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Oct 25, 2019

SUSPIRIA Day 25: appropriate vs appropriation


One of the things I love about Suspiria (how many times have I said that this month?) is that it's a deeply feminist film that embodies feminism. It's not a cheap "How d'you like that, boys?" exercise in "girl power." There are no mean girls, no "cat fights." It's not about women being "good" or "bad," necessarily...although it obviously explores the concepts of power and relationships in an all-female environment wherein some are heroes and some are villains. But it's more the totality of the feminine, right? The Great Mother. You can't venerate the Goddess without also acknowledging her power to destroy. And as I've discussed, it's a showcase for a new kind of Final Girl. While it was written and directed by men, it's foolhardy to cite them as the only creators of the film. The women in front of the camera were not merely actresses. They were collaborators and vital creative contributors, in particular Tilda Swinton, whose fingerprints are all over this movie. And then there is the art.

As we all know by now, this movie is about so much that it's like a seven layer burrito comprising many...smaller seven layer burritos. Okay, that metaphor doesn't super work (maybe it's just getting close to din din time), but you get my point. It's a weighty thing, a work of art about art. The power art has to save and sustain us, and the power it has to obliterate us...the power of it. How fitting for a coven of witches. Creativity as witchcraft, a means of independence and agency, a method of operating outside of the rules of society and the patriarchal industrial complex. When "the Reich just wanted women to shut off their minds and keep their uteruses open," the women of the Markos Tanzgruppe–in particular Madame Blanc–kept making art.

When Susie and Blanc are in the mirrored room, about to engage in sex practicing Susie's jumps, Blanc tells the young dancer:
There are two things that dance can never be again: beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.
Not only is this the philosophy under which she, as choreographer and artistic director, guides the Company, it's a direct rebuttal to the Reich and anyone who has ever tried to tell these women how to be. It's a rephrasing of and a response to this 1937 declaration by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:
Dance must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy.
Everything about the Markos Tanzgruppe flies in the face of that mandate. You want "beauty"? These women will create their own kind of beauty, and they will fucking destroy you.

Suspiria doesn't simply hint at its influences, however–it often puts them right there on the screen, and this is where it can get tricky. I've got a friend who didn't like the movie much at all (and yes, we're still friends, can you believe it), and one of the things that really got her mad was its use of artists' imagery. She didn't see it as a tribute, as I do–she found it to be "flavor wasting." I strongly disagree with her assessment, but I get it. It's how I feel about basically everything, say, Lady Gaga does, or...hmm, maybe this:



So what's the difference? Am I just a big Suspiria apologist because I love it so much? Maybe. But I think there's a key factor between honoring or paying tribute to an artist or her work and simply mimicking or appropriating. I feel that Suspiria tries to do the former, while this Beyoncé video is engaging with the latter. A large part of this is transparency: are you talking about the creators who came before you? Are you citing their work as influences and discussing why they were important and influential?

Heck, maybe Beyoncé talked about the film and Volk when talking about this video. I don't know! I am the leader of the sovereign nation of Dakotastan, not Beystan. But I do know that Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich have been incredibly vocal about how important feminist art and artists are to Suspiria. They've directly referenced those women by, in my opinion, appropriately appropriating their work on the screen. Why do I think it's appropriate and not flavor wasting? Because of their use in the context of the film: where and when do we see these images? We see them when Susie sees them, in the dreams that Madame Blanc sends her. The dreams are (as I've mentioned plenty of times this month) gross, horny dreams...and they are full of art. Blanc sends images she finds indelible–the work of her contemporaries–to Susie, and she pries the dancer's memories out in turn. This is seduction by deep art faggotry, y'all. Here are some–some!–of the artists and their work that are important to Blanc, to women, to culture:

PINA BAUSCH


Top: Suspiria Bottom: Pina Bausch, Blaubart, 1977

I mean, duh. The late German dancer/choreographer is hugely influential on the character of Veva Blanc, so much so that Tilda Swinton is essentially wearing Pina Bausch drag in the film.



I love this quote from her, which could be attributable to anyone behind Suspiria, really:
It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator.

ANA MENDIETA

Suspiria draws–or drew–heavily from the work of this late Cuban-American performance/video artist and painter. Images that evoke–or recreate–her work can be seen in the film's teaser trailer, but were edited out for subsequent trailers and the final cut after the artist's Estate sued for copyright infringements. (A settlement was reached about a month after the lawsuit was filed.) This is where it gets real hinky: when does homage simply become rip-off? Do intent and context matter? Mendieta was–is–one of the most essential feminist artists of the last...ever. Her work focused on life, death, our connection to the Earth and our roots, women's suffering and denigration under the patriarchy and the violence of men; of course she would influence Suspiria and the women in it. But hey, artists gotta respect artists and get permission to use the work.

Top: Suspiria Bottom: Ana Mendieta, (Untitled) Rape Scene, 1973


Left: Suspiria Right: Ana Mendieta, Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977

CLAUDE CAHUN

To call photographer/writer Claude Cahun (née Lucie Renee Mathilde Schwob) "pioneering" severely undersells the kind of work they were doing in the early decades of the 20th century. Their self-portraits in particular challenged notions–and still challenge notions–of gender identity, beauty, the male gaze, and the role of the viewer. With their lifelong partner Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe), Cahun lived a life of art and activism. The pair was arrested and sentenced to death for their resistance work against the Nazi occupation of France, but they were released after the liberation a year later. I think Guadagnino would have been remiss not to pay homage to such a formative queer feminist artist.



Top: Suspiria teaser trailer Bottom: Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (in Cupboard) 1932

As Cahun's work was also cited in the lawsuit filed by the Ana Mendieta Estate, a different shot was used in the final cut of the film:


GINA PANE

Also cited in the lawsuit and referenced in the teaser trailer, Gina Pane was a queer performance artist/photographer during the "body art" movement of the early 70s. She attempted to create a kind of "empathy" with the viewer through her suffering, using body as discourse as she inflicted injury upon herself.


Top: Suspiria Bottom: Gina Pane, Death Control, 1974

FRANCESCA WOODMAN

Only 22 when she died by suicide in 1981, photographer Francesca Woodman has received accolades and attention that eluded her during her all-too-brief life and career. Largely working in derelict spaces, she focused mostly on self-portraits and portraits of other women. Her images seem to be out of step–out of time?–from the era in which she worked. Her photographs are often intimate, haunting, and ethereal, challenging the idea of photography as "truth" while seeking her place in the world as a woman artist and subject. If you've never seen the 2011 documentary The Woodmans, well, you really should.


Above: Suspiria Below: Francesca Woodman, Providence RI 1976



MARY WIGMAN

This pioneering German dancer/choreographer served more as...mmm, let's say a fine patina for the Tanzgruppe, as she was more of an inspiration to screenwriter David Kajganich than to choreographer Damien Jalet. The Nazis viewed her as a degenerate leftist and shut down her Akademie (Mary Wigman-Schule) in 1942, but allowed her to teach in Leipzig contingent on following the rule of law and firing all of her Jewish dancers. After the war she opening a new school–for dancers of any creed–in West Berlin.

While she wasn't the impetus behind his choreography, Jalet still worked some Wigman flavor into Volk, in particular her 1914 piece Hexentanz. I mean, it's called Hexentanz. Isn't that what Volk is?






Volk was inspired largely by Jalet's piece Les Médusées (in particular the excerpt Les Médusées), which was in turn inspired by Dario Argento's Suspiria. It's all a hexentanz, baby.



JUDY CHICAGO and CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN

Truth be told, I don't know how much of Judy Chicago's work can be seen or felt onscreen, aside from a sort of thematic haze, so I was reluctant to include her here. But the filmmakers have cited her as an influence, and as a kind reader pointed out in the comments of yesterday's post, the Sabbath (as it appears in the original screenplay) reads like it would be very evocative of her seminal 1979 installation The Dinner Party. Then again, maybe she did make it in the film; The Dinner Party was criticized by some as making no grand feminist statement beyond "vaginas on plates." Ahem.


While provocative performance artist Carolee Schneemann hasn't directly been called an inspiration by Guadagnino (that I know of), the Sabbath we get on-screen brought to mind her 1964 piece Meat Joy, wherein performers writhe around together with paint and all manner of raw meat.

Top: Suspiria Bottom: Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964

Look, I'm not going to tell anyone how to feel about the inclusion/referencing of work by these artists. If you find it to be wasted flavor, so be it. As I said, I see it more of an honoring these women, of putting a spotlight on them while also informing the world of the film. The world at large didn't always see the importance of these women and their work, for the art world often treats–and has forever treated–women and anyone considered "other" as lesser creators. But to Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich and Madame Blanc and Susie Bannion, they are life itself.

5 comments:

we said...

I’ve really liked all of your posts on Suspiria this past month, but this one is probably my favorite so far — I had no idea of the artistic influences on some of the film’s imagery (apart from what you've written about in earlier posts.) It’s hard for me to see these images as ‘wasted flavor”; the filmmakers have obviously chosen these art-inspired homages with considered care — it all seems too deeply felt to be casually dismissed. Apart from a blu-ray that gets the full Criterion or Arrow treatment, I would love to see a Taschen book dedicated to Suspiria, like their Kubrick or Almodovar books, that walks one through all of influences and other thought processes that went into making this film. Looking forward to that fanzine you have coming up.

Nicholas Kaufmann said...

This is a deep and epic dive into the imagery and influences of the movie, and it is deeply appreciated. One of the reasons I wanted to watch it again on Blu-ray was to freeze on those dream images and study them better than I could when they wizzed by in the movie theater. Thank you so much for showing these images and applying context to them.

Something I noticed even on my first viewing is Susie's rebuttal to Blanc's line, "There are two things that dance can never be again: beautiful and cheerful." At the end, after the Sabbath and she has taken control of the coven back from Helena Markos and her followers, she looks at the dancers and tells them to keep dancing because it's beautiful. Unlike Blanc, Mother S. believes dance can indeed be beautiful again.

Stacie Ponder said...

Thank you both very much! I appreciate your reading this and the kind words.

@we – I completely agree...it's the care and context that make the difference. I truly think this is a case of two queer filmmakers honoring the women (and other) artists while enriching the world of the film. My friend didn't connect with the movie really on any level, so I get where she's coming from but I definitely don't feel the same way.

@Nicholas – You make a great point re: Susie! To me, when Blanc says dance can never be "beautiful," her personal history is greatly influencing that statement...but I also think she's talking about a specific kind of beauty that's tied to "how women should behave," particularly according to men. Like being told to sit "ladylike." Her choreography isn't ballet, it's violent...but to me, anyway, it's still beautiful. I think *that's* where Susie is coming from–acknowledging that beauty as it relates to women and dance doesn't have to mean any one thing. The naked dancers writhing in blood and viscera is as beautiful as someone standing en pointe.

Nicholas Kaufmann said...

Excellent point, Stacie. I know I keep saying this, but your analysis of this film and all its intricate ingredients has really just been stunning!

Stacie Ponder said...

Ah, thank you! I really appreciate it. Makes me think this crazy endeavor/obsession might be worth...well, something anyway :D