Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Exquisite Corpse"

The film version of The Black Dahlia, which I had been looking forward to for so long, is finally out. My bottom line: disappointing.

But the story of the "Black Dahlia"--the actual murder and dismemberment of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in January 1947--will doubtless go on and almost certainly will spawn more books, fiction and nonfiction, and movies.

The actual facts of the Short case (still unsolved), James Ellroy's brilliant novel The Black Dahlia, the story of the brutal murder of Ellroy's own mother (also in L.A., 11 years after the Dahlia, and a passing familiarity with related books have left me confused about what is fact and what is fiction. Which I discovered when I tried to explain all this Dahlia stuff to someone the other day.

David Thomson (whose recent appearance on the blog is here) has a long review in The New Republic which not only clears up many of the details that have me confused but also develops an interesting argument about the place of the Dahlia in postwar American (and southern California) history, the movie business, and...(believe it or not) Surrealism.

Integral to his broader theme is the true story of George Hodel, a man who may well have killed Elizabeth Short. And the man who figured out Hodel's past? His son Steve, a retired LAPD homicide detective, who presented the case a few years ago in a book titled Black Dahlia Avenger. Thomson's essay lays out the story of that book in his review, but his main subject is another book, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson and Sarah Bayliss.

Here is the third part of Thomson's four-part review:

Now comes Exquisite Corpse. It is a strange book, sketchy but unforgettable, tendentious but instructive. It is the work of Mark Nelson, a design director, and Sarah Hudson Bayliss, an art history journalist. Its area of autopsy is that of art history, of a corpse so "exquisite" that complicity in its making may extend to a loose circle of surrealists or pseuds in Los Angeles who were motivated by sexual curiosity, a search for the acte gratuit, and by a larger postwar feeling that evil had been let loose and would not go back into the bottle. In brief, Exquisite Corpse reckons that the stark whiteness glimpsed on January 15, 1947 was not just a sign of murder but also a tableau alluding to several works of art -- a terrible private joke. The authors accept George Hodel as the mind making the connection, but they feel that he may have been part of a circle of picture-makers entranced by the morbid dislocation of body parts that had begun with Picasso and Cubism.

Exquisite Corpse looks like a coffeetable book, but the coffee is sickly. And the reader of Exquisite Corpse needs to have Steve Hodel's book on hand. Nelson and Bayliss come no closer to clinching the sort of case that might be won in court, but they do spread highbrow suspicion in tracking the iconography of the severed body, defaced flesh, and upraised arms. They really urge us to look. Surely, you may say, these formal resemblances could be mere coincidence -- after all, Picasso was a pioneer in re-arranging the body, Magritte did a disturbing and enticing picture of a body-face called Le Viol, and many artists of the last hundred years -- the age of film, by the way -- were driven by sexual obsession and a taste for non-naturalistic representation. Bill Copley did pictures of nudes and clothed doctors with exotic rows of surgical hardware. Francis Bacon seems to have had more "cuts" of meat than a butcher or a film editor. ("Cutting" is the term that connects those two arts.)

In linking pictures by Man Ray, Duchamp, and Copley, the authors have made us think anew about art and murder. And here's the rub: the intellectual daring of such pictures cannot quite be separated from a torturer's coolness. Do Man Ray's nude studies of Lee Miller celebrate sex and "togetherness," or are they part of a new level of alienation and dismantling aggression in which the body gazed upon begins to come apart? There is also the gathering of evidence that suggests these artists were spokes in George Hodel's wheel. It is all speculation, of course, but the speculation is highly suggestive. One way or another, hasn't Los Angeles taken pains to provide us with beautiful corpses, and the play of seeming to be their killers? Why should artists not be aroused by our recklessness, by our silly faith -- inculcated in us by the movies -- that voyeurs cannot cry out in pain because that would stop the show?

You want examples? OK. In July 1947, Duchamp collaborated on a deluxe edition of a catalogue called Le Surréalisme en 1947 for an exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. Nine hundred ninety-nine handmade copies had a breast -- a falsie -- on the cover, made of foam rubber surrounded by black velvet. You are obliged to hold the breast while reading the catalogue. A fine joke; but the authors of Exquisite Corpse add that "it is noteworthy ... that Duchamp's image of a single breast appeared just months after Elizabeth Short's body, absent her right breast, was discovered." Duchamp made several visits to Los Angeles, where he mixed with Man Ray, Bill Copley, Walter Arensberg (the art collector), Albert Lewin (the aesthete and film director who made The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Lloyd Wright. And it is clear that George Hodel was part of the same group. Which proves ...?

Or try to follow this trail. Hodel was also associated with the writer Ben Hecht. In 1925, in Pasadena, Hodel published a magazine called Fantasia, which celebrated Hecht's first novel, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare. Magazine and novel alike were heavily under the influence of surrealism, of fantasies about murders committed in dreams and under hypnosis. The novel features a woman who feels that "there was something more to give him. She would remove something of herself -- her arm, her breasts, her white thighs.... She listened and wished to die in his hands." And Hecht, dabbling in psychoanalysis, would write the screenplay of Spellbound, that very odd Hitchcock film with a dream sequence by Salvador Dalí, about a man who believes he has committed a murder and cannot help reliving it in a dream. Put that next to George Hodel's remarks to the police after he was arrested for the rape of his daughter, quoted in the Los Angeles Daily News: "Everything is a dream to me. I believe someone is trying to hypnotize me. I want to consult by [sic] psychiatrist but I don't trust him. He might find something wrong with me. If this is real and I am really here, then these other things must have happened." None of this would stand up even in a film as foolish as Spellbound, though it makes Hodel's acquittal in the rape trial harder to credit.

More? Well, John Huston was a bit of a sadist, and was also interested in hypnosis. And here we come upon delicate ground -- personal comment on an artistic hero. Huston was a man of action as well as a great storyteller, but also a user of people, a gambler, a reckless soul. As a young man he killed someone in a driving accident, and the matter was covered up. And he did say that the thing he loved about film-making was the power, the sadism. In The Maltese Falcon, Wilmer, the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.), looks at Sam Spade's body, collapsed after being drugged, and kicks him in the head. In the same film, Spade slaps Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) around and hisses, "Wait till he learns to like it!" Many years later, in Chinatown, Huston played Noah Cross, one of the bleakest villains in Hollywood pictures -- a man who rapes his own daughter -- and did him with relish; and in a very bad film called De Sade he even played the marquis himself. Huston and George Hodel were married to the same woman. Why, I even bumped into Huston once myself at the Cannes Film Festival. "Easy there, sonny," he sighed, as if guessing I had murder on my mind.

The "coup" in Exquisite Corpse is a Duchamp picture called Étant donnés, worked on apparently from 1946 to 1966, for which Duchamp took a first photograph (of a waterfall) only six months before the murder of Elizabeth Short. Six degrees of separation? A waterfall in Europe, I hasten to add -- and this news produces something less than a frisson; but then you look at the picture, and the splay of the female body seems as fresh and dance-like as on that January morning. Had Duchamp seen the first photographs? Did someone in L.A. pass them on -- as FYI, or as tribute? Now there's a frisson. Of course, Duchamp could have seen the pictures and felt moved to imitate them in some way without having a toehold in a murder plot. That is the most intriguing point, the complicity that hangs over our repressed murderousness, and lends an air of dread to our separated kinship. Sometime in the last century we picked up murder -- ordinary murder -- as a kind of virus. It is in our blood now, and most of us hope our immune system is robust. But we know that first fever of the illness. We have felt it.


--Marshal Zeringue