Dec 4, 2012

Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press

Part love letter to the icon masterpieces of German expressionist cinema, most specifically Paul Wegener’s Golem trilogy (The Golem, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, The Golem: How He Came into the World) and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse trilogy (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), part camp-ridden postmodern cyberpunk flick, and part ostensibly ominous quasi-Wagnerian opera with Oscar Wilde’s iconic literary figure Dorian Gray as a tom-boyish Siegfried-like anti-hero, Sapphic German auteuress Ulrike Ottinger’s Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (1984) aka The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press aka Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press – a work released most appropriately during the Orwellian year of 1984; a splendid time for a lesbo dystopian flick – is a film of epically eccentric proportions that does the seemingly unhinged and certainly most sexually-antagonistic by casting one of Germany's best known supermodels, Veruschka von Lehndorff (Blow-Up, Casino Royale), in dandysette drag as a character with a testosterone-deprived sideshow swag. Both the final film in her “Berlin Trilogy” (preceding Ticket of No Return and Freak Orlando) and the last cinematic collaboration with her one-time lesbian lover and partner in aesthetic crime Tabea Blumenschein (Laokoon & Sons, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler) – who would subsequently end up homeless for a period of time – before their irreparable breakup, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press also marked the close of a chapter in Ulrike Ottinger’s filmmaking career right before she would go to travel the Orient and direct such works as the documentary China. The Arts – the People (1986), the adventure-romance-documentary hybrid epic Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia (1989), the 500-minute ethnology document Taiga (1992), and the documentary The Korean Wedding Chest (2009), among various other quasi-anthropological real-life fairy tale works. Most glaringly, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press is Ottinger’s last distinctly 'Germanic' counter-culture work, albeit of the pre-nazi/post-nazi persuasion, as both a tribute to the films and underworld kultur of the Weimar Republic and the dangerous, chaotic, and sinister sociopolitical climate of that time, as well as a delightful, daring, and damning dissemination of the power of mainstream multimedia in all facets of life following the conclusion of the Second World War. Centering around a pomo and ambiguous homo Dorian Gray (played by Veruschka von Lehndorff) – a figure whose striking suave playboy celebrity is contrived and subsequently shattered at the wretched whim of Frau Dr. Mabuse (played marvelous mad scientist style by French feminist Delphine Seyrig); the fierce female Führer of a all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-propagandizing international media empire – Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press is like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht (1973) aka World on a Wire meets Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray (1970) starring Helmut Berger, but more importantly, it is the sort of strikingly singular aesthetic and gender deconstructing work that could have been directed by Ulrike Ottinger.

As Dr. Mabuse states at the beginning of Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press: “Our organization will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.” With crucial help from her cunning computer specialist “Assistant Golem” (played by Werner Schroeter's muse Magdalena Montezuma), as well as “Assistant Passat” (Fassbinder's typecast "repressed" lady Irm Hermann) and “Assistant Susy” (Fassbinder's "beautiful bimbo" Barbara Valentin), Dr. Mabuse has every resource she needs to make, manipulate, and murder her dear and dapper cipher Dorian Gray. Ottinger stated in an interview that her archetypical Dorian Gray is effectively, “The narcissus, the dandy, especially the dandy has his feminine side. Therefore in art – I am thinking here of Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Moreau, Reynaldo Hahn, who are all indirectly cited in my film – these were among the first artists who as men made aesthetically manifest feminine qualities.” Indeed, the gender/sexuality of the “s/he” in Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press is never made clear, thereupon making it all the more of a provocative and, at times, trying and terribly teasing work. With his only 'family' member being a Chinese servant named “Hollywood” (Toyo Tanaka), who also acts as a narrator for the film, Dorian Gray – a boyish yet athletic extrovert of the spontaneous sort – is more than willing to take up the malicious Ms. Mabuse on her ingenuously generous offer, thereupon skyrocketing the lonely and ego-deprived orphan onto a literal and figurative world-stage of great fame and prestige. As the last of the famous international playboys, Dorian naturally acquires a beauteous and blonde lover named Andamana (played by the notably rather skinny and oftentimes almost completely naked Tabea Blumenschein) who Dr. Mabuse has employed as a seductive sly spy slut, and who the media closely follows with the more intimate and loving moments, as well as scandalous and risqué, of their grandiose ballad-ridden bond being broadcast for the entire world to see from the comfort of their living room. With his new life behind the candid camera and in the yellow press, Dorian also must make various planned public appearances, including “press balls,” an aptly named event where everything, including the wallpapers, flowers, and wine glasses are made out of newspapers and where, through the misguided guidance of Miss Mabuse, he is also able to indulge in the wonders of the world, including kosher animal mutilation, Amerindians cohabiting in sewers, and his lover luridly trading tongues with a new lesbian ladylove of the less than ladylike sort. As Dr. Mabuse states herself, “The willful Italians are hard to control,” but with hunky-dory Dorian posing in the world spotlight, even hotheaded Hightalians “fall for Nordic beauty.” Needless to say, the whole world adores Dorian Gray and he exults in the extravagant lifestyle of an entertainment superstar, but all good things must come to an end and Dr. Mabuse is a master at managing melodramatic meltdowns of the magnificently and morbidly marvelous mass media mishmash.

In Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, the three virtues of journalism – being “independence,” “non-partisanship,” and “objectivity” and who Dr. Mabuse assumes to be retired – are frail and shriveled old men with equally withered genitals who wear women’s Sunday church hats in a symbolic scene that more than speaks for itself.  In combining iconic figures from German expressionist cinema and classical opera with images of grand grotesquery, including large and in charge au naturel amazonian women goose-stepping for $1 bills, screaming punk rockers in tattered clothing, and a little boy dragging a decapitated pig's head with a string, Ottinger ironically gives resonance to her bittersweet Svengali character Dr. Mabuse's words, "art is anachronism...ridiculous rollic." A stringently semiotic work of immense scale, Ulrike Ottinger's Dorian Gray meets and greets technocratic globalized media in a strikingly sardonic and socio-politically sharp cinema effort of clever and keen kitsch meets high operatic art about an ambiguous (in more ways than one) character who the viewer never really gets despite his highly publicized and personalized appearances throughout the film. In a 1997 interview with  Austrian writer Sissi Tax, Ottinger stated of her Brummel-esque protagonist: “It remains undecidable whether (Dorian Gray) doesn’t also fall in love with himself, with the performance, with the mirror in the frame…,” but if one thing is for sure about the frisky fellow – an individual who survives the human sewage of subterranean sodomite hell, desolate deserts with a morbid mix of mammal corpses and human and furry four-legged hyenas, and his sadomasochistic sexual activities being exposed for the world to see – he is an individual with a strong sense of self-preservation, so much so that after the fat lady literally sings, he literally crashes his own funeral in his blood red Mercedes Benz sports car. 

The final culmination of a rich and fruitful collaboration that resulted in countless photographic collaborations, two short featurette, and three feature length films, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press also marked the final collaboration between Ottinger and Blumenschein, so it is only befitting that the character Andamana (played by Blumenschein) states, “On this path you must continue alone," which are indubitably poetically symbolic works that would mark a break in the German auteuress' oeuvre. Of course, as Dr. Mabuse states at her manipulated man-muse's funeral: "Dorian, for me you live on."

-Ty E

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