PRACTICES, POWER & THE PUBLIC SPHERE: DIALOGICAL SPACES & MULTIPLE MODERNITIES in Asian Contemporary Art 
an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya
 


THE HAGIOGRAPHY OF ALMIRA GULCH

by Krista Foss

 

 

Don’t call Almira Gulch a witch.

Dorothy did that.

And look where it got her: she ended right back where she began. Kansas in black and white.

They had to soak the film for The Wizard of Oz in tanks of sepia. In 1939, that was a special effect; this chemical plunge. The movie starts with a farm in Kansas, a gingham-frocked girl running down the lane, rumpled careworn Auntie Em and Uncle Henry collecting eggs from a broken incubator. Somebody looked at the early rushes and made a note; soften that opening scene. It’s too bleak-looking. Kansas, sun-withered, looks cold.

Even faintly umber, Almira Gulch is all edges. She rides her bicycle like she’s mad at it. She scatters the chickens pecking near the farmhouse gate. She marches into the farmhouse to wrest Toto away from a protesting Dorothy. And then she is on her bike again, cinched and spinsterish in an ugly hat, oblivious to what’s wriggling free from her basket. In his essay on the movie, “A short text on magic,” Salman Rushdie describes her at different points as “marauding,” “gruesome,” and the movie’s “force of death.”

And yet, Almira Gulch, a character invented by an unhappy 26-year-old screenwriter to extend the movie’s set-up, creates a beautiful paradox. She’s both forgettable and resonant. She’s powerful (according to Aunt Em, she owns half the county). She’s focused (there’s a yippy dog to bring to heel.) She doesn’t care who likes her (the estimable Mr. Rushdie has no authority in her world.) And let’s be honest, she kicks on that bike (dismounting while the wheels are still turning; riding in a long skirt.)

This feels instructive, because she’s the only one left in the movie I can imagine being, now that my fifties have landed like a twister—scattering old comforts, uprooting ambitions, negotiating darkly with the mirror. (How am I supposed to name what’s happening there—witch, crone, hag?) My most notable similarity to Almira Gulch is that we both get around on a bicycle. But that’s something; that’s a start.

Almira Gulch’s bike is a model known as a “safety” first introduced in the 1890s, a decade before the original children’s book, The Wizard of Oz, was published. With its pneumatic rubber tires, similarly sized wheels, diamond-shaped frame, chain and sprocket, it made riding accessible to many, especially women. (The ‘boneshaker’ with its iron wheels had pretty much lived up to its name.) Before this, showgirls, courtesans, and athletes—women who carved out singular lives, often on the margins—posed for studio portraits with a bicycle to underscore their risk-taking, their personal freedom. (Doctors warned women that cycling would give them excessive vigor, harm their ability to reproduce, and perhaps, spike their interest in masturbation, putting them on the fast track to moral dishevelment.)

When they realized its power to disrupt women’s fashion, mobility and relationship to their own bodies, the suffragette movement embraced the bicycle. Cycling allowed women to get somewhere on their own muscle, unaccompanied. It was a revolution without pamphlets or rallies.

The type of safety Almira Gulch rides is singular: it's likely a Waltham Orient, with polished wood rims, the bike of a connoisseur and not an activist. (The mass-produced version of her bike was the Colombia safety, known as the “people’s nag.”) She rides in Edwardian dress and not the liberated pantaloons of a provocateur. Still, she’s implicated in the bicycle’s legacy of liberty and subversion. She lives alone, or we assume she does, and she has to cover distance on her own steam in 1900s Kansas in order to defend her garden.

Let’s review: Dorothy admits to the farmhands that Toto regularly ransacks Miss Gulch’s garden, chases her old cat. Nobody denies the dog bit the woman. She could have gone all vigilante on Toto (cyanide was everywhere; farmers used it to fumigate grain, gas out the gopher holes). Instead, she’s firm, procedural. (She carries a sheriff’s writ to destroy the little mutt.) Only in one instance, does she lose self-control and lunge for the terrier in Dorothy’s arms. In any other world, a hosta-shredding, peeing ankle-biter would be cause for an intervention: Almira Gulch would be standing up for herself. But the cinematic fairy tale has rules: somebody has to be hated. From the opening frame, the narrative wags its accusing finger at her, conflating her with the witch.

Middle age finds me weary of trying to be liked. The energy spent on it defies the laws of entropy; it doesn’t get recycled into another part of your life. Too often, I’ve swerved from certain characterizations as if they were sinkholes. “She’s an angry person,” is one I like to avoid. In your twenties outrage can be sexy; in middle age it’s too easily swapped out for bitterness. “She’s intense, intimidating” is another I’ve worked to mitigate, to soften into something malleable. But likability turns me into a prop, a type: that nice woman who will ask you about your young children at a party; the person who won’t quite believe it when she’s being treated poorly. The woman who stands in her kitchen late at night, chewing her bottom lip, fretting about how she’s perceived by so-and-so, while outside shots are fired. Outside someone bleeds.

Aunt Em is that likable older woman who’s so harmless we forgive her inconsistencies, her opacity; she scolds the hired hands for their shiftlessness at the same time she plies them with “crawlers,“ (crullers), fists of fried, sugar-dusted dough. She says she’s dying to tell Almira Gulch what she thinks of her, but being a Christian she can’t. (It’s uncertain how L. Frank Baum, author of the children’s story, would have stood with that dialogue. He had a famous suffragette as a mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage; she built her notoriety on telling women how the church—“the unscrupulous enemy of freedom”—stood in their way, in fact, all of civilization’s.)

Likability always obscures something that is more interesting, and the screenwriters—three are credited, there were several more—worked at smoothing away Auntie Em’s ambiguities, her texture, her possible complicity in Dorothy’s need to escape.

“When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her,” Baum’s original story goes, “Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.”

If she’d made it to the screen, what would this angrier more disillusioned Aunt Em have said to Almira Gulch without the censure of Christianity? Certainly it would be a different story; confusing Dorothy’s odyssey to return home, and wake from the dream that there was anything better to wish for.

No time for such questions; a cyclone’s coming. A concussed Dorothy sees Gulch riding the bike through the clouds and makes the mental mash-up with the broom-straddling witch. The house lands; the torqued Technicolor fun begins. The Wicked Witch of the West arrives for real, gloriously green, and “seizes the film from her very first green-faced snarl,” according to Rushdie. (The toxic copper oxide in that makeup would discolor Hamilton’s skin for months after the movie production ended). Like him, we see nothing else. Instead of the ruby slippers, the witch steals every scene she’s in.

And after that, Almira Gulch—lantern-jawed, parrot-faced (two words used to describe Hamilton in her prime)—might as well have donned an invisibility cloak. She’s left behind in sepia soaked black and white, her booted foot clearly planted in the realm of the human, her other foot dangling over another mythic, archetypal potential—witchy or wise—projected on to her.

This folk-tale metric for womanhood nipped me recently when I was invited to take part in a local fashion show by a couple of designers I admire for their rock ‘n roll sensibility. I was flattered for being included among the models, all intransigently young, beautiful, tattooed. Before the show, there was a long afternoon waiting for hair and makeup. By the time they got to me, the hairdresser was flagging and time had all but run out.

“What am I supposed to do here?” she yelled across the room to one of the designers. She was holding a fistful of my tresses—refugees from decades of highlighting. The other models had terrifically teased bouffants around little coronas of tight braids. I expected to look that sexy. But my mane was disagreeable—a bit, er, dry. In a pique of impatience, the hairdresser pulled it back, and wove a single, severe plait from forehead to nape, spraying until it crackled with polymers. It made me look like a Soviet-era nanny, hair winch-tightened into obedience.

We lined up in a tight hallway that led to the catwalk: “Maidens first. Hurry up! Mermaids and sirens, next. Crones in the rear,” shouted the show assistant. I’m embarrassed to admit I looked around for the crones, not realizing I was one. After the event, a horde of hound-dogging amateur photographers asked the models to line up for pictures; when no one wanted mine, I was unsurprised—but a weight lifted. I chugged my piccolo of complimentary champagne and went in search of friends my own age (mostly).

According to Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of the Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton was 36 when she joined the movie’s cast. Hollywood pushed her into a premature middle age. She was a divorced woman; she had a three-year old at home. She spent several hours each day commuting from her home in La Jolla to the Culver City studios. She brought a packed lunch to set. The first and last time she played a pretty heroine was in a neighborhood production of Sleeping Beauty, when she was six.  (Later in life, she would star in a one-woman show, “Aprons I Have Worn”, sending up a cinematic career of playing maids.)

Beauty nearly sidelined her from the role that would define her career. The movie’s producer handpicked Academy Award winning siren Gale Sondergaard to portray a sexy Wicked Witch of the West—with a sequined hat and form fitting dress according to Harmetz. When the thinking changed, Sondergaard demurred. She feared playing an “ugly” witch would hurt her career. Hamilton had no such vanity—there wasn’t the luxury of it—and she scorched in that role. She used WWW as her autograph. It made her name.

And names carry weight. They matter to us; they’re a kind of throbbing red dot on a GPS. This is where you are right now, they say. This will help you figure out where you’re going next. Crone, hag, witch—these names sprout from the same lexical compost—Old English, Old French, Swedish—that merges nightmares, carrion and insults, into a grab-bag of associations all leading to the same idea: old-gals-getting-up to-no-good. We don’t choose such names, or the baggage others give them. We don’t choose blue-hair, old bag, biddy, FOP (fucking old person.) But even names we’d rather not have can be worked with, and worked around.

“I always thought they got me mixed up with the actual Witch,” Hamilton told Harmetz, describing her treatment by the studio during the four months of filming Oz. Her dressing room was a tent with a card table, a lamp and a dirty carpet. When Billie Burke, the actress who played the good witch Glinda, was not on set, Hamilton would take her breaks in the other woman’s dressing room. Like Burke’s vibrato, it was a pastel confection. There was a chaise longue and fur rug. Fearing her green make-up would leave smears, Hamilton dared not touch anything or sit down. She simply stood in the room’s middle.

Burke sprained her ankle on set one day; the studio called reporters to photograph her being taken away in an ambulance. When Hamilton’s broom caught fire in an early scene, she was severely burned: her right eyebrow and eyelashes were singed, disappeared. Her upper lip, blistered.  The skin of her right hand peeled off from wrist to fingertip. (They had to use alcohol instead of acetone to remove the toxic makeup from her open wound. She confessed to Harmetz that it was the most intense physical pain she endured in her life.) No one offered to take her home: she had to call a friend to pick her up.

This is where I fill in the blanks; I imagine Hamilton in her Almira Gulch costume finding Burke’s dressing-room empty. I see her plunging her hand into Burke’s bowl of blue and pink peppermints, plunking down on the chaise, rubbing her feet in the little fur rug, grinning with delinquency. I will her to take the edge of a pink satin curtain to polish the brooch watch pinned to her pleated bodice. As if to say there’s no hiding from time, not even for you only-bad-witches-are-ugly Billie; there’s no concealing it.

Witch, crone, hag are, after all, names for a time in a woman’s life when she’s running out of time. And so they are names for all of us. But ‘witch” has become a word for a Hallowe’en costume, a caricature, a great part in a musical. And perhaps crone has had too zealous a rehabilitation: smoothed by neo-pagans and health food store literature into something bland and nourishing, a relax-fit jeans version of aging womanhood, an amulet-wearing someone more likely to say “Namaste” than “I’ll get you my pretty.” Hag at least retains the punch of an epithet. The hag is mischievous. The hag rides alone. The hag is still hungry.

If ever there was a surname meant for a hag, it’s Gulch—suggestive of a crevasse formed by a fast melt, a spring torrent that can suck from the soft sand of its banks, a curious on-looker lingering too close to the edge. The Dutch have a great word, gulzig, that means to consume greedily, voraciously. (Noel Langley, the screenwriter who created Almira Gulch, grew up in South Africa, where he surely encountered it.) It’s kindred to a second more archaic meaning of gulch, which is to swallow or gulp in a way that’s unappealing.

And too much vigor, too much vengeful lust for life makes an aging woman distressing to others as well as herself. (To be hag-ridden is one way of describing sleeplessness, nightmares.) Margaret Hamilton would say—all those years later when the Wizard of Oz finally earned out in yearly television broadcasts—that she couldn’t watch her performance as Almira Gulch. Something about it being too twitchy, the idea of taking away a dog to be destroyed too nasty.

But isn’t that the essential truth of a hag—that she’s still angry, sorrowful, libidinous and engaged as ever in the meaning of it all?

Less than a year ago, I gave up my car, joined a car-share for contingencies and committed myself to cycling. My reasons were a lot about money and a little bit about something else—the ease in which I was slowly allowing myself to contract, to wither from the idea of outdoor exertion. The first few months were difficult. Being middle aged and without a car reeked of impecunity. Plus, it was bloody hard work. On days requiring multiple crossings of the city for teaching assignments and other commitments, the likelihood of precipitation tripled. My feet would be damp before noon and stay that way until after 10 pm. There were dark moments of feeling resentful—of cars, car owners, my carless-ness. They jammed like a fork between my eyebrows. And this is a weakness of middle age: if we’re not careful, we can whirr with resentments, growing middens of stale-dated slights and hurts, replaying and rewriting the movies of our lives, losing time to a vast disorder of self-consciousness.

Or we can be like Almira Gulch, who in her brief cinematic moment—clocking in under three minutes on screen—is un-self-conscious, doing what she thinks is right, unworried if she is wrong, biking straight into a cyclone.

After one notably wet day, I cycled home. It was October: the sky cleared and turned drunken indigo, reckless with stars. I raced through the dark empty back streets, an autonomous two-wheeled middle-aged being, a bike hag, who had the city to herself, and arrived to a warm house, lungs and skin braced by cold air, feeling stupidly young. And I began to wonder how many such nights I’d missed for feeling comfortable, for feeling safe.

The motion of a bike is of perpetual gathering and unraveling—the wheel grabs and lets go, over and over. It’s a way of being in middle age. Travelling light matters less than what you’re willing to carry; some things you jettison willingly, others you lose even though you are holding on, leaving you bewildered. We lose people and love this way. A name—we’ve had a whole life asking for it over the telephone, calling it out on the street, saying it aloud while smiling—is suddenly no longer connected to a corporeal warmth, a laugh, an intricate dialogue, a bright aliveness. Thinking I would ride through such a loss, I put my bike on a plane and rode into the mountains, through snow and jungle, and along the edge of the world’s deepest gorge. But grief is something you don’t leave behind; it’s the new thing you make room for, like starting a relationship with a man for whom cycling is a first language—to whom it is automatic as breathing, and requires no idiom for regretting a car. Grief and love ride in tandem.

The cyclone in The Wizard of Oz was made of muslin and wire. It looked convincing but it was easily dismantled, stored in props, the kind of destruction that’s meant to be survived.

By the end of the picture, every character who’d shown up in that opening scene—Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, Hunk, Hickory, Zeke and Professor Marvel—are around Dorothy’s bed when she awakes from the dream of Oz. Except for Almira Gulch. She’s the only one missing.

So hers is the coda we have to imagine. Perhaps, she emerges from her storm cellar to find everything unraveled: her beloved garden devastated, her home in ruins, its pretty pots and tidy drawers, smashed, thrown open and scattered. Her photographs and heirlooms spoiled and meaningless; the cat defected.  And there’s nothing for her to defend anymore.

After the initial feelings of shock and sadness, it might surprise her to feel relief. The mirror is gone with its reports of sags and sadness. There is no one around to be angry with. And that ache in her hip that has been nagging, nagging through sleepless nights now doesn’t hollow her out, doesn’t feel like an ending, the ending.

If all Almira Gulch has left is the wide horizon of an empty prairie and a bike (it’s hard to destroy a Waltham Safety) surely she’d surrender to the yank of something unknown. Surely, she’d ride—this strange older woman, this bike hag, too unnerving for the final scene of a children’s story—until she’s the only one who’s not in Kansas anymore.

 

 

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