The Phantom, Revisited

In the last few weeks I've seen a bunch of silent movies at the cinema. There was, most happily, The Son of the Sheik at the Prince Charles Cinema at Leicester Square. That was Valentino as God intended, thirty feet high, incandescent and one of the great faces of cinema. Oh, how I love that face, which rendered the rape of the heroine by the hero almost tolerable. Almost. How his acting had improved since the original Sheik movie five years earlier, how his eyes burn through one's soul, how his smile causes one's heartbeat to thunder!

I also saw a movie starring Pola Negri called Mania; and The General, Keaton's hilarious Civil War-era comedy. I love that guy's work so much. What else? Oh, Anthony Asquith's Underground, which is set on the London Underground and stars Brian Aherne who I adored in Shooting Stars and the Dietrich talkie Song of Songs.

In fact, I can't remember the last talkie I actually saw at the cinema, but I've been to a bunch of silents. Hmm, not sure what that says about me or the state of the motion picture industry. Anyway the last one I saw was The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 Lon Chaney picture. I wasn't much in the mood to be honest. I'd had a pain in the arse week and it didn't even start until ten to nine so I was going to get home pretty late. The audience was pretty full though, unlike for Son of the Sheik.

The audience laughed a lot. Now, there are moments in the picture which are funny. The owners in particular are designed as buffoons, but this audience were at times laughing at things which in 1925 were scary. They didn't get it, I think. They were laughing not because the film was bad (it's not) or because it was intended to be funny, but because it wasn't what they were used to. Silent films are so different to talkies generally but particularly modern movies. What is not necessarily known these days is that a lot of the Silent Stars who didn't transition into talkies took it as a choice. Douglas Fairbanks Sr really felt that a lot of the art of silent cinema was lost when talkies came along. Having seen his Four Musketeers, I do see his point. There is an art to the great silents which was lost when sound arrived and which was never quite regained. Different perhaps rather than better/worse, but that was lost.

A lot of it is 'dumb show' like Debbie Reynolds' character says in Singin in the Rain, but if one approaches it as being a close sister to the theatre, a lot of the dumb show starts to make more sense. It is often tableaux, particularly in The Phantom of the Opera. I like that, in small doses.

Also, did you know there's a colour section of The Phantom of the Opera? There's split-screen in The Son of The Sheik too: double Valentino! The people making these movies were innovators, not just primitive shite-hawks.

I'm getting off the point I was going to make. Long-time readers of this particular obscure corner of the blogosphere may recall the piece I wrote back in 2005 when I'd been to see the movie of Lloyd-Webber's musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. It was a profound moment for me, although the movie itself was not quite worthy of it. I still think that post was one of my better bloggeriffic moments and although a lot has changed in my world since then, I stand by it.

As I sat in the cinema watching Chaney, I thought back to the time I sat in another cinema surrounded by my family as I had this moment of clarity and why it happened, what I was feeling and so on. It was not repeated last night, but it might've been a continuance, or an adjustment.

When Chaney's monster was unmasked, I shrugged. He wasn't that horrific. Was this because I've seen pictures of the monster before, and it was not a surprise? Some of the audience laughed at his unmasking actually, but I can imagine an uninitiated audience in '25 could have been genuinely rattled by the Phantom's real face. Apparently it caused some moviegoers to faint.

I don't know, man. I sat there looking at this monster make up and just thought 'Not that bad'. Am I too cynical or just open-minded? Am I unwilling at the most basic level to hate someone just because they're 'ugly'? I hope so.

I've always felt sorry for the Phantom. I mean, he's an evil bastard in some respects – have you read the book? He does some really bad shit. He's a murderer many times over, specialising in torture. That stuff is bad, and I don't excuse it for fictional characters any more than I would real life arseholes. And yet… I don't hate him for his face. I feel terrifically sorry for him on that score. The world made the Phantom, as the world has created many a twisted personality through its intolerance of Different.

Maybe it's because I've always felt like the Phantom. I'm not actually ugly. Really I'm not, but for a long time I felt like the world saw me as the freak in the corner, the fucked up loser who deserves only to be pointed at and mocked. Whether anyone else every truly treated me like that is lost to time – I cannot be truly rational about it even now – but the material point is that I felt it to be so. Maybe that's why I won't hate the Phantom for his freakiness but I will despise his actions.

I asked, back in 2005, would I love Jim Morrison if I were beautiful? Back then, and maybe still today, it was about Jim. That was the epiphany I had in that movie theatre, as some jigsaw pieces fell into place as the film showed me a pseudo Pere-Lachaise and a freakish character obsessed with someone gorgeous who could sing. I saw me and Jim in the Phantom and Christine, although who was who was not immediately clear.

There are a lot of criticisms to be made about the recent Phantom movie, not least the fact that the Phantom wasn't actually that grotesque (which given he was played by Gerard Butler is hardly surprising). But that misses the point, I think. The actual fact of his disfigurement doesn't matter. His attitude towards it matters. The world's treatment of him matters. Come on, we still live in a world where a lot of people think it's OK to point and openly laugh at people in the street because they don't conform to 'Normal' in whatever way. On a shallow, basic level I've had it happen to me recently just for the crime of wearing wacky trousers. How people with genuine disfigurements or other disabilities (visible or otherwise) are treated makes my blood cold.

We live in a shallow world, it can't be denied: A world where the Daily Mail mocks one celebrity for being 'fat' and turns on a sixpence to then deride another for losing too much weight, or where they criticise one for too much surgery and then scold another for letting herself go. This is a world where women are told 'heads you lose, tails we win' and where few options are ever good enough or acceptable.

I'm not ugly, I don't think. I never was, not in a cosmetic sense or in a character sense. But I felt the world believed me to be, and that's what mattered. Because what the world thinks of us does matter. It matters in different ways and to different degrees to different people, but it does matter. I tell the world to fuck itself daily, but I would still like the world to accept me as telling it to fuck itself, to acknowledge my right to live that way. Isn't that ridiculous?

I started writing a post awhile back about a walk I took through London at the start of summer. I didn't get far with it because I just kept getting angrier and angrier. Basics: I walk home from work every day and every damn day I sing along to my iPod. Nobody cares/comments except occasional glares for disturbing people's loud mobile phone calls. Then, I walk home from work on a sunny day in a bright yellow summer maxi dress with my shoulders largely exposed and a nearly-sweetheart neckline. I sing along to my iPod (a heavy blues rock number called 'Seven Days' courtesy of Rory Gallagher) and receive compliments along the way. I am angry, not for receiving compliments, but for only receiving them when I am dressed in a manner considered 'pleasing'. As if the dress made my voice better.

The years since I wrote about the phantoms in my world have wrought many changes to my world and the wider one.  I've reconstructed my personality with some help, I've latched onto (yet another) dead Irishman. Gerard Butler became a proper movie star with 300 and then blotted his copybook forever with The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. I still love Jim Morrison, beautiful or not, though I wouldn't say he 'haunts' me these days. I beat that back into its box awhile ago (singing “Light My Fire” on stage seems to have been the turning point, weirdly) and he is now a more benevolent presence in my head.

I understand better how the world actually works its insidious attitudes into our unconscious minds, how privilege wears on each and every one of us, how the instruments of hate are bound up in everything we see, hear and read in popular culture. I understand better how self-hate is reinforced by advertisers working for companies whose best interests are apparently served by making us despise ourselves.

The last time I went into the flagship TopShop store on Oxford Street, I walked out in a fury. I'd gone in just looking for 'something' in a way not characteristic of me. Inside I felt how the shop was encouraging me to feel like shit so I'd buy something to feel better. A yellow tennis skirt for £35! Something sparkly for £65! The same vintage dress I bought a few years ago on eBay for £20 for £95! How all the mannequins are very tall and very thin, to 'inspire' us. How their dress sizes are cut smaller than most stores. How their staff look at one with pity and/or scorn. How no matter what, you're not good enough until you've bought stuff from them. Feeling glad I'd rarely bought anything in there before, I walked out, choosing to diminish my self-hate by leaving the store. I haven't been in since.

God, what was my point? Hell only knows. I started listening to Sam Cooke and got distracted. He does that,.

Maybe this: I still don't feel beautiful, or pretty, or pleasing. I don't know if anyone would consider me so. I still feel more like the Phantom than Christine, even as I acknowledge that I am a damn fine singer (no soprano, though!). Do I own the ways in which I'm different? Yeah. Do I own the ways in which I actually conform to normal? Sure. If the last five years have shown me anything, it's that in a few important ways, I get a pass just for being considered the 'default' (white, young, thin, educated, temporarily able, cisgender) even if within that group I'm not much of anything.

For all that I'm not beautiful, I will never be treated the way people who are not 'default' are. I will not be assumed to be a slut just by virtue of my skin colour. I am not assumed to be unhealthy and disgusting simply due to my size (even though I've been much, much more unhealthy than many people in a larger dress size). I do not (currently) have to move through a world not designed for me. My nonconformity is, largely, of my own making and that is one of the greatest privileges I possess. The fictional Phantom never had that choice, and nor do millions of real people.

So no, I didn't laugh at those bits of the movie, and not just because I tried to watch it from a 1925 perspective, but because I tried to watch it from a progressive 2011 one.

Would I love Jim Morrison if I were beautiful? Does it matter?

Love all the people.

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