Book Review: The Barbizon

It was the inspiration for The Griffith Hotel in the unfairly axed-too-soon Agent Carter, fictionalised as The Amazon in The Bell Jar not long after the novel’s author Sylvia Plath moved out, and is the focus of Paulina Bren’s new book. The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is a fascinating account of the glamorous and not-so-glam social history of the female-only hotel, located at 140 East 63rd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the place newly liberated women stayed whether seeking refuge or providing them with a room of one’s own as they pursued careers in the arts.

Built in 1927, The Barbizon housed thousands of women until 1981 when the first man was checked in, and is credited with granting autonomy to many – including the likes of Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Edith Bouvier Beale (that’s Little Edie to you if you’ve seen Grey Gardens), Cloris Leachman, Joan Didion, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, and even ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown back in 1931. Its most famous resident was probably Plath who spent her tenure as one of the guest editors* of Mademoiselle magazine (also fictionalised as ‘Ladies Day’ in The Bell Jar). The publication was headed by the imposing Betsy Talbot Blackwell (BTB) who ruled with a fierce head beneath a pillbox hat and within a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, granting opportunities for *The Millies each of whom were afforded a tiny boudoir bedecked in chintz and florals, all for a reduced rate per week. Also in residence were girls and women who attended the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School (they lived on the 16th and 17th floors) and those signed up with Ford or Powers Modelling Agencies. Like one big sorority.

Bren, over nine chapters, breathes life back into the lobby and corridors of the hotel which became a condominium in 2005 (Barbizon 63) and houses Ricky Gervais among others. Her vibrant and evocative prose really gives a sense of the period as these women found financial independence, a place in an ever-changing world or even a bar stool over at Malachy’s bar – which allowed them to drink and eat alone at the bar (unheard of at the time) without hassle from men. God bless Malachy McCourt. Themes touch on surviving Prohibition, the Depression, McCarthyism, and briefly on Civil Rights – Barbara Chase was the first Black woman/resident to intern for Mademoiselle in 1956. Most interestingly is how Bren addresses the loneliness, mental health issues, and suicide attempts (and successes) of some of the residents – through first-person accounts and independent research – which only serve to add poignancy and depth.

By the last chapter, this pain takes on a greater meaning. Once the hotel ceased to exist and work began creating the condos, several of the older women fought to keep their homes, citing their (ancient) leases which allowed them to remain living there amidst the gutting and renovations. Work continued and was completed on all floors except the one where these women resided, everything around them was updated but their doors, walls, rooms and décor were preserved like a time capsule. Although, sadly, there is nowhere near as much detail about these old broads who were determined to stay put.

The Barbizon is a compelling read, beautifully researched and highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or any of the individual women covered in the text. It’s a deeply resonant book which ends with pangs of bitter irony. Once a sanctuary promoted as selling freedom to women, the bricks and mortar ended up imprisoning a fair few. Or in the case of Sylvia Path, it gave a purpose – inspiration for her novel masterpiece – a place to belong for a time or place where the unravelling began before the world became too much.

Film Festival Review

Review: Make Me Up (Dir. Rachel Maclean, 2018)

LFF 2018

For those unfamiliar with Rachel Maclean’s work, the Edinburgh-born multimedia artist created one of the 50-feet portraits of Billy Connolly which adorned the streets of Glasgow for The Big Yin’s 75th birthday. She also submitted a short: Spite Your Face to last year’s London and Venice film festivals. This piece focussed on a Pinocchio-type character – played by Maclean – who chases the lure of wealth within an abusive patriarchal power. It was made as a response to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign. Within the mise-en-scéne its colours of choice were (Tory) blue and (Trump) gold.

The artist’s first full-length feature – included in the BFI’s 2018 festival programme – uses bubble gum pinks, violets and blues in every frame, and like its predecessor zones in on the post-Brexit zeitgeist in a similarly confrontational and acerbic manner. Make Me Up begins with the familiar aural tone and visual most Apple users attribute to the Siri application, when a disembodied male voice asks, “Siri, when is the world going to end?” before a woman screams “I don’t know!” and her cries resonate over the black screen.

Siri (Christina Gordon) in this case is a woman, pink of hair, born of a gelatinous lump of flesh. Unsure of how she ended up in such an inexplicable place, she becomes allies with Alexa (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and is forced to compete against several other women (there’s even a Cortana too) in a hyper-real game show of sorts. All under watchful Orwellian eye(s) which fall from the ceilings and monitor everything and everyone via facial expressions and status updates.

In charge is the Figurehead (Rachel Maclean). An equally magenta-haired woman who schools her audience on the role of women within civilisation and through the history of art. Like her ‘pupils’ she has no voice of her own but is a conduit for the dulcet tones of historian Kenneth Clark, and specifically his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation. She has other voices in her arsenal, namely those belonging to Andrew Graham Nixon and critics E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes, all stored within a device embedded in her arm. Her mannerisms scream Thatcher as her lips sync to the pomposity of the white, male patriarch. The girls before her know to mind their Ps and Qs and if they don’t? Well, naughty girls are punished, pitted against one another before elimination. The winner gets to eat.

Every inch of the film is aesthetically pleasing – although some may find it on the kitsch-side (when is that ever a bad thing?) – from Maclean’s production and costume design (she is also editor and responsible for the compositing and 2D effects) to Grant Mason’s prosthetics and Scott Twynholm’s score; it is all substance and style. Maclean asks us to consider the toxicity of social media, the depiction of women in politics, art iconography and beauty culture. The use of The Woman of Willendorf and the Venus de Milo is particularly powerful to illustrate the evolution of the female image, with nods to the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Munch later on.

Make Me Up is a biting and thought-provoking satire which could not be more timely, not least in its celebration of the Suffragist Movement. It presents the violent and submissive fears, desires, control and pressures surrounding women. It asks questions of the role of women in contemporary feminism and art, as well as realigning the male gaze albeit sardonically amid Freudian visuals (the breast-shaped door handles and phallic dinner meat are particularly delightful). It has aspects of Alice in Wonderland by way of Sucker Punch via Hartbeat.

There is, however, no all-encompassing decorative pink bow of a conclusion – as Siri plots her escape thanks to the support of the sisterhood, you will recognise a few – and some may even find the final shot dispiriting but thankfully women persist. Director/Writer/Artist and all-round multitasker Rachel Maclean has put together something highly intelligent and imaginative. It deconstructs the beauty myth (perfection paint, anyone?) and reconsiders art history, criticism and all with a grin on its face and a knowing wink. More please.


Open Letter to DC

WW by Darwyn Cooke '08

In case anybody missed it, I adore Wonder Woman. I love what she stands for and let’s face it female superheroes are pretty rare not least because they tend not to get a shot at the big screen. Times be a’changing with the pencilled-in film releases of WW, Captain Marvel, and Supergirl on the small screen. I wrote to DC (in one of those attention-seeking, open letter type things) outlining why Wonder Woman is integral to DC but also, more importantly, why the film needs to be done right…

Dear DC,

It is only logical (and fair) that the third major player in the League and indeed the DC Universe gets their standalone origin film. I am, of course, referring to Wonder Woman and now, it appears I am getting my wish albeit in the most bizarre order imaginably. It has been 74 years without so much as an attempt and yet we have had a substantial tally of Superman (6) and Batman (7) films. So, forgive me for being somewhat pessimistic. A Wonder Woman genesis film has been expected nay deserved for a very long time but she gets described as “controversial” and “complicated”. And? Show me a woman who is not.

Created in 1941 (following appearances by Superman in ’38 and Batman in ’39) by William Moulton Marston; I know, I know A MAN but a progressive feminist who created the character as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman”. A woman who he believed should rule the world. He saw a great deal of potential in the women’s movement, surrounded himself with strong, intelligent women, hell, he even believed that by 2037 the world would be governed by a Matriarchy. He reckoned that while the feminine archetype lacked “force, strength and power” girls wouldn’t want to be girls or submissive. “The obvious remedy [was] to create a feminine character with the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” (WMM, 1943)

One can argue that the man was wrong, although it is 2015 and do we not have the same issues surrounding gender on film? I could argue that he had a slight preoccupation with bondage (he was also a huge fan of the truth too). This was an academic who shared his marital home and life with a MA graduate wife and PhD educated mistress, transgressive sexuality pervaded his personal life, why not his work? Patriarchy is the oppressor to which Wonder Woman is enslaved after leaving Themyscira and is often bound – sometimes figuratively – nearly always literally, forced into passivity by the ties/rope/chain that binds before breaking loose and reciprocating with her lasso. Yes, Moulton Marston’s idealistic feminism is problematic, he believed in domination and sexual enslavement but I digress, I’m sure you’re not even considering *that* type of storyline…

Word on the grapevine is that a big action film is not on the cards, you want a more character-driven piece and the search for a male lead/love interest is currently taking place. Rumours have it that you don’t want a strong feminist message…erm, an Amazonian woman-of-steel born from clay outside of the restrictive realms of patriarchy who lived, for most of her life, on a Utopian island devoid of men. You don’t see this as problematic? Hold on. Forgive me. I forget, you are using the New 52 storyline so her origins have been revised so she is now the daughter of Zeus (ugh). I remember that time when Superman and Batman’s origin story was revised and changed. Oh no wait…

I often get asked why. Why do I idolise her, why her above the others? For the record, I love all those other guys too but there will always be a special place in my heart for Wonder Woman. I like what she stands for: strength, intelligence, capability, kindness, wisdom, confidence, courage, sisterhood. Plus, her costume’s really cool; dressed in the red, white and blue standard of freedom and democracy. Batman isn’t the only one with an arsenal of goodies, she wears a tiara which is razor-sharp and can be hurled like a boomerang, the bracelets at the wrist can deflect bullets and serve as a reminder of the shackles once worn when the Amazons were the prisoners of Ares. She carries Hestia’s golden Lasso of Truth; tiny chain-links with limitless length, indestructibility and of course, anybody bound in it are compelled to tell the truth. The lady has the ability to fly (although not soar high), can spin at blurring speed – usually to shed her civvies – is able to communicate with most animals and beasts and has numerous vehicles at her disposal, all invisible.

Not to mention that fact that she is just as physically strong and special as Supes. Their similarities are actually hard to ignore. They are both on Earth separated from their familial roots both have an alias to protect and while they don’t fully comprehend the planet they inhabit they wish to shield and, wherever possible, protect the humans living on it. Yet still she has not been immortalised on the big screen but Superman’s genesis gets regurgitated every decade or so. Why am I telling you all of this when you gave her a home in 1941? Because I don’t want you to forget that there is more to her than just a pretty face.

She will, as it has been made very apparent, make an appearance in Dawn of Justice in the form of Fast and Furious alum Gal Gadot (I’m still in denial about that) before FINALLY getting her own film. The pre-production of which has been hmm, interesting to say the least; female director, no script, creative differences, new female director, six scripts…Why does it need a female director? Well, why not? And hey, DC, if you’re struggling with the script, why not ask Dr. George Miller, he could teach all of you a thing or two about writing a woman. Just don’t fall into the trap Marvel did with Elektra. Good grief that film sucked.

We all know female heroes (some super, some not) are not quite as scarce as they once were; however, they still get a raw-deal. The Age of Ultron / Black Widow storyline furore will attest to this or the severe lack of female-led merchandise which fails to adorn toyshop shelves and don’t get me started on the slut-shaming or name-calling on/offscreen. Supergirl’s even getting in on the (TV) action albeit in a seemingly cutesy way. I get it. I do. Too many females transgressing the boundaries of the norm have and will continue to cause issues for some. It will encourage women wanting to be women and expecting the world, just as Gloria Steinem said, to change for them.

Perhaps, a decent depiction of the Amazonian attesting to the strength and influence of the feminine archetype will be a huge commercial success? Or perhaps, in spite of Joss Whedon’s utter condemnation of the notion that (some) men aren’t interested in the exploits of female she-roes, there is actually some truth in it? No, that can’t be right, not given the popularity of the likes of BuffyAlien and Terminator franchises and HAVE YOU SEEN Max Mad: Fury Road? Furiosa (Charlize Theron) proves that she can fight toe-to-toe with any man and still be hard, vulnerable and feminine.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. As you will know Wonder Woman’s current filmic/televisual legacy is largely fan-made. There is that animated film from 2009 which is really rather good and the (now) kitsch and fabulously camp television series made in the 70s which ran for three seasons and saw former Miss USA, Lynda Carter, don the girdle and fight for our rights in satin tights. She was wonderful in it; strong, fearless, savvy, intelligent and beautiful, a Goddess on Earth instilling hope and convincing the world of compassion, humility and generosity – all the while kicking ass. Carter is 63 now and will forever be a wonder woman but it’s time for a change, the character needs to be brought into the twenty-first century while still retaining her roots. David E. Kelley did attempt it in 2011 with Adrianne Palicki in the titular role. Elizabeth Hurley was the villain along with a supporting cast that included Cary Elwes and Tracie Thoms. His pilot was never optioned probably due to the hideous SFX, tacky PVC-costume, or the fact that he portrayed the peace-loving princess as a sexually frustrated spinster who curls up in front of The Notebook and obsesses over her Facebook profile when she’s not ripping out people’s throats. As soon as Diana pulls out the merchandise and dolls at a board meeting, it all gets a little too meta.

I think the point I’m trying to make is I really love Wonder Woman. I have seen a billionaire playboy take to the sky dressed as a giant bat, I’ve witnessed a super alien male don a red cape and protect a city and now I want to see an Amazonian, wearing a tiara attempting to educate mankind. It is time for her to have a go at saving the world.

Please DC, don’t eff it up.


A Fan