Learning to Stand

Curator's Note

In his response to Cynthia’s post Kris brings our attention to a beautiful recent short film in the Dior saga by John Cameron Mitchell, Lady Grey London, starring Marion Cotillard, Ian McKellen and Russell Tovey. This film allows us to bring together some of the themes which have preoccupied us this week: relationscapes, stains, disability, autonomy and relationality, and queer aesthetics of existence, among others. The film initially shows Cotillard framed in an hourglass, the first of many objects – handbags, keys, hipflask, pen, sunglasses, plumage – to attach to her. Kris accordingly asks what we are to make of Lady Grey – is she a “desired object” or an “ideal object”? Possibly. One thing is certain – as she is introduced to us we notice that she has a distinctively Mitchellian signature. She is at various times strikingly similar to both Hedwig and Severin. Most importantly she is an attractor and a facilitator, what Justin Bond calls a “motherboard”, for lonely figures to connect to and touch.

The wheelchair-bound Ian McKellen provides more than “fleeting” but nonetheless also “problematic” moments of crip promise and possibility. The scene where Lady Grey caresses his right leg brace is stunningly reminiscent of Hedwig’s masturbation of Tommy Gnosis in the bath, but her mixture of pity and surprise when she realises that prostheses are all he “has to work with” faintly echoes Tommy’s shock at discovering Hedwig’s angry inch. The scene also makes sex slightly “ridiculous”, “de-eroticizing it”, and gets it out of the way (see John Cameron Mitchell’s interview with Henk Burger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrP-ufdjFds) to see “what is left over”. It’s a connective caesura: a Bataillean excess or useless remainder.

The loneliness and yearning frames the film. Cotillard’s character resembles Severin as she frantically draws for Tovey with what Karin calls a “need to see ourselves through our pictures”. Tovey in turn is also like Severin, left alone as he stains the walls with black ink in the image of Lady Grey’s face, the painting becoming an anamorphic blot as “semen/paint blend into a new work of art”. Also McKellen is left alone but (literally) erect at the end of the film, his eyes dancing and his face bathed in blinding white light, similarly to Sofia’s face during the “interval” as she finally orgasms. In the interview we mentioned above Cameron Mitchell talks about how his protagonists are caught between their desire for autonomy – sucking your own dick or having a clock-stopping but truly solitary orgasm – and their sheer inability to be fulfilled. Severin dreams of procreating “alone in the dark like a worm” and we first see Jamie “curled up in a worm shape” desperately trying to be “self-sufficient”. Yet, when he does succeed in self/fertilizing he “bursts into tears” because “the last thing he is is self-sufficient”. Many of Cameron Mitchell’s characters, he admits, are – like Tovey and McKellen— lonely, auto-erotic, flailingly “trying to connect”. A “paranoid reading” might suggest that they always remain the same, in the same place. But a “reparative reading” is also possible...

Cameron Mitchell’s films are full of grinning scars and gaping wounds, but wounds are eroticised and gaps become folds. Not unike the final Hedwig hybrid, Lady Grey may actually herself become-motion or become-fold at the end of this short film. As she enters the ferris wheel, choosing to be alone, she spins across the London eye “like a 45 ballerina” with her hands lifted toward the sky as the wheel itself “spins along its colossal circuit” (Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus, 2). The final line of the stage version of Hedwig is “lift up your hands”, and the character moves from being “the internationally ignored diva barely standing before you” to a beacon of gnosis, knowledge, standing up straight. Learning to stand means being self-sufficient, becoming-star. Cotillard’s is a biogrammatic “body-becoming-sky” (Manning, Relationscapes, 136) between the Eye/I and the world. Like Hedwig, Lady Grey, with her stellar headgear shines “like the brightest star, a transmission on the midnight radio” – she glows like the statue of liberty in Shortbus’ New York City. She is not an object but rather a living relationscape; she is London Lady Grey. There is “nothing in the sky but air” as Lady Grey/Hedwig liberates herself and learns to stand, finally.


Thanks, Michael and Karin, for concluding the theme week with such a rich and provocative post.  Your observations have given me a new appreciation for Lady Grey London and have opened up some fascinating avenues of exploration.  Throughout the week, I’ve been measuring the politics of these films’ crip representation in terms of the extent to which they vacillate between “brokenness” and “wholeness,” presenting subjects that are incomplete, lacking, and in need the “life saving surgery” (to quote Shortbus’s credit sequence) that would restore them to wholeness.  However, your post on Lady Grey London reminds me that there may be a different lens for considering cripqueer possibility in these films, one that focuses not on the broken/whole dichotomy but instead on the tension between “autonomy” and what feminist disability theorist Susan Wendell calls “interdependence.” 

In The Rejected Body, Wendell considers how “societies that regard independence as a central virtue… tend to diminish the esteem of people who cannot live without a great deal of help from others” and “undervalue relationships of dependency or interdependence” (145).  I like the way that Wendell’s critique of individualism and her alternative theorization of interdependence recasts disabled people as agents within a community rather than as dependent populations whose needs can only be understood as a burden upon the (ostensibly self-sufficient) individuals who care for them.   Perhaps Cameron Mitchell’s “relationscapes” can be understood as performing this crip model “interdependence.”  To expand on Karin’s excellent point that the disability in these films is always more “sign than subject,” presented to us “less as portraits of specific types of bodies and more as processes of embodiment,” I wonder if thinking about crip politics in terms of interdependence might carve out a productive “middle” between these two alternatives.  If we think of the “interconnections” that take place on Justin Bond’s giant “motherboard” not only as sites of sexual pleasure but as mutual relations of care, can we locate an emancipatory reading that exists somewhere between the potentiality of form (locating abstract processes of embodiment) and the disappointments of content (failing to locate concrete representations of disabled subjects)? 

I really liked Michael’s observation that even though Severin says “no” to sexual relationality, she does seem, in the end, to be saying “yes” to “other kinds of connections and participations.”  So perhaps the film’s trajectory might be understood less a movement toward “wholeness” and more as a (potentially crip) critique of self-sufficiency?  In a sense, there is no performance of physical “able-bodiedness” in the film more striking than Jamie/James’ self-fellatio in the opening scene.  But the logic of self-sufficiency that underlies this “feat of impressive flexibility and athleticism” (to borrow a phrase from my own post) appears to be dismantled by the end, replaced by a more crip ethics of interdependence and mutual care.

I’m not sure where this leaves Lady Grey London.  I’ll admit that the “paranoid” reader in me is still troubled by the absence of disabled bodies in Shortbus, and I can’t bring myself to “stand” behind Cameron Mitchell’s decision to have McKellan rise up out of his chair – but I am pleased to find some new avenues for shifting parts of my paranoid reading into a more reparative one. 

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