”There’s one,” I say to my LSP, pointing to a thin man dressed in a fitted blue blazer. “There’s another,” I nod toward a middle-aged woman with a smart jacket and chunky jewelry. “But I can be even more specific,” I brag in my braggardly way. “See that slightly unkempt fellow with the earnest beard and elbow patches? He is definitely a labour historian.” One by one, I categorize the people entering the Sheraton New Orleans. “Historian of sexuality. Activist environmental historian. Economic historian of the determinist persuasion. Uh oh, check out the disillusioned grad student with recent haircut and sad bow tie.” We both sigh knowingly. Although I too am in town for the annual meeting of the American Historical Society, I am wearing jeans, sensible shoes, and a hoodie, heading out for a tour of the French Quarter. I should probably be fired.
I made the self-portrait above after doing research for a few nights on Bourbon Street. I blame the barker who said: “Come on in. It’s gonna be a shit show.” Who on earth could resist that promise? Not me, my friends, not me. In the aftermath photo, my face looks tired yet relaxed, my eyebrows raised in anticipation of more learning to come. I did later learn something surprising by checking my facebook status update, which read: “EwHAt I Wean is so dRUNK!!!!!!!!!” I have no memory of having posted that. Holy shit, I am seriously unprofessional. Unashamedly so. Still, I can’t help but notice that in the self-portrait I seem to be growing a moustache. [Note to self: must buy tweezers at the CVS]. My skin is oily, partly because of the hard labour that I have been performing, and partly because of genetics. The source of acne in my teenage years has turned into a blessing in disguise, awarding me with relatively few wrinkles in my mid-forties. For this I am temporarily grateful, but wrinkles can sometimes be worn as a badge of honour. Despite the current rage for botox and other forms of face embalming, wrinkles are making a come back.
In this case, I blame James Bond. Before I explain further, I should say that James Bond films are favoured by smarty-pants academics because they often mess with gender, revealing contemporary anxieties. According to Judith Halberstam, the gender roles in Goldeneye are untraditional, with M being the character that most convincingly performs masculinity, Q coded as queer, and Bond sadly reducible to his gadgets (Female Masculinity, 1998). So what is happening in the latest version, Skyfall? I loved this movie, both for its distracting action scenes and its close-up views of the fleshy eyelids of Javier Bardem. Hot! I understand that there are those—like RenMan—who will not agree with me, but their personal opinions are clearly wrong. Mostly I liked Skyfall‘s representation of masculinity, or I should say masculinities, for there are many versions in the film: M remains the most manfully unemotional, Kincade is the roughly gentle pater familias, and Raoul Silva, the villainous character played by Bardem, is the regressive poofster. Bond himself is the embodiment of an increasingly endangered species. He is a real man, working hard to stay that way. Under constant attack in today’s “anti-he-male” culture in which women want to wear the pants (and in fact wear them pretty well if they are older), he is vulnerable and tired, but also a fighter. Despite the anti-feminist male-hero-as-victim undertones of Skyfall, the Bond character remains ambiguous. Alongside the boringly obligatory heterosex scenes in the film, Skyfall‘s Bond is open to homoeroticism. It will take a lot more than that to scare him, droopy Raoul! Simply looking at the Daniel Craig version of Bond reveals his fearlessly authentic life experience. It is written all over his face, legible in the crevices and creases that connote truth and hard work. In contrast, the evil Bardem is puffy-of-face, like a blow fish, with an artificial corporeal identity that is finally revealed when he removes false teeth to show the horror of his rotten interior.
Textured flesh is linked with authority and time-honoured tradition in other recent films. Consider Lincoln, which theatrically features scenes in which raking light savours the wrinkles and folds of historical figures who are played by real actors, not the usual inflatable sex doll types from Hollywood. Like the august face of Dame Judi Dench as M, the visage of Sally Field as the controversial Mary Todd Lincoln is haggardly inscribed with suffering and endurance. Both female actors have refused to “have work done,” something that is increasingly admired. For more images that associate cracked skin with the direct communication of a straightforward personality, see the remarkable photographs of Appalachian people made by Shelby Lee Adams, which I appreciated while visiting the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans (http://shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com/). In all three cases, an acceptance of facial ageing is portrayed as a natural bulwark that resists the encroaching superficiality of modern culture and its technologies.
The idea that faces convey personality is nothing new. The art of physiognomy was highly developed by the seventeenth century in Europe, when commerce was largely based on oral agreement. It was often necessary to take a trading partner at his or her word, putting your trust in that person rather than in credentials or legal documents. How to make a good decision? Well, in addition to inquiring about his or her family and reputation, it was standard practice to take a hard look at that person’s face and demeanour, searching for the slyly shifting eyes or heavy eyelids of a liar. Numerous early modern publications provided tips on how to read the faces of fellow humans. Efforts to codify the human visage continued long afterward, in phrenology—a manner of reading the size and shape of the human skull for telltale signs of character, revived with a passion during the nineteenth century—and in the later police photos that attempted (and still try) to define the appearance of a typical criminal. No doubt, my curious and well-informed readers can think of many other cases in which the practice of physiognomy is alive and well. One relatively new problem is, however, that this quest for knowledge cannot be reliably applied to someone who has a cosmetically altered body or face. That is why we mistrust older people with unlined, full faces, imagining that they have something to hide, even as contemporary western culture promotes a youthful appearance as the only desirable option.
I was thinking about the meaning of wrinkles while visiting New Orleans, looking closely at everyone’s face in a way that many people found weird and even alarming. I wondered what they saw when they looked back at me, other than a middle-class white lady who enunciated while speaking. No doubt I appeared to be quite elderly when entering the Circle Bar with my partner to hear live bands the other night. The venue consisted of a small living room filled with 22-year-olds wearing skinny jeans and toques. “I have an idea,” suggested my LSP. “Let’s go into the middle of that crowd and start making out to celebrate our 25th anniversary. All the kids will be disgusted.” “Oh yeah,” I replied with glee. “They will have to cup their hands and then vomit into them.” Just then, a fifty-something man wearing gray jogging pants pushed by us on his way to the bathroom. “Thank you sir,” we both chimed. “Now we are no longer the oldest and most hideous people in the bar. We are the second oldest and most hideous.” Oh how we laughed as we drank inexpensive hoppy beer, and snapped our fingers to the happening beat. Full of wisdom, we eagerly added a few lines of life experience to our sagging faces by drinking our way through the rest of New Orleans.