin Panofsky remarks that the cast of a prestige 1905 production of Faust are ‘characteristically “unknown”’.
“Even then, however, the camera seems to pick out certain people. Newton cites a short story by Rudyard Kipling, Mrs. Bathurst, in which the narrator sees a film that documents a London crowd crossing a bridge and sees someone he knows, Mrs. Bathurst: ‘There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand’ and ‘She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.’ The film transmits the unique ‘blindish look’ she has, preserving in light that something that was hers, while not being her, merely a trace, both a mere picture and a mock-up of the real thing.”
It is a commonplace to say that Mary Pickford was the first star. Newton accords that honor to a French comedian, Max Lindner. It is clarifying,however, to remember 19th century theater and opera, for definitely there were divas and “stars”. By the end of the 18th century, the great actor or actress had even become respectable. Before the 18th century, theater was, technically, a demi-monde for the Church – both Catholic and Protestant. In one of those moments in the French Revolution that seem to cast shadows down to us, the Assembly debated making actors and executioners full citizens – and ended up adding Jews to that list. Clement-Tonnerre made the speech introducing the civil rights bill.
“Passing to actors, he demonstrated that, in their regard, the prejudice is established on what they are under the dependence of public opinion. “This dependence makes our glory and it flays them,” he cries. “Honest citizens can represent on the stage the chef-d’oeuvres of the human spirit, works filled with the healthy philosophy that, thus put in a position where every human can appreciate it, has prepared, successfully, the revolution that is now in operation, and you tell them: you are Comediens du Roi, you occupy the national theater, and you are criminal (infame)! The law must not let this crime subsist.”” (from Gaston Maugras’ Les comediens hors la lois).
What was the eeriness of the actor about? I’d suggest that we look at a doctrine made famous by Ernst Kantorowicz’s study, The King’s Two Bodies. The Sovereign was invested with a pollical body as well as one of flesh. Similarly, the actor is both the actor and the “part” – an uncomfortable parody, perhaps, of the miracle of the Eucharist. There was a “star system” in the 19th century, in which opera and theater were the great popular as well as high cultural arts, but it was metaphysically different from what happened with the movies. Though Rachilde [Proust’s composite portrait of the great diva] played the part of Berenice, people did not go to the theater to see Rachilde, they went to see Rachilde play the part of Berenice.
But in the movies, the character – with the character’s name – is swept up in if not identical to the actor. Even as the actor is more than the part. Jake Geddes is different from Jack Nicholson, but it is forgivable if people substitute Jack Nicholson for Geddes when they talk about the movie. A theater part lives on – Hamlet did not die with Garrick, nor with Olivier – but the movie part is a more ambiguous kind of aesthetic creature.
I am pulling all this out to try to explain my impression of the cinematic quality of Rachel Kushner’s novels. We still use the old Greek system for thinking of the novel, with the hero or protagonist and the secondary characters – the rounds and the flats, to use E.M. Forster’s terms. The roundedness is supposed to refer to some psychological completeness, some depth that can be evoked but not, if the round effect works, exhaustively shown. Myself, II think it might be more interesting and capture more of the way we read novels – or the way I read novels, given all the cultural syrop I’ve absorbed through every medium – by referencing the star system. I’ve read many novels with round and flat characters, but the novels that mark me with being of my time, so to speak, have stars. Both Reno in The Flamethrowers and Romy Hall (named for a star, Romy Schneider) in The Mars Room are bit parts, extras, but both are written as stars. The seem at once to be perfectly integrated into their parts and to be playing them – a sovereign shuffle. They are unknown celebrities.
I would like to be able to explain this quality by reducing ii to its devices.
In The Man Without Qualities, an important Habsburg official, Count Leinsdorf, is shown in relation to Ulrich, the MWQ himself, and Diotima, his cousin, a socialite who is determined to be a “spiritual” force in Austria by holding a salon in which she mingled noteworthies of various types from finance, art, academia, and politics. Count Leinsdorf is the main attraction in the salon; he goes out of friendship, but, as well, because he thinks of Diotima as holding an “office”:
“Every person,” he would say, “performs an office within the state; the worker, the prince, the artisan, are all civil servants.” This was an emanation of his always and under all circumstances impartial way of thinking, ignorant of bias, and in his eyes even the ladies and gentlemen of the highest society performed a significant if not readily definable office when they chatted with learned experts on the Bogazköy inscriptions or the question of lamellibranchiate mollusks, while eyeing the wives of prominent financiers.”
The duality of the person and the office – which is extended here indefinitely – is structurally like the difference between the actor and the part in a movie, or like the “vehicle” and the gene in neo-Darwinism, or like the King in his body and the King as the body politics in early modern theory. There are enormous variations in the signifying of these dualities. For the novelist, there is always the temptation to make the character stand in for the type – to give the character, as it were, an “office within the state”. This way of reading character is mainstream among critics, I think, who suffer from an obscure embarrassment with regard to stories – it seems that the story can’t justify itself, except with children. The story has to be justified by reference to its “office” in the state – to its illustration of ethico-political principles.
There is that. And there is ordinary life, in which people do indeed take characters as role models, but mainly in terms of excitement: it is some taste of existential excitement that ordinary life craves in music, in movies, in novels, in poems.
Movies, I think, long ago became the central aesthetic object in the West due to the way that the part and the actor seem to merge and separate – the dancer could and could not be told apart from the dance, either on the screen or in “real” life, which unrolled like a movie itself, in celebrity-centered media.
The axis of the Mars Room is just this kind of duality: Romy Hall, as a stripper named “Vanessa”, attracts a mook, a fan, who becomes her stalker: Creepy Kennedy, as Hall thinks of him. How can we tell the stripper from the strip? Creepy Kennedy can’t: he can’t understand his own relationship, as stalker, to “Vanessa”.
Reno – another nickname, or star name – in The Flamethrowers takes a job at a film lab as a “China girl” – that is, she is used, filmed, in order to get the fleshtones right for films in something called a “film leader” – all artefacts of analogue film of the period. She is anonymous, her job consisting of looking as “representative” as possible – which means Caucasian and “comely”, in spite of the name of the “official function”.
“Most people didn’t know China girls existed. The lab technicians knew. The projectionists knew. They had fovorites, faces of obsession, and evn if I liked the idea of my own fleeting by, I knew the technicians looked at the frames more closely, and I liked that, too. I was and was not posing for them. Pieces of film leader were collected and traded like baseball cards. Marvin and Eric preferred a polished look. “The problem with the girl-next-door thing”, Marvin said, “is that with recent Kodachrome its actually the girl next door. Her name is Lauren and we grew up together in Rochester.” The girls, mostly secretaries in film labs, weren’t exactly pinups, but the plainer-looking China girls were traded just as heavily. The allure was partly about speed: run through a projector they flashed by so fast they had to be instantly reconstructed in the mind. “The thing suppressed as an intrusion,” Eric said, “is almost always worth looking at.” Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.”
The China girl is the anti-star, the bit player par excellence; at the same time, the China girl, too, has a double existence – shares, on the most miniscule scale, the division between the actor and the part. This is the abyss – molecular, suppressed – which Kushner finds worth looking at, and elevates into a principle of character construction.
As well, into a principle of form. In the Flamethrowers, the form of the monologue – the characters are always telling stories, giving the novel a sort of “All about Eve” feel, without Eve here having any ambition at all – surrounds the substance, which is about an art scene in which film has a central role. The New York art scene of the 70s. In The Mars Room, while there are many movie references, the whole movie motif is absent. This is an underworld, a dangerous classes, novel, split up between the monologue and the quasi-indirect mode of discourse, which Pasolini hailed as an important resource of film. These characters are just the type who do not “fulfill” a state office, who flee from the office – strippers, drug dealers, chiselers, mooks, dopers, uncared for children, careless parents, growing up in the interstices of society and waiting – not to be discovered by Hollywood, but to be discovered by the Incarceration state, as they inevitably will be.