Miss Blandish: The Original Text

January 23, 2023

In my last post, the last of 2022, I clamored down the rabbit hole of texts and movies born of Miss Blandish’s sexual degradation recounted in No Orchids for Miss Blandish. (Need I mention that some literary scholars have opined that the meaning of “sanctuary,” the title of the Faulkner novel from which, everyone agrees, Chase took his novel’s plot line for Miss Blandish, is an allusion to the female genitalia? Well, that’s lurid enough!)

I also wondered aloud whether or not George Orwell, author of “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” his very famous essay of 1944 comparing the old school of British “crime” writing with the new brash, American style, had actually read the book. Several incidents that he discusses in his piece were not in the book that I read! Ah, but there are many editions and revisions to the Chase text, all described in this lengthy blog post. I tried in vain to find a copy of the original, first edition text of No Orchids, but only found collector’s copies priced at $500 or more. A more careful reading of the blog post, however, alerted me to the fact that the original text was republished in a Corgi paperback edition in 1961, available for free, upon registration, at the Internet Archive, here!

Well, I can declare categorically that George Orwell did NOT embroider on or imagine elements of the text one bit. Phew..! (I would be very upset to to find that Orwell could be so cavalier and careless.) No, the original 1939 text is a shocker, even today. The depiction of violence is very graphic. For example, early on in the novel, Slim, the murderous and psychopathic sexual deviant knifes to death a member of a rival gang from whom they are stealing Miss Blandish. He takes pleasure in watching him being tied up, screaming for mercy as Slim approaches, and then he slowly inserts his knife into the man’s guts. He sits down and sees the knife handle jiggling as the man writhes and cries out. “Take you time, pal,” he says. And Slim’s first rape of Miss Blandish is described in creepy detail. Yep, pretty sick.

The original text is free of technological anachronisms such as television and helicopters, and the original plot details actually make more sense than the revised story. There is also much more suspense, as in the later episode when the nightclub operator whom the Grissoms muscled out of his club, seeking revenge, manages to free Miss Blandish from her torture chamber. In the revised story, this episode is much abbreviated, but originally, it provided a great deal of tension: would he succeed in it? And this fellow, by the way, is the one who experiences an orgasm before dying of a knife thrust from Slim. (In my previous post, I incorrectly identified the victim as one of the small time hoods in the beginning of the book.)

One knock against Orwell remains, however. In his essay, he speculates that Miss Blandish kills herself because she has become so accustomed to Slim’s caresses that she cannot live without them. Absurd! It is is abundantly clear that Miss B. is a ruin of a human being, and she gives a long speech to her rescuer explaining why she does not wish to be reunited with her father, or really with anyone. Then she throws herself out a window to her death. As I noted in the previous post, however, that is the reason she kills herself in the 1948 film adaptation which totally inverts the psychology of the story.

I have read only one other book by James Hadley Chase, “The Things Men Do,” and I can only rate it as mediocre. Some might say that Miss Blandish was his best effort. It was his first, and it came to him, he claims, in a flash, written in a week or so. If you have a yen to get to know Miss Blandish’s story, I urge you to read only the 1939 text. If you have not, you cannot really say you have read No Orchids, and that’s what you want, isn’t it?


Down the Rabbit Hole with Miss Blandish and Temple Drake

December 23, 2022

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
The Grissom Gang (1971)

When I first read No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) by James Hadley Chase, I had no idea what I was in for. After all, this is the crime novel that set George Orwell back on his heels, as he described in his famous essay of 1944, “Raffles and Miss Blandish.

So much for Raffles. Now for a header into the cesspool. No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase, was published in 1939…

Several other points need noticing before one can grasp the full implications of this book. To begin with, its central story bears a very marked resemblance to William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary. Secondly, it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere...

The book contains eight full-dress murders, an unassessable number of casual killings and woundings, an exhumation (with a careful reminder of the stench), the flogging of Miss Blandish, the torture of another woman with red-hot cigarette-ends, a strip-tease act, a third-degree scene of unheard-of cruelty and much else of the same kind. It assumes great sexual sophistication in its readers (there is a scene, for instance, in which a gangster, presumably of masochistic tendency, has an orgasm in the moment of being knifed), and it takes for granted the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behaviour.

I read the Orwell piece years ago, before I encountered Mr. Chase (whose real name is René Lodge Brabazon Raymond), so I read it over again after reading the novel and was puzzled by some of his remarks. A gangster has an orgasm before being knifed? I didn’t read that in the book. Did Orwell read the book, or just go on what he had heard about it? That was before I found out about the complicated publishing history of the novel, detailed in this exhaustive blog post. The violence and sex in the book caused such an uproar that subsequent editions toned down some of it, but Orwell knew only the Ur text. Chase himself, in the early sixties, revised the text to make it seem less dated, so there is a scene in which the gangsters sit watching large television sets, and another in which police helicopters take part in a rescue…while everything else is circa 1935! Getting a hold of that original edition is an expensive proposition, but I’m on the case! I’d also like to know the source of the title, but I’ll get back to that.

The central theme of the story is the rape/abduction of a young woman by disreputable thugs. The rape theme is ancient, of course. The word used to refer to forcible abduction, for purposes of gaining wives, concubines, or slaves, not the violent act of sexual assault, which may have followed the taking, of course. We have the Sabine women being raped, Zeus raping Europa,

Abduction of the Sabine Women – Nicolas Poussin

innumerable other seduction/rapes of women by Zeus, and perhaps most relevant, the abduction/rape of Persephone by Hades. For it is into a modern mythical/realistic underworld that Temple Drake and Miss Blandish are dumped.

Sanctuary (1931) by William Faulkner, is built around the stuck up, superficial flirt, Temple Drake, who finds herself abandoned to the desires of Popeye, a sickly, impotent, psycho, and his family of half-wits, booze runners, and semi-human beasts. Faulkner later claimed he wrote it for money, and quickly, and the first draft was rejected by his publisher as too indecent. He thought better of it soon after, but then Faulkner went to work again on the text: Today, it is possible to read the original text as well as the published version, shades of James Hadley Chase and Miss Blandish.

The book was praised by some, but for most, it was a moral outrage to be denounced and banned. However discreet and indirect Faulkner was in his prose, Temple is in fact raped by the impotent Popeye with a corn cob, a rather disturbing image when all is said and done.

I think the theme of Popeye’s rape of Temple is echoed in the 1944 stupendous film noir, “Laura,” when Waldo Lydecker, gay or impotent, not sure which, tries a symbolic rape murder of Laura with a shotgun, but she’s too quick for him.

Whatever else he may have had in mind while he was writing it, the book does blow the lid off many aspects of Southern “gentility,” social hypocrisy, the criminal justice system, and maybe the whole idea of civilization itself, a pretty neat trick for any novel.

The novel has been adapted for the movies several times, but the most famous, or notorious I should say, since it is not well known, is the first, “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933), with a sensational Miriam Hopkins playing the flirty, clueless, seductive and stupid Temple who falls into the world of a bunch of backwoods bootleggers dominated by a slick city gangster named Trigger. This film has brilliant, dark, expressionistic cinematography, and the rape scene by Trigger, standing in for the Popeye half-wit,is truncated with a scream, but the lead-in makes clear what is going on. Corn cobs are all around to clue in those literate enough to have read the original text. Hopkins said, “...if you can call a rape artistically done, it was,” but art or not, the film led to the Hays Code having real teeth so that subsequent films dared not go where Temple had gone. Linking all this together, Trigger was played by Jack La Rue, who reappears in the Miss Blandish film as the murderous Slim.

Miriam Hopkins as Temple awaiting her fate
Jack La Rue as Trigger

At the conclusion, Temple is called to testify in the murder trial of an innocent man whom she can clear if she reveals her dishonored state. After a struggle, she does so, and faints dead away. Faulkner’s Temple perjured herself, leading the innocent man to be lynched.

Fourteen years separate the Temple Drake/Hopkins film from the Miss Blandish/La Rue film, and in between, there was the super best seller, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a reworking of the Sanctuary story line. This was Chase’s very first novel, and though he was a Brit, he set it in America. That was part of what got Orwell seething; the importation of American low-class vulgarity into the British cultural landscape, but they loved it! The novel completes the transformation of the abductors from a community of backwoods low lifes to an urban crime gang, this time lead by a murderous woman, perhaps inspired by Ma Barker.

Early paperback, original text? (1941)
First American paperback, revised text
Different title, revised text
Another later paperback edition

In Chase’s story, some small-time hoods get wind of a roadside club where Miss Blandish (she’s never named, I believe) is going to go out slumming with her beau, while wearing her diamonds worth fifty grand.  They catch up with the drunken partyers but the snatch goes bad when the boyfriend plays the chivalrous knight and knocks down a high-strung thug whose response is to beat him to death.  Now with a murder rap hanging over them, the hoods run for their hideout, planning to extort a ransom for the girl, kill her, and make their escape.  Their plans are derailed when some members of the infinitely more violent and competent Grisson Gang (Grissom in subsequent tellings, and hereafter in this blog) spot them, put two and two together, and trail them to their hideout.

The goings on at the hideout are grim – that’s where the masochistic crook has his pre-knifing orgasm – and the small timers are rubbed out by the Grissom Gang, led by the murderous, psychopathic, and emotionally childlike Slim.  They return to their headquarters with the girl and the jewels.  Ma, the brains of the outfit, realizes that the authorities have no reason to suspect their involvement; all the evidence leads to the small time thugs, whose bodies have been carefully hidden and the gang murders several inconvenient people who might have information tying them to the kidnapping.  Ma executes a ransom collection for several hundred thousand dollars, planning to kill the girl upon receiving it, but Slim has other plans.  Despite having never shown an interest in the opposite sex, Miss Blandish’s beauty has led him to an awakening.  He wants to be her Beast…forever, whether she wants him or not.  Ma is troubled by this new complication – killing the girl is so much simpler – but her murderous son is not to be crossed or the entire gang could be torn apart. 

After beating Miss Blandish into submission, Ma instructs her in her new role in life, to please Slim.  With the help of drugs administered continually by a former doctor in the gang, Slim has his sex slave.  Ma disposes of the hot ransom money at a discount and seizes a local nightclub from its terrified owner, turning it into a “legit” front for their outfit, and raking in the real money.  Miss Blandish is kept in a locked chamber where Slim visits her regularly.

All good things must come to an end.  A pesky detective working for Mr. Blandish figures out what went down with the jewel snatch and kidnapping, and locates Miss Blandish.  The Grissom Gang is expunged in a hail of bullets, but not before taking out a lot of coppers.  Miss Blandish is freed, but throws herself out of a window to her death at the first opportunity.  Orwell, perhaps speaking as a typical clueless male of his era, says that she had grown so accustomed to Slim’s caresses that she could not live without them, but to me it is obvious that Miss Blandish was psychologically devastated by her months of being raped, and ended her life out of shame and despair.

After WWII, after Orwell had his hissy fit in “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” we get to a film treatment of the novel.  The film is British, and most of the actors in it are as well, and they sound it too, despite that the film is set in the United States.  Jack La Rue, the only American actor in the film, casts off Trigger to reappear as Slim, transformed into a slick urban gang leader in the prohibition era USA.  Instead of playing with switchblades, he works out his inner demons by endlessly throwing a pair of black dice.  In fact, “Black Dice” was considered as a possible name for the film, and it is the name the gang gives to the club they take over.  But we are in a different moral universe with this film, derived from a successful stage treatment of the book, and one far removed from Faulkner and James Hadley Chase.

Yes, the Grissom Gang trails the small timers to their lair, there is a gunfight, and the gang takes possession of the jewels and the girl, but these two are already connected.  The movie  opened with Miss Blandish in the lap of society luxury, receiving yet another enormous vase of orchids in celebration of her engagement, but this one has for a card only a note with two black dice and the words, “Don’t do it!”  She tells the servant to send them back.  “There will be no orchids for Miss Blandish today.”  The title of the novel is never explained in the text:  I take it to be an ironic existential comment on her fate.

Linden Travers as Miss Blandish
Ma Grissom
Slim’s gang catches up with the small-timers
Miss Blandish at home in a different sort of society

Once Miss Blandish overcomes her shock at being abducted, she calms down and eventually realizes that Slim was the source of the orchids urging her to not get married.  And now they are together!  How exciting!  She feels alive, truly alive for the first time after a stifling existence among the upper crust.  Slim is not the deviant half-wit of the source texts, but a smooth operator, attractive, seductive, a bit violent at times, but wonderful to be with.  In one scene, Miss Blandish says, “Oh, I know you’ve killed people. You’re cold, you’re hard, you’re ruthless — but …”  All in self-defense:  they embrace rapturously.  Their lips crunch together in a heavy kiss that set a record for duration at that time in cinema.  The end comes in the same way – slick or not, they are gangsters – and Miss Blandish kills herself, this time, for precisely the reason Orwell suggested:  She cannot bear to return to society life and be without Slim’s caresses.  I wonder if Orwell would have enjoyed seeing his misinterpretation of the novel’s text used to conclude what a number of critics have called the worst movie ever made?

At last, we come to “The Grissom Gang” (1971) by Robert Aldrich. (More than fifty years ago! Time for a remake?) We’re back in the USA, Depression Era, but the film is in painfully full color. Everyone sweats, a lot. Ma and her gang mean business, and Slim is back to being a sadistic, emotionally stunted mama’s boy, but he is humanized, a bit. The book’s plot has been snipped here and there to streamline the story, but the brutality of the gang is dark as the night. Mr. Blandish, payer of the ransom, is played by the Aldrich stalwart, Wesley Addy, and is given a truly nasty character more in keeping with the world of Sanctuary than Miss Blandish: He’d rather his daughter be retrieved dead than alive and thoroughly soiled by the ordeal.

Slim and Miss Blandish
Ma preparing for the end
Sweaty and angry Miss Blandish
Daddy Blandish reunited with daughter

Ma and the gang have died in a blaze of gunfire – Ma enjoying every minute of it – and Slim is trapped with Miss Blandish in a barn surrounded by the cops. He declares his love for her; after all, if not for him, Ma would have bumped her off long ago. But he does truly love her in whatever simple and twisted fashion is possible for him, and now it’s time for her to return to her home, so there’s nothing in the world for him but to go out and face the bullets and die. Miss Blandish, who has never become hardened to the killing around her during her ordeal, begs him not to go. “Don’t die for me Slim. I’m not worth it.” She realizes that Slim’s wretched love is the only love she has ever had, and she is grateful for it. But he does go, and he is shot to pieces.

Miss Blandish mourns her abductor, rapist, and worshipper

After gazing on Slim’s corpse for a few moments, Miss Blandish is confronted by her father who is clearly disgusted to see her in such a state. She tries to explain: “I was just trying to stay alive. He loved me…” Dad doesn’t understand. He stalks off, telling her that Mr. Fenner, the detective who cracked the case, will see to her. The final scene shows the two of them driving off in a car, she looks back at the barn, bewildered. They’re off to that hotel Fenner has arranged for her, away from the prying press. Will she jump out of the window as she did in the book? Aldrich doesn’t tell, but it certainly seems a good bet.


Der Tunnel – The Tunnel – Transatlantic Tunnel

December 22, 2022

Bernhard Kellermann’s novel, Der Tunnel, published in German in 1913, was a runaway best-seller.  It was translated into many languages, and eventually sold millions of copies.  I don’t know if it made Kellermann a rich man, and biographical information about him in English is scarce, but according to Wikipedia, he fell afoul of the Nazi party because of a book he wrote in the 1920s, lived by writing “dime store” novels, survived the war, and eventually gained a respectable position in the GDR (East Germany), for which he was reviled, and so was forgotten.  As was his novel, and the four movie versions made of it.

I have posted about the place of the British version of the film (1935) in my childhood, but I only recently learned of the first film, a silent German work of 1915 (available on YouTube) and later works, in French (with Jean Gabin) and German again, from the 1930s.  Before dubbing technology was perfected, and long before subtitles became common, it was not unusual for multiple versions of a popular film to be made in a variety of language versions.  It would be interesting to compare their quality to the occasional (cf. La femme Nikita) Hollywood remakes of today.

IMG_2647

My interest in The Tunnel was revved up by my purchase of this first edition of the English translation of the novel (1915) which I just read.  As one blogger noted, the story is worthy of Ayn Rand, minus the right-wing pseudo-intellectual bombast.  Kellermann keeps the story moving, and his depictions of the mayhem and destruction from riots and tunnel collapses are fiercely realistic.  He is ambiguous in his descriptions of the relationship between capital and workers, and the entire story is heavy with historical irony given the cataclysm that overtook Europe in 1914.

The tale is of Mac Allen, a self-made American man, pulled up by his bootstraps from a boy laborer in the mans to a successful engineer/manufacturer/infrastructure entrepreneur.  He proposes to build a submarine tunnel from the USA, beginning in northern New Jersey, to Bermuda, then the Azores, and onto France, linking the two continents forever.  The connection to the UK is provided by the Channel Tunnel, which at the time the book transpires, is already several years old.

The novel is an unabashed hymn to capitalism, finance, and engineers who think big, and build bigger.  The Hollywood film adaptation is slightly more nuanced in that Mac Allen seems, at times, to be a rather authoritarian (fascist?) type.  The 1915 German film treatment is a stark treatment of the story that is often brutal in its depiction of the conflicts between the workers and their capitalist managers.


El drenaje profundo

November 15, 2022
The Ur text of CDMX drainage!

I just returned from a wonderful stay in Mexico City (CDMX), a fascinating place in so many ways, not least because it is the city with some of the most serious drainage problems in the world. The original city, Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, was built on a lake that sat about 7500 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountains. After Cortez conquered the place, he set about destroying it so that he could impose a Spanish style order on the subdued population. The Spaniards did not appreciate the

Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) as it might have appeared to Cortez’s men on their first view of it from the mountains.

clever and sensitive adaptations the Aztecs had made to the local geography so they set about filling in the canals, the lake, destroying the various dikes, and laying out a European style city. They were particularly keen, of course, to raze the central temple, known today as the Templo Mayor, and excavated from under the Zocalo, or Plaza of the Constitution, in the 1980s, in order to break the connection between the inhabitants and their tradition of human sacrifice. The image below is from Theodore de Bry’s America, a raging best seller in 17th century Europe.

Theodore de Bry: Aztec human sacrifices in Mexico City

The image below shows the approximate extent of the original lake system (actually a few lakes that merged during the wettest season) overlaid onto a contemporary map of CDMX.

Mexico City and the probable extent of the ancient lake bed.

Since the lakes of Mexico City never had an outlet, but simply filled from the mountain runoff and then evaporated or seeped into the ground, building a city on top of them with fill didn’t make a lot of sense. In the early 17th century, Mexico City was severely flooded for five straight years, and was almost abandoned for a drier site. The Spaniards set about building various canals to drain the lakes out of the high plain they were on, and had various successes and failures for the next several hundred years, mostly failure. In the 19th century, as the city’s size increased dramatically after the decades of civil war finally ended around 1870, a grand canal was engineered to remove the lake water, drain the city, and act as a storm sewer and sanitary drain all at once. This canal was reasonable successful, if insalubrious, but an unintended consequence of creating a dry lake bed on which to build was a never ending succession of sandstorms that choked the lungs and reduced visibility to a London-like fog of dust.

The soil under the ancient lake bed compressed rapidly under the new construction added by the Mexican citizens. The art nouveau/belle epoque/neoclassic Palace of Fine Arts sank four meters while it was under construction. Many streets in the historic center are wavy with ups and downs, and building facades are out of alignment, sagging and bulging in all directions. The underground drainage pipes that fed the Gran Canal, and the canal itself, sagged at different rates, leaving sewers sometimes sloping the wrong way so that drainage simply could not be effective without pumping. The flow capacity of the canal was vastly reduced by clogging and changes in its slope, and huge pumping facilities had to be added. The city continued to experience sever flooding during the rainy season.

In the 20th century, the drainage situation got much worse as potable water was in short supply and was pumped out of the local aquifer at increasing rates. The wells were often private, as the municipal water system was inadequate. As water was removed from the subsoil, its ability to support loads decreased, and subsidence of the land increased, further wreaking havoc on drainage gradients. Today, the water supply system loses 30%-40% of its capacity through leaks, partly caused by pipes that shift position and loosen joints as the ground sinks, and all system water must be pumped up to the city from lower regions, consuming enough energy to power the entire city of Puebla. There are no local reservoirs to capture most of the rain that falls during the wet season so CDMX labors under continual water shortages despite being one of the wettest cities in Mexico.

As for drainage, enter el drenaje profundo, deep drainage; a system of tunnels bored through rock far enough below the lake bed that they will not shift position. These huge pipes are connected to local storm sewers and discharge to the north of the city where for years a thriving agricultural community has used the dirty water (mixed with sanitary waste) to fertilize and water their crops. No more! A treatment plant has been constructed, throwing the existence of the local farming community (known as black water farmers) into doubt. The final super pipe has been completed, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world: We will see how effective it is. Clearly the epic piece of engineering has captured the imaginations of the city people; it’s made it into the world of television adventure series.

As an aficionado of all things drainage related, naturally I was hoping to snag some materials related to drenaje profundo for souvenirs. I hit the jackpot while visiting the many remarkable used bookstores on Calle Donceles in the downtown area. This is volume IV of an engineering report on the proposed deep drainage system for the city, and it contains illustrations, historic prints, and engineering diagrams and plans for the system as an appendix to the first three volumes. I am in drainage heaven!


The Nature of the Self Revealed, At Last!

October 29, 2022

Revelation 3:15-16

October 29, 2022

My Baby Shot Me Down

August 24, 2022

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: A shot to the gut in a Coketown liebstod, but there was no Wagner playing.

Star Trek: What are Little Girls Made Of? Another shot to the gut, no music, but the same lovers clutch ending in murder. No suicide though. Oh, and she’s an android.

Double Indemnity: Neff plugs Phyllis. “Goodbye, Baby.” Barbara Stanwyck again. No Wagner here, although his Prelude to the Liebstod was playing in the scene when Neff takes Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola, to the hills behind the Hollywood Bowl. Neff would have made it to Mexico except that he couldn’t resist coming clean to the dictaphone in Keyes’ office. The old urge to confess did him in.


2001, Kubrick, Misogyny?

August 23, 2022

Calling out the great director, Stanley Kubrick, as a misogynist is not a new or unusual thing. From his much discussed abuse of Shelly Duvall during the production of “The Shining,” to the painful rape and sex scenes throughout “Clockwork Orange,” critics have weighed in on just how much Stanley was on board with the standard patriarchal male role, and how it affected, or is manifested in his films. Love him, hate him, agree or disagree, it’s been chewed over a great deal. But in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Uhh…not so much. [See all my posts about the film, 2001].

Looking over his films, it’s obvious that Kubrick is preoccupied with the issue of sex, and why should he not be? In his first (released) film, “Killer’s Kiss,” the finale takes place in a warehouse for female manikins which are decapitated and mutilated as the men fight with grappling hooks. Noir grotesquerie…

There’s “Lolita,” and one can argue whether or not Kubrick caught the essence of the strange and disturbing novel, though James Mason did his part, certainly, or whether he just stumbled into an indulgent soft-core funk. The great “Paths of Glory,” has no women, other than a chanteuse in the finale, who allows Colonel Dax to have a bit of grace as he trudges back to slaughter after failing to save his innocent men from the firing squad. (I think the actress became one of Kubrick’s wives.) “Barry Lyndon” is a wonderful period piece, deconstructing the age of rococo as a clockwork mechanism of class privilege in which women, even in the upper crust, have little autonomy or soul. “Full Metal Jacket,” is relatively free of women, with a notable exception of a crazed? fanatic? brave? fighter at the end. And “Dr. Strangelove?” The greatest cold war satire ever, has one woman only, Buck Turgidson’s lover. About “Eyes Wide Shut,” nothing need be said here.

Clearly, Kubrick likes to make movies about worlds populated by men, with women few and far between, and only in minor or supporting roles. And it’s obvious that “clockwork” is a key idea for him: social mechanisms; class structure; fashion; the jerry rigged mutually assured destruction strategy, yada yada… You can go on about all that, for quite a while, but what about 2001? On the face of it, it has nothing at all to do with women and sex/gender roles in our world. After all, the flick begins with apes dancing around an alien monolith buried…uhh…inserted? into the Earth.

2001 is filled with images of machines, the enveloping technology of our modern culture, that have heavy sexual overtones. Images of penetration abound. After Bright Eyes, the clever ape, touches the erect member sunk in the earth and receives its seed of intelligence, he leads his troupe to food and fortune. As he exults in victory of the un-chosen group of apes, he hurls his newly discovered weapon high into the air where, through the miracle of cinematic editing, it becomes a space station falling in orbit about the Earth. The musical accompaniment is Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, the most famous example of a musical form that was loudly denounced by the humbugs of the day as lewd and destructive of proper morality. The waltz was a new type of dance music, and to do the step you and your partner had to hold one another more closely than with other dances. That and the spinning motion were bound to produce sexual abandon.

Kubrick was a great lover of western music, and he certainly knew about this association with the waltz. In is no accident that in a lengthy scene in Eyes Wide Shut during which a too smooth older gentlemen attempts to seduce Nicole Kidman’s character, they are dancing to a waltz. Nor is it a new thing for Kubrick to use machine interactions to represent sex: The beginning of Dr. Strangelove shows a refueling maneuver in the air, while “Try a Little Kindness,” plays along. Kubrick once replied to an enthusiastic fan letter that the writer was one of the few who noted that the film’s structure was a progressesion from penetration, to coitus, to climax/orgasm, all mediated through machinery.

Is it good for you?
Here we go!
The seed has entered the womb.

2001 was billed as “the ultimate trip.” That was after an initially disappointing box office take led the marketers to latch onto the developing cult status of the flick, especially it was said, amongst drug users who grooved on the final “To Jupiter and Beyond” part. It is also the ultimate male misogynist fantasy – a world without women. A world with no need of women. A world in which women have been erased. And what is the fact about women that is most deeply disturbing and resented by misogynists? The fact that women bring life to the world by producing other human beings, a miraculous task that makes men totally dependent on the female. Kubrick finds a way around all of that – parthenogenesis.

When Dave leaves his ship, it is clear that he is the seed the universe needs. No need for two sexes – men can do it all. The ship as phallus ejaculating a sperm is clear in the first image on the left, while the second image is all too clear.

Dave, a Ulysses character, returning to his home after his Odyssey, is given a comfy bedroom suite in which to while away the days, weeks, or is it centuries? Or maybe just a few minutes..? It is his lying-in, but there will be no post-partum phase. When the slab appears one last time to get the process going, it is simply standing on the floor of the bedroom, not jammed into the soil, and Dave does not touch it. He does not need to; he will do it all by himself. He himself, all alone, gives birth to the star child that is seen in the final moments of the movie as the Zarathustra soundtrack assures us that climax has been achieved.

The image of a baby Jesus floating in a bubble down to Earth can be found in many medieval and renaissance religious paintings. Kubrick has reworked the story to eliminate the need for a female virgin birth. Joe, trammeled in marriage to Mary could never save the world, but Dave can.


Larkin Reverie

August 8, 2022
Larkin Soap Company Administration Building, Buffalo, NY (1904-1906)

What architecture buff doesn’t like Frank Lloyd Wright? Charismatic genius, dashing philanderer, money pit to his friends and clients, what’s not to like? And among his works, the Larkin Building has always exerted a magnetic fascination over me. Look at those masses! It almost looks like it slipped in from a science fiction movie set.

The sculpture ornaments give it a hint of Viennese Secession, while it’s sheer size and tremendous volumes seem almost Expressionist, or even proto-Brutalist. The elegant line drawing of the building emphasizes its composition as an assembly of massive piers and fenestrated planes, like a modernist cathedral fortress, but it is actually brick veneer over a steel frame support.

The fortress cathedral at Albi, France

The building is long gone, demolished in the 1950s and turned into a parking lot, in what has been called the greatest architectural tragedy of the 20th century. Considering the destruction let loose on the world’s buildings just by WWII, that’s saying a lot. Recently, architects have brought the building back to life in the form of 3-D computer models.

In reading about the building, I came across this interesting postcard view from the early 20th century.

Suddenly, some things that had been tugging at the edges of my perception of this building made sense. It has always seemed a bit creepy to me, like something out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” the story of a city split between its glorious and scary terrestrial realm and its subterranean workers’ city that boils beneath it. In this picture, we see that the building is indeed the administration building: it sits, its magnificent and fascinating form, distinct from, and positioned like the head of the enormous monotonous manufactory where the toiling masses stand at their posts, producing soap/wealth for the Larkin family. It is the brain center of the billing and distribution system for the consumer wares produced by the industrial plant across the road from it.

The skylit atrium, where the clerks did their essential work, was used for social functions, lectures, and concerts for the employees; there is even an organ. The “work incentive” messages in the spandrels might strike us as quaint, or creepy today, but they were quite standard in such settings for decades afterwards, although usually as posters.

At the bottom of the “canyon,” these desk workers look overwhelmed by the architecture, giving the “family” enterprise of the Larkin Corporation a patriarchal, not to say feudal, environmental cast. Were those chairs Wright designed comfortable? No matter, the workers do their job, the company thrives, all is well and Wright in the world.