The telephones of old Hollywood are the phones of modern television, and no where so explicitly so as in The Americans, the television period piece that takes place equidistant between the late forties and today. It’s a Cold War story, so the telephone and all its attendant threat of surveillance and paranoia comes with its portrayal. I was more late to The Americans than some, though not nearly as late as others will be, but it’s a show where such timeliness hardly seems to matter outside of the show proper. So I’m taking my time, savouring each 40-something minute episode during moments where I feel like the pleasure has been earned, or at least when attention can be paid. Since this feels like, in actuality, never, I finally got around to watching “Trust Me” tonight (the plot of which I had already gleaned from spoilers, though that also seems to matter little when it comes to this show).

The episode was directed by Daniel Sackheim, someone well seasoned in the TV procedural/detective genre (Miami Vice, Law & Order, X-Files, House M.D., to name a few) that I wasn’t surprised “Trust Me” — the best episode yet by far — was placed in his hands. Scroll down to the very bottom of his CV, and you’ll see his first television work was as an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Part II). I’m chuffed, not only because The Americans takes place during the time Hitchcock’s show then ran, but also because the use of telephones was coy and crucial as would make old Hitch proud.

In what direction does information travel on a phone? Well, if we’re following practice, that would be both ways, with two speakers — even though that doesn’t of course guarantee seamless communication. Here’s the opening scene of “Trust Me” with the first speaker being some anonymous announcer at a baseball game. No one is really paying attention here, even though the radio is foregrounded, even though the radio speaks before our main characters do.

It's not the storyline, but it's in my line of sight.

It’s not the storyline, but it’s in my line of sight.

The scene directly following it is a telephone scene — a telephonebooth scene to be exact — and it’s introduced, as we see in retrospect, with a sort of “Look at how private and isolated this conversation is!” framing.

2
Then closer, as the camera pans around the booth from the outside (see, so safe, sort of, I mean from the outside at least it appears safe).


Pan and zoom

Pan and zoom

Phillip is covertly flirting with Martha, who herself is sitting quite flirtatiously at home:

nails
But the phonebooth, as Hitchcock has taught us well, can be a terrifying place.

Phillip hangs up and:

hooded
Five minutes into the episode and the music has reached peak shock effect.

Want a change in pace? Let’s check up on the kids, isolated at the mall and isolated with, yep, a payphone.

resources

The isolation — the notion that the telephone is your ONLY RESOURCE — becomes obvious if you watch the shots surrounding this one, which are full of crowds and people passing. But this moment is beautiful and feels like it could be out of a Kelly Reichardt film.

When mom is late to pick you up, you call your mother:

payphone
No one is home.

Sackheim gives us these almost Gothic shots of telephone first, then delayed ring. Empty hallway first, then two different ringing phones slightly out of sync. Second telephone first, then both phones ringing, still slightly out of sync.

home
home2Are those doors looking at me? It only feels so menacing because there was just a kidnapping in that room less than an hour ago, right?

I love a good phone beside the bed, but I also love a good CIA office filled with not one phone…

office
But at least three in a shot (not counting the switchboard):

multiple

That’s super! (Maybe someone knows the difference between a green and red telephone?)

But when you want to appear like you’re calling the Russians from not-your-office, you definitely want to go through the switchboard. And the lovely touch here — we hear the switchboard operator’s voice, as well as FBI Agent Stan’s cryptic message to the Soviet Embassy, even though we (like the messenger on the other end) are pretty much in the dark as to where this is all going. Maybe I’m just the switchboard operator, going from A to C even if I have no idea why.

Switchboard call #1

Switchboard call #1

Soviet messanger is confused

Soviet messenger is confused

The Soviet Embassy also does some double-phoning shots as well:

multiple2
OK, but the best part is, as usual, back to the phone by the bed. Not Liz and Phillip’s bed, but Stan‘s. The phone rings and Stan’s wife is about to go for it when Stan’s hand comes swooping in with an interception.

intercept

The audience is privy to the voice on the other end so we realize it’s business (by the bed, I know) so all is as it should be. A to C, where no B is needed.

If there is anyone out there that wants to read Hilary Mantel with me, please let me know? She’s possibly my favourite contemporary writer. I’m certain there is no one does what she does — and I’m not sure anyone is as smart or as interesting as she is either. This article on spiritual and secular anorexia was stunningly brilliant and moving.

Some of my favourite lines:

Simone Weil believed that ‘sexual energy constitutes the physiological foundation’ of mystical experience. Why must this be true? Because, Weil said, ‘we haven’t anything else with which to love.’

For Gemma, the heart is the place her pain is centred, the place where metaphors converge.

We then go further, and make value judgments about certain experiences, and deny their value if they don’t fit a consensus; we medicate the mysterious, and in relieving suffering, take its meaning away. This won’t do; there is always more suffering, and a pain is never generic, but particular and personal.We denigrate the female saints as masochists; noting that anorexic girls have contempt for their own flesh, we hospitalise them and force-feed them, taking away their liberties as if they were criminals or infants, treating them as if they have lost the right to self-determination. But we don’t extend the same contempt to pub brawlers or career soldiers. Men own their bodies, but women’s bodies are owned by the wider society; this observation is far from original, but perhaps bears restatement.

Anorexia itself seems like mad behaviour, but I don’t think it is madness. It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self, fighting free of sexual and emotional entanglements. It says, like Christ, ‘noli me tangere.’ Touch me not and take yourself off. For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time. Most anorexics do recover, after all: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

“I had occasion to witness the brutal manner in which the French police handled radical crowds, as well as proceedings in the French courts when dealing with social offenders. Still, there was a vast difference in the approach and methods used by the French in dealing with anarchists form the American way. It was the difference between a people seasoned in revolutionary traditions and one which had merely skimmed the surface of a struggle for independence. That difference was everywhere apparent, strikingly so in the anarchist movement itself. In the various groups I did not meet a single comrade who used the high-sounding term ‘philosophic’ to mask his anarchism, as many did in America, because they thought it more respectable.”  (Living My Life v.1, 265)

A propos of this

“When Williams next credits Nancy Chodorow’s analysis of parenting for ‘point[ing] the way to a new value placed on the multiple and continuous female identity capable of fluidly shifting between the identity of mother and daughter’ (306), much of the critical distance she has established collapses in language that has by now become a cliche. Furthermore, her attempt to liken the dynamics of identification in Stella Dallas to Luce Irigaray’s ‘female homosexual economy’ and to Adrienne RIch’s formulation of the ‘lesbian continuum’ (307) diffuses the sexual meaning of the lesbianism thereby invoked by aligning these concepts with Chodorow’s decidedly heteronormative view of mothering. […] Critics’ consideration of the bond between mother and daughter as one of mutuality and nurturing (passivity, dependence, identification) quite often misses the emotional emphases and perverse pleasures of the films–whose vision of ‘pre-oedipality’ can be closer to that of the sadomasochistic maternal relations described by Helene Deutsch or Melanie Klein.”

Dear Tracy,

Kate and I have been marking student papers these past three weeks. This is my first time through the process and I can tell that things (or mostly *I*) need to change by the next time ’round. Near the end, I was taking napping or “cool down” breaks in between papers, because a lot of it was affecting me, probably to unreasonable degrees. Kate, like me, failed to get one night’s proper rest last week. Today, I slept until 3p.m. and woke up to a series of flippant emails from (insensitive?) students.

I’m frustrated and I want to complain about it. I’m leading conferences again on Monday and, thereby, missing Jonathan Goldberg and Michael Moon discuss Eve Sedgwick in NYC. (I even looked to flying down right after the final conference to catch the lecture, but there just isn’t enough time.) Over gchat, another friend advised me to try something different on Monday:

“Maybe just care less, be less delicate with them without actually being harsh or abusive or whatever”

I was already going to give them a sort of stern talk about essay writing and critical thinking (MAYBE EVEN EMAIL ETIQUETTE?), and I just don’t want my own personal frustrations (it’s been a silly week all round hasn’t it?) to seep in. It’s not my job (or role) to ask any of them to care about the political implications of how and what they write, or why they are English students. Maybe if just a handful of them end up caring about some any thing in the course, then it shouldn’t matter if so many others very blatantly do not. How does one stop their (inescapable, unreturned) emotional investment from souring into resentment? Sedgwick’s frank wisdom reminds me:

Libidinal indifference, as I think most of us could testify who have ever desired somebody who just didn’’t desire us, is a force in its own right. It changes lives. And it doesn’’t only operate in the exceptional case of the would-be love object who is, shall we say, the ““wrong”” gender for the lover: the plain fact is that most people in the world, whatever their gender or sexuality, don’’t form or maintain libidinal cathexes toward most other people in the world, whatever theirs.

If Sedgwick has guided me through so much this past year, then why will I be here rather than over there on Monday?

Grumpily, while eating cheese,
Jane

Dear Tracy,

A week in California has been lovely, sunny, rejuvenating — all that one would expect from a shift westward. I’m not looking forward to the return back east, but I’ll face it with a stiff upper lip and clenched fists.

I’ve consciously and willfully put off school-related work (marking, assignments, reading), but my flight, so soon approaching, has arrived today with a blare that refuses not to be answered. Admittedly, I’m excited about this project — a seminar paper for A. Jones’s course on visual culture and identity politics. I want to write on Mildred Pierce and came up with some blurrily broad umbrella topic that will look at how female subjectivity is differently generated in Cain’s novel, Curtiz’s film, and Haynes’s television miniseries. I thought I could triangulate these three genres (which are actually as close as three such disparate genres might get — the novel and miniseries are both on the short side) and show how Haynes’s intervenes into, or complicates, a lot of what the postwar noirish melodrama might have obfuscated, ignored, or tried to smooth out in regard to how the original novel conceptualized 1940s femininity.

Since theories of the maternal melodrama, of which Mildred Pierce most definitely is, have been increasingly read through a queer lens in the past two decades… And since Eve Sedgwick has prompted me to think about queerness, and my habitation of that hazy position, more and more… it could be interesting to consider how Haynes, a queer director, consciously queers Cain’s novel (in interviews Haynes has emphasized that lesbian desire is pretty explicit in Cain’s text — and that Curtiz ignored this aspect more than he ought to have in the 1945 film). Narratively, visually, aesthetically — these are all ways in which Haynes makes his version of Mildred Pierce as an other, othering, genre via the fluid category of “melodrama.”

This leads to other questions regarding my belief that the queer condition might be coded as implicitly feminine, if not specifically maternal. That, as Mary Ann Doane writes, the psychical mechanisms frequently linked with the “feminine condition” — masochism, hysteria, neurosis, paranoia — are also a queering — a twisting — of what is, or was, straight. Mildred at least to some extent suffers from all of these female maladies, as seen from her continual sexual surrender to Monty (a dastardly cad!),  to her maternal paranoia and severe attachment to daughter Veda. Even though Monty is “just another guy” that Mildred is accused of using in her climb to the top, he’s still used more interestingly in Haynes than he is in Curtiz. The masochism which is traditionally associated with the mother’s unrequited love from her daughter (which does exist) is diffused in Haynes to affect Mildred’s erotic relationship with Monty. Mildred’s desire is a desire to control her own body just as much as it is a wish to direct her daughter’s.

Haynes is clearly obsessed with the feminine condition, but he also makes interventions in the tropes of postwar melodramas. “The figures of the women’s films of the 1940s still have a certain currency,” writes Doane in her book on the forties’ woman’s film. Haynes clearly agrees, calling the economic (and by implication class and sexual) renegotiations made by wartime housewives as particularly apropos when he read the novel in 2008. Through his HBO adaptation, Haynes reimagines how Mildred reimagines her life after divorce.

Haynes lets Mildred see more than Curtiz ever allowed her to (oftentimes we see her shadow — but not her body — as she undresses, or her returned gaze as she reflects upon herself before a closet mirror). Haynes realizes how much Mildred desires and how powerful that yearning can be. To keep up with a television show, viewers of course must desire their subjects — Mildred and Veda (played by Kate Winslet and Rachel Evan Wood respectively) are stunning to look at, but Haynes doesn’t want us to ignore these women’s own intense desire  (especially Veda’s) to be seen. In effect, Veda’s enormous desire for us. 

In Haynes’s version, the camera doesn’t seem to be against its heroine. Curtiz makes us paranoid over the question of Mildred’s innocence (we want to solve her identity — to place her initially ambiguously gendered body as the guilty, jealous, herself paranoid, woman). Of course the rivalry between Mildred and Veda means that there must be some lapses of perception on either side, but for the most part the camera wants to, I believe, protect its leading lady. The camera, if anything, shows how information leaks out horizontally, seeping outward endlessly, through its visual pans that connect a fluid kind of “seeing” with a intertwined sort of “knowing.”

This was kind of helpful to at least begin to sort out my jumbled thoughts in order to narrow them down into an essay outline (has anyone figured out how to proceed, to stay “on track” without institutionalized ways of organizing one’s thoughts?). Anyway, a sort of in-between, noncommittal, continuously serial space to test out which ideas might run.

More soon,
Jane

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