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Blog as Letter, to a Distant Lover

Madame X, Singer Sargent

Earlier today, as I was cleaning the house to the wry, wracked songs of Lucinda Williams, and tonight, while listening to Nina Simone's Music for Lovers with a glass of red wineI've been thinking about women. Women and heartache. More specifically, the way the great women singers leaven their heartache with wit, and make their unique laments universal through a transcendent passion for being alive, alert, and hurt.

Actually, I've been thinking about women for days, since we both watched that movie we didn't like, and I started to remember films I do like, films that, like these songs, have become a part of my inner landscape due to the majesty and presence of particular women, their voices, gestures, intelligence, emotional gravitas, and architecturally dazzling forms.

I've been thinking about two films in particular, so different from one another aesthetically and culturally, but with a similar emphasis on the great desolation often found in marriage, and on the beauty of women.

First there's La Notte, the middle of Antonioni's Alienation Trilogy, with Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. This film is like a visual poem more than a story, although the plot is clear—an extended day into night highlighting the emptiness at the center of the marriage between the two protagonists, sharpened into acute crisis by the wife's anguish over a friend's impending death.

The long, bleak day of the film, which spills remorselessly into a vapid night of partying, can be seen as a turning point in their lives, opening up the possibility—certainly not the probability—of regeneration between then. Many viewers might argue with this interpretation and find the couple as hopeless at the end as at the beginning. But I think that the stark truth the day brings them to may be a gateway into new possibility, even though the movie doesn't show them walking through it (nor perhaps are they even aware of it, even at the end).

The film itself is a kind of gateway, a still breathtakingly original vision of what can be conveyed through art—this particular art—that fifty years haven't dimmed and many imitators (Scorcese, I think, and for sure Kubrick) haven't come close to. There's a long sequence in the middle of the film that sees Jeanne Moreau wandering through an urban landscape, walking, walking, completely alone, isolated and yet deeply responsive to the world around her. The camera lingers on that incredible face of hers, but far more than the object of the camera's gaze she is the gaze, and this ability on her part to truly see and absorb what she's seeing makes your own seeing, as a viewer, seem a paltry thing in comparison.

Over and over, she breaks my heart in this scene, because her ability to see what she looks at is born of her loneliness and desolation. I've watched La Notte three times (once as a very young woman, too young to know what I was watching; once as a new wife frightened by this glimpse at the limitations of intimacy; and once finally as someone who can begin to understand its meanings); I know all the significant moments in the film. But it's this walk that stays with me, that I replicate sometimes in my dreams or my own rambles through the landscapes of cities. It's a walk that seems to go on as if forever, outside the frame of the picture and into time. 

The other film I wanted to tell you about is Zimou's Raise the Red Lantern with Gong Li, who is so physically beautiful that she's almost hard to look at. The scenery in the film, set in rural China in the 1920's—the gorgeous landscape, the castle in which the master and his four wives live, seen from above as an impenetrable ocean of stone—mirrors and mocks her beauty and the beauty of the other wives, all of whom are forced to spend their lives catering to and placating an all-powerful husband. It's a brutal portrait of marriage, but somehow to me no more brutal than La Notte's.

Watching these films brings one to the inescapable conclusion that our attempts to quantify intimacy and formalize it for the purpose of safety or tradition or reproduction—all the cultural forms humans have chosen for these—are doomed to insufficiency, if not outright tyranny.

But  the sadness of marriage isn't really what I wanted to write about tonight. I wanted to linger on the unutterable loveliness of these women. And that reminds me of a time before I met you, back when I was searching for "love" online. One evening, I ventured onto and ended up looking, at first by mistake, at pictures of women instead of men. (Briefly, I was the hidden male gaze.) I found myself more and more entranced by several of the women there, almost obsessed with them. I just couldn't stop looking. And not for the first time in my life, I wondered why I'm stubbornly heterosexual when I've always found women so moving and attractive.

Women, men, sexuality; it must just be hardwired for each of us, what? I was intimate with a few women, back when I was young and experimental, and found them marvelous to kiss and to touch. But my innate sexuality seems really to be oriented to the male form, the male touch; the greatness (how else to say it?) of the male anatomy. Which is sort of too bad, I think! But there it is.

Some men are stunning too, of course; there are objectively stunning men who also stun me. I mean, thinking only of film: Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Tony Leung, the sex on legs that was Marlon Brando during his glorious youth; also Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Laurence Olivier in all his prickly, complicated bisexuality, and Alan Rickman (a choice most other men don't understand but almost every woman I know, does). Amongst men too young for me now, there was Heath Ledger; I'm touched by the pathos he brought to bear on his beauty.

OK, I give in. Men!

But still: many women are far more beautiful than any man; and you, of course, agree. I adore the men in my life, the young ones with their unconscious, easy musculature, the aging or elderly ones with their lines and paunches, their incipient frailties. But it's the women in my life—-my gorgeous friends, my luminous daughter, the swish of women walking down streets everywhere, the girls in their summer dresses—that I find myself frankly and daily hypnotized by. Sometimes, in fact, when there's no other woman around, I look in the mirror, at my own face, at my own form unbound and loose in my nightgown, and feel the same way about myself....