Thursday, March 27, 2008

Queen of Disks

Finally, the second part of that tarot mockumentary Ray Barbetto called "sinsational! (sic)"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The 12 Steps of Godard


















Godard can set you free. Oui, it's true. I've been tripping out on the mazes and head games and poignant transcendental beauty of that Godard set with Detective (with Julie Delpy, pictured at left) and Passion and so forth on it. Anyway, here's the 12 steps.

1. Realize that all the plots and story lines that crop up will never go the way they should, and you need to let go of that.
2. Realize that Godard is better understood by people outside of France. Because Godard needs subtitles. People mumble.
3. Make an unconscious decision to trust Godard's love for you, the viewer, for his actors, and for the cinema. Make an effort to connect with that love. Godard is best taken with a light heart... as are all French films! Lighten up, American capitalist!
4. As you release your common expectations of story and ending, look for the collapse of boundaries between signifiers, genres, etc. Intertextuality is Godard's thing, so people are always reading aloud, and the stuff they read comments on the mise-en-scene and on the film itself, and on filmmaking, but obliquely.
5. If you are still having trouble, try this: Imagine you are making a collage in art class -- cutting out pictures from magazines and placing them in odd ways. You cut out a model from Elle, put her in the middle of a steel mill photo from the 1800s and add a giant tomato from a cooking magazine. Surrealisme!
6. Now, make the connection between the autobiographical and the universal and see how everything connects, fractal-like, down to the smallest atoms and up to the solar system, and onwards in both directions-- always the same actions and interactions. The myths of the ancient Greeks are still being played out, but with couch potatoes and birth control, speed bumps and Ambien.
7. Now you are beginning to grasp the underlying unifying cosmic principle behind coincidence, synchronicity and intuition. So go back to your collage and now pretend you could make the collage paper into a movie screen - with music and sound and images, all to play with as you choose.
8. Instead of getting hung up on using one set of characters all the way through, realize the eternal exists right now in the present moment, so no set of characters is fixed.
9. Seeing cause and effect so clearly now, you merge into the present moment - by viewing Godard's film you become a part of it, the way a flower only comes truly into bloom when gazed at.
10. In the moment, you recognize all signifiers for what they are and are free to see around the edges of Godard's tricks.
11. Understanding then, his genius deadpan comedy, you too keep deadpan and merely nod and look askance.
12. Having been set free by Godard, you move out into the world to love all unconditionally and spread the healing balm of your serenity upon our wounded planet with your every move. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ten Dollars a Fifth.


You know that TCM Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2 set? If you get it and expect a good time, well, watch out for Norma Shearer, that's all I can say. She's trouble. She's in the first two films: MGM's THE DIVORCEE and A FREE SOUL. If sex, drugs and hot jazz were cake, the Warner girls--Stanwyck, Clarke, Harlow--could be said to have it and eat it too, then keep quiet about it until they need another fix; the MGM girls like Shearer would have their cake and then feel guilty, complain to all their friends that they "shouldn't have eaten it" and then go to the Ladies room to "heroically" renounce it back up.

That's not heroism, Norma, that's bulimia!

Where MGM makes its error is in presuming that their audience genuinely believes that premarital sex is an evil on par with murder, rape or (gasp!) gambling. Where Warners throws scenes of their starlets changing in and out of their sexy underthings, MGM has Shearer do it all behind partitions; when Shearer is raking in jewelry we see only her hands and his, never any mention of the implied quid pro quo. Shearer scenes of implied sin feel like she's counting money from a stolen wallet in a bathroom stall, sober, terrified, with three paranoid look-outs. Such nervous guilt isn't up to pre-code so to speak, since, as Dave Kehr puts it: the "heavy hand of MGM respectability presses down," forcing her to realize "that such dalliances are meaningless without love, marriage and the promise of a family."

One of the parallel points of interest in pre-code films is the handling of alcohol, the modern equivalent of pot in films like HOW HIGH or FRIDAY (at Warners) or heroin in films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (MGM). Prohibition was still in effect for most of the pre-code era, and the films in this set are rife with briefcase-carrying bootleggers, secret knocks at hidden doors, and whispers from drug store clerks to shaky customers about some "secret stock in the back room." In A FREE SOUL, we even learn the typical price when a drug store clerk sells a St. Vitus-dancing Barrymore a fifth of whiskey for "ten bucks." Ten bucks! In 1931 that was like $80, or the price you'd pay now for a delivery of... "ahem." What were we talking about? The evilsh of drink, oh right. There's something legit about it being destructive but, ah, who caresh? MGM will get all the Barrymores sober one day, but for now, let's get Norma Shearer safely wedlocked.


Kehr's article points out that NIGHT NURSE (1931)--easily the pick of the set--was directed by William Wellman right after PUBLIC ENEMY. It makes sense, seems of a piece, and makes me want to immediately research Wellman as a hidden auteur. Andrew Sarris rates him a mere "Less than meets the eye" in his American Cinema book, asking why PUBLIC ENEMY isn't as good as SCARFACE. I'd say there are streaks of laziness in Wellman, but also fearless genius in trusting his actors to do fierce bits of business, trusting their personas and letting them go the extra mile where most directors would probably balk and cut their extraneous antics short. Cagney and Stanwyck both get chances to go apeshit on people in such a way as to make cinematic myth on the spot; Gable punches her; Cagney shoves grapefruit at Mae Clarke; nurse Stanwyck screams in unbridled rage at the drunken mom of her two starving charges. These sorts of outbursts are electric, they more than make up for any dull stretches. They are what is best in cinema, when it stops preaching and starts hacking at the chains of the truly unfree soul.

There's a great bit in ROXIE HART, a (post-code) Wellman film I just happen to have recently seen, where Ginger Rogers does an impromptu softshoe up and down the prison steps after striking some sparks with smitten reporter George Montgomery. The camera doesn't move much, it's just Rogers banging out a dance on the tinny jail steps because she's kind of turned on. To Sarris this scene is probably uninspired and lazy, like Wellman just left the camera running and went out to have a smoke, letting Rogers and Montgomery do what they wanted. That's it exactly, Mr. Sarris! That's it, exactly. The cinema is full of hacks that strangle the breath out of their material the way Lenny kills puppies and blondes in OF MICE AND MEN. We know they don't mean it, but there it is, lifeless and big as all indoors. Wellman keeps his grip light and if it don't come out SCARFACE, so what? It could be worse, at least it's breathing, and at least it got in a few good punches before the cops came. That's what being A FREE SOUL means, Norma, so swig a little!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Mens and the Ladies Rooms -- in collage abastract form!

I've got the next bunch of days off and nothing to do except probe the inner reaches of my psyche or clean my linen closet.
And did I mention I don't have a linen closet?
These collages stem from the dreams I have wherein I have to go to the bathroom but the bathroom is a maze of bad smells and strange signs and flooded urinals that even Duchamp would not call art. I am sure these urinals would be called art, though, at least amidst the surrealists, whom I adhere.

I meant revere, of course. That was surrealism... in action!

Monday, March 10, 2008

In Praise of DESIGN FOR LIVING

If you're a true classic movie lover, there's been two essential DVD buys in the last few months: The Criterion Eclipse series "Lubitsch Musicals" and the "Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2" set from TCM. As essential as these are, the best Lubitsch and pre-code films lay hidden elsewhere, sometimes buried in boxed sets with post-code balderdash. One such gem is Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)

Created in a more enlightened age, DESIGN comes from a Noel Coward play adapted by Ben Hecht--two of the theater's most enlightened wits. Miriam Hopkins stars as a commercial artist in Paris who moves in with artistic buddies Gary Cooper and Frederic March (they have superb comedic rapport). Good as they are, it's Hopkins show all the way; she sparkles with sex, intellect and assurance. Even in today's cinema it's difficult to find a female character as assured as her Gilda. She becomes a muse to both men, yet that doesn't mean cleaning up after them or taking their shit. She never flinches or backs down as she ruthlessly criticizes their work, cracking open their egos and helping them towards successes beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately neither man can avoid being jealous of the other, and they drive her back to the chaste but devoted arms of her effeminate boss, the ubiquitous Edward Everett Horton.

Decades of being buried in the studio vaults (thanks to its "dangerously progressive" attitudes towards sexual relationships outside wedlock) made the collective cinema consciousness pass this gem by. It was never released on VHS and finally arrived--with no fanfare--buried inside the GARY COOPER SIGNATURE COLLECTION--a thin DVD boxed set that includes the far less essential (and post-code) PETER IBBETSON, THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN and two desert fighting movies, BEAU GESTE and LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER.

Considering the price, this set is worth getting just for DESIGN FOR LIVING alone. It's a shame this film isn't included in some kind of contextual setting, like the Forbidden Hollywood or Lubitsch Musicals set. or with bleeding edged photo-bedabbled Criterion essay collections. Instead it's shuffled in amidst drowsy adventure dramas and a very weird romantic "dream-fable" (Ibbetson) all of them saddled with all the hetero-patriarchal sexual conformity being "post-code" implies.

Other pre-code gems planted in boxed sets alongside post-code material: KISS AND MAKE UP (Cary Grant Franchise collection); MOROCCO, DEVIL IS A WOMAN, and BLONDE VENUS (Marlene Dietrich Glamor Collection), NIGHT AFTER NIGHT and I'M NO ANGEL (Mae West Glamor Collection); and the expanded (with all lurid scenes between March and Miriam Hopkins restored) version of DR. JEKYLL 'n' MR. HYDE (b-side of the tamer 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy).

This article continues in its weird way over on Bright Lights. There's some interesting stuff I link to there, re: Miriam Hopkins and her "bad" Hollywood decision making, and how her independence led to her refusing roles that went to Carole Lombard instead. Whether she was truly a bitch as Bette Davis said, I admire Hopkins' chutzpah in "daring" to turn down roles. I've seen how "enlightened" society still gets mad at truly free women. Hopkins couldn't have been all bad; she backed out of Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE as a favor to Lombard, whom Hopkins had beaten out for many earlier roles (this according to Carole & Co.) Lubitsch was obviously a treat to work with, so that's proof, to my mind, she was generous. Can you imagine Bette Davis ever doing that? Picture Carole Lombard as Eve Harrington to Miriam Hopkins' Margot Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE, and Hopkins deliberately dropping out of her leading play to let understudy Lombard have her moment. With Davis, that would never happen without skullduggery!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Conan the Barbarian vs. Minnie Castevet - Round 34


Here are some random notes I found hidden in an old glove along with some tannis root and a 5 demon bag:
1. CASTAVET!

The trick when you realize you live in a world full of cults and Satanists is not to panic, man. Don't fall into the Satanic panic-- Instead, become the Buddha - it’s like surfing - become the surfer when frenzied doctors and concerned therapists are still not quite sure it’s an ocean. By the time they declare the waters safe for wading, you’ll be on the other side. (chorus)

Thought upon thought layered upon itself, ad infinitum, the big breakthrough, time and space echoing in all directions around you, like two mirrors facing each other, but they’re ONE!

2. CONAN!

Conan with your sword and German accent, be real unto the riddle of steel, cwush your enemies and hear da lamentations of der women. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, As far as Conan is concerned, the only thing to do with witches is make love to them if they are beautiful and to behead them if they are plain.

Now I think of those thickened Americans in the middle states, such as my Arizona-livin' brother, Fred. If times were different, would I not, for all my big city wickedness and forbidden knowledge, be killed by them?

I see them shrinking in fear from the terrifying darkness Polanski can dredge out of Ruth Gordon’s clown-cake make-upped old lady smile.

I see my Arizona brother wince when I make some smart-alecky intellectual remark about the repressed homosexual complexes underlying televised football.

You can bet my brother and/or Conan does not dig New York intellectual types and their fathomlessly evil complexity, but then again "evil complexity" is redundant, is it not?

Evil is complexity, Good is bland: long straight clean jaws and healthy diets, chomp chomp chomping on cigars, salads and steaks. I imagine Arnold as the Terminator Vs. The Old Jews cackling and summoning their ancient Satan in that big spooky upper west side Dakota building. Them drugging Mia Farrow and combining mental powers to blind competitors and Arnold, Governor of California, free of all mental powers, who would never dream of touching drugs, mowing them down with his uzi.

Arnold with his million swords and acre-wide white teeth - all the combined mental force of the Castavets would be a mere headache to mighty Conan. Panic attacks and paranoia are unknown to those who swing broadswords at mosquitoes and ask questions never.

3. Vacation is Nowhere

Average People go on "vacation" with their bodies but keep their minds safely a few weeks back in time. They use their bodies like NASA uses space rovers; as a combination camera and souvenir procurer. Once their mind catches up to the trip they experience it via sense memory as they gaze at/identify with the pictures they took from the safety of home.

Mom assumes a monotone when showing the pictures from the trip, delivering the tale of trying to order French fries in France; it’s intentional, the monotone, to make you bored, to not want to probe the discussion for little tidbits of detail which will not be there. Ditto the simplicity of Conan vs. the intellectual concealments of the Castavets.

The tidbits you might ask were “Why was she there?” What do we seek from foreign lands? Why do we go traveling when we can watch the travel channel for free and not get bit by mosquitoes or catch drafts in old hotels? Why oh why would we sign on to get our own wife pregnant with the devil just to make Tony Curtis go blind?

Conan travels, because he is mindless body. His brain never catches up with his actions.

Castavets do not travel, yet know all things and inflict harm from telepathic intent, their minds are already far ahead of you by the time you see their physical shells.

So, my dear reader, you do the math, oil the sword, feed the horse, and stay away from the upper west side.

Or would you rather be a duck?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Happiness is the Birthday of Dean Stockwell!

In honor of Dean Stockwell's birthday, some musings on my two favorite Dean performances (so far):

1. Dave in PSYCH-OUT (1968): 

For me, PSYCH-OUT is the best film ever about what it means to be a drugged-up hippie in a band in the Haight-Ashbury in 1968. Mind you, I wasn't in the Haight in '68, but I was born March 2 in 1967, three days before Dean's birthday - and became a hippie musician while at school in Syracuse in '86, so dyslexics and the very very high will appreciate the similarities, which don't end there: As the "Syd Vicious/Barrett"-acid casualty bassist of my band (The Mexican Mud), I played the calm voice of artistic "integrity" to my quick to sell-out lead guitarist Dave (i.e. hiding my lack of chops with shamanistic camouflage). Imagine my delight in finding my onscreen representation in PSYCH-OUT is a) named Dave is played by a young Dean Stockwell wearing a gaudy Native American headband and hippie wig probably lifted from the Indian section of the sound stage's leftover prop box, and playing the psychedelically enlightened no-longer-in-the-band shaman (beyond money and fame) to Jack Nicholson's fame-crazed lead guitarist, Stoney.

We first find Dave living inside a shed on a roof, where he sits in stoic contemplation; free of desire and fear and money --- and yet immediately, suavely, he starts coming onto pretty tourist Susan Strasberg. She's come to town to find her brother (Bruce Dern), an early prophet of the sugar cube, lost in the candy colored throngs of the Haight --so out of it he makes Dave look grounded. Stony lays all this bullshit on Dave, but Dave just keeps his eyes trained on the girl. She's what's important, and we dig the sublime way Stockwell manages to be sincere and moving while hip and disaffected at the same time. Nicholson never could handle that sort of duality, even back then and his sneering disaffection hangs heavy on him in a straight hippie role. You can feel his revulsion towards it-- that's actorly "conflict" - but Stockwell is resolved --believably beyond pairs of opposites.

Later, after their band's first gig at the Fillmore--Dave shares his drink, liberally spiked with the chemical drug known as STP, with the broken-hearted Strasberg (Stony's left with another woman). Little does Dave know that she's not "experienced" and doesn't realize what she's in for! STP is the advanced master class to LSD's kindergarten and Strasberg's never even taken aspirin! Man, Dennis Hopper knows a chick who takes it all the time. Can you believe that? I took it once in my 20s and it damn near killed me. It was a sweltering 4th of July in Manhattan, the street asphalt was melting and sticking to one's shoe. I spent STP's legendary sixteen hour peak at a party with a guy I swore was Francis Ford Coppola. He thought I was nuts! Nuts like a snail... crawling along... the edge... of a straight razor!

So "ahem"- yeah, Strasberg can't handle it and soon she's on the streets in a fit of hallucinatory insanity, trying to find her LSD-drenched brother Bruce. Before she can get hit by a car Dave gives up his life to save her and later casually notes, "I hope this trip is a good one," right before croaking.

He was some kind of a man.

For Dean Stockwell, at any rate, yes, it's been a hell of a good trip. This man's been in pictures since he was the baby of Nick and Nora Charles!

2. Edmund in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962)
Here Stockwell was a mere 26 (which lets you know, incidentally he was over 30 in PSYCH-OUT), but he holds his own against Kate Hepburn, Jason Robards and Sir Ralph Richardson as Eugene O'Neil's uber-dysfunctional family of Irish drunks, junkies and theater folk.

Luminous and gorgeous throughout, Dean's the vulnerable core of the film, holding back in group scenes, his eyes glistening with patient love or bewildered acceptance, but emerging in his tet-a-tets with the other family members as O'Neil's character, the young man whose own recently diagnosed tuberculosis prevents his willingness to pretend nothing's wrong, to look the other way at his mom's slide back into morphine abuse or his dad's miserliness. Stockwell projects an impressive mixture of tenderness and impatience, love and disgust, changing on a dime, and the poetic duality-transcendence to bind them all. It's the transcendence that comes as a reward to adults whose childhood was spend growing up around chronic dysfunction. They should show this movie in rehabs!

You can see Stockwell was profoundly influenced by James Dean, in only the best of ways, by which I mean he captures Dean's softness, his playful, gentle spirit and ability to method act from cuddly kitten to brawler on a dime, but adds it to his own lexicon. Stockwell's not the sort of actor to imitate via the superficial trappings (jacket, hair, knife), or to fall into the sway of even the acting titans he shares the JOURNEY stage with. Here he's like James Dean in that you sense the sweet inner child that the veneer of disaffected coolness protects, alternating in doses that show behind the character is the actor and behind the actor... genius.

I could of course go into detail why his role here reminds me of my own life too, but it's less glamorous than with PSYCH-OUT, and hell, well, there you have it. A toast of STP-laced Kool-Aid, to Dean! Happy birthday, magical survivor of the Hollywood grist mill, you perennial Midsummer Night bloom on the tempest-toss'd rosebush of the stars! See you "In dreams!"

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Eastern Promises collage details



I had a very bizarre dream involving Eastern Promises symbolism the other night. Cronenberg's strange and savage world of Russian mafia and Britishness makes perfect dream language. I was basically shooting up a lot of heroin in a cabinet with Viggo Mortenson, who smelled terribly of cologne. A lot of other weird stuff happened and I awoke in a strange mood. I've never done heroin but my dream life is full of it - a fine symbol of fear of addiction and the falseness of memory - for I "remember" the joys of being on junk when I awake, though it is just from the dream. If I was even more pretentious than I am, I would declare that this collage "Speaks" to the falseness of memory.
As a tribute to Cronenberg's motifs, I turn every straight line into a squiggling sperm or rounded with a womb. The topogoraphy of PROMISES is all about gilded cages and pulsing red secrets. The restaurant where so much action goes down seems like a giant, voracious dragon, swallowing food, drink, people.