by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez
A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.
This is the second part of our conversation. Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in:
Gabe: So far we’ve covered one song. There are still three poems and two songs to get through.
Cleopatra: Can I just say how much I like the part when Lana Del Rey bites the apple? Marilyn Monroe screams and Elvis does a kung fu move. That’s the best part.
Gabe: You guys like John Wayne and Elvis way more than I do. I think it’s interesting that she shifts right from the song “Body Electric” to the Whitman poem, but Whitman is absolutely not my forte.
Cleopatra: He based a whole bunch of poetry on the Bible. A lot of it supports ideas in it, but in a lot of it he rejects the Bible, too.
Gabe: On what grounds?
Cleopatra: Whitman said that people’s own souls should be their spiritual connection to God. He was anti-authority. He talked about people coming to their own beliefs about God and the universe, and how they should find an understanding of the universe through themselves instead of through what somebody else tells them.
Gabe: It’s like the Gospel of Thomas – “The kingdom of God is within you and all around you. It is not within buildings of wood or stone. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Look beneath a stone and I am there.”
Cleopatra: Where is that?
Gabe: Thomas is one of the Gnostic gospels. It’s one of several gospels the Catholic Church never accepted as canon. There are various arguments about why. Some are faith-based, some aren’t, but one of the major ones is that it quotes Jesus as saying houses of worship were bunk and people who tell you how to worship shouldn’t be trusted. You should find your own path to worship through experiencing nature and hard work. I won’t get into the politics of it-
Vanessa: Too late.
Gabe: But if it were ever accepted into the Bible, it would basically acknowledge that Jesus told people not to go to Church or listen to priests, because it would make them further from God. There are arguments for its inclusion and against, but let’s get back to Whitman and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Obviously, Lana Del Rey isn’t comparing Whitman’s views with going to a strip club.
Vanessa: Are you sure? Whitman was fired when Leaves of Grass was published.
Cleopatra: It was criticized for being indecent. A lot of people burned it.
Gabe: So what’s Lana Del Rey saying here?
Vanessa: Like I said, it links to the position men are taught to put women into because of what the Garden of Eden story says.
Gabe: You don’t agree.
Cleopatra: Maybe the strip club is just another house of wood and stone, but it’s not the Church’s house. It’s the new one we’ve built.
Gabe: The same thing the Church allegedly does to Thomas by rejecting him and building a central authority out from Jesus?
Cleopatra: With celebrity standing in for religion.
Gabe: So we’ve taken what Whitman said and, essentially, rejected him the same way the Church rejected Thomas. We’ve sort of bastardized his teachings to suit the powerful. That finds a way to marry your two interpretations, doesn’t it?
Vanessa: I like where it’s going.
Gabe: So we have Eve put into a specific place in which men are trained to treat her a certain way, and we have Whitman being recited over this montage that runs counter to the meaning of the poem – and the store – Shaun Ross, the guy who plays Adam – he’s trapped in this cashier job at a mini-mart, in another house of brick and- sorry, wood and stone. Here you have the two people who commit sin, not against God necessarily – maybe it’s not a retelling of original sin. It’s a telling of our sin against Whitman and the idea of America – there’s the John Mitchum poem later, “America, Why I Love Her,” that leads up to Lana Del Rey’s rapture scene at the end. If these celebrities have become our religious icons, maybe the sin we’ve committed is against that early notion of the American ideal.
Cleopatra: I can’t really see Whitman and John Wayne in bed together.
Vanessa: I bet Whitman could imagine it.
Gabe: OK, but – look, Lana Del Rey’s obviously saying that our religion is celebrity, but she’s also saying that we’ve committed an original sin in that religion, too, that of – to go back to Warhol – that the purpose of each of our lives is to become celebrities, that that’s how we emulate our religious icons – we seek to be like them, and being like them is being beautiful and exaggerating our image.
Vanessa: Which means Facebook and Twitter are two more houses of wood and stone.
Gabe: Right, it’s the damn Richard Marshall article all over again. We’re haunted by the double we create to represent ourselves, and with Whitman involved, how do we find our own personal understanding of God if we’re busy replacing who we are as a person with that exaggerated double?
Cleopatra: We’ve sinned against Whitman. The house of worship is the strip club-
Gabe: It’s designed to make you feel like a celebrity, to practice making the body a commodity instead of something holy-
Cleopatra: -and the mini mart.
Gabe: “In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel.” That’s how the next song begins.
Vanessa: There’s a place where it goes “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.” The only way for her to achieve emotional reaction or catharsis is through sexual affirmation. And earlier in the song she says fame- the feeling of fame is something sex stirs up, and that it’s a medicine. “You got that medicine I need, fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly.”
Gabe: Then it goes “Like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer, life imitates art.” It’s autobiographical, but it plays into the Warhol universe she’s posed as the reality of the film. She specifically says, “God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me.’ No one’s gonna take my soul away, I’m living like Jim Morrison. Headed towards a fucked up holiday.” The double’s taken over.
Cleopatra: And “innocence lost” is the refrain.
Gabe: So this middle section – and I had this whole bit ready to go about tribalism in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure we just sent that interpretation right out the window. The middle section is all about refining that original sin, that sin against John Wayne and Whitman and all the ideas we once thought the American dream represented.
Vanessa: I like your Book of Thomas- Gospel of Thomas reference.
Gabe: This is all really depressing stuff, right?
Cleopatra: She gets through it in the end. They both do. There’s a rapture scene.
Gabe: During the return to nature.
Cleopatra: And they each embrace themselves.
Gabe: They get away from the emulation and being haunted by their false self-images and finally get a chance to have that personal understanding of the universe. And we haven’t even talked about how she uses Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the mugging scene. I think we’re all treading lightly around that one.
Vanessa: I had a good idea for that.
Gabe: I’m beginning to lean toward Tropico being one of the best half-hours of film I’ve seen in my life.
Gabe: So what about “Howl?”
Once again, watch Tropico here. The third part of this conversation will be posted on Tuesday, May 6.