Flesheater Blues, by Rachel Kushner

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A few months ago I introduced a screening of Robert Frank’s rarely shown and somewhat notorious film Cocksucker Blues at a cinema house in Los Angeles. Legally, the film can only be shown four times per year, and this was one of the four. It sold out immediately. (The version available on YouTube is so degraded from dubbing that it’s not really the same film.)

When Frank, who was Swiss, published his book of photographs The Americans, back in 1958, he redefined what was possible in art. The book is filled with prosaic scenes of work and ritual, solitary faces and people in crowds. As he stated in his Guggenheim application, he had set out to capture things “easily found . . . a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house . . . the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards.”

My aunt DeeDee Halleck, a video artist who later worked on the set of one of Frank’s films, says the images in the book made her understand the South of her upbringing. Sometimes it takes an outsider to show you what’s remarkable about your own landscape and people. But to be merely an outsider isn’t enough. Frank had a magnetic gift for vitality. He knew what to see.

Nominally about the Rolling Stones and their 1972 Exile on Main Street U.S. tour, Cocksucker Blues is much more a work of art by Robert Frank than it is a rock and roll documentary, even as the performance sequences are mesmerizing. Throughout the film, we are acutely aware of what Frank is noticing. The energy that his camera locates is beyond the glamour of the stage and the excesses of the band and their crew, beyond the ravishing purple stage lights and the backstage boredom. It is not Keith Richards and sax player Bobby Keys in a doped stupor, or the groupie looking for a vein, dressed in a blouse whose winding ribbon-sleeves just happen to look like tourniquets. What interests Frank most is black Americans, famous ones and not, and whenever black people are onscreen, they light up the frame, clearly more captivating to Frank than the Rolling Stones (whose own relationship to the black musicians in their midst is equally worshipful but more discomfiting: they know they are second tier, despite being, in every situation, treated as the first-tier stars). But Frank is also interested in the white hippie chick explaining that she’ll jump off a bridge if she doesn’t get a concert ticket because her life is “already half-wrecked.” He focuses on the proper old woman with set hair, smoking her cigarette in a hotel lobby. Keith shakes her hand as if she’s yet another fan, no different from the fawning women behind the clerk’s desk. “Do you know who he is?” someone offscreen asks. The implication is that she doesn’t know, and that the interaction between her and Keith is a clash of contradicting realities. She shakes her head in response, but so slightly that her “no” is neutral. We understand that it’s the wrong question; she doesn’t need to know who he is. Her cigarette switches hands, and she raises it to her lips. Frank’s camera holds the two realities in a single frame, the sideshow pageantry of a Rolling Stone in a crowded hotel lobby, and this old woman with her thick glasses and her stiff hair, like she’s been pasted in from a different era. Cut to a TV with the logo of the upcoming presidential election, in which those populating Richard Nixon’s reality will vote in far larger numbers than those populating George McGovern’s.

Somewhere in Indiana, Keith calls down to room service. Frank is recording both sides of the call. Keith haltingly enunciates his room number in a half-giggle, because, Who cares about the room number? He’ll never see this room again. He asks the hotel employee, an elderly-sounding woman, for fresh fruit. “Well, like strawberries or blueberries?” she asks in a bright voice.

“Strawberries and blueberries,” Keith says.

“How many orders?” she asks.

“Could you send up, like, a bowl of them?”

“Oh no,” she says, her voice still chipper, but firm now, a by-the-rules voice. “It goes by the order.

“Why don’t you just make a nice selection of fruit,” Keith says, “and send it up. You know—use your own discretion.”

I suspect he doesn’t realize he’s patronizing this woman, who wants to adhere to the room service menu because that’s how she’s been trained: stick to the menu, speak clearly, repeat the order back to the customer. I know this unseen woman. She was my manager at Baskin-Robbins. She has waited on me in countless diners, in Oklahoma and in Texas and in Arizona, and she does not allow substitutions. She has posed, if unwittingly, for portraits by William Eggleston and Danny Lyon. I know her so much better than I’ll ever know Keith Richards, even after having read his almost six-hundred-page autobiography. She is one of us.

A lesser artist than Frank might not have been able to show us what the Rolling Stones are blind to. Frank is aware that what he is filming on the Stones’ private jet, a squealing naked woman being lifted into the air, is effectively rape. He’s aware that the “hip cat” in dark shades rapping about the “tomb of the unknown junkie” is doing blackface. The film is stark in its refusal to edit away what doesn’t fit with glamour. A woman marvels over a huge puddle of cum on her nude belly; the band walks down a series of endless backstage hallways (the basis for Spinal Tap’s “Hello, Cleveland?”); Frank’s own sound man roots around for a vein. The Stones got it banned by a court ruling, and to this day it’s never been officially released.

In a posh New York apartment, we see Bianca Jagger repeatedly wind up a tinkling music box. She herself is like the spinning ballerina: prettied for display and trapped in an airless, satin-lined box. Frank cuts to a scene of her and Mick in a car somewhere in the South; she has joined the band for this leg of the tour. She holds a movie camera to her eye. The film cuts to standard evangelical folk art (“Repent Now”). We see gridded jail windows, guards standing by, a hand reaching through the bars, extended, languorous, sad, full of heady symbolism. “This is the most uninteresting drive in the world!” Mick Jagger blurts. The audience watching the movie in Los Angeles erupted; they were laughing at Mick’s boorishness, but they were also laughing, if more knowingly, more bitterly, at what there is to see here in America that is “interesting.”

A few days after that screening, I traveled to the Telluride Film Festival, where I watched Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, a film that captures what is epic and ravishing and grotesque about life in America by a filmmaker who is not American. Guadagnino—Italian, not Swiss—took to the byways of the Midwest while preparing to make his new film. The movie starts in Virginia and meanders through Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska in the year 1988. It is Reagan’s America.

Guadagnino is an artist I’ll confess to having possibly underestimated. I liked his previous films—especially I Am Love, for the way that he portrays the stifling elegance of Milan’s Villa Necchi and the heavenward iconography of the Piazza del Duomo—but perhaps it is my own imaginative failing that I did not see in them the possibility of this one, which is a stunning work of art that seeped in deep and stained my sense of the world with its own hallucinatory version of such. Bones and All captures what it’s like to drift, to be excluded, and to be nonetheless full of life-force, but life-force whose expression can only ever be futile and tragic. Guadagnino perfectly handles social class and alienation, the sort of social atomization that is so terribly American—everyone just out there, without a club, a church, a union, a pastime, without support or a safety net of any kind. (The one “nice” home we see in this movie, decorated with ornate wallpaper and fussy knickknacks, contains a person, an old woman, who is dying, perhaps of a stroke or of a heart attack, alone, on the floor.)

Bones and All is an extraordinary document of American psychoanalysis. Guadagnino’s main character, an eighteen-year-old girl named Maren, played by Taylor Russell, is abandoned by her father near the beginning of the film. She sets off by bus to try to find her birth mother, whom she’s never met. She encounters a boy named Lee, played by Timothée Chalamet, equally adrift and lonely, but full of rebellious verve. They circle each other and eventually connect. What constitutes home? the film asks. And what about the trauma that people inherit, and vow not to replicate, and do replicate? (Maren’s mother and Lee’s father have both passed on the same genetic affliction to their children.)

As someone who was more or less the same age as the characters—and Guadagnino—in the late Eighties that the film portrays, I found the re-created feel of that world precise and believable. But the movie also potently conjures now, filtering into and through its own Reagan-era frame a sense of current streams of vitality and brokenness, rural and urban, among young and old. I walked out of the theater thinking, “If anyone from anywhere wants to understand this country as a concept, a people, a landscape, a special kind of vast beauty, a host of curses and blights, they can watch this movie.” In a post-screening Q&A with the filmmaker Karyn Kusama, Guadagnino said that he had wanted to penetrate beyond a touristic gaze of the United States, and that underneath the hardship and pain, what struck him most about the people he encountered on his road trip was the optimism he sensed. Perhaps it is this hopefulness that accounts for the lack of cruelty or judgment in the way he films. The camera is never gratuitous or exploitative. But I suppose I should mention that the “affliction” Lee and Maren have each inherited is the inexorable ontological drive to eat other humans. Lee and Maren are “eaters,” in the parlance of the film. This is the curse that sets them roaming, entwined in a co-dependency like no other.

There is gore in this film, but not that much, and the gore is worth the rest and it all functions of a piece; I would not change a thing. The internal logic is so complete that I never once questioned the conceit—that cannibalism is a rare genetic condition, and that those born with it can smell one another even from a great distance. If the existential curse of vampires is to range through time with no end in sight, the curse of these cannibals is that they have been set loose in the endless landscapes of America, trying to figure out how to survive and to satiate their hunger, driven to kill without wanting to kill, on the run, on the loose, a menace and a terror. They are exiles. Their ability to smell other cannibals functions like a version of a vampire’s immortality: they range over the latitude of space, instead of the longitude of time.

When Lee and Maren meet, there’s a sense of momentary relief. These young people can help each other. They break into the home of a guy whom Lee, a brooding misfit in extravagantly torn jeans, has just eaten. Lee riffles through the guy’s albums and pulls out Lick It Up, the record Kiss made without their makeup. He puts on the title song and sings along (“It isn’t a crime to be good to yourself”), with the mood-boost a song can give a person, a boost that lasts only as long as the song. In a later scene, still not quite a couple yet, Lee and Maren go to a county fair. We see them kiss on a Ferris wheel as we hear Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” that band’s most romantic ballad, with its heart-melting chimes. The hope one feels for our two young and pretty cannibals is an Ian Curtis sort of hope, dark and stirring. Never leave each other, please! But we know nothing good is coming for them.

Maren is being pursued by an older eater, played by Mark Rylance, an eccentric with a long braid and thrift store clothes laden with assorted buttons and medals, like a folk figure from Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America,” but malevolent. After the screening, I heard more than one person express confusion over the Rylance character’s purpose in the narrative. His purpose is nothing less than to underscore the foundations of love in the Western world. Western love is love fueled by impossibility. Think of Tristan and Isolde. Of Romeo and Juliet. His role is to disrupt.

Lee and Maren meet a couple of other eaters who join them at a campfire, two dudes who have smelled them and want to hang out. They are the two creepy guys who pop up out of nowhere with a case of Budweiser in every Eighties adolescence—mine, yours, whoever’s. One is mouthy. The other, the sidekick, is quiet. The sidekick is wearing a Dokken T-shirt and, even worse, he’s an eater by choice. He has been taught cannibalism by his friend. This is real deviance. The contrast ratchets up our sympathy for Lee and Maren.

And yet the burden of this terrible condition they didn’t choose doesn’t mean that eating flesh is without joy. Lee talks about the high he gets like he’s talking about speedball or crystal meth. I couldn’t help thinking of the people I’ve known who fell into that kind of “joy,” and who even now have stayed with that pursuit, and still believe in it, despite its downsides. It isn’t a crime to be good to yourself.

Still, the cannibalism in this movie is not a metaphor. It is literal, and visceral, but it incorporates other notions, afflictions, into its streams of meaning—addiction most acutely, but also generational trauma, and various kinds of abjection and wandering and fugitivity. Then again, cannibalism qua cannibalism is already highly symbolic: People don’t only eat people because they are stranded in the Andes mountains and faced with death or forbidden calories. Evidence of ritualized cannibalism has been found in cultures the world over. In her book on Neanderthal life, Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes writes of the unmistakable “processing” marks found on Neanderthal bones, bones that were skinned, dismembered, sliced, and hammered. Human jaws that were cracked to remove the marrow. In accounting for why Neanderthals were eating other Neanderthals, and to push back against prejudices regarding these unfairly maligned hominins, Wragg Sykes starts to sound like their defense lawyer. Eating their own clan, their own relatives, she argues, smashing the bones and sucking out the marrow, could have been a form of mourning, a eulogy, an enterprise meant to preserve the memory of the departed.

Cannibalism, Wragg Sykes suggests, could have been about love. This isn’t such a radical concept. The central rites of Christianity are based on ingesting the blood and body of Jesus Christ. After Jerry Garcia died, his friends and family allegedly snorted lines of his cremated remains. In 2007, Keith Richards told journalists that he did a line of his father’s ashes with a bump of cocaine. He corrected this claim in his autobiography, explaining that he was opening his father’s ashes in order to bury them at the base of an oak tree when a fine powder blew out. He merely snorted the residue, he said, and didn’t cut it with anything else.


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