Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, March 31, 2016

5 Awesomely Psychotronic films on Amazon Prime can Prepare YOU for the coming of TRUMPMERICA!


Even casual Americans will soon be called to bear witness to what promises to be the most bizarre election in the history of our frail democracy: the battle between the mighty Donald, his hair Reichstag-fiery as he struts and curses before his bloodthirsty throng, and a woman. How did America get to this?

Only the drive-in knows for sure. That's where it all started, whatever it is, and it's been slithering up from those tawdry mosquito-covered screens, across the abandoned strip mall Blockbusters and up through Amazon Prime, waiting, for you! Presuming you have the Prime (and if not, you should): walk tall, sit proud, and keep watching the skies for his shiny wings. The Russians are coming and the werewolves are here.

Switch it off and turn to STONE!
Whiter your conscience allows you to vote for him or not, Prime has five films avail. to stream that remind us of headier days, a time when feminism was called women's lib and didn't preclude gratuitous unsafe sex; diversity was called black power and didn't preclude pimp strutting; peace activism was once called a lot of radical hippie nonsense.

NOTE TO THE WISE: Prime is stocked with loads of cool niche pyschotronic cast-offs but 95% of it is crap, cropped, or corny. What you need, my friend, is the right guide, some madman who likes to sink his hand into the muddy mire, but has a jeweler's eye for hidden sparkle and would only recommend things in a correct anamorphic ratio, things shot on film and not HD video! Donald wouldn't have it any other way. He can afford film, "people." Besides being more expensive and tactile, it's shinier.

(PS - All screenshots on this post taken directly from Amazon Streaming for quality assurance)


1. ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE
(1967) Dir. Roger Corman
****
Never one to miss a chance for collateral production value, Corman utilized still standing Hello Dolly! 1920s street sets to tell this true story of the last 24 hours in the lives of all the key Chicago players. Told with comic book vibrancy and wryly narrated from the great Paul Frees, it hops along like the best of all three worlds (documentary, action, and drama). And ah Marone --what a cast: Jason Robards is way-too-tall to be Capone, but plenty feral; Ralph Meeker is a good-natured beery Bugs Moran; George Segal a key provocateur in heating up the north-south gang war. Alex Rocco, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Bruce Dern, John Agar, Studs "Lloyd the bartender" Turkel are in bit parts. Jean Hale (below) rages through a funny, sexy, over-the-top centerpiece brawl with Segal, providing the perfect mid-film breather from the boardrooms and hit planning. The print Amazon's been streaming is HD perfection. In short, patron, sublime

Trump FactorCheck Robards' eyes in this shot above, as he prepares to 'fire an apprentice.'





2. GAS-S-S-S
(1971) Dir Roger Corman
***
Corman's final film as a director, this countercultural comedy (written by George MIAMI BLUES Armitage) riffs on various strains of then-current social satire ala DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) meets WILD IN THE STREETS (1968). The Army accidentally releases a poison gas that kills everyone over thirty, lifting the world out of the button-down conservative repression of the establishment and into some kind of San Francisco guerrilla theater troupe / Firesign Theater post-apocalyptic wild west. Across dune-buggy deserts and tumbleweedy main streets wanders a ragtag group of sensible peace-loving (straight) couples. Navigating, loving, and escaping the clutches of various agitprop start-ups and desperadoes under the eaves.  Country Joe and the Fish "songs" play on the soundtrack, and--as with similar odysseys (CANDY, BARBARELLA, WEEKEND, BLACK MOON)--brilliant sociopolitical satire runs episodic counterpoint to draggy, dated, unconsciously-sexist puerility. But, as with CANDY especially, the best segments have an air of violent desperation and historical savvy underwriting the lunacy, which dates far better than the tedious post-HAIR backseat fumbling.

The best stretch is the middle: a deranged college football quarterback's rousing halftime speech to the hesitant recruits, the mix of teammates, draftees, cheerleaders, and assistant coaches--fusing big game college football terminology into a rape-and-pillage marauding, brilliantly bending all criticisms and evasions back into his grand metaphor; and the outlaw biker gang who've taken over the local golf course/country club giving the trapped passers-through long stern talks about lifting themselves up by their bootstraps. As in so many great episodic pulp novels, in order to escape these neo-American dream-woven warlords the love children have to play along and bide their time, waiting for the perfect chance to escape, and there's always a chance the lesser minds among them will be seduced to the square (i.e. 'dark' or American-fascist) side all over again. Meanwhile Edgar Allen Poe, Lenore and their pet raven watch from high on the hill making lofty comments, as does God (offscreen) in a New York Jewish accent. Oy vey!

You can hear Johnny Depp stirring in his day care center nap room.
What really dates GAS-S-S worst of all isn't all that mixed-up Firesign post-idealism but the endless bridging montages of dune buggy chases and soft focus light show sexual coupling. So many dune buggies, so many strobes, so much Country Joe. No wonder the 70s had to come! Not helping matters any is the lead (Bob Corff), a wan little long-haired ginger with a high little voice and little discernible charm - clearly cast because THE GRADUATE had made so much money everyone wanted a blank nebbish. But that's only part of it, surely! Why was he was cast in the lead when there were so much spry ace characters playing along the sidelines? Ben Vereen, Talia Shire, Elaine Giftos, Cindy Williams, Bud Cort --any of these could have done way more with all that face time.

Maybe Corff's a nice person in real life, but for free love to not be skeevy in movies we have to believe the guy could get laid without it. Sorry, that's just the rules. Corff makes Eric Stolz seem like Russell Crowe. Again, he might be nice, but some niceness and charisma is just not camera-ready. That's why they do screen tests.

'Whew', glad I got that off my chest. Living in Park Slope has really gotten to me, I guess. As for the theme of this post, well, of course those biker golf club and football marauder sections are VERY Tumpian, and expertly straddle the difference between CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Firesign Theater's WAITING FOR THE ELECTRICIAN OR SOMEONE LIKE HIM, and Terry Southern-style savagery-as-American-policy deadpan jet black pep talks ala DR. STRANGELOVE (which GAS-S-S clearly emulates with its alternate title "How it became necessary to destroy the world in order to save it.") and the Richard Burton and James Coburn pieces of CANDY (1968). Like the violence in ORANGE, the football rape and loot practice sequences are genuinely anarchic, far more so than, say, the doctors endlessly shouting "Kill! Kill!" during their own football game in the much more favorably reviewed (but in my opinion inferior) M*A*S*H (1970). If  GAS-S-S-S stayed at that dark comic level, it could have been a great absurdist assault on the cinematic conventions of bourgeois patriarchy. Like said patriarchy, GAS-S-S-S might be blind to its own male chauvinism, but it's also realistic about the difficulty of staying peaceful and nonviolent when your community is threatened by an invading malevolent force. (BILLY JACK had made a tidy bundle that same year) and actually finds a solution far more radical than just hoping for the arrival of some enigmatic drifter.

Trump Factor: Several of the eccentrics the gang run into on their journey pontificate in political bluster underneath which registers gangster-like insanity (can't get more Trump than those biker hoods on the links).  The "free-spirited independents trying to make peace with those still clinging to the crumbling mantle of hetero-white-Christian-male authority" aspect of the film is-- based on all those Trump rally disruptions--an important lesson I hope we remember soon.




3. UNHOLY ROLLERS
(1972) Starring: Claudia Jennings. 
**1/2
An early entrant in the 70s' lady roller derby phase (Raquel Welch's KANSAS CITY BOMBER came out the same year) this is a fine example of what I've just now termed 'libsploitation,' i.e. a film about a bloodsport hottie who feels outraged at all the sexual harassment she has to endure on and off the track, all while the camera ogles her in the locker room.. Luckily the late, great super brawler and Playboy superstar Claudia GATOR BAIT Jennings was always up for both aspects. When the pawing, cheap shots and PR hypocrisy gets too much, she just bashes the team owner over the head with her trophy and goes on a parking lot rampage, roller skating down onto Main Street like she's ready to roll over the cars rather than the other way around.

Anyone who was a kid in the 70s has a 'soft' spot for this type of film, for it's the kind of thing you can follow even when you're too drunk or young to understand half the dialogue, or who's supposed to have punched who in badly choreographed fights. It's all good: under the 1970s rules of play fighting, if someone throws a slow motion punch at you, you're duty bound to react, as if you'd been socked for real, no matter how much smaller they are than you, or how widely they missed. It's the rules! It's life affirming and equalizing - under this rule size doesn't matter and no one gets hurt, but everyone gets to do hammy acting after being punched, even falling down or rolling into trash bins or magazine racks if needed. It's ceremonial! There's a lot of that in UNHOLY ROLLERS, and Claudia Jennings brings the same glint of genuine madness she brought to the insane and divine GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE. As she brawls her way around the great rotating roller rink of heaven, let us pray for her soon return -- to kick more ass in whatever form she chooses to occupy!

TRUMP-Factor. - Turning a public event into a shouting match for the sake of ratings and whipping up the blood frenzy in rowdy audiences; Claudia Jennings' character says and does anything she feels like and her managers can't argue, since her outrageous behavior gets her more and more fans, i.e. no such thing as bad publicity. As her momentum builds, her rivals become more and more abusive, and the crowds more and more infused with bloodlust until even her handlers wonder if they've created an uncontrollable monster. Sound familiar? CNN, this is all your fault.



4. TERRORVISION
(1986) Dir. Ted Nicolau
***
Good natured mid-80s MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci fi comedy in the vein of EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, NIGHT OF THE COMET, REPO MAN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and BUCKAROO BANZAI, this Charles Band joint is the story of an ugly but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via a then state-of-the-art satellite TV, newly installed in the home of a looney upscale Malibu family. Cult icons Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham are the swinging parents; Diane Franklin their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen a tow-head young gun nut under the tutelage of his crackpot survivalist war vet grandfather (Bert Remsen) who lives in the adjoining bomb shelter. TV horror hostess Madame Medusa (Jennifer Richards), a pair of fellow swingers (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks) who come over for a dip in the pool and to-ah-hah-swing, and Jonathan Gries as the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!") round out the stellar cult-ready cast. They're all on the same page, sitcom-from-Hell overacting-wise, which makes it all click together deliriously. With its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor it might be a nightmare under the influence of household solvents, but underneath the gross-outs and decadence lurks a loving spirit that triangulates its genial signal somewhere between 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman (I kept expecting Dick Miller to show up as a door-to-door salesman). 

Trump Factor: I could make some parallel with the all-devouring monster coming out of the TV and Fox News (and Hillary as the benevolent alien trying to clean up the mess and get the family's attention but not being heard over the din), but I'd rather just consider it a pleasing reminder that the extended American nouveau riche families of the 80s weren't all insufferably materialistic or rabidly conservative. Zeroing in on the macabre heightened reality in the cracks of mall culture (rather than just being 'quirky'), TERRORVISION brings back memories of the early days of VHS when whole families would get together to watch X-rated movies we and mom had rented from the back room of the local appliance store, just because we were all rather curious. Pornography and sadistic rape-revenge films were now invading the suburbs en masse, and I'm always wondering if it was this sudden ceaseless onslaught of video smut and gore after so many decades of variety show pap that turned we once-swinging middle Americans into the panicky prudes we are today (in addition to AIDS, of course), or whether we're just trying to reclaim our lost innocence so we can have fun re-losing it. Though he doesn't drink or do drugs (neither did Hitler, or Osama), Trump would fit right in at the Caligula-like marble jacuzzi room of this crazy family, despite his half-assed nods to the conservative Christian sect. No matter what backwards pendulum hangover we face tomorrow, we'll will always will be ready to party tonight. If we forget how hard we rock sometimes, it's only 'cuz we rock so hard. 


5. THE VISITOR 
(1979) Dir. Giulio Paradisis 
***
The crowning plume on Italy's many-feathered Omen / Close Encounters imitation helmet, this tale of a telekinetic devil child named Kaity (Paige Connor), caught in a bidding war between ancient alien forces of good and evil, has nearly everything that made the 70s great: peregrine falcons, mall ice rinks, NBA basketball, enigmatic patriarchies, video pong, gymnastics (Nadia Comăneci rocked the world in the '76 Olympics), a giant old school projector TV, and aging former-A-list stars mixing with young up-and-comers as if meeting on an up-down escalator. Joanne Nail (who rocked it so very, very hard in Switchblade Sisters) is Barbara, the mom with the cosmic womb; Glen Ford is a suspicious detective killed by Katy's peregrine familiar; Shelly Winters is the astrology-guided housekeeper; Sam Peckinpah (!) is Barbara's abortionist ex-husband; John Huston is God or Lord Enki, or the substitute babysitter; Lance Henriksen is Raymond, Barbara's boyfriend, pressured by his Satanic board of directors (headed by Mel Ferrer) to get Barbara pregnant again because the antichrist still can't be a girl. When Barbara resists Raymond's marital overtures, the Illuminati arrange an alien abduction to artificially inseminate her! Man oh man! Nick Redfern should love this movie!

If all that wasn't 70s enough, there are car crashes, bird attacks, baldheaded cult members, ferns, aquariums, and kids using curse words (Kaity tells Ford to go fuck himself, but haltingly, like a real kid would in the 70s when foul language still had some mystical power).


Most 70s of all: the script fuses ancient alien theory, Gnosticism and Buddhism together to underwrite its cosmology rather than resorting to the usual Catholic icons. If you've read my 'other' blog, Divinorum Psychonauticus, you know I support that decision. Franco Nero in an electric yellow hippie wig makes a helluva great Jesus, and Franco Micalizzi's funk-galactic score effectively conjures memories of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as re-imagined by Meco?! (How the fuck was that ever a hit? But It was).

Trump Factor: As a scheming CEO being pressured into a virulently pro-life position by Satanic illuminati benefactors, Raymond lacks only Trump's ambivalenza vulgare to up his polls. Still, no matter how persistent and bluntly the devil woos us, even if he arranges 'accidents' (ala the Reichstag burning) to make us feel desperately dependent on him, we needn't vote his way. God, aka Lord Enki (alias Jerzy aka The Visitor) is clearly pro-choice, but also insists that, before he takes you to his heavenly realm, your selfish malice (and hair) be ripped from your soul by cleansing bird swarms aka paying higher income tax. 

Have you paid yours yet, dear reader? Capone didn't. Does he look worried?  Salut!

Friday, March 25, 2016

The whores in hors d'oeuvres: A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY


Bring on the multitudes with a multitude of fishes:
feed them with the fishes for liver oil to nourish the Artist!
Stretch their skin upon an easel to give him canvas.
Crush their bones into a paste that he might mold them.
Let them die, and by
their miserable deaths become the clay within his hands,
that he might form an ashtray  or an ark.
  -- Maxwell J. Brock (A Bucket of Blood)
INTRO:
Italian art house cinema of the late 60s, she could dangerous and dull. European critics prepared with Hercules pens alone could confront its many hydra heads without passing out from the ennui; American critics scattered to the four winds like frightened goatherds at the sign of subtitles unless they saw breasts... and fast. The Italian neorealist sentimentalism of the 50s needed Sophia Loren. But then came Antonioni's BLOW-UP in 1966, and there was no putting Italian cinema back together again. All the best corpses and models and stoop-shouldered socialist toothed birds a casting call could couch were then shipped wholesale to Rome for the imitators, the dime store Marxists masquerading as hip disaffected youths to win the tourist distributor's fickle coin. It didn't mean mainstream Italian cinema hadn't had its head handed to it on a Matisse bowler Salome platter by BLOW-UP's success, but it was quick to recover, grinding up the red telephones into pigment to redden the canvas of the artist.

By 1968, Warhol, Lichtenstein, LSD, Vietnam, radicalism, labor strikes, women's lib were all hanging around and kicking the bomb-blasted corpses of neorealist prostitute madonnas and pinball-and-cigarette pimps, and for some, that was great news. But, paralyzed with the realization any movement they took outside BLOW-UP's immediate blast radius would harden them into mock-ups of their plastic avenue parents, the dilated Now generation and the lecherous old intellectuals sleeping on their couches (or vice versa) stood frozen on the spot, paralyzed through fear of paralysis. There in the bone-splattered tiles and smoldering support beams they waited to decide how they were going to rewrite the history they'd just collectively admitted had been erased. Instead, they found where Fellini was hiding (under the ruins of mawkish life-is-a-carnival-metaphor merry-go-round) and strung him up by his heels. But when it came to slitting his throat, they were suddenly afraid of committing too far in the dark direction, of stumbling on their dad's mothballed attic-stashed Fascist Party parade sash. Finally, Dario Argento grabbed a razor and made the cut, for real, on the throat of the woman. And from that gaudy rococo throat gushed a dishwasher ocean of red... BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1968) soared aloft.. and immediately everyone who had been so reticent to do more than pretend to strangle their mistress or their husbands for a party game fake-out (ala DEATH LAID AN EGG) changed their minds and went scrambling through the ruins for a sharp shard.

Suddenly breasts and mod clothes and kinky psycho art shows weren't enough. While Ennio mocked from the playground slide whistle and tra-la-las, you had to kill 'em, fabulously, ironically, brutally--but not tastelessly. The Money urged them on and you had to be an idiot if you let your feeling of virginal castration angst hang you up instead of the other way around. The Money commands a sacrifice, and then another, as thirsty as an Aztec god.

Anyway it wasn't blood that flowed so free, but red -- pigment for the artist. BIRD was a horror film the way 1966's BLOW-UP was a conspiracy thriller, or PERFORMANCE a British mobster film, or PSYCHO a film noir.

When you film a girl in her scanties looking at tawdry X-rated photo books, thou has committed post-modernism AND made Joe Levine happy,

And that's where 
A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) comes in, for it is one of the weird, more vaguely satirical contemporaries of Argento's definitive Italian post-BLOW-UP giallo. It's the cool uncle the Argento generation never sees anymore except on rare holidays when they can get away to visit him at his 'funny' farm. They would never know from his address how cool he is, I mean what is up with that title? A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY sounds like a Squaresville Merchant Ivory bucolic revery, something only a half-asleep grandmother clutching her rosary could love. It doesn't even have a poster, for gods' sake. Is it deliberately trying to be lost to time?  That's why I made one (above), changing the name to u3prufj]gi]42go[ggr=gr. The line between artistic genius and psychotic mania has seldom before been so succinctly erased, and that deserves at the very least a more evocative title!

Not only is psychotic mania succinctly erased but there's also the by-far best performance of a young Franco Nero (dubbing his own voice in the English track), as an unhinged modern art painter named Leonardo. The way he tears around the crumbling estate, happy as a lark, reminds me of that old children's song by Napoleon XIV they used to play us in elementary school. Apparently he was shacking up with Vanessa Redgrave at the time, and they both really loved making this movie together, and it really shows, especially with him; he's alight with joy. If you're used to his terse inexpressive deadpan cool from DJANGO or THE FIFTH CORD, it might even be a shock to see how opened and giddy and light on his feet he is. Whether he's chasing the ghost of a nymphomaniac countess around his crumbling country mansion, or being chased by his needy art gallery owner girlfriend (Redgrave), he's magnetic.

Poor Redgrave, on the other hand, comes off quite busted, but it's testament to her daring she let Nero so dominate their scenes, instead going for a bewildered needy clueless type, the one you kind of leave in the dust after your first big acid or shroom trip and she's crying and stamping her foot and suddenly seems so childish and manipulative that you're completely over her in a heartbeat. So much is made of a bouquet of wild flowers, for example, he takes from the place where Wanda was killed and then throws to Vanessa but she's too busy moving 'civilized' stuff in for him, like a dishwasher. With his haircut too to go with this kind of "alive to the wildflowers that the plastic fantastic types cannot see" he resembles Francis "Brother Sun" of Zeffirelli's film leaving comfortable bourgeois textiles family to go starve in a half-restored stone church in the middle of nowhere.

If you can imagine Francis' mom showing up after a week to move in a washer and dryer to keep his burlap rags clean, then you can imagine the entirety of Francis of Assisi's legacy might not even exist if he hadn't picked a church way far away from them, and kept it kee-deep in mud and offal.

For a male artist struggling with his issues, the worst thing a woman can do is try curtail or control his madness rather than rolling with it. It's the difference between a parent able to enter their kids' imagined world, seeing things through their eyes, a parent who just shrugs and says "oh you kids" and goes back to reading the paper, and a parent who makes the kid stop imagining things altogether out of a kind of buzzkill jealousy. Even the photographer her PR guy brings has more of a grasp of the method to Leonardo's madness when he alone notices the flowers, still on the ground, or at least snaps a photo of them, and this enrages Franco, as if the photographer is stealing his wildflowers' soul, this young turk setting himself up like an Eve Kendall, building his own art off the madness of Leonardo, who-- rather than lighting a cigarette and talking about Marxist aesthetics through opaque Armani shades--reaches out to grab him his canvas hideout like an old dark house gorilla reaching through a secret panel in the wall above the sleeping heroine.

The only girl who understands him, who doesn't try to nail Leonardo down to sensible hours, clean dishes, and regular meals, is the ghost of the nymphomaniac countess, a combination anima (ala Rebecca or Laura), jealous voyeur (ala the male version of Quint in The Innocents) and a softcore libertine always dragging the film deeper into Poe territory while simultaneously pitching Leonardo's obsession dangerously close to his obsession with dirty magazines. As in Blow-Up there's something along the lines of a detective solving a murder as he collects old photos of her - but he's not a cop, just an insane voyeur, thrilled to hear all the old men reminisce about losing their virginity to her during the war. Is this just his distraction from doing any work or is this somehow mirroring his work? Or leading his work astray? Is the genius of art hinged at the edge of pornography? Is the madness caused by obsessive voyeurism really the same as investigative journalism? Unless one were to, say, spy on Alfred Hitchcock in his private life, see what pornography he looks at, if any, and if he peeps into his starlet's dressing rooms, it's a very tough tell.

By contrast, Antonioni's madmen tended to be women, driven insane through lack of an artistic outlet. Here Redgrave structures and profits by his madness - and her love is based on his resistance and absence (expressed even to the point of his anima/ghost's attacks). When Redgrave shows up the whole house conspires to kill her via roof cave-ins and falling shelves and exploding pipes while Nero stalks her like a combination Italian spy and playful child. Stifled by her suffocating sanity, her pedestrian conceptions of art, showing him her electric knife sharpeners as if begging him to cut her apart, pleading with him to touch her and make her relevant, to shave off her consumerist edges, he can only channel his misogynistic kinkiness through mock strangling or Poe-like fits of Morella-Ligeia possession. That's how the film gets to be both horror and not, because it fits both quite well without committing to one side or the other.

If murders can turn out to be just dreams and hallucinations instead of 'reality' it's very important that they still feel more relevant than the reality that surrounds them, otherwise it feels like a cheat. It takes a true surrealist (like Lynch, Cocteau or Bunuel) to recognize there doesn't need to be an 'it was all a dream' denouement in movies--no matter how weird things get. Even the most masterful of visionaries feel often feel obligated to bring things back to Squaresville at the end, remembering the dutiful spouses waiting at home to patiently chide them for not wanting to be patiently chided. Only Lynch, Bunuel, and Cocteau seem to realize you don't ever need to wake up from a dream in the movies. A film can be all dream, all the time, and logic, truth, and reality can go to the devil. We'll be fine, mom. You and your Fellini carnival megaphone can go end some other film. We already know life is a carnival, it's been drummed into us like a prenatal hearbeat.

So why is this masterpiece not more widely praised? Critics pee their pants praising other surrealist portraits of Italian male artist egocentric sex addict dysfunction like 8 1/2, but Quiet Place makes Fellini look like that insecure childhood friend who tries to keep you reading comic books and playing D&D with him instead of going off with the bad kids to get high. TCM showed it this past Monday as part of their Creepy Art and Artists series, next to Mystery at the Wax Museum (the original) and Corman's Bucket of Blood. They're two favorites of mine, so the TV was still on afterwards, me in the other room half-listening, when I heard Ennio Morricone's unmistakable cacophonic counterpoint--it cut through my deep focus like a knife. I never in a million years would have found this film otherwise. What kind of giallo is called A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY!?

TCM's entry on the film mentions it kind of disappeared off the radar and never came to the States at all, and the "only reason it probably received distribution in an English-dubbed version in the U.S. in 1970 was due to the tabloid notoriety of Redgrave and Nero, who were living together openly and had a child." Which is interesting since PERFORMANCE was also filmed in 1968 and only released here in 1970. Were they both considered too dangerous for the time? Too likely to spark a revolution, a riot, or a surge in mental hospital self check-ins? Well, even in 1970 nothing you could say on the poster could would lure anyone in to a movie called A Quiet Place in the Country. Good god... I know, because I never in a million years would have seen it nor be writing this if not for that Morricone muted trumpet recognition, because, frankly, I hate Italian period piece pastoralism and mawkish Merchant Ivory passions of the kind conjured by that drab title. I mean what kind of film has that bland name and then this is the first image you see:



You might look at this kind of self-reflexive indulgence and groan, thinking about incoherent image stringers like BABA YAGA or even annoying 'visualization of mental states' quirkiness like CARO DIARIO but hey, fellow, relax. Director Elio Petri is no whimsy-merchant or softcore hack anymore than he is giallo / gangster journeyman, a white elephant 'alienation' technician, nor some Marxist snot filming pinball and polemics through cafe windows. He's a bonafide pop art post-Marxist artist whose Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is on Criterion with all the hearty handclasps that implies. So even if Quiet is such a down and dirty mindfuck it would make David Hemmings cry like little Chester in The Fatal Glass of Beer, and even the fantasy visualization bits are done correctly, so that we can't tell which is which, well, it's still Art, baby. We can wonder in this opener if Nero is tied up as part of some contemporary art gallery show she's curating, is himself a performance art installation, or if this is just an abstracted sex scene, and rest assured we'll never be burdened by anything so crass as clarification. We can wonder if Leonardo is being haunted by a real ghost, or whether he is just a paranoid schizophrenic sex addict, whether he's genuinely dangerous or just 'playful,' whether this is all meant to be a dream, an art gallery show, or a couple hanging out in their apartment, with him feeling trapped in a tied-up situationist strait-jacket and she faux-enthralled by all the wonders of the electric age (demonstrating them to Leonardo with pleading eyes, she's the height of bourgeois neediness, he must go insane to escape her), again - we don't need to worry --it's never just a dream.


To repay this favor, let's talk about getting it more love from the fringe contingent. For one, there's no 'poster' or icon for it whatsoever. There's only this pretentious and aesthetically demoralizing off-off-Broadway S&M club amateur night shot of Nero in a wheelchair and Vanessa Redgrave (The 'It' girl of BLOW-UP) standing behind him in a nurse's outfit, or Amazon's generic stock 'blank cover' (I refuse to even link to them here, for they are both abominations.

I've only read one review in English that gets it, on Electric Sheep (from the UK, naturally):
Petri’s foray into experimental horror. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the intricacies of the delirious plot. Once you know how this flamboyantly elusive tale of a troubled abstract painter obsessed with the ghost of a nymphomaniac young countess pans out, you appreciate all the more how brilliantly it is all set up. Blending sex, love, madness, identity crisis, alienation, death, art, consumerism and social commentary in a hypnotic, dazzling visual swirl of bold colours, powerful emotions and artistic expression, it is a feast of experimental visual imagery, but not without Petri’s typically dry, caustic touch. - Pamela Jahn
One of the legendary Situationist ad campaigns hushed up by A.O Range
All the Candide clowns you crayon can't compete with a single electrically-sharpened switchblade slash from the sandman's blood-blackened brush! In dreams I'll find who's there? Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies; Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies who? Damn right. Insanity pays dividends (done ideally without real violence), regardless of the severity of the strait-jacket. The trick is to be successful enough in the market they wheel you to the nicer home, the funnier of farms, with pretty views and indulgent staff, and access to paint and brush.

You wouldn't get that kind of treatment if you defected to Russia, so use your time wisely. Only when safely contained, looked after, but working unfettered, can you really crack it wide open. If Pollock had been medicated and under house arrest, with an alcohol-detecting bracelet, he might still be alive. If you care.

Usually the flights of fancy --the imagination of the artist whimsy--bother me, but not here when Leonardo's identity is so fluid. As his suffocatingly bourgeois capitalist girlfriend Flavia, Redgrave is the perfect blend of depressive neediness, where the relationship is one of an artistic egocentric person trying to be nice and involve the other in his/her aesthetically rip-roaring child's eye view of the world, one where, like kids with toy army men, size is a matter of perspective (children can easily enlarge the small and shrink the large in their imagination, like Alice eating mushroom stems in order to match the height of each new character). It's the zone where mania, spiritual enlightenment, and madness intersect and liberate consciousness from the old self's locked parameters,

But your old lady, man, she's still locked up in her old self's parameters, and she says you can't go out to play with your friends, because she wants to stay with you, like a dwarf star albatross anchor of bore-o-drome. She can't follow you into that zone of play, so she can only try to lure you back out of it, which makes her seem suddenly small, shallow, pathetic, and irritating--in ways impossible to alter via the aforementioned spatial perception flux.


It's like if Hemmings' photographer had his elderly accountant interrupting constantly his 'flow' of jazzy image-chasing in Blow-Up, nagging him why he won't sit down and do his taxes, trying to steer the whole movie out of this kinetic signifier-melting 'Now'-ness and into fiduciary logocentric absolutes. A three can never be a four in accounting, but in Blow-Up the only difference is that one has less curves and the other less lines. Other than that they are identical. Flavia can understand this as his agent--she's been cultivating his mystique to make them both richer--but as his lover she hungers for some kind of traditional pair bond. Never afraid to seem manly or ghoulish, like some monstrous lesbian from an Aldrich hag movie one minute and a sexy carefree bird the next, trying on thing after another to reach him, Redgrave is achingly sad, funny - almost painfully human yet still full of British fire -seemingly beyond the confines of Britain's class system but nonetheless hung up on Leonardo. We're invited to see her from his side, her crying in a deep manly choke, in ways only Fellini would probably be moved by. Wanda, the ghost nymph, is not moved, and scalds Flavia in the bathroom. We would cheer...

if we were able to close our agape mouths.

EPILOGUE

If you're still lost in the Italian 60s art house morass after this movie, still need to understand the bizarro world Joycean dialectic at play here, hey, I relate. Watch the newsstand scene where he orders all these dry political news magazines, calling their names loudly while whispering the names of the dirty ones below, alternating back and forth like a kind of crazy counterpoint jazz, building and building in mania while Ennio Morricone's score chides him like a gang of rock-throwing Catholic school truants. Got it? Now watch BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (with its sing-song chiding chorus) and then you will maybe not even or finally never know that any confusion on your part is the correct modernist response. Even Antonioni wasn't able to handle that level of all-consuming cinematic signifier meltdown. He followed his clown's candy-colored exhaust trail to the American Southwest for ZABRISKIE POINT in 1970 but within that confining vastness even he, the titan of lostness, was lost. Here the threes meant threes and love meant love and red state bullets meant the same as they always did--freedom, man --it's gone. So written history was blown in slow motion to Pink Floyd but there was only so many angles you could film the explosion in, so many speeds, to hide that fact that without the old world's effigy to throw rocks at there was nothing in the air to knock one out.


"I can hear him saying it now," the writer says at the end of CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, "it's a peaceful country, nothing ever happens there." Argento knew that art was the time travel portal where the dead and demented past comes slithering out to stalk and slash its way across the galleria like the renaissance of the living dead. No need for Dario to chase hippies around, he'd chase the artists themselves; he'd chase Antonioni as the effigy of the curious artist, fit to be gutted or at least scared; the photographer voyeur suddenly face-to-face with the killer he's been chasing, the painting reaching out from the frame to stab the artist in his disaffected eyeball--to at the very least at last affect it. Blow up as many neo-realists and paint as many graveyard hussies as you can find, dear Petri, Wanda will never be sated 'til it's your soul dripping from her sexy gorgon fangs, and every Redgrave is dug deep for departure.


1. you can argue Bava was the first to mix fashion and gory murder --in 1964's Blood and Black Lace, but that movie was a failure at the time, never released to the States (which was thick into the Gothic Corman Poe series back then), so Bava turned back to the traditional genre forms. Argento's '68 film was on the other hand an influential success.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Jet-lagged Hayride with Dracula










"As for fidelity, should one not be faithful to all those whom one loves?" - Robin Wood  
Watching the weird nocturne noir chemistry cohere like a ghost from the black and white celluloid mist of This Gun for Hire (1942) for the zillionth time, I'm still trying to nail down the lovesick ache I get from Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's mystical lost ghost frequency. Blonde, small (ten feet between them) and unemotional, they're like a separated-from-birth version of Sharon Tate and David Hemmings in Eye of the Devil, or two alien-human hybrids who recognize each other from a past off-world life.

Neither fraternal nor sexual (as critic David Shipman notes, Ladd "never flirted nor even seemed interested, which is one of the reasons he and Lake were so effective together." [2]), their muted chemistry is so elusive, so void of frills and posturing, so unusual it resonates today as strongly as it resonated with wartime audiences. It's the speak-softly-because-you-don't-know-who's-listening wartime caution ("loose [or loud] lips sink ships"), the same shadowy skull reflection death drive cool low key savvy we find in Val Lewton's horror films and Sinatra's ghostly radio crooning from the same period (1941-45).

This was the era when every healthy able-bodied man was overseas facing death, and the women were expected to go into a kind of sexual deep freeze, working in munitions plants or driving cabs, and waiting for letters from the front, terrified of the arrival of an officer with an ominous telegram in the middle of the night. Ladd and Lake's chemistry was perfect for this deep freeze moment.

That kind of subtlety is never popular for long however. Sleazy studio heads--used to a steady supply of eager would-be starlets ("Mr. Smearcase!" as per Lake's ingenue in Sturges' Sullivan's Travels)-- don't understand that kind of love. They're like John Travolta's snickering entourage in Grease, they want to know 'did they or didn't they?' Sympathetic wavelength entrainment and platonic pair bonding are just synonyms for cowardice and hesitancy to these slavering troglodytes. But true auteurs know myths have never thrived with those kind of either/or dichotomies. That entourage is never leaving the Bronx, Vinnie! They're stuck there. But you! Oy, you can-a-dance-in-a-Manhattan, Vinny. All fornication will get you is VD or a kid, Vinnie. Do you want to wind up stuck in the reproductive amber, in Bushwick, for god's sake? One broken condom at the drive-in ("feelin' like a fool / wonderin' what the kids will say / next day at school" - indeed, no bigger fool than the one stuck with a paternity suit, child support, and diapers. Diapers, Vinnie!

Note: subliminal similarity to a multi-armed Hindu deity
That's the trick to staying cool in wartime and after, the core of platonic alien jet-lagged love: to relish the anguish of sexual longing and sublimate it into art rather than materialize it and therefore obliterate it. As I've written before on this site, in Visconti's The Leopard, Burt says "marriage is six months of fire, forty years of ashes," but with platonic love / friendship it's ten-to-twenty of slow-burning coal. Isn't that better, and way harder to find? Whether he's Fred from Night of the Iguana, an old wise film critic whose Cialis prescription ran out, a savvy Lacanian, or a sixty feet tall gorilla, the adroit, awakened lover is transported by beauty past the breakwaters of horniness and into accidental chivalry, into honor, the Hawksian code.

After all, she's got a boyfriend... over there... somewhere... it would be a kind of home front sabotage to take advantage of his absence.

The first scene of This Gun For Hire tells it all: Raven (Ladd) rips the sultry boarding house maid's dress, not to ravish her but because she was mean to his kitten. Raven makes only two 'moves' on Ellen (Lake), the first to steal five dollars from her purse and next to march her into an abandoned building, not for vile molesting, but to shoot her as a witness. She gets away only by the timely return of two construction workers back from their lunch break. Her friend later tells her she looks like she's been on a "hayride with Dracula," an analogy which works well, as Drac's motives aren't carnally impure either. He's just in it for the blood.

The few times Ladd and Lake did hook up in a movie, their kiss happened only at the end, or after fade-out. We seldom saw the actual kiss. The Blue Dahlia (1946) for example, fades out on William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont looking over at Ladd and Lake, who are by then presumably kissing. We've been longing for them to get together all through the film but now that there's nothing standing between them... well, who likes seeing their parents kiss, even if they're little blonde aliens? 


Aliens... I don't only mean extraterrestrial but also alienated. Foreigners in a strange land, unable to shake their dreamy disconnected jet lag ennui, when they finally meet a fellow traveler as alienated as themselves, like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation (2003) after so many lonely alienated hours, well, it's a special magic. Both unable to sleep in their ritzy Tokyo hotel, not speaking Japanese at all, or any other language, their initial reason for being there not taking up much of their time, their gaijin height and features contrasting them from the rest of the city as distinctly as giant Nephilim Nordic Vikings, they can either hang out together or with no one. They connect, but it's more about their sharing loneliness, as opposed to merging into couplehood --with all the associative baggage that implies.

I remember when I saw Translation at a Chelsea theater during its initial run on Thanksgiving in 2003 at with a cadre of AA people. I was in the throes of something so similar to the doomed May-December soul bonding of Bob and Charlotte, I felt like the film was a continuation of my own life, with Manhattan doubling for Tokyo and Brooklyn for the States. I recognized too the dangers of this intense bond leading anywhere other than disaster, largely from the cautionary example of Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch in Ghost World (left), in which Johansson also co-starred just two years earlier.  Birch initiates everything there and though Buscemi knows better he can't resist with much vigor. But the next morning the look on her face is such we realize he should have resisted just a little harder. Shouldn't he have?

We all in that AA posse recognized the same lost soul magnetism between Murray and Johansson in our own love for each other, the gorgeous ephemeral lost soul union known only to we who have heard the chimes at midnight fade into sirens and muffled EMT voices muffled across hurricanes of silence far over our heads as we leaned back against the flat bumpy pillow of the numb sidewalk and felt with our eyes half-open like we were standing, sitting up and lying down all at the same time: "Sir? Sir? Can you hear my voice? Have you had anything to drink or taken anything tonight?"

"Taken anything".. what a dumb expression, you think. No ossifer, everything's right where I found it.


Isolated in our space, cut off and adrift, our precious alcohol on the other side of a dangerous highway, when someone else comes along who gets that, someone also on that level--a sympathetic cute chick EMT rather than a suspicious cop eyeing your bulging gym bag--well, she's too precious to throw away by busting even some advanced playa move. You might rear back and think that's being scaredy-cat, but I know the follow-through too well. If it works, you have to make out for hours and blah blah, and if it doesn't and she bails, well, you die on the street, the average folks stepping over you like you're just another vagrant, and aren't you?

People say men and women don't know how to be friends but what they mean is they don't know how. Love can flourish more profoundly in a platonic friendship, irregardless of genders, or numbers. You needn't be monogamous or cockblock or judge or restrict or allow those things to be done to you. But first you need to have achieved a few of your life's most cherished desires, like crawling through the parched sand for days, finally making it to the far off mirage of a water fountain and seeing at last it's just a rock. Or in love's case, a goddamned diaper. Is anything more revolting than when love leads to a family? What's the use of being a hit man at all if they're just going to keep coming?

There needs to be some peace, a population evening-out! Otherwise no one even has a chance to experience the grand crushing emptiness of making to the water fountain-shaped rock. To paraphrase Jim Morrison--no earth-shattering orgasm or greaser high five will forgive you for the dawn you just wasted.


Breeder San Francisco homicide detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston - above) for example, wants to waste the dawn that is Lake's shimmering hair in This Gun for Hire by turning her into "a cop's wife": "I don't understand it," notes one of her fellow showgirls to him, "that girl is nuts about you," We don't understand it either.

Robert Preston? Whaaaat? Whyy? We can feel all the disembodied souls--swarming around Lake like masked figures at a sold-out Sleep No More--consider breaking off to haunt some other gorgeous blonde's womb, no point jostling with those other souls in the dark if you have to grow up half-this dunderheaded straight-edge who expects your gorgeous mom to cease chanteuse-ing, to perform instead for an audience of one, "darning his socks and cooking his (and eventually your) corned beef and cabbage." I love This Gun for Hire but when I hear that line I wince and want to shout, "all that horrid smelling steam will ruin her hair!" No offense meant to Preston, but his detective is a safety-first putz fit to warm the Catholic Legion of Decency's heart, but annoy everyone else's. When he sees lovely Lake slink onto the stage and do her number, he can only imagine getting her out of that shimmery gown and into an apron; he sees her gorgeous hair and imagines how much better it will look wilted from the steam, leaning over a pot of fucking boiled cabbage all day. As Bugs Bunny would say, what a maroon.

I can only presume we're supposed to feel that way, to situate him as some vile Non du père. In the shadowy option of the other side, Lacan's primal (or anal) father, is Laird Cregar, nimbly seeming both gay and straight, referring to his main vice as "backing leg shows" and by acknowledging the job's essential tawdriness, he brings it some counterintuitive class and legitimacy. He might be a lech, but at least he wants Ellen looking glamorous for everyone (who can buy, minimally, two drinks) rather than Crane's super-menial "cabbage-cooker for one" alternative.


Oh well, even if she didn't wind up as a blue collar cop's wife role in her subsequent films and even if Gun would be the last time we have to have a square boyfriend for her (just noble dimwits or blustery gangsters from now on), we know her real love is always that lost cause with a broken wrist who claws at everyone but her. She looks at sweaty little crumb bums like Ladd's Raven or amateur mendicant-disguised Sullivan with compassion of the same sort Raven has for the stray boarding house kitten, not with disgust or judgment the way the rest of the world does, and not sexual either --just one right guy to another, take it or leave it. The compassion in her eyes when she looks at Raven, especially on the train and when they're hiding out at the climax, provides one of the great transcendental healing gifts of the movies. We don't often see that look in movies. It's a look beyond sentiment, sympathy or some covertly judgmental altruism. It's a real feeling of empathy, one damaged but noble soul to another --it's lifted me out of many a post-bender shame spiral and made me, like Raven in the film, her loyal champion. She's the dream girl for all us broken mugs who need a friend more than a lover --her beauty acts like a healing opiated salve on our souls, and she's glad to radiate as long as we don't get touchy-feely, which we're too shaky to try, anyway. 


"You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don't have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I'd be staring into your bridgework saying 'Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that's my knee!' - Veronica Lake's character, a struggling actress who spends her last dime on who she thinks is a bum but is a slumming director who knows Lubitsch - Sullivan's Travels 1941
The same beauty Ladd and Lake capture in Gun is here in this diner between Lake and McCrea, the Hawksian self-awareness that keeps one so aloof from the shallow world finally being rewarded in a union of equals, and she's free from Mr. Smearcase and his grabby hands (in 1951's The Thing, Margaret tells Pat how much she likes him only when his hands are safely tied - Hawks knew, too, the two are connected).

And then there's that hair. Gun for Hire is considered her big hair breakout, but if she owes her career to anyone it's not her hairdresser or Ladd or Raymond Chandler but Preston Sturges, for throwing her into a pool in Sullivan's Travels (1941), leading to the scene where she brushes her long hair out byt the pool in her sexy white robe. A complex post-modern masterpiece on the bourgeois need to tell the story of 'the little guy' to the little guy who'd rather not hear about it. (3)  

There's only one problem: there are only a few Lake-Ladd noirs, and only a few other films that know how to situate Lake's rare gifts --aand once you watch 'em all, where are you? A shivering alcoholic in the cold again, sifting through your stacks of DVDs like they're a bunch of empty bottles, wondering if there's anything left, anywhere, for that sense of Hawksian bonding or Lake-Ladd alien frequency, that golden healing opiated salve. It's only after enough time has passed you can watch them all again with relatively fresh eyes (for me it's about six to eight months--too long alone in the cold).


"It's really the repression of sex (think of old stories like Brief Encounter and Love Affair) and the acceptance of a carnal boundary that can't be crossed that becomes, in their eloquent silence-filled rapport, a form of love more life-altering than the sexual contortions now monotonously de rigueur." - Molly Haskell (2003) 
The tragedy with the couple in platonic love orbit in Lost in Translation, is that each party has already 'settled' for an approximation of what they considered 'normal' - the cop boyfriend with his fantasy realm extending no further than trusty monotonous corned beef and cabbage. Maybe though it's not a tragedy, as that obligation to be faithful frees them from needing to drag the carnal along into it. Courtly love which was never about breaking up the marriage. Sex was what triggered your disillusionment, not the other way around. It's the hesitant but undeniable attraction of doomed lovers in the lost moment, sharing their loneliness, as well as the pain of remembering that loving bond--the pain of anyone who's fallen in love from a distance--all too common in the internet age--the lack of earthly parameters freeing one to write acres of poetry and longing prose letters--vast forests of stanzas never needing to be printed out or even saved anymore than their yearning ugency needs to be concretized in the sack.

In AA we say 'think the drink through.' Instead of just thinking of the drink and the sweet sudden feeling of completeness, of joy and fearless brio, the surge of coherence, confidence, inspiration, and jubilant love it brings, we learn to think past that joy, to the need for the next one, twice as strong as the need for the first, but with only half the joy and completeness, and then the sodden depression when we're too drunk to do anything but drink more, and gradually we're too fucked up to do anything else but pour. And then... it's all gone, and we're too fucked up to get any more. We can't even find our goddamned pants, or even the phone.

But it's the same for Bob as he's being drawn to Charlotte in Translation, that rapturous connection too delicate to risk with clumsy fumblings. In AA we also say "drink all you want, just don't drink the first one," i.e. if you don't have the first drink, you're free, and that's not a lot to ask, considering all the other drinks waiting. Same thing in the Bob-Charlotte or Lake-Ladd connections: if you don't make a first move you'll never lose her. Maybe she'll sleep with every single one of your friends while making eyes at you, but in 20 years you will be the only guy she remembers without anger and remorse when she's making her qualification in Sex Addicts Anonymous.

If that's not enough to justify your holding off, then you're a dirty dog who hasn't thought the drink through, who doesn't want to be a DILF but just some old lech who took advantage of a girl's loneliness instead of buying himself a Porsche for his big midlife crisis (as she Scarlett first suggests to Bill in LIT). If you're not strong enough to resist, sublimate, transfuse and diffuse that desire or you're not worthy of her. That's why the first sign of your love is to try to send her back on the first stage out of Presidio (ala Wayne in RIO BRAVO), or plane out of Vichy-occupied Martinique (like Bogie in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT) then she has to get the ticket, sell it back, and stutter out an excuse why she didn't go, give you back the money, and then promise not to get in the way when the shit storm begins.

It's a Catch-22. It's like death, in fact, and like death you are officially permitted to laugh it off, to stand pat, sound in your Lacanian ideal and self knowledge, using her loveliness to fuel your art. There's no greater bond. If Death chooses you, if Death makes the first move, then okay. But you don't have to make it easy for her. Death loves a good challenge! Pedro, did you put the girl on the stage or not??

It's that death drive as a platonic ideal that is why Johansson was so well cast in Lost and later in Her and the underrated Lucy and why it was so important she wanted to fool around with Captain America in Winter Soldier and later Bruce Banner/Hulk in Age of Ultron, but they were the ones who held back. Natasha Romanov, sexy seductress super spy: it's great that she wants to fool around with you, it's bad if you allow it, because this is a girl so used to having men she wants, of using sex as a weapon, of being constantly ogled, seducing and destroying, that the only way to win her respect is to not be one of her countless conquests. You can't risk the Hulk coming out when she dumps you, trashing the city in a drunken rage. In this way art thou noble, chivalrous, and tortured enough that your soul is forge-hot, ready to be hammered by God or the Devil into brave new shapes.



And if you love her, you want her respect more than the crushing pain of thwarted desire if she doesn't call you back some rainy Sunday night. I mean, I'd hope you do! Think the drink through!
Take it from me, the pain's the same either way. Things are only valuable once they're lost. So lose yourself and watch your price shoot up until your smack center in the comic store window. So what if you're not in Near Mint condition?

On the other hand, if she moves in, goes for that first kiss, you may as well go along because it's even better if you help on the second. And it's rude to refuse a beautiful women such a request. And then that's probably going to be it, onscreen, so make it count. What you do after the fade out, or whether or not we pan to your buddies walking down the street, passing below the window, wondering if they'll ever get to be sheriff or mind their own business, or pull away from your conversation so we can't hear it ---that has to be your affair, private, for this all to work. There's only one solution to the bind Charlotte and Bob find themselves in at the end of Lost in Translation, for their final words together --Bob's whispering in the Tokyo throng while his car service sits in traffic--is to be unheard by our corrupting microphone ears. Like Schrödinger's cat, those unheard words thrive on the edge, the line that ties the fish of Pisces together, neither a promise nor a denial.

Only through my all-consuming absence am I yours alone. And we'll always have Facebook.

Here's looking at you/r kid/s.

NOTES
1. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics in Narrative Cinema, (p. 82)
2. Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York: Hill & Wang, 1979.
3. I wish had a making-of documentary extra, so we could see all these rich characters with expensive filmmaking machinery filming a bunch of extras as hobos hopping a freight train in a movie about how dumb it is for rich guys to film hobos running onto a train instead of Ants in Your Plants.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just Whoa Stories: Guy Maddin, Canadian Amnesiac: THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (2015)


If you'd wondered casually where Guy Maddin's been all these weeks, months, years, then you haven't read the snootier cineaste tabloids that remind us he's traveled the world and the eighteen seas shooting weird shorts on weird soundstages with his cool (and/or literally cold) friends. Now he's slung all those shorts together in order to re-witness the allegorical birth of cinema, from its slow crawl out of the silent fallopian Méliès ocular orifice, gaining momentum like an uncooked bullet monocle crosscutting through Intolerance valleys to come home and find Jolson belting out "Mammy" as the heavy silence of his meshugginah papa offers barbed wire reproach against this strange speeding cokey locomotive... I mean, it's jazz papa! Vitaphone 4ever... and then... what? The tracks run out at a cliff overlooking Cinemascope and Technicolor. Maddin shuns everything except the old 2-Strip. We walk from here, down into the gully to pick up undeveloped scraps tossed by wasteful cinematographers. 

Maddin isn't done there, wondering what kind of Brakhage-based nonlinearity cinema might have grown tall on had the silent-to-sound conversion gone differently. Wandering the land between true expressionism and hipster retro-narrative, tip-toeing through the sprockets and into the tulip bed unconscious, he's tallied the dreams of everyone who ever fell asleep on a speeding train (ala Lars Von Trier's Europa), and found a vision freely moored to the speed of rotating locomotive reels, seven frames a second like speed bumps in the track. The landscape outside the window suddenly skips! Its jamming! Burning up under the blazing light of the projector, until it's all bright white light, and then the house lights come on, the audience groans like groggy nappers. Maddin melts down the copper nitrate and uses it to fuel some addiction to the booster shots of doctors Mabuse and Caligari. He pays a visit his old Boards of Canada childhood's tawdry pock-marked classroom instructional videos, has a dream that John Berryman was right.... there, in the water like fluoride, crossing the racing lines and looking both ways before learning how to take a bath into Europa... Mothers or actresses paid to wear their clothes--scrubbing us so thoroughly we can feel Liv Ullman's breathing on the screen--then to behold the horrified rubes peeping through the sideshow curtains at our Oedipal naked soapy infant bodies. A mere dissolve later and we're an old man doomed to die in an abyss of black tail leader. Infancy = Amnesia! A good dreamer doesn't know he's dreaming (for he'd wake) nor a character that he's fiction (we'd wake, groaning, hand reaching for the remote). But in Maddin's world, consciousness extends beyond both, characters aware of the importance of keeping from the audience their full awareness of the mise-en-scene frame boundaries. They don't need a silver nitrate fireball held right against their mother's temple to keep them from squawking. They don't want us to stir from our slumber like the titans in Cabin in the Woods. 


But still these characters know that when the films's not running, you're not there, but you're at least preserved, even if only in some struck sodbuster's mind's eye, seeing you get that purty bath, scrubbed by that purty maid - the viewer at the roadshow remembers that picture - you don't remember him at all. Future generations will see you in your bath but now the colors will have all turned to rust. If you're in a Guy Maddin movie, that rust has happened ahead of time, two or three feet ahead, just enough for your nightmare third-eye fevered brain to hallucinate patterns upon the bubbling Ektachrome shower curtain into which your silhouette dissolves and merges, just enough to distract you so so the skeleton insurance defrauders can lull you into a gentle trance. Your worthless squirming signature on a piece of paper is all they need, and they'll stop pestering you. Sign here. Initial there and sleep on, and on into the ever chugging night as the track culls you like a ticking clock scrubbing blackness from the pink skin of the sky by force of habit. What else does the world turn for, if not lack of other options? Has anyone convinced it to stop twirling like a mad idiot around the sun, stopped winding it? Instead, we're 'orbiting' like a moth desperate to burn back up in the mother light of an empty projector, to drink from the sun like a mammary fountain and be reborn as an angel. Every moth who made it past that shade has never told us they regretted it. Even if they're swept up with the dropped popcorn at the end of the night, they had that moment... and they're still here. They're gone now, but there's always another show. Goddamn it. There's always another show.

They're always showing and showing, the devils, until the midnight show lets out into a parking lot as still as a tomb. You drive home and the rode is there waiting for you to finally fall.. asleep... so the orgy can begin, right under your sleeping nose. Never when you're awake, never if you're in the room - always after you leave the party, or before you arrive. Crash into that haunted tree, silly Julie Harris! The moon's out.... on bail... and looking to shine like it's 1909.

Margot (Clara Furey) of the Ridden Red Wolves
Baffled Woodsman (Roy Dupuis)
The orgy is, Kafka and Lacan and De Mille all say, an act performed only for you, only for you to feel you're missing something. An accident on the road that gives Ballard a bloody boner, that's why it's there. It's your one consolation gift upon exiting the cinema of perfect oceanic union with Mother Night and her comforter abyss. No matter what happens here, whether you enter the sunshine and arbeit macht marks with daddy Sarastro and his golf monk posse or just hang out at home like an idiot and watch another movie, know that you will never get that blissful pre-egoic union back, until the next show, but the show is just about missing it. We can only wish we didn't know this sad fact, we men who aren't coke dealers, that the orgy is only ever other. The angst of missing the orgy is all that keeps me, you, us, it, whatever, from breaking down in abject torn and frayed pin scratch despair, but then, maybe... maybe you were there at the orgy, and just don't remember. If you remember me there, then you definitely don't.

Skeleton Insurance Defrauders (themselves)
The Forbidden Room hath to the screens small in my apartment come via Netflix streaming. Seventeen or so of the aforementioned short films from around the world, woven together in a grand fusion of Brakhage-Decasia film decomposition and Freudian psychological disintegration. The stories enlarge and swallow each other so that one leads to the other and each new character in the last story has their own story they must tell, on and on and inward and inward until, like the five crosscut D.W. Griffith's Intolerance climaxes hurled madly into the Russian doll vortex of Jerzy Has Wojciech's The Saragossa Manuscript. Everything congeals and fuses itself back into an old man's bathtub submarine race... to pancakes and the forest, the hallmarks of 'Canada' as it exists in the mind - the maple syrup and mounties to our apple pie and baseball. And there, in the endless forests of the Great White North, the woodsman forced to watch his Red Riding Hood luxuriating amidst the wolf pack like one of those old (white) character actor tribes deep in the back lot Africa of those 40s Jungle Jim Bs, mit Herr Weissmuller.



And like his best work and that of only a handful of other filmmakers--Lynch, Bunuel, Antonioni, Martel--Maddin's style defies easy description or analysis, and so falls into the collective amnesia of the 20th century, coming at us the closest thing yet to the baroque yet strangely cheap look of our own dreams. The only one who can tell us what it all meant is a Freudian analyst, smoking in his train compartment (Forbidden Room includes a 'train psychiatrist' - like a ship's doctor, on the Berlin-Columbia Express) while trying to seduce a young zombified girl through hypnosis. Die Verboten Zimmer just came onto Netflix streaming and, for me anyway, went down easier in half hour installments in between various stages of house cleaning, ideally after a good strong inhalation of Pine-Solvent.

And honey, if you don't know what the hell is going on either, just do my old trick and pretend everyone has amnesia. Amnesia: key to understanding not just this film but film Itself. Maddin isn't searching for small meanings here, or even big ones, but medium size ones. If film itself--the physical, ever-decaying reels of it, most of which are deteriorating in dark hidden chambers deep under long closed cinemas and Nazi bombing rubble--was to go into analysis, under the care of an licensed emulsion scratch that grew and shrank (fee-wise) according to the size of the epiphanies realized, then this film would be that breakthrough session. Film has a message for us! The shrank shrink says film is sorry for misleading us, we who choose the cinema in favor of some full dumb life playing sports or pursuing fame, money, power,  altruism. Cinema realizes now too late it had no right to dominate us so completely. It took advantage of our vulnerability to the dark and images, and it made certain deals with our unconscious we didn't even know about. Cinema is sorry, and so here in Maddin-land, cinema self-flagellates with rust and emulsion scratches and cigarette burns. But even those burns are beautiful, hypnotic. They can't help but console and cajole and cosign our trust, which they will then defraud!! Drop that pen! Rust! Rust while you can! The emulsion scratch shrink now widened into a flickering blue-green band down the right side middle, smiles as the client image dissolves.

Amnesia. I also started watching some Canadian sci fi show on Netflix called Dark Matter with a crew who wakes up from frozen sleep on a space ship and don't know who they are or what they're supposed to be doing. But amnesia is not just Canada's identity crisis, it is a film thing in itself. We come to each new character in any narrative as an amnesiac, picking together details from the surroundings - i.e. a sketchy unshaven dude in a hoodie with his hands in his pockets walking down the street in the middle of the night while ominous music plays, all those signifiers tell you loads about him, none of which may be true, as the US is still reluctantly learning; maybe he's just going to get milk for mom, and it's cold. Artists like Maddin see right through the elusive reality of false signifiers by making it opaque. We needn't pretend to know what's going on if we don't speak the language, talking the same English but in a foreign accent as if that will magically convey our wish to enter the forbidden chambers of the king's inner ear, each ossicle a connecting tunnel around a rickety carnival funhouse ride choo-choo track leading down into a roiling surf of lava and beer foam.

Playing around with speed and reversals, decomposing blobs around a lighted figure in a dark room seem to be breathing in and out of dissolving bubbling lava-like abstraction and almost like free association BOOM there's a volcano. And while each of the interlocked stories and subroutines feels familiar, there's no time or inclination to really identify or understand: a woodsman comes into the forbidden cave to rescue his lady love from a wolf pack in an inverted Red Riding Hood myth, he thinks. But they're all dead and she's shaking as if possessed, and then, what? Rather than speak on the crime of squid theft, the volcano lectures the gathered tribe on the impossibility of gaseous emissions speaking coherently. No speech is so incoherent it can't express its incoherence coherently.

I'm going to rear back and take a non-educated guess that the Canadian gift for portraying amnesia stems from an identity crisis as the middle child between spoiled brat America and stiff upper England. s America as you see it today no longer has a national fixed identity, beyond our psychic conservative liberal split, but at least we know who we aren't. Canada has niceness, pancakes, dry ginger ale, weird football rules, mounties, eskimos, woodsment. Better wax museums on their side of Nagara Falls.

But that absence , perhaps, their identity itself, an amnesiac piecing together an identity from scraps, as every viewer of every movie must (sequels aside). We in the US imagine Canada a bit like Alaska, cold and underpopulated, mostly forest, a kind of giant air pocket full of magical, if a bit staid, snowy sky over our heads... Until the movie starts, by which I mean we trek with snow shoes and sled dogs between Leni Reifenstahl's alpine romances, baroque endless Russian coronation ceremonies, and South American mining accidents, until the sky falls below us like a blanket with a Buster Keaton hole in the center.


I'm an American but I still love most Maddin films, at least half, but it's helped me to have seen each one with a different girlfriend, and I've loved only the ones I saw with girls from Europe or Buenos Aires. The last film of Maddin's I saw was with Branded on the Brain, with live orchestral accompaniment (with Cripsin Glover narrating in person) and it was okay, the (American) girl I was with was 'meh' about it. I enjoyed more the Saddest Music in the World at the Landmark in company of my Swiss French mistress who was suitably impressed that I could even explain it. Before that I saw Tales of the Gimli Hospital at a midnight screening in Seattle circa 1990 with my girl from Carmel, NY. This was back before anyone knew anything about Maddin other than his film was a Canadian Eraserhead. I liked the framing device with the radiator but I had a roaring headache and my girl was all pissed because I brought a flask and reeked of booze. But Careful was a masterpiece of psychosexual Freudian nonsense I saw with my Argentine ex-wife, and we swooned as one. Is there a connection?

Maybe this: Americans, even me, can become bored by alienation and Lost in Translation style dissonance when there's nothing to grab onto narrative wise. Americans are not used to having our desires toyed with, only gratified; our craving for some kind of narrative thread, some kind of familiar signifier, to orient ourselves by, is not something we admit is an addiction - movies should bring us out of our heads, not bury the escape routes in avalanche ice; this frustrated drive for narrative can eventually drive us half-mad and into boredom when not in the right mood or company for, say, Antonioni or Godard. It speaks not so much to our diminished attention span as much as our addiction to reproduced images and sound. Our loss of contact with the real has become awkward, like that friend you should have called last week when they got out of the hospital, but waited too long so now just thinking about calling them makes us break out in a cold sweat. We've alienated the real to the point we resent anyone who uses our beloved imaginary-symbolic realms against us. As a result, we're burdened by the constant need to have the TV on, or the radio, or ear buds, or (for me) a white noise machine. Silence and emptiness are too tomb-like to endure for us. The existential lonesome nipping at our heels barks so quiet the blood flowing through our ears is deafening; we latch onto any promise of escape from it. Up north they don't seem to need that. Maybe loneliness couldn't find them in all that forest and had given up.

FRAGMENT!
Maddin works in the realm of dreams and 'Kino,' but whose dreams? He picks some unconscious realm where Eisenstein and Oscar Micheaux crank out Klopstockian anti-war propaganda, a place connected directly to the zone where narrative identity shifts and bends and follows no clear linear path, or logical sense, but everything seems familiar... little signifiers that add up to less than Jackie Treehorn's penis drawing in Big Lebowski, by which I mean, it's phallically hip, but sans an address. So if you get hung up somewhere in this maze then your stuck for the duration, beating your head against a wall until that room of the game is 'passed' as if by some anguished miracle, and the detox can begin, level two.

If Maddin's going deep into the psychosexual, that's when it works best, for me, as in the mother-son/ father-daughter incest bonds amidst the isolated Reifenstahl-ish Alpine hamlet of CarefulGimli Hospital with its Kafka esque tale of escape and imprisonment was just too ugly - too much fat guys eating and so forth (as I recall, from 25 odd years ago) because when narrative expectations are thwarted there needs to be someone or some place pretty to look at, something that won't demoralize our senses. For example, in Red Desert there is the beauty of Monica VittiCatherine Deneuve beautifies the madness in Repulsion, or Anna Karina's giant head in My Life to Live.  In Maddin's best work there is always a good center to hold, ala Saddest Music in the World's Isabella Rossellini and her beer stein glass legs launching the switch to color, and there was the sad music competition, a familiar narrative we can become involved to the point we can rest our European 'art' eyes and flip over to our American 'entertainment' eyes. If we have to be weened along the line, well we can at least see our mom as she was then, gorgeous and more than five times our height, towering above us like an Easter Island moai crossed with a fairy princess, a giant breast ever at the ready. That golden time of no good or evil, naughty or nice, just mom's presence and absence, the darkness coming up and leaving you terrified, alone, and helpless, pissing ourselves and having to wait for the all-absolving warm pink dawn of a half-asleep parent waking up to change our diaper or dispel our nightmare, so we'll sleep again and so will they.


Now we've learned to hold it in, like good little boys and girls who paid attention during that instructional film on potty training. And the figure we so venerated in our cribs was gone by the time we were twelve, getting smaller every year as we grew, like Alice on a slow-slow-slowly kicking in mushroom.


That said, Forbidden Room zipped by way too fast in parts. My favorite critic Kim Morgan has only a split second appearance with a wolf skin (that I saw). I imagine it would be quite worthwhile to get this Blu-ray if it includes all the other short films from which this be culled and more. Because my favorite is still that short, Heart of the World, which my BA girl and I saw on the big screen at Angelika before.... what the hell was the main feature? I forgot again, and that I already mentioned it. y Buenos Aires girl and I were so thrilled I don't think we even paid attention. I wish I could remember what it was...  but I can't even remember who I am except I said this before. Except I know I'm an American. Because even now I'm hearing the siren call of TCM behind me... Joan Crawford bitching about losing some part, some romantic leading man cringing on his side of the Cinemascope screen...even that... even that terrifying Woman's Face of hers... hair coiled around her head tight and butch, like a face hugger alien reaching out to the applause like plant tendrils to the sunlight, then retracting in curlers when it dies, her mask a harsh severe horror, that flat dark pink lipstick and trowel grey foundation, a gargoyle moai that turns my blood colder than my Coke Zero herbal tea highballs. Even this Joan, the battleaxe era Joan, I pick rather than read a book. Unless it's about you, of course, my beloved Kino... Manny Farber, Robin Wood, David Thomson, even Michael Atkinson.

Meanwhile Netflix sent me Spectre and Crimson Peak! (You have to picture me wafting around my pad reading this ode to a can of decomposing film in the sad desperate way Helen Hayes does in Night Flight, or Bela Lugosi in The Invisible Ghost).  Maddin's amnesiac masterpiece mess of a honey of a cockeyed caravan, The Forbidden Room proves my movie addiction is as inescapable as a benzo habit, and twice as dangerous. Because when the moment is right and the film is great, there's no better high, for me. Why try for anything else?

Rationalization for inertia #1 just left the tubes, captain film can. Give me a Xanax as a reward. Gimme Gimme!



Also spracht der filmdose! 

The Film Cannister, He tells of his rich childhood: Udo Kier played his ghost dad and like all ghost dads also plays ghost dad as ghost dads are never past tense, always erupting like burns in the emuslion, ja? Udo is no different. He keeps making final farewells to his son, leaving him a can of fake mustaches with which to fool his blind wife in any Oedipal domestic clinches that might result in his long and permanent absence. Trouble is: Udo, with ghost beer and a friend he met in the afterlife, comes back again and again. Dad, thirty feet high, passing us a can of mustaches to call our own, with Udo's soulful eyes to swim in. Are we not men, we who wake up from drunken black-outs? As children in the night? Wearing canned mustaches?

Every new viewing of any DVD comes with an FBI/Interpol warninga sign you've slipped again, passed out, must begin anew. The trick: don't admit you don't remember. Just feel your way along, acting like you know every detail of last nights drunken boorishness. If people seem to know you, from Chicago, when you were in some sadomasochistic cabaret act, just sleep with them and let your razor speak on your behalf when it's the psychological moment. God knows what else they saw you do, and in what aspect ratio. Jess Franco knows, for you. And you alone, in the dark, with a squid in your mouth, still struggling like that Korean Elektra complex en verso Oldboy. That's psychosexual mustache fraud, Charlotte Rampling, and the best present any man can give a woman is a sculpture of Janos, the god of doorways. Janos, the guiding spirit of The Forbidden Room! Janos: for there are many doorways to this Room and many beginnings and always the rewinding to the FBI warning and mustache-dabbed memory, and the black paint dripping in the dark corridor where memory was supposed to be -- it must have fallen off. Thinking about this movie is so close to watching the actual movie itself that both seem to dissolve in the light, the rusted emulsion and dissolving nitrates breathing and pulsing like lava, like Ingrid Bergman gazing into the volcano...in STROMBOLI. To paraphrase Zizek paraphrasing Hegel, the only thing we have to lose is loss itself. Press pause then, and show us what you learned in school today in ze film about ze writing of ze number five! Hint: it starts with an oath: do you swear to bring order to chaos, and chaos to order? Then I now you pronounce 'you' like a vice.


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