It occurred to me that this image/still of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, 1976, did for the 20th century what Manet’s Olympia, 1863, did for the 19th: confront society with its ultimate sham-muse; the idealized whore. Or courtesan no-more. Manet did it by attacking art history’s tradition of the reclining nude, and showing what a sham all that allegorical pretense really was.
Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863
Paul Schrader’s construction of Iris, a 12-year junkie old prostitute too young to be jaded – so aptly called the Shirley Temple of the 1970s – does much the same, shorning her of her innocence (one must be an adult to consent, right?) in order to skewer sexual mores. Both managed to titillate and shock through resolutely abject visions, and yet both succeeded in their bids for fame . Manet has become part of the canon, and Taxi Driver is undoubtably a classic as well. Both also came from repressed families. Here’s some excerpts from an interview with Schrader who talks about this, along with the film:
“I had no intention of being involved in the motion-picture business; I backed into it. It began when I was at Calvin College, a seminary in Michigan. I became interested in movies because they were not allowed. This was the era of The Seventh Seal and La Strada, and I saw that movies could fit into the religious structure of the school and provide a bridge between my religious training and the forbidden world. Movies were forbidden in our church by a synodical decree of 1928 which defined them as a “worldly amusement,” along with card-playing, dancing, smoking, drinking, and so on. I snuck off to see my first movie, The Absent-Minded Professor, which I’d been blackmailed into seeing by watching The Mickey Mouse Club.
When I was in New York, I was feeling particularly blue in a bar at around three A.M. I noticed a girl and ended up picking her up. I should have been forewarned when she was so easy to pick up; I’m very bad at it. The only reason I tried it that night is that I was so drunk. I was shocked by my success until we got back to my hotel and I realized that she was: (1) a hooker; (2) under age; and (3) a junkie. Well, at the end of the night I sent Marty a note saying: “Iris is in my room. We’re having breakfast at nine. Will you please join us?” So we came down, Marty came down, and a lot of the character of Iris was rewritten from this girl who had a concentration span of about twenty seconds. Her name was Garth.”
Manet’s Olympia (a common name for prostitutes at the time, btw) was modeled by Victorine Meurent, an artist who modeled for many of Paris’s demimonde. Meurent though, was much younger, and poorer than her aristocratic male “peers”. The story of Schrader with Garth/Iris is much the same in terms of the exploitive older male exercising his prerogative. Which is exactly what both call attention to, if unwittingly,as they do implicate themselves I think, consciously or otherwise. Though as the Guardian piece linked above makes clear, the abjection still resides in the woman:
“But while Meurent’s contribution was recognised by Manet’s friends, her willingness to pose naked made her a notorious figure to the general public, undermining her hopes of being taken seriously.”
Posing nude made her a prostitute for all intents and purposes then, anyway. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to deter her from wanting to continue her pursuit of painting anymore than it did Foster with acting. The later even talks about how proud she is to have been part of Taxi Driver.
In 1932 Paul Valéry wrote of Olympia, “She bears dreams of all the primitive barbarism and animal ritual hidden and preserved in the customs and practices of urban prostitution”, which applies just as well to Iris.
In the end, Manet and Schrader send-ups to the notion of the ideal “whore” underscore all this projected fantasy. That, and the fact that what is particularly abject exists because there is such demand. Something to mull over more, I think…