The Melbourne Cinematheque has had a Raoul Walsh season. In the second week, I saw The Roaring Twenties, made in 1939, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. The next night, on a streaming service, I watched Bird, a biopic of Charlie Parker, directed by Clint Eastwood. Neither Cagney nor Bogart are exactly square-jawed physical giants, and Forest Whitaker is seriously overweight. These actors differ so much from current Hollywood representations of a ‘normal’ physique, and this dichotomy of physical representation found its expression in my dreams.
Delmore Schwartz wrote that ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.’ I think of it as one of the best short stories ever written.
In the dream I had after The Roaring Twenties and Bird, I was watching a movie in a dark cinema. It’s a gangster movie. The three gangsters on screen are all tall, square-jawed, slightly longish hair and wearing slimline fashionable leather coats. And I think that they don’t look at all like real people. They remind me of famous actors in a film like Ocean’s Eleven, not like Cagney and his crew in The Roaring Twenties.
In the narrative of my dream film, the gangsters need to pull a heist to pay off someone higher up the criminal food chain to whom they owe a lot of money. The three of them stand in front of double doors in the marble vestibule of a bank. When the doors open, they simply walk in with automatics drawn and demand all the cash on the premises. They pull off the heist but they realise that the criminal to whom they owe the money wants to kill them anyway, as soon as he gets what he’s owed. One of the gangster trio decides to kill their employer/loan shark, before he kills them. The would-be assassin manages to get inside the boss man’s house and hide there.
A second man in the trio is now dressed in an old overcoat, a shirt with a bent up collar, and tie awry… something like James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties when he’s down and out. The down-and-out decides he’ll warn their threatened criminal employer, in order to ingratiate himself with him.
At this point, I, the dreamer, intervene in the narrative. I stop the down-and-out going into the house. ‘It’s too late,’ I say, ‘the assassin is already in the house, you can’t betray him.’
Does that mean I’ve morphed into the third man in the trio?
The criminal boss comes home. The assassin shoots the boss man… off screen… all I see are shadows in the background framed by a window. Now, I’m in the house with the dead man’s child, who looks like Charlie Parker’s child in the film Bird. The boss man is white. The child is mixed race, African and Anglo American. I know that the boss man is dead, but I run out and leave the child behind with the dead father.
I think that if I stay in the house I might become a suspect in the murder.
Am I the third man in the trio or still the ‘independent’ dreamer? Who will take care of the child? I guess the cops will get the child to a social worker. I don’t know if the child is male or female.
Outside the house, I see a bearded man with a battered top hat and a half-caped overcoat. He comes out of the back garden. He has a dog with him. The man is Death. He has the attributes of the voodoo god, Baron Samedi: top hat, dog, dark coat. I think he’s come for me, but when he sees me, he just turns away and goes back into the garden of the house. Has he gone to get the dead man? Or the down-and-out?
I think I’d better get away before the police arrive. I hurry across a grassy lawn and I come across two security guards who are locking a gate to a forest pathway. I ask what’s going on. They say the police are looking for a murderer and have asked them to close off this path. Neither of the security guards suspect that I might have been in the house. Anyway, I didn’t murder the boss man in the house. I guess that at least I might be a witness. If I don’t stay and turn in the assassin, I might be an accessory after the fact. I leave the security guards and walk away to a main road. Then I wake up.
On waking, I felt very positive. Why? I don’t know really. I can only speculate on the dream.
For the past two years, I’ve been using the Japanese dance form of Butoh to confront my own physicality and, by extension, an audience reaction to the presentation of a body, my body, which is altogether ‘other’ than most bodies, male or female, usually encountered in contemporary dance performances. Mentally, I find the act of performance is fraught: not so much during a performance, but a sense of anxiety before it and then after. It’s the rawness of self-exposure that arises with writing, too.
To deal with this anxiety, I get inspiration from the words of Hijikata Tatsumi, the originator of Butoh: ‘When I begin to wish I were crippled – even though I am perfectly healthy – or rather that I would have been better off crippled, that is the first step towards Butoh;’
Hoc est enim corpus meum: for this is my body.
These words come from the moment of consecration in the Catholic mass, the moment of transubstantiation, when bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. And the flesh embodies the spirit. These are also the first words of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s Corpus.
My exploration of performance art, I couldn’t call it Butoh, I’m not that experienced, is a statement that this sixty-three-year-old body, not much over five feet in length, relatively untrained, limited by injuries to the lower spine, lack of flexibility in the hamstrings, and sciatica, both of which are also connected to the lower back problems. This is my body.
Part of my motivation for dancing in public is to present my body as anti-body to the sculpted forms usually produced in the gym, or venerated in the dance studio, or on stage. I’m not yet comfortable dancing completely naked but a traditional Japanese fundoshi, worn by Sumu wrestlers or Butoh performers covers up just enough.
What I find difficult in performance – which obviates the need for training – is that without finding the ‘natural spirit’ that Butoh training in the studio can engender, the body on the stage is not that interesting, or is simply puzzling, or embarrassing. But when that spirit is present, any physical body, any Being, appears fascinating to meet.
This is the wordless language of the body.
One reason I was happy after the long criminal dream could be that Death, or Baron Samedi, didn’t come for me, per se… Maybe he came for parts of me that embody anxiety: on the one hand, that body image that holds me ransom to the Hollywood vision of masculinity; and on the other, an embodiment of the fear of being down-and-out, addicted, alcoholic… a weak shadow entity that would betray the part of me that stands up to the mocking voice of anxiety.
I love the emotional complexity of the last scene of The Roaring Twenties.
Panama Smith, (played by Gladys George) cradles the dying Eddy Bartlett, (James Cagney) in her arms.
The cop says, “Who is this guy?’
Eddy, fallen on hard times from the height of a criminal career, has just redeemed himself by shooting the mobster, George Halley, (played by Humphrey Bogart) who was about to ruin the lives of two ‘decent’ people.
Panama Smith pauses, she looks up at the cop and, with her voice full of loss and sorrow, she says, ‘He used to be a big shot.’
It’s not me, or Eddy Bartlett, for whom Death, or Baron Samedi, has come. Not me. Not yet. Not yet.
Des Barry and his alter ego Spellman write novels: 3 with Jonathan Cape and 1 with Serpent’s Tail. Barry/Spellman is a sometime butoh performer. From time to time he writes nonfiction for 3:AM Magazine.
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