[Patrick Mullins (aka Jonquille de Camembert) has been a sporadic and memorable commenter here at Ktismatics. I just read his book…]
In ciné-musique we live a movie fiction that was first suggested to us by real movies. To keep living this ciné-musique, we turn the materials of movies into objects that go beyond them. – Patrick Mullins, Day of Ciné-Musique, 2005
A cumulative artifact assembled from cinematic objects gathered from very specific but diverse sources, Day of Ciné-Musique (2005) transports the reader to an abstract aesthetic milieu that author Patrick Mullins calls “reality fiction,” a sort of tangible imaginary space he discovers beneath the hypnosis of a lifetime of infection by Hollywood.
The book begins and ends with a series of visual images: photographs of works created by Swiss painter Christian Pellet. Each image appears abstract and iconic in isolation, but collectively they function like screen shots excerpted not from a particular movie but from the protean arche-movie that spawns all films. Oddly, the poses and gestures have been transposed from “real” movies and re-staged by live models. These transmutations, conveying a sense of artifice in the extraordinary attention paid to seemingly irrelevant details — clasped hands, buttons of a vest, part of an armchair — lend a formal gnostic aura to the book. This process of abstract idealization, where cinematic events intertwine with the material world, mirrors Mullins’ writing, in which he juxtaposes real visits to L.A. with idiosyncratic glimpses of mostly obscure Hollywood movies. The cumulative effect of these transformations is the assembly of a ciné-musique landscape that verges on the surreal, perhaps bordering on Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic territory of disembodied organs and childhood fantasy. The approach also calls to mind the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, through attention to details that repeat themselves in different times and places, paradoxically creates a sense of eternal transcendence. It’s appropriate then that both Mullins and Pellet cite the film version of Robbe-Grillet’s enigmatic novel Last Year in Marienbad. But Mullins’ writing is more subjective than Robbe-Grillet’s, more personal and romantic.
Los Angeles isn’t just the primary setting; in a sense it’s the main character in this sui generis work of reality fction. Here L.A. isn’t anchored to a specific physical location: it manifests itself in other places, in movies, in people’s lives, in Mullins’ life. The ubiquity of L.A. is the joint production of the individual imagination and the image-making machinery of Hollywood. But L.A. is also a real place, which Mullins visits a number of times in the book. And then there’s the visit to Tahiti, which exists in the author’s imagination as the limit of L.A., the physical beauty of the place infused with the magic of Hollywood but stripped of the Disneyesque machinery. Maybe Tahiti is the reality, the charmed and exotic substance of which L.A. is the Hollywood-projected fantasy. But confronting the reality, even if it’s a beautiful one, is to confront a “finality” that is also the limit of Hollywood.
And ciné-musique, though not as authentically ‘Hollywood’ a product as cinema, nevertheless takes the facilities found in Los Angeles into itself to define what was transformed and created by Tahiti.
The result of all this movement and transformation and assemblage is a kind of still photo of ciné-musique in words.
Appropriate to a work of ciné-musique, Mullins’ text embodies a musical structure, its four chapters not forming a continuous narrative but rather complimenting each other like movements in a musical score. The first movement, where trips to LA are near-doubles of each other, causes L.A. to become a kind of eternal return that could be glimpsed any time and all the time. The second movement consists of a series of brief “movie reviews” which stand separate from the movies on which they’re based, populating a kind of staged statuary of cinematic objects composed of actors and roles, sets and songs, and always of Hollywood. Mullins’ focus is idiosyncratic, imbuing seemingly trivial objects and events — a particular seat in a theater, a throwaway line of dialogue — with importance. Motifs repeat themselves in a musical way, crescendoing and fading, only to return again. The third, lyrical movement recounts the author’s trip to Tahiti; the fourth and final movement reprises the opening with a return to the first L.A. excursion. The work as a whole is unusual in content and structure: engaging and charming, not analytical or theoretical. It’s not really a memoir in the ordinary sense of the term, and yet the personality of the “composer” reveals itself in this unique literary composition.
* * *
The all-but-forgotten film Welcome to L.A. represents the first flowering of ciné-musique. When I first saw this film in 1977, says Mullins, the film itself was my first trip to L.A. Here L.A. and Hollywood are inseparable. L.A. is about glamour, says Mullins — the cinematic glamour doesn’t just draw you to the real place; it’s part of the place. The image and the music, even the actors who play the roles, are part of the real fiction they depict.
Then come the “real” trips to L.A., populated with airports and liquor stores, motels and streets and boutiques. This L.A. too is a real fiction, a place where actors have homes, where vistas open up on clear nights to reveal something like magic, or like movies. By virtually duplicating one another these trips transform L.A. into a kind of eternal mythic place. The days recounted in sequence create a cumulative effect, like waves piling onto the shore, which while clearly numbered and dated combine into something almost timeless, so that the empirical sequence becomes less important than the feeling of these waves washing over the writer and also the reader…
There’s something intangible about the plenitude bestowed by “that day” in Los Angeles — one gets the sense of quest, pilgrimage, attainment, but the reason why these particular events had such a profound effect remain mysterious, deeply subjective, hinted at and alluded to but never fully stated: to Ann-Margret, the way out of Blanche DuBois Southern-Fragile Syndrome for me, whose hilltop home and whose cine-persona are in a sense the objects of the pilgrimage; to the aura that somehow seems to surround Mullins here, drawing the attention of blondes and dangerous automobiles; to the attainment of the sort of adulthood that preserves or restores the idealism and enthusiasm of youth. He takes a taxi back down into town,
and yet how in my memory I am always instead walking down that hill, a finished and perfect person, and as I am walking down that hill, I am exactly who and what I always wanted myself to be…
Then comes the day after “that day”:
mainly what you saw was Hollywood itself, directly below, spreading out in all the glamour it is reputed not to really have… mainly what you saw was that all these lights were literally twinkling.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime manifestation, and not only for the pilgrim — even the natives had never seen the city look like this.
It is just that I can’t stand not to, I can’t stand not to stop time.
Reading Mullins’ movie “reviews” one gets the sense of a strange sort of autobiography, almost cubistic, being assembled from pieces of these movies as they touch the author’s life. A young Alabama boy admires the movie posters in his small home town; many years later he finally gets to watch these same movies. These posters and movies possess the Hollywood aura that build the foundation or rhythm of ciné-musique. Other movies open up a sexual awareness that’s destined not to conform to the standard romanticomedy — and yet the films fail to capture this particular magic. Does this mismatch between overt cinematic reality and a covert sexual mystery lead into Robbe-Grillet’s world of surfaces, always hinting at something more profound but never actually showing it, so that the surfaces themselves become the mystery, the peculiarly ambivalent objects that appear and disappear without apparent cause or purpose, the purity of aesthetics as the object of obsession? Then come movie music and movie stars, building the ciné-musique and the glamour, along with the darks underside of the glamourous surface of L.A.
And then Mullins returns to Welcome to L.A., having gone through this life progression traced through the movies, no longer blinded by the glamour but consciously attentive to specific images and lines of dialog, revealing the flavour of the upper-middle-class world-weary young and disappointed. This revisiting of the same film seems to signal a turning point in the writer’s life, and also in American life. Now the reviews begin to unveil the cold indifference of the city, occasionally punctuated by deep humanity and love. It’s this gradually transformed self, a habitué of a transformed world, romantic and humane, sophisticated and jaded, who embarks on the L.A. quests.
Afterward the myth of L.A. can be sustained only by surpassing the place itself — by going to Tahiti. This is a going-beyond, into a place that Hollywood wishes it could conjure but that exists as something prior to L.A., something L. A. is built on top of, so this is also a going-before even though it happens later in the chronology. There are the hotels and the nightclubs and the lascivious types that could be L.A. or actually Hollywood, but there’s an interior to Tahiti that holds no correspondences in L.A.: lush, verdant, steamy, silent. And even in this dream trip Mullins is thinking about L.A., making comparisons, remembering, trying to consolidate. Even the perfect twinkling vision of L.A. the day after “that day” is cold, hard, urban — the opposite brilliance of Tahiti. Now, says Mullins, there is no further need to compare or to merge the perceptions of these divergent paradises, because now I possessed them both. He’s free to juxtapose without being forced to merge one into the other, to allow for the possibility of radically different, “singular” paradises. Still, there’s something important about sandwiching Tahiti inside of another L.A. experience — perhaps L.A., or maybe Hollywood, is the gateway to all paradises, the sense of embarking on a glamourous voyage, of preparing the palate for the flaneur’s ciné-musique. And “why are you staying just one week?” is asked three times: first, Mullins offers no answer; second, I’ll be back; third, none of your fucking business. Touching the enchanted rock under the waterfall, hearing the sanctified choir, and the epiphany is accomplished. Only through the dissolution of that other myth, the mythic Tahiti, is Mullins somehow able to sustain the mythic glamour of L.A. But the real Tahiti is magical enough, so both places can survive as two distinct manifestations of ciné-musique.
Having passed under the cascades of old movies and Tahitian waterfalls, Mullins returns to the day after “that day.” Now the L.A. quests, always crossing each other in the book’s timeline, converge even more completely: Tahiti attitude and a secret motel with a Tahitian garden juxtaposed with 1984, surrounding this most important trip in late 2001, perhaps changing the experience retrospectively. An encounter at the motel with a young man, a slight sadness to the inauthenticity of his charm, exposes the money-and-action business of Hollywood.
It didn’t matter that his life was inauthentic for the cine-musique to use it as part of its story. The authenticity was given by Tahiti and ‘filmed’ in Hollywood, because that’s where the ‘cameras’ are. Incidentally, that’s why this is ‘true fiction.’
Even the purity of Tahiti is endangered, and it’s got its share of bullshitters and jaded sophisticates, of abominable public works projects and high-money development schemes. And even L.A., a city of deliberate collapse, is able sometimes to offer up its own perfection:
It was the only time I ever saw the diagram of the topography of another planet — too slick, too sharp and too brightly gleaming for the world just yet.
What to choose? Perhaps it is a movement toward this distant future cityscape, a hard and glittering and noble new paradise rising up from the midst of the apparent collapse of the fantasy, bringing some of the Tahitian purity with itself into the city. Ciné-musique.
* * *
The book is dedicated to Sandra Dee, Pellet paying her homage with a portrait not of someone portraying Sandra but of Sandra playing herself. Sandra Dee the perennial ingenue who never made it as an adult Hollywood star. Sandra Dee who is quoted in the book as saying: “It’s so hard to establish an image and you work damn hard to get it. But once you’ve got it, baby, just try to get rid of it.” Sandra Dee, whose Hillsdale Avenue apartment becomes the pilgrimage site for the day after “that day.” Sandra Dee, who is directly responsible for seeing this overwhelming natural event — the glittering vision of the otherworldly city. Sandra Dee, who died shortly after the publication of Day of Ciné-Musique.