Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Bangs and Beyond: THE MUMMY'S CURSE, LOST HIGHWAY






You may have forgotten February was Women in Horror Month, but not me. Even if I barely get in on it at the last minute, or even halfway thru March. Or even here in May? Wait, June now? Whatever, I've ben alternating between two Hells - Pollen and bad AC, the kind of AC just cool enough to not do anything about (as in buy a new one, pay for a repairman) but not good enough to keep me fully cool. I could tell you allergy season has hit me more than passing strange this year, but you and your little violins mock me pre-emptively so while I suffer in my crippling lack of delirium,. get ready for the 12-part series of horror women badass double features heading to this blog this summer and most of all get ready for runaway tangents that double back like the sun's snake rim, devouring itself... hey, the rim sun eclipse shizz reminds me..

Happy graduation and congratulations, Samara!

She turned 22, graduated Pratt and will be starting her Pittsburgh job (with V-Drome) as global content creator in Sept. Samara, honey. I never said this before, but we're all so proud. Sure, you're a fictional character, but honey, so was Damien Hirst. And I just know that somewhere, in some groovy alternate reality conjured by our conjoined imagination, you are there with me, filling my head with bizarre and disturbing imagery no ordinary movie's gentle reverie can allay. Not even Audition. Nothing can equal what I see from you. Wishing you well... well... stay (in the) well...

Samara's first scream-lit TV sitcom



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1. Virginia Christine - as Princess Ananka
MUMMY'S CURSE, THE 
(1944) -**1/2

 Poor mummy.... Universal never seemed to care much about old Kharis. Left out of a lot of the all-star House of... movies that sealed the 40s like a tomb, old "Kharis" had to chase Abbot and Costello all by himself and pad his barely-an-hour running times with flashbacks (been there, bro). Now of course there's that Brendan Fraser series, but who cares? And who loves the 40s Mummy sequels at all? By the last in the series, 1944's Curse of the Mummy, the answer was in: no one. Maybe that's why the termites got in to the final entry, accessing some pulpy core of dream poetry that evokes in its nocturnal contrasts of warmth (ala the opening scene in Tante Berthe's homey little tavern) and darkness (the ruined abbey), Val Lewton's Seventh Victim. The acting isn't great except Lon Chaney gives a master class in how to act a role with just your eyes and a few physical gestures as the mummy; Peter Coe gives a weirdly silken vacuousness to his incantations as the requisite fez wearing high priest of the ancient faith and best of all, Viriginia Christine as the Princess Ananka handles the difficulty of a very nebulous half-dual role, as a mix of mummified princess and her reincarnation Amina, a current time period archeological assistant from the previous film in the series, The Mummy's Ghost. In that film, the mummy carries Amina into the swamp but rather than be rescued last minute (ala Hammer's 1959 remake), she's 'turned' by Kharis and begins to age into a mummy herself, which seems rather unfair - why reincarnate if you're not going to get the benefit of youth? The film solves this dilemma by being so boring it's hard to make it to the end without drifting off to sleep, or going back to your reading. 


This time first see Christine's Ananka it's as if she's coming out of a mould, face almost like a half-formed clay sculpture come to life (ala Harryhausen) climbing out the newly drained Louisiana swamp, caked in dirt but clearly loving feel the touch of the sun like a flower rising from the soil. Occurring right in the middle of the day apparently (though supposedly 'quitting time', there's a bit of a dazed walk-of-shame vibe to this resurrection, the sun high in the sky beaming down at her via Ra-like sun rays. We've all been there, right? Pulling ourselves off the floor after what seems like a 25 year black-out, weaving home warmed by the sun, still in our gown or suit from the night before, walking through the working men commuters like a phantom. And wait, weren't we in the New England bog last night? How did we wake up down in Louisiana, 25 years later? And why are the workmen saying it's time to quit for the day and go home when the blazing sun is still high in the noonday sky?


Then begins her odyssey of somnambulistic drifting. Cajun Joe, who just left his bulldozer back where she came out of the mud, now spots her while walking home (he must have got lost - again it makes no sense as he should be home by now, considering how clean she is), and takes her to Tante Berthe, and no sooner as Berthe put the amnesiac hottie (with the very modern Bettie Page bangs) to bed and showed her some kindness, then the mummy bursts in and kills her, like some jealous stalker slow mo one-armed strangler ex-husband. Ananka runs off into the swamps again, and the killing and stalking goes on. Each time the mummy gets near she goes into a trance and repeats his name but when he tries to grab her she screams and runs away. Women, am I right?


On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much thought put into Curse at all, yet it manages to use its limitations and stupidity to craft uncanny dream-logic, not great by any means, but in the same twilight realm of logic at times as, say, Carnival of Souls, or Dementia. It's unusual to see people basically killed for being good samaritans, something that makes us feel the murders more than usual for these sorts of films (ala Lewton's Leopard Man from the previous year). The first female victim, Berthe is loved by everyone in her corner of the bayou, so when she's killed for trying to protect Ananka, that really kicks in a sense of tragedy to this saga, with the Egyptian conspirators giving off an air of domestic terrorism. Why command Kharis to kill indiscriminately if not for some ancient cult zealotry and impersonal hatred against first world capitalism and Christian decency?

What gives the film it its real alchemical magic though, are the weirdly modern bangs, posh accent, confidence and cat woman litheness of Virginia Christine. She's got a very weird role to play, needing to patch a whole wealth of inconsistencies. A local in the bayou notes "it's been-a 25 years since a mummy drag a girl in the swamp" but what girl? The last film was only made the year before where she was just a reincarnation a girl named Amina and played by a different actress. This time we're compelled to gaze deep onto those modern bangs and wonder: is Amina/Ananka the reincarnated mummy expert or a mummy herself? What made her aging problem reverse this time?

There is no real answer so we're better off trusting that it 'feels right' and anyway, Christine is great at splitting the difference ("its like I was two different people, two different worlds.") While trying to decide if she's Princess Ananka or the contemporary Amina (preserved for 25 years via the New England-Louisiana bog stream), she says  Bearing out the split subject aspect is the similarly hair-colored and style of Kay Linnaker as the drainage project foreman's understanding assistant. 100% 20th century, she's the 'lucky' girl who winds up with Moore. While Ananka reverts to bandaged death as soon as her head hits the sarcophagus pillow. Why she changes rapidly ages back into mummy bandages at the end is never explained, but by then, like a psychoanalyst session, the hour is up.

That concept of doubling fits Christine's fashion-forward bangs and use of a night dress as swamp wear. I don't generally like those Betty Page bangs --  you have to be damn hot, willowy and with the right mix of bad girl, demure kitten, and assertive intellect to pull them off --not to mention the right dress, and just as her character is neither here nor there as far as soul-body-mind-incarnation-century cohesion, her dress is neither nightgown nor formal evening dress, but a sublime hybrid; she could either be lost on her way home after an all-night party or sleepwalking. Christine pulls both options off at once, and looks damned great being carried around by Lon. I love her... in this incarnation.. Naturally the more I see this film the more I have to forget, amnesia being the B-movie lovers' friend. Is that why 'forgettable' and 'dreamlike' go so hand in hand,



2. Patricia Arquette - Renee / Alice
LOST HIGHWAY
(1997)- ***

The other set of great 50s Betty Page bangs on a woman outside of time: Patricia Arquette as Renee/Alice, in Lost Highway, the 'If James M. Cain rewrote Godard's Contempt while on enough Valium to drop a rhino and woke up in the future' film by David Lynch, forerunner appetizer for Mulholland Drive and pre-post script for Wild at Heart rolled into one... or two... three. Let's rock.

The story involves the film noir machinations of Alice, a gangster moll who uses her ample wiles to hook a mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty) into killing, not her gangster kingpin boyfriend (or is he?) Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) but robbing Andy (Michael Massee) some extraneous pornographer in the Hills, involved in Mr. Eddy's operation. The killing of Andy (via noir's signature 'freak accident the cops will never believe') is perhaps fueled by the site of Alice being 'taken' from behind on a stag reel while Rammstein blares on the soundtrack (evoking the 'cult programming'  showing on the wall (while she's upstairs with Andy, distracting Andy). "You killed him," she says to Pete, coming downstairs. She points a gun at him, forcing one to think of all the films that end on this very same note (i.e. woman as manipulator/femme fatale - i.e. Lang) then changes her mind and gives it to him, "put it inside your pants." forcing one to think of all the other films that go that way instead (i.e. lovers on the run). We realize we still don't have a bead on which of the genre roads this film is speeding down, it all hinging on which male character she's betraying vs. which ensnaring in an elaborate game to supply her and her real love with a made-to-order patsy. Driving down the titular highway in her car, the mechanic starts to change to match her fluctuating mood and shifting loyalty; he'll be the disillusioned suspicious Fred if that's how she wants to play it. They fool around outside the fence's cabin while deliriously sad music plays on the radio.


There are two signifying split moments here, and please bear in mind I'm synopsizing backwards, like an armchair, each of the main masculine psyche splits hinge on sexual performance anxiety issues, the impossibility of true sexual union, of returning to the undifferentiated womb, thrown back in our face. Even if we're Lulu and Sailor-level hot or Pete-Alice level delirious, ghostly, we wind up back in the zone of the primal scream of abandonment. Even with This Mortal Coil's siren song hanging motionless in mid-air like the mosquitoes in the amber headlights, Pete still "wants her" - the wanting gets him worse than nowhere. "You can never have me," she whispers, which to a virgin would make no sense. He just had her or is having her. This line is devastating for a man to hear, and she knows it; her conciliatory pat of Fred's (Bill Pullman) shoulder in the earlier section's joyless black death silk sheets could come right after she says it here in this other zone, may as well, as each version of man is crushed back to earth by those words, by the inevitable folding down collapsed tent erection, the clattering shut of cell bards all over again: thinking of the key, as Eliot wrote, confirms a prison. And when the bitch be sayin' mean shit like that, honey, you may as well be Jimmy Stewart forced onto Midge's stepladder to get over your vertigo, as ready for the big time ledge.

The fire goes in reverse, Pete reverse engineers his wanting towards loathing, this disillusionment turns him into Fred, or vice versa, for even if he can go back in time, she can't or won't or better yet was never in one time or the other to begin with.

In literally splitting his subject  into different characters and actors, Lynch splits conception of self wide open; unless you're not ready or on the defensive about it. You could just say its a Moebius strip noir, a never-ending story of shifting identity and you'd be right. But it's not necessarily the fall guy/male's identity (Fred/Pete) that splits (from Pullman to Getty and back again), but Renee/Alice's. A picture Pete stumbles onto at another man's house reveals Alice and Renee are twin sisters, perhaps involved in alibi forming or 'hot twin action' stag loops. If you haven't seen it I'm sure this sounds confusing. That's my goal! 

These are common themes of Lynch's, elliptical ouroboros narriaves and girls playing double roles, differentiated by hair color: Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer has a brunette cousin is played by the same actress, for example.

And like our Ananka in the last film, Renee's evasive somnambulism could be read as concealing a double life, for real in place of. In a sense she's the 'reincarnation' of the split/subject Ananka - both the resurrected ancient femme fatale, leading princes and jazzbos to their doom (and everyone else who's fool enough to help her), and the modern girl form she fell into the New England bog in the first place in (though was changing to mummy as she sank). Which is which is a qui fits the idea of performance and persona and concealment so central to the post-Peaks 90s Lynch of the 90s.

You can even compare when Robert Blake's face is projected onto hers when Bill has sort of a nightmare, to Ananka's final, inexplicable reversion to mummy form (wrapped); their apartment looks like no one lives there lots of empty walls and spaces, like a doll house - like the fantasy playland imagined by Pete after he escapes with his babe. But even there, in the fantasy Renee/Alice doesn't play the dumb rules of male fantasy/objectification. Even in the fantasy, the orgy is only onscreen. He could go and be in the adult film being shown on the wall, but then she'd be back here, in the other reality, going away with some other guy.


Alice/Renee in short is the classic anima, the unknowable female unconscious of a male ego/consciousness. If it's confusing just imagine all characters in a Lynch movie are aspects of the same psyche. In his case, Lynch's psyche, one formed in the signifiers of a 50s suburban childhood, i.e. with conceptions of adults as towering angels or devils alive in a sea of tail fins, bobby socks, Elvis 45s and red velvet curtains. He does away with dream sequences as separate from 'reality' by blurring the lies (sic?) between memory, identity, film, and levels of consciousness, and of course, like with Ananka in The Mummy's Curse, time itself. 

This can be borne out by a very telling line early on: Fred tells the detectives he doesn't like video cameras because he "likes to remember things subjectively, I want them to be how I remember them not the real way they were" -a line which piques the interest of the only two guys that seem to be real for sure, the homicide detectives with their Kafka-esque inscrutability and 'real person' shapes and ages - they alone seem to exist outside the Lynch psyche, like abstract keepers at institution, gents of some social construct; it's they who Fred and Renee ultimately perform their roles as Fred and Renee for. Similarly, they bear witness to Pete's tomcatting, which is part of the reason it is performed in the first place. Physical closeness and genital gratification is one reward of sexual experience, but it's fleeting, the admiration of 'the guys' at your skill with "the ladies" is forever. 

Arquette plays this anima unchanging SISTERS-style part to a T, always a little distant and cognizant of her aphrodesiac body and beauty to an extent that would turn lesser actresses narcissistic and neutered. She's always oscillating like an ocean between dominated sex slave, willing self-debaser, torn lover hoping for an escape, taunting unknowable trickster, succubus, men user, i.e. the gamut from used to user - but all at once, not even separated by breaths or hair style. We want desperately to believe she wants us. There's this agonizing "magic moment" when she's calling a cab at the garage is one of the more perfect fractal vignettes of film noir I've ever seen. She's slowly but relentlessly preparing to call the cab while he stands there, paralyzed with conflicting dread (he's seen Mr. Eddy demolish a guy just for tailgating) and desire; she's so hot, a little busted around the ages, like she really put on the dog to come get him but while a little drunk; there's just no way he can avoid it, he's gonna die from a Mr. Eddy pistol-whipping, but first -- holy shit. We're all but cheering him on, it's inevitable, true noir distilled and drowned its own eternal white light- "like falling in love with a buzzsaw" - as Jean Arthur puts it in Only Angels Have WingsSo when she whispers "you'll never have me" it's the same self-shattering dis as the consolatory 'pat' of Pullman in bed the night before the bloody videotape arrives. Each triggers a rupture in the classic Lacanian 'impossibility of the subject' - i..e. if you lay Rocky 1, II, III, VI, DVD cases in a row, while matching them below with just the same Irving Klaw Bettie Page loops Vol. 1, over and over and over, the same four times. No narrative, no progression, just the bangs and the body in motion. But within those ten Bettie Page cases, only one actual disc exists. Like a shell game, the other Rockys in a sense got gypped, and so fume with jealousy and rage, failing to recognize the "you'll never have me" construct is part of the arrangement, because the Rocky edition that DOES have the Pages loops enjoys her presence even less than the others enjoy her absence. 



--INTERLOGUE--
The Story of the Serpent and the Bartender:
So one day  20 foot long serpent slithers its way into a bar, asks the bartender 'have you seen Mr. Big in here tonight? I'm gonna kill him' and he slithers out the back door and continues up the street. The serpent takes awhile for its length to travel through the barroom, though the serpent--the head part--thinks he's left long ago, he's still 'passin' through.' Finally the tail comes in and orders a drink. It starts talking shit about the serpent who was just in there, not realizing they're the same creature. The bartender realizes the tail is the one who's been calling itself Mr. Big. They're apparently in love with the same girl, played by Partricia Arquette but since they never meet they don't know it. The bartender (Robert Blake) has been dealing with this issue over and over again between the two of them. Each threatens the other but can never seem to be in the same room at the same time. Similarly, if the girl's with the tail, the head's jealous, and vice versa. Both ends are jealous, in fact, of her attention to the other. 

Now let's say one night the Serpent pays the bartender to kill Mr. Big when he comes in, so the bartender decides hey, money is money, and shoots the last five feet of the snake off the rest. Death in the form of gangrene and blood loss then starts killing the snake inch by inch, up along up the spine towards the head of the Serpent who then dies before he can pay the bartender. 

Enraged, the bartender goes over to the Serpent's nest to see if he can confiscate any valuables as compensation. Once there he realizes that the Mr. Big/<---->Serpent is bigger than 20 feet. It's really 40 ' long. In fact the top half is still in the nest, warming itself by the sulfur springs under the mansion; it hasn't been seen because it shed its skin and is waiting for its new skin to harden. The dead skin shed is only as far down as the halfway point, so Serpent didn't recognize its top half at all. The name of this other 20' is The Reptile. 

So the Serpent is really the Reptile the way Mr. Big is the Serpent, in other words, the Reptile disavows the immaturity of its lower half. <-----serpent eptile="" nbsp="" p="">The bartender mentions the deal for killing Mr. Big and asks for money. 'I'd like to believe you, it sounds like something Serpent would order,' says The Reptile, "but I've been locked away down here until my new scales come in so haven't heard anything. Do you have any hard evidence?" 

But that's the big existential issue: If Reptile doesn't die from the gangrene, then it proves the bartender didn't kill Mr. Big so shouldn't get paid; if Reptile does die then the bartender still can't collect $$. Don't worry says The Reptile. I can't really die down here, only shed my skin. We'll look at the shed skin together and that should tell the tale, like an arctic core sample - if you know how to read it, and I do. 

Reading its length as if a timeline or celluloid strip, Reptile studies his old skin and is agog with wonder. 'I can't believe Mr. Big and Serpent didn't know they were the same being!' He says, "and neither knew the truth beyond that: both were not them or each other, but me! Deeep, man."

The bartender stops trying to get paid at this point, and then of course it dawns on him: the snake is actually 60 feet long, and he himself is the next link after The Reptile.
THE END
BUT But even then.... what, more?

With great humility, The Bartender casts his eye skyward. "Well?" he asks the sky, "I guess I should pay you, then?" God shoots him in the face for being late on the payment, and then goes back in time and leaves a cryptic remark on Mr. Big's answering machine: "the Reptile is dead." Mr. Big has no idea what it means, but thinks it must be that old Serpent shitheel fucking with him again.

So he slithers into a bar, looking for him.

No THE END, story repeats until head of God explodes


If we are to 'get' anything out of these two serpent segments of cinema called Mummy's Curse and Lost Highway, we have to let go of the idea we're ever going to get paid anywhere up the snake, so to speak, which can then let us better enjoy reading the scales on the shed skin highway, without having to worry about whether or not Patricia Arquette really loves us. Because her character representing the unconscious, is not a serpent at all, but a fixed illusory point, a single scale repeating itself; the anima doesn't 'grow' alongside you, it already IS and you have to become; her silent derision is an impetus, like a fire under a sluggish kettle. Don't hate the novel you're reading because the letter "R" keeps staring at you, like it's trying to start a fight. It's just you're crazy, is all. 

Once we stop expecting the next segment up the chain to essentially pay for the mistakes of its lowest 'self' segment, we recognize we were only nagging our own blood turnip for a perceived lack. The timeline of each incarnation is like a serpent: segmented by sleep, years - events. Ask yourself, which "me" is the one who winds up in heaven? What, really, do YOU as in right now have in common with the guy you were ten years ago? If you saw him on the street would you be nice to him, or think he was a little pisher who needs his ass kicked. What if you learned the 'you' who goes to heaven is some punk older self is in younger self's body, cuz in the future you figured out soul time travel like Wolverine does in X-Men Days of Future Past, or Jack Death does in Trancers-- and you're stuck down here, the dick in the middle, shaking your first at yourself "Why you I outta!" like the Three Stooges rolled up into one self-lacerating stumbler? Or if, like Catherine Keener, in love with Cameron Diaz only when she's inside Malkovich? 

Another analogy is found in film itself. When you're watching the first reels of Lost Highway, the Bill Pullman and brunette wife stuff, you're not watching the later stuff, and vice versa. You can't ever see it 'all at once.' If you could go beyond time and space you might see the movie differently, or project it backwards and forwards with two projectors on the same screen at the same time like someone does The Shining in Room 237, then you see the male protagonist as a winding serpent of stacking images, the way an old school animator might look at his stack of drawings of mylar overlays, so that every phase of Bugs or Mickey's arm movements are visible at once, like Hindu gods and goddesses with their many arms, instead of disappearing the same time as the next one appears (a film on a screen being always 50% death after all, via the shutter speed). Do this and the variety of male characters we see would  look crazy - two or three faces flickering into competing focus, projected onto one head, while the woman would just look the same except for hair color - even the bangs would be the same. Perhaps it is this 'form' - the overlaid self blur that gets to heaven, so only the higher self, who can perceive all these interconnected selves of past and present at the same time, recognizes "hey, that blur of Moebius strip selves is ME, I guess I made it to heaven after all." At that point, they all merge together, and disappear. 

But our blonde/brunette split objet desire, the Amina / Ananka and Renee/Alice in Mummy's Curse and Lost Highway. They cannot be in two places at once the way we, the fall guy viewers, are as their trajectories are not connected - not Frankenstein moment chains, spot-welded like ours are (the weird mystery light that Balthazaar vanishes into before coming around in Fred's cell; the way the Mystery Man can be at the party and at Fred and Renne's house simultaneously). Rennee/Alice cannot exist consecutively. They are just two doors, in a sense, to an unknowable dimension. If the bartender is the Mystery Man, then Alice/Renee are the bar -she is the place Fred and Pete cannot be in at the same time, nor either there, really, ever. She's just a memory, a consolation vision, the way Fred 'wants to remember it' - rather than the truth, which is 'you will never have me' unknowability of the camera and the anima.


It's the ultimate in crushing realizations when the truth of this dawns on one. Deny it as you please, Fred, but if you get the idea Renee's visiting a different self along your same timeline - i.e. if she's with your 20 year old self, she's cheating on the 40 year old self, but of course you can't kill 20 year old self out of jealousy. I mean, which self is the one you can say is OK for her to be with? You can try and claim her for your section, but will only wind up in the wormhole of self our poor Pullman is in, created by the need of Blake's 'Mystery Man' bartender ("Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance") video camera operating demon figure to get 'paid' i.e. claim his soul (the way souls are captured by photography)- the deal being for vengeance against... whom? Oneself? 

It's tricky, which is why we're stuck in the wormhole of self, quicksand dragging us down, back into the timeless sleep of aeons, with SHE in our arms, now liberated from the darkness of immortality and already drying up to dust like our mummified ancient reflection, glug glug - here we go again, folks, if you dare press 'Rec.' 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An Acidemic Godard Reader


Over the years I've written a lot about old Godard, and a few have written for Acidemic on him as well. Read then this curated complete collection, and weep with hilarious wonder!

(Les Carabiners - Fox Lorber DVD commentary review:
(Bright Lights film Journal 2/5/07)

"...Part of this trouble I believe lies with the vanguard cinema studies professors. Bloodied from their battles with musty-tweeded literature professors over the worthiness of “pop culture” as a field of study, they seek to deaden the levity of their material, assuming that dourness and authority go hand in hand.

Cinema writers who are deep and entertaining at the same time–Robin Wood, Kim Newman, David Thomson, etc. tend to be British. The French have their own problems but, like Godard, are funny intrinsically (as long as they don’t try to be, in other words, as long as they keep it deadpan). It seems to be endemic to the U.S., that most intellectually insecure of nations, to mistake earnestness with importance. "(more)





(7/09)

What Godard is chronicling here, then, perhaps, maybe, probably not, is the evolution of B-movie convention from The Big Sleep to Easy Rider. The exact second you realize that the hot blond waif sitting in the background at the bar looks a bit like a really young Marianne Faithful (above), she suddenly starts singing "As Tears Go By" - not lip syncing, but singing right there, a capella, trilling her voice gently and feeling every word of the song, expressing some longing we have no idea about but the mood of wistful sadness overwhelms the film in a summer of love tsunami, before it's even begun, only to resume its dry sand babbling even before she finishes the song. Compared to this bit of subdued emotionalism from a rising starlet of British rock royalty, the ensuing G. Marxist wordplay between Leaud and the bartender suddenly seems tired, yesterday's model. There's a new sincerity in town and it's cool to have feelings, or at any rate it's cool if you're Marianne Faithful. Karina, instead, is trying on the outfit of a bitchy too-cool-for-modernism contemporary diva (the host instead of the contestant on Europe's Next Top Model) for size. She's not about to pick up a flower and take off her shoes just because the other kids are doing it. So instead she just freezes from the knees down and looks at the floral arrangements like a penniless, starving lotus eater. 


(2009, Issue #8)
Trying to watch some of the extras on the Criterion DVD of Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965), I found a very interesting documentary: a "celebration" of Godard's films which opens on long shots of a Parisian souvenir store's postcard rack, then close-ups of postcards on display for Godard's various early movies, the ones with iconic starlets particularly: Breathless, Le Mepris and, of course Pierrot itself. You might say, ah, oui, la femme, monsieur, so what? But Godard would know so what... indeed.

The purpose of this documentarian's montage was, sadly, not to create a post-modern mirror echoing Godard's own frequent use of postcards, book stalls, and magazine covers in his films as illustrations of--among other things--the way the press caters to humanity's base desires in an effort to suppress genuine change and revolution--but to canonize Godard and his "easy, early, sexy" films, to attach iconic markers to his terrain so the bourgeoisie don't get lost in the thicket and start running for the exits. I'm reminded of Godard's phrase about the bourgeoisie seeing a Roger Vadim movie that's supposed to be Shakespeare and being very excited that they finally 'get' the immortal bard now that he's all tarted up as it were: "This is Shakespeare? But this is marvelous!" (more)

(2/28/09 - Bright Lights)

"Godard wants the youth of Paris to be mad as hell and ready to fight for causes, but he no longer believes in the causes themselves, or in causes at all, except in that fighting for them is “good for the youth” of which he is no longer part. But he’s glad they associate him with causes, because his cold old bones are warmed by their political fire; but that’s all, as soon as they leave his side to chase the next rainbow, he’s back to smoking and reading the script. This is the adult Godard; he’s switched from angry to fond of anger; emotion of any strength can be fire in which to forge liberation of the self; one can’t free a society that is nothing but shackles by definition. Always it’s back to the one, not creating as Lacan said, “new masters,” via championing some explicitly rendered social cause. For Godard, all actions and points fade fast in the lapping waves, a new idea is already coming into focus as the next one is cast off; hold onto the last wave too long and you wind up bedraggled on the shore of dour daddy dogma. (more) 

(2/4/08)
Here's what I mean: you see a knight on a horse trying to scoop up a naked, running maiden--thunderous classical music on the soundtrack, hoofbeats, her frightened panting and shrieks--this generates a certain preconditioned response: will you see this chick being abducted? Will you see the hero ride to her rescue? Where is this hero? Your stomach might clamp in suspense. You fear and hate the knight and want to save the maiden, without even knowing the story (maybe she's a demon in disguise, who knows?) Suddenly the horse pulls up short so it doesn't bump into a moving camera, and the naked maiden runs off set and hides behind the cameraman then she goes climbing up into the lighting rigging so the knight can't reach her, so he dismounts and goes to have a smoke.


There's two ways you can react to all that: one is to be angry or frustrated, to think you are "missing" something. Are they filming a movie within a movie here, or is this real? Why is she still running if she's not on camera? Who's filming this second movie about making the movie? The other is to grasp the ambiguity, the modern art/Zen response Godard is creating, and thus to laugh at your own predisposition to get so absorbed into narrative that you fight its cessation. For this second response, you are freed by realizing that the meltdown between the film and the film-within-the-film is intended to provide this response. Can you let go of your expectations, your obsessive need for character arcs, story lines, and dramatic resolution? If you can, you begin to see the ways film tricks you. Can you stand to watch stock characters and cliche types get melted down into meaninglessness? Will this technique frustrate you beyond endurance, or set you free from your steel trap mind? (more)



(4/2010)
With an artsy self-reflexive intellectual like Godard, prostitution will naturally function as a metaphor for cinema, everything will, but prostitution is a particularly apt metaphor for the cinema. Coutard's camera leers over Karina's shoulder, sympathizing with her sadness even as it causes it, never sure what's an act and what isn't--is she just drawing us in to ask if she can borrow 2,000 francs? In a meta way, it's even true that her character's dreams of being a film star are realized, right there in the act of being in the movie you are now witnessing, and yet even that is not enough. Godard is forcing us to realize how our own hunger for cinematic beauty is itself responsible for the problems of exploitation and sexual commodification. We destroy the characters we love, our eye is the real monster here. But whereas the similarly distant Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion reacts to the encroachment of our gaze with delusional homicidal madness, Karina's prostitute just watches, almost bemused, as her freedom and life are crushed up in the jaws of the Other's tepid desire.

It's Godard's most terrifyingly existentialist movie. With Blu-ray you can feel the cold chill of recognition in Karina's tears when she watches La passion de Jeanne D'Arc (1928) with some random date at the cinema. On a blurry VHS in the late 1990s I found the Jeanne D'Arc scene to be "post-modern" but uninvolving; on that Koch Lorber DVD I thought it was just a cliche' - you couldn't even tell she had a date with his arm around her in those two blurry versions. I thought she was alone! On Blu-ray, you can see some sleazy dude has accompanied her, bought her ticket, and put his arm around her. This adds immeasurably to the pain of the scene, the date's expectations for an after-film tryst mirrored in bizarre way the mix of sympathy and voyeuristic expectation in the face of Antonin Artaud onscreen as he hears the verdict Joan is to be burned at the stake. With this new clarity, both the screen within the screen and the terrible empathy and sadness in Karina's face are made terrifyingly immediate. This isn't just some 1928 silent film about an old trial for heresy, it's a staggeringly perfect moment - two brides stripped bare for their bachelor audiences, Karina's eyes mirroring every tear of the actress onscreen, and sensing not some erotic catharsis but the cold, horrific panic one experiences in early middle age as they realize their parents are getting old, their grandparents are all dead, and you are next in line, the pirates of time's inexorable progress making you walk one by one--not necessarily in genealogical order--off the mortal plank.

(Divinorum Psychonauticus, 2011; Acidemic #8)

There's a scene in First Name: Carmen (1983), for example, wherein a shoot-out between sexy young terrorist bank robbers and French police is going on in a hotel wherein elderly residents read newspapers in the various seats around the lobby, barely concerned about the deliberately fake-seeming violence, the events the way tolerant grandparents might react to their grandchildren running through the living room with toy guns. Ah, but are they supposed to be toy guns? Which realm of belief are we on, the cops and robbers side, who see the shooting as real (narrative immersion), or the elderly hotel guests who see it--if at all--as young people making a movie, or just acting out May 68-style agitprop theater? (more)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Drool in a Crisis: JURASSIC WORLD vs. the Heche VOLCANO

Who'd of thought that real life dinosaurs of JURASSIC WORLD (2015) would one day become so banal that the DNA designers would invent the NEW Indominus Rex - only from InGen. The park needs a hyper-unnatural super predator to, as the counter-feminist park executive Claire (Bryce Dallas-Howard) puts it, "up the wow factor." This baby has it all: bazooka shell-resistant teflon exteriors, cup holders, optional child restraints, heat sensor camouflage, 'raptor's agility, Rex's bite, 'Ted Bundy amok in a sleeping sorority'-instincts, and no social conditioning whatsoever. "You can't have predator features without the accompanying aggression" notes its Dr. Frankenstein, resident gene splicer Dr. Wu (BD Wong) once the thing busts loose, which of course it does. Somehow, the movie implies, the carnage wrought upon all these extras and CGI monsters is our fault, because we're so easily jaded. That old wow factor has sunk mighty low since 1993, when the first CGI Jurassic Park dinosaurs appeared and blew us all away.


Naturally, we want this Indominus to get loose. There wouldn't be a film without it. And having the pterodactyls and pteranodons attack the fleeing, fanny pack-bedecked tourists en mass is a lovely Roger Corman-esque touch. And the tourists may be somewhat jaded, but this is a big budget movie, so these CGI monsters aren't just video game-style chroma keyed-up overlays ala the Asylum Syfy channel monsters, but detailed creatures with perfect amounts of shade and sun glinting, And we love that, no matter how many folks get eaten due to past accidents, the monsters keep being created and the park keeps hiring bumbling morons with slippery shoes to take care of them. On this island at least, human natural selection still has a fighting chance. 

That's right, once again it's the people that aren't properly shaded and shadowed: Claire (Bryce Dallas-Howard), the uptight caricature of female executive control freak bitchiness ("it's all about control with you people," comments Chris Pratt. She runs some aspect or other of park operations, somehow expects men and monsters alike to snap to when she pouts and stamps her high heeled foot; and is the type of person who uses "we" when talking about the company's wishes "we'd like you to visit the tiger cage on your way out"); her sister (Judy Greer) is the same way, sending her children off to the park to visit Auntie Claire so she can divorce their dad. Naturally they'll get lost in the hot zone somehow and naturally Claire will have to, in a sense, come crawling back to the one man who can find them, hunky raptor whisperer Owen (Chris Pratt). Do I even need to mention that they went on one date awhile back and didn't get along because she brought an itinerary and her "diet wouldn't allow tequila. "Animals raised in isolation aren't almost the most sociable," he says but she's not sympathetic, presuming everything he has to say is sexist hippie drivel. The alleged human villain this time is a military defense contractor (Vincent D'Onofrio) who wants to train raptors to hunt in the Middle East but at least he tries to be friendly; she's the real villain, if you ask me. Owen notes 'these are animals' and what he has with them is 'a relationship.' He's the only one to call the killer dinosaur hybrid a "she" instead of an "it." You get the drill. He's the only employee of the park with any balls, foresight, intelligence, knowledge of predator pack mentality, or coordination. She calls the dinosaurs 'assets' and dismisses Owen's knowledge and compassion as sexist hippie drivel. 


Thank god for Chris Pratt, then, savior of three-dimensional humanity. Lord knows Hollywood's been needing a rugged, noble, but down to earth tough guy that men and women can like who for once is not Australian and therefore proof American masculinity is not an oxymoron. He's the ultimate hybrid animal himself, able to play a range worthy of a real human: part quasi-sincere slacker/stoner comedy bro/ part hyper-competent SEAL / Ranger romantic lead, Pratt's able to convey naturalism without crunchiness, charm without narcissism, guts without indifference, and cool without shallowness, sensitivity without mawkishness, and self-awareness without condescension, in ways hitherto unknown to our homegrown big budget mega-stars. And he's already proven his ability to take orders from a cute redhead without losing face in Zero Dark Thirty. Do I need to mention that when Claire comes to his trailer to ask for help, he's outside by the river fixing his badass vintage Triumph motorcycle in a T-shirt and jeans, and she's wearing heels and an unflattering 90s business skirt slacks combo and Garbo Prince Valiant hair?

Pout at the devil: Claire assures Owen she's more than capable of leading the expedition via hurt eyes and a cinched blouse
The rest of the cast of course is just another rack of digestible tourists and 'one quirk-apiece' staff somehow even more aggravating then the self-righteous animal activists played by Vince Vaughn and Alessandro Novo in the past films, or the sickening "life will find a way" sentimentality of Attenborough (who looks scarily like a shorter version of my dad) and Sam Neill. I always cringe the way spontaneous hermaphrodite reproduction is something both men 'own' through getting strangely pious and sentimental over it --"life found a way..." -- it's downright creepy that we're supposed to bask in some kind of baby crib familial glow at these words, while John Williams' uber-trite 'sweeping' "Jurassic theme" presumes will cry and salute at the same time.


At least here in the JURASSIC WORLD the pro-life sermonizing is all leveled at the boo-hiss military guy (fat in ill-fitting khakis with big gold watch  and BD Wong's dispassionate mad scientist splicer and it's more along the lines of animal rights rather than gooey eyes looking down at the 4H Fair chicks. It's not just their cliche litanies and lack of any real (as in not cliche'd 'stock') genuine character detail that casts a sickly pall, it's the lack of any non-cliche'd quality or detail in anyone. In the second film, Jeff Goldblum had a black daughter, for example, a detail that seemed pandering at the time but has proven trenchant (three of my white friends have adopted black babies and it's become more of a familiar, and oddly moving, sight). In III, Neill and ex-girlfriend Laura Dern are still friends even though she's married (to a different guy) with a kid. But here in the fourth film, it's at a new zenith of trite, as the casting director, costume dept, make-up, script, and actor all gives us way too much muchness. So it's not enough that the imbecilic glazed-eyed security guard doesn't notice the one dinosaur he's supposed to watch has slipped away from him, he's cramming a sandwich into his face right at the moment the visitors point it out and even then doesn't stop eating. That's just one example, but the most offensive is the younger nephew of Claire, who has that face where a year ago it was cherubic and now it's time to kick him out the door so stops hanging out with mom instead of playing with boys his own age; he professes to love dinosaurs but he's a color between-the-lines coward terrified of bending a rule, even in the company of his 'cool' older brother, whose smoky eyes (new from Coverboy mascara?) keep playing tag with gaggles of conveniently cute and similarly parentless girls, to whom, rather than try to play along and pick up a girl himself OR get shy and blush, the younger kid acts like Bambi watching his mom flirt with the hunters. In other words, they have to constantly remind themselves they'll always be brothers, they're more like step siblings from long-divorced parents who now only ever meet at weddings.


I'm not asking for the two brothers in LONG DAY's JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, but it's not that fucking hard to write good brotherly dialogue, or even let them improvise a bit. Corman would just have them maybe rehearse and go see movies together or something, so they could improv decent dialogue (what about, say, talking about how cool the last ride was while the next one is getting started?). But that's the problem with 'big' movies like this, the director is rarely even in the same room or even square mile, unions forbid touching dialogue written long ago by teams of hacks better at talking their way into conversations than actually listening to what real people say. A good writer (or even producer) knows the more specific you are with lived-in detail, the more universal the appeal; generalities such as they say here cross country and age lines only in how much they bore audiences into a stupor.

Maybe it just bothers me because that ex-cherub kids looks like my childhood friend from the same approx. age, Alan, who turned me onto guns and WWII. I kept imagining what a kick ass movie if the two brothers had a cool deadpan rapport - going into character as it were, like Vincent and Jules, albeit with whatever films they liked or something other than this 'on the nose' crapola. J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon would have done it, or Quentin, just letting the kids improvise might have done it. I know kids aren't allowed to play with cap guns anymore, but they can't be this square... man. Just can't be.... but when they finally overcome their terror and feel exhilaration through zapping an attacking raptor as it tries to climb in the back of their SWAT vehicle, the kid's first exclamation is "I can't wait to tell mom!" What is he gonna run in and tell her after he smokes his first joint... when he's 45?



Maybe their arrested maturity can be explained by the way mom Judy Greer calls them on the phone constantly, nagging them for not calling her the minute they got off the plane, the minute they got to the park, etc., asking if they're having fun while trying to guilt trip them at the same time with her unflattering pouty spoiled brat frown (above) presumed to translate across the phone lines to kill any shred of childhood mischief, i.e. she wants them to have fun in that oppressive sort of way where no matter what level of fun they do have, it's not enough and/or too much. If they enjoy the park without her, they're bad children, if they don't, well why not? They must not be trying, in order to piss her off.

Other examples of this too-muchness swamping bit characters in million dollar bilge: the nerdy comic banter of two of the tech heads working the control room (he's got a big collection of plastic dinosaurs on his desk, which is such a poorly thought-out stupid detail, like having a picture of your secretary on your desk at work); the schmuck handler who falls into the 'raptor cage also has that dumb glassy-eyed "aww gee boss" slack-jawed look where you imagine him sweeping up a 7-11 and doing even that wrong. The guy running the hamster balls can't just say "they're all present and accounted for," he has to add "it's my job." Vincent D'Onofrio as the military tech assessor wears a big gold watch and short sleeves with fat hairy arms and says shit like "if only we'd had these things at Tora Bora." The Asian geneticist drink green tea in a clear glass cup and wears a Bruce Lee style black sweater, and so forth, and naturally the first person eaten is of Latino persuasion. Wouldn't want to break some reason unbreakable tradition, even as you try to up the wow factor.

Latinos: first in the field, first to be eaten.

But as feminist critics have noted, the bitchy stereotyping of old Claire here is the worst of all: the most dated and cookie cutter trite 'bitchy exec' in the history of Jurassic Park series, and even of movies in general. Void of anything remotely like survival instincts, when flying dinosaurs are carrying women and children off to their deaths all around her she figures the time is right to stand up on top of a jeep and shout for the boys' attention. While her and Owen are hiding from the Indominus she shouts at the top of her lungs to see if the kids can hear. "The kids are still alive, but you and I will not be if you keep shouting like that," he tersely whispers. She glares at him, too caught in that zone Camille Paglia writes about in Sexual Personae, the presumption that somehow wild animal nature can be brought to heel simply by making a sour face at the man trying to tell her it can't. And if the man tells her stomping her feet and calling him sexist won't help, that she needs to be quiet to survive, then he's being a misogynist. Naturally she does the opposite of what he says, and then when she winds up in jeopardy he must risk his life to save her while she waves her arms and screams "Do something!!"



It's all worth it though because in the end, doused in sweat and down to her strappy tee (above), she finds a pose she can assume without looking hippy (presumably why in all her shots she has jackets tied around her waist and/or is shot from the navel up, though far be it from me to be genuinely sexist about pointing such things out, but maybe foxy broads undone by big lower halves could use a role model, and by hiding her wideness the film undoes the one genuinely uncliche'd thing about her). Assuming the pose of Julia Adams in Creature from the Black Lagoon or a cave girl from either When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth or One Million BC, that sexy curvy prone pose that helped launch the hormones of a generation of 12 year-old boys (and some girls) on TV back in the 70s, Opie's little girl doth rock it at last.


There's other good things though, too, in the comical punchlines and counter bites of the dinosaur attacks, all very indebted to Spielberg and Joe Dante. And Pratt practically does save the film as well as the day : "Your boyfriend's a badass." says the older brother. One can't deny that, what with his driving a motorcycle into battle, his raptor squad racing around him; but actually being her boyfriend seems just too dangerous, maybe worse in the long term than being torn to shreds by a pterodactyl (I'm amazed I can still spell that word, it's been at least 40 years) She's cool in a crisis sure (swings a fire extinguisher can upside a pterodactyl's head), but she's gonna be needin' a lot of crises to stay cool. Her idea of guardianship: drive the kids to the dinosaur attack zone, then lock them in the back of a windowless truck, later don't even let them watch the take-down from a remote feed, which at that point is like one of those things where the Vietnam vet kid comes home from the killing fields and mom still expects him to be in bed before Carson. One need only look at that buzzkill frown Judy Greer and/or the director mistake for genuine emotion to know that her treatment of the boys is really the worst kind of maternal manipulation, the type that breeds Normans rather than Owens. That they can even recognize Pratt's badassery is testament to their resilience, not hers. If kids of these two redheaded Tyrannosaurus Reginas ever screw up bad enough they get sent to military school then maybe they got a fighting chance; if not, they'll never fight again, except with the cleaning lady when she accidentally starches their socks.




------


One could make the excuse that this is how hot young women executive movies really always are but to them I say watch Anne Heche in VOLCANO (1997)! You could say women in fields of expertise who seem utterly clueless are common in film if not real life, but before you do, look upon Heche in VOLCANO! Her dialogue is so full of quick-thinking expertise in her field and decisive commands, all so expertly, beautifully, naturally delivered, that we realize inept, ditzy, bitchy, uptight or dumb professional women characters are more the weakness of lazy screenwriters who make no attempt to understand what the field they're writing about is really like, and rather than doing some actual research, just write neurotic female experts who don't know either.

Part of the fault, naturally, falls with the actress. A lifetime of being beautiful has left her accustomed to getting praise and promotion just by biting her lip and wearing short skirts, leaving her with no real idea of what life is like off the silver platter. Naturally she confuses seriousness for buzzkill scowling. That's how it looks on the outside, so that must be all it is.

I see the these actresses, look upon Anne Heche in VOLCANO! And take goddamned notes.


If you've already seen it and thought 'meh' due to some of its more groan-inducing Crash-esque post-King healing incidents and, especially, the dimwit clingy daughter played Gaby Hoffmann, then I say look again, and ignore everything but the Heche.

She's so good she had to be taken down by a hostile media after some mental aberrations and substance issues that would have been forgiven with a wink were she a man. Not that she's not regularly working, but she should be as honored and pervasive as Robert Downey Jr. is today. It's just the man is scared of her. And you can see why when you watch VOLCANO.

If the time frame between JURASSIC WORLD and VOLCANO is too great for you, consider it against the 'other' volcano movie if 1997, DANTE'S PEAK. They came out at the same time, though DANTE'S beat it to theaters by two months, and it's hack shiite, while VOLCANO which kind of pancaked on release due to the same reason OBSERVE AND REPORT pancaked because of PAUL BLART. And like the latter, DANTE'S is shiite and VOLCANO endures.

A quick thinking big canvas disaster movie that tears through the real Los Angeles, in practically real time, VOLCANO has enough well researched cliche-free back and forth between city department heads that it touches the rattatat genius of Paddy Chayefsky or 70s films that know the subject they're exploring inside and out; the writers and actors have spent time in the company of firemen and relief coordinators, they know the way experts and officials have to become quick thinking order-givers, promoted by their ability to stay cool in a crisis and mobilize team heads and be constantly inputting and computing results rather than freaking out while the fireballs fly. It's a script rich with mature people and overlapping dialogue flowing in real time, rather than the DANTE's majestic adventure sweep, where every emotion we're to feel is broadly choreographed, VOLCANO's got that 'just another fucked day in NYC' kind of blue collar guy professionalism (transplanted to LA). The bits of character business feel real, ala (the original) TAKING OF PELHAM 123 and DOG DAY AFTERNOON rather than the broad strokes of the DANTE's 'types.'

There's only one or two weak points in VOLCANO and alas, they're what most people remember: 1) An absurd (but effective) bit of Rodney King commentary as a cop tries to arrest a guy for being black while downtown LA is erupting around him, then they work together to halt the flow, etc. 2) Jones' simpering little brat daughter who drags herself along in the car while he juggles the madness at ground zero. Neither has bupkis to do with Heche's character, the city's national geologist spokesperson, mature, gutsy, innovatively written and acted, she's sexy and in the moment, loose and joyous and above all, competent.

DANTE'S PEAK however, has no idea what competence really is, and relies on its quaint isolated setting to avoid having to find out. It's far worse even than JURASSIC WORLD as far as lazily etched characters. As if they're afraid Pierce Brosnan's shaky geologist widower and local mayor Linda Hamilton (right) wont't shine bejeweled enough unless surrounded by evil toadlike greedheads and/or nerds. Two attractive smart people in a world tossed with ugly idiot characters copied off TWISTER's math test, they meet and smolder and their quiet scenes together are the best part of the film, but almost immediately their almost-kiss is interrupted by volcanic shizzz.  Meanwhile the burly bear guy in charge cautions the town about evacuation as it hurts tourism (I forget if there's some big event, the tulip festival or something on which the town depends for tourists, schedule to go on in a few days, there usually is); the tweaker little shrimp tech has his one 'quirk' a limp bid at Tarantino chatter as he won't shut up about gourmet coffee and on and on. Their banter is so hack it actually reverses character development rather than enhances it. This vulcanologist team make the storm chaster posse in Twister (upon whom they're clearly styled) seem like the goddamned Wild Bunch.

While VOLCANO provides an unavoidable, sudden calamity that feels like it's bringing out the best in people over an approx. 48 hour period, all the events in DANTE'S hinge on greed and stupidity (in everyone but Brosnan and Hamilton) over a poorly etched out week of research, as if the mayoral greed of JAWS has been watered down and spread around to poison all the children on Harry Lime's hospital list. The town leaders won't evacuate despite the ominous portents, as if they can argue fiscal deadlines with a volcano; Hamilton's kids put her and Brosnan in danger by driving themselves up the mountain to get grandma while the ash from the eruption rains down on the road, the grandma puts them all in danger by being too stubborn to at least drive down the mountain to their house. Rather than in-the-moment quick thinking of the type we see in VOLCANO, the adventure in PEAK hinges on the kind of stupidity chains by which emotional thinking, what I call 'proximal responsibility' trumps basic human survival.

I can't tell you if this shit ever happens in real life. I'm sure it does, but it's lazy writing that relies on idiocy of stock types to avoid having to do some research (by, say finding out personal stories of what the survivors did and who died in the St. Helen's eruption and why, or visiting a real vulcanologist team and actually listening to the rhythm and substance of their dialogue).

It's attempts to add CRASH racist LA morals or no, VOLCANO is the opposite, extremely well written and researched and, I'm guessing, rehearsed. It certainly should have put Anne Heche in the same A-list company of Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock if she wasn't already, but she got ground up in the hot button issues with Ellen and started being erratic. Hollywood gossip was on her like white on rice. It was the time when people just didn't come out very often, so we all had a hard time digesting her straight girl romance SIX DAYS AND SEVEN NIGHTS.
 

That's part of it, but I also feel the mainstream press is far warier of recognizing scary assertive talent in women - they like their stars to be either stunning beauties with very few lines of dialogue or else moms and/or daughters first, professionals second. They only recognize great acting if it occurs in "great" pictures of Oscar calibre (i.e. Streep's in it). If they're going to be professional career women they must be frigid bitches just waiting for the right middle-aged hero to gentle them down real nice with the right halter, or at least stay home with her kids while she's out solving the case. But this is not at all the m.o. of our cool professional Anne Heche, the geologist du jour. Thinking of her friend Rachel who just got sucked into the flaming bowels of the earth under the La Brea tar pits earlier that morning, she looks at all the erupting lava and chaos in downtown LA-- the horror and devastation--eyes wide, she says, "Rachel would have loved this!"

Fuck yeah!

I almost fell out of my chair with joy when I finally re-watched this movie last week and heard that line. Why is it that Heche is the only one cool enough to say that kind of shit? Is it any wonder male Hollywood was threatened? There hadn't been a character this resilient and ahead of the curve, beyond the banal reality created for women by writers too busy crafting grand spectacle disaster to pay attention to how actual women behave --instead just shunting them home to watch kids and make angry phone calls demanding husband return because he has "responsibilities here too. We need you here, too, David!" or else just tagging along and filling in exposition gaps, rolling their eyes like the volcano is somehow dad's fault, because he stayed out playing poker and now this natural disaster is his excuse not to come home.

Not Heche, she ain't that type. Stunned but invigorated after her near death experience in the subway tunnels below the street, she hangs around in the thick of the eruption all morning, day, and night, not whining for Tommy Lee Jones' attention like his idiot daughter does, but doing her job, improvising, finding the path of the lava by watching a ball liberated from a looted toy store window, making calculations, etc. and barking them out super fast to Jones, who doesn't question them or give her shit cuz she's a woman and he's got the biggest ranch in Texas and his pappy etc, but merely reacts and mobilizes without a second thought; there's no spare time to second guess whether her advice is just that of a girl standing in front of a man and asking him to evacuate the city blocks between La Brea and the Pacific ocean. Together they're able to convey, her understanding of the lava and his understanding of the city, combining into one fluid machine where urgent calamity is responded to lighting fast in ways their opposite numbers in DANTE'S never could... they were too busy trying to dig themselves out of stupid predicaments created by idiot grandmothers of idiot children.

But more than just being smart, capable, and able to think on her feet logically rather than getting bogged down in the tar of 'emotional conviction,' Heche is playing one of the few heroic female characters allowed to genuinely love being in the thick of danger. Usually enjoying calamity is the sole domain of villains, "sluts" femme fatales or if experts and professionals in their fields, then they're incompetent, as in their jubilance gets people killed or seems otherwise monstrous (as in she needs a man to shout: "Damnit it Kate, those aren't statistics, they're people! With families!") In other words, Heche is not the type to think shouting "Somebody DO something!" in a moment of extreme crisis qualifies as being a capable manager (or like Jones' idiot daughter, let emotional prioritizing commence a whole chain of doomed rescuers as she pursues an idiot infant into the blast zone, and dad has to go after her and risk his life as well).

But that last one has little to do with Heche, though it's cool that she's the one who rescues them more or less, and though Jones has all the earmarks of the Dad of Great Adventure (i.e. his daughter is staying with him while the ex-wife is on vacation but he keeps blowing off their days together) there's little of the annoying tics of the type, since the good aspects of Tommy Lee's character (he's able to stay cool and process loads of information during a natural disaster--and after all, it is his job) are also the bad (he can't ever just relax and let someone else take over even for an hour or two). We generally loathe micro-managerial bosses but we know Jones is cool because his staff tease him about it and he just rolls with it. As with his back-and-forth with Heche, dialogue with the staff (including second-in-command Don Cheadle) is all believable, the jokes and banter and character etching are deftly woven into the action and exposition, rather than the 'here's three pages of character banter and now three pages of exposition and now three pages of disaster management' lameness of DANTE'S PEAK, a film that can't chew gum and walk at the same time.


At the time I saw them I loved DANTE'S more, mainly due to the heat so effortlessly generated between mayor Linda Hamilton and coiffed vulcanologist Pierce Brosnan--I loved his Bond, and loved her Sarah Connor and it was the late 90s. In PEAK she made me want to date a mother of two and move to a cool house in the shadow of gorgeous Colorado mountain. VOLCANO seemed much too busy, too full of business (then again, I was probably drunk when I rented it as the second film of the night back before widescreen). At the time I didn't get it. Now I don't get how I didn't get it then, or how I let a few Rodney King hand-holding "we are the children" moments rush me to snide dismissal. But it's DANTE that now seems coy and willfully naive; Brosnan especially seems much too handsome and composed to be believable as a roving geologist; look at him up there, not a single fleck of ash in that hair, and baby that ain't snow outside. Hamilton's mayor meanwhile is strong and sweet her main assertive skill seems to be in managing to pacify the diverse townsfolk with her maternal sweetness and to blindly follow and believe everything Brosnan says, his immaculate TV looks carrying a kind of absolute law she's been waiting all these years to follow.

Heche on the other hand, makes that ash dusting work. Her character is the spokesperson for her department and she handles the press conferences with ease and poise and oomph --no bitchiness or stomach butterflies or Kathy/Lucy-like "waaahs" of exasperation. I can only imagine how great she would have been in the Bryce Dallas Howard role of JURASSIC WORLD, especially if she could have some character and wardrobe input. It would have been cool to see her get it on with Chris Pratt, that would have been innovative like the platonic post-relationship friendship in JP III and the mixed-race family of JP II. She might have even pulled it off without someone having to use the word "cougar. And her being older and more self-assured would make more sense as an executive. Is it my fault for liking Brosnan as Bond back in the 90s that characters like Heche's in VOLCANO are long gone, and feminism is in such shit straits now?

Of course not, but it does show that big budget scripts aren't necessarily worth their money, and actress legacies (as in Howard's famous power player father) don't often bring much to the table beyond being merely a good, expensively-educated actress. My guess? They haven't suffered. Even after all the bodies are hauled away Howard just seem tired from being up all night and having to run in heels, and when she cries in the arms of her sister it's only from exhaustion and relief. At the end of VOLCANO, on the other hand, Heche is exhilarated. That's my kind of crisis-handling bitch.

If only it was America's.
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