Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stay Down Here Where You Belong

It's what you'd expect from a sepia toned depiction of hell, with indistinct edges and a general blurriness that grows exponentially as the image recedes into the distance. The photo appears to have been taken out in a flat bit of desert somewhere. Stylized cardboard fires of various sizes are perched all over the place. Unconvincing demons wearing flat masks and carrying comically over-sized pitchforks are captured in all sorts of activities. One is pushing an old man into one of the "fires". Another is sharpening the tines of his pitchfork on a grinding wheel. A demon pianist is playing an upright. A demon bartender is serving cocktails from behind a mahogany bar.

I turn to the Madonna of Conflagration. "They dragged a piano and a full sized bar out to the desert? Who the fuck took this picture, Erich von Stroheim?"

"I Know! Isn't it like, the most perfectly ridiculous thing you've ever seen?"

I continue studying the photo. More demons are ostensibly torturing a bevy of scantily clad maidens. This takes up most of the foreground, and is, let's face it, the main reason for the picture's existence. I point out that the "torturing" would be better described as "cavorting" or "frolicking". She makes sure I notice that some of the poses are downright porny.

"According to the guy, that's how you can tell it's from 1916 or around about there. We were between backlashes or something. He says this one's actually super tame for the time. Like, that's why he likes it I think. He doesn't want something too smutty, but he doesn't want an absolute Disney kind of deal either."

"Which one are you going to be?"

She points to a flexible young lady with a winning smile and presumably infinite patience. A heavyset demon is holding her out at arms length towards the camera, his meaty hands clasping her hips. Her back is to the viewer, but she's arched over enough that her whole face is visible (albeit upside down). She's a dead ringer for the Madonna of Conflagration, if you put about a pound of kohl around each eye.

"Wow, he must have been glad to find you."

"You know what? He actually cried. Just a little but like, real tears, okay? It turns out that he wants to do this re-creation as a present for his grandfather. Granddad's totally ancient, and his ninetieth birthday is coming up, and the guy wants to do something special. The original of this photo is like, a family heirloom."

"Passed from sticky hand to sticky hand, and lovingly stored in the sock drawer of the master of the house?"

"Oh don't. I think it's kind of sweet. Well, sweet-ish. Anyway, it's damn good money and all I have to do is stand still for twenty minutes or however long it takes."

I go back to the picture. Towards the back, presiding over the whole thing, sits the devil himself. His throne sits on top of a pile of plaster skulls. Unlike the demons, there's no mask on this guy. They went the makeup route, giving him crazy painted on eyebrows that nearly run in a circle around his face, wavy horns that go on for a mile, and a pointy false beard that you could use to stab someone. Two figures lie at the devil's feet. One is a buxom maiden, who clutches his knee with one hand and holds what could be a pomegranate in the other. The other figure is actually being used as a footrest by the devil. Based on the pointy helmet and huge white whiskers I'm guessing this is one of the more hated political figures of the day.

"The devil, flanked by Persephone and Kaiser Wilhelm? Smut was so much more literary and cosmopolitan back then."

"Yeah, I knew you'd dig it. Anyway, I gotta split. Or uh, whatever they woulda said back then. 23 skidoo or something?"

"Works for me. 23 skidoo backatcha."

She takes one last look at the photo before putting it back in her bag and heading out. But she pauses in the doorway, bends her knees and leans back until she's in the same pose as her doppleganger (minus the support of a meaty demon), and smiles. Then she snaps up straight and walks out into the night.

This piece was partially inspired by Henry Burr's recording of the Irving Berlin song "Stay Down Here Where You Belong".

No comments: