While we won’t ever know for sure just what she and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bobbie Gentry’s lazy, throaty delivery of the story makes us feel the weight of its secrets and innuendo.
Why not click the big, shiny button on the left and give “Ode to Billie Joe” a listen now? After all, it is the 3rd of June.
“Ode to Billie Joe” tells such an elegant and economical story; it’s like quick, loose pencil strokes that give us precise renderings of a few minute details, but go soft and suggestive in their depiction of larger pieces of the picture. Gentry tells us so many little things about the hours from breakfast through dinner: who said what while passing which bowl around the table. She captures whole characters by quoting only the smallest pieces of their conversation. But she tells us almost nothing about what happened that day on the Tallahatchie Bridge, just enough for us to sense the pall it casts over the entire scene and the rest of our narrator’s life.
While most of us would never know the Tallahatchie Bridge without that song, for some its name brings to mind the story of a boy lynched nearby in 1955.
That summer, 15-year-old Emmett Till had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. The story goes that he whistled at a white woman on a dare. A few days later, when the woman’s husband returned home from a trip, she reported the offense to him. Three days after that, Emmett was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. His murderers had beaten him and gouged out one eye, then shot him through the head and thrown him in the river. When the authorities recovered his body, the fan from a cotton gin was tied around his neck.
There was overwhelming evidence to support a conviction of the three men charged with the murder: witnesses who testified that the men had bragged about their crime afterward; testimony from Emmett’s great uncle who was present when the men abducted the boy; and another eye witness who saw Emmett in the back of a truck with the accused.
All three were acquitted.
The jury deliberations took 67 minutes. As one juror explained, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us that long.”
The genius of Bobbie Gentry’s song is that it doesn’t really matter what happened that day on the bridge. What matters is the mood she creates with her careful balance of first-person narration and direct quotes from the conversation. And somehow that mood — slow and heavy — manages to convey the weight, the quiet oppression of the summer heat and rural southern morality.
This song made for an auspicious debut. The album even knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the #1 spot on the U.S. charts. But Bobbie Gentry’s debut didn’t follow through to the kind of stellar career her talent deserved.
She followed this 1967 album with another impressive single in 1970. But that song, “Fancy,” didn’t gain the same broad appeal, reaching only #31 on the U.S. pop charts and #26 on the country charts.
And don’t bother going looking for the bridge; it was demolished in 1987.
It seems a natural segue from all this talk of my obsessive preoccupation with body parts to a story about putting those parts together to create something new. And as I suggested — even if a bit obliquely — in my last post, when you put all those things together, the new whole is in many unexpected ways something much different, much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18 years old and published the novel anonymously the following year, in 1818. Deep inside that story are ideas compelling enough to hold my interest almost 200 years later. It seems that such compelling ideas trailing from the pen of such a young woman has generated speculation over the years that it was her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who actually wrote the book.
But that brings me to my other point about the book. To put it nicely, the storytelling in the novel isn’t as impressive as its ideas: it leans heavily on grand gestures and flowery language to cover the awkwardness of a really rambling plot. It’s unlikely that so seasoned a poet would be the real author behind such a book.
I found a quote on the matter from a woman named Hilary Bailey. Her most important credential is that she’s written her own sequel to Frankenstein. I don’t know if her book’s any good or if she’s any better a writer than Mary Shelley, but I did get a chuckle from her comment on the whole question of the novel’s authorship:
The style of Frankenstein is, to be brutal, clotted and pedestrian. Shelley didn’t write it, and if he did, it would be kinder not to say so. 1
So, let’s just say that it’s not the best writing in all of English literature. But somehow it’s easy to see through all the clumsy Romantic flourishes — the mechanical references to Milton and Goethe, Victor Frankenstein’s really dull habit of swooning with profound emotion every 25 pages — to the wonderful character at its heart: the monster. Remarkably (especially in so highfalutin a story-telling style), he seems very much like us, much more so than any of the human characters in the book.
The monster is trapped inside a physical self that doesn’t rightly belong to him, that doesn’t fit his spirit or intellect. He’s as repulsed by his body (made of dead things, pieces stolen from others) as are the people he encounters. And when his pain turns to anger and hatred after so many rejections and acts of cruelty, we don’t blame him a bit.
Sure, it’s baffling when he explains at length how he compares with Milton’s Satan. But that’s only because we don’t need any big analogies to find nobility in the character. Just knowing his intentions and hearing him describe his feelings are enough to win our sympathies. And Shelley handles these passages very well. We understand that the monster means well, that he tries hard. But he gets only hatred and rejection in return for all of his efforts. And the most guilty in failing to love the creature is his own creator, Victor Frankenstein.
The monster is only about a year old through much of the story; everything is new to him. Shelley goes to uncomfortable lengths to explain how he happened to learn such eloquent language and to acquaint himself with Romantic literature. Whatever. The point is that he’s an adolescent who finds himself trapped inside this body with its own demands — both physical and emotional — which he doesn’t really understand or want to own. I’m not so old that I don’t still remember the feelings of confusion (and wonder) at what was happening to me at that age. And because I was a budding homo, I also remember my anger and revulsion at the realization that I was becoming something I didn’t want to be: something loathed, something outside of society and its careful codes of appearance, action and (most of all) desire.
This idea that the people around him can’t see beyond the monster’s appearance, through his physical self to something more truthful, more beautiful inside; that they can’t recognize the nobility of his spirit and the goodness of his intentions; it’s horribly disappointing. And that his own father — his creator, his god — can’t give him even a small bit of the love he deserves … well, isn’t that just the core of our human experience? Aren’t we always looking for that affection from our mother or father or some god; for that unconditional love, the recognition that we are so much more than the sum of our parts? And when we can’t get it from them (and can’t find it in ourselves), aren’t we left feeling bitter and angry and abandoned?
We don’t need the careful comparison to Paradise Lost to get the point. But, however precious the reference feels, I have to allow Ms. Shelley that it’s an appropriate one. That lack of recognition is, after all, why Satan is so much more compelling a character than that insipid little daddy’s boy, Jesus. And however hideous his appearance may have become, that dark and brooding fallen angel is beautiful enough to hold our attention through all the stanzas of his story.
Looking to capitalize on the success of its earlier release, Dracula (1931), Universal rushed into production that same year another ghoulish tale from the public domain: a movie based on Shelley’s novel.
While much of its story draws on events and characters in the book, Frankenstein (1931) is far from a faithful retelling. The aim in producer Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s mind was to spook, not to present philosophical questions or high Romantic ideals. But Laemmle hired a first-rate director for the project; one who wasn’t too crazy about making a monster movie for the matinee crowd. And that director, James Whale, understood precisely which elements of the novel made the story worth telling, spooks or no spooks.
The movie’s script gets away from the book’s high Romanticism. It elaborates on those ghoulish details the book leaves purposefully vague — collecting body parts, the apparatus of their reanimation — and builds a certain amount of suspense by concentrating on murders and abductions. But it doesn’t remove our reasons to sympathize with the creature. We don’t get any long explanations of the monster’s lofty intentions; we don’t need them. The script spells out clearly and simply how the other characters misunderstand and mistreat the monster. We can see for ourselves how Frankenstein and his assistant torture him.
Moreover the movie’s monster is mute and much more simple than Shelley’s character. He’s not able to articulate his feelings in flowery speeches stuffed with literary allusions. But speeches prove unnecessary.
Most of the performances in Frankenstein are uniformly bad: overly melodramatic or just weak. The important exception is Boris Karloff, who never speaks a word of dialogue, but brings to the monster remarkable depth, nuance and subtlety. His performance makes sure that we not only feel sorry for the monster, but that we identify with him. And that’s so much more satisfying than long speeches, anyway.
Frankenstein was a huge success. And that prompted Universal to put much more time and money into a sequel which some people (me, for one) think is a much better movie than even the original: Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Whale was apparently even more reluctant to make this movie, but finally agreed. After rejecting several script treatments, he began to work on his own adaptation with a screenwriter, pulling elements from the novel that the first movie had passed over.
The witty dialogue and a couple of really fine cast members make this movie feel very different from the first in its refinement. But the theme of the first movie — this idea of a noble, if simple creature trapped inside an unfortunate body — becomes even more specific as the monster seeks a mate, someone who will be a constant companion, a friend.
In a lovely scene, the monster enters a wood accompanied by Franz Waxman’s pastoral theme music. He nibbles on a root and goes to the stream for a drink. The way the monster moves, the little sounds he makes communicate in a subtle way how delighted he is with these simple pleasures. But as the surface of the water quiets down, he sees his own reflection. Angry and horrified by his own appearance, he splashes until the image no longer haunts him.
The one person who’s able to accept the monster on his own terms and with genuine affection is a blind man. And like all those blind men in movies (and highfalutin Romantic literature), he can see clearly the heart and soul beneath the veneer of the physical. It’s corny. And the hammy performance of the blind man (O. P. Heggie) does little to bring it home. But the scene works because, once again, Karloff is masterful in the subtlety and nuance of his performance.
I can’t help myself: I ignore the old man. I ignore the crucifix superimposed clumsily over the image. I forget the very funny parody of the scene in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. I’m engrossed in this moment.
The monster’s disbelief at his good fortune, the moment of discomfort that comes with not knowing how to respond: you can read each of these experiences in Karloff’s performance. And when that wave of emotion consumes him and a tear runs down his cheek, I find myself sobbing right along with him.
Bride of Frankenstein is a very different movie from its predecessor. The mix of high style (Expressionistic set pieces, Elsa Lanchester’s goth-glam makeover) and high camp (Ernest Thesiger’s very clever and very gay Dr. Pretorius) add texture and depth to the movie without taking away any of its poignancy. It feels much more grown up and much more satisfying than the first. It feels much more queer.
If the homo experience is one of being on the outside and looking in with the rich mix of wit, cynicism and compassion that such a position can produce in the best of souls, then this movie captures much of that sensibility. In fact, I’d say it throws into greater relief those same themes which had been a bit harder to pick out in the first movie.
The decision to give the monster speech in the sequel must have been a difficult one; it could have sullied the simple clown-like character and made it more difficult for an audience to identify with him. Instead the growth of the monster’s character into one who can articulate his feelings emphasizes the spirit beneath his flesh. It calls into deeper question the connections between our physical self and the person inside. And, most importantly, it allows the monster to describe why he has to die; even if it’s really that over-wrought Doctor Frankenstein we want to get rid of, and not the three best — and most homo-friendly — characters in the story.
Antony Hegarty is a singer and songwriter who performs under the name of Antony & The Johnsons. He sings in a falsetto that has all the richness of a true counter-tenor and seems to float above the melody of his songs. More than one review and quote on liner notes have described his performances as “angelic.”
Antony’s 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now explores his experience as a transgender person in lyrical compositions that are often less than direct in their exposition of meaning. In references to himself (or to the speaker in the song), he doesn’t describe his gender as clear and specific. His life as a boy seems like some immature physical state tied to the past; the promise of his life as a woman is still off somewhere in the future. The connection of his self to his body is in flux, to say the least.
One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child.
For today, I am a boy.
(from “For Today I Am A Boy”)
On the CD single from that album — Hope There’s Someone — he’s added an extra track entitled “Frankenstein.” The exact meaning behind the lyrics is opaque. But there are themes that echo those of Shelley’s book: cold and ice, a longing for love, and a dissociation from the pieces of his body.
In the song’s first verse, the singer describes a sort of confusion about his body, as if he’s unclear where it ends and where that of some loved one begins.
Well, I’m falling into a chasm.
Well, I’m falling with you in my arms.
No wait, these are your arms,
Your arms of love that I’m falling into.
Is this a vision of love?
This theme of disconnection from his body feels right at home with the other songs from the album which describe an impression of gender that spans some in-between place, neither one nor the other. But unlike the monsters in our book and movie, there’s no hint of pain here.
The monsters in the novel and the movies suffer horribly, caught between men and animals, the dead and the living, sympathizers and antagonists. But our song’s narrator finds in his lack of definition a kind of communion with the object of his love. The feeling of falling he describes is less about a plunge into a dangerous place, than it is a sensation of floating free from the confines of his individuality. It’s as if, in love, he’s found a moment of such complete communion that he’s no longer clear which pieces belong to his body. He and that other person have bridged the gap created by their separate physicalities.
At first, the references to the monster of the title seem literal and specific. In fact in the context of a story about a body made of spare parts, the confusion about whose arms are which sounds comical.
But then there’s the unexpected juxtaposition of his grown womanhood and his strong, cold arms. It’s as if he’s giving us a different spin on Shelley’s monster, as if the relief and joy that come with that connection to another being has freed the monster from the pain of his physical self. It’s as if the distance he feels from the parts of his body allowed him to appreciate them in the way someone else might. It’s as if he’d learned to love what’s unique about himself.
You can see these arms;
They are big and strong now baby.
Well I’ll prove to you these arms can hold you tight, hold you baby.
It’s as if our monster — low and miserable — had blossomed into a kind of super hero.
And somehow this message coming from the voice of an angel, with layers of his own voice creating a choir in the background, is heroic, too.
In another post I described how, as a kid, I conquered my fear of the monster in my closet by imagining that he would become my secret friend and protector. Shelley’s monster never finds that resolution. Once Victor Frankenstein is dead, the monster only regrets the sympathy he never found with his creator. We’re left to understand that he remains miserable for the rest of his life.
Something inside me still wishes we’d found one another when we needed each other the most, when we could have given each other the love and support we were both looking for, the scared little homo and that big scary monster.
But Hegarty’s description plays back the happy image of that protector, freed from his misery by my love. Two misfits who have found one another in a big, cold world. Two creatures taking care of one another, each offering the other what he’s missing from himself. Yes, that’s a vision of love.