Postscript - Houston, Gainsbourg & Winehouse
In this clip, Serge Gainsbourg, very late in career, very much an alcoholic, greets Whitney Houston after her performance on a French variety show. He lewdly proclaims, in slurred, blitzed French that he admires her talent, and then escalates his advances, talking across Houston’s lap to the host: “I said I want to fuck her.”
Here is where we learn about young Whitney Houston - she audibly inhales, but her face doesn’t reply to the assault. As an entertainer, Gainsbourg refined a persona that was louche and introverted, doubly letting himself off the hook of accountability to societal norms.
It is perhaps apt to call Gainsbourg the ghost of celebrity future: a hugely talented singer-composer-entertainer, who himself had overcome numerous adversities (French anti-semitism and xenophobia; his own shyness and physical imperfections) to become a prolific cultural icon - gifted as lyricist, composer and provocateur. And there he is on the late night variety show, falling-down drunk, vulgar not as performance artist but as an obsolescence trying to remain relevant. He was impersonating himself, badly and inelegantly.
I don’t write about this to rebuke Gainsbourg, though there is plenty objectionable about his postures and provocations, but to look at the lifespan of a celebrity. On the left we find Houston, young enough to have inadequate defenses in the event of something shocking. That is to say, she was innocent, recalling (or foretelling), the unpreparedness of other starlets: Scarlet Johansson, for example, at her first Academy Awards when the host teases her from the stage about her opaque panties in the credit sequence of Lost In Translation. This is a young female celebrity’s first encounter with the boundlessness of her own objectification. (This video appearance is from 1986, a year after the release of Houston’s debut album.)
I’ll always associate Whitney with youth and youthfulness. A girl I knew at school was a child actor and was featured in Whitney’s video for “Greatest Love Of All.” Whitney’s strength, aside from the seemingly effortless vocal power, was her precocious grandeur and elegance. She was rarely cute, and didn’t dance very well. (I remember “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” - a hugely charming song and video - as a blatant attempt to loosen her up and make her seem quirky and young and sexy and fun, dressing her like Jodie Watley and giving her Cyndi Lauper’s hee-haw dance moves.) The cover of her first album seems to depict Houston in her early comfort zone: she is sleek and removed, and dressed up in the manner of Sade, a singer who entered the pop consciousness as a jazzy woman of the world wronged by high-flying men.
Whitney had curiously anthemic songs - what is “Greatest Love of All” about anyway? It’s not a narrative of woman scorned. It doesn’t follow the style of her later “get gone” anthem, “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay)” - a track on which she assumes the persona of woman who accepts a lover’s failings, then picks up and moves on. Her early songs were esteem builders, which fit her church choir and teen model origins and careful parental management.
It’s likely the cause of Houston’s death, whether proximal or distil, was an abuse and addiction to drugs. Her untimely end invites comparison to another untimely end, that of Amy Winehouse’s - but in so many ways, the trajectories of these two singers were so very different. Winehouse barely had a career before her life was overtaken by drugs. At the same time, and this is unfortunate, her work initially seemed to thrive because of dependence: the negative feedback loop of drugs and “rubbish relationships” (as the more emotionally robust Adele calls them) and lowered self-esteem gave her second album Back To Black an urgency that is one of the great pleasures of song - feelings delivered as cris de coeur.
While Winehouse’s signature look seems to reflect the insecurities she had about herself - that feeling that she was most remarkable as a slattern sprung from a John Waters movie - her music was, for a while, an authoritative index of complicated feelings: self-abuse as individuation; bad romance as the best kind of love.
Whitney, on the other hand, was the girl who had everything: model’s looks, poise, elegance and a precociously powerful voice. Maybe this is the most difficult thing to reconcile - not how she ended, but how she ended so far from where she (publicly) began. Fast forward and imagine Taylor Swift drowning after too much xanax and booze; it is presently inconceivable. Whitney always seemed worldly. This isn’t to say that Whitney didn’t have to work for what she achieved, or that her beginnings were easy; it’s that she did very little to counter the image that was fashioned for her.
What is talent and its byproduct, the work of art? Joyful expression, self-soothing, a meditative act that is both an encounter and a retreat from the world, a commemoration, a means of survival. While Gainsbourg and Winehouse seemed to meet and mediate the world through their art, Houston’s work remained a series of masks. Perhaps because she was more an interpreter than a writer, she herself remained inchoate.
In any pop princess life cycle, it seems like there’s now a predictable cycle: the release that is packaged and controlled, a follow up that is equally packaged and produced as her “rebellious” (dirrrty) phase, a return to form and so on. Somewhere, in the accretion of albums, you get a sense of the performer’s strengths and limitations, a little smattering of their personality, enough to hang on to and project upon. But Houston embodied the drama of the gifted child - who was she when she was not pleasing others, before she was overtaken by addiction? Did she know herself?
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
Iranian Vampire Western.
Princesse Marie (2004)
Here’s Catherine Deneuve as Marie Bonaparte in her analysis with Freud (played by Heinz Bennent, Deneuve’s husband in The Last Metro)
Title card from MOONSTRUCK (Norman Jewison, 1987)
Watch Billy Wilder speaks (Volker Schlöndorff)
Or be a completist and watch the full three-hour version at Film Forum…
'Reading novels has always taught me more about writing than reading screenplays…Skip Robert McKee and instead spend a weekend re-typing [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest.’
Invisible dark matter (from The Cosmos Trilogy)
It is the inevitable
Dark matter we are not made of
That I am afraid of.
Most of the universe consists of this.
I put a single normal ice cube
In my drink.
It weighs one hundred million tons.
It is a sample from the densest star.
I read my way across
The awe I wrote
That you are reading now.
I can’t believe that you are there
Except you are. I wonder what
Cosmologists don’t know
That could be everything
The someone looking at the page
Could be the everything there is,
Material that shines,
Dark matter is another
Matter. Cosmologists don’t know.
The physicists do not.
The stars are not.
Another thing beside
The row of things is
Standing there. It is invisible
And reads without a sound.
It doesn’t matter
That it doesn’t really.
I need to take its hand
To cross the street.