Memory, Desire, and a House: An Intertextual Study of Saltburn and Brideshead Revisited

After I watched Emerald Fennell’s 2023 film Saltburn, I couldn’t stop thinking about its intertextual use of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. The two texts begin similarly: the protagonist (Oliver and Charles respectively) attends Oxford and becomes fascinated by the son of a very wealthy family. This new friend/love interest invites the protagonist to stay at his family home (the titular Saltburn and Brideshead Castle), where the protagonist falls in love with the house itself and is drawn into the family’s web. The protagonist begins a romance with his friend’s sister, who is implied to be a proxy for the friend himself (although this plotline is more significant in Brideshead). Ultimately, the protagonist becomes estranged from the wealthy family, although at the end of the text, he gains more of an attachment to their house than they have. At the beginning of Saltburn, Oliver mentions that his friend Felix’s life sounds like a Waugh novel, and Felix says that Waugh was obsessed with Saltburn. Peter Bradshaw writes that the purpose of these lines is “[t]o pre-empt the obvious Brideshead comparison”, but I interpret it as an affectionate direct allusion by Fennell to the text which inspired her and helps to unlock her film (n.p.). Bradshaw also describes Saltburn as “a Brideshead-lite, a Brideshead nobility without the Catholicism or the pathos or the wartime regret” (n.p.). I see it more as an exploration of some of Brideshead’s themes and ideas through a contemporary lens: Fennell has replaced the novel’s interest in Christianity and spirituality with an examination of class and privilege, and her central love story is both more explicitly queer and transgressive. In his book Intertextuality, Graham Allen writes that “[t]he act of reading…plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace those relations” (1). In this blog post, I want to trace the textual relations between Brideshead Revisited and Saltburn, in the hopes of understanding Saltburn better by understanding its relationship with Brideshead.

Like Brideshead, Saltburn begins by informing its audience that it is a story about memory. As the novel’s title suggests, Waugh introduces a framing device of Charles “revisiting” the Brideshead estate by chance when he and his company are sent there during World War II. Charles’ return to the house sparks his memories of his time at Brideshead and with the Flyte family. The novel is narrated by an older Charles looking back at his past, thus encouraging the reader to question the reliability of Charles’s memory, and to keep in mind that this is his subjective telling of events – the novel’s full title is, after all, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. Saltburn begins with Oliver, in the present, telling the audience, “I wasn’t in love with him [Felix]”. This direct address to the audience is followed by a montage of Felix, where each shot is from Oliver’s perspective and framed in a romantic light. Even more so than Brideshead, Saltburn immediately establishes its narrator as unreliable: it has allowed him to say his piece, but contradicts him by depicting his own (necessarily subjective) memories, as objectively as it can – by simply showing us viewers these images. Brideshead employs a more nostalgic use of memory; Charles fondly looks back at his experiences at the house, despite his moments of conflict with the Flytes. Fennell takes the theme of memory from Brideshead and refashions it into something darker in her film. In the first line of the film, Oliver refers to Felix in the past tense, suggesting that something bad has happened to Felix, or at least to Oliver and Felix’s relationship. Even from its opening scene, Saltburn engages with its intertext by creating its own, more sinister take on Brideshead’s themes.

Saltburn‘s opening scene contains a montage of images of Felix from Oliver’s perspective. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In her Rolling Stone profile of Fennell, Charlotte Manning writes that Fennell was inspired by Brideshead and “set about intending to make a film about “longing and desire”” (n.p.). Longing and desire are at the heart of both Saltburn and Brideshead, but their treatment of these themes varies. While Saltburn is interested in portraying the dark (and even violent) side of desire, Brideshead’s depiction is more romanticised and nostalgic. However, both depictions are united by their queerness. They also begin similarly, with the protagonists noticing their love interests from afar. Charles notes: 

I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour, which seemed to know no bounds (Waugh 30).

Charles first notices Sebastian because of his beauty. Similarly, when he first arrives at Oxford, watches Felix from his bedroom window; Felix stands out because he faces Oliver (although he doesn’t realise) and because of his striking appearance. Charles mentions that he was “in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden” (32). Charles finds the love he was searching for with Sebastian, and Sebastian brings Charles into the “enchanted garden”: the world of wealth and beauty that is Brideshead. The queer nature of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship has been debated by critics for decades, but reading it through a contemporary lens, it comes across as romantic. Charles describes the “naughtiness” of his time with Sebastian as “high in the catalogue of grave sins”, implying homosexuality, which the Catholic Church was fervently against (46).

Later in the novel, Charles begins a romantic relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia, and at times she seems to be a substitute for Sebastian. David Leon Higdon notes that Charles is initially attracted to Julia because her physical appearance so closely resembles Sebastian’s (85); Charles references “the physical likeness between brother and sister, which, caught repeatedly in different poses, under different lights, each time pierced me anew” (Waugh 172). Oliver also engages in a romance with Felix’s sister Venetia, which serves to make Felix jealous, tear a rift between the siblings, and simulate a form of intimacy with Felix that he thinks he can’t have. Oliver has sex with Venetia outside her cousin Farleigh’s window with the knowledge that Farleigh will tell Felix; when Felix confronts him about it, Oliver lies that Venetia initiated it, thus bringing him closer to Felix by positioning Venetia as a common enemy. Later, Oliver also has sex with Farleigh, who also appears to act as a proxy for Felix in Oliver’s eyes. In Saltburn’s references to Brideshead’s twisted web of relationships, its tragedy is even bleaker. While Charles and Sebastian can’t be together because of the contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality and the damage Sebastian’s alcoholism does to their relationship, the film suggests that Oliver could have had a romantic relationship with Felix if he had pursued it differently, if he wasn’t determined to convince himself that he wasn’t in love with Felix. 

Oliver has a complicated relationship with Farleigh, whom he perceives as threatening his relationship with Felix and his position at Saltburn. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

These two texts have a fascinating contrast in the ways they approach queer desire. Higdon believes that Waugh “condemns” the queer relationship between Charles and Sebastian (87). Martin B. Lockerd writes that the novel “presents queer desire—and homosexual experimentation in particular—as part of an imperfect but potentially enriching element in a process of spiritual maturation” (240). Both critics agree that Waugh’s view of queer desire in the novel is complicated and not entirely positive, although it is (at least initially) romanticised in Charles’s recollection of his time with Sebastian. While Waugh’s depiction of queer desire was somewhat progressive for its time (even if it can be read as subtextual), he isn’t committed to representing a truly progressive or challenging form of desire in Brideshead. Fennell, however, takes her exploration of queer desire further; hers is much more provocative than Waugh’s. Early in the film, Oliver watches Felix have sex with his girlfriend Annabel, in the first suggestion of Oliver’s unhealthy obsession with Felix. Later, at Saltburn, Oliver watches Felix masturbate in the bath and then drinks the remaining bathwater once Felix has left. Depictions of queer relationships and sex on-screen have often historically been transgressive, and Fennell adheres to that trend while playing with the blueprint of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship in Brideshead, twisting it into something much more shocking.

Saltburn also engages with Brideshead’s themes of identity and belonging. While Brideshead is mostly interested in Catholic identity and faith, Saltburn is interested in class and wealth. Both Charles and Oliver are fascinated by their friend’s family’s lavish lifestyle, even though both characters are middle-class. But despite their middle-class status, neither character ultimately belongs in this upper-class world. Charles is eventually estranged from the Flytes after Julia decides she can’t marry him because of her Catholic faith, and Oliver has to resort to scheming and even murder to finally feel at home at Saltburn. Throughout Saltburn, Fennell uses mirrors and reflections to highlight this theme of identity, and to question who exactly Oliver is and how he exists in the world. Is he in love with Felix? Is he, as he tells everyone, from a working-class family affected by substance abuse, or is he in fact middle-class, and can he ultimately become upper-class? In both texts, the image of the house is crucial to these questions of identity and belonging – after all, they both take their titles from the names of the houses. For both characters, the house represents incredible, (initially) unattainable beauty. At the end of Brideshead, the house represents what Charles could have had and has lost (a wealthy lifestyle; a life with Sebastian or Julia), but also what he has gained: his Catholic faith. In Saltburn, Oliver’s character arc is motivated by his desire to both covet and belong in Saltburn. Towards the end of the film, Farleigh tells Oliver that Saltburn isn’t for him, but Oliver makes it his – the final scene, where he dances naked through the house (which is now legally his), signals that he finally belongs in this world.

Fennell often uses images of mirrors and reflections to raise questions of destabilised identity. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, knowledge of Brideshead enriches the experience of watching and interpreting Saltburn. Understanding the plotlines, character archetypes, and themes that Fennell is playing with makes her film appear more accomplished; we can see how she uses these elements within Saltburn to create a darker and more provocative story than her intertext. 

Works Cited:

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2021.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Saltburn review – hot Brideshead soup needs more seasoning.” The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/oct/04/saltburn-review-hot-brideshead-soup-needs-more-seasoning. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Higdon, David Leon. “Gay Sebastian and Cheerful Charles: Homoeroticism in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 25, no. 4, 1994, pp. 77-89.

Lockerd, Martin B. “Decadent Arcadias, Wild(e) Conversions, and Queer Celibacies in Brideshead Revisited.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 64, no. 2, 2018, pp. 239-263.

Manning, Charlotte. “Emerald Fennell: ‘Saltburn is a love story that never happened’.” Rolling Stone, 17 Nov. 2023, https://www.rollingstone.co.uk/film/emerald-fennell-saltburn-interview-34453/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Saltburn. Directed by Emerald Fennell. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2023.

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. 1945. Penguin Books, 1951.

Fight Club, “Death of the Author”, and the Question of Interpretation

David Fincher’s Fight Club is one of my favourite films. However, I’m aware of the place the film occupies in the cultural consciousness as a text beloved for its depiction of a certain kind of masculinity – and above all, for its breakout character, Tyler Durden. In recent years, with the advent of the Internet, Tyler Durden has “become something of an unironic poster boy for Men’s Rights Activism” (Barnett n.p.). He has been co-opted and glorified by men’s rights movements, seen as a hero of misogyny and toxic masculinity. Since the idolisation of Tyler by these kinds of movements informs so much of the discussion around the film, I often wonder if I’ve interpreted it wrong, and if the film does endorse a form of toxic masculinity. But when I rewatch the film, I read it as a critique of toxic masculinity. By the end, Tyler has become a domestic terrorist, and the Narrator realises that he has to kill Tyler to free himself of his harmful ideology. 

Is it the fault of the film, and Fincher as its director, that segments of its audience have interpreted it as a romanticisation of toxic masculinity and domestic terrorism? When considering this question, I thought about Roland Barthes’s essay “Death of the Author.” In the essay, Barthes argues against conflating an author with their text, and viewing them as the sole architect of that text, and as the only person who can interpret it. Barthes suggests that “remov[ing]” the author from the text will “transform” it – it will open up the possibilities of interpretation (145). He also writes that “[t]o give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (147). One of the joys of reading a text is interpreting and understanding it however we want, and possibly differently from those around us. But Barthes also argues for the absolution of the author. He believes that writing is a space “where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (142). If this is true, then an author cannot be held accountable for what they write, and the negative impact their work may have. If the work is entirely in the hands of the reader, and the author is a blank slate who is “born simultaneously with the text”, then does the author bear any responsibility for how their work may be received? (145) In the case of Fight Club, is Fincher responsible for the popular interpretation of the film and the character of Tyler Durden? If we remove Fincher as author from the equation, “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent” (Barthes 145). But Fincher’s absence from the text is also the absence of any intention in creating the text – why does it exist? Where did it come from? Texts don’t just appear out of nowhere; people with certain worldviews and biases create them. To read a text in such a way that the author is completely absent is to absolve them of any prejudices or ill intentions in writing the text. 

Credit: 20th Century Fox

When I watch Fight Club, it seems obvious to me that it’s a satire of both consumerism and toxic masculinity. Is it Fincher’s fault that the film has been co-opted by viewers who disregard its satirical nature? For a film to be an effective satire, should it be completely clear to all audiences that it is in fact satirising its subject matter? I think that Fight Club is an effective satire of toxic masculinity; the fight club concept, and its rapid-fire spread across the United States by the end of the film, is absurd. The character of Tyler Durden is more complicated, though. David Barnett suggests that the casting of conventionally-attractive actor Brad Pitt as Tyler has contributed to the character’s glamourisation by its audience. Tyler is so charming that, for most of the film, it’s easy to overlook some of his immoral actions. But that’s the point of the character – he’s so charismatic and engaging that he enrols many young men into his cult of toxic masculinity and domestic terrorism, and it’s only when he’s about to blow up a bank that the Narrator realises how dangerous he is. Laurie Penny writes, however, that the film itself gets caught up in Tyler’s charm and “has so much fun with Tyler Durden as a mad phantom from the id that it forgets that he’s meant to be frightening” (qtd. Barnett n.p.). This is one of the dilemmas of Fight Club: the more captivating Tyler is, the more entertaining the film; but the more captivating he is, the more viewers will be drawn to him, and the likelier they are to overlook the purpose of his character and idolise him. But, again: is that the film’s fault? Should it consign itself to creating a less interesting character to avoid the possibility of its misinterpretation? 

This last question raises an even bigger question: is there such a thing as misinterpretation? Does a text have one true meaning? If so, then the author must have created this one true meaning, which means that a reader cannot interpret it for themselves. But even if there is no true meaning, and multiple interpretations are possible, can there be an incorrect interpretation of a text? In “Death of the Author”, Barthes creates an image of an ideal reader who can hold all possible interpretations in their head; he writes that “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). However, just as the author is not without identity, neither is the reader. Like the author, they bring their own viewpoints and biases to the text. They may interpret the text in a way the author never conceived of or intended. But ultimately, even if there are interpretations others may disagree with, there is no such thing as an incorrect interpretation, just as there is no correct one. The text is for the reader to interpret. Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club, says, “My policy has always been to not give a definite meaning or intention to my work or characters. That would preclude the reader’s participation” (qtd. Barnett n.p.). Rather than believing in the complete death of the author, I like to see texts as a collaboration between author and reader: each brings something to it, and each person is necessary for the text to exist. 

To return to my original question: is it Fincher’s fault that Fight Club has been adopted by men’s rights activists? I don’t think so. Since a text can have any number of interpretations, an author can’t be held responsible for an interpretation of their text that they never imagined. However, I agree with Penny that in part, Fight Club invites the glorification of Tyler Durden because of the film’s own fascination with him. There are no easy answers. Even though I find certain views on the film unsettling, I’m confident in my own interpretation of it, and I have to be content with that.

Works Cited:

Barnett, David. “Is Fight Club’s Tyler Durden film’s most misunderstood man?” BBC, 23 Jul. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190717-is-fight-clubs-tyler-durden-films-most-misunderstood-man. Accessed 15 Nov. 2023.

Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” Image Music Text. Translated by Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, 1977, pp. 142-148.

Fight Club. Directed by David Fincher. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Research Seminar Reflection: “Resting Places: On Wounds, War, and the Irish Revolution” by Dr. Ellen McWilliams

I recently attended a UCC research seminar given by Dr. Ellen McWilliams, in which she discussed her new book, Resting Places: On War, Wounds, and the Irish Revolution. Dr. McWilliams was introduced by Stephen Travers, a survivor of the 1975 Miami Showband Massacre. Travers’ presence at the seminar drew a connection between the history of the War of Independence and republicanism in the south of Ireland, and the Troubles, as he also did in the text of his introduction. He set the tone for the seminar by describing love as the driving force behind Resting Places. He spoke about the importance of knowing and understanding “where we come from” – the importance of talking about Irish history, rather than continuing to remain silent about it. This is crucial, because our recent past continues to affect our present. Travers noted the significance of the word “wounds” in the title of the book, and said that Resting Places “cleans the wounds” of the Irish fight for independence. Also present at the seminar were members of the Coffey family, whose relatives Timothy and James Coffey were murdered in 1921. Dr. McWilliams referred to the Coffey family throughout the seminar, citing their support of her in her writing of the book, and inviting them to answer some of the audience’s questions at the end of the seminar. I thought that their involvement in the seminar was evidence of how Resting Places “cleans the wounds” of the War of Independence – Dr. McWilliams gave them a platform to speak about the tragedy that still affects their family, and to share their thoughts on the Irish Revolution more generally.

In the seminar, Dr. Williams described Resting Places as exploring how the Irish Revolution still “haunts” the present. I found her use of words such as “ghosts” and phrases such as “rais[ing] the dead” very striking. I am always interested in stories about how the past informs and “haunts” the present. This is such an appealing theme in literature because it is true to life. As Resting Places examines, the violence perpetrated during the War of Independence and Civil War scarred those who lived through it, and those scars live on in their descendants today. But, as Travers mentioned, if wounds are not cleaned, they will continue to fester, and the wounds can only be cleaned if they are tended to – in this case, by speaking openly about the trauma of the revolution. The idea of silence was mentioned throughout the seminar. In his introduction, Travers referenced Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” This phrase remains relevant to contemporary Irish attitudes to both the Troubles and the period of revolution. Dr. McWilliams said that when writing the book, she asked herself, “After one hundred years of dignified silence, who am I to break that silence? Who am I to speak?” As both the seminar and the book prove, she has as much a right as anyone to break the silence. In the Acknowledgements of Resting Places, Dr. McWilliams writes that the Coffey family told her that in terms of the trauma of the revolutionary years, “Nobody has a monopoly on grief and loss” (Annette and John Coffey, qtd. in McWilliams 176). She writes about her own family’s involvement in the revolution; it is her story to tell because it has been passed down to her by previous generations of her family. I admired how, in the seminar, Dr. McWilliams drew attention to how she left out the story of her Protestant neighbours, because she felt it was “not [her] silence to break”. Breaking the century-long silence on a painful period in Irish history is a delicate matter, and Dr. McWilliams has been very careful in how she does so.

Resting Places is a book about family. In the seminar, Dr. McWilliams displayed photographs of members of her family who play roles in the book, and she introduced them to the audience. I thought this was an effective way to give the audience an insight into the book and its intentions. Even the few details she gave about each person were fascinating, and inspired me to read the book in order to learn more about them. Dr. McWilliams also spoke about how her relationship to her family home is symbolic of her relationship to West Cork’s history. In 1921, a Protestant farmer named Thomas Bradfield was executed by the IRA for allegedly spying for Britain; Bradfield’s house was later purchased by Dr. McWilliams’ grandfather, and became the house she grew up in. Towards the end of the seminar, Dr. McWilliams read an excerpt from the final chapter of Resting Places; in it, she describes how familiar she is with the house, including the sitting room Bradfield “was captured from”, which makes for a highly emotional image (McWilliams 169). Dr. McWilliams’s close relationship to this horrific moment is symbolic of the idea she introduced at the beginning of the seminar, of how the past “haunts” the present. She also mentioned that since certain documents relating to her family history are now in the public domain, she felt she “owe[s] a debt to [her] grandparents” to tell their story, which I found to be an affecting way of framing the book. Resting Places is also a family story in another sense – Dr. McWilliams said she wrote it in part as a way to share her family’s history with her young son. I think this is an excellent example of how Resting Places, as Travers described, “cleans…wounds”: it will ensure that her family’s story continues to pass from generation to generation.

Dr. McWilliams mentioned during the seminar that she does not consider Resting Places a memoir. However, prompted by an audience question, she said that “[a]ny woman who puts her life on the page takes a great risk”, which stayed with me. I agree with this idea. Since women’s voices are so often silenced by the system of patriarchy, it is both a risk and a radical act for a woman to write the story of her life. It reminded me of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s book A Ghost in the Throat and Sarah Polley’s Run Towards the Danger – admittedly, both memoirs, but I think they are relevant here. In A Ghost in the Throat, Ní Ghríofa writes in detail about the everyday routines of her life as a wife and mother; in putting them in print, she grants them visibility and legitimacy, proving that the rhythms of motherhood are interesting and worthy of reading and writing about. Run Towards the Danger is a memoir in essays, in which Polley reckons with various events from her life, confronting how she experienced them at the time and how she thinks about them now; these two sides of her experience are often in conflict, because of how she was manipulated by people or societal forces around her when the events occurred. Both memoirs are revolutionary in that they tell the truth of a woman’s experience, and refuse to let their voices be silenced. In writing about her and her family’s story, Dr. McWilliams proves that they are stories worth telling.

Listening to Dr. McWilliams speak, I was struck by the importance of community to her in writing this book. Throughout the seminar, she referenced the support of her West Cork community, including the Coffey family. Before the book was published, she sent the manuscript to any of her neighbours who wished to read it, so that they would have an input in how she told the area’s history. I think this is another important factor in how Resting Places “cleans the wounds” of the Irish Revolution – Dr. McWilliams let the rest of the community have a say in how she wrote this story. At the end of the seminar, she described herself as a “very troubled Cork woman trying to find her way through the maze of history”, which I think is an excellent phrase to use to frame the book. It certainly made me want to read it – I have already purchased my copy of Resting Places, and I am looking forward to learning even more from Dr. McWilliams.

Works Cited:

McWilliams, Ellen. Resting Places: On Wounds, War, and the Irish Revolution. Beyond the Pale Books, 2023.

Ní Ghríofa, Doireann. A Ghost in the Throat. Tramp Press, 2020.

Polley, Sarah. Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. September Publishing, 2022.

“The chronicler of life on the margins had become canonical”: Some Thoughts on Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, and Counternarratives

TW: domestic violence, suicide

Recently, I read Patrick Radden Keefe’s extremely detailed and well-written book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty: an exploration of the Sackler family, their pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, and the harm that their drug OxyContin has caused (and continues to cause) to millions of people across America. Reading it, I thought a lot about the artist and activist Nan Goldin (Keefe mentions her a few times towards the end of the book). Earlier this year, I saw Laura Poitras’ documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which tells the story of Goldin’s life and work, including her activism in raising awareness of the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis. Throughout her career, Goldin has taken photographs of the world around her, and the marginalised groups and subcultures she has belonged to, to “make a record that nobody can revise” (Goldin, qtd. in Keefe 351). All the Beauty and the Bloodshed tells Goldin’s story through the medium of cinema and thus brings her work to a different, more mainstream audience; in doing so, it creates a counternarrative, much like Goldin’s work does.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods defines counternarratives as “stories/narratives that splinter widely accepted truths about people, cultures, and institutions as well as the value of those institutions and the knowledge produced by and within those cultural institutions” (n.p.). The aim of a counternarrative is to make visible those stories and perspectives which have been marginalised and hidden by the dominant narrative about a group of people. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Goldin says, “You grow up being told, ‘That didn’t happen. You didn’t see that. You didn’t hear that.’ And when you do, how do you believe yourself? […] And then how do you show the world that you did experience that, that you did hear that? And so, that’s the reason I take pictures” (1:50:30-1:50:54). Both she and Poitras make visible the previously-hidden stories of women, queer people, sex workers, domestic violence victims, AIDS patients, and drug addicts, Goldin in her photography and Poitras in her film.

Goldin’s most famous work is her 1986 book of photographs The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. This book is a counternarrative – it grants subjectivity to the marginalised groups of people whose image it captures, such as members of the LGBTQ community. Depicting someone in a photograph, or on film, makes their presence and voice undeniable. This is crucial for a group such as the LGBTQ community, who had to fight hard to make their voices heard during this time in particular, when the AIDS epidemic was destroying the community. An especially radical aspect of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is Goldin’s depiction of queer people as having agency and as enjoying life. Even today, few representations of queer people in media, and especially mainstream media, present them as happy.

Goldin’s 1983 photograph Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City is the cover image of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Source: MoMA

Both All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Empire of Pain reference Goldin’s most famous photograph, Nan One Month After Being Battered. In it, she stares unflinchingly into the camera with her face bruised and one eye bloody and swollen, after her boyfriend assaulted her. As Goldin stares into the camera, she stares out at the viewer of the photograph, challenging them not to look away, forcing them to properly see her and her pain, to empathise with her. This photograph is itself an excellent example of a counternarrative; Goldin makes herself visible, makes her voice (that of a domestic violence victim) clear, and makes her experience entirely undeniable. She places herself in a vulnerable position, but her skill and confidence in composing this photograph make it powerful and memorable.

Goldin’s dedication to documenting life as she saw it was greatly influenced by the suicide of her older sister Barbara when Goldin was eleven. The true nature of Barbara’s death was taboo in Goldin’s household; when the police arrived to inform the family of her death, Goldin heard her mother say, “Tell the children it was an accident” (Keefe 350). In 2004, Goldin created an art installation titled Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, which features video clips of train tracks (Barbara died by lying down on train tracks). Poitras shows some clips from this installation in the film, and it makes for a very powerful moment, especially since just before she inserts this footage into the film, she shows on screen excerpts from reports of psychiatric examinations of Barbara from some of the hospitals she was placed in. One of these reports contains the line, “she [Barbara] sees the future and all the beauty and the bloodshed” (1:47:20-1:47:26). This moment recontextualises the film’s title and thus, the documentary itself. It testifies to the importance of Barbara, and her life story, to Goldin’s career and body of work. Titling the film after a quote from Barbara gives her a voice, which her family ensured she did not have whilst she was alive.

Goldin’s 1973 photograph Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston. Her photography preserves her friends as she saw them, in moments of joy. Source: Musée Magazine

In Empire of Pain, Keefe describes Goldin’s acceptance into the art world through the display of her photographs in art museums as “[t]he chronicler of life on the margins [becoming] canonical” (352). I wonder if Goldin aspired to become canonical in this way, or if her work is so transgressive and subversive that it cannot be contained within the strictures of the “canon”. Did the canon expand to include her radical art, or does the inclusion of her art in museums (a world often considered elitist) force the work to conform to a certain expectation of what art should be? Regardless of what the answer may be, Goldin has made full use of her canonical status. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed begins with a demonstration organised by Goldin’s activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), which advocates for the Sacklers to take responsibility for their role in the opioid epidemic. In May 2018, PAIN arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has some of Goldin’s photographs in its permanent collection (Keefe 361). In the Sackler Wing, they threw pill bottles designed to look like OxyContin prescriptions into the reflecting pool and staged a die-in to protest the deaths from opioid overdoses of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Like Goldin, the Sacklers inhabit the art world, and the motivation for her protest at the Met was “to shame them, to ruin their reputation among their peers” (Goldin, qtd. in Schulman n.p.). Goldin’s use of her platform as a well-known and respected artist was effective. The Met eventually removed the Sackler name from seven of its galleries; in response, Goldin described the museum as “the only place they’re [the Sacklers] being held accountable” (All the Beauty and the Bloodshed 1:56:18-1:56:20). Goldin succeeded in countering the dominant narrative espoused by the Sacklers and maintained by Congress and the Justice Department. Both she and Poitras provide a counternarrative to the Sacklers’ insistence upon their innocence in the origins of the opioid epidemic and upon their belief that people addicted to OxyContin are “criminals”, who, by their own fault alone, “get themselves addicted over and over again” (Richard Sackler, qtd. in Keefe 257).

In 1989, Goldin curated an art exhibition about the AIDS epidemic titled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. I love this title. I think it’s a perfect description of what both Goldin and Poitras attempt and achieve in their art: preventing people and their stories from vanishing.

Works Cited:

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Directed by Laura Poitras. Neon, 2022.

“Counternarrative.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. 2008.

Keefe, Patrick Radden. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Picador, 2021.

Schulman, Michael. “Nan Goldin Visits the De-Sacklered Met.” The New Yorker, 14 Nov. 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/11/21/nan-goldin-visits-the-de-sacklered-met.