Tag Archives: black hole

Black holes and alien bodies

I enjoy exploring the curious intersections of art and sexuality, so I had a delightful treat recently reading Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole (Pantheon Books, 2005). The plot is fairly simple: “suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s,” as the jacket informs us, where in addition to the ordinary trials of high school – an unrequited crush on the “total fox” in biology, or dealing with parents and social rejection – a number of teenagers must also cope with a sexually-transmitted disease (referred to only as “the bug”) that causes physical mutations – some major (e.g., a barely human facial appearance) and some minor (tadpole-like appendages forming around your waist).

© Charles Burns

© Charles Burns

But despite this premise, which smacks of horror right out of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, the difficulties that follow are mostly based on other people’s reactions to just having the bug, or the altered self-images that result. I kept waiting for the worsening mutations, the degeneration, where the human characters turn into monstrous abominations, but it never happens – Burns keeps the status of “monster” completely determined by the victims and their peers. For the most part, the bug is regarded as casually as, say, acne or pregnancy, as it becomes a cause of stigmatization, but doesn’t seem to provoke any reactions from the adult world (indeed, authority figures in Black Hole remain virtually unseen, outside of very brief interactions with the main characters’ parents). Just as in Peanuts, where you always ask, “Where are their parents?” and the only sounds adults make seems to be “mwa-mwa-mwa,” here the teenagers are seen as totally disconnected from the rest of the world – emotionally, geographically (much of the action takes place in the woods and a nearby house whose owners are on vacation), and with time, biologically.

So the bug is primarily used as a metaphor, but it creates this very vivid backdrop of horror against which the relationships between characters are set. This fits right in with Burns’ distinctive style, which you may well have seen before: very ink-heavy, sometimes almost looking like a negative image, with razor-like lines separating the dark and light. His human beings, and the world around them, look very realistic, yet there’s a strong vein of surrealism underlying everything, as tree branches easily metamorphose into reptilian tendrils, or match sticks become flimsy and begin to resemble sperm. It’s possible that this continuity between hard and soft, plant and animal, could be viewed as a guide for the way that reality eases its way into dark fantasy, or one body transforms into another. (Burns frequently lines up panels using a sort of shot/reverse shot technique, causing halves of separate faces to merge, like the two women at the climax of Bergman’s Persona.) I’m reminded of the woodcuts of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, and how simply one thing turns into another.

Metamorphosis II by M.C. Escher

And after all, what is adolescence if not a period of metamorphosis, a human cocoon to endure the transition from larva to butterfly, from child to adult. Chris Rhodes, one of the two characters whose viewpoint dominates the book, starts shedding her skin like a snake (serpents are a frequent motif, which suits the loss-of-sexual-innocence theme); she also keeps wanting to go back, undo the poor decisions that led to her getting the bug, return to her parents’ house, to her childhood – one of the last lines of the book is, “No. Not yet. I’m not ready yet,” and this desperation describes both an unprepared teenager and a mutated outsider struggling with the question of whether to re-enter society, or stay forever on the outskirts.

Ultimately, the plot of Black Hole is like a controlled experiment in epidemiology, subjecting a group of teenagers to a disease and seeing both how it spreads and what it does to their lives. The main character, more or less, is Keith Pearson, who lusts after Chris and enjoys smoking pot with his friends in a place called “Planet Xeno,” not far from where the bug-infected kids have their cook outs. (Xeno means “strange,” and as another place outside of adult control, it shows how the characters are aliens even before being mutated.) As sexual desire and fulfillment proliferate, the bug spreads over the course of the book, just like in Tom Lehrer’s hilarious VD ditty “I Got It From Agnes“.

It’s exacerbated by the presence of Eliza, dubbed “the Lizard Queen” by her housemates, a perpetually stoned artist. Her paintings come right out of the nightmare imagery (including, most significantly, a human figure tied between two trees, a hand over its genitalia) that crowd characters’ brief visions, as well as the margins of the book. In real life, these visions are manifested as ghoulish little sculptures hung throughout the woods, made of dissected dolls and gnawed-on chicken bones, and altogether these bizarre, recurring images reinforce how everything normal (the characters’ bodies and lives) is being subtly changed into something alien and dysfunctional. Instead of relying on the physical changes to carry the book into darker territory, though, Burns lets the resulting emotional changes (dissatisfaction with home life, high school, and each other) pick up where the physical leaves off, spiraling (like the repeated corkscrews and serpents) into a watery abyss, possibly even the black hole of the title.

In its narrative and visuals, Black Hole is a very tightly structured book that gives few obvious answers. One of its clearest ideas, though, comes in a flashback toward the end:

We had to watch these lame movies about human reproduction… [they] were always so safe and clean… Everything simplified down to diagrams and animated cartoons… Microscopic pictures of sperm cells swarming around a giant egg… The weird part about those movies was that they never showed you the real thing… The actual sex part. Fucking.

In the end, the characters have to deal with the disparity between the sterile, body-less picture of sex they’re taught in bio 101 (or else learn from things like this) and the gruesome realities they experience. So, more or less, they have to endure the same as every teenager. Except they get mutations.

As should be obvious, I highly recommend Black Hole; check it out if you can find a copy!

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Kieślowski and hunger

There’s so much to talk about and so little time, and so little energy and ability in the brain to generate enough thoughts. It’s all so absurd, all our communication processes. I’m putting out my opinions about anything and everything with keywords enabling any person with Internet access to read them, if through chance, he or she happens upon them. It’s all so interesting and strange. So I’d better not waste time between all my dilly-dallying and navel-gazing. Must plow ahead! Into the stream of consciousness!

I saw a most extraordinary film yesterday called The Double Life of Véronique, directed by the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski, a man whose name is brutally hard to spell, but he’s Polish, so what do you expect? This reminds me of a joke. Which reminds me of how Ashley and I discussed jokes together. But anyway: a Pole (so frequently the butt of such jokes) is taking an eye exam. The doctor, ophthalmologist, whatever, says, “Can you read this for me?”, pointing to the chart with the usual mess of letters, you know, E K A C Z H S Y etc. And the Pole says, “Read it? I know the guy!” So this is the joke I know about Polish names, and Krzysztof, from our perspective as Americans, certainly qualifies. (Of course, it’s really just their variant on Christopher, which as Wikipedia informs me, is from the Greek “Khristóphoros,” meaning Christ-bearer. See, if a Greek saw the name “Christopher,” maybe they‘d think it’s strangely spelled!)

In any case, the movie: from this great Polish director so concerned with coincidences, parallels, connections, etc. and the questions they bring up about our lives, we have this tale of two women, both played by the same actress, the beautiful Irène Jacob, who would later appear in Kieślowski’s Red (a movie that interestingly shares the motif of audio recordings). Weronika lives in Poland; Véronique lives in France. But (in addition to being physically identical) their lives line up and intersect in complicated ways; when Weronika dies from her heart problems while singing at a concert, Véronique feels a deep loss she’s unable to quite pin down.

Véronique explores the details of life

Double Life delves into those feelings we find ourselves unable to quite correlate to physical realities, like déjà vu, for example. When we know something’s happened, but we can’t say directly what, or to whom. The movie never gives away why these women live parallel lives, but it explores the beautiful (fearful?) symmetry of this alignment that leads one woman to her grave, while allowing the other to change her course and fall in love. And God, is it a technical and aesthetic delight, for the eyes and the ears: all these rich greens and occasional yellows and reds fill the air of the film, and Zbigniew Preisner’s score, for one thing, draws thematic lines between scenes (as the music of Weronika’s last performance pops up in Véronique’s life) and it’s so, oh, spiritual and elegant –  every aspect of the movie is driven toward this same conclusion, I think, that events happen in our lives that we can’t entirely understand but, at least, we can try to enjoy them. The Double Life of Véronique works as art on multiple levels, even if it’s a little perplexing while you watch it, as it amazes us formally and intellectually, and I highly recommend it. (And if that’s not enough, you get to see Jacob naked in two different lives. So much visual pleasure.)

What else to dive into in the brief remaining time I have at this library-? I’m about to start on Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a graphic novel whose genre appears to be “venereal fiction.” I will not lie: I love the word “venereal.” It comes from the Roman name for the goddess of love, Venus, but it’s most frequently heard in the (itself outdated) expression “venereal disease.” So venereal, I think, connotes something dirty, sexual, a little dark, and unpleasant. The icky fluids and discharges that we wouldn’t mind sterilizing away. And this, more or less, from the couple chapters I read while standing in Borders, is what Black Hole is about – after all, the title without context could refer equally well to an all-consuming cosmic presence or to human orifices – vaginal, anal, or otherwise. It reminds me of Onibaba, another movie I recommend, where the horror flows from the hungry hole, as omnivorous as Star Wars‘s Sarlacc or 1984‘s proverbial memory hole. Holes, clearly, are interesting things. As is Pac-Man, on whom I sometimes find myself fixated. So easy to draw, such a recognizable icon of, more or less, ’80s pop culture, and what does he do? Ashley and I were discussing this: he moves by eating. His mouth opens and closes, and that’s his form of ambulation. It also reminds me of this beloved pie chart.

The hilarity of statistical representations

I frequently marvel at human anatomy. At the human body in general. It’s not really as wondrous, I think, as some have made it out to be. It’s a bunch of systems, working in pretty good harmony. Things fuck up a lot, and when they do, it usually hurts. We eat, but if we don’t eat enough, or the right things, that also hurts. We get malnourished. Scurvy. Rickets. Beriberi. Various other dietary deficiencies. And once you start eating, you really never get to stop. And you know, every human being is a freak in one way or another, whether it’s one of a million physical abnormalities or one of the countless mental quirks you develop just by virtue of living a “normal” human life. And so, this process of consumption is just so remarkable: food goes in the mouth. Enzymes in the saliva break it down. Through peristalsis it travels down the throat. Into the stomach, where acids attack it from all angles. I am reminded of a fellow named Michel Lotito, who I first encountered in the Guinness Book of World Records. As I recall, he ate lots of glass, and an airplane engine (piece by piece). This reminds me of Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan noting that a living and dead body have the same amount of molecules. Well, glass and a sandwich probably do, too. Just some, uh, food for thought.

This computer is telling me I have to go. So I shall. More writing will be forthcoming in the near future. Down with Big Brother.

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