Abandoned Storage Unit #3: Billy Childish art, The Nutmeg, and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits

  September 19th, 2012

 
 
 
 
      Hey y’all. I present thee with Abandoned Storage Unit #3. As usual, a motley throng of wiring, styrofoam bits, plaster chunks, cinder blocks, corrugated tin sheets, old mattresses, broken lamps. And in and among all that stuff, some choice goodies.
      First up’s a painting by Billy Childish (click to zoom in):
 
 
 
 
 
 
Childish Russian Shepherd Boy 
 

       Billy Childish (b. 1959, Chatham, Kent, England)
          Russian Shepherd Boy, 2011, oil and charcoal on linen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
      I knew of Childish as a prolific songwriter and recording artist, but I had no idea he worked visually as well. What a lovely surprise. Well deployed pastel blue and pink highlights here, lending bright contrast to the swamp thing murk & tangle of the canvas; sending veins of weird, slightly radioactive cheer through the boggy boughs. And it wouldn’t even be bog without the seated boy, whose detailed luminous red and white presence anchors the work in the natural world (as does the title as well of course). That ghost-boy’s coy and mysterious expression is so well executed. What’s he up to — is he shirking his duties? What’s he holding, a staff? Banjo? We wonder about him, want to know what he was up to before the canvas moment, what he’ll do after. He’s the offset nucleus & anchor of this expressive painting’s power, helping balance its marshy flora against its sinewy, psychographic phantasms.
 
 
 
 

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     Next up is an image I found some time ago and return to every so often when I want a hard jolt of how beautifully alien the natural world is:
 
 
 
Nutmeg Aril
 
 

          (Nutmeg seed with aril)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
     The nutmeg. That gorgeous, lustrous red webbing is called the aril of the nutmeg seed, which, when dried, becomes the spice known as mace. Watching the aril’s semi-menacing membrane, & how its gothy serpentine lacing beguiles as much as it warns, I’m not surprised to learn that freshly ground nutmeg contains myristicin, a psychoactive substance which, in sufficient dosage, can produce convulsions, palpitations, hallucinations, paranoia, and delirium, among other symptoms. Nutmeg was notably used as an intoxicant in the states after WWII, among young folks, bohemians, druggies & prisoners. I get buzzy just staring at the aril, thinking about how varied and wonderfully alien are the forms found in nature.
 
 
 
 
 

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      Finally I wanted to talk a little about Juliet of the Spirits, one of my favorite Fellini films. A movie full of, as usual with Fellini, magic, spirits, beautiful clothing, weird colors, great Nino Rota music, baffling & exotic mystico-spiritual passages, leer-heavy cross-talking carnaval-esque parties & gatherings, and heaps of psychodrama & flashbacks. Not to mention a masterful performance by the titular protagonist and one of the main reasons I continue to explore Fellini’s ouevre: the director’s wife herself, Giulietta Massina.
      There’s so, so much to say about this film, and a great deal of it’s already been typed and inked. The little niche of it I want particularly to explore is the relationship between Juliet and her mother, and how this relationship plays Juliet’s own recovery of her sense of self and agency.
      The film establishes early on Juliet’s well-hid dissatisfaction: she’s married to fashion P.R. romeo & man-about-town Giorgio, and she’s well aware of her husband’s frequent absences & rumored infidelities. She keeps up appearances admirably at the frequent parties and gatherings the two hold at their gorgeous enforested villa. Why can’t she leave Giorgio, despite growing mounting evidence of his cheating? Simple Italian partiarchal influence? Perhaps its her lifelong martyrism (something the film goes to pains to depict), her strong Catholic values, & maybe her simple fear of striking out on a new path to happiness and self-discovery.
      Despite her pain, she maintains perfect and constant social composure — with perhaps a few cracks beginning to appear — & being a gregarious goodwilling and healthy social being, delights in the constant, shifting cast of characters surrounding her: psychics, spiritualists, models, celebrities, her doctor, a sculptor, and various other hangers on and true friends ranging from absurd to freaky kinky to true confidantes. Just about all of them in some way start to open her up to her own discontent and to possible antidotes and solutions for her issues.
      Much of the film in fact has to do with this, with Juliet figuring out herself in relation to others’ ways of finding fulfillment sexually, spiritually, personally. Toward this end the film is strongly psychodramatic, with Juliet finding fulfillment/escape in her developing ability to access a rich dreamlike inner landscape of visions, memories, spirits, and an assortment of characters who symbolize conflicting hungers, pains & needs of her heart-mind. Soon this power, which at first strikes her as a kind of alarming but heady & increasingly attractive spirit-communing or magic art, becomes unchecked and a liability to her as she’s overwhelmed by so many voices all clamoring for within for her to act definitively — in some form or another — to regain her dignity, agency, sexuality, confidence. But Juliet cannot yet act, still shackled as she is to fear, to martyrdom, to holy suffering misery — a suffering that we learn has been fed and nurtured for decades by her mother (pictured below).
 
 
 
 
 
Still from Juliet of the Spirits
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
     It’s worth pausing to note that Juliet’s mother, a severe and imposing matriarch, has belittled her throughout the film for not being beautiful enough, for not wearing nice enough clothes (Juliet’s style is well composed & attractive and steers clear from the gaudy and over-made-up excesses of many of the women around her), and throughout the film is complicit in maintaining (&, clearly, having helped construct) Juliet’s neurosis of quiet, smiling suffering. And Juliet’s flashbacks make clear this has been the case since her early childhood. Juliet’s path to empowerment will have to go through her mother.
     Which brings us to the image above, which is from a waking-vision sequence near the end of the film, at which point we find Juliet overwhelmed and bewildered by her psychological voices, by her inner spirit parade’s clamoring for her to act. Giorgio has left for another “business trip”, mumbling pre-emptive denial of any ‘rumours’ going about just as he leaves, and Juliet has been in a state of profound anxiety and pre-nervous breakdown fear and pain for a good ten minutes. She resorts to begging her interiorized mother to help her. Juliet then discovers a small door in her bedroom (a vision-door that is) and is about to open it; her mother then materializes in a vision and loudly and angrily commands her not to. Juliet is able to deny her mother’s wishes and open the small door, in which she discovers a narrow corridor and her childhood girl self tied to a metal grill with fake flames around her. She’s able to free the small martyr version of herself and thereby unlock her own sense of agency. The film ends not long after in a beautiful sequence of self discovery and emancipation, as Juliet is able now to launch herself forth, walking out of her house and away from an emotionally abusive relationship, and hopefully toward a renewal of herself as a still-vital woman and human (see below; Juliet can be seen in the bottom-left):
 
 
 
 
 
End Scene Juliet of the Spirits
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
     Of course, we can also read this denouement as Juliet having been brought to full mental splintering breakdown through her interior journey and travails. In this light, her striding forth is less empowered shackle-break and more mad wayward broken-steering-wheeled careen; straitjacket nutso wandering out of the asylum. Or, to pull back a bit, at the very least she’s in equal measure broken and confounded by her inner saga as she is transformed into a healed whole being by it. But I’m keeping things optimistic today folks. Let’s just wish Juliet — all the Juliets in our lives — the best and send her good energy as she strolls on out into sun and fresh air, ready to meet the welcoming world.
 
 
 
 
 

Some stuff about nutmeggggggggs at botanical.com.

More of Billy Childish’s art at billychildish.com.

Ebert’s review of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits at rogerebert.suntimes.com.

 
 
 
 

[posted by C Way at 9:40 PM]

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