The Disquieting Muses




In Within Heaven and Hell (1996), Ellen Cantor’s voice-over tells the story of a doomed love affair while the video footage toggles back and forth between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Sound of Music (1965) – between bursts of blood and bursts of song, between a sadist on a rampage and the fantasy of family, between dream and nightmare – which is to say: the footage tells the story of a love affair, too.



Cantor’s voice – at once curious and chewy, deeply matter-of-fact – describes the time she fucked her lover in a hotel room when she was on her period. Her blood was smeared across both their bodies, three red handprints went up her back like she was a ladder getting climbed to safety. She and her lover said to each other, ‘It’s just like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ which plays on the screen as she narrates the memory: Leatherface lunges across dusty floorboards, a girl in cut-off shorts rises from a porch swing to walk toward the back door of a farmhouse. Don’t do it! we want to shout during horror films, whenever characters walk toward closed doors. Don’t do it! we want to shout during the ordinary days of our lives, whenever friends walk toward selfish lovers.



But we also get it. We get the curiosity of the girl and we get the way she compels us. We get the grotesque pleasure of watching her get bloody, the pleasure of getting bloody ourselves, getting tangled up with the bodies of others and getting marked by someone else bleeding: lust as bloodbath. The narration of a bloody scene between lovers nicely inverts the blood logic on screen: instead of a man getting a woman bloody, a woman is getting a man bloody. It’s still the woman’s blood, but it’s not from a wound – it’s not a sign of what’s been done to her, or taken from her.



If hell is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then heaven is The Sound of Music. We move between their respective visions of extremity – love as senseless peril and love as salvation fantasy – while Cantor’s own story unfolds: Boy-Meets-Girl-They- Cum-It-Ends. They meet in London. He doesn’t like her. She likes him. His life force, she tells him, is the first one she’s encountered that’s as strong as her own. They fuck. She goes home to New York. She comes back. He spurns her at first. (‘It was painful,’ she says, while the screen shows Pam getting hung on a meathook.) But then he changes his mind. ‘You’re obsessive and too heavy,’ he tells her, ‘and I like it.’



They go hiking. They search for a lake but find a deer instead. They fuck like rabbits. While we hear about them fucking, we see the von Trapp children with Maria on screen, the nun-lover who exists first and foremost as a surrogate mother. We hear about Cantor and her lover going to a wedding in a castle. They dance! Then he tells her he’s engaged to someone else. Straight-up soap, right? Avec chainsaw.



All the while, the visuals blink between dream and nightmare: a woman in a white wedding dress; a woman shoved into a white freezer; a puppet show with marionette goats and a wizened old ghoul slumped in a chair; a girl running toward a gazebo and a girl shattering a window as she hurls her body through it. ‘The hills are alive with the sound of muuuuusic!’ we hear, as Leatherhead stumbles senseless through the gloaming with his merciless instrument rumbling in his hands. It’s ridiculous and hilarious, just as it’s ridiculous and hilarious to grant an ordinary botched affair this kind of cinematic sweep and scale. It’s ridiculous and hilarious to compare an ambivalent lover to a homicidal sadist whose goal is maximising an innocent girl’s pain.



But, I mean. Kind of. Also. Right? I can’t help feeling we’ve all felt toward our ambivalent lovers, for some furtive, indulgent moment: You are a sadist whose goal is maximising my pain.



The whole premise of Cantor’s piece plays with the texture of spectacle and the implicit accusation of melodrama; the hubris that lies latent in association. Its juxtapositions are obscene and outlandish. Its shifts in scale are adamant. As Sally screams at one end of a dining room table – bound and gagged, served dinner by Leatherface in drag – Cantor describes thinking about her parents and their marriage, her lover’s parents and their marriage; thinking about rape, thinking about war. ‘Fucking hell,’ she wonders. ‘Is there no way out of this?’



No way out of what? Political violence? Sexual violence? The tyranny of domestic fantasy? The trauma of emotional disconnection? The leather-faced maniac’s dining room?



Part of the discomfort of Cantor’s art, a discomfort it purposefully courts, is the way it brings together dissonant scales: the scale of political consciousness and historical trauma and the smaller scale of private emotional experience. It can seem absurd, hubristic, or self-pitying to juxtapose these scales (which she does) and flatout wrong-footed to conflate them (which she never does). Her work understands the personal as political, but it’s also invested in making us uncomfortable about accepting the equation as self-evident: personal experience might carry attachments to political structures, but it doesn’t offer ready-made political argument.



On its most basic level, Within Heaven and Hell shows Janus-faced Love at its most dramatic: the blissful fantasy of a happy union, all puppet shows and stolen kisses, juxtaposed against the danger and vulnerability and brutality of how things often play out – in misunderstanding and wreckage, in the psychic bloodbath of a broken heart. But the visual schizophrenia ends up feeling uncomfortably porous, as if each side of the binary holds its opposite tucked in its grip. The hills are alive with a restless menace, and there’s something seductive about a girl covered in blood. Even Leatherface is fuelled by some inscrutable yearning behind his mask.



Everything comes together at the close, as the film flicks back and forth between two dinner party scenes: Sally is strapped to a wooden chair, screaming at the ghoulish grandfather seated across from her, while the von Trapp children play a trick on Maria – a pine cone on her seat! – and everyone giggles around the table. It’s a kind of genre whiplash, and it creates hilarious enjambments: the psychopath inches down the table toward his victim and then, a beat later, a row of white-frocked, well-coiffed children look absolutely aghast. We see Liesl looking gravely concerned, as if Leatherface has come all the way to the Swiss Alps just to fuck with her dessert course. For a second, as the film moves between these scenes, you can see a bleed between frames – a superimposing of Sally’s terrified body onto The Sound of Music, the residue of horror ghost-grafted onto an elegant dining room: the spectral figure of a frightened woman, writhing in agony, like an uninvited guest at the von Trapp party – or a spirit conjured by a séance.



A woman’s voice narrating the story of a love affair gone wrong is the kind of thing that usually gets called confessional without a second thought – knee-jerk genre taxonomy – but the blood and saccharine of these visuals, their fierce playfulness and deft weave – it all fucks with any easy notion of how the confessional genre operates. It’s Cantor confessing by way of showing things that have nothing to do with her life. It’s oblique confession, a kind of ventriloquism; everything twisted and deployed instead of just getting exposed. Her life emerges as a tool, just another kind of footage in her archive. ‘In reality, I am painstakingly exacting in my work,’ Cantor said. ‘It’s true it is emotionally charged, but it’s not random or quickly executed… I spend a lot of time organising, measuring, changing, shifting, searching, slowly developing the work… like alchemy or a mathematical equation.’



Her confessional story ends in yet another hotel, which feels right. It’s a transient love affair, stubbornly unstable – moving between hotel rooms, between resident visuals, between moods, between genres. Cantor describes going down to the lobby to tell the front desk clerk she needs to change rooms. She has just had a fight with her boyfriend, she explains to the clerk, and she might kill herself if she has to stay in the same room where they fought. The clerk gives her the key to room 51. ‘Don’t worry,’ she tells Cantor, while on screen a woman jumps straight through a window and flees across the grass. ‘The darkest hour is always just before dawn.’


is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, and a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. Her work has appeared in Harper's, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer. She is a columnist for the New York Times Book Review, and an Assistant Professor at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.