Song of the Day: Movies in Music (Day Five) “The Paranoid Great Movie Queen …”

The final song on John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, Antarctica Starts Here pays homage to the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard and in particular the main character of Norma Desmond.  The inspired casting of the film placed Gloria Swanson in the somewhat autobiographical role of Norma Desmond (“The paranoid great movie queen”), a deluded, tragic and ambitious actress whose film career declined with the advent of the talkies (“Lines come out and struggle with, The empty voice that speaks”).  Cale’s hushed singing tone in the song reflects these lines.  We can look at Antarctica Starts Here as being sung from the perspective of Joe Gillis, played by William Holden in the film.  Gillis is an unsuccessful screenwriter who is lured into Desmond’s fantasy world where she dreams of a triumphant return to the stage.

Antarctica Starts Here makes full use of the scenes in the film in which Norma Desmond dresses up and acts out here her former glories to her captive audience, either by acting and reciting lines to Joe Gillis or by putting on her old films.  This is reflected in Antarctica Starts Here with the opening lines: “The Paranoid great movie queen, Sits idly fully armed, The powder and mascara there, A warning light for charm, We see her every movie night, The strong against the weak”.

In the second verse of the song, we are given a snapshot into Norma Desmond’s character, that of the vain faded movie star, weary of her enduring struggle to return to past glories:  “Her heart is so tired now, Of kindnesses gone by … The vanity, insanity her hungry heart forgave, The fading bride’s dull beauty grows just begging to be seen”.  The lines “Like broken glasses in a drain, Gone down but not well spent” are evocative of the end of a party – the end of the era in which the actress thrived.

The final verse of the song features the line, “Her schoolhouse mind has windows now”, perhaps reflecting the way in which the actress is a controlling influence on Joe Gillis, a teacher giving her pupil a history lesson, but one about herself.  The line “Where handsome creatures come to watch” is perhaps a reference to the scene in which Norma Desmond is playing bridge with her friends, “dim figures you may still remember from the silent days.  I used to think of them as her Wax Works” as the narrator says in the film.  The final lines, “The anaesthetic wearing off, Antarctica starts here” are probably the most curious lines in a song full of curious lines, but ones that make for a wonderful ending to both the song and the album.  They perhaps denote Joe’s realisation that he has been lured into Norma Desmond’s world and the oddness of it, the doping effect of the many gifts she lavishes upon him to keep him under her spell becoming apparent and his need to escape.

Antarctica Starts Here is, just like the other songs on Paris 1919, an odd song filled with lyrics that can be read in a number of ways, such is the genius and complexity of Cale’s song writing.  Just as with his other material, one can sit and ponder upon what a single line may mean for hours and the fact that Cale rarely discusses what his lyrics are about just serves to keep us guessing.  There are many twists and turns in Antarctica Starts Here, such as the way in which Cale manages to fit lyrics based on a film character around the themes on the album.  A main theme on the album is war, with references to places of battle littered throughout.  In Antarctica Starts Here, the line “The road that leads from Barbary to here” refers to the Barbary Wars.  The juxtaposition of lyrics about a faded Hollywood star from a film and lyrics alluding to a war in a completely different era make for an odd but brilliant and truly unique combination which ends a stunning album beautifully.