Francis Bacon may have been dead for almost twenty years, but his paintings have lost none of their significance in the post-September 11 age of terror. Consider, for example, the way in which Bacon recently appeared in Spike Lee’s September 11 film 25th Hour. When convicted drug dealer Montgomery Brogan toasts to his last night before going to prison, he uses Bacon’s famous toast: “Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends”. The evocation of Bacon is entirely appropriate, given that Monty will come to look like one of Bacon’s portraits in the closing scenes of the film: he asks his childhood friend Francis “Frank” Slaughtery to beat up his face beyond recognition so that he will not be raped on his first night in the can. It’s in Monty’s Bacon face that the many different faces of the immigrants and homosexuals that Monty is cursing in a memorable earlier scene of the film become one, and that the division of their particular identities is overcome in the unifying universal of their violent humanity.
In Lee’s film, it is thus a defacement that leads to ethics and politics. To work within the terms that Gilles Deleuze sets up in his writings on Bacon, one could say that it is not Monty’s face but his head, his meat, that is the site of an ethical and political experience. Whereas the face “is a structured, spatial organization that conceals the head”, Deleuze writes, the head is “the animal spirit of man”. Bacon’s project as a painter is “to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge beneath the face”. Thus, a “zone of indiscernability or undecidability between man an animal” is opened up; “meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernability; it is a ‘fact’, a state where the painter identifies the object of his horror and his compassion”. It is in this state that Monty and the bloody dog who appears at the beginning of the film become one: both Monty and the dog become animal in their state of defacement.
The dialogue that we get in the film’s opening scene is telling, and appears to almost literally evoke Deleuze. After Monty has thrown the bloody dog in the trunk of his car, his sidekick Costa says that he does not understand why Monty wants to save the dog: “He tries to bit your face off”, he says; why does Monty care about the dog? “The dog is meat”, Costa tells him. Let the dog be. But Monty is somehow addressed by this meat and the defacement that it brings—addressed by the reality of becoming that is exposed in this dog’s being beaten to pulp. In both the dog and in Monty, one thus finds examples of others whose face has been smashed up, and whose traumatic reduction to meat actually establishes an ethical and political relation. The ethical and the political shine through in the destruction of the gentrified other, precisely at those moments when one is “losing one’s face”. This is not nothing in an age in which legal existence is dependent upon photo IDs and social relations are dominated by networks such as Facebook. It also invites one to consider the ethics and politics of portrait painting in a new light.
Screenshot from Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953):
References: Lee, Spike. 25th Hour (25th Hour Productions, 2004); Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002. Image: Dan Davis, Joelle Van Dyne, digital drawing, 2009.