Ever Since This World Began

What truth are our faces allowed to show today?

An excerpt from Picture Cycle, published by Semiotext(e), 2019.

“Even when the mouth lies, the way it looks still tells the truth.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

In an interview in Index Magazine, Kathleen Hanna of the fourth-wave feminist band Le Tigre talks to the writer Laurie Weeks about the female face(s) of music. Specifically, the facade of the female face when it sings. The face a voice has to put on to sing in the world.

Kathleen Hanna:
I’m also really interested in women’s voices on old records, like Lesley Gore, or the Shirelles or whatever. They’re singing all these songs about following men to the depths of the earth, like, “You can drag me down a flight of stairs and I’ll still love you,” but the quality of the voice always says something totally different. It reminds me of this Judy Garland special where she was doing the most fucked-up things—probably because she was on so many drugs. But every time she sang a happy song, she looked like she was going to cry and when she sang a sad song, she looked really elated. It was really bizarre to have her facial expressions contradicting what she was singing. And Connie Francis got raped and couldn’t even talk for several years. So I got really into what it would be like to be a woman with way more constraints than we have now, singing these really fucked-up insipid heterosexual love songs. How do you get your actual voice through that? It’s through the quality and the tone. Like, there’s sneaky stuff going on in the way they’re singing the lyrics.

Like Hanna, I am fascinated by the image of the voice—not just the image of the image—and what’s behind Judy Garland’s. What is the song (story) of the female face and what does it have to sing through? Live through? What does a song cover up and what does it expose?

In my first book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, I wrote a story called “Kleptomania” that blended real and imagined Hollywood. Partly a ghost story, “Kleptomania” summons the Hollywood repressed: a battleground of misogyny. In the first section, “Judy,” three intergenerational female movie icons meet for cocktails at a bar. As actors, as characters—it’s all mixed up.

I wrote about Judy Garland and Marnie while living in California. I moved there in 2004 to live with my boyfriend. It was in California, as an adult, that I read biographies on Garland and watched all of her movies and concerts back to back. It was as a child, in New York, that I became obsessed with Dorothy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the double lyric of the song.

In a deleted take from The Wizard of Oz posted on YouTube, Judy/Dorothy breaks down during her iconic song. She doesn’t sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she weeps it. Did they want her to cry like this? Did they push her too hard, for too many years? Or did her crying overtake her and “ruin” the take? The director’s response, at least on camera, is positive. In the YouTube clip, a wide-eyed, sepia-colored static shot of Garland from The Wizard of Oz conceals the animate face that sings the scene when the stakes are highest. In the unused take, we can’t see Garland cry when she is singing, and when we do see her sing this song in the movie, she isn’t crying. The crying is left out of the scene. Either the face is hidden, as in the case of the outtake, or the face masks, as in the case of the visible performance.

What did Judy look like in this outtake? What we can hear is precisely what we can’t see and aren’t shown. My feeling is that Judy/Dorothy was supposed to cry during this scene, only not like this. Not this much and not this hard. Dorothy is finally going home, after all. She is sad about leaving Oz, but what is calling her back is supposed to be stronger than the intimate bonds she has forged on her dream odyssey. Yet the line between emotion and real pain—between the emotion you are asked to tread, to supply and bring to a scene, and the real pain that shows up instead, intervening, causing a breach in the fiction and a break in the breach (all the breaches that are enacted and received in a lifetime)—is devastatingly blurred. It’s too much for Judy, not Dorothy. It was often too much for her. These are Judy’s tears, not Dorothy’s, and they are the result not of the fiction of movies but of the reality of having lived them and made them.

In “Kleptomania” I describe Garland’s voice as “a blue bird hitting the windshield of a car.”

During the edits for Beauty Talk, my publisher asked me to rewrite the sentence from passive voice to active voice, as if it were merely a simple case (and, to their mind, error) of grammar.

But where in the active is devastation and toil reflected, and how would it express what had happened to Judy? What was happening to her voice, as well as all the happenings that her voice had always imbibed and thrown up during her singing. That showed up in her face, which aged in a way that had nothing to do with straight chronology. It wouldn’t. So in the end I decided not to make the change.

It’s not just the act that’s an act. It’s the voice and the face, and the face of the voice. It’s the song, leaving us with so much to wade through, especially in an era of extra-features and culture as tell-all. An era where everything resurfaces, returns, doubles—comes back. Language, along with the face, is a cover-up. It shows and it doesn’t show. It doesn’t show what it shows or it shows what isn’t really there. The face doing something at the moment it isn’t supposed to do it. The active covering up what’s passive. What’s vulnerable, at risk, at stake. What receives blows and cuts. If I’d adopted my publisher’s edit, I would have been just another male producer / director / biographer, enforcing the active when the passive (the patient, not just the performer) is the truth. As if being a star automatically makes one a winner and an active agent, setting up a voice’s relation to voice that is exclusively active and in control.

A voice in this case—in Garland’s case—is grammatical, literal, and figurative. The English passive is periphrastic and derived from the Ancient Greek períphrasis (“roundabout speech”), which comes from perí (“around”) and phrásis (“expression”). Unlike the active, the passive tells us how long it takes to get somewhere (“over the rainbow”). It stammers, slips up. Vacillates. The way isn’t straight. The voice cracks. The active voice is the official story. The take that is used as opposed to discarded. Unlike the passive, which takes the long and hard way, and which doesn’t grammatically edit, Photoshop, or sidestep, using the active voice in my story about Garland would have resulted in yet another cover-up and evasion. More makeup, more Star.

There is a lot of face in our culture today. Now more than ever. There is a lot a face is expected to do. But I can never keep a straight face when I watch Judy Garland sing. I’m not a singer or an actress, so it’s not my job to do that. Yet regardless of vocation, a woman is still expected to perform, and is a natural performer—dissimulator—according to Nietzsche, and others. If it’s not her official job, it’s her role. Yet, as a heterosexual, seemingly femme woman, I break and queer some of the codes when it comes to physiognomy, which according to most men defies convention based on the facial expressions I either make or refuse to make. In graduate school in the summer of 2011, the filmmaker Elia Suleiman, my professor, referred to me as the “girl who frowns in class.” When really, I was simply listening, which includes thinking, to what he was saying. The seams of my thinking and feeling showed on my face.

“Why couldn’t the world that concerns us—be a fiction?” asks Nietzsche, for whom truth also takes the form of the “apparent world.” The world here is not only the world we see but the world that is shown to us. (“Shown” is passive. We receive it.) Assembled for display. While the fiction consists of whatever we do not see, and are not permitted to, it is also what we are given in place of truth, for fiction is organized and mediated by the truth that is not only concealed or falsified but tampered with and embellished. Of course Nietzsche is right in the sense that appearances cannot be taken at face value. Mere surfaces, as Hanna notes in her interview, never display just mere surfaces, but rather all kinds of concealed, fashioned, and prescribed depths. What is hidden is shown. Or, what is not shown is hidden and inscribed in what is. Active standing for passive. Simply showing oneself is not bearing a truth, just as “talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

Truth, like fiction, is a question of style and invention. Nietzsche inverts the relation between fiction and authorship as well, so it is not only the fiction that belongs to the author who writes it but the author who belongs to the fiction that writes them. (Being a writer is a fictional production.) Moreover, the belonging is a link—a fictional device, the fiction of the fiction— that weaves truth and fiction into dialectic, rather than binary. However, it is not the concern with fiction and artifice—“mere appearance”—that becomes, or has become, the problem, as Nietzsche claims. It is making fiction and mere appearance the solution to all problems, the look of all reality, and the source of every truth.

What truth are our faces allowed to show today? If the digital mediasphere is any indication, nothing is faked and enacted more these days than a face, especially a woman’s. A woman’s face is something she has to fake all of the time—from the wearing of makeup, to the surgical enhancement and modification of facial features, to the lightening of eyes and skin, to the concealment of age, to the facial expressions we make or don’t make, to the way we sound. Not only is faking the modality par excellence of late modernity, the fake/r is the thing to imitate and strive for. Based on the 21st century fiction and artifice of celebrity consumer culture, there is no greater truth than a successful lie. Than a lie that functions and succeeds in public, even if, and especially when, it inevitably performs its disclosure-as-lie and breakdown-of-truth as just another act (reality TV; the public apology). The lie, or the secret of ideology, is no longer something to conceal. In the era of cynicism and instant commodification, dissemblance is the only truth worth telling (living). Truth, along with reality, is a performance; performance is reality.

Before we believed that a lie was the truth, we believed that what we were seeing was real, which means we believed what we were told. The fiction was meant to be interpreted not purely as fantasy or pure-fantasy, but as the ultimate-real. Now that we know that the fiction is a lie, that the truth is a lie, we have learned to approach it as such. We live in the name of truth, even though—and precisely because we know—the name of truth is fiction. We tell ourselves that it’s not that we have a more dishonest or corrupt relationship to truth. It is that we have a different kind of relationship with the lie—that is, with the staging of truth.

When I watched Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born for this essay, I broke down in tears almost immediately. Garland’s heartbreak is my heartbreak. A heartbreak of women watching women. Women being women. It is my invisible (off-camera) face coming undone as it bears witness to the brave face another woman puts on for the whole world. Garland is giving us her heartbreak so that we can survive and better understand our own. Songs and movies are records of the breakdowns that have already happened and that we can now, in the era of deleted scenes, outtakes, and DVD commentaries, watch over and over—both to our benefit and to our detriment. The heartbreaks we’ve survived, as well as the ones we haven’t, are inscribed and looped in the breakdown of notes that are sung for all of us to hear. And by being sung, shore up and keep at bay just enough to make it tolerable for the rest of us to show and not-show. Maybe it is because I can see and hear how much Garland tried to keep it together for the movies. In order to make movies. How she could do it and how she couldn’t. How much fell and falls apart as she performs. And how her voice splits and spites and faced all those cameras for all those years.