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Joint review time! with Celluloid (NSFW)

Let’s get this out of the way right away: There are DEFINITELY GOING TO BE SOME TOTALLY NOT SAFE FOR WORK images underneath the cut. Just so you know! And I asked our own Kelly Thompson to review this with me, ’cause that’s just how I roll, yo.

Greg: Celluloid is a new graphic novel by Dave McKean, his first since he finished Cages, and the subtitle tells it all – “an erotic graphic novel.” Yes, indeed it is. I confess that I had no idea McKean had a new graphic novel out until a few weeks ago, when I saw it in the comic book store while I was back in Pennsylvania. I would usually see it in Previews, but for some reason I missed it. It’s published by Fantagraphics and costs 35 dollars. But it’s a big ol’ book with gorgeous McKean art, so there’s that.

In some interviews with McKean that I’ve read, he talks about making an erotic graphic novel that isn’t tawdry pornography and which deals with sex in a mature way. Celluloid is certainly that. Or is it? Celluloid is a wordless comic, full of gorgeous McKeanian images, and it doesn’t tell a story as much as invite the reader to experience sensations. The basic outline of the plot involves a woman arriving at her home (possibly; it’s unclear) and getting a phone call from a man who is stuck at work and won’t be able to make an appointment with the woman until the next day. She discovers an old projector in the apartment and discovers too that there’s a pornographic film in said projector. When she watches some of it, she magically enters a wild world of sex, where she has several erotic encounters. That’s pretty much it.

McKean talked with the Mothership about Celluloid, and some of the things he said are rather interesting. With a wordless story, the temptation to read into the text the author’s beliefs are almost inexorable, especially with a creator as singular as McKean. There’s no buffer between the reader, the text, and the author’s personal intent – we don’t know what the characters really think except in brief snippets of comprehension. We must read this as starkly as possible, and when that occurs, we have to discern what is textual and what is metatextual – what is confined within the story and what are McKean’s beliefs. When we’re reading a book about one of the most basic of human functions, it becomes even more difficult to separate authorial belief from authorial intent. McKean doesn’t make it easier in that interview, where he implies that Celluloid is a very personal project. So can we separate the creator from the creation? Should we?

Kelly: I didn’t really read much of McKean’s personal beliefs into the work, though I didn’t read the interview you linked to until after I read the book. Perhaps that would have altered my first impression of it. I think I actually read less of his beliefs into it since there was no writing … which generally feels more direct and obvious (not necessarily in a bad way) and just the art feels a little more subtle and subject to reader interpretation, and I assumed that that was deliberate on his part. That he wanted a lot of this left up to the individual tastes, perceptions, beliefs, etc. of the reader and that it was a reason for leaving text out, to make it more flexible. My read of it personally was very experimental and non-narrative. And it’s that aspect of it that I liked the least. I think there’s absolutely an important place for experimental work (art, writing, all of it) but I find myself personally less and less interested in it. I found Celluloid incredibly beautiful and very interesting, but the experimental non-narrative aspect of it wore a little thin for me. I think for an experimental work, I expected MORE from it, and at times thought he was going there about making a statement – one which I was enjoying – even if I was the only one seeing it. But ultimately with the direction he took, my interpretation didn’t hold up, and so I went back to feeling like it was just an experiment, one for me that was enjoyable, but at least a partial failure.

Greg: That’s pretty interesting, because I feel the opposite. If the characters had spoken, I think it would have been easier for me to separate what they say from McKean’s personal intent. It feels to me like this is a statement from him, as if the characters are simply acting out his beliefs without being “real,” which is something I’ll get to when I discuss the actual story. I certainly think that we as readers can bring a great deal to the book and personalize it as we want, but we can do that with any piece of literature. When the characters don’t use words, I feel they become a bit more archetypal, and therefore it feels to me as if McKean is writing more of a polemic than a story. I think we both come away with the same feeling about the comic – ultimately a “partial failure” – from two different directions, which is kind of interesting – to me, at least.

Kelly: Yeah, the lack of text to me suggests too much of a narrative (and message) leap … I have to assume McKean knows I’m going to go places that relate to ME specifically. If he wanted me to go somewhere that relates to HIM specifically, then he would have to give me much much more, take me by the hand and make me see. With just images, I’m free to imprint my own story and ideas, my own beliefs onto the work more easily. But then, judging from what you wrote below, you got much more from this, so that’s perhaps part of our disconnect here?

Greg: The reason it’s difficult to separate the creator from the creation (with regard to Celluloid, at least), for me (if not for you) is because sex is such a controversial subject. Celluloid is very graphic, and while that may make some people uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily what I’m talking about. Sex is such a personal subject that it becomes controversial – what is sexy to one person might be repellant to another, and because sex is a strange amalgam of hardwired experiences from way back when in our own lives, we can’t even speak very much of sexual “deviancy” much anymore – and it’s easier simply to ignore the sex lives of others and, in a perfect world, live and let live as long as no one’s getting hurt (of course, we can’t have that, can we?). So creating an erotic work that takes sex seriously is bound to be far more controversial and interesting than a graphic novel about many other topics, mainly because sex is something that a lot of people obsess about, even if they’re not actively engaging in it. McKean takes his sex very seriously, which is a bit of a problem, as I’ll explain soon enough.

Kelly: I agree with you that the subject matter here is handled very seriously, and that that’s part of what keeps it from being more interesting to me as well. But I didn’t feel it was very controversial. I don’t know if that’s just the kind of stuff I’m used to watching, reading, etc., but I found it pretty tame overall. I also didn’t find it titillating in the least, though I’m not sure, even after reading the interview, if that fact would please or frustrate him (probably neither, but you know what I mean). I think it’s great that he did this project, because we need amazing artists pushing on boundaries and doing new things, and the book is straight up beautiful and completely compelling in its visuals, but I confess it did little for me one way or another in that I wasn’t sufficiently stimulated – intellectually or otherwise.

Greg: I don’t necessarily think the book is controversial, but the subject matter is. People get awfully wonky about sex, and they take sex so very personally, which is why I mentioned it.

Kelly: Yes, in that respect you are right. Sex is controversial period, and many people will find this book controversial I suppose, but just, the world I tread in (which sounds much more exciting than it really is) this is nothing so exciting. I find it hard to understand why sex, in a world in which we all seem to spend all day on the internet, where you can get the most explicit things imaginable at the touch of a button, that anyone is still holding on to sex as controversial. But you are right. The mainstream, in the U.S. at least, still has fairly puritanical viewpoints and expectations when it comes to sex, in the bedroom and in art. So you’re right about the subject matter.

Greg: And frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of erotica. I mean, I like looking at naked woman as much as anyone, and while I’m not a big porn guy, I’m not against it either. But when it comes to works of fiction that deal with sex in a serious manner, there’s always something that seems slightly goofy about it because the creators take is so seriously. Nicholson Baker’s Vox is one of my favorite books because he writes about sex from many different angles, and it’s by turns philosophical and silly (it’s also erotic as hell, so there’s that). Other than that, I’m hard-pressed to come up with erotic fiction that is really great. It’s not that I’m a prude, it’s just that erotic fiction takes sex too seriously far too often. Sex is goofy, a lot of the time (there’s a great scene in the largely unseen New Zealand movie Broken English that nails the eroticism and goofiness of sex perfectly, and it would be great to see more stuff like that in popular culture). There’s no reason not to admit it. McKean takes sex extremely seriously in Celluloid, to its detriment. The unnamed woman might be experiencing wild and orgasmic sexual encounters, but she doesn’t appear to be having much fun. Perhaps that’s McKean’s point, which is something else I want to address.

Kelly: I have to say now that I can’t think of any serious erotic fiction that I would also say is GOOD, all caps good. I can think of plenty that’s titillating, or effective, or, you know, hott (double t!), but I can’t think of much that I would hold up as great literature. I suppose that makes this one of the better books I’ve read that tries to be both erotic and “literature,” but I can’t say I’m going to be thinking of it next week, and I feel like that’s a real missed opportunity. I thought at one point that McKean was doing a thing where the character was becoming less sketchy and more like a real woman, more fully developed and three dimensional, as she had these sexual experiences. And I thought that idea was a potentially fascinating commentary on sex, and one that probably would have made me consider what McKean’s personal position might be more seriously. And then I thought he was going to continue pushing her beyond the “real woman/photograph” level to more abstract forms as she continued on. Almost a suggestion of going so far in her experiences that she left behind simple things like form and structure, gender and beauty. That she came back around the other side of things to appear even less formed and clearly a “human woman” than she was originally as just a sketch. And there were elements of that strongly suggested, but as a whole my interpretation didn’t hold up. Now maybe I just really like that idea because it’s an idea my puny mind can handle, and even more, because it allows me to take something I’ve been viewing as more experimental and mold it into something more narrative, which I prefer. It’s certainly not up to McKean to please me specifically, but I confess I did feel let down when the story did not solidly go in that direction, because for a while there I was really into the book and thought he was making a fairly fascinating comment on sex (and maybe even sex specifically for women, which made me think that the female protagonist was a good and bold choice). Now, perhaps he’s doing something far beyond that … but if he is, he lost me, as experimental work sometimes does.

For me, the problem with Celluloid is that I think it will really appeal to a certain group of people who DO happen to find it titillating, and I’m sure they exist, they’re just not me. And I suspect it might also appeal to people who really love more experimental work that is trying to push on boundaries, and they might get something far more profound from it than I did. But I don’t live in either niche, and therefore, the effect is mostly lost on me. I just see a beautiful book without too much substance.

Although the fact that we’ve brought up that there is so little out there that we’d consider GOOD erotic literature, makes me want to give it a bit more credit. I’d say that this is one of the best examples I’ve encountered in that category, which is something in and of itself.

On a side note: Broken English – great movie. [This is just another reason why Kelly is awesome, people.]

I think that doing the book from a female POV (which really is not a female POV, but with a female lead and with us readers as another level of voyeur) is a lot less revolutionary than McKean wants to think. I just think it’s a lot more likely that his audience would be willing to buy an experimental book filled with images of a naked woman having sex and being a voyeur, etc. than if a man was the lead. I also don’t think it’s sufficiently introspective or groundbreaking in showing us her “perspective” that I want to applaud him for doing it, there’s not a lot of substance here for me in that way … he’s not telling me anything surprising or particularly risky. As a woman I certainly don’t think the perspective he presents is wrong, especially since in my experience there are as many variations in how someone thinks and reacts and participates in sex as there are people in the world, so this doesn’t feel wrong to me in anyway, but I don’t think he’s showing me something I haven’t seen before, or haven’t considered.

Greg: I definitely agree that the audience will be far more willing to accept a female in the lead than a male. Most readers, even women (I think) and even men who aren’t necessarily homophobic in any way, are still a bit hung up on male sexuality and especially homosexuality, so a female lead is much less “dangerous” than a male lead would be.

Greg: All right, I’ll go over the “plot,” such as it is, because while this doesn’t have much of a narrative, as you have bemoaned, events do happen! Plus, McKean seems to have some problems with figuring out exactly what the tone of the book should be. When the Woman comes home from work and gets the phone call from the Man, McKean seems to imply that he’s somehow the villain for having to work. The conversation seems to imply (sorry for using that phrase, but because there’s no words, a lot of this is implication) that the Couple had something scheduled for the middle of the day – perhaps some afternoon delight? – and the man has to move the appointment. The Woman is carrying what looks like a large suitcase – is she a masseuse? I think it’s safe to say that they are a long-time Couple, but it’s still a bit odd. The Woman takes a very quick bath (she’s not wearing a bra when she takes her shirt off – is that significant?) then sits down, still naked (and probably still wet – these things bug me), on the sofa, from where she spots the antique projector and its pornographic film. McKean implies that she is both shocked and titillated by the film, although why she would be shocked when it appears that erotic art hangs all over this apartment is beyond me. When the Man comes home and finds the same film, not only are the images clearer, the Woman in the film, who is getting fucked from behind, has what appears to be an accusatory look in her eye (at least, that’s how I see it) as she stares directly at the Man. It’s a chilling image, but I’m not sure what it means. Is the Man a villain? If so, why? It syncs with the magical world the Woman enters, where sex is almost male-free – the most tender moments are between the Woman and some kind of sex goddess, while the male interactions are deeply impersonalized. First, the Woman lies in a village square, and hands appear from nowhere and caress her, bringing her to orgasm (the female orgasm is represented by a film reel burning, which is interesting if as unsubtle as any other metaphor for female orgasm). They look like male hands but they could easily be female ones, and no matter what they are, they’re disembodied so the experience is impersonal. Next, the fertility goddess and the Woman have an erotic adventure (fruit symbolizes genitalia in this vignette, which is less unique than the film reel burning), and then the woman moves on.

We’ve moved from masturbation (both actual and symbolic) to a lesbian encounter, and McKean now moves to male-female relations, and this is where the book becomes a bit more problematic, because it’s unclear what McKean is trying to say. The sexual encounters to this point have been erotic, certainly, but they’ve also been somewhat playful as well. When the Woman meets the first “man” in this fantasy, he’s portrayed as a devil. He doesn’t rape her – she’s a willing participant, but unlike the sex goddess, who allows the Woman to initiate the sex, the devil wakes the Woman up and basically dangles his large penis in front of her while he paws her breasts. She responds enthusiastically, but it’s an odd way to show how the sex begins. McKean doesn’t shy away from showing a male orgasm – in a very close-up double-page spread, I might add – but it’s interesting as well that the woman flees from the orgasm instead of enjoying it, as she had with the fertility goddess. In the final abstract section, she is fucked from behind (like the woman in the film), and the man is barely there – he’s an outline with a penis, and while the woman, again, enjoys the sex, McKean – who says in the interview that he wanted to do something without violence because sex is so much more universal – can’t escape the fact that sex is often violent (at least at its most basic), even if both parties enjoy it. The problem with this final sex act is that because the Woman is much more concrete and the man is barely there, the violence becomes something done to her by an abstract force, implying the horrible violence of institutionalized rape without baldly stating it. In other words, the man himself becomes less of a person sharing the sex act with the Woman than a generic Man becoming dominant to her submission. The Woman then “becomes real” – in the book, she metamorphosizes from a McKean drawing into the actress in the porn film from the beginning, an actual woman whom McKean photographed. When she becomes the real person, she finds that she is being watched by other people, all of whom are disguised. There’s a very Eyes Wide Shut feel to the whole thing. She is aghast at this attention and flees, returning only to turn her accusatory eye toward the Man. McKean states in his interview that:

The woman starts by being the voyeur, and through a series of events that strip away her self-consciousness, she becomes the subject of voyeurism, but stands up, confronts that and exits.

The problem with this is that McKean doesn’t seem to judge her for being the voyeur when, it seems, he’s judging the Man. If you’re doing this from the point of view of the Woman, which he is (well, sort of), then what exactly is he saying about female sex? Does the Woman “confront” the voyeurism because she has become the subject? Does she realize that what she was doing was wrong? Or is it okay for her to be a voyeur because the subjects she is spying on are eager to be spied upon? McKean doesn’t address any of this, and it’s very difficult to comprehend his meaning.

Of course, this is the problem with any work of “serious” pornography. Even the gentlest sex has a violent element, and the metaphor of a man penetrating a woman is too ingrained in our collective psyches to move beyond that unless the creator specifically addresses it, and McKean doesn’t. Celluloid raises several questions, which is a very good thing, but the questions it raises don’t have any answers because they’re so specific to each individual. McKean seems to universalize the desires of the Woman and the relative depravity of the Man, but that’s a false trail and insulting to both genders. Because he keeps them very abstract, we don’t get a sense of them as characters but as archetypes, and that’s where the trouble lies. Had McKean used words, this might have been avoidable, even though I understand why he didn’t use words – in the interview, he says

The scenario I had in mind didn’t need [dialogue or captions], and unless you have a very specific idea to cover in dialogue, I think the conversation surrounding sex scenes is usually pretty ridiculous. So I was after a more sensuous experience, closer to music than literature …

which is fine, but music is often all about the “sensuous experience,” but something about so specific and universal as sex feels like it deserves something more, especially as we see this journey through the Woman’s point of view, so we’re puzzled why she feels the way she does. Whether McKean wants to admit it or not, sex is political, and that’s where the book falters, even if it’s certainly not what McKean is trying to do.

Kelly: Wow. You got a lot more out of this than I did. I think had I gotten what you did out of it, even if it failed me in delivering on some of these points, I would have liked it much more, if only for bringing up interesting questions. I like your take on a lot of these elements, and where it took you.

It’s funny, because I think one of the scenes we’re the most at odds with is the scene toward the end, where the barely there/abstracted man is having sex with the more fully formed woman. Your “institutionalization of rape” is rather brilliant (though I suspect McKean would not be pleased with that take) but my take was kind of the exact opposite. I took it to mean that the woman, through all these experiences she’d had, had kind of transcended the man, in that he was still this abstract shape (more like she was in the beginning), this shadow of a thing, while she had moved well beyond him and become “real”. But your take I think gels more with the (as you said) very Eyes Wide Shut ending, and some of the voyeuristic elements of the book.

Greg: Even your take still de-emphasizes the man, and I wonder why McKean would do that. Why not show sex as a transformative event for both parties, as he sort-of does with the goddess section? This gets back to the intent of the work – I see it as McKean buying into a male stereotype of the “uninterested man” – all he cares about is the orgasm, not the experience. As he slowly takes the woman from an onanistic, even selfish experience to a more inclusive one, she becomes more transcendent. Yet this seems dismissive of men, and while it might not be as severe as my reading, it seems from your statements that you got the same vibe from it. As a man, I find it a bit insulting.

Kelly: Well, I take the man/men to be de-emphasized simply because it’s a story about the woman. It’s about the woman’s sexual awakening, or whatever the experience she’s having is supposed to be. I don’t see much evolution for the “goddess woman” in the goddess section, although she is presented less abstractly than the man at the end. However I’d argue she’s presented MORE abstractly than the “devil man” character. So I didn’t take it to be a reflection of any of the people, or sexes the protagonist was having sex with as being de-emphasized, I just took it as the protagonist being the focus and thus, everyone is secondary to her. All that said, it is interesting to me that the most clearly rendered man is a “devil man” and the most clearly rendered woman is a “goddess woman” … those seems like vastly different ends of a spectrum, and it’s hard to imagine he didn’t mean anything by making those choices.

I agree wholeheartedly that “fruit as genitalia” and “fire as female orgasm” and I would add the “masked voyeur party” to that as well, are actually rather lazy and on the nose visuals for this book. And it’s funny to me that there can be so much subtlety and nuance here and images left up to rather different interpretation and yet some of this, like the fruit and the fire is painfully obvious in a hit you over the head way. Those were very strange choices I thought. I did enjoy some of the images with the grapes, though, which were rather beautiful.

I didn’t find overall for the male sex acts to be much less personalized or significantly less tender than the sex acts with the goddess woman. To me the only thing that felt less tender, or perhaps more violent was just the presence of a penis period. A penis naturally suggests penetration of some kind in a way that the sex (here at least) between the two women did not, as there was nothing present in the scene to penetrate significantly. And there’s an inherent suggestion of violence (to many) with an object significantly penetrating another person. Which I think goes back to your insightful comment about sex and violence being somewhat intertwined no matter how much McKean would like to separate them. I appreciate that he doesn’t want to link them … and that is maybe his most bold move in all of this, the attempt to show sex sans any violence. But I think no matter how we try, sex and violence tend to be tied up in one another to a certain degree, the same way that sex and death are inexorably linked.

Greg: Hmmm. That’s interesting. Penises – what are you gonna do about ‘em, right?

Kelly: They are SO PENETRATING.

I think our other very strong divergence in our interpretations here is in the end. I did not at all get a feeling that the look from the real woman was accusatory. I got if anything, temptation and some combination of both empowerment and surrender. And that changes everything I think, our read on those last pages. I also think that overall the photographic element of the book was far and away the weakest, and that relying on an actress in the end, to convey these very important last moments, was a failure – evident in the fact that based on her expression you and I are taking something completely different away from the book. I understand (I think) why he did it and why it’s a necessary part of how he was trying to execute the story, but ultimately, leaving those key moments in the hand of actress (and he I would assume as photographer/director) they were not as successful as something he could create entirely himself. It’s possible that every reader would see that expression differently … and I wonder if you polled men and women if they would come down in large numbers the way we did … or drastically differently. I honestly want to sequester 50 women and 50 men and make them read this book and then question them about it. I don’t know what that says about me … but it may indicate I have problems! I’m secretly a mad scientist!

Greg: See, that’s one of the reasons why I thought it would be interesting to do a joint review, because I suspected we’d have a divergence, even if I agree with you that the photographic section felt somewhat odd. I too agree with you that it’s necessary, but it leads to ambiguity … which, of course, could be his entire point.

Kelly: Well then we clearly BOTH want to be mad scientists, just you wanted to do a nice reasonable two person experiment and I wanted to get crazy global with it! You were right, this was much more interesting to review jointly (for me at least) … I wouldn’t have half as much to say about the work, without hearing your thoughts. In fact, I think the most exciting thing to me about the book, is to see someone else’s completely different reaction to the material.

Greg: Okay, one more brief section about the art. Chime in if you want!

McKean’s art is astounding, as it always is. He moves from his very rough pencil work that he used on Cages and moves quickly into a multimedia extravaganza, with photographs interspersed with film reels (more photographs, of course, but used in a different way) and paintings and more detailed pencil work. The colors are magnificent, too, from the fertile greens of the Woman’s experience with the many-breasted goddess to the eerie reds of her tryst with the devilish man. The Woman becomes more and more abstract, even cubist, as she moves through the dreamscape, until, suddenly, she turns “real,” and McKean contrasts the “reality” of his model with the rough pencil work of the Man when he watches the porn movie. It’s an astonishing work of art, to be sure, and McKean almost pulls off the book using just his artwork to convey a story. Almost.

Kelly: I agree that the success of this book is in that it is beautiful from cover to cover. As a rule I tend to prefer McKean’s very rough pencil work, though I very much appreciate the layering mixed media styles he uses, and I found all of it very beautiful and successful in that way. I was impressed with the color choices and the really wonderful cubist look he achieved for some of the work, and some of the mixed media he used toward the end was some of my favorite in the book period. But the photographic work, especially the parts that relied heavily on his model, mostly left me cold. It was the weakest aspect of the book as a whole by far … both artistically and in trying to convey any clear message. After discussing it, I feel more pleased with the book as a whole because I’ve been forced to admit that I don’t recall seeing a many more effective executions of erotic subject matter as a legitimate work of art in this way, but unfortunately the book didn’t inspire me or move me much one way or another. Perhaps my expectations were too high going in, but I think I would have preferred to feel either passionate revulsion or passionate affection for the project, instead of just mild acceptance.

Greg: I think that the ambiguity of the book is fascinating (if a bit vexing), because people can read it many different ways. Maybe some will read it as a Woman experiencing sex in a number of different ways until she is liberated from the drudgery of her life. Perhaps others will see it as a breathtaking repudiation of a male-dominated sexual world. For McKean, it seems, the “sensuous experience” is all, and for some, maybe that’s enough. What is compelling about Celluloid is that McKean tackles a difficult subject and elevates it beyond a simple porn comic. I think the very fact that Celluloid makes you wonder about sex in many of its iterations is impressive. As you can see, both Kelly and I had our issues with it, but it’s a gorgeous comic nevertheless. It’s definitely something that you don’t see every day!

Thanks again, Kelly!

One Comment

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

July 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Such a beautiful book.

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