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Inverted Reflections in a Silver Spoon

Inverted Reflectionsa

Cathy Lomax, Reflections 1, 2015.

Reflections in a Golden Eye, John Huston’s 1967 film of the 1941 novel by Carson McCullers, centres on a group of dysfunctional characters on an army base in the American South. These include Marlon Brando as an uptight, seemingly macho, yet sexually confused, Major Weldon Penderton and Elizabeth Taylor as his earthy, uninhibited, intellectually challenged, wife Leonora. The pivotal character in the story is Private Williams, a troubled soldier who spends most of his time looking rather than taking part. On more than one occasion in the film, we zoom in to a close up of his eye, which is described by McCullers as ‘a curious blend of amber and brown’.1 The focus on Williams’ eye mirrors a painting of a peacock made by Anacleto, the effeminate Filipino houseboy of the other couple in the mix, Lt Colonel Morris Langdon (Leonora Penderton’s lover), and his unhappy wife Alison (who recently cut off her nipples with a pair of garden shears). Anacleto describes the reflections in his peacock’s eye as ‘tiny and…’ Alison adds, ‘grotesque.’2 The world reflected in Private Williams’ eye is similarly abstracted and odd, distorting the familiar, as any convex surface will do. It seems that being a grown up in McCullers’ own eyes is no fun at all, something which led to her friend Tennessee Williams coining the term, the Gothic School, for their shared sense of the terribleness lying deep within their home region... ‘a sense, an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.’3

The Southern soup on the unhappy army base is rigorously stirred one night after dinner. Secretly seen through the window of his office by the taciturn Private Williams, Brando’s Major Penderton opens a hidden away shoebox and takes out and examines a postcard of a white marble statue of a naked Greek god. He then gingerly unfolds a cloth to reveal asmall spoon, which he turns over in his hands, and gently polishes, as he stares into its concave, inverting, bowl. The spoon is one of eight antique silver teaspoons that Captain Weincheck, an unmarried Proust reading, violin playing, officer, inherited from his great grandmother. It went missing during one of Weincheck’s tea parties; Penderton was of course the thief. Private Williams’ gaze now shifts to Leonora kissing Langdon goodnight as he leaves her, returning home. At home an attentive Anacleto ministers to Alison in an almost motherly way, pouring medicine onto a small spoon and popping it into her mouth.

Inverted Reflections 2

Cathy Lomax, Reflections 2, 2015

Reflections in a Golden Eye is full of symbols, partly because its difficult themes, especially that of homosexuality, were still new to cinema in 1967. The teaspoon is a delicate, feminine symbol, usually held with a cocked little finger and accompanied by the clichéd comedic line ‘'one lump or two?'’ The stolen spoon is Georgian, maybe English, a heritage that brings a little refined culture to the swampy darkness of the American South. The contrast between the beautiful tiny silver spoon and the bombastic feminine sexuality of Taylor’s Leonora, which Brando’s Penderton finds repugnant, is tangible. McCullers’ describes how both Leonora and her lover, the similarly unintellectual Langdon, love food – huge southern dinners. In one scene McCuller’s writes that Leonora falls asleep muttering about stuffing a turkey. As her husband undresses her and places her naked into her bed, (she likes sleeping ‘in the raw’)4, he observes how she throws the covers off her ‘'hot-natured'’5 body and smiles as he supposes she eats the ‘Turkey that she prepared in her dream’6 – no doubt ripping it apart with her hands without the need for the niceties of cutlery. Charles Taylor in the New York Observer noted that ‘'the whole picture sometimes seems conceived as a catalogue balancing healthy (i.e. open) sexuality with unhealthy (i.e. closeted) sexuality.'’7

Penderton’s lack of interest in his wife is hurtful, Leonora compensates by goading him, saying that at least her horse is a stallion; she is a natural horsewoman while he is ungainly on horseback and has no empathy with animals. Alongside the continually bubbling sexual mismatching, Reflections in a Golden Eye has an undercurrent of class difference. Vulgar Leonora is untouchable because her father was a high-ranking army officer, and the current commanding General, ‘'Old Sugar'’8, whom she has known since childhood, had been her father’s Chief of Staff. Leonora was born with the object of her husband’s desire, a silver spoon, in her mouth. At the opposite end of the social scale, lowly Private Williams was raised on a ‘one-mule farm’9 and has never had a drink or a woman, he is an outsider, resigned to watch rather than take part. As he crouches at the end of Leonora’s bed in his somnambulist wanderings, he looks to all intents and purposes like the vampiric being in Henri Fuseli’s 1771 Gothic masterpiece, The Nightmare.

Inverted Reflections 4

Cathy Lomax, Reflections 4, 2015.

In the production process Huston desaturated the prints of the film, which tinted it with a golden hue, as if it had been left out for too long in the sun. Critic Roger Ebert noted that aside from the yellow this left it with, ‘'only reds and pinks and an occasional hint of blue or green. The result is a bleak landscape.'’10 Early viewers found this chemical alteration distracting and the studio rapidly subbed the sepia for a full colour version. In Huston’s original print the silver teaspoon would have been golden – an altogether more ostentatious and less refined concept. Golden sugar is similarly unrefined but this is a positive as it means it can be marketed as ‘natural’ in an attempt to white wash this most addictive and health destroying of substances. In its more usual refined state, sugar’s silvery white crystals, give it a veneer of purity.

Silver Spoon was snapped up as the name for a brand of sugar in 1972, and proudly boasts of being the only home grown UK sugar. Sugar today predominantly comes from Brazil and India, where labour is cheap. Which brings us to the not so secret truth – the elegant teaspoon is a vehicle for a substance that has a bloody history of exploitation and slavery – the production of which made Britain very wealthy. Although sugar was not produced in huge quantities in the southern states of America, it is inexorably linked with the ‘'lingering moral horror of slavery and the generations of vainglorious affluence it produced.'’11 Sugar stands for the unspoken misery that keeps the Southern Gothic in currency.

In Reflections in a Golden Eye the atmosphere of the Deep South is palpable – the heat, the humidity and above all the excess. At the Penderton’s party, ‘'the air was so thick with the odour of hams, spare-ribs and whisky that it seemed one might almost eat it with a spoon.'’12 The reappearing spoon is the catalyst that forces terrible changes in these terrible lives. Penderton’s silver spoon fondling and sexual humiliations intensify as the film progresses, culminating with him shooting the object of his desire. The sad, nipple-shearing, cuckolded, Alison ends her days in a high-class asylum, where, ‘'the gardens were well kept, and the rooms furnished luxuriously.'’13 Her last afternoon is spent amongst the clinking china and clattering spoons of a group of unfortunates in the institutional dining room, which is laid out to ape a genteel tearoom. It seems that even when reflected through the prism of an exquisite Georgian teaspoon the Southern Gothic’s grotesque iniquities cannot be beautified. Yet despite this, they are still oddly compulsive. This strange film, which initially seems unpalatably overblown, manages to convey an off kilter feeling and the visual interpretation of McCullers’ text becomes more rewarding with each viewing.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 12th ed., Boston: Bantam Books, 1977, p. 2.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Reflections in a Golden Eye, dir. John Huston, USA, 1967.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Tennessee Williams, ‘Introduction’ in McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, p. ix.

Go to footnote reference 4.

McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, p. 56.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Ibid.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Ibid.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Charles Taylor, ‘New Brando Collection: Reflections Goes Gold’ New York Observer, 12 November 2006. [Online] accessed 29 September 2015 http://observer.com/2006/12/new-brando-collection-reflections-goes-gold/

Go to footnote reference 8.

‘”Old Sugar” was Leonora’s name for the commanding General of the post,
and she called him by it to his face’, McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, p. 67.

Go to footnote reference 9.

McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, p. 29.

Go to footnote reference 10.

Roger Ebert, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’, Roger Ebert.com, 17 October 1967, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/reflections-in-a-golden-eye-1967 (accessed 30 September 2015).

Go to footnote reference 11.

Michael Atkinson, ‘Southern Gothic’ in Bell, James (ed.), Gothic - The Dark Heart of Film, London:BFI, 2013, p. 121

Go to footnote reference 12.

McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, p. 81.

Go to footnote reference 13.

ibid, p. 118.

Bibliography

Atkinson, Michael, ‘Southern Gothic’ In Bell, James (ed.), Gothic - The Dark Heart of Film, London, BFI, 2013, p. 121. 

Ebert, Roger, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’, Roger Ebert.com, 17 October 1967, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/reflections-in-a-golden-eye-1967 (accessed 30 September 2015).

McCullers, Carson, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 12th ed., Boston, Bantam Books, 1977.

Pinkerton, Nick, ‘Southern Gothic’, Sight & Sound, vol. 25, issue 5, May 2015, pp. 44-50.

Russo, Willam & Merlin Jan, Troubles in a Golden Eye, 2nd ed., Long Time Ago Books, 2012.

Taylor, Charles, ‘New Brando Collection: Reflections Goes Gold’, New York Observer, 12 November 2006, http://observer.com/2006/12/new-brando-collection-reflections-goes-gold/ (accessed 29 September 2015).

Williams, Tennessee, Introduction to McCullers, Carson, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 12th ed., Boston, Bantam Books, 1977.

Reflections in a Golden Eye, dir. John Huston, USA, 1967.

Cathy Lomax

Cathy Lomax is an artist, curator and director of Transition Gallery, London. Transition is an independent and innovative gallery and publisher founded by Lomax in October 2002. The gallery shows work by both emerging and established contemporary artists as well as producing publications, periodicals, and editions that extend the gallery's work. Transition Editions currently publishes two magazines - Arty, an idiosyncratic publication featuring artwork and thoughts by a group of invited contributors and Garageland an art and culture glossy which examines pertinent art themes such as beauty, machismo or society. In her practice Lomax assimilates the seductive imagery of film, fame and fashion and juxtaposes it with personal narratives and the everyday. Her resulting paintings and installations play with history by combining influences from disparate sources to form new groupings and categories.