Johnny Depp's original 'Winona Forever' tattoo. Image Source: johnnydepp.org.
In the past couple of days, the word forever kept coming up. Finally, it all converged in a 'plate of shrimp' moment. The first mention came up in this analysis at The White Review of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. The article, Famous Tombs: Love in the 90s, described Depp's and Ryder's relationship as the American youth romance of the decade. Author Masha Tupitsyn then probed a more interesting question. She almost cracked what, exactly, happened to the Depp-Ryder romance, not in terms of what it meant privately to the two actors, because we can't know that, but what it represented to the rest of us.
Image Source: Buzzfeed.
Tupitsyn hints that it never went anywhere, but Johnny and Winona did. She believes that Depp sublimated it in alcohol and drugs, replacing love for a woman with addictions so distracting that it became impossible to get back to the original source. Meanwhile, Ryder moved forward, but part of her is still trapped in that past time. It wasn't just her love for Depp. She embodied a decade for Generation Jones and Gen X rebels, symbolized by the curious fact that she is naturally a blonde, but for decades has dyed her hair Gothic black:
Depp and Ryder started in gothic and horror genres. Their early work, like that of contemporaries Keanu Reeves, Parker Posey and River Phoenix, appeared in dark indie films or popular movies with unsettling vibes. Depp made his feature film debut in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), in which he played a nice but useless boyfriend. These roles reflected a time, when, for a brief period, surreal depictions of the collective unconscious entered the American mainstream in almost unedited forms. It was remarkable. David Lynch, an American director surreal enough to be respected by Europeans, became popular, as his Twin Peaks exposed the underside of the American Dream.Like John Cusack, another black haired/pale skinned 80s/90s idol, as well as a youth actor whose great, and perhaps only gift, was to enact a different kind of youth (a counter-youth and counter-masculinity) in his youth, Winona Ryder was never timeless, she was of the time. Most especially that brief time in her life, her teenage years and early twenties. Perhaps this is why Jake Gyllenhaal’s light hair was dyed jet-black for the retroactive DONNIE DARKO, and Christian Slater’s jet-black for HEATHERS. Something about dark hair showing up in the late 80s and early 90s as a form of retribution for an aesthetically fascistic and representationally narrow decade. These are people who were not kissed by the sun, who were not California Dreamin’, or, as the German writer Heinrich Laube puts it, ‘These pale youths are uncanny, concocting God knows what mischief.’ If, as the teenage radio pirate DJ, ‘Hard Harry’ puts it in PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990), the 80s were a totally ‘exhausted decade, where there’s nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to’, Winona Ryder rose up from the bleached-blonde ashes of the 1980s.
Image Source: The White Review.
Image Source: tumblr.
The White Review quotes famous remarks the actors made about each other (above), in which Ryder stated they would be bonded forever and saw it as a basic fact. Meanwhile, Depp equated their bond with Ryder's pain and his death. Maybe he wasn't wrong. Tupitsyn realizes that people just don't talk like that anymore because when it comes to PR, forever is not a word you want:
By the end of the 90s, there was a sense that America had looked too deeply into the scrying pool, and withdrew, unnerved by glimpses of forbidden knowledge. The mainstream defanged gothic surrealism, turned it into a play-fair funride, whereas in the early 90s especially, frightening stories and romantic secrets really meant business. By the 2000s, PR machines stripped the gothic romantic of its threatening aspects and introduced sparkling vampires.[H]ere they are, two Hollywood stars at the top of their game, saying this about each other in print. Talking about dying when, according to Hollywood, which considers itself reason enough to live, these two have everything—not just each other—to live for. Today public relations would nuke a statement like this. Today no one ever takes old words lost to lost worlds like ‘die’ and ‘forever’ seriously. Nor would anyone even think to publicly state this about someone else, someone they love, let alone an actor in print. Today public relations would tell—or worse, would no longer have to—Ryder and Depp not to talk like that in public because talking like that is morose and alienates fans, especially when the lovers in question are young, famous sex symbols. Can we imagine two actors saying this today, killing their burgeoning careers with melodramatic words like forever and die, when most celebrity couples won’t even discuss their love lives, let alone admit to dying over a breakup? For a while, Gwyneth Paltrow, once good friends with Ryder, talked about her first big love, Brad Pitt, this way. But after they broke up, and she became a seasoned actor both on and off the screen, Paltrow, like Depp and Ryder, stopped talking like that, stopped talking about love period, which means that maybe a part of Paltrow stopped being able to feel that way. After all, how one talks is also how one lives.
Maybe we can escape, "move up north," Ryder in A Scanner Darkly (2006) based on the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick. Video Source: Youtube.
You can still see Depp and Ryder engaging with these themes on their separate career paths, but they are more cautious. Depp went for blockbusters, Ryder sheltered in low key roles. Their artistic choices reflect an ongoing preoccupation with 'love and death forever,' but they were never again so frank about it. You can see Ryder, in particular, building up to something, like she is working up the courage to reveal what she knows in some role that finally shatters her reserve as an actor and breaks the silence (see her moving from 2010 to 2011 to 2012 to 2015). Her 2006 appearance in A Scanner Darkly was far more frightening than any of Depp's extravagant pantomimes, where at the end of the film, in the disarming afternoon sunlight of a Lynchian coffee shop, she ponders what it means "to sacrifice someone, without them really knowing." I wonder who that could be? It's that kind of horror, buried in the mundane, mirrored by her concealed grief around her total entrapment, which you would miss if weren't paying attention. Depp's and Ryder's ruined romance is a suitable analogy for what has happened to a public now dreamily addicted to the Internet. This is what happens when you stop facing the truth, because the cost of being honest is too high. This is the strange afterlife for two actors who may have recognized the price of gothic romantic totality, and stepped back from the brink.
Ellen on Depp in Transcendence (2014): "You're on a screen, but you're really no longer with us." Depp described the premise of Transcendence, a film about technological efforts to download human consciousness - a person could die, but you could upload them and have a conversation with them, as Depp said, "forever and ever and ever, amen." Video Source: Youtube.
So, when it comes to romance, forever is also not the word you want. This spring, the Met did a weird double-bill production of two different operas, which I saw yesterday in a cineplex release. The first was Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (1892), which is a happy-ish Electra-complex fairy tale about a blind princess who gains her sight and finds true love. Director Mariusz Treliński connected that story to Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1918).
Met interview with director Mariusz Treliński on cinematic influences on the 2015 Met Opera production of Iolanta/Bluebeard's Castle (19 March 2014). Video Source: Met Opera via Youtube.
Production and design backstage of Met production of Iolanta/Bluebeard's Castle (2014-2015). Video Source: Youtube.
Clip from the Met's Iolanta (2015).
The Met's Bluebeard was terrifying, and the director's decision to pair it with Iolanta was unnerving. Opera purists didn't like it. Critics wondered why Treliński brought so many cinematic tropes to pair these pieces and force a continued characterization between innocent Iolanta and doomed Judith. In other words, the director made the female protagonists into the same character by placing two very different operas back-to-back in a double bill, with related stage designs in both pieces. Treliński also accomplished this continuity with cinematic techniques, too popular and accessible for operatic stage connoisseurs.
It did not seem to occur to the critics that the Met is paying its way by broadcasting its productions in cineplexes across North America, and the result is cinematic cross-pollination with the operatic stage. It was only a matter of time before a clever director would put two and two together. Treliński is obviously aware that his cineplex audience is much bigger than his Met audience, and that the production will be mostly viewed by audiences on movie screens, not in real life. I don't think the Met anticipated this artistic outcome, where cinematic tropes would start to transform its operatic productions.
The result? It was like Treliński brought some of the Saw franchise to the Met! Bluebeard's Castle made me think of Candyman (1992), which focused on the industrial, drug-ridden rotted husks of tenements in Chicago's notorious public housing project, Cabrini-Green. Other films with the same stylistic elements include Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Aliens (1986), Angel Heart (1987), Fatal Attraction (1987), Red Road (2006), and REC (2007). Bluebeard's bathroom reminded me of The Shining (1980). These films now inform a whole separate sub-genre of survival horror in films and video games, almost always staged in weeping urbex environments.
Most disturbing, though, is the climax of Bluebeard's Castle, when Bluebeard lives up to his murderous nature and claims that he kills his wives because he wants to stop time. By murdering them, he keeps them the way they are, locked in a moment of deathly beauty with him forever. EEk! Right at the moment when bass Mikhail Petrenko sang those lines, I thought of another moment when a murderer used the word forever in relation to his crime, and in the same way.
In 2008, a 22-year-old man, Tim McLean, was beheaded and cannibalized in a freak attack on a Greyhound bus, crossing western Canada at night. When police arrived on the scene, the murderer, Vince Weiguang Li, told them he "had to stay on this bus forever." He later said he thought he was attacking a space alien. He also said he heard a voice from God telling him to do it. His original statement to the cops is the most honest one. There is something awful, but truthful, in that morbid, insane fixation on the freeze frame of death, on stopping time, on forcing it to a grinding halt and into an eternal loop. By February 2015, Li had convinced his minders and wardens that although he is extremely ill, he is "at a low risk to reoffend" and will probably soon be transferred to a community group home, from which he may be allowed to leave, unsupervised, from time to time. CTV:
Presumably, if Li understands the need to take his medication, he also understands what beckons if he does not take his medication. I guess psychiatrists have not lately pondered the meaning of the word forever quite as much as some people in the performing arts have.Li, 46, has not had any hallucinations in over a year and understands the need to take his medication, Kremer said. Should Li be transferred to a group home, staff there would ensure he continued the medication necessary to manage his schizophrenia, the doctor said. "His likelihood to re-engage in violence is low."