The Celestial Streetcar
Melinda Barlow/University of Colorado at Boulder


Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane, 1951)

A moonless night, pricked with stars. I am at the old train station in downtown Boulder, the one built in 1890, sitting in a streetcar from the next century, a sleek red rocket with the familiar sea foam ceiling and maroon and cream exterior. A pair of binoculars hangs around my neck. There are no other passengers, and no driver.

With a lurch, the vehicle lifts off, moving forward while somehow traveling backward in time, linked to a vast web of cables and tracks that stretches impossibly from earth to sky. Making a left near the Flatirons, the car rises and falls like a roller coaster across the eastern plains that yield imperceptibly to western Kansas, buoyed by the winds that whirl above Lawrence, rattled by the rush of the Missouri River, veering north toward Springfield, Decatur and the corn and soy bean fields of central Illinois. I am elated: through the binoculars I glimpse my grandmother’s farm outside Jacksonville, the house with its wrap-around porch and green-roofed corn crib looking just as they did in snapshots from the 1960s.

Sailing on past the suburbs of Chicago—Downers Grove, Naperville, Oak Brook—the streetcar descends perilously close to the lake, blue-black and brackish, as if homing for water. I love hovering over the waves, riding an unexpected gust due east through the hills and valleys of the Lower Peninsula, and, more than anything, swerving around the Giant Tire by the highway just south of Detroit, the one that used to be a Ferris Wheel at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Pure exhilaration. My parents must have passed it when they emigrated in 1965; we drove by it every year on long family road trips to Texas.

My internal compass knows what comes next: everything turns green, and there is more and more water. As Lake Erie leads to Lake Ontario, and the parks and bogs near London cede to the ravines and canopy of Tkaranto, the place “where there are trees are standing in the water,” the car leaps and dips, glides and soars, shakes, screeches, brakes and switches, sparking as it touches down and careens into the CNE. The midway is awhirl with light. Nearby, the lake lies quaking in the dark.

Ferris wheels

The Canadian National Exhibition, 1922

I have landed in Toronto twenty-five years before the boom. In the glinting tracks ahead and “neon glamour” at my back, I feel the allure of that not-too-distant future. ((The phrase “neon glamour” is used in Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane 1951) to describe Toronto after dark.))

I wake with a start, suddenly derailed.

I’m not there.

City Hall

Official opening of Toronto City Hall, 1965

Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane, 1951), a National Film Board of Canada short narrated by radio broadcaster Elwood Glover and produced by Sydney Newman (twelve years before he created Dr. Who), ((For more context on the Torontonian roots of this iconic British television series, see Adam Bunch, The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, November 11, 2013. The Toronto Dreams Project, created by Bunch, is a fascinating intervention into Canadian history. Taking a cue from Banksy, Bunch creates fictional dreams, inspired by the lives of famous figures in Toronto history, writes them on the back of post cards featuring related collages on the front, and leaves them at various sites related to those figures all over the city.)) charts the rise of the “Queen City” renowned for its Sunday Blue Laws and as the birthplace of Standard Time, now an urban center “growing like mad, bursting at the seams,” its dreams of “expanding industrial might” putting it at risk of being “strangled by its own prosperity.” ((Given the current real estate boom in Toronto, it is not surprising that recent reviewers of this NFB short drew the parallel between the Toronto of 1951, and the Toronto of 2014. Another article attesting to the city’s new boom appeared this year in the Huffington Post. And Don McKellar’s recent TV series starring Kim Cattrall for HBO Canada, Sensitive Skin, which premiered on July 20, 2014, features many references to Toronto’s new “cyber lofts,” and in its vision of the city, everyone is always waiting for a streetcar that never seems to arrive!)) Struggling with traffic and congestion due to post-war suburban expansion, the film documents the building of Canada’s first subway, which opened in 1954, promotes the city’s glamorous nightlife in a montage of hotspots and watering holes known for their spectacular neon signage (The El Mocambo and The Horseshoe Tavern among them), and reminds us, through a remark made by a visitor to mansion-turned-museum Casa Loma, that Toronto is a city of one million people (still) “living in a forest.”

But the film’s most telling riff, a textbook illustration of NFB founder John Grierson’s vision of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality,” is its depiction of Canadian-American relations through the fictional meeting of Albert McConachie, from equally fictional Pine Tree Rapids, and Chester Vanderwick, a businessman from Ohio. In a conversation replete with the requisite long o’s and broad a’s defining each country’s accents, Mr. McConachie insists that Toronto is too big for him, and that he “wouldn’t live here if they gave [him] the place!” Mr. Vanderwick, however, bestows America’s highest compliment, describing TO as “smart and up to date, just like a good American city. Makes me feel like I’m back in Cleveland!” Framed by “Mr. Nice Guy” Glover’s perfectly pitched boosterist voice over, which lends humor and enthusiasm to the entire exchange, “Toronto the Good” in 1951 is primed to become the “City of the Future” emblematized 14 years later by the modernist City Hall designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, with its curved twin towers of differing heights enclosing a space-ship like council chamber. ((The futuristic look of Toronto City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square has long made it associated with different kinds of science fiction. See The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.))

Last Night

Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)

Toronto Boom Town’s idealized future takes an apocalyptic turn in Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998), a film showing the city on the verge of obliteration, littered and looted, its streets strewn with peculiar totems made from animal masks impaled on parking meters. Sandra (Sandra Oh) walks through this urban wasteland in search of a ride, sounding like a latter-day Dorothy Gale when she tells everyone she meets, including widower Patrick Wheeler (McKellar), “I have to get home.”

Last Night

Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)

She wants to get there, however, to fulfill a mutual suicide pact with her husband Duncan (David Cronenberg), before the film’s unexplained catastrophe occurs at midnight. In one attempt to do so, she boards a driverless streetcar (a Canadian Light Rail Vehicle from the late 1970s, not the Art Deco Pullman car that haunts my dreams), whose two passengers, a despairing mother and her impatient daughter, seem to be waiting for something to happen. Rioting crowds eventually overturn the abandoned vehicle, and Sandra spends the final moments of the night exchanging personal intimacies with Patrick, whose way of describing his wife’s death rings with significance beyond the confines of the narrative: “After she died, they said the world would end.” The loss of a loved one, or even a beloved place, often feels like that. For a while, there is nothing left; the familiar terms of the universe are no more.


If I could, I would give Sandra another future, or at least add to the present that is (was) her last night, by giving her a ride—another ride, or perhaps a few—one down Bay Street to the waterfront on a working CLRV. Getting off at Queens Quay, she would board a time-traveling ferry to Centre Island (a “Technicolor” ride, thanks to the strength of magenta dyes), arriving during the Canadian Centennial (1967), a few years before her birth. There, bathed in the glow of a late summer sunset, after walking by the shore while children play nearby, she might stroll to the Centreville amusement park, and take a spin on The Scrambler, like Margot (Michelle Williams) does in Take this Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011), years down the line. Whirling in the dark, her blues diffused by the lurid blend of lights, filled with a sense of abandon, thrilled at being in motion, and uniquely attuned to the passing of time, Sandra might find solace, I like to imagine, in being shaken up and turned around, before returning to a final evening of human communion which culminates, in the film’s last shot, in an unanticipated kiss.


The Scrambler at Centre Island in Take this Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)

In Take This Waltz, Margot also seeks temporary solace in a thrill ride, when she boards The Scrambler with a possible paramour as a way of shaking up her own life. Five years into a marriage that on the surface seems just fine, Margot is restless at the core, in search of something else. A woman who freely admits that she dislikes dislocation (the “rushing, not knowing,” of air travel, of being “in between things”), she nonetheless courts a new experience by responding to Daniel’s (Luke Kirby) attentions, thus placing herself in an emotionally liminal zone. “Life has a gap in it, in the big picture,” her former sister-in-law tells her much later in the film, after Margot has left her husband. Getting on The Scrambler, part of a long day with a man to whom she is irresistibly drawn, is one way of trying to fill in that gap. The ride is a diversion but also a place of transformation: first elated, then deflated, Margot’s expressions bring to light an internal struggle—her dark night of the soul.

animal project

The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013)

All of the characters in The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013) experience dark (days and) nights of the soul when their acting teacher gives them an exercise that unexpectedly derails them. After watching a short film he made with his son Sam (Jacob Switzer) some ten years earlier, Leo (Aaron Poole) decides to adapt its method for a group of young performers, including himself. In the original film, called The Bunny Project, Sam, in full rabbit costume, offers hugs to passersby, and muses on life, death, and the nature of dreams. ((Ingrid Veninger appears in The Bunny Project twirling a baton in the background behind her son, actor Jacob Switzer, in this film within a film, thus lending The Animal Project not only an interesting degree of reflexivity, but an autobiographical dimension as well.)) “Do you dream?,” he is asked by an off-screen voice, presumably his father’s. “I’ve had a dream that seems really real,” Sam answers—an experience, we soon learn, his father knows very well. Leo poses the same question, with slight variations, to his fellow actors, asking of one, “Have you ever died in your dreams?,” and of another, “What is the last thing you remember dreaming?” To the latter, he gets an answer that might be part of what unhinges him: Saul, with whom he has recently shared an unexpected moment of intimacy, answers, “It was about you.”

How and why this happens, and how the entire “chorus of misfits,” as Leo eventually describes himself and his six students, breaks apart, comes together, forges new bonds and deepens their connections, precisely because of the exercise he devises for them, creates a film which is an intricate study of projection, anonymity, authenticity, and identity, and the human capacity for intimacy, against all odds. The exercise? Don a full animal costume, mask and all, and go out into the world, interact, and see what happens—with others, and in you. Self-obliteration, Leo insists, is a “different kind of risk taking.” “Those animal heads wipe out the actor’s expression completely,” one student protests. “You could put anyone in those heads and it wouldn’t make a difference at all.” To some extent this is true. But what happens to each actor internally is distinct, and for each, adopting a guise ultimately yields something genuine. The exercise proves to be an unforeseen vehicle of transformation.

Toronto is the place where these transformations occur, in locations ranging from the elevated to the mundane, each beautifully shot by cinematographer Cabot McNenly: its glistening streets and glowing alleys, its parks and ravines, its laundromats, living rooms, diners (Vesta Lunch: “Reputable since 1955!”), churches, theaters, bars, clubs and, of course, down by the lake.

In one especially memorable sequence, Pippa (Jessica Greco) and Alice (Hannah Cheesman), The Donkey and The Rabbit, respectively, walk by the Cameron House, a 1920s hotel turned music venue in the 1980s, their bouquet of red balloons thrown into relief by the vibrant red of the club’s door, which is echoed by the orange glow of a passing cab, its turquoise trunk a perfect complement to the teal background of the striking mural on the club’s wall, which frames a window filled with an inviting arc of blue lights. As if beckoned, they enter, and dance in costume, while a balloon or two drifts to the ceiling. Later, on the street, a man gropes at Pippa after she offers him a balloon, and then he laughs at her distress. She breaks down.

Given how significant balloons are for her (“they are magic to me”), their inclusion here reads as a telling evocation of The Red Balloon (1956), Albert Morrisette’s fantasy film about a young boy in Ménilmontant who finds a sentient red balloon that follows him everywhere. Jealous children ultimately destroy his silent friend, but fantasy wins the day: all the balloons in Paris take Pascal on a cluster balloon ride over the rooftops of the city. As one critic put it in 1957, the film is “a poignant symbolization of dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them.” ((Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, March 12, 1957.)) The same might be said of The Animal Project. ((Another interesting point of comparison with The Red Balloon: Albert Morrisette’s son Pascal played the central character in his father’s film, just as Ingrid Veninger’s son Jacob Switzer plays the character of Sam in The Animal Project. Veninger’s daughter Hallie Switzer stars in Veninger’s films Modra (2010) and i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011). Veninger has also acted in many of the films she has directed, including: Only (2008) and i am a good person/i am a bad person.))

animal project

animal project

Both: The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013)

Other characters in the film wander the streets alone, exhibiting varying degrees of comfort with their costumes. While Mira The Mouse (Sarena Parmar), wearing only her mask, walks through a dark alley, its slick sidewalk glinting with gold, Jason The Cat (Johnathan Sousa), in full attire, meanders down to the lake at sunrise, raises his arms to the waxing moon (a stretch of despair or an appeal for strength?), then sits on the dock, waves lapping at his back, pondering a momentous decision. When the light shifts, he leaps up, runs all the way to The Mouse’s house, takes off his mask, and declares that he is going to kiss her. He does.

lake ontario
Lake Ontario

Lingering by the “Lake of Shining Waters” facilitates his transformation. Gazing out at that infinite expanse of blue, as balanced and restorative as a minimalist painting, ((I am thinking here of works by Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin. See Rothko’s paintings Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue) (1966), and Untitled (Green on Blue) (1968). See Martin’s painting Falling Blue (1963).)) Jason faces his own emptiness, and feels “the blue of longing.” Blue, writes Rebecca Solnit, is “the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” ((Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) 29.)) To get there, Jason jogs the distance, taking the lake’s quiet enlightenment with him.

take this waltz

Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)

Whenever you leave, wherever you go, you take that blue glow with you, its radiance at your back. On the next ride, on the road, out of town, on the tracks, in a streetcar, in the air, looking back, glancing ahead—longing, Solnit reminds us, is a sensation to be cherished on its own terms. Something is always far away, and something always needs letting go.


The Canadian National Exhibition, 1954

A moon, a red balloon, a faint blue gleam in a vast black sky. A wish drifting heavenward. A streetcar creaking homeward. This is my dream.

animal project

The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013)

For my mother, who helped the Toronto Transit Commission make the streetcars accessible for everyone. ((On August 31st, 2014, on the Spadina line, Toronto rolled out the first low-to-the-ground, accessible Flexity Outlook streetcars.)) And for Ingrid, whose films brought me home.

Image Credits:
1. Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane, 1951).
2. The Canadian National Exhibition, 1922. City of Toronto Archives.
3. Official opening of Toronto City Hall, 1965. City of Toronto Archives.
4. Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998).
5. Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998).
6. The City of Toronto Archives.
7. The City of Toronto Archives.
8. The Scrambler at Centre Island in Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011).
9. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
10. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
11. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
12. Lake Ontario: “The Lake of Shining Waters” in the Wyandot (Huron) language. The City of Toronto Archives.
13. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011).
14. The Canadian National Exhibition, 1954. The City of Toronto Archives.
15. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).

Please feel free to comment.

Without Warning
Melinda Barlow/University of Colorado at Boulder


Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008)

It hit. Hard. Late at night. Some thought it sounded like a freight train; others assumed it was a low-flying jet. One woman recognizing the familiar roar simply said “It’s a wind acomin.’”

People lit out for storm cellars, dove under beds, cowered in back rooms, ducked for cover. The air was dead still and full of dust; many could not breathe. Some were pummeled by hail and debris. One man went to sleep and woke up in the street, unclear how he got there. Another, returning from an errand in his car, never made it inside because “the house started leaving.”

Buildings cracked open, windows flew out, the water tower toppled, and the grain elevator collapsed. A telephone operator died at the switchboard. The most famous photograph shows a pickup truck, stripped of everything but its frame and tires, tipped on end, wedged up a tree. The driver was found dead a quarter mile away.

A police chief saw it coming and tried to radio ahead, but the town did not have a police radio then. A train engineer spotted it and blew his whistle as an alert. “We’re all going to be blown away,” one woman cried, “I wish I could call everyone and warn them.”

On May 25th, 1955 at 10:35 p.m., a tornado three-quarters of a mile wide blindsided Udall, Kansas, a small town twenty-five miles southeast of Wichita. Within minutes 80 people were dead and 270 were injured. 192 buildings and 170 homes were destroyed. Although severe weather warnings had been issued in the morning and afternoon, more heavy rain prevented the National Weather Service in Wichita from detecting the approaching funnel, and the weather bulletin issued from Kansas City expired at 10:00 p.m. A television station reported that severe weather had passed.

Now considered an F-5, the highest and most dangerous rating on the not-yet-established Fujita scale for measuring tornado strength, the twister that tore through Udall at 300 miles per hour is still described as the deadliest in Kansas history. ((The facts herein, including the remarks made by survivors, come from multiple accounts of the tornado that struck Udall, Kansas in May of 1955. Some facts occasionally differ (e.g. death toll vs. number of survivors). See the following for more information:;;;;

What a nightmare.


Title Credit from Star 34 (Herk Harvey and Arthur H. Wolf, 1954)

Learning about Udall landed me back in Kansas, where I was born, both the Sunflower State of myth often made to stand for all that is wholesome and decent and ordinary in mid-20th century American films, and the dark and bleak Kansas of Truman Capote, Herk Harvey and Salman Rushdie, a place of apprehension and imagination, where Dorothy Gale’s Auntie Em anxiously watches the sky, and great whirlwinds arise. Star 34—“the 34th State in the Union, with the 34th President, and a star in its own right!”—as enthusiastic easterner Bill Asher, played by Harvey, puts it at the end of the eponymous industrial film made by the Lawrence-based Centron Corporation in 1954, Kansas is also home to Holcomb, the village on the high wheat plains of the west, a lonesome area, writes Capote, that “other Kansans call ‘out there.’” ((Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 3.))That Kansas, and what happened there in November 1959, has something in common with the Kansas that Rushdie, in his compelling essay on The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), calls “that great void,” ((Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992), 21.)) and that Harvey as Asher (the same Harvey who would direct the cult horror film Carnival of Souls [1962], shot in Lawrence and at an abandoned amusement park in Utah), when told he must visit there in order to qualify for an inheritance at the outset of Star 34, calls “nowhere.”

As Rushdie points out, Kansas gets but a few pages at the beginning and end of L. Frank Baum’s book (1900), and this puts to the lie the “conservative little homily” ((Ibid., p. 56.)) “there’s no place like home” with which the film ends. Because both book and film linger in Oz, Rushdie sees it as Dorothy’s real home, and Fleming’s film as a paean to the human dream of leaving, a dream “at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots.” ((Ibid., p. 23.)) This is a persuasive idea, one that questions Baum’s claim in his Introduction to have written a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” (( L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago: George M. Hill Company, 1900), 5.))

Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008) also upends this claim, reversing the chronology of Fleming’s iconic film, distilling its underlying darkness into a glowing five-minute gem of condensation and displacement, described by Minor as a “dream gone wrong.” ((Josh Minor, description of Once in a Lullaby.)) In his film’s opening images, Dorothy is already in Oz, already dreaming. Glinda never appears, and Dorothy never leaves, although the glistening orb that heralds the arrival and departure of the Good Witch in the original serves as the vehicle of transport for our entry into and exit from Dorothy’s anxious unconscious imaginings. By saturating the black-and-white sequences which take place in Kansas with extraordinary colors, transforming the Technicolor which is Oz into an even more lurid and spectacular realm, and adding a score of reverberant chimes and ambient drones, Minor creates the unsettling sensation of being trapped in a nightmare that never ends. Backlit by a gold and amber sky resembling smoldering embers, the famous tornado snaking through the prairie never looked so menacing.


Annie Strader, Christine Owens, and Emily Bivens in Warning Signs II (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail

How to read the sky? What are the telltale signs of an oncoming F-5? How to analyze the data, alert the public, take precautions, and survive, a tornado or any other calamity, atmospheric, personal, or otherwise? In “Warning Signs II” (2014), a performance by The Bridge Club at the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita at the end of April, in tornado season, Emily Bivens, Christine Owen, Annie Strader and Julie Wills donned their familiar wigs, this time wearing black shifts, and stood sentinel in the Museum’s courtyard, frequently gazing skyward while performing a series of mysterious tasks. ((For more on The Bridge Club, see Melinda Barlow, “When Sleepers Wake and Yet Still
Flow, 20.01 Volume 20 (July 2014), and Melinda Barlow, “The Guise of Good Behavior,” in The Bridge Club (art catalog), (Berkeley: Edition One Books), forthcoming, 2014.

One woman traced and simultaneously erased locations in an atlas with sandpaper-tipped gloves; another held a cone to her mouth filled with a recording of wailing wind, sending out a symbolic siren sometimes drowned out by the real gusts picking up during that late April evening. Together the women measured and created radiating lines with chalk dust, then partially removed them with spoonfuls of water.


Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail

Later, a miniature storm projected on the side of “The Trailer,” its pink and yellow clouds punctuated by tiny forks of lightning, offered a safe, beautiful, luminous souvenir of a potentially threatening situation. Like the volunteer network of “experienced observers at their stations, watching” in the industrial film Tornado (Calvin Productions, ca. 1955), the members of The Bridge Club searched the sky for clues of forces that cannot be controlled, that might strike without warning.


Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

An inexplicable force takes hold of Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls, one that sometimes makes her feel that she no longer exists, and has no place in the world. Unaware that she has driven off a bridge in a drag race, and may or may not be dead, she emerges from a river unsure what has happened to her, and the women she was with. A church organist who takes a job in Utah, insisting that she is never coming back to the town in Kansas where she went to school, her move out of state is haunted by a white-faced ghoul simply called “The Man” (Herk Harvey), who somehow appears instead of her reflection in the windows of both her car and new rooming house (really located in downtown Lawrence, so in some sense Mary never leaves).

In one stunning nocturnal sequence, when The Man disappears, Mary suddenly sees herself, split, her furrowed brow attesting to what she does not understand, the doubling of her image a striking visual reminder of her schism with the world. No wonder she tells a fellow boarder who doggedly pursues her that it is at night when “fantasies get so out of hand.” Her solution to this problem? “Let’s have no more nights!”


Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

But daylight can be full of equally strange occurrences, as her stroll through an abandoned amusement park on the shores of the Great Salt Lake makes clear. One part of this sequence potently evokes her predicament: walking through a Rotor ride long without motion, an aperture-like structure turned on its side, she is, dead still, at the center of a vortex, no longer living, possibly dreaming, the I of a storm who does not survive. ((Bruce Kawin provides an illuminating reading of the film in his essay for the Criterion DVD of Carnival of Souls released in 2000. He describes Mary Henry as a “liminal protagonist” characteristic of the horror film, one who has “gone wrong, and the world with her.” See Bruce Kawin, “Carnival of Souls.”))


The Clutter House at night in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)

None of the Clutters survive the ravage wreaked upon their home in Holcomb by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in the dead of night on November 15th, 1959. Driven by distinct yet related dreams—Hickock by the fantasy of a perfect score, a farmer with a big spread and a safe full of cash, Smith by the promise of buried treasure, nurtured in his childhood by his rodeo performer father—the two have-not ex-cons touch down in the mythic heartland of Kansas (“the land of wheat, corn, Bibles, and natural gas,” in Hickock’s phrase) and kill all four family members in cold blood.

Why do they do it? This is what troubles Alvin Dewey, chief investigator on the case, and a fictional reporter named Jensen who serves as his foil in Richard Brooks’ 1967 film, otherwise fairly faithful to Capote’s true crime non-fiction novel published two years earlier. “A violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family. No clues. No logic. Makes us all feel vulnerable, frightened,” says Jensen to Dewey as they ponder the reasons for the crime. Perry Smith likewise questions his own motives and marvels at the inexorable unfolding of events, fuelled by his, and Hickock’s, lethal lack of control: “The whole crazy stunt had a life of its own,” he tells Dewey, “Nothing could stop it.” The shot following the final off screen shooting of young Nancy Clutter vividly brings this to life: a tumbleweed whirls at incredible speed past the killers’ car outside the Clutter house on that dark and windy night.


Robert Blake as Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)

The black hole at the center of all dark depictions of Kansas, Richard Brooks’ film, shot on location at the former Clutter home by veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall, achieves its visual apotheosis in the scene just prior to Smith’s execution, during a long poignant monologue he delivers to a priest. Here, Hall exquisitely captures the tormented murderer’s internal divide in the famous shot reflecting the rain outside the window onto Smith’s cheek, thus allowing him to release the tears he feels but cannot unleash as he mourns, with understandable ambivalence, the loss of his abusive, alcoholic father, that “poor old man and his hopeless dreams.”


William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)

In the dreamy heat of a Kansas late summer night, darkness can also unleash illicit desire, and this is precisely what happens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955). Based on William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play, the film was shot on location all over Kansas, including Halstead, Nickerson, Sterling, and Salina, starting on May 16th, 1955. When the historic tornado hit Udall nine days later, the cast and crew were 75 miles away, in Hutchinson, and the entire shoot was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and wailing tornado warnings, meaning that the steamy final scenes at the picnic were completed on a Hollywood soundstage rather than in situ. ((Rosalind Russell, who plays aging grade school teacher Rosemary Sydney in the film, campaigned for the Kansas Disaster Relief Fund established after the catastrophe, and a street in Udall was renamed for her as a result.))

Nonetheless, everything in this film is hot as soon as drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) comes to the fictional town of Salinson, and although slightly misleading, one of the film’s tag lines captures the tornado-like velocity of his effect on every woman around him, including Madge Owen (Kim Novak): “From the moment he hit town she knew it was just a matter of time.” Well, not quite. Madge eyes Hal with shy interest, to be sure, but so does her sister, mother, boarding house owner Mrs. Potts, and aging grade school teacher Rosemary Sydney, and indeed, one of the most amusing riffs in the script is the number of times Holden as Carter is forced to take off his shirt, so that all of the women in the vicinity may ogle him even more.


William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)

Before Miss Sydney famously tears that shirt in a fit of drunken rage, Hal and Madge do a remarkably sexy dance on a platform by the river, strung with colored lanterns, beautifully shot by James Wong Howe. All the more erotic for the mood of yearning that courses through its classic mid-50s restraint, the “Moonglow” dance number, played out to a sultry jazz standard transformed by composer Morris Stoloff, serves as a tantalizing prelude to the startling shot of Hal and Madge after the picnic, in a tortured embrace on the banks of the river, punctuated by the roar of an oncoming train. The Production Code Administration required that any suggestion that Hal and Madge had slept together after the picnic be cut, but this image stands in for what could not be shown, allowing it to explode through sexualized mise-en-scène. The shot thus provides a libidinous example of what one writer, in a broader exploration of the value of darkness and a need for sensitivity to nocturnal rhythms, evocatively describes as “the singing and blooming of the night.” ((Akiko Busch, “The Solstice Blues,” The New York Times, June 20th, 2014, I am indebted to this lovely rumination on the value of night for my own closing meditation in this essay.))


Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008)

We need the night. We need its obscurity, ambiguity, and shadow-filled beauty. Our souls and skins crave moonglow. We also need the night’s uncertainty, perhaps even its anxiety, and we always need to dream. And maybe, like Dorothy at the end of Once In a Lullaby—hand in her mouth, orb in her eye, coming and going in a world of clashing colors—sometimes we even need to be at odds with ourselves, if we land in a dream gone wrong.

We pick up. Move on. Put down new roots. Leave again. Return once more. Feel the winds of change and try to read the signs as we become more attuned to the meteorology of memory.


Family photograph, found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2007

Lawrence, Kansas. Where I was born. This photograph, its own strange rainbow.

For my mother and father, and what began in Kansas, and my whole family, found.

Image Credits:
1. Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008).
2. Title Credit for Star 34 (Herk Harvey and Arthur H. Wolf, 1954).
3. Annie Strader, Christine Owens, and Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
4. Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
5. Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962).
6.Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962).
7. The Clutter House at night in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967).
8. Robert Blake as Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967).
9. William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955).
10. William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955).
11. Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008).
12. Family photograph, found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2007.

Please feel free to comment.

When Sleepers Wake and Yet Still Dream
Melinda Barlow / University of Colorado at Boulder

Paris, Texas
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
I pray for a break
from all thought
a clean break
in blank space
-Sam Shepard, Motel Chronicles (1982)

Neither cowboy nor oilman, hardly a giant and more like a ghost, Travis Henderson dreams his way into West Texas oblivion, then runs from dawn to dusk to get there. A haunted man on the lam from his own memory, he wanders in a desert as vast as the hole in his heart, armed with a tattered photograph of a vacant lot he bought in the town where he may have been conceived and hoped to raise his son. But when the wife he shackled with a cowbell and belted to the stove finally managed to flee, he left fatherhood behind, burying it inside. Only after his brother retrieves him four years later following a collapse in the blinding light of Terlingua does he begin to see what being a father really means.

Rancho Motel
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
The road is long and the journey, slow, and desert glare is not the only kind of annihilation. Driving is another “spectacular form of amnesia,” one in which every new discovery is quickly obliterated. ((Jean Baudrillard, America, Trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 9.)) When Travis and Walt pull into a motel in Fort Stockton, the sky is flushed; the highway slick with rain, and the neon gleam of each sign is strangely subdued. “Bet it feels good to be in new clothes, huh?” asks Walt, in the bald fluorescence of their modest red, white and blue room, pleased that his brother has donned a clean shirt and jeans. Travis, still shell-shocked, does not say a word.

Mute and melancholy, Travis is the antithesis of Texan flamboyance. No swagger or slang; uninterested in style; incapable of telling tall tales and devoid of sweeping ambition, his is not a larger-than-life personality but rather a diminished late 20th-century masculinity—in the opening shots of Paris, Texas, he is but a speck within the frame. Anxious, uncertain, and shorn of vanity; unsure how to bear the mantle of paternity, deal with loss of potency and pending mortality, and definitely not in assignment service any condition to fight, Travis, and the fellow troubled men who precede and succeed him in many mid-20th through early 21st century American films, nonetheless does battle, and, in the quiet epic of his own life, as it unfolds in the elegy for the American West which is Wim Wenders’ film, ultimately makes a single monumental gesture. He restores an estranged mother (his former wife) and son. Until then, as with his equally apprehensive onscreen counterparts, his duel lies deep within.

What is the appeal of the pose that Travis eschews, and that a relatively unconflicted man like Bick Benedict (Giant, 1956) adopts so effortlessly? That Hud Bannon (Hud, 1963) appears to embody? That Jack Burns (Lonely Are the Brave, 1962) clings to with tenacity, while fending off modern technology? That Joe Buck knows is intimately bound up with his clothes (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), and that revisionist westerns routinely dismantle? What pleasures and paradoxes are expressed through the image of the cowboy and his costume? What are the ideological stakes of this form of male masquerade?

From left: Found photograph, Austin, Texas. Paul Newman in production still for Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)
According to Robert Warshow in his insightful essay on “The Westerner” (1954), the point of the genre is a “certain image of man, a style,” which although tied to violence is in fact about something else. ((Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 449.)) “Watch a child with toy guns,” he continues, and you will see that the goal is to “work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.” ((Ibid.)) Art Spiegelman, in his two-page autobiographical comic “Mein Kampf” (1996), agrees. Next to a double self-portrait in which he sports the same costume in 1956 and 1995, he writes, “Man. I loved my Cisco Kid Outfit. I wanted to be a cowboy because I liked the way they dressed.” ((Art Spiegelman, “Mein Kampf,” New York Times Magazine (May 11, 1996), 37.

Courtney Fellion’s Honors Thesis, “Heroes and False Prophets: Why the New American Western Doesn’t Believe Any More” (University of Colorado, 2008), opens with a lovely meditation on the personal and cultural significance of a “found” image of an “unknown” cowboy she discovered in a family scrapbook.))

Clothes, as they say, make the man; they also allow boys to envision themselves as potent masculine images: as stylish, heroic fighters of custom dissertation headed straight for the OK Corral. But images may be deceiving, and by 1960 American westerns know this. Says an extra playing one of Davy Crockett’s men in John Wayne’s The Alamo when he first sees dashing General Santa Anna, “Fancy clothes don’t make a fightin’ man,” and even Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey), tired of The Duke-as-Crockett’s hokey adages and exaggerated vernacular, quips “All that bad grammar is a pose.”

No image is more striking or more deceptive than that cut by tough as a boot Hud Bannon, a cowhand as mean and unprincipled as his father Homer is venerable and hardworking. Instead of shooting their entire herd of cattle when it is infected with foot-and-mouth disease—any rancher’s worst nightmare—Hud wants to sell it, before it’s too late. Homer can hardly believe such an unscrupulous man is his son, and warns nephew Lonnie that Hud’s charm is nothing but a sham, and one with national implications: “You think he’s a real man. But you’ve been taken in our service at…Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”

Midnight Cowboy
Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
Homer despises Hud to such an extent that he doesn’t carry his picture; but Joe Buck reveres the rugged ladies man so much he takes the poster of the film bearing his iconic image all the way from Texas to New York and tacks it on the wall of his hotel room, right next to the mirror. This towering Texan, all hat and no cattle, knows he’s not the real thing: “I ain’t a for real cowboy,” he tells a prospective pimp, “but I sure am one helluva stud!” What Joe didn’t know is that after insisting, “John Wayne is no fag!” he would end up hustling men in Times Square equally enamored of the cowboy’s sexy image. As Vito Russo famously noted, “If there’s no real difference between the cowboy hero and the faggot on 42nd street, then what remains of an American masculinity?…The costume is only an image, as much a lie as all the other ways in which we force the movies to serve our dreams of an America that never really existed.” ((Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 81.))

bigger than life
James Mason as Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)
For the ailing and anxious men tormented by fantasies of grandiosity and dreams of inadequacy attesting to the fear that they will never fill their father’s shoes, two from melodramas, both released in 1956—Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life and Kyle Hadley in Written on the Wind—give the haunted western anti-hero a run for his money. Addicted to cortisone prescribed to treat a rare inflammatory disease, “male schoolmarm” Ed Avery leaves the hospital thrilled not to be in pain, feeling “10 feet tall.” But soon he suffers a bout of delusional megalomania and tries to kill his son. At the end of the film, he wakes up after dreaming that he walked with Lincoln, whose imposing height—“he was as big and ugly and beautiful as he was in life”—registers the trace of Avery’s former feelings of grandeur.

When Kyle Hadley, alcoholic heir to the Texas oil company run by his father Jasper, a successful “big man,” is told by his doctor that his test results show a “certain weakness,” a classic moment of Sirkian mise-en-scène expresses his humiliation at the possibility of impotence, as Hadley walks by a young boy vigorously bouncing up and down on a mechanical horse. Even more significant is the fear he describes to wife Lucy upon awakening from a fevered dream: “It’s like I was deep in a mountain pass, snowcaps hanging over my head. If I make a sound, snow might all come tumbling down. Bury me—alive.”

Written on the Wind
Dorothy Malone as Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
But what of grieving Marylee Hadley—here in that laughably phallic image from the end of Sirk’s film, after both her father and brother have died—what of her, and all the other daughters who have had to bury their fathers and various next of kin? What are our demons? What haunts our dreams? How do we handle the mantle of paternity, question its authority, and challenge its monumentality—personally, politically, professionally and creatively? Work recently made in Texas by women artists and filmmakers tackles these questions in interesting ways.

From left: Postcard of The Texas Ranger of 1960. Postcard for The Trailer (2013-ongoing) by The Bridge Club.
Standing in demure 1950s day dresses near their refurbished vintage trailer at the base of the 67-foot, 25-ton steel and concrete statue of Sam Houston gracing Highway 45 just outside of Huntsville, Texas, the members of the art and performance collaborative The Bridge Club (Emily Bivens, Christen Owen, Annie Strader and Julie Wills) look strangely out of place, like time travelers from another era. A postcard created for their mobile installation and live performance series, The Trailer, which debuted in Houston in 2013, this image serves as an ironic commentary on the reverential tone of souvenir postcards like the one of “Two attractive Braniff Airways Hostesses” at Dallas Love Field, who gaze admiringly in their matching fuschia coats and orange boots at the 12-foot bronze statue of “The Immortal Texas Ranger”—their hands on the base of the pedestal an eerie echo of the 19th century Cult of True Womanhood’s call for women to “uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.” ((Barbara Welter, The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1960,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), 152.

The other irony of this image is that the sculpture, whose official title is Texas Ranger of 1960, was created by Schulenberg-born artist Waldine Amanda Tauch, whose teacher Pompeo L. Coppini told her early on that she was “too small” to be a monumental sculptor. Her answer: “That’s what I started out to be and that’s what I’m going to be.” See University of Texas at San Antonio Digital Library, “Interview with WAT, 1983”, p.6.))

What Remains
“What Remains,” (The Bridge Club, 2013), detail
In “What Remains,” The Bridge Club’s first performance with the trailer, members used their own delicately day-gloved hands to bury the remains of broken porcelain birds and other cherished artifacts that were nestled in ruffled sheaths before being smashed with a shovel and placed in shallow graves. Repeated with a ritualistic degree of precision over the course of two hours, these subtle yet significant gestures transformed the deliberate destruction of collected thrift-store curios into a series of ceremonial deaths offering an unexpectedly visceral sensation of the experience of losing something—or someone—and letting it go.

The Rancher
The Rancher (Kelly Sears, 2012)
Another important challenge to the culture of paternal monumentality, Kelly Sears’ animated film The Rancher (2012) creates a compelling portrait of a president out of synch with himself, in a state of perpetual but secret disintegration because of a series of disturbing dreams. Combining black-and-white and color archival footage and photographs of Lyndon B. Johnson brooding, working at his desk in the Oval Office, and addressing the nation in the carefully scripted public speeches for which he was well-known, Sears’ film counters Johnson’s meticulously crafted public image with an expertly paced voice over whose authoritative omniscience challenges Johnson’s favored mode of self-presentation.

In the President’s dreams, we are told, his words become “distorted and undefined,” his sentences barely trip off his “swollen and uncooperative tongue,” and his talk becomes incomprehensible—mushy and doughy. When he finally loses his voice and compensates aggressively, imagining an imposter who delivers his speeches with the utmost eloquence, he also dreams of a stampede of cattle charging him at great speed, rendered in the film as a blank screen onto which we project our most terrifying visions of what such an assault might be like. An anxious big talker who was a product of the poverty of the Hill Country— afraid of ending up penniless, just like his father—in The Rancher, Johnson becomes a man unhinged, the “credibility gap” associated with his late presidency a function of the distinction between his public persona and his unconscious private life. ((For more on Lyndon Johnson’s driving fears and anxieties, see Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).))

Days of Heaven
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

An aged man is a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress
-William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)
At the end of No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), retiring Sheriff Ed Tom Bell recounts a dream he had about his father after he died: in it, he was going through a pass in the mountains, it was cold and there was snow on the ground and his father rode past him without saying a word. He could see that his father was carrying fire in a horn and knew that he was “fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold” and also knew that whenever he got there his father would be waiting. And then he woke up.

There are things we don’t know. We yet still dream.

In memory of Jon C. Barlow, who wasn’t born in Texas, but got there as fast as he could.
Image Credits:

1. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).
2.Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).
3. From left: Found photograph, Austin, Texas. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Paul Newman in production still for Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963).
4. Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969).
5. James Mason as Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956).
6.Dorothy Malone as Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956).
7.From left: Postcard of The Texas Ranger of 1960. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Postcard for The Trailer (2013-ongoing) by The Bridge Club. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
8.“What Remains,” (The Bridge Club, 2013), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
9. The Rancher (Kelly Sears, 2012).
10. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978).

Please feel free to comment.

Who Was That Masked Woman? Rediscovering the Hidden Mother
Melinda Barlow / University of Colorado at Boulder

description of image

Luella Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel

When a friend sent me this link for a Texas newsreel featuring “an interesting mother daughter relationship,” I knew I had hit the mother lode. Knife throwing might be a quaint 19th century amusement, but this 1950s iteration cut me to the quick. ((The You Tube link sent to me by Laura Shill titles this newsreel Knife Throwing Mother 1950s. On the Texas Archive of the Moving Image website the title is Knife Throwing Family ( and on the site for the Prelinger Archives it is Knife-Thrower and Children (ca. 1950) ( Instead of a dashing man hurling Bowies at a scantily clad assistant, here was a stolid woman in a day dress, skillfully flinging blades at two unflinching little girls. “Quite the family, the Gallaghers,” quips the jovial voiceover, “Connie Anne, 5 years old, and Colleena Sue, 2 ½, are a big help to mother Luella, who is no mean hand with a handful of knives.” Indeed, this mother outlines each of her daughters with great dexterity, nicking neither one. But it is the possibility of that nick that we wait for, a slip rather than sleight of hand that promises the forbidden thrill of blade piercing flesh, here especially unsettling because the targets are children. Although their smiles are as unwavering as their mother’s concentration, their poses carefully choreographed for maximum theatrical effect, this sideshow act nonetheless feels like a trauma in the making, one capable of wounding our sense of the sanctity of the mother daughter bond.

And yet, as so many films and memoirs consistently attest, from the recent remakes of Mildred Pierce (2011) and Grey Gardens (2009) to that Texas gem The Liar’s Club (1995) by Mary Karr, this relationship is a complex conundrum in art and life, a fierce if not traumatic attachment often fraught with what psychoanalysis by way of classical mythology calls murderous rage. ((The original films are Mildred Pierce (dr. Michael Curtiz, 1945) and Grey Gardens (dr. Ellen Hovde, Albert and David Maysles, and Muffie Meyers, 1975). The remakes were directed for HBO by Todd Haynes in 2011 and Michael Sucsy in 2009, respectively.

For a psychoanalytic overview of love/hate relationship between mothers and daughters, see Henrika C. Freud, Electra vs. Oedipus: The Drama of the Mother-Daughter Relationship, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (Hove, East Sussex, UK: Routledge, 2011).)) Every vengeful Electra has her neglectful Clytemnestra, each self-sacrificing Mildred her ungrateful Veda, and Big and Little Edie’s prickly symbiosis may be a less than flattering mirror for us all.

description of image

Colleena Sue Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel

But none of these volatile mother daughter dynamics holds a candle to that of Mary Karr, whose sharpest childhood memory involves the family doctor urging her to show him the marks left by her mother Charlie’s carving knife when she came after her and her sister Lecia during a psychotic break. Hallucinating that she had butchered her children, she called the doctor, who called the law, who hospitalized her for being Nervous. Watching her recount this incident on video years later, Karr sees her younger self ask her mother what she was thinking that fateful night in 1961. “I just couldn’t imagine bringing two girls up in a world where they do such awful things to women. So I decided to kill you both, to spare you.” ((Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club (New York: Viking Penguin, 1995), and Mary Karr, Lit (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 3.))

Worthy of a Hollywood film, both line and event are drawn from Karr’s life, but each finds echoes in countless films and memoirs: Joan Crawford as the original Mildred in 1945 shrieks “Get out before I kill you!” at greedy and capricious Veda, and, as Vivian Gornick writes in Fierce Attachments (1987), her mother Bess, provoked by Gornick’s views on marital love, likewise screams “Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you!” while chasing her daughter into the bathroom and smashing her fist through the glass door. ((Vivan Gornick, Fierce Attachments (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), 110.)) If Charlie Karr’s allusion to a feminist-inspired form of mercy killing gives this sentiment a somewhat different spin, it is perhaps because it at once registers the latent female rage smoldering in the early 60s that erupts in The Feminine Mystique (1963) and has been so compellingly rendered by Mad Men’s Betty Draper, seen reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group (also 1963) in the tub—and reminds us that in previous eras the expression of female anger was heavily veiled and deeply culturally repressed. Thus the faint stirring described in two of Emily Dickinson’s most famous lines, “A dim capacity for wings/Degrades the dress I wear,” is in fact a 19th century clarion call to consciousness, if not arms. ((The poem is titled “From the Chrysalis,” first published in 1896.

My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air;
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.

A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadows of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.

So I must battle at the hint
And cipher at the sign,
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clew divine

description of image

“The Best at Home,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, mid-19th century.

Dickinson, who eventually retreated into her house, wore a white dress, and refused to meet people face to face, came from a world where the cult of True Womanhood reined supreme and chained women to domestic life. Hostages in the home, as Barbara Welter described them in 1966, 19th century American women were instructed by a wide range of magazines and etiquette manuals like Godey’s Lady’s Book in the fine art of remaining unheard and unseen. ((Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1960,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), 151-174.)) “Working like nature, in secret,” women should obey the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, cheerfully yielding to their husbands and serving the needs of their children before satisfying their own. ((Maria J. McIntosh, Woman in America: Her Work and Her Reward (New York: 1850), 25.)) That “cloak of the heart” good manners was essential to this process. “If politeness is but a mask it is still better worn than cast aside,” insisted one such primer in 1860. ((Forence Hartley, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness (Boston: G. W. Cottrell, 1860), 3.)) Avoiding emotional extremes of all kinds also fulfilled middle-class codes of propriety by limiting facial expressiveness, thus turning the countenance into its own disguise.

description of image

From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother tintype, 19th century. Francois Deschamps, Empty Dress (2007).

Given the endless references to the importance of dutifully shrouding one’s feelings in these manuals and their reverberations throughout Victorian novels—which routinely erased women by making the ghosts of dead mothers into maternal ideals (Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, 1860) or having them commit suicide when they cannot resolve their internal contradictions (Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, 1899)—it is not surprising that 19th century conventions of photographic portraiture should repeat them as well. But that they do so so forcefully, through such uncanny iconography, often performing a double erasure within a single image, comes as quite a shock, as this riveting example of what is now known as a “hidden mother” tintype makes clear. When I found it online, it made me shiver and think grim reaper. Who was that masked woman? What happened to her baby? Haunted by maternal presence, this photograph discloses its absence, and may have hidden it yet again behind an oval mount or by tucking the photo into a tiny case. Contemporary literature on the subject seals this woman’s fate with a certain finality: referred to as cloaked female “attendants,” women like this one, who held their children still for the duration of an exposure, were covered to keep the focus solely on the child, their anonymity further insured when their faces were scratched out or cropped off by the edges of the frame. ((The two major books on tintypes are split in what they call hidden mothers. In Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart and Robert. W. Wagner, The American Tintype (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 75-75, reference is made to actual mothers, but in Steven Kasher, America and the Tintype, reference is made to the cloaked “attendant” on page 67.)) Like the woman who has lost her head in Empty Dress (2007), an altered 19th century photograph by Francois Deschamps, such women remain nameless and without individuation, forever draped in an unintended costume that divulges a deep secret: maternal absence is a dynamic signifying presence, a cultural trauma palpable precisely because it comes from something unknown, that seems not to be there.

The roots of this trauma run deep, its ideological stakes are high, and its cathexis ricochets vigorously into our own century, coursing through art, films, and recent tintypes each able, in Roland Barthes’ phrase, to assail us with its own punctum, each, like knife throwing, a unique impalement art capable of piercing us to the core. ((Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1981)) Contemporary work that returns to mid-20th century images of femininity does this by shattering its peculiarly placid veneer with startling alacrity, unveiling visions of family harmony, exposing the monsters lurking beneath what Betty Friedan called the “smiling empty passivity” required of women when the cult of domesticity returned in the 1950s, and both confronting and cherishing fantasies of mother daughter symmetry through strategies which reveal their hidden other side. ((Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1963; reprinted 2001), 118.))

description of image

Laura Shill, The Happy Family #6 (2006)

In Laura Shill’s The Happy Family #6 (2006), for example, a beaming mother presses her daughter face down into a bathtub, cheerfully helping her drown. Does this chilling image present another feminist mercy killing, like the one described by Charlie Karr? Or, as one of those pictures that “would never make it into the family album,” as Shill notes, does it reveal a world whose characters may be “unwittingly evil, and completely oblivious of their own cruelty?” Emerging from a time and place that pre-exists irony or cynicism (the image prior to Shill’s alteration is part of The Little Swimmers, a charming yet saccharine childhood classic from 1960), the series is intended as “a repudiation of the notion of ‘the good old days’”—that euphemism which skillfully masks such repressive social forces as conformity, sexism, and segregation. ((Laura Shill, email to the author, 9/17/11.))

description of image

Laura Shill, Untitled Box #1 (Easter Sunday) (2011), detail.

Sweeter in tone is the nested tintype Untitled Box #1 (Easter Sunday) (2011), made from a snapshot of Shill’s mother and grandmother in matching outfits complete with bonnets circa 1960, posing for the camera by displaying their full skirts, performing their twinned selves with savvy self-consciousness and clearly enjoying the experience of dressing up. More aggressive is Untitled Box #3 (Beverly’s Weapons) (2011), which features the same grandmother in cowgirl attire aiming a rifle right into the lens, nestled in a locket hanging in a small box, here held in close up in Shill’s hand. That Shill used to play dress up in Beverly Ball’s closet when she was a child is telling. It suggests a cross-generational thrill to theatricality, a shared pleasure in costumes and deliberately hamming it up in front of the camera that is in fact part of the legacy of the tintype. In 19th century America, people of all classes regularly mugged in special outfits with self-chosen props for the itinerant photographers who passed through town, in the process flaunting a theatrical sense of self that broke with codes of middle-class bodily propriety and traversed traditional gender boundaries. Given this context, Shill’s gun-toting grandmother seems like a long overdue refusal of 19th century rules mandating genteel female gestures, and an iconic mid-century answer to Emily Dickinson’s subdued call to arms.

description of image

Laura Shill, Untitled Box #3 (Beverly’s Weapons) (2011), detail.

description of image

From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Anonymous home movie retitled o little jeannie (circa 1950), collection of Jeanne Liotta. Marjorie Keller, She/Va (1973).

In hidden mother tintypes women’s gestures, although customarily cropped out by mats and mounts just like their faces, were often perceptible beneath veiling blankets, and seen reaching in like phantom limbs from out of frame, a convention that persists in amateur films shot one hundred years later. That dark figure with a gaping maw in the ‘grim reaper’ photograph is carefully supporting a rather startled child, and the tension between her steadying hands and swallowing lap is dramatic. In other hidden mother cabinet cards and in home movies, there are glimpses of female arms and hands propping children up, giving them a prod from off screen (She/Va, 1973), directing them to smile and smell the flowers (o little jeannie, circa 1950), and clasping them tightly while crouching behind ornate chairs. In view of the 19th century assumption that it was a woman’s solemn responsibility to “uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand,” as Barbara Welter put it, and a mother’s job to shape “the infant mind as yet untainted by contact with evil,” ((Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” 152.)) malleable as wax as it was beneath her “plastic hand,” as Ladies’ Companion advised in 1838, these remarkably sturdy female gestures should be treasured in all of their stabilizing iterations. ((Mrs. Emma C. Embury, “Female Education,” Ladies’ Companion, VIII (Jan. 1838), 18.))

description of image

From Left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Laura Shill, Untitled Performance #6 (2011).

Eventually, however, they must be relinquished, for every child has to put her mother behind her, leaving the security of that comforting yet claustrophobic lap to stand on her own two feet and face the future alone. The sensation of doing so, of feeling “neither cut off from the past nor mired in it,” in Mary Karr’s phrase, can be nothing short of exhilarating. ((Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club, xiv.)) As the child one was turns toward twilight, the woman one will become points in a new direction, poised on a rock, ready to disembark, unable to foresee what her life has in store, her capacity for self-creation now in her own hands, her mother hidden within.

Thanks to Benjamin Janek for his invaluable aid with this essay. Dedicated to Judith Bowles and in memory of Mary Teresa Clark, and inspired by the work of Laura Shill. You all enabled me to see.

Image Credits:
1. Luella Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel
2. Colleena Sue Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel
3. “The Best at Home,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, mid-19th century.
4. From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother tintype, 19th century. Francois Deschamps, Empty Dress (2007). Both collection of Melinda Barlow.
5. Laura Shill, The Happy Family #6. Collection of Melinda Barlow.
6. Laura Shill, Untitled Box #1 (Easter Sunday) (2011), detail. Collection of the artist.
7. Laura Shill, Untitled Box #3 (Beverly’s Weapons) (2011), detail. Collection of Melinda Barlow.
8. From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Anonymous home movie retitled o little jeannie (circa 1950), collection of Jeanne Liotta. Marjorie Keller, She/Va (1973).
9. From Left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Laura Shill, Untitled Performance #6 (2011). Collection of Melinda Barlow.

Please feel free to comment.