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“‘Nothing is ever quite true,’ said Lord Henry.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
It begins with white. All white, all blank, all nothingness. The whiteness is trauma, is horror. We hear the sound of the film reel. We hear the cue that there should be an image here, only there is no image here. Not yet. At first, there is only the whiteness that shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe. Only gradually is this whiteness colored over. Only gradually do we recognize a form that appears before our eyes, a form that appears to be Lady Gaga – the newest version, incarnation, of Lady Gaga.
There are two Gagas in the opening of the film. There is Gaga-as-body, a body that lays unconscious (presumably after the knife), and Gaga-as-mind, a bodiless narrator. While Gaga-as-body is the actor, Gaga-as-mind is the creator. Gaga-as-mind narrates/directs the scene we watch, a scene that, in the beginning, is the whiteness. And thus stabs us from behind. There is no image in the opening of the film because Gaga has not yet made an image. There is, quite literally, nothing to see when beholding the white depths of the milky way. Or, rather, what we do see is nothing – and nothing is not what we want, not what we want to see. We, as spectators, want to see something, we have expectations, and those expectations are not blank, are not blankness. We do not want to stare at whiteness. We want to stare at the spectacle we expect.
In essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors. When we do receive our image (Gaga’s image), there is still a lot of white space. There are (white) holes in Gaga’s memory that she is coloring in before our eyes. Is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows? Gaga and her two attending nurses are wearing white – next season Calvin Klein. And white, the blankness, must be the beginning, the basis, the concrete foundation of creation, the colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink. The blank page/canvas is the basis of creation as Calvin Klein is a label that specializes in wardrobe basics. Calvin Klein is a label that is continuously refining the basics, the underwear, of fashion. One can always rely on Calvin Klein to produce the next incarnation of white, season after season and next season Calvin Klein is always white. We need Calvin Klein to be our underwear, which, at (intimate/hazy/bare/frightening) times, is also our outerwear. We need Calvin Klein and whiteness as a place to begin so that, from there, we may dress ourselves up. All other earthly hues … are but subtle deceits over which we color/cover up whiteness. Though, as Gaga tells us, “the lie of it all is much more honest.”
When the nurse leaves Gaga’s bedside, when Gaga has “nothing left to lose,” she raises her arms, like a conductor/director/ballerina, Gaga again playing the dual-roles of the writer and the performer, the mind and the body. Yes, Gaga’s raised arms signal a collapse, but simultaneously, out of that collapse, the start of the start, a new beginning of a new beginning. And we are given another blank screen of whiteness out of which Gaga creates herself as the ballerina, the one in the spotlight. This is the prelude to the next stage, the stage that Gaga will eventually walk out on in order to play/perform/sing/scream “Marry the Night.”
Gaga throws up her hands, breaks the mirror that would serve her reflection back to her in order that a new self be made. The old self, that particular dream, that particular optimism, that particular cheer is destroyed. Gaga must alter herself, and the creation of a new self necessitates the destruction of the old. And so Gaga destroys, takes up the box of Cheerios and dismantles it, washes herself in the milk (whiteness) and O’s (zeros/nothingness). She pours an innumerable amount of zeros over herself because there is nothing left. She opens her mouth, full of zeros, not to sing, but to show us she has nothing(ness) to say. That the Cheerios/zeros/nothingness is all that there is to see here. Gaga has lost it – it being the everything of the self, all that there was. Gaga is now nothing. As she sings in the song, “I’m a loser.” Gaga must be stripped to a naked nothingness so that Gaga may dress herself up again. And Gaga does dress herself up again. Gaga wreaks havoc on her old denim so that she can make new denim. Gaga bedazzles. Gaga makes herself shine as a spectacle through her own agency. Gaga takes her trauma-tantrum and turns it into clothing, into art. She takes the box of Cheerios, the box of nothings, and, striking a pose, creates a hat for her naked self to wear – a hat which, in its style, predicts the Philip Treacy hat she will come to wear at the end of the film where she appears, posed, as an icon. But in order for Gaga to start singing “Marry the Night,” she needs to start with nothing, with whiteness, with the blank canvas, and she completes the erasure of her former self through the act of bleaching/blanching her hair. Only then does she begin the first notes, the first lines, the first lyrics of her next song/self.
Gaga sits in the bathtub of creation. She has submerged (and continues to submerge) herself in water. And when she enters the dance studio (bedazzled in starfish) and walks beneath the critical stares of the viewers above, the mural that is painted on the vaulted ceiling is a nautical one (Poseidon’s trident, the anchor, the compass in the center of the circular skylight around which, of course, revolve the whales).
It is out of this scene that Gaga emerges in her custom (costume) armor. The old self has been razed to make way for the new and the sea becomes the sky. In the midst of a burning set (a set that burns in spite of the rain), Gaga is perched on the roof of a Firebird Trans Am, wearing a beak-like mask and talon-like nails, her hair bleached, her bangs cut to a beak-like point on her brow. She (trans)forms into Gaga-as-phoenix, rising from the ashes of her former self. Gaga, like the phoenix, has the capacity to resurrect from a death. She takes pills to enter (to create) her altered (new) state. She applies lipstick (color) to her face. All deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot… the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues. Gaga is the siren, ready to sing, ready to wail, ready to marry the night. To marry the night not in the white of a wedding gown but in the color of her own creation. To wear a gigantic diamond on her ring finger, a diamond that is not white, not the absence of color, but a prism, an agent that allows the great principle of light, the white, to be seen as colored spectrums.
In the clinic, in the whiteness, Gaga is not permitted to light/fire/burn her (white) cigarette. She is not permitted the pleasure of starting over, of starting something new, of creating the ashes from which one can emerge. But once Gaga is emancipated from the clinic/whiteness, she is free to smoke, to burn, to turn the white of the cigarette to ash. As Lord Henry says, “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied” (Wilde 68). The state of being unsatisfied is the state most suited to the artist, to creation. It is the state of craving, the state of want. And it is out of that state that a new pleasure, a new song, a new self is formed.
Gaga tells us we each have the capacity to be the artist of our selves: “And I did what any girl would do. I did it all over again.”
The whiteness is always a horror; the nothingness is never a comfort. The whiteness/nothingness is the latex glove against the cheek, the bleached hospital gown, the blankness before creation begins, if creation begins. Whiteness is the death shroud/killer/trauma from which an artist (a memory) might never resurrect (recover). (“They can be lost forever.”) The palsied universe lies before us a leper … the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. But it is that same horror of whiteness, of nothingness, that also urges the artist to create. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? That (as Gaga sings) in the face of stark emptiness, we lace up boots, throw on leather, and don the fishnet gloves? That the frightening vulnerability of nakedness is the necessary basis for a created, clothed identity – a costumed-identity that is real and true because it is made? That, in the end (in the beginning), a pair of heels have the capacity to heal?
Note: The italicized portions of the text are lines taken from the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
Marry the Night. Dir. Lady Gaga. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2011. Film.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2002. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Mason’s Road, The Offending Adam, Bluestem, and elsewhere. He has recently completed a tragicomic novel, Also, I’m Dying, rendered in three one-act “plays” in which characters deliver performances of crisis, apathy, education, vanity, alcoholism, sexuality, husband, wife, child, and anarchy, among other things.
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