Mad Scenes

By Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the misogynistic Victorian view that women, the "weaker sex," were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly, the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness, exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary appears in a classic gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and Streaming). The mad lead character/anti-hero Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Hand in Hand Films' Drive (1974)

 

Arachne (played by legendary director Christopher Rage, here billed as Mary Jim Sstunning, in a script written by Rage) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”


She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Purity and Danger and Foreskin

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

I was born into a world where baby boys were routinely circumcised, whether they were Jewish or not. Hygienic purposes. (These were also the days when nurses wore caps, which were later deemed to be unhygienic. Go figure.)

These were also the days when women at least in middle class white America were knocked out in order to give birth. Babies were kept in rooms behind windows, often in incubators even if they weren’t under five pounds, held up for viewing like specimens by nurses in crisp white caps. (I am remembering the episode of the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy, which corresponded to Lucille Ball scheduling a caesarian section for the birth of her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.)

 

Ricky in the hospital waiting room, from I Love Lucy
Ricky in the hospital waiting room (Source)

 

It's like anything that resembled the nitty gritty raw materials of sex and blood and birth and death was hidden, sterilized as much as possible. Dirt was disorder. Sex was dirty unless it produced babies, but giving birth to those babies was a disordered process that required forceps and scalpels and anesthesia to control it, get it out of the realm of actual living.

 

Scalpel

 

And of course any type of sex other than what took place behind closed doors in a missionary position for procreative purposes was generally deemed dirty and disordered. Thus LGBTQ persons themselves were deemed by the general population as irredeemably dirty, unless they could cleanse themselves and rejoin the pristine world of Father Knows Best, itself but an idealized fantasy.

Mary Douglas in her seminal book Purity and Danger explored this primal desire to contain dirt and disorder, like the way we still keep our basic bodily functions of urination and defecation in a toilet which is supposed to be sparkling clean and in a room that is also supposed to be sparkling clean. The toilet itself is an image that contains in itself this fraught tension which informs our attitudes toward sexuality and even to parts of the body that one uses to express that sexuality.

 

Purity and Danger cover
Purity and Danger cover

Scrubbing a toilet

 

Thus, that foreskin had to be brutally cut off, to cleanse, make pure, the member of an appendage would make its appearance and its role sexual act even more exciting, promising deep, dark, rich scents and that pungent but also enticing smegma.

It revealed the mystery in order to contain it. When I experienced sexually a man who was uncut for the first time (in the bathroom, and in the shower, ironically), which could imply he was somehow more complete, even “holy” which word can also mean complete, I experienced mystery. And in that mystery, glory, and by glory, I am thinking of not a vague disembodied entity or feeling in the clouds, but physical reality itself charged with an energy that creates and propels the orgasm but also encompasses it.

 

Images from The U.N.C.U.T. Club of L.A. & Club Mandom 1: Blue Collar Cheese Factory
Images from The U.N.C.U.T. Club of L.A. (top) and Club Mandom 1: Blue Collar Cheese Factory (bottom)

 

His phallus contained on it a boundary, and it’s through crossing boundaries one grows, changes, lives, dies. I could experience at that time a fullness and as I said above, a mystery that transcended the rigid binaries which result from treating sexual, in fact, all human experience as something we have to dissect with scalpels and pull apart with forceps.

I’m not advocating for an end to circumcision, as it is a boundary-crossing, consensual ritual of initiation for males in many cultures, but, significantly, also a source of horrific pain and suffering for so many, especially women and girls who are circumcised in order to completely suppress their sexual desire, eliminate it like it is indeed something dirty and thus disordered. They in essence are forced into becoming objects only defined by what the culture deems as purity, but at the same time depriving them of living as full, complete persons.

Yes, there’s dangerous realities we do need to contain, as a virus plagues the world and we must first try and control it, then eradicate it, by amplifying up to the nth degree our bathroom rituals of cleansing and purifying. But our complicated, messy, exciting and ultimately glorious sexuality can and should become for humans both dangerous and pure, exploding the tension in that binary if only for a moment. A holy moment.

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Bro, Some May Think You're Hot, I May Think You're Hot, But Get Outta Here!

Bros partying

I read with undue relish an article called, “The Chicago Bro Is Coming to Ruin Your Neighborhood.” Not that I am thrilled that the beer swilling, lawn pissing, stereo blasting jocks have taken over great areas of the city, but finally someone pinned down what I have been saying for years: most young white guys (not exclusively, but there is some truth to the stereotype) are jerks, and their fathers were probably jerks, and their fathers were the ones who slammed sissies into lockers and grabbed girls (or boasted of grabbing them).

I used to call them spoiled brats. Now, like the article, I think word douche applies. (Hmm … sounds like our Harasser/Douche/Vulgar Boor in Chief.)

The area by Wrigley Field in Chicago is now “bro” central, because of its proximity to a sports arena, but the area has always been bar heavy, but it was more like bars one would go to listen to bands, not scream and yell over monstrous TVs blasting “the game,” whatever it may be.
 

Bros cheering at a sports bar

But it seems like the exodus into the city from suburbia to have more readily accessible sex (one of the reasons many LGBTQ migrated to cities as well) that began with the yuppies in Lincoln Park in the eighties is in full swing, and the bros are now infiltrating areas west and south of Wrigleyville, such as Logan Square.

I must admit, yes, they exude like sweat the hotness of youth, physically attractive in the most overt way without trying to be. Think manspread, which one really notices in those sloppy shorts and T-shirts and overall lack of clothing that conceals the bro wears. He looks hot even in rags.
 

Manspreading jock on subway train

And all those gay porn videos with straight guys, or at least ostensibly straight. And all that cuddling and bromance.
 

Frat house straight boy sex

But if that attraction is welded together with narcissism, as the article claims, “the rules of common decency don 't apply to him,” and the usual “boys will be boys” smack of approval … we might as well run the country like a fraternity house and its worst excesses.

What disturbs me is the overt homophobia and misogyny this culture, but something that happened the other day in Toronto is another disastrous result. A driver of a van mowed down several people, resulting in casualties.

He expressed anger towards women in social media posts. He resented being “involuntarily celibate,” that is, he could not be with a woman and thus be a “real man.” Essentially, he was upset because he did not fit in with what he called, “The Chads and Stacys.” Take that to mean, in some ways, the bro culture.

Toxic masculinity. It's obvious here. Horrifyingly obvious. But are gay guys exempt from participating in this dynamic? That another question. But it's clear that gay guys have been the victims of this culture in its various forms for a long time, perhaps since the beginning of time.

Whatever the case, I am not going to let these bros wreak havoc on me or mine. Grow up, or get outta here. And guess what? You will grow old, and your hotness won't cover up the fact that you are, and always will be, jerks. We all need to make sure, in whatever safe and productive way possible, that you don't raise another generation of jerks.

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