Light in the Eyes

What happens when a sex symbol turns seventy?

In her memoir I’ll Never Write my Memoir (2015), Grace Jones tells us she has a different relationship to time. She has a hard time dating anything she’s done. She is notoriously late to gigs and recordings (one time, three days late).

In sympathy, Sophie Fienne’s recent movie about Jones, Bloodlight and Bami, is never quite clear about how long it took to make — about how long Fiennes spent following Jones to Jamaica and to Paris, to London and back again to New York. Bloodlight and Bami might span two hours of one month, or six months, or two years, or ten. Like a dream, there are events, but little causal logic. Grace is swimming in a lagoon in Jamaica, her mouth under the water, her eyes above it. Here she is, shucking oysters in a green room, groaning with the effort. “I wish my pussy was as tight as this!” she says. Here she is dancing in a nightclub, ecstatic. She’s chatting to cabdrivers. She’s talking up a storm, drunk, in a hotel room at dawn. She’s resorting to emotional blackmail with reggae legends Sly and Robbie. She’s buying a new hat for her mother to wear to church, arguing with yet another producer, examining herself naked in a mirror, toweling herself dry from a shower. By refusing to provide standard documentary backstory — not only no time, but no narrative context, no titles, no names, no talking heads — Fiennes has created room for the life Jones is actually living, in her sixties. Jones gets to be a human being, rather than a legend.

It’s a beautiful constraint for a filmmaker to set herself, particularly because there is so much backstory that is begging to be told. I’m amazed someone hasn’t done a biopic about Jones before. We barely see any of the Grace Jones that most people remember—as a model, then singer, then actor, in the 1970s and 1980s. No one in Fiennes’s movie tells us that Jones flatted with Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall in Paris in the 1970s (they were the first three models signed to what would become Prestige Models, and shared clothes, drugs, booze, but not men). There is no mention of Jones becoming a muse to Antonia Lopez, Issey Miyake, Helmut Newton and Hans Feurer, nor her legendary performances back in New York in the disco scene. Her friendship with Andy Warhol is only inferred from a hat Jones buys and a handbag with their photo together on it. Her friendship with Keith Waring—and his art design for her videos—bears no mention.

We also don’t see any music videos, or even excerpts from her long-form video collection A One Man Show, which is a ghostly antecedent to Bloodlight and Bami, punctuated as it is with songs from a live concert. When Jean Paul Goude—the director of A One Man Show, and father of her child— appears at the end of Fiennes’s documentary, at first he could be mistaken for just another photographer on yet another photo shoot. It is barely explained that he was responsible for some of the most iconic images of Jones—like that one of her yelling, her head magically elongated, glaring at us, or what was used for the cover of Island Life, in which she’s standing on one foot, the other bent back behind her, one arm out, the other stretched back, almost touching her raised foot. Her skin and muscles twist like taffy. She looks like liquid strokes of paint, like a modern hieroglyph. It was a critical image for Jones, because it was the last straw for her then-managers who wanted to transition her from disco to the Las Vegas singing circuit (which appears to represent aesthetic hell for Jones). That image forced their hand. She was nearly naked for one. In the article, she farted and drank. The photograph set her future direction: it was a shedding of skin, in her words the “flimsy disco sheen being ripped back to reveal something posed on the verge of striking.”

But in Bloodlight and Bami, this image only appears on an album sleeve, clutched by a dough-faced man waiting with the crowd outside a theatre side door. “I’ve waited twenty-five years to see you!” he tells her excitedly. “I’ve waited thirty!” the man behind him chimes in. “We love Grace Jones!” someone yells. “We love Grace! The camera slowly pans to the crowd, all clutching covers and photographs. This is the closest we come to a contextual review of her musical oeuvre, her movement from disco to rock-steady Jamaican bass and drum and on through new-wave show tunes, from working with Tom Moulton to Chris Blackwell, Trevor Horn and Nile Rodgers.

Fiennes also doesn’t include Jones’s movie career (as an Angry Black Woman in James Bond’s License to Kill and Conan The Barbarian), nor the gossip, which Jones does mention in her own book: that time she interrupted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wedding to Maria Shriver, dressed entirely in green (including green contact lenses), Warhol on her arm (they arrived late), or the fact that she dated the action star Dolph Lungren, who was then an engineering student in Sydney, Australia, a Fulbright Scholar, a martial arts aficionado, and part-time bouncer for a concert venue. Jones is the reason he turned up in Hollywood. Later, when their relationship was on the skids, she turned up at his hotel room, waving a gun. And so on and so forth.

But that’s the flashy stuff, and Fiennes just isn’t interested. The only autobiographical context she focuses on is Jones in Jamaica, and I suspect that’s because Jones’s own sense making of her childhood was happening as the filming occurred. (Although Fiennes doesn’t mention it, Jones was writing her memoir while filming took place). Fiennes includes extensive footage of Grace returning home to Jamaica, sitting around the table with her grandmother, mother, father, brothers and son, gossiping as they eat fried fish. Her accent has immediately shifted sideways. They are telling stories—partly for the camera, but also partly because this storytelling is a new release for Jones, at least, who left Jamaica at twelve to live in Syracuse, New York, and didn’t return for decades. The reason is discussed around the table, but always with a smile.

As children, she and her siblings were beaten daily by her step-grandfather, Mas P. They had been left in his and their grandmother’s care for the better part of the decade while their parents made a life in America. In her book, Grace reflects that this constant abuse “formed me as a person, my choices, men I have been attracted to—all that can be traced back to how I was brought up. It was a profoundly disciplined, militant upbringing, and so in my own way, I am very militant and disciplined. Even if that means being militantly naughty, and disciplined in the arts of subversion.” It took some time to connect these dots: Jones first started using the whip to lash the audience as a go-go dancer in Philadelphia, but didn’t think of the echo with Mas P for years.

The dots between abuse and discipline and subversion aren’t explicitly connected in the film either, but we come close. We hear Jones recalling, over a long shot of the gate to her grandmother’s house, “Anything welded in here, Mas. P did it.” We get to see the rather beautiful, wrought iron curlicues made by this man, and young girls in school uniforms walking by on the street. The recording we’re hearing is from one of her concerts. “That gate kept the whole world out,” she says, “until I realized I was living on the wrong side of it.”

Once you know about Mas P, it’s very hard to look at Grace Jones’s performances and not see the wide-eyed, savage anger of a man. Jones was lauded for her androgyny and her fierceness. But that glare is also a naked assertion of aggression. According to her, it only happened to be politically and aesthetically charged when a black woman behaved this way. Growing up in Jamaica, she didn’t think of her race as a defining identity. She wrote, “I was surrounded by family who, in their own way, were successful. In religion, in politics, in business, in the military—the main black population, through entrepreneurship and education, had been given the kind of opportunities to better themselves that blacks in America hadn’t received.”

Image credit: Kino Lorber

Even when she moved to Syracuse, New York, she thought her race fairly inconsequential: when she decided to grow an Afro as a teenager, it wasn’t in solidarity, but because it broke so clearly with the Jamaican expectation that a “good girl” would wear braids. In her twenties, as a model, she shaved her head and eyebrows because it broke multiple rules of how she was supposed to look as a “model, a girl, a daughter, an American, a West Indian, a human being.” To her eye, it made her more abstract, less tied to a “specific race or tribe.” Even when she encountered egregious racism, she was quick to shrug it off—assuming that the cops that arrested her for solicitation in Philadelphia when she was out with her white boyfriend simply “wanted a piece of my action.” When taxi cabs refused to pick her up in Paris, she took to carrying a carton of eggs at all times with which to pelt the cars. She refuses to be cast as a victim: better a provocateur, or a prankster, than a woman caught up in a racist system. This defiance might appear to some American readers as denial.

In New York and then Paris, Jones defined her social scene at the intersection of high fashion and contemporary art. She took it seriously, consciously accepting the challenge to find and explore depth in a superficial world. She learned French in three months to get an edge over the other models. She got a recording contract in three months too. Doors opened for her in Paris in a way they hadn’t in New York. Though she only mentions Josephine Baker once in her memoir, Baker appears an important antecedent. Here was a black woman who had departed the new world for the old without looking back, who leaned into her “exoticism” as a marker of distinction rather than denigration. Jones thought she could preserve this difference too.

When she began dating Goude, she knew he had a thing for black women—and as she puts it, ideas “about desire, blackness, primitive cultures, image, control.” She knew Goude photographed black women in cages. He titled one of his books Jungle Fever—and “he needed a volunteer.” Jones didn’t blink twice. When he directed her to jump, at the beginning of her One Man Show, down a giant set of steps, dressed in a gorilla suit, you can’t help but see echoes of Baker’s banana skirt. James Baldwin’s outrage at the innocence of French racism—their wonder at his curly hair, after centuries of colonialism and slavery—just doesn’t come up in Jones’s memoirs. The gorilla costume is a gorilla costume is a gorilla costume. The wide red lipstick on the mask is not supposed to be ridicule.

Jones left Jamaica only a few years after it gained its independence from the British Crown. She had a child’s understanding of the effects of centuries of slavery and imperialism. For a long time, that didn’t change. In her memoir, she spends more time analyzing class and religious distinctions than racial ones, charting the sociological currents of her mother and father’s worlds. Her mother came from one of the first families to open a Pentecostal church on the island (in the 1930s), whereas her father (a Jones) came from a long line of (Anglican) politicians and administrators who bought the first books to the island, and started the library system. When Grace’s father married her mother, and converted to Pentecostalism (eventually becoming a pastor himself), his own father refused to talk to him for decades. Each family shunned the other. Pentecostalism was a form of spiritual class mobility; in this new religion, there were new opportunities for lay and ministerial leadership, which was extremely attractive to the poor and working class who had felt snubbed by the Anglican church. Newer religions—including Rastafarianism—were a way of constructing an alternative world order. This sense of mobility is entirely at odds with Mas P’s abuse of her (which was partly to curry favor within the Pentecostal Church). She sketches all of this to point out where her own sense of performance came from: ironically, what broke her down also handed her a tradition of charismatic, religious performance.

You can see this paradox in the 2008 track “Williams’ Blood,” one of her most autobiographical. Fiennes gives us almost the whole performance of the song in Bloodlight and Bami. In concert, Jones stalks the stage in a corset, and stiffened linen hat by Philip Tracey (almost a deconstructed nun’s habit) banging away on the tambourine, cutting from the gospel refrain of “Let me go!” (her voice soaring upward) to the hard metal-sounding refrain, “I got the Williams blood in me.” “Let me fly!” she cries at the song’s climax, her voice climbing up, spreading its wings. “I’m wicked!” She barely pauses at the end before launching into a no-holds barred, old fashioned, organ accompanied verse of Amazing Grace. If this feels like a profane choice, it might be worth noting Donna Haraway’s distinction between blasphemy and apostasy: “blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy.” Jones, however far from the Church, is not outside it. She refuses to let go.

Image credit: Kino Lorber

If you were to watch Bloodlight and Bami knowing little about Jones’s life or Jamaica’s history, you’d understand the broad strokes of this conflict, but not the nuance. Two thirds of the way through the film, we watch Jones attending church in Jamaica, and watch as she cries as her mother sings a spiritual on stage. This could be dismissed as just a nice moment of local color and familial good feeling if you didn’t know that Grace was practically exiled from this church for decades, or that her father’s own promotion to Bishop was delayed so many years (because of her behavior), and that it happened at essentially at the same time as his son’s. Her brother Noel is giving the guest sermon, and again, this seems unremarkable if you didn’t know that he spent decades forming a congregation in California (far enough to develop his own point of view), and that he preached a completely different kind of love than his great-uncle, Bishop Jones. What we’re watching is a “if-pigs-could-fly” restoration of the Jones family to a congregation that punished them for years, and so when Grace’s mother stands on stage, and sings the line, “I sing because I’m happy, and I sing because I’m free,” the old line is given a completely new exultation. They are not being punished for being who they are.

Fiennes ends this scene with a shot of a girl, about six years old, in her Sunday gingham best, sitting in the doorway as the adults sing inside. She watches the camera and breaks the fourth wall with a cool gaze. Her hair is braided, her dress immaculate. This is Jones, and this isn’t Jones. It’s repetition with variation, but the association is so slight it could easily be missed, or considered weak. Bloodlight and Bami’s formal symmetries and syncopations are not decisively announced, and so the significance of each scene runs wide; in Fiennes’s film, meaning runs less like a river, and more like a delta. Reviews were mixed. Critics understood that it was supposed to be cinéma vérité rather than a biopic, but they were unimpressed by the bagginess of the film (it runs close to two hours).

Once you know that Jones was writing her memoirs when this film was being made, Fiennes’s decision become even more pointed. The power of I’ll Never Write My Memoirs is in the thru-lines that Jones traces from her family to her aesthetic commitments as an adult. For instance, she writes at length about Japanese Kabuki theater, which also contained “the powerful, extreme makeup that I favored, the flamboyant costumes and exaggerated gestures.” Kabuki, to Jones, was “an investigation, really, into eccentricity while maintaining something completely pure”. It allowed her to think about compressed energy on stage, how to “radiate intense inner life without having to dance around.” Furthermore, she saw parallels between Japan and Jamaica: this kind of performance required an enormous amount of compressed energy to “deviate from the norm where comfort and formality is highly valued.”

She noticed a similarly productive tension in disco, which she also considered an investigation into purity. The rise of the beat in disco—stark, enhanced, and embellished, repetitive, but always threatening to collapse into euphoria—was a way to bring audiences along. For Jones, it was to make the room hard, and make it soft, to bring everyone in climax. In almost the same breath, she compares it to Church: “Disco in its purest sense means that you will have come out of a place having gone into euphoria, feeling like you have rejoiced.”

These kinds of thru-lines are not immediately accessible if you just see Bloodlight and Bami, even though they should be: the film opens with a performance of “Slave to the Rhythm,” which has Jones singing to the audience, extending one arm out, then the other, wearing gold skull mask and dark blue voluminous robes. The echoes of Kabuki are hidden in plain sight, along with her commitment to totem and taboo. She’s ministering to her audience. But in the film, the field of cultural reference drawn forth by that image is far wider. It could just be a cool skull mask.

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs ends with this incantation:

If people complain that I am not doing enough of my old material, not performing all the hits, I will stand in front of them, a formlessness that engulfs all form. I will put on another hat, crack my whip, scatter fireflies, fix them with a five-thousand-year-old stare, fit to fight to the bitter end, becoming a ghost with the passing of time. I will be ready for the afterlife, for my bones to be buried in the mountains of Jamaica, or the canals of Venice, or the dark side of the moon, or under the ground in the cities I’ve lived in and loved. And I will say: Do you want to move forward with me, or not? Do you want to know where I am going next?

It’s time for something else to happen.

It’s as if Fiennes took Jones’s call even more seriously than Jones herself. The expression of strength in her performances in the film—Jones, strutting her stuff in her sixties, wearing next to nothing, extending her hand to the crowd as she wills herself and the audience up (she often invokes flight or upward movement in her lyrics)—is remarkable to watch. In the film, you can see how close sex and joy and music and worship are with Jones. She prepares for her performances as if she were a shaman, applying makeup for hours, steeling herself with champagne and oysters, hitting the stage already partying. There is one fairly extraordinary scene more than halfway through, where we see Jones dancing at a night club, dressed in Miyake, clearly as high as a kite, writhing to the music, and making life very hard for her security guard, who is trying to stop her from falling over the railings or rip her own clothes off. Jones’s eyes are closed, face ecstatic, entirely caught up in an internal world we cannot see.

Why is it such a revelation to see a woman in her sixties, writhing to light and the beat? Why is such a revelation to see a woman enjoying herself so much?

Fiennes enjoys watching Grace enjoy herself. Here she is, wrapped in a fur, in a hotel room overlooking Paris at dawn, drawing the skyline in a notepad. She’s ordered more champagne from room service, along with a table groaning with food. She’s talking as she eats her eggs, waving her knife and fork around for emphasis, her voice only slightly slurred. “It’s a lonely place, but it’s a lonely fascinating place…just your voice.” She’s talking about being on stage, leading the room with her voice, and indirectly, the life she’s lived. In her memoirs, she wrote that her acting career stalled because producers told her she stood out too much.

Image Credit: Kino Lorber

That seems accurate, and also a little revolutionary. Fiennes’s film shows us why. Jones is unashamed of her appetite, and in return, Bloodlight and Bami argues against compression, against organizing relationships of subordination, no matter the consequences for story-telling. This can have significant consequences for how we understand the arc of a career. There is no rise and fall. What might happen if we were extend the same grace to our own lives? What can we leave, gleefully, behind us? What do we get to pick up?

When Goude appears toward the end of the film, Fiennes films them catching up. Jones is telling her ex how her knees used to go weak as she walked up the stairs to his apartment in Union Square in New York City. She’s a little drunk—there was champagne throughout the photo shoot. He nods, listening, resting his chin on his hand, his face controlled, and we can see his wedding band. He is now married to Karen Park Goude. Jones tells him that she’s going to be alone, but not lonely. It’s a slight contradiction from earlier in the film—where she was confident enough to claim lonely—but we understand why. She is telling Goude about her father’s death. She watched him die, she says, and it was like a birth. She could not bring herself to close his eyes, because it was obvious he was seeing something glorious. That’s how she wants to go too, she says, looking out a window, watching the light, holding someone’s hand.

The first time I watched this scene in a movie theater, I didn’t cry. Every time subsequent, I can’t stop. Jones is trying so hard to tell Goude what is important to her. She is trying to tell him everything. And he is simply nodding, and it is impossible to tell what is actually sinking in. From her memoir, it is obvious that she loved him, and always hoped he would better to her than he was. You wince when you read that within weeks of giving birth to her son, she was doing sit-ups, desperate to prove to him that she could maintain her body.

According to her, the relationship faltered when it became clear Goude was obsessed with her image rather than her actual self. Halfway through an exhausting tour, she begged him to join her. (She doesn’t note it explicitly, but it is obvious from her book that Goude rarely looked after their son.) He refused to join her on tour; he had work to do, he said, meticulously altering images of her back in his apartment. In her eyes, he refused to emotionally engage. With his art and design he invented, as she wrote, “a new context for me to inhabit, as though Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht, and Piet Mondrian were as important an influence on pop as Elvis, as though music could be connected to art and theater,” but he also loved her as an object—and as she wrote, “she didn’t want to be loved like that.” It’s not that Jones was averse to being an object in general. As a model, she understood the power. She still does. But as a woman and a person, she expected more.

RGBA tiff image by MetisIP

Fiennes doesn’t want to love her like an object either. After Jones’s conversation with Goude in the film, Fiennes cuts to Jones holding her newborn granddaughter. With one hand, she holds the sleeping baby. With the other, she plays with the light, blocking it with her hand, allowing the sunlight to flash onto the child’s face. Unthinkingly, she is giving her granddaughter what she herself wants, and what her father had: light, in the eyes. Fiennes continues the motif: a long, slow shot of a cloudy sky, storm clouds gathering. At the very end of the film we are back in Jamaica, driving up with Jones and her family to Sligoville, a hill in the interior where her father’s family was from. Jones’s father is still alive in this scene, and he explains he’s paid taxes on this land for twenty-five years. Time jumps, eats itself. “My daughter’s going to build something here,” he says proudly. The eight or nine members of Jones’s family stand together at an outlook, admiring the view. The sun is setting, and Jones breaks away, calls out—she wants to go to the very top of the hill to take a photograph. She wants to see the light. Her son, then a gangly young man, his own child still a decade in the future, runs to her, catches up, and the two walk away from the camera together. They are in the distance, indistinctly silhouetted. They aren’t holding hands, but it is as damned close as you can get.

 

Jenni Quilter teaches at NYU. Her most recent book is New York School Painters and Poets (Rizzoli)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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