Louise Brooks, To Know a Veil — 2010 7″ x 9″, spray paint on panel.
“I don’t paint what I think, I paint what I know”
Thought I’d say a couple more things about (silent film actress, dancer, and writer) Louise Brooks. Prior to my little fora back to the 1920′s these last couple of months, I didn’t really have good of a picture of Louise Brooks, other than the standard iconic haircut image of the flappers and the long lingering effects that image had on film and fashion. My only excuse is that in the long run I’ve never developed much of an interest in movie stars, or celebrities for that matter, but as it happened, the more I found out about Louise Brooks, the more I was drawn in and the more I had to know – but now that I did this I see that it’s typical of the Brooksian phenomena – or obsession, depending on what you make of it. So as it now stands, I’ve seen all of her significant films, read much of the literature and video interviews associated with her, including the (monumental) 600 page Barry Paris biography, and having done all that, I’m left with a little bit more than the generalized understanding of the legend, martyrdom, or the opaque enigma, that has come to define who Louise Brooks was. As it would appear that the life of Louise is fraught with contradiction, being variously described as the life of a beautiful, talented, but self centered hedonist, a nymphomaniac, gin guzzling, alcoholic, and ultimately self destructive nihilist, or contrarily, as an amazing actress that revolutionized film acting, that rebelled against male dominated culture, and routinely and predictably pissed on every hand that pretended to reach out to her, and finally, against all odds, singlehandedly reincarnated herself (yet again) late in life as a writer. Or in other words, Louise Brooks had become the stuff of worthy of an Americanized modern version from Greek mythology.
My take on Louise Brooks is that she was in part and degrees all of these things together, and a whole lot more. Essentially, and accounting for everything she did – seemingly sensible or not – was the fact that the connecting thread of all her exploits – Louise Brooks was an artist, and an artist with a fanatical heart, at that. It wasn’t enough that she was not only mystically beautiful and massively talented, she had an insatiable desire to “know”, and so used her talent and beauty to burrow deeper yet into what she considered “the truth”, and this necessarily involved her notorious abandon and sexual promiscuity as the primary vehicle to transcend the ordinary, the pedestrian, and most especially, the power elite’s (symbolized by the Hollywood – Wall St connection) sub culture of male domination and control.
In this sense Louise operated in society like a black hole, sucking every scintilla of energy from those around her in order to satisfy her own personal desires as an artist, to “know”, and she did this by and large without effort – which of course made it all the more disarming, confusing, if not ultimately, threatening.
Least we forget, this was all happened in the heat of the roaring 20′s in the midst of America’s first major cultural clash between the forces of traditional society with its static inflexible Christian based social morality, and the freewheeling dynamism of modernity, and Louise was in all probability, the first woman to step into and assume the fullest dimensions of what the modern liberated woman without limits or abandon could become.
As it happened, Louise was raised in an unusually progressive modern family in Kansas, by a mother who was entirely spellbound by the liberal possibilities of modern art and progressive ideas. Who got so absorbed in it that she failed to notice she also had children, who were then left to fend for themselves as some sort of miniature Randian individuals.
Which in context if you think about it, is a cultural mirror image of people in general, living in a modern society that fails to replace the old traditional modes of social securities with government sponsored rights and securities, where people are left to face the whims of circumstances and fate as isolated disconnected individuals. It’s in this context that Louise discovered her mothers vast library of modern music and literature and proceeded to devour it in its entirety. In a sense, Louise’s guiding principals became established by the artists she consumed in her parents library, instead of the typical and expected influences of traditional parental/family oversight. It was also in this context, that the adolescent Louise was sexually molested by her neighbor, the illusive and mysterious “Mr. Flowers”.
It’s the confluence of these events that would go on to define the identity of Louise Brooks first and foremost, if not exclusively, as an artist. An artist of natural beauty and physical talent as a dancer for sure, but informed primarily as an individual driven by the events of her life to explore the deeper and darker sources of her (and our) discontent, which of course, led directly to the great nexus of power and sex, as well as the conflict of modern feminine autonomy and male dominated authority. Louise as much spells this out in her typically self effacing manner, in a letter to biographer James Card:
“There isn’t anything wise or clever in what I do anyhow. If I am drawn to a man, I simply move right into the center of him. I know him immediately and intimately. There isn’t room inside him for me and whatever is phony, so the phoniness has to go.”
Or, one would assume, the man has to go – but, more to the point in this:
“Well, I was crazy about him, yeah (long time flame George Marshall) But the word love – no, I don’t think I ever loved the men I knew. It’s a very strange thing I’ve noticed that very often the men who were best in bed were the men I cared the least about. The men who were the worst in bed were the men I liked the most….I don’t know why… I always liked the bastards”
And it’s here where biographer Barry Paris delivers at the end of the book, the money quote from one of Louise’s favorite authors, Marcel Proust:
” Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces. Never will the world know all it owes to them nor all that they have suffered to enrich us. We enjoy lovely music, beautiful paintings, a thousand intellectual delicacies, but we have no idea of their cost, to those who invented them, in sleepless nights, tears, spasmodic laughter, rashes, asthma, and the fear of death, which is worse than all the rest.”
Consciously or self consciously not, Louise Brooks relentlessly assumed this role of the artist first, in what one can only concur in retrospect, as a kind of performance art, that was to become the connective tissue of the many forms it assumed in defining her life. The infamy of her sexual promiscuity was in actuality, the focus of her art, by which she kept pure through a self imposed denial of reciprocal love, personal contentment, and success or fame in her professional career. Louise went for the “bastards” in her life precisely because of this – they delivered the essential content – not in love or even sexual gratification, but the means and methods of how male dominated society uses sex for the purposes of power. Throughout her life she sucked men into her charms in order to witness the variety of what they really wanted, power, of some fashion or the other. They desired her for alternative reasons and that by fucking her they would confirm and satisfy these alternative desires and motives. And then she would in effect follow conquest with conquest by fucking them over, because she had no alternative motives whereby they could exploit, they were never able to dominate or control her.
It’s with this pretext that when Louise answered German director G.W. Pabst’s call to star in his rendition of the femme-fatale film, Pandora’s Box (1928), she was most able to unselfconsciously play the lead part of LuLu, saying only in retrospect, that she “was only playing herself”. This self knowledge of immediately and intimately “knowing”, enabled Louise to play the role of LuLu by transcending the usual exaggerated affectations typical of silent films of the era. Her beauty and talent of effortless natural motion learned from her dance experience, coupled with her personal sub-text of sexually driven “knowledge” generated a seamless expression that rendered by comparison, all previous film characterizations, imaging, and accepted acting technique – obsolete. Director Pabst, and the context of the more advanced modernist German cinema environment, was more fully prepared to capitalize on the artistic talents and temperaments that Louise was able to deliver. Which by all accounts were, some thirty odd years ahead of its time. But no matter, because true to Louise’s standard operating procedure in art and life LuLu was deemed to hot to handle, and the censors scissors cast the film and especially Louise herself, into a state of disrepute and rejection. Which is of course fuel for great mystery of her career whereby she thought that because she did it “her way”, against the formality of conventions (which she despised) and failed, that henceforth she would always characterize her film career disparagingly as a non serious attempt and a failure on her part. No matter that when Pabst called her back later the next year and she willingly and without missing a beat, returned to Berlin and did a repeat performance in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), that once again true to pattern, was chopped up by the censors and panned by the public. This hardly the behavior of someone who considered herself inadequate, but more of an indication of someone who saw herself on some kind of personal long term (artistic) mission of which the full impact was only temporarily victimized by the usual suspects of power, money, and retarded convention. At any rate Louise Brooks always stuck to her guns – from her meteoric rise in the dance world, to a film actress, to gallivanting high society muckraker,to finally near the end of her life, a writer of significance holed up in a tiny two room apartment in Rochester New York – and never capitulated to the endless efforts to exploit her or her art for ulterior purposes, which has in the end endowed her a near mythic status far greater than her more conventionally successful peers.
Simply put, she never sold out, and dually paid the consequences like the good soldier of art, she was.