Editor's note: Ever since the launch of DG my friend David Bernstein (a Bay Area engineer, not the Volokh Conspiracy blogger) has been passing on interesting glamour-related links and observations. I've finally persuaded him to join us with the occasional post. Here's his debut. For more on this topic, check out this 1974 New York magazine article by Anne Hollander (and for a really creepy experience, keep scrolling to the one after it). [VP]
A couple of Sundays ago the other half was watching Little Women from 1949 on TV while I walked through the living room. Now, I'm an engineer, so fashion generally slides right past me, but the clothes of all the girls (little women?) activated the pattern recognition part of my brain. It seemed that they were all wearing dresses with inverted triangles over the upper torso. They struck me as looking more like photos I've seen of women from the post-World War II era rather than around the Civil War. It got me to thinking about how art that depicts history is affected by the time of the art itself, as opposed to that of the depicted history. It can be difficult to remove the current-colored lenses that we all peer through.
To illustrate the point, here is a montage of scenes from three different versions of Little Women.
When I first saw this painting a few years ago at SMU's Meadows Museum, I thought it was some kind of spoof. Surely the sunglasses were an anachronism in a Baroque painting.
But, no, Jusepe de Ribera's Portrait of a Knight of Santiago is a legitimate 17th-century work. The Meadows website explains that the "large ebony spectacles are of a fashionable type sometimes worn by upper class Spaniards. Besides adding concentration to the sitter’s already imposing gaze, the spectacles offered Ribera an opportunity to capture the subtle interplay of shadow and reflection in the lenses as well as a glimpse into the sitter’s personality."
The history of sunglasses seems under-researched. This dubiously sourced article seems to be the Ur-text of most online histories, but even this seemingly more reliable one suggests that tinted lenses date only to 1752, a history contradicted by de Ribera's painting from more than a century before. But there seems to be a consensus that they only caught on in the early 20th century.
Why did it take so long? Were there manufacturing and cost barriers? Or did hats and veils provide the physical and psychological protection that now come from shades? If you know more, or can point me toward good sources, please leave a comment or send an email to vpostrel-at-deepglamour.net.
To the contemporary eye, this George Hurell photo of Carole Lombard (part of an enormous auction this Friday and Saturday) seems strange. She looks beautiful, and the lighting and pose are glamorous. But what’s with the plastic sheeting? Is that a shower curtain to her left?
Behold the glamour of cellophane. Like diamonds or crystal, cellophane has a sparkling, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality. Although transparent, when crinkled and lit correctly it creates a teasing mystery. In Glamour: A History, Stephen Gundle likens cellophane to “striptease, which achieved its effect by constantly making the unveiled body more remote.”Wrapped in cellophane, “products were available but untouchable and therefore inaccessible.”
In Hurrell’s photo, the shimmering plastic catches the light, creating a cool, translucent contrast to the soft opacity of Lombard’s feathered dress and the warmth of her skin. If you don’t associate plastic with cheapness, cellophane makes perfect sense as a glamorous material. Like glamour itself, it is alluringly artificial.In the 1920s and ’30s, cellophane’s appeal went beyond these intrinsic aesthetic properties. This new material epitomized high-tech modernity: “You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain / You’re the National Gallery / You’re Garbo’s salary / You’re cellophane!” sang Cole Porter in "You're the Top!"
Judith Brown in Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, which I reviewed along with the Gundle book here, devotes an entire chapter to cellophane. She is interested, she writes, in the material as “pure surface...a protective veneer from dusty reality.” And she notes its ubiquity in the popular culture of the 1920s and ’30s:
Cellophane tablecloths glitter in an upscale nightclub in the Astaire-Rogers blockbuster Swing Time (1936); cellophane also appears in an earlier Joan Crawford film, Dancing Lady (1933), in the transparent swags at the back of a dance set, and again in the Broadway musical staged within the film. in this film, the cellophane also appears in costume form: a group of black-attired old women, complete with bonnets, lace collars, wire glasses, and bent-over backs make their way into a futuristic beauty parlor and emerge as modern bombshells, perfectly artificial with cellophane outfits and what might be plastic hair. Cellophane similarly appears in a swanky Chinese nightclub as the “The Girls in Cellophane” take the stage in W. C. Fields’s International House (1933). The pages of Vogue magazine also mark cellophane as haute couture, here as the “cellophane toque” that makes a “deceptively simple” garment cutting edge by newly framing the model’s face in the most artificial of head covers; and again, as an arresting sight in this newspaper photograph of an urban street. Cellophane fashion staked out a turning point: cellophane was chic and, above all, now.
This Hurrell photo of Joan Crawford, whose negative is in the auction, is from Dancing Lady. Although Crawford is not literally wearing cellophane, her dress has a similar sparkling, translucent quality. It makes her look like a star.
Chanel demonstrated that same sense of style and practicality in creating pant suits, and suits with skirts. Marlene Dietrich is shown at left wearing a Chanel pants suit designed in 1933. You can find Bill Eppridge’s well-known 1966 photo of some famous women wearing Chanel suits here.
As I read about Chanel I realized that a lot of creative work happens in a variety of fields because someone says to themselves, “I could do better than that.” “Better” might mean anything from better suited to your personal taste (such as improving on a recipe) to more satisfying intellectually (perhaps creating a new scientific theory that better matches recently discovered information).
The people who become best known in particular fields tend to have been trying to do better work in those fields for quite a long time. Chanel started as a hat maker and gradually expanded into other areas, including clothing, costume jewelry, and perfume. It often takes a while to master the basic knowledge of a given field needed to execute that “better” idea.
But to get you going, some personal and particular dissatisfaction with the status quo can be a valuable thing. It can motivate you, and help you focus your thoughts and possibly imagine a different approach. In doing this, it helps if you are comfortable imaging that your ideas might in some way contribute to the future being different from the present, even if you’re not sure exactly how (as Virginia argues eloquently in The Future and Its Enemies). It is easy, for example, to underestimate the difference that Chanel’s new clothing options made. But just consider how much easier it became for women to fit our image of people who can successfully hold management positions once they had their own versions of business suits. To see how much difference clothing imagery can make, compare your impression of the shown image of Dietrich in her 1933 Chanel pants suits with this 1935 feminine-goddess image of Dietrich or this portrait of the Wyndham sisters in their Belle Ãpoque dresses. Playing a variety of roles in life is far easier when you have clothing options that help you to look the part for each one.
Writers often treat glamorous and charismatic as synonyms (as does this online thesaurus). Both qualities are appeals that draw in the audience, but (as I discuss in my DoubleX article on Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes, excerpted below) they work in entirely different ways, with different implications for the ongoing relationship between audience, object, and broader causes.
Charisma is a personal characteristic like intelligence. A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. Charisma moves the audience but flows from the charismatic person. Even unsympathetic audiences can feel its power. (Charisma in someone hostile can be quite frightening.) Glamour, by contrast, is a quality like humor that emerges in the exchange between audience and object; its existence depends on the audience’s receptive imagination.
If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why he has so much trouble persuading the public that elected him to support his policies. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, in which the audience, not the subject, supplies the meaning, then it’s not surprising that Obama means different things to different people and thus has difficulty rallying his supporters in favor of a given policy.
A still photograph best captures glamour; a live performance most powerfully conveys charisma. Glamour operates at a distance; it requires mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the details with its own desires. The most effective live performers are charismatic on stage. They may also be glamorous, but that depends largely on the relationship between audience and the performer’s off-stage persona.
Charisma disappears with death. Charismatic figures are thus remembered only through accounts of their charms or the effects of their actions. As time passes, their personal magnetism becomes less and less understood, especially if there are no live recordings of their performances. Historians can tell us plenty about Jacksonian democracy, but we can’t fully comprehend why Andrew Jackson was its representative. Dolley Madison was famous in her day, but her charms are lost. Her only memorable action seems to be saving the Stuart portrait of George Washington when the British sacked Washington. Given the roles available throughout much of history, it’s not surprising that we remember far more charismatic men than women. Generals, politicians, preachers, and entrepreneurs change nations and leave behind institutions. Hostesses, courtesans, and teachers generally do not.
After death, charisma is sometimes transmuted into glamour. The charismatic figure loses his or her individuality and original appeal to the audience’s myth-making desires. Joan of Arc may be the preeminent example of this phenomenon. “Instead of a bold and charismatic leader, talented soldier, and quick-witted girl, she was recast symbolically as an agent of God, a simple peasant girl chosen to humble the great and powerful,” writes historian Larissa Juliet Taylor in The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, a new book that seeks to separate the woman from the myth. (Something similar happened with Dolley Madison's image, though to a much lesser extent.) By contrast, the evolution of Princess Diana suggests that, in life, glamour can sometimes be replaced by charisma—as the personal magnetism of the flawed “People’s Princess” substituted for the fairy-tale mythology of the youthful bride.
Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?
It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.
In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.
During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual complexity—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.
Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.
Nixon famously underestimated the visual power of TV. He refused makeup, against the advice of his television advisor, Ted Rogers, even though he'd just regained health after a two-week illness. As a result, he appeared tired and run-down.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was the picture of health, tanned and ready after campaigning in California—a "bronze warrior," as Rogers described him. The perfect picture of mid-century strength, youth, and masculine glamour.
The radio audience considered Nixon the winner, but unfortunately for Nixon, that moment coincided with a shift in the public's behavior. Kennedy's youth and vigor appealed to the television audience, who thought he won the debate.
The momentum Kennedy picked up at that first debate proved too much for Nixon, in 1960, anyway. The lesson Nixon learned the hard way - never underestimate the visual impact of health and glamour—was burned in every rising politico's brain.
In recent years, we've seen another shift in media and glamour, as the particular charms of the Internet force candidates to learn how to respond quickly and effectively to a constituent base made up of citizen journalists. Being able to adeptly manage messages is even more difficult now than it was in 1960. But the importance of glamour is still there—just ask will.i.am. Even today, politicians hope to capture the healthy, young, exciting energy that Kennedy so effortlessly projected back in September 1960.
A look at the Nixon/Kennedy debates and the impact they had on the election:
The American hotel is not just a place to stay but a revolutionary institution, embodying hospitality as a liberal value and delivering once-elite services in a mass, democratic form. So argues historian Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz in Hotel: An American History. With its combination business, legal, and social history, the book offers a new way of seeing an industry we think we know.
Writing in the NYT Book Review Dominique Browning called the book “dense, ambitious and valuable,” concluding, “I will never again check into a hotel without thinking of myself as an ambassador of peace; that alone, with its profound implications, makes this thoughtful book worthwhile.” (It also gave her “an entirely new take on spoiled, bratty, neglected, charming Eloise, living at the Plaza.”) “This brilliant history,” wrote Kerry Howley in Reason, “is a reminder that the fear of the traveling stranger is something we have overcome before.”
An assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Andrew is currently editing a special issue of Winterthur Portfolio on the subject of business architecture. We're delighted he was willing to contribute to Hotel Week.
DG: How did you get interested in hotels?
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz: It happened rather by chance. In the spring of 1996 I was in my second year of graduate school, and looking for a dissertation topic. While attending a historians’ conference, I spent some time in the beautiful second-floor lobby at the Palmer House in Chicago. As I watched the people come and go, I began to think about interactions among total strangers and how fraught they could be with delight, temptation, and danger—especially at a place with lots of alcohol and lots of beds. What if I were to write a history of hotels, with all their attendant elegance, naughtiness, and political intrigue? “Now, that,” I thought, “would be a guaranteed non-boring Ph.D. thesis!”
Palmer House lobby
DG: You write, “It is extremely easy for people to say one thing and do another....But when they construct a building—especially a large and complex one like a hotel—it is harder to argue that they didn’t really mean it.” What were the people who built America’s hotels saying?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were extending a welcome to strangers and outsiders in a way that hadn’t been done in America for almost 200 years. From the beginnings of European settlement in the early 1600s until the first hotels in the 1790s, Americans offered travelers only the most rudimentary of accommodations. European wayfarers who wrote about hospitality here were constantly complaining about bad food, overcharging, filth, vermin, and having to share beds with complete strangers. Moreover, many American communities had laws allowing them to inspect, interrogate, and eject anyone who was in a town other than their home community. But when people in the early United States started devoting enormous amounts of money, creativity, labor, and building materials to building a new class of public accommodations, it was an unmistakable sign that they had changed their views of outsiders, deciding to welcome them in style instead of viewing them with suspicion.
DG: You note that in the 19th-century guests spent very little time in their hotel rooms and that travel writers and journalists focused almost all their attention on the public areas of hotels. Why?
Sandoval-Strausz: Leading hotels at that time weren’t just about paying for a bed and a bath—they were places people went to see and be seen, to enjoy the pleasure of being in public. The entire approach to being a hotel guest was fundamentally sociable, so who would want to stay cooped up in their room? Hotel rooms were very small and plain then; it was the public areas—the lobby, dining rooms, lounges, bars, and the like—that hotelkeepers worked hardest to make beautiful.
DG: How was the role of a 19th-century hotel lobby different from the role of such a lobby today?
Sandoval-Strausz: In some respects I think today’s hotel lobbies are moving back toward the role they played a century and a half ago. After the past few decades, during which lobbies were becoming sparse, sterile spaces that were no more than waiting areas for people who wanted to go upstairs, hoteliers have again begun to see them as important gathering-places for their neighborhoods. In the nineteenth century, the lobby was the most exciting space in the entire building. Hotelkeepers spent enormous amounts of money on carpets, furniture, draperies, and other elements of décor so that they could attract people to their premises. Indeed, hotel lobbies were such important social and business centers that the majority of people in them weren’t travelers at all, but locals who simply wanted to meet friends or do business in the most vital and glamorous place in town.
DG: Today’s hotel guests tend to be baffled by the idea that an “American plan” means meals are included. What is the origin of this term? What was the appeal of the 19th-century hotel dining room?
Sandoval-Strausz: This term originated at a time when European travelers expected to take their meals privately, in their rooms. Americans thought this was impardonably rude: in a country based on the idea that “all men are created equal,” it was seen as snobbish and antisocial to want to keep your distance from others. The “American plan,” in which your room charge automatically included meals eaten in a common dining room, expressed the idea that it was proper to eat at long tables alongside your fellow citizens. For Americans, this was both a way of expressing their ideals about equality and democracy and an opportunity to put on a nice change of clothes and enjoy a banquet-like experience in a grand dining hall.
Stereoscopic view of Lick House dining room, San Francisco
DG: Luxury hotels play a prominent role in the movies of the 1930s and ’40s, with wealthy characters often living in hotels for long periods of time (sometimes permanently). How common were such living arrangements? What was the appeal of living in a hotel rather than in an apartment or house?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were very common, and not just in the 1930s and 1940s. More than a hundred years before, people recognized that living in a hotel was very convenient because so much of the everyday drudgery of living would be handled by the hotel staff. If you had the resources, you didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or laundry because hotel chefs, chambermaids, and washerwomen would do the work. Hotel living allowed single people and families to enjoy services and amenities that were usually only available to those with private servants.
DG: In the mid-19th century, critics decried the rise of hotel living for corroding family life while reformers saw hotels as a model for efficient domesticity, with shared cooking, laundry, and other services. Why did hotel living die out in the 20th century?
Sandoval-Strausz: This was in substantial part the result of housing policies that began in the 1930s and the prosperity of the 1950s and after. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government brought mortgage rates down much lower than they’d ever been; and in the post-World War II period, the U.S. became the most prosperous nation that had ever existed. The combination of the two led to many people being able to afford the kind of freestanding, single-family house that was idealized for so many years in Anglo-American culture.
DG: Do hotels today represent an extension of ordinary domestic life or an escape from it? Has that changed over time?
Sandoval-Strausz: These days it’s definitely an escape, if the way they are advertised is anything to go by. Over the past ten or fifteen years, hotel companies have been emphasizing the specialness and glamour of staying at a hotel. For travelers, it’s the promise of something exotic, or historic, or especially hip—but in all cases different from your workaday routine. They’re also advertising in-town escapes, as when they try to draw married couples in for sexy weekends away from the kids and household responsibilities. This has indeed changed over time. In some eras, hotelkeepers tried to emphasize that hotels offered all the comforts of home: they gave guests personalized attention, tried to make the entire hotel seem like an extended family, and so on—indeed, hoteliers in the nineteenth century would often stand at the head table in their dining room and cut the roast for the guests, thus taking on the symbolic role of the head of a regular household. In other eras, they emphasized the predictability and machine-like efficiency of their operations, featuring anything from a large-capacity steam-driven laundry machine to a modern electric elevator to a corps of dining room waiters who served with military precision.
DG: What makes a hotel glamorous?
Sandoval-Strausz: It could be any of a few things. Many historic hotels are glamorous because of their incredible architecture: some of the most elegant hotels in the country—the Plaza, the Fairmont, the Blackstone—were built about a century ago, at a time when hotel builders spared no expense on elaborate ornamentation and décor. Some recent establishments, like the leading W Hotels locations, offer up-to-the-minute style and the latest in architecture and materials, using a modern minimalist visual vocabulary to dazzle and intrigue. And still others, like La Fonda in Santa Fe or the Peabody in Memphis, simply express the local culture perfectly, expressing confidence in their vernacular heritage and charm.
DG: Do you have a favorite hotel or hotel experience?
Sandoval-Strausz: This takes me back to the initial inspiration for my book. I like just sitting and having a drink in an elegant hotel bar or hotel lobby, watching what people do. They may smile or they may complain, they may look exhausted at the end of a long flight or exhilarated at the prospect of a night on the town, they may be giving a hug to old friends or flirting with someone cute whom they’ve just met. But they’re always up to something interesting, because if they wanted to be boring, they’d have just stayed at home.
To see a Slate slide show of hotel photos, with text by Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, go here.
While traveling my wife and I often stay in historical hotels. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries some interesting hotels were built as stops on railroad lines, the kind of place where Harvey Girls or other uniformed staff served you. Resort spa hotels were often built near natural features such as hot springs.
Many of these hotels closed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Some have been renovated and reopened. The mineral resources of the western United States have generated boom-and-bust cycles that continue to this day. For example, Las Vegas, New Mexico, was once a wealthy mining and railroad community which had several hotels. The Castañeda, a mission-style Harvey House hotel, is now a decaying giant whose vacant rooms sleep silently only a few steps from the train station (the hotel was used in the film Red Dawn). A picturesque city, Las Vegas has been used in many films, especially in the days of silent Westerns. In another part of town the 1881 Plaza Hotel still operates (we’ve stayed there, and it‘s shown in the photo). The Plaza Hotel was used in the film No Country for Old Men).
Many of these hotels were built in boom periods and were furnished resplendently. These hotels were places where presidents, congressmen, and railroad and mining barons stayed, as well as famous entertainers. In some hotels the rooms are named for the film stars or presidents who stayed in them.
The present-day condition of such hotels varies from abandoned shells to five-star splendor (an example of the latter is the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs). We recently stayed in a historic resort hotel whose grandeur had faded a bit (I’ll leave it unnamed). There were echoes of its former majesty, as well as signs that times had changed. There were no bellhops, for example, uniformed or not, to the disappointment of one elderly couple. And the decor was sometimes slightly off—the new carpet in the dining room clashed with the upholstery.
During our stay there I noticed that the music heard in the lobby and dining room was 1940s big-band music, and I pondered why it is that Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and other singers of that era are so often heard as background music in upscale locations.
One reason might be language. When I phoned about a change in our reservation, I was told, “That won’t be no problem.” The double negative told me that some of the staff would be downscale. Perhaps the relatively urbane language of many big-band era song lyrics era helps hotels project some sense of sophistication. In contrast, the vernacular dialects used in many post-1950s lyrics might create a more commonplace ambiance. If you’re striving to create an elegant dining room experience, hearing Mick Jagger sing “I can’t get no satisfaction” might shift the diners’ moods in the wrong direction. (An even worse strategy would be Karaoke. We stopped to look at one beautiful old hotel, but there was an outdoor Karaoke event going on, which demolished the Victorian ambiance.)
In keeping with DeepGlamour’s recent hat party, I think hats have an oblique relevance. In the hotel where we were staying, when you looked at photographs of its glory days, you might notice that the guests in earlier decades frequently wore hats. And when you see photographs of singers like Frank Sinatra in his heyday, he is often wearing a hat and a tailored suit. Thus when patrons hear the music of that period, they think of a time in which many entertainers dressed with high-fashion elegance when they performed, and they are reminded of a time when high style was appreciated. In a 1996 interview, American-born fashion designer Tom Ford commented, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It's looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style....In fashion, you can really tell that America is descended from the Puritans.”
The only hat that I saw at the hotel was a baseball hat worn by an attractive, model-thin woman in a black, stretch tee and a great looking pair of khaki pants. The baseball hat created a fun look, though I couldn’t help thinking that a stylish fedora would have made her outfit look more hipster current. Then again, thinking of Tom Ford’s comments, perhaps she didn't want to look “too stylish.” Otherwise, the contrast between her appearance and her husband’s, who arrived a few moments later in trucker-like clothes, might have seemed comic—though probably not from her perspective.
[Photo of the Plaza Hotel used under the GNU Free Documentation License.]
The Baader-Meinhof Complex, now playing in U.S. theaters, tells the story of the West German domestic terrorists who called themselves the Red Army Faction. Over about a decade, beginning in the late 1960s, they committed increasingly brutal acts, from bank robberies to kidnappings and murder, in the name of global revolution.
Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair, called the movie “the year’s best-made and most counter-romantic action thriller.” Others have been less approving. The LAT’s Kenneth Turan deemed it “an exploitation film on a socially conscious subject, the equivalent of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ having a love child with ‘The Fast and the Furious.’” When it was released in Germany last fall, some felt it was “a little too sexy for comfort” and trafficked in “terrorist-chic.”
“The film portrays one murder after another without any sense of meaning, any explanation,” Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl, who was abandoned to a Palestinian orphanage by her terrorist mother, complained in an interview with the Associated Press. She said that “in nonverbal but very suggestive ways, the film insinuates that their motivations for terrorism are understandable.”
These contradictory reactions reflect an uncomfortable fact about terrorism and political extremism: To the right audience, they can be very glamorous. They promise purity and meaning, attention and fame and a sense of belonging. Evil does not always appear ugly and unappealing. It can even be sexy.
“Terror is glamour,” said Salman Rushdie in a 2006 interview with an incredulous Der Spiegel reporter. It was an astute observation. “The suicide bomber’s imagination,” he noted, “leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives.” What The Baader-Meinhof Complex reminds us is that the glamour of terrorism extends not only to those who actively engage in such violent acts but to the broader public that admires or justifies those actions.
Intentionally or not, this movie about violent leftists illuminates the mass psychology of fascism. (Or maybe seeing crowds of Germans chanting and raising their fists just makes me think of Hitler.) Hitchens writes:
Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts.
In its descent from glamour to ever-greater brutality and degradation, however, The Baader-Meinhof Complex most resembles a movie with no political agenda: Casino. It is no more a defense of terrorism than Casino is an ad for the Mafia.
But, of course, glamour depends on the audience and so, then, does its deconstruction. German journalist Claudia Fromme, writing in the Times of London, recounted one disconcerting reaction:
As the credits rolled and the lights went up at a screening I attended in Munich, one member of the audience raised his fist in a gesture of sympathy.
He was barely 20 years old, munching popcorn and wearing a hooded jumper. The assiduously factual debunking of the “Baader-Meinhof myth” obviously did not work for everyone in the audience.