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The narrative dress

Published in the May/June 2002 issue of Artpapers

By Keith Miller

Oblivious to the world's foibles and annoyances, Elle Woods wanders through life graced by an abundance of wealth, looks and vacuity. The protagonist of Legally Blonde (played by Reese Witherspoon) walks in an enlightened trance through a fluffy, manicured world on the path to the ultimate goal —marrying the right guy. The demands are clear: bikini wax, sorority, pedicure and perhaps other details such as college. But when she is ditched by Mr. Right, as a result of her West Coast blondeness, it is really too much. Determined to win him back, she studies for the LSAT and gets into Harvard Law. Initially scoffed at, she becomes a heroine to her peers, her hairdresser and even a hard-nosed Harvard professor.

Between the two extremes of stereotypical mindlessness and prototypical transcendence against all odds, our star is the constant, robed in precious pinks and designer outfits. Although this inner transformation is little focused upon, it is, in essence, the central theme of the movie. The director shields us from the messy moment of the character's interior conversion and instead delivers a neat platter of dreams American style, dressed neatly with love, success and a just revenge. Exactly why she goes through it all, and how, is never quite explained. This is a task taken on in a conversely interior story, told in a short video by Shirin Neshat.

In the tradition of St. Theresa of Avila's climactic moments of religious frenzy, the protagonist of Shirin Neshat's nine and a half minute video Possessed (played by Shohren Aghdashloo) walks trance-like through an unnamed Moroccan village. Music follows her delirious path through the town, as she mouths indiscernible phrases. Unlike the other women seen, Aghdashloo wears white with loose, uncovered hair without a veil. Women stare and whisper, men cease their conversation. Children hardly look up from their games. As the camera follows her, it is unclear if sacred joy or insanity overcomes her. Her short trek through the village is all we see.

The journey of Witherspoon in Lgally Blonde and Aghdashloo in Possessed reflect a cinematic schism between inner and outer moments of the anxiety of transformation. For Woods/Witherspoon this is seen in classic narrative form: before, during and after, a Pygmalion for today's Hollywood. In Possessed, we are inside the critical, frenzied moment. We see only the tension-driven, ecstatic confusion, the violence of which makes redemption uncertain.

The chasm between these two stories is played out not only in the story telling but also in the dress. The show-all dress of Elle Woods reveals only emptiness and anxiety. Her fashions, like psychic burkas, cover and negate her. Only when she is freed from defining herself by her wardrobe can she dress freely. Conversely, to go behind the veil of a Muslim woman by simply removing it is meaningless (and negates the fact of the woman's own choice). More significantly, Neshat makes visible the hidden through the inner turmoil of her protagonist.

The complex unmasking of the mystical interior by Neshat is matched by her narrative style. While challenging the western linear tradition in her videos, she has repeatedly constructed complete stories that force the viewer to do the work Hollywood storytellers often do. And this is the peculiarity of her work. With so much cinematic verve and intensity it seems her work is moving toward the realm of film. She appears ready to challenge cinema on its own playing field, from within, instead of from the art gallery or museum.

If the one of the powers of traditional cinema lies in its narrative ability—to make sense out of time—how does cinema function for Neshat and her protagonist, for whom time is without sense? A simple rupture of chronology does not challenge the authority of the narrative. In Neshat's case, the challenge is through a rapturous penetration into the heart of the narrative, beyond words and order. While the chronology is apparent, the denouement is clear only on a meta-linguistic level. Avoiding the simplistic (often a bedfellow of straight chronology) is the true task for the storyteller in this mode.

For many, Legally Blonde's somewhat predictable transformation of a dumb blonde into a charismatic Harvard Law success story is canned and shallow. On the other hand, the openness of Neshat's narrative, while still linear, is somehow so close to cinema that it begs resolution.

Although a neatly constructed plot, packaged for 90 minutes of thoughtless fun is irresistibly attractive, when this clarity is at the expense of real meaning or depth, it is deeply dissatisfying. Legally Blonde is a simple Hollywood story, and a fable with redeeming qualities, despite its apparent lack of depth. Neshat's attempt to transform the narrative inevitability of film into an alternative form of storytelling, wherein the multiplicity of meanings does not get simplified, is heroic. The sinking anxiety of the main characters is central to both the film and the video. In Possessed, the only cause we can glean for our protagonist’s state is the menace of the everyday, the excessive weight of the world. It is an internal anxiety we witness, as well as experience, through a rupturing of external coherence. Elle Woods' anxiety is not concerned with weight but emptiness. This absence of disquiet renders life pitifully wanting of meaning. Unaware of her crisis until accidentally stumbling upon it, she is brought into conflict with her narrative and overcomes it heroically.

Each day we are dressed and dress ourselves in a narrative just as one might put on a military uniform, a burka or a tight pink Versace. The anxiety we feel within these outfits depends not so much on the outfits but how they are worn. For Elle Woods, the dress of sorority success led only to a moment of crisis. Revealed to be authentic and strong, her dress no longer covers up inner anxiety; it reveals the inner strength previously dormant. For the heroine of Possessed, the inevitable redemption is set aside. There is only the moment of struggle. The anxiety of whether she will overcome the oppression she experiences, the weight of the narrative, is left open.