Eating Disorders

The following is excerpted from Jay Cantor’s Eating Disorders as it first appeared in Conjunctions:15.

When I go to the movies my heart fills with intense expectation, and for the first half hour or so of almost any movie I am unreasonably pleased, so in awe of the wonderful technology of the spectacle, of a world so accurately reproduced yet enlarged, that I think I’m watching a great movie, when really I am just – at least for a while – delighted by the glamour of movies. I gawk at the sheer size and light of the thing, as if what was shown escaped mere representation, as if I were not seeing images but something like the delicious body of the world itself. (But better: no need to fear the anxiety caused by another body.) 
     I gawk at the stars’ glamour, too, an aura the more mysterious to me because it comes not from their beauty (stars are often far from pretty), but from their magnificent self-absorption, an attitude so long perfected that it seems almost generous of them to show themselves to me. The star has learned to want herself first, learned to love the shape of her own nose, its cunning little bump; and I love her for seeming to love herself – a masochistic passion, for that very quality means she will never need or love me. So large, so smooth (the screen shows abrasions and crannies yet remains forever unbroken, like the most perfect skin), so whole (all on one plane, she and her world are a perfect fit), the star is inedible by me or by time. By comparison, I’m needy, cracked, vulnerable, hungry; and my shame at my body only adds to the star’s glamour. (And how fans abused Elizabeth Taylor for betraying stardom by being hungry, getting fat!) 
     But a desire to see glamour is only a small part of my excited expectation at the movies; and perhaps, too, it’s the empty food I accept when I know my more profound appetites won’t be fed. For mostly my heart leaps to greet a film because I expect to be transformed by the meeting. At the movies, I expect (though it rarely happens) to find new fragments (of style, of attitude, of gesture, of magical fantasy) to add to the inner assemblage that is my psyche, fragments that properly assembled might be curative of those images of union and of severance that have shaped me. For I like the psychoanalytic view of the self (maybe because it reminds me of movies), that the personality is a raggle-taggle montage of the unlikely fantasy-images and pieces of the world that out of love and fear of loss, you swallowed up in childhood’s delicious breast, a moustache, a comforting fragment of a cloth coat you once felt against your cheek, a melodramatic threatening hand, a melancholy carriage to the body. Supposedly one often gets such fragments at films, so that after a movie, members of the audience leave the theater walking like James Dean, mumbling like Brando, but in my experience the images are too perfect, too hard to be truly broken up, mixed with the saliva of the imagination, and swallowed. 
     I know it’s a fairy tale expectation to think that I’ll find magical fragments to re-make the mosaic of myself at my local mall’s wickedly uncomfortable octoplex. And, of course, I’m almost always disappointed. After an hour, I twist about in my seat. We’ve been cheated! There’s nothing transformative here, nothing nourishing! I turn back to the screen, and in the absence of food, I accept more glamour; but it tastes a little bitter to me. 

Once upon a time, though, I think many people felt that popular culture gave them something more to feed upon, something to help them in their remaking. In the Sixties, it was as if Bob Dylan or the Beatles or Aretha Franklin were growing up before us, and sent back, as if from the frontline of a new adulthood, reports of their discoveries and their quandaries. A new adulthood, or so we thought (and not just a Peter Pan-like endless childhood), with an insistence that morality and ecstasy could be reconciled, that the questions of pleasure (what are its sources? how is the deepest pleasure to be formed? how are we to be worthy of it? what are its dangers?), if sounded deeply enough, pursued rigorously enough, would instruct us in how to shape a new human solidarity. We even thought that the joys of art might lead us to a new rationality, a reason of the heart, where pleasure would guide the connections between realms, and satisfying organic form would be as rigorous in setting limits as any imposed order. In this enterprise, rock & roll drew heavily on—or stole from—black popular music, for nowhere else have the questions of pleasure been as profoundly asked as in black secular and gospel music, where to move together might make a congregation, and pleasure and morality join in the ecstasy of bodily possession by the holy spirit. Maybe that spirit can take one both in Church and on the dance floor; in the Sixties black secular and religious combined to make “Soul” music, the most enthralling and wrenching popular art of that time. 

      There was oodles of Teen Scene Magazine illusion in our sense of connection with popular artists, but not just that – though the artists did grow rich (and distant) from our adoration. Still, the artists’ wealth seemed less important to us than the questions we thought we shared, as if money merely gave them greater scope and leisure to carry out experiments on our behalf. And what they discovered, we were sure, would be—like sex, the three basic rock & roll chords, or a hit of windowpane acid—cheap thrills, democratically available. After all, why should beauty only be rare and difficult? 

      I also had a sense of questions shared, of bits of answers for us to use within our selves in the filmed essay-stories, the research reports, of Jean-Luc Godard, and in the more generous, more sweet-tempered films of the Yugoslav filmmaker Dujan Makavejev. And Makavejev remains especially valuable to me in his continuing attempt, through the greedy eighties, to rally the scattered dispirited remnants of the party of pleasure. Even in his less successful films the questions remain: What is the instruction pleasure might offer? Why do we fear it? What is the shape of the community pleasure might make? And will it look grotesque to our eyes? (So much the worse for our eyes!) 

      Makavejev’s greatest films are WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a free form fantasia-documentary inspired by Wilhelm Reich (patriarch—or sacred monster—of the party of pleasure), and Sweet Movie, an original mixture of allegory, fantasy, and documentary. These films of the early Seventies describe, in terms witty, shrewd, vulgar, and blatant, the ways we’ve tried to free our bodies, and the ways history has mutilated them. Sweet Movie follows a special “Miss World” pageant, whose winner’s prize will be marriage to the richest man in the United States. (His pleasure is the degradation of his wife. To consummate the marriage he’ll reward her with a urinous “golden shower.”) Alongside this story we follow the ship of Captain Anna Planeta (CP), called Survival, as it moves forward through a city’s canals with a huge papier-mâché bust of Karl Marx on its prow. To lure people on board she promises them open-hearted comradeship, sensual pleasure, redemption on this earth for their bodies. That is to say, the Communist Party coopts comrades from the party of pleasure. This time she attracts a fellow named “Bakunin,” from the ship Potemkin, representing the early, and betrayed, promise of the Russian revolution; and with sweets and a striptease she also seduces three teenage boys to join her. The party of pleasure, it seems, is ripe for betrayal; desperate to deny the death instinct, the attraction of the gun pointed at others or at oneself, it makes ecstasy too easy a matter, purging it of all violence. So the repressed returns: “Bakunin” willingly submits to what he knows will be the deadly caresses of Captain Planeta. She bites his neck, and he says, “That’s good, go on … Everything cannot be explained … I felt so jealous when Vakovlinchuk was killed.” Then she stabs him to death in a bath of sugar. “I brought a lot of sugar,” CP complains later, “but I can’t get rid of the bitter taste.” She murders the teenagers and has the crew put a tear under Marx’s eye. 

      We also join a commune in Amsterdam for a saturnalian meal of the greatest grotesqueness, a theatrical counterculture dinner whose intent feels therapeutic. At this feast a Communard takes a huge sausage out of his pants, lays it across the table and whacks slices off for everyone with a big knife; communards drink urine, and vomit freely; a man shits on a platter, and his bowel movement is carried about as the “Ode to Joy” plays in the background. This carnival of a world and a body turned upside down is followed by a painfully literal and self-conscious ceremony of re-birth in which a fat, hairy man, covered with blood and feces, has his comrades beat on his stomach to mimic the painful contractions of giving birth—in this case, to himself. The whole community swaddles, powders, and nurses him as he mewls and pukes. (Rebirth is celebrated. But the other stages of life, the deathward ones, as we ripen and rot, seem once again omitted.) The communards then dance with a hippety-hop motion that filled me alternately with a desire to move with them, and a wish, like Miss World—who becomes anorexic at the commune—to get as far away as possible (perhaps to sell real estate and watch T.V.). At the conclusion of the film Captain Planeta is arrested, and the corpses arise again, like the countries of Eastern Europe. Is their re-birth only a trick of the camera? Are they alive, or not yet alive? That decision, (and the how and why of re-birth) is left to the viewer. 

      Makavejev’s next film, Montenegro, was released in 1981, as the once frolicsome party of pleasure—including delegates from the left misled by Anna Planeta, weary former Communard feasters from the counterculture, gay erotic adventurers afraid of sexually transmitted diseases (and the growing rumor of worse to come)—became tuber audiences to a T.V.-provided history. (With T.V. you needn’t fear the anxiety caused by another body.) 

      In Montenegro, Susan Anspach frighteningly incarnates an American housewife in Sweden, Marilyn Jordan, wife of Martin and mother of two, thoroughly uncomfortable in very comfortable circumstances. She runs away with a theatricalized theater troop of Yugoslav immigrants, has an affair with one of them—Montenegro—murders him, and returns home to poison her family. 

      “There is enough food in this country,” a customs inspector says, confiscating a young immigrant girl’s pig. Probably there is; but Makavejev wonders if it’s good to eat. Near the beginning of the film, Anspach offers a bowl of milk laced with poison to the family dog. “It’s your decision,” she says to the dog. “But if you ask my advice don’t do it.” And her husband’s grandfather, who has been made wacky by time and American pop culture until he thinks he’s Buffalo Bill, looks suspiciously at the glass of milk that Marilyn brings him, and says, “What is in this milk?” (In fact, it’s the grapes that they should all be looking out for, that’s where she’ll place the poison.) Would we know the right food? This film’s flavor is not the unsatisfying bitterness of glamour, but an irony that tastes to me like spoiled milk, a sourness that comes, I think, from a distrust of the ecstasies that Makavejev and I had, we fear, once foolishly found nourishing, yet fear we might be more foolish to surrender. So we grow to doubt our ability to tell good food from bad, as if the rottenness were in us as well, in our judgment.”

Jay Cantor’s books include Great Neck (Knopf and Vintage Books) and Krazy Kat (Knopf).