Who… Am I???

Hello all! This post is my attempt at making the most of a huge opportunity, because I have been interviewed for a piece for a big fashion-y publication (one that had really cool covers in the olden times) which will be published on Friday, and I’m hoping it will lead at least a few people to this blog – but I’m not sure it’s totally clear who runs this blog at all yet. Many of you will already know me from glory years on the dark side of Tumblr (2016-2019), and some will know me from my art Instagram (2014-2020), and some still will know me as an elusive former Aesthetics Wiki admin. I’ve been around, and have essentially led double/triple internet lives for the past few years, so I thought it would be nice to write a proper unified introduction. Who am I actually? What do I want? Why am I in your house?

My particulars + interests

  • Ella (2001 – ?) British university student (taking a year off to write a book…)
  • After a three-year turn as a radical feminist*, I’m invested in reading/writing about the social value and meaning of sexuality, and its overlap with culture and art.
  • I am interested in film history: Josef von Sternberg, Joseph Losey, Czech New Wave, Weimar Germany, giallo, everything that happened in the 60s generally, late Fellini, lesbian boarding school dramas, vampires, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, etc.
  • I am also interested in languages, premodern poetry and translation: I am proficient-ish in Latin and Classical (plus modern) Chinese, and am learning Manchu (the script looks pretty). On this blog there are some translations of Tang and Song poems (see Farwll My Concubin, my recent E-less rendition of the Bai Juyi classic), and, if you scroll far enough, brief discussions of Ovid and Horace.
  • (This all probably makes me sound like a sheltered, private-schooled eccentric! I went to an old and slightly bizarre state school with delusions of grandeur – that’s how I learnt Latin. I only got good at reading poetry to impress my crush, and it didn’t work. I worked out how to read Chinese from apps on my phone, to start with. It was a random choice of new language and it stuck – I’m obsessed with Chinese characters, the way Chinese verbs work, and the idea of being able to bring two separate cultures with separate histories together in my writing.)
  • My blog name means just that: this is a page on the internet which has been charmed/blessed/nested in by fairies. I believed in fairies as a young child and was always ‘away with’ them. I also admire the girls behind the Cottingley Fairies hoax. My subheading is the best bit from Thomas Chatterton’s very beautiful ‘Ælla, a Tragical Interlude’ (which almost involves my name, and thus is my signature poem which means I can get it inscribed on things and recited at my funeral)

My ideas

  • Lesbian culture and gay male culture have more in common than we think. For more, check out this essay I wrote (my favourite) about the overlap between male and female androgyny, the infantilisation of lesbianism, and villain-MILF-worship, and how these things are unified in the shared cultural domain of camp.
  • ‘Queer’ theory and language is demeaning to those it claims to encompass, and makes a sideshow of a great gay artistic tradition (with homoeroticism a fundamental element of Western art). Read this essay for more!

My mission

  • To post more here – about language/literature, art/film, etc. Also possibly lighthearted writing about my daily life and playlists.
  • To replace the current knee-jerk, hyperspeed online climate with one of careful consideration, context and measured connection
  • To write and illustrate my book (currently in progress!)
  • To find and revive in lesbianism the fetishised, sleek aesthetic of the 1930s
  • To decide how films should look – to edit an entire magazine (an actually stylish and interesting lesbian periodical) – and many other pipe dreams I am now too old to have.

Thank you! Enjoy my blog! I will attempt to engineer a proper posting schedule for myself now I’m on a year’s break from my degree. Let me know what you’d like to read about…

*I’ve disowned the radfem view of society as being essentially shaped by power differences between men and women. I also couldn’t stomach its two-dimensional ‘depiction = endorsement’ analysis of art made by men. I’m still pretty anti-sex-trade, especially where it concerns the gig economy, and mostly anti-online-pornography. I remain quietly sceptical of ideas underpinning trans theory, but hope (in my analysis and experience of lesbianism) to find some respectful common ground.

Tears of Pain: My Life as a Lesbian Aesthete

I have a particular taste in women. This is considered inappropriate to say as a lesbian (sorry – Woman Loving Woman) we are supposed to be ‘Inclusive’, especially in ‘Queer Spaces’, and to ‘Love all Women who Identify as Women’ because they are all ‘Totally Valid’ and to live by and propagate loads of other moralising platitudes that no straight man has ever had to encounter merely on the basis of his attraction to the female sex. But I still have a completely discriminatory taste in women and nobody can take this away from me even if it’s for my own benefit! Which it absolutely would be.

I am basically only attracted to women who could probably be vampires. You will probably know exactly what I’m talking about and I have made several Pinterest boards about it. I desire: the inability to flinch, dark and shady connections to questionable groups (I would take, and have taken, Scientology), archaic accents and strange voices, oddly tall and slender proportions that are simultaneously the rounded proportions of a woman in a Renaissance painting, smooth, refined manners, nefarious intentions, Felliniesque pallid complexions and strong profiles. I have only ever been seriously obsessed with women either twenty years older than me or deceased altogether (in a healthy way, eg. dead actresses in films who have smooth and antiquated mannerisms, not a necrophilia way). The lesbian-vampire trope is a real thing (seen everywhere from Victorian literature to 70s horror films) – hopefully there must be some biological and social rationale for it.

I spent years vilifying fetishists on my old blog, and now I admire their conviction and persistence. There is not enough societal allowance for young lesbian women to become fetishist-aesthetes: to be able to describe what they genuinely want, collect images and videos of what they genuinely want, and then to look for this with full discrimination, to the extent that gay men arguably now can and do. We have been trained (groomed) to Love All Women. The end result: boring and underwhelming romantic lives for All Women.

This French poster for Madchen in Uniform (1931) is the direct culmination of my lesbian-aesthete-fetishist-vampire aesthetic. It’s my favourite image – the lesbian equivalent of an equally homoerotic Leyendecker painting. The smooth, handsome profile of the woman on the left (Dorothea Wieck; I collect vintage photos of her as a rebellious act and coincidentally every single one is in profile) reflects exactly what I have been talking about. Bring on a new wave of exactly this!

I have been on speaking terms with only one vampire woman in my life. This four-year-long encounter ended with me memorising half of the Lord’s Prayer in German and reciting it over and over again as I wandered up and down a flight of steps and pondered about flinging myself to my imminent death (i.e it did not end well). Another used to live on my street but I only ever saw her from a distance. There is also a gloriously deep-voiced actress in America – my only living celebrity crush! – who I would describe as vampiric, except now she is pretending to be normal and sells her own line of kitchen utensils on the Home Shopping Network. I could search ‘goth woman’ on Google Images but this would tell me nothing about the subject’s air and mannerisms, possibly the most important things. The odd pretender might filter in. The accent might be all wrong.

Another issue: there is a vampire market for young lesbians. There is no young-lesbian market for vampires. This prompts repeats of the following scenario:

‘I love you, beautiful vampire lady’, I say.

‘Thank you,’ she replies. ‘By the way, this is my husband, Grog.’

Grog – a man two feet tall, resembling a threadbare gnome – waddles out of the shadows and into the cold light of day. He puts his arm protectively around the woman’s knee, because that is as high as he can reach. Grog looks more like her prematurely ageing son than her husband.

Grog has no discernible personality, decision-making system or inner life. I struggle to understand what his wife sees in him. I spend the night in bed crying.

What has the world come to? I am a seasoned connoisseur of female vampires and they themselves – in real life and the celebrity world – are seasoned experts at choosing the most underwhelming men to ever exist.

I have taken a year out of university and plan to use it to write and illustrate my rhyming lesbian-vampire-fetishist manifesto – an epic ode to the essential power of the refined, mysterious, immortal woman. Perhaps when I have tricked someone into publishing it, the world will finally wake up to this archetype, something surely and secretly rooted in the lesbian psyche, and my kind will follow the homosexual male in finally embracing the power of the fetishised aesthetic.

I translated Bai Juyi’s ‘Chang Hen Ge’ without using the letter E

Liao-dynasty wall painting of Yang Gui-fei

Bai Juyi is the best, most evocative Tang poet, methinks, and his Chang Hen Ge (Long Song of Regret) is one of the most beautiful and entertaining ‘really old’ things I’ve read in any language. It boasts rainbow fairies, aging eunuchs, Oz-esque trips to an amazingly bureaucratic fairyland, the fantastic innuendo of the hibiscus tent (芙蓉帐), and ghostly concubine Yang Gui-fei hanging around her ornate castle in a flower crown rather like Lana Del Rey in the Born to Die video. Obviously I had no choice but to translate it but with one twist: I was not allowed to use the most common letter of the English language. How did I do? Questionably.

Han dynasty monarch thinks only of waifs, roams without any luck. A girl first blossoms on Yang ground, still unknown, boudoir-bound.

Inborn charms too hard to avoid, sought for Han king’s flank. Lady blinking happily, myriad charmings; six floors now all shut out. A frosty spring bath at Huaqing Pool grants skin so shining. In Tsar’s favour, what good luck now! Why would any palatial girl try?

Cloudy hair and jangly sounds, a warm all-night hibiscus pavilion, which is cut short by morning. Why go into work at that? A lazy non-stop party, from spring to spring and from night to night. Trinity-thousand in his halls, and all for that singular man. Gold Room living, grooming maids, adding to his drunk spring chord.

For this do girls and boys split up our country – only that Yang family can do without any pain.

If only all mums and dads could birth girls! I do pity this – poor souls!

Rupturing clouds of aqua, our hilly Li Mansion – and fairy music floats through by wind.

Soft song, slow gyration, murmuring strings, and that Han monarch still missing in action.

From Yuyang do drum vibrations call: a fairy bursts in with rainbow shirt! All six-plus ways for Chang’an pass, watchposts burnt to dust. Myriad mounts now run out downward. Grassy flags float on and off – it’s still many li to our final goal.

Nothing to do, glorious Sixth Army: our glamorous girl now slaught by stallion-hoof.

And nobody to catch on impact that royal-hair-circling, ground-bound tiara. 

But a good knight cannot stop that soily flashback sight, that blood-sad concoction.

Slowly do pallid dusts and slow winds murmur through that famous road, winding up to Jian Pavilion.  Sparingly do civilians walk, small down from that high mount. Flags flash without light in its paling sun.

Cobalt swirls his Sichuan brook: Sichuan mountains stay but all cyan. Sky-aboving lords say sorry day and night.

His roving, monarchical soul is in anguish! Night-rains and jingling cut off his shouts.

Day-swirling, ground-turning, back gallops that chariot, unwilling to go forth from that point.

In muddy soil sits a hill without spark or vivacity. In situ: last living ruin.

Monarchs, wading through filth, swap looks; will that marathon mount gallop back from its halls?

On its arrival sit pools and parks, hinging. O, spurting pond! O, hibiscus plot and willows!

Hibiscus, you call Yang to mind – and willow, too, such as that girl’s charm: how couldn’t anybody mourn that? In spring’s wind blooms a night-blooming plum, and autumn’s rain brings its dynamic wings down to foot.

At a mansion by far, a yard by us, do ruby-crinkling clouds fill up our stairways, unraking.

Fragrant dancing girls, hair-frosting! In that spicy room: Castrato! Child! But now all wrinkly. Glow-worms fly softly at twilight; a solitary lamp, almost without oil, cannot lull our cast to Z.

Lazily rings out that chiming iron; it’s a long night. Tiny, our star-brook floats by, waiting for morning to burst.

Twin roof rocks lay icy, looking down to a solid mass of crystal blossoms. Now who wants to stay with him in that warm rococo bunk?

“Stay happy unto passing, and do not count your days, and Yang’s soul won’t pass into your nightly thoughts.”

A Daoist pilgrim, arriving to Chang’an, could swap his kingly truth for Yang’s young spirit.

To stop our dandy’s tumbling thoughts, look for that wizard with all your might!

Column-stallions rush as air, and sky-mounting, ground-digging, hunt for him.

Gift-shop sky is up, pallid katabasis is down; two worlds ambiguous, mutually unknown.

Who knows of plains of magic mountains, far, by boat? Stuck in a lacy-light, always-vanishing world? Of luminous forts, of tutti-frutti clouds, with fairy folk walking amongst, dainty-thin.

Within is a mortal – T . Z.  Skin just as snow, conduct blooming – you know, don’t you?

Knock on that door (Gold Building, W Wing), and ask Xiaoyu to pass it on.

From Han-tsar’s word did a spirit, half-faint, jump in its pavilion. Pacing, pillow-punching, shirt-twitching, finally from that labyrinth, its gold-paint and moondust, did Yang burst out.

Half-conscious, hair in clouds, crown of buds cracking apart: Yang finally walks downstairs.

Fairy-gowns blow away; rainbow skirts frolic, as if ballroom-bound. Salt-trails map Yang’s traumatic look: a rain-sunk sugar blossom. ‘Thank you, King’, says his maid, thoughts flooding, and as a unit two start to murmur.

Zhaoyang Plaza stops that charm; in Immortal Hall wait long days and nights. At final look, invisibility guards away that dust-cloudy Chang’an, that mortal coil. Only his high honours stay with him, gold hairpins trust for a Dao bishop.

Still at hand: pins, tin, gold all crack to shards. But tough as gold is that taught mind, dividing mutually for all sky-bound.

Yang’s words at parting – hold it in! – in Yang’s words a two-mind contract.

It’s a Sunday in July at Immortal Hall, and nobody’s soft words wisp out at midnight.

May at sky fly two birds, singly-flapping, and may from our ground grow two trunks twining.   

Thus shall our world’s clouds last, soil lay still, until all hours vanish away. Thus is this sorrow, always braiding forth, snaking forward, without conclusion.

Boom! (1968): A Bonkers Italianate Dreamscape

Ever thought to yourself, ‘Wow, I wish there was a late-60s French New Wave-derivative pseudo-art film where Elizabeth Taylor lives in a sprawling whitewashed mansion only accessible by funicular railway and constantly suffers from nervous fits, and Richard Burton is there and he has a samurai sword for some reason’?

Fear not! Your time has come! Joseph Losey has delivered, along with Secret Ceremony set dresser Jill Oxley! It is like nothing I’ve ever seen! I could not stop myself from screenshotting basically the entire thing and here are my findings with special exclusive commentary.

This iron tree structure really makes the atmosphere, I think. At some point Richard Burton’s character also fashions an Alexander Calder-esque mobile out of iron, which is unexplained. Did Calder get royalties? (This is interesting because a linguistics lecturer once pointed out to me that these mobiles resemble Chomsky’s syntax trees (C-structures), which are rooted in a supposed universal knowledge of grammar, ie. the linguistic equivalent of many psychoanalytic theories which have been used to explain mythology and dreamy films like this one.)

This shot is superb! Felliniesque! The glow of the enclave and the red costume of the Witch of Capri (played by Noel Coward), and the blood, but also look, a monkey! I actually really can’t recount the plot of this film properly because things like this kept happening and caused me to go into raptures. This composition is extra interesting though – we follow a path of red out onto a balcony, where violence turns into heterosexual desire…

Taylor’s character lives in a white cavern-y Mediterranean complex but also owns a smaller pink guest house with a Chagall mural on the wall/egg-shaped bed/equally pink carpet. This is my dream home. Maybe it’s supposed to look like a womb?

She also spends a lot of time dictating memoirs to her secretary, which turn into the most bizarre monologues ever. The script is so hysterical that it brings down the tone of the entire film, but in a nice way.

I love the way the costume designer has considered the cast as a whole while making colour decisions so nobody clashes in these few scenes. This betrays the film as more of an experiment in visual style than character or narrative – and that’s the way I like it!

I love the willingness to frame small figures against great swathes of wall and to shoot at dusk, something which transforms the overwhelmingly white building into an otherworldly dream marshmallow. You can see the guesthouse in the second screenshot – was it built for the film? Is it still there? It reminds me of some children’s programming I was served in the early 2000s but I don’t know what or how exactly (it was all a bit odd architecturally).

I really enjoy late 60s-early 70s Italianate cinema interior design (whitewashed walls, dark ornate furniture), and the influence of all that on this film is very clear – especially in these darkened scenes, where the green velvet armchair is a bridge between the usual contrast. She’s just making a phone call but this looks so cultic: lit candles and a roaring fire? A lectern?

Read my poetry, I BEG: here’s ‘Fly!’

I wrote a poem! This is a direct reaction to my blocking YouTube (my only music platform) across all my devices, realising the loss of lyrical content depressed me, trying to write songs, realising I did not have the patience required to learn music theory, then adding a million different puns, references and what people I look down upon would probably call ‘Easter eggs’. I absolutely think that I belong in the field of poetry – that I have come home. I blame several things for keeping me away for so long: English teachers attempting to make poetry ‘relatable and fun’ (ie. cringe and culturally bankrupt), googling the name of a student teacher in sixth form and finding a video of her slam poetry performance piece which explored gender variance through the metaphor of vegetables who can talk, and being trapped into several other spoken-word poetry performances since. Did you know that poetry can actually be written down? I have thankfully found that out again. I’m currently planning a translation of Farewell, My Concubine without any E’s (Farwll, My Concubin) but for now, here’s my first poem! It’s about several different things and intended primarily as revenge. I exclamation-marked the title because that should be standard for titles, in my opinion.

Fly!

The sonar falls and the lunar increases, 

sets at hand as you fall out of the 

sky, cycle past the rip, 

Links it so a harmless anchor yields you at the hip, green,

cloaked, lest I, standing and helpless at year’s begin, 

Madame! Inventor of the safety-pin! Dead. Downwards spiral. Despondent verb.

Listless in some autumn hail (what does it say?) and yet 

The rain arcs over, I do regret, she

Lolls in some amnesiac hell at Yemen

old mid-East, and here I scheme them.

(Many lactic returns for the chosen jewel

I am born again, and scattered over the tlantic.)  

Bring plots and plans to von Nordeck’s school – think of the glassy ball, the magic mirror, sand-timer, trailing satin, blood smoke. 

Heed distortion: two-strip, female glaze. 

Now struggle out from under-mansion,

leg immense, swells at her atrophied yard,

Cloud County, Wichita, and astra per aspera,

von Masoch, roared the lion, de Sade.

You lived it, sang at heart as yin-yang scansion, 

Pounce out over-coiled – lit in saffron 

angst, harsh and yellow, ready-tarred. 

Adrian, a devil-child! O, brag of your handiwork,

as she bursts at the flash, flammable sun.

Black-market kingdom, heidaodai.

“Loss is suffering, and hearts always yearn”

The phrase traces your path all under the sky.

Here are Flanders Fields, your dreadful earth, 

go if flower-fingered arrival requires drowse,

listen, Somnifera, for I must earn –

I’ll paint my face all lacquer-black – will let the xiaoren caw and grab

as they hang, Metro’s bats, acro-tacked. Old one! Gudian! 

Epithet –  analect – dialect, collis, -polis. Pneumatic sog.

Don’t take away my little dog. 

pollicere?

On Nina Hagen, the Underrated, Unhinged Musical Genius of the Cold War

I have been very busy in the last few months (someone decided to give me an actual job for some reason? I realised I could go on long cinematic tirades and send them in to my university newsletter and they would actually publish them? I discovered new ways to get ebooks for free? I watched too many films?). I will make up for it by going on about my favourite singer (who is currently under-analysed and under-listened to) instead.

Anglosphere commentators have been obsessed with ‘girl power’ rock musicians for a while now. Some of these obsessions are justified, some not, but for the best part of a decade a specific group of alt-rock women have been ubiquitous in discussion – Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Joan Jett, all of Sleater-Kinney. There is clearly a drive to centre a female outlook in criticism of a male-dominated genre, which I think is brilliant- but for one notable, curious omission. Nina Hagen, the German opera prodigy with the beautiful, eclectic, bilingual discography, is always left by the musical wayside, memory-holed. 1978’s monumental Nina Hagen Band album, which spans from reproductive protest (Unbeschreiblich Weiblich) to gorgeous prog-esque lament (Auf’m Friedhof – listen to it!) lies buried in the sand. 1982’s Nunsexmonkrock, although a) in English, b) a wonderful technical accomplishment, c) a stellar example of the sonic female psyche, has all but ‘been disappeared’. Angstlos (Fearless) and In Ekstase, Cold War masterpieces, are barely remembered, to say nothing for the low-stakes genius of 1991’s Street, maligned by even Hagen’s casual fans. Nobody I know in real life has heard of her. Some even announce proudly that they have not heard of her. I once played Naturtrane at a flat party and it totally killed the mood. When will the world wake up?

Listening to a Nina Hagen album is like stumbling into a simulated haunted house while also being on psychedelic drugs. Her songs are quotable, theatrical flights of fancy, often serving as political satire and sprinkled with surprise operatics (her vocal range once spanned around six octaves). My favourite of her spoken monologues is on Antiworld, where she recounts the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (‘Once upon a time…when Jesus was walking-down-this-way on Earth, he met this man who was possessed… BY A DEMON!’), but I also love Atomic Flash Deluxe, which, with its low-register refrain of ‘Babylon must fallllll’ is the actual musical equivalent of the ‘powerful sense of dread’ bit from Peep Show. Another song deserving of attention is 1993’s Gypsy Love, and its spoken interlude ‘On wild wild horses of cosmic evolution and across deserts of DEATH’.

Her Street album appears comparatively toned-down at first listen, but really deserves acknowledgement as the foremost camp masterpiece of its time – a little bit of the ’60s, shifted forward thirty years without really even being aware of it. Blumen für die Damen, for example, samples Rex Harrison (!) in My Fair Lady (1964) (!!!) In Love-Hi, she serves Elizabeth Taylor a catty put-down (possibly because nothing else would rhyme with ‘failure’) and thus also invites instant comparison. Gretchen is a Schubert lied but disco-style – it would not be out of place in Mae West’s last film. (I will not rest until everyone has seen Mae West’s last film.)

One notable thread across Hagen’s discography is her obsession with Zarah Leander (the Third Reich singing Nazi version of Greta Garbo). Her own theatricality, homosexual appeal and half-Jewish background create an interesting conflict here, culminating in my fan favourite Nina Hagen song, the homage-parody Zarah:

Hagen is often touted by her remaining fans as notable for experimenting with outlandish stage costumes ‘before Lady Gaga’. While I’m not a proponent of the ‘only ONE woman can dress weird EVER!’ rule, I totally concur with their admiration for her trailblazing fashion and makeup, and feel very let-down that it hasn’t yet been recognised, with later artists hailed as pioneers in her stead.

You will see Nina Hagen do and wear things you won’t see anywhere else. My favourite instances are when she nearly dresses like a normal performer, but not quite (see this legendary 1994 Spain performance, where she’s mocking the fact she has to sing playback and is also wearing enormous silicone breasts as part of her costume, and the time she went on a talk show dressed like 1960s Marlene Dietrich and ended up bellowing at Angela Merkel about drug reform.)

Obviously she has many defined visual ‘eras’ just like any modern alt-pop artist. I literally can’t pick a favourite because of all them are amazing and worthy of attention, so here are some highlights:

(nb. Angstlos is my favourite Nina album along with its English counterpart, but the outstanding visual example there is the video for Zarah, which I already linked above)

Nunsexmonkrock era (early 80s)

Christian iconography, androgyny, and dark discordant sounds.

In Ekstase era (mid-80s)

Very fun – many Cold War references, patterned tights and her most overt punk hair/makeup. Some have suggested that her In Ekstase styling might have influenced the current portrayal of superhero (?) Harley Quinn.

Nina Hagen era (late-80s)

I find it hard to sum up this era aesthetically, but I’m including this video because it’s one of my favourites ever made.

Revolution Ballroom era (mid-90s)

A note: This stage in Hagen’s career is very special to me, because it is so misguided but simultaneously unique and wonderful. At this point she got really into Hinduism (audiences today would call it ‘cultural appropriation’ – I think she’s actually very nice and respectful in the process – she clearly held a sincere spiritual interest), started dressing like the goths presumably did in 1994, and, unfortunately, engaged in HIV/AIDS denial, taking a book called Roger’s Recovery from Aids onto various French talk shows and even discussing it in gay clubs next to bemused drag queens. I understand in my heart that this is wrong, but it is now politically-aware 2021 and I treasure the opportunity to watch an eccentric travel around Europe, committing various well-intentioned but totally cancellable offences while dressed in head-to-toe latex. This kind of thing will probably never happen again and I want to write a sitcom about it.

Above all, Nina Hagen makes excellent, joyful, energising, manic music and it absolutely never fails to make me happy. I will leave you with three songs from my absolute favourite (gay-club-friendly, accomplished, fanciful, have at some point been obsessed with each and every song on this album) Angstlos phase:

My only commentary on this track is “What!!!!!!!! How!!!!!!” I’m about to start praying for those who persecute me. It’s a convincing song.

I’m picking the English version of this song because this helps me understand the lyrics, which are very funny and a perfect lampoon of French New Wave elitism. There’s also a great German version which you should NOT confuse with the Rammstein song Frühling in Paris (theirs is worse generally and more depressing, you couldn’t play it in a gay club. I hoped it would be a cover.)

I actually do fear death quite a lot, and this song has genuinely helped me to come to terms with it (or with the fact that actually it doesn’t exist). The fun, jaunty rhythm – the intermittent yodelling. Thank you Nina.

When I become attached to a prolific dead-or-very-old person, it’s usually at least partially because of what they represent in the wider world. Hagen, I believe, is the figurehead of many things that are very important to me – the notion of being both sophisticated and ridiculous, of using spirituality to enhance creative work, of paying attention to old films and music. I am proud to be one of her few remaining Anglosphere fans and think the time is ripe for more to discover her fantastic music.

Going Be-Sirk: ’60s Hong Kong Remakes the Hollywood Melodrama

Yes, there is a 1967 Hong Kong remake of Mildred Pierce – and all I have to say about it is OH MY GOD THIS IS AMAZING

‘Wow, you’re doing a Chinese degree?’ people like to say to me. ‘That’s so smart and forward-looking! China is becoming an economic superpower!’

Little do they know! I’m only taking Business Chinese because of scheduling conflicts, I spend much of my study time researching the origin of the chengyu I have to learn (there’s something appealing about quoting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for professional gain), and instead of occupying myself with the Financial Times or discussing trade wars like the actual serious people on my degree who actually deserve to be there and probably never do anything wrong or regret anything, I have been trying to seek out the campiest Mandarin films of the 60s and 70s, which I like to watch in bed in total glee like some kind of flamboyant hibernating cinema stoat.

These have all been produced by the Shaw Brothers, but the ones I enjoy aren’t the company’s signature martial arts films – they’re melodramas, prototypical dramatic Hollywood women’s pictures transplanted to 1960s Hong Kong. All the new mod fashion and music is there, and they have clearly been influenced by the entrance of Cinemascope a decade earlier, meaning the best productions all look a bit like Godard’s Contempt. Instead of cutting-edge Nouvelle Vague direction, however, I’m met every time with around ninety minutes of Classic Hollywood-esque narrative delight.

Madam Slender Plum (1967, 欲海情魔 Yu Hai Qing Mo, lit. something like ‘The Romantic Demon in the Ocean of Desire’, dir. Lo Wei), remake of Mildred Pierce

Please excuse the Sohu logo, I really have been trying my best. Anyway the costumes in this film effortlessly transfer the spirit of the original to 60s Hong Kong! (ie. that’s a cheongsam and also she isn’t wearing enormous bear-like shoulder pads)

I didn’t realise this was supposed to be Mildred Pierce until half an hour in, when Diana Chang Chung-wen opened up her own restaurant and started arguing with her daughter. It significantly out-camps the original; I worried the main cast would not live up to the excellent portrayals in that version, but I needn’t have worried at all! The director seemed to have missed the stylistic point of the original by miles, eschewing Curtiz’s feminine take on film noir for something that reminds me a lot of Sirk, that Demy film I reviewed and, not even unfortunately, John Waters.

It helps that Veda Pierce, who is supposed to start as a young girl of about 12 and end up a young woman, is played by the clearly-grown-up Jenny Hu, who is made up consistently for the whole film, and is also obviously really tall. Veda’s little sister, who dies at the start of the film, doesn’t look much younger but still spends all her time onscreen holding an oversized teddy bear. I was reminded of Female Trouble and Taffy Davenport, except this isn’t even making a thing of it.

Miss Plum (Mildred Pierce) played by Chang, flanked by Hu as her ‘young’ daughter. Note the incredible set design.

The issues of misogyny present in the original become very tongue-in-cheek here. Miss Plum takes a job waitressing at a sleazy bar in the face of financial ruin, and is often harassed and objectified by male drinkers. She later opens her own, and in one of the most memorable scenes, lines a team of skimpily-dressed waitresses up for inspection.

Is this a protest against late-60s girlbossery to the detriment of the working woman? Is it engineered as a moral counterpart to the racist contradictions of the original, where Joan Crawford rises to the top but Butterfly McQueen remains in domestic drudgery? I think it’s an interesting sequence that adds a new dimension to the story. This is the sort of remake that doesn’t bother me at all!

Literally SUCH a masterwork of camp. Why are we supposed to think that Jenny Hu is a young child? Also perfect transcontinental styling yet again!

Remember the final twist in Mildred Pierce? We don’t really get that here; instead, the characters take turns accusing each other and taking the blame for the murder that begins the film, like a wholesome (God I hate that word) version of Rashomon. Luo strays very far from the original’s tone here; it is far more heartfelt, with familial love and no bloodthirsty acting.

I’m not going to lie, I LOVE the painting of peaches on the wall! It’s so good!

Torrent of Desire (1969, 欲焰狂流,dir. Lo Chen), remake of Written on the Wind

Jenny Hu singing (sidenote) a really beautiful song, in a really beautiful sequence

I will set this straight: I saw the original Written on the Wind a hell of a long time ago (was I doing A-levels? I’m not sure) and can’t make many useful comparisons because I can’t remember much of it. (I actually really want to rewatch the original because I’m now totally obsessed with late-stage Lauren Bacall and everything she’s done, and probably didn’t appreciate her performance enough the first time I watched it).

One thing I want to say about this remake: the set design is the best in any film. I’m not kidding! Just look at this!

Look at this hotel room! Conversation pit! White crystal chandelier! Guoxue woodblock prints! Almost-70s tree mural! Who designed this set and have they been living in my brain?

I’m not even going to say anything about this miraculous many-columned lilac hotel lobby, just look at it!

Also this bizarre Mexican ranch situation (did such interior design exist in real ’60s Hong Kong, or is this an imaginary America?)

And this completely OTT graveyard!

Here’s some set dressing in a style I like to call ‘Woah. What???’

There’s a sort of psychedelic almost-sex-scene here where (I’m pretty sure) the director was mimicking the rainbow lighting from another Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows:

Some of the costumes in this are brilliant (specifically, all of Angela Yu Chien’s costumes; she’s a fantastic character-y actress in this and I can’t wait to watch her other films). Take some screenshots and run:

In conclusion: why are these films not (gay) cult classics already? They’re so good and so overdesigned; I propose a charity scheme where they are subtitled, placed on hard drives and dropped through the chimneys of camp cinema fans worldwide. This was totally worth learning Mandarin for.

Notes on (Online) Aesthetics

Here is an excerpt from a Pinterest board I made featuring ‘my’ current aesthetic, which is based on the surreal and questionably medieval dream-landscapes of 60s/70s Italian, Czech and Russian arthouse cinema. Some photos were specifically chosen by me and some were generated automatically as a result (computers are better at doing this than people)… I’ve deleted my Tumblr but if I had one right now it would look like this. The closest musical equivalents are the soundtracks of the same films (menacing chamber music, organs, Luboš Fišer, Nino Rota etc). See also Byzantine paintings, Hungarian royal ephemera, Klimt, old fairytale illustrations…

An ‘aesthetic’ is a stylistically consistent, multimodal manifestation of an imagined lifeworld. This is probably incoherent to anyone who hasn’t been up at 3am thinking about it like I have. Here are two examples:

  1. Early-2010s Bambi-Gypsy Tumblr

I panicked because initial research on this led me absolutely nowhere (surely every self-respecting participant, including me, must have deleted all their content by now?) but just stumbled upon a treasure trove of nostalgia! Thank you, random users who probably lost their passwords and are immortalised on the internet as a result. (I won’t lie, I still think this is all very cute and have cried a little bit).

This aesthetic, which now appears to be completely dead, was a manifestation of a dream minimal-surreal indie-pop desert California lifestyle. It boasted a pastel colour palette and was sprinkled with gold star stickers, pictures of oil spills, 90s cartoons and cacti. In retrospect, this was strange because, as cohesive as it was, there seemed to be no cultural precursor for it beyond a few Rookie Magazine editorials. We only liked modern pop music (Lorde, the Arctic Monkeys, golden-age Lana Del Rey) and 1990s throwback television (The Simpsons, Daria). Was this an effort to feminise the fake-quirky ultra-minimalism of trendy Silicon Valley companies, or to sterilise 60s free love? Were we distancing ourselves from everything we knew?

Here’s a telling screenshot from Tumblr user stahry. See: cacti, jelly shoes, very feminine colour palette, eye glitter, deserts, Polyvore edits, hand-embroidery.

Seven or eight years later, in 2021, these pictures together still make me feel very blissed-out and happy. They are so surreal – the lack of perceptible shadow, the pastels, the girls who dress as alien ravers without being under coloured lights or doing drugs or apparently eating, the 90s Simpsons nostalgia (not pictured) – that they suddenly become very engrossing. The Bambi-Gypsy universe existed in an in-between state: we named our blogs things like ‘clouhd’ or ‘stahrs’ or ‘flowerii’ but refused to acknowledge or post the natural world if it wasn’t the arid American desert, and LOVED oil spills and shoes made of transparent plastic.

Another screenshot from Tumblr user pizaeh. Note: more cacti, line drawings, glitter and sew-on patches, minimalist promotional photography, modelesque and carefree girls.

Bambi-Gypsy was multimodal, expressed stylistically through photos, text and music: pastel imagery, aspirated nature words, the minimal quirk of contemporary indie pop. It manifested on thousands of Tumblr blogs, and sometimes in advertising, and later (too late) its motifs were found decorating mass-produced clothing – but it never really came up anywhere else.

We all went on Polyvore and made blog banners that looked like this (we were copying each other). This screenshot is from labanners on Tumblr. Most URLs followed the formula of ‘random plant/nature word with a few random Hs and Is’. Mine was ‘succuleii’…

It was a lifeworld, too much of a wonderland to really exist and yet planned out in full. The Bambi-Gypsy heroine ate snack food, collected succulents, put glitter around her eyes, lived somewhere near Los Angeles, was always dressed for a rave, worked as a model or freeloader and always felt alienated and strangely surreal. It was imagined, and we imagined it together, memetically, building on her lifestyle with each iteration…

2. Lana Del Rey and Born to Die

Here’s another multimodal imagined lifeworld: this one is rooted in some variation of mid-century Americana that exists entirely in its creator’s head. The lifeworld is that of a young, glamorous ingenue who (you guessed it) loves older men. This pretend woman’s visual, emotional and stylistic experiences are reflected in evocative lyrics, in purposely-aged music videos and in the sound of the music itself. In sync with internet users, the aesthetic filters from the music industry and makes its way online. Del Rey takes misremembered Old Hollywood films, misinterpreted books and misunderstood history – like a neural network, she generates enough imagery to spit back out and turn into nearly a complete lifeworld…

In the textual mode of her song lyrics, we encounter the first trappings of this imaginary life: it is specially curated and all incredibly anachronistic. Del Rey is always filmed at this stage wearing 1960s hair and makeup, but the Chateau Marmont had fallen into disrepair by that decade; she tacks together her infamous Lolita quote (from a fictional pedophile of letters) and the AAVE of ‘give me them coins’. Walt Whitman, Monaco, Marilyn Monroe musicals, and the Grand Ole Opry never occupied the same cultural sphere; she is merely saying old things and hoping they will stick (while somehow impersonating both Monroe and Barbara Jean from the film Nashville, which heavily featured the Grand Ole Opry but happened to come out in the 70s). Her stage name brings to mind Old Hollywood, but it’s an unrealistic, accepting Old Hollywood: the ‘Del Rey’ tacked on to exoticise would probably never have brought her the era of mainstream glamour shown in her music videos, and would only have entailed racist typecasting (Rita Hayworth had to change her name from the localising Margarita Carmen Cansino to be considered a sex symbol). The imagery nevertheless fits together, as if her songs are slapdash Pinterest boards, cohesive in their mistakes. Anachronism is the style. Accuracy is not an aesthetic; facts must be stylised too. A heavily-perfumed woman cuts a hole in a piece of paper and walks through it.

I Spoke too Soon. The Fact of My Creating the Aesthetics Wiki has Vanished Into Dust. What is an Aesthetic Anyway?

My hero Nina Hagen foresaw my fate back in 1984, when she said ‘And our children live in danger and in sorrow!’ Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children??? (I’ve just realised that my Chinese name translates perfectly to Lovejoy, which is incredible)

Would you ever agree to administrate a database of something you knew nothing about? Do you often speak authoritatively of this thing about which you know nothing, while using totally punctuated sentences in a chatroom (please get a life, you total weirdo)? Do you assume to know more about something you know nothing about than someone who has created a website about the thing you know nothing about? Yes? Then you’d feel at home at the Aesthetics Wiki!

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the moderators themselves have absolutely no idea what an aesthetic is. Is it a music genre? No. Is it a type of Japanese fashion? No. Is it a random thing you like with ‘core’ on the end? No. Is it just any subculture, anywhere? No. And yet these pages make up the extreme majority of wiki content, and when you delete them – you, the creator of the Wiki, have to be thrown out, not the people who lack basic understanding of the concept of the website they’ve agreed to moderate.

What is an aesthetic? An aesthetic is a coherent multimodal schema based on a certain, often fantastical, life-world. You should be able to look at a picture posted online and say ‘that’s [my aesthetic]’ without it needing to contain any one certain element; while aesthetics are dictated by visuals, you should be able to find music that fits just as well. Things that have been mistakenly been called aesthetics by people who deem themselves experts: pictures of food, the entirety of Korean culture, punk music, studying science, liking holographic surfaces.

Things that actually are aesthetics: Dark Academia (an audiovisual manifestation of being in a specific literary genre), Cottagecore (an audiovisual manifestation of a bucolic life-world), American Gothic, the 2014 Tumblr fluorescent-Arctic Monkeys-alien phase, speculative but highly visual genres like steampunk, the Virgin Suicides phase where everyone fantasised about being 70s suburbanite Catholic teenagers, film noir, the Gothic Art Nouveau in the film Secret Ceremony, the idea of being a cowboy on the prairie as in, specifically, a Spaghetti Western.

That’s my contribution to the field – perhaps I will do for aesthetics what Sontag did for camp. Why do we fetishise total ignorance on the part of grown adults? Why are we expected to condescend to people who know nothing and are seemingly proud of it? My guess is that I’ve made myself the villain again – I am usually the villain – simply for pointing out the basic concept or truth behind something instead of condescending to the illusions of the self-assured and misinformed. At least – as always – I’m right, and am not someone who learns about the world from sixty-second videos, someone on Letterboxd with ‘Hamilton’ in their favourites section, a Twitter user, or a gamer.

I Created the Aesthetics Wiki. No, It’s Not Easy Being Really Cool

This is me. Born in the 1890s and so behind the times that I make Lubitsch references that only I can understand – unable to keep up with real events, I make a brief segue back to the opulent world I love so much, except I can’t walk properly or really move my face… (PLEASE watch the 1978 Mae West film Sextette)

It’s true! It was me, me, a teenage outcast, an underqualified linguistics research assistant, a student journalist. I was up in the very early hours and thought it might be a good idea. Now it’s becoming a phenomenon. We had around four million pageviews in January 2021, according to this Atlantic article about us, which I also only found out about today. I checked my email a few hours ago and found an information request from American Vogue, which I managed to totally overlook for nearly two weeks.

The truth is, I can go for months without ever organically thinking about the website, which has morphed from something full of slightly ironic familiarity into something completely foreign to me. I spent New Year’s Eve on Tumblr in 2013 and 2014, and lived my life on the site up until 2020; I saw Cottagecore and Lovecore and Dark Academia and Pastel Grunge erupt in real time. I even participated in that really strange and totally memory-holed ‘gypsy’ aesthetic where people went on Polyvore and cut typographic letters out of photos of oil spills. At 19, I’m obsessed with being behind the times and feel far too old for any of this; I get my aesthetic fix from old Italian and Czech films, currently refuse to use any social media or watch movies made after 1979, and have disabled my YouTube recommendations so the only ‘new’ material I see is Nina Hagen archival footage. I feel more technologically skilled than the users of the Aesthetics Wiki (while they are stuck in an algorithmic Tik Tok cycle, I often provide my classmates with textbook downloads and have employed MI5-level tactics to successfully locate my crush’s LiveJournal from 2006) but have literally no idea what any of them are on about, ever. Perhaps this is the real generational gap.

My hero from the age of 11 onwards was Tavi Gevinson, the child-prodigy blogger and editor of Rookie magazine. It was at her beckoning that I listened to my first Hole album, read and watched The Virgin Suicides, and learnt to make moodboards, to identify some visual element from some bygone period that I liked and stick with it. My pre-adolescence was built of homemade shrines, suburban impalement fantasies and Courtney Love’s screams. It was sensational – I had so much fun! I suppose I could have been considered precocious, except I spent too much time writing out Lana Del Rey lyrics and making my own zines to actually concentrate or do well at school. The Aesthetics Wiki was an attempt to stick to the Gevinson tradition, to identify things I saw every day and turn them into something coherent and special.

I am sad to say that many of the articles today do not go along with this scheme whatsoever. Some are ramblings from twelve-year-olds who have been allowed to spend too much time online; some are by older people who should know better. Instead of categorising things that already exist, our website is full of imaginary figments. It also exists as a fashion advice repository, because our users love to define themselves by what they buy. Thousands flock to our forum and comment section, listing totally irrelevant information in a bid to discover what ‘their aesthetic’ is. Gone are the days of free exploration or experimentation, or even very basic cultural context!

The aesthetic subcultures of Tumblr have been politicised by people with a five-year-old’s understanding of politics. Cottagecore is for Nazis, they shout, unaware that rural living has been romanticised for millennia by everyone from Tibullus to Mao to the second-wave feminists. No, it’s very special to lesbians, others reply, having no concept of what a lesbian actually is beyond someone who is annoying on Tik Tok. Lesbians are very protective of their aesthetic, they say, as if we are all Tumblr users who are under sixteen years old (for the record, I am a lesbian who exists in the cultural sphere of Old Hollywood actresses and fin de siècle painters; I have never felt any desire to work on a farm and I can’t listen to Girl in Red, their gold standard of cultural lesbianism, without wanting to vomit). Young people are probably about to go into debt because of Dark Academia: they like the idea of studying and being eccentric more than they are actually willing to devote themselves to academic interests or develop any real eccentricities. In a few decades, our university professors will know practically nothing, but will at least dress well and have some suitable music playing in the background.

I have created a monster – a database for people who want to be exactly the same. Tumblr aesthetics barely provide visual pleasure anymore; they are merely a way to categorise yourself in relation to others. Teenagers on the site who want to pick one and stick to it should stop being so silly. Watch films from periods that aren’t your own! Read books! Learn about art history! Be original for once! This would never have happened back in my day.