Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes on a Film: Brief Encounter 1945



Quite by chance recently, I watched Brief Encounter again for the the third time.  This is a wonderful film released in 1945, directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a married housewife,  and Trevor Howard as an eye doctor, Alec Harvey.  The 2 main characters meet quite by chance in the cafe of a train station.  Laura has something caught in her eye and Dr. Harvey comes to her rescue.  What ensues between them is an emotional affair whose fulfillment is frustrated by time, place and circumstance.  It is in the end a heart wrenching film about 2 people who are denied their desire and bliss by the very society in which they live.

I love the use of the train station as the main setting of the film.  It functions both in its actuality as well as symbolically.  Alec and Laura meet for the first time within the station when he helps her remove the grit from her eye.  The station trainmen, Albert Godby says, “It’s probably from a bit of coal.”  Thus, in a sense, the fuel of the train (and by extension the train itself, the station and the timetable of trains) initiate their introduction and subsequent affair just as in end it will ultimately frustrate their desire.

The train station, the trains and the train schedule represents symbolically society, its rules, prohibitions and obligations.  Indeed, the very first scene of the film shows a trainman checking his pocket watch in order to see if  the train racing through the station is on time, i.e. has followed the rules and met its obligations.  Within the story of the film, the station, the train and the timetable functions  to enforce and uphold middle class values of family, marriage and fidelity.

The train schedule limits and circumscribes the affair between Laura and Alec.  It frustrates it, limits it and tries to ultimately end it.  For example, when Laura decides to transgress the schedule, miss her train home and instead return to the flat of Alec’s friend, Stephen,  to consummate their relationship, it all goes horribly wrong.  When she returns Alec is no longer alone; his friend has appeared and Laura leaves.  The potential fulfillment  of their emotional intimacy is not allowed to occur.  It becomes “vulgar” as Alec says to his friend who in turn criticizes the doctor and is offended by his actions.  In the end, Laura leaves to catch the next train and the love between her and Alec is not taken to a physical level.

In the end, the rule of society is upheld.  The affair is never fulfilled and it ends.  Alec is off to South Africa to accept a job offer from his brother.  He of course leaves by train.  With the end of the affair, Laura is even willing albeit briefly to sacrifice herself to society for her emotional transgression:  she almost jumps in front of a train, but stops herself and instead returns home again on the train to her husband and her duties as wife and mother.

There is also an interesting division of class within the film in terms of who is permitted to overstep societal law.  Laura and Alec are always contrasted with the cafe refreshment lady, Myrtle Bagot and the trainman, Albert Godby.  Myrtle and Albert are in a sense more sexualized or allowed to be more open, more passionate in their flirtatious interactions because of their very lower social class.  In contrast, Laura and Alec who are middle class are supposed to uphold societal rules and prohibitions as an example to others.  It is interesting to note that after Laura witnesses one of these more natural encounters in the cafe, she is inspired to return to Stephen’s flat to meet Alec and fulfill her desire, but it all goes wrong.

Brief Encounter is a fascinating film both on the level of denotation and connotation.  It is an engaging story of romantic love which is ultimately frustrated and unrealized and it speaks to issues of social law and class both in the particular historical moment of post-war England and in a greater way in which individual desire is often circumscribed by society.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Great Within Part 2: The Forbidden City, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Riding a Bus through San Francisco’s Chinatown

forbiddencity2 The Madness of Weeds, The Forbidden City circa 1920’s

In my first blog post entitled The Great Within I deployed the theory of photography formulated by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida in order to explore the imagistic desire which is awakened in me by photographs of The Forbidden City. On the level of evocation, this desire goes beyond the photograph as an expression of knowledge, history or culture. Looking at images of The FC my desire is distilled into the phrase, “I want to live there…” And more deeply, this desire, “I want to live there…”, is symbolically characterized as a return to the womb of the Mother, a place of certain existence without language or culture. Of course, this return is a physical impossibility and it evokes in me feelings of loss, loneliness and nostalgia.

Yet, in addition to evocation, my desire is animated by the actuality of The Forbidden City: its history, its architecture, its art, its meaning. Specifically, I am fixated on The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. After an emperor died, his concubines would live out their remaining days in this area of the city. This garden, its inhabitants and its function are extremely poignant to me, a circumscribed space that also exudes loss, loneliness and nostalgia.

Often I feel that I am languishing in my own Garden of Forgotten Favorites: an imagined, fantastical space within my mind and at times the physical, lived space of my apartment itself. Like the concubines in The Garden, I have served my emperor (And what was my emperor exactly? Sex, clubbing, drinking, looking for/having a boyfriend, I am not exactly sure, but all of that is long gone and now I at times feel like Mrs. Haversham wandering amongst her things in a tattered wedding dress.) I have not quite figured out the second half of my life. How did a concubine endure her remaining life when her very purpose for existence was no longer alive?

Many years ago on Gay Pride Shame, I took a black t-shirt and bedazzled it with sequined letters that spelled out CONCUBINE. No one quite got it, but it gave me immense pleasure.

Unfortunately, I still have not been able to locate an image of The Garden of Forgotten Favorites in order to more fully revel in and explore my desire for this place and how it generates meaning for me. I have a certain need to see this place if only in a photograph and thereby be assured of its existence along with the hope that this photographic reproduction will somehow reveal The Garden’s secrets and in turn (and this is folly) help me make sense of my own life at this moment.

In my search for the elusive Garden, I found recently the following snapshot that I hoped depicted a bridge in The FC.


This was confirmed by the notes on the back of the photograph:


Bridge scene at entrance to West Gate Museum 8/21/36 Concubine’s Bathroom” and then in a darker ink perhaps added at a later date: “Inside West Gate Entrance to Forbidden City”. It is likely that the photographer of the snapshot was an early tourist to The City which had been turned into a museum in 1925 after the expulsion the last emperor Pu Yi in 1924.

The caption indicates the referent of the photograph, a bridge over The FC canal. The canal is called The Inner Golden Stream. Without this text, this image could be anywhere, any bridge although I might deduce its Asian character by its formal elements. Yet, even with the specificity of the text, there is no reference point within the photograph that tells me, the viewer, visually which exact bridge is depicted in comparison to the many bridges that cross The Inner Golden Stream. Moreover, within the photograph I, as the spectator, am situated within the muck of the canal itself which increases the sense of disorientation as to the photograph’s place and subject.

The state of the canal filled with algae, debris, muck and the weeds which sprout from between the stones of the canal wall enhance this sense of dislocation as well. This visible decay signifies an end, a past, a ruin of something that I, at first glance, cannot quite determine from the photographic depiction itself. I am simply, but profoundly confronted with the disturbing that-has-been of the photograph. I know that this bridge, this canal, this water, these weeds, this muck existed, but what knowledge can I glean from the depiction? Without the caption, the photograph is opaque, an image lost in and to the past yielding little knowledge about its subject.

As I argued in my post The Great Within, it is the weeds in these old photographs of The Forbidden City and this photograph of the bridge in particular which distract and unsettle me. (And in the photograph of the bridge the muck of the canal is also disturbing.)


More than just a symbol of the decay and neglect of The Forbidden City after the end of the Qing Dynasty, they are for me an evocation of the punctum as conceptualized by Barthes. The weeds disrupt the very knowledge of the image no matter how meager it is. In other words, how many weeds are there? I cannot describe each and every single weed though there it is reproduced in the photograph. For me, this inability to denote the weeds combined with the profound utterance of this and every photograph, that-has-been, conveys the madness of photography, the madness of the weeds.


The opacity of the bridge photograph in addition to its composition of disorientation/dislocation combines (and this is perhaps a contradiction) with the information of the caption in order to enable a free play of desire, association and meaning. (I could also argue that the that-has-been of the photograph contributes to this sense of displacement. We are in the past, but which past?)

The caption reads “Concubine’s Bathroom”? Is this an accurate statement? Or is it the pejorative conclusion of the western tourist? I don’t know. Whatever, the truth is, and indeed the canal is choked with algae, debris and muck, the word concubine stirs my imagination and immediately takes me to The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. Does crossing this (photographic) bridge lead into The Garden of Forgotten Favorites? Does the canal flow through The Garden? Are the ghosts of the languishing concubines of The Garden just beyond the trees in the background of the photograph? My desire to behold The Garden of Forgotten Favorites has animated this photograph for me beyond its actual depiction and identifying caption.

I often wonder if actually going to The Forbidden City, finding and seeing The Garden of Forgotten Favorites, would satisfy my desire and my curiosity, thereby bringing about some sort of catharsis (or perhaps disappointment). When I imagine this (potential) trip, I am reminded of an episode in the decadent and perverse French novel Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans In the novel, the main character Des Esseintes has isolated himself from the world in order to engage in various sensual pursuits. At a later point in the novel, he believes he must break out of his self-imposed seclusion from the world or face ruin, so he decides to travel to England. He goes to take the train to the coast in order to make the Channel crossing, but he is early and must wait. To pass the time he eats dinner in a local establishment run by English expatriates. He eats English food, experiences English language and customs. At the end of the meal, instead of boarding the train for the Channel crossing and beginning his trip, he decides he has already been to England and there is no need to travel to the actual place.

I find this part of Against the Grain extremely profound and as an indication of the sensibilities of the aesthete it is also quite sad. There is an intellectual richness and beauty in Des Esseinntes’ adventure in the train station, but there is also an emotional emptiness to it. He privileges a (momentary) sensation/artifice/simulation over the actual engagement that his trip to England could have been. Instead, he returns to his own inner world of seclusion.

Huysmans' novel reminds me of a trip I took to San Francisco over 20 years ago. For some reason, almost everyday of the trip my friend and I took the same bus through Chinatown. At some point during our daily journey, we were the only white people on the bus. The entire bus was filled with mainly Chinese women and some men talking with great verve, gesticulation and animation as they went about their daily shopping, errands, etc. In this moment, I was (like Huysmans at the train station) in China experiencing its language, customs, sights and sounds. It is one of the great memories of my life.

In the end, perhaps my imagined and fantastical Garden of Forgotten Favorites is richer, more profound, more poignant than the real place ever could be no matter how this fantasy at times might limit my life. Maybe, there is no need to actually go there. Yet, I’m still looking for that photograph and its secrets.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Queering the Image 3: The “Nut” Series




Pictured above are 2 vintage postcards circa 1910-1914, The “Wall Nut” and The “Coco Nut”, which use puns to generate their (lackluster) humor. Both were published as part of “The Nut Series” by the English firm Raphael Tuck & Sons which had been in business since 1866. By 1900 the company had expanded its market into the United States by opening a New York office on Fifth Avenue. Although both of these cards were printed in England, they could possibly have been designed at the Fifth Avenue branch, then manufactured in England and finally sold in America.

While I am curious about the historical facts of these cards in terms of maker, type and date, it is not my chief concern. As with many images that attract my interest (my desire), I am intrigued how these 2 postcards as fragments of the cultural history of the early twentieth century connote homosexuality/queerness through their denotation of class and how this picturing of difference is understood by me and was potentially understood by the viewers of that time.

The “Wall Nut”

The pun expressed in this postcard is clearly evident and not really that funny. A man sits on a wall that separates him from a body of water located in the background. Thus, he is the “Wall Nut”.

His pose is relaxed and casual with his right hand resting on his right knee. He is sitting on a wall after all. In his left hand he holds a walking stick up to his mouth as he looks off to the right. He is pondering something in the distance that we, the spectator, cannot see. Dressed sharply in a tan suit, cream vest and large, black bowtie, he wears a hat with a broad black band to block the sun. A pinkish red rose adorns the button hole of his jacket. His shoes are festooned with large black bows which repeat the bowtie around his neck. His pale blue/lavender socks show beneath the cuff of his pants. He is dapper, elegant and pensive.

At initial glance, this postcard depicts a man of a certain privileged class as indicated by his attire on a possible seaside sojourn. As slang, a nut is defined as an eccentric or crazy person. The figure is thus separated by the caption from others by this difference. In a specific way, this meaning of nut can be connected to notions of class difference and perhaps to a distinctly English upper class. The upper class because of its position and wealth is seen as prone to sexual perversions like homosexuality that would not be engaged in by normal working people. The upper class is eccentric and different.

Mapped onto this depiction of class are visual clues of the “Wall Nut’s” sexual difference as well through subtle visual clues. The bowed shoes for example not only recall the shoes of the aristocracy before The Great Renunciation (another signifier of his class), but are a feminine touch that suggests homosexuality as gender inversion which was the paradigmatic discourse of same-sex desire in the early twentieth century. Similarly, the rose in the lapel decorates the figure and in the totality of his attire undermines his masculine appearance.


The facial features further serve to code the “Wall Nut” as feminine or at the least not quite masculine: the softness and smoothness of the face, the suggestion of a manicured eyebrow and the heavy lidded doe-like eyes.

Oddly, the “Wall Nut” has inserted the handle of his walking stick into his mouth and then puffed out his cheeks. (It reminds me of the postcard discussed in my earlier post, Queer Imaging 2, where the queer figure similarly brings his walking stick to his mouth.) What does this mean? Is he looking at some unseen (male) object of desire outside of the frame and imagining a future sexual encounter? Does it suggest fellatio? Or does it more generally imply a sexuality of the mouth rather than the genitals thus, further undercutting the figure’s masculinity and evoking his sexual difference, his gender inversion?

Together signifiers of class and femininity are deployed in this postcard in order to depict the difference of the “Wall Nut.” For me, this deployment generates an image with connotations of sexual difference, of queerness and homosexuality which are expressed at first through a denotation of class.

The “Coco Nut”


Another postcard in The “Nut” Series, The “Coco Nut” is more cryptic in comparison to the first. What actually is the pun here regarding coconuts? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s meaning is lost to its time and place, but I will try to at least decipher what is going on in the image. At initial glance, it too is about class difference, but that difference is then expanded to connote homosexuality/queerness.

The postcard illustrates another elegantly suited gentleman with the same bowed shoes reminiscent of the eighteenth century. He has the same large, black bowtie and his pale green socks are visible beneath his cuffed trousers. His class status is signified by his attire.

A cigarette is in his mouth. Smoke escapes from his mouth like a swirling ribbon or snake. He holds a smooth ball in his right hand and his left arm is outstretched in a gesture of display. The placement of his feet is evocative of a ballet stance. The entire pose suggests as if he is about to throw the ball underhand at something not seen within the postcard frame.

In the left background there is a couple: a man holding his hat in the air and his female companion who wears a hat with 2 tall feathers and holds a walking stick. Both are in attire similar to the central figure and are cheering him on perhaps in his impending action. All three are part of the same social group.

In the right background there is a seated male figure in shirt sleeves and what appears to be a cap. He sits in a barely outlined structure with flags on the top and in front of him are coconuts on stakes. With his hand to his mouth, he seems to be yelling something at the central figure. Is it encouragement or something derogatory?

The pose and impending action of the refined gentleman suggests at first lawn bowling, but perhaps he is playing a game at a seaside amusement (water can be seen in the left background) in which a ball is used to knock the coconuts off their stakes, thereby winning a prize. Two already knocked off coconuts are located to the right of his feet. In this reading, the shirt sleeved figure in the background must be the hawker of this game calling out to potential participants.

The coding of the “Coco Nut” figure as a member of the upper class is achieved not only again by the word nut and his appearance as in the first postcard, but also by his difference from the game hawker in right background. Against the elegant blue/gray suit of the central figure, the hawker is a man in a cap with rolled shirtsleeves and exposed arms running a seaside amusement. The suited gentleman is distinguished by his elegant pose and gesture compared to the seated shouting amusement man. I would argue that this difference can be mapped onto the binary masculine/feminine as well.


Again as in the “Wall Nut” postcard, there are subtle feminine traces that undermine the smoking gentleman’s masculinity. There are the bowed shoes. The soft smoothness of the face, the carefully coiffed hair, the manicured eyebrows and the heavy lidded doe-like eyes all suggest homosexuality and queerness as gender inversion. Also, there is the cigarette in the mouth which is reminiscent of the walking stick in the mouth of the “Wall Nut”. The oral has replaced the genital. The feminine overshadows the masculine.

Finally, there are the 2 hairy coconuts located to the right of the dapper gentleman. On one level, they are simply the result of the game’s goal: knocking coconuts off the stakes with the ball. But, is it an exaggeration to suggest a connection between nut, coconut, testis? Or am I just being silly? When was nut(s) first used as a slang term for testicles? When did nut become a slang term for male ejaculation?

Like the “Wall Nut”, but even more clearly in the “Coco Nut”, sexual difference as gender inversion is mapped onto class difference. On its first level of meaning, this postcard illustrates class, but simultaneously implies an undercurrent of homosexuality and queerness.


When looking at images of the past, any attempt to reconstruct their actual meaning is on some level impossible. A viewer is always bound by their own historical and ideological moment of spectatorship. The best one can do, the best I can do is be aware of my own subjectivity as a spectator and attempt to construct a frame of possible meaning for an image, but realizing I will never arrive at its truth.

For me, these 2 postcards denote one thing about class/dress/humor and suggest another possible reading of homosexuality and queerness. Perhaps this connotation arises out of my own sexuality, but I would like to think that a 1914 male viewer of these cards who had same-sex desires would in a sense recognize himself in them and gain a degree of satisfaction in that recognition- a recognition which would in turn serve as a basis for a reverse discourse in which the language of oppression is redeployed by the oppressed to gain freedom, identity and community.