Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, July 31, 2009

Alice Part 2.2: The Looking Glass Dolls

The once innocent figure of Alice grows warped by time's fun house looking glass to become a token of phallic empowerment coupled to amnesia as embodied by the lovely Milla Jovovich in the RESIDENT EVIL series. Regularly waking up in a strange shower and working her way past sterile booby traps down poisoned Raccoon (City) holes, Alice's wonderland is a video game version of hell - nonstop threats and very little love. From a mythic standpoint, Milla's Alice trades in coy innocence for guns and high kicks. She deals with undead monsters AND a corrupt post-apocalyptic government, and death not ends it. She is both fully mature and unborn, sexy but essentially genderless - mired in the quicksand of shifting animus relations, doomed to spend the rest of her life wrestling with the sticky shreds of her cocoon, a dream from which one awakens only into another level of the same endless game.

We can see the reverse of this stagnation in the mama's boy phenomenon, the PSYCHO Norman Bates unable to sever the hydra-like apron strings of a domineering mother. While the girls with bad animus relations may simultaneously revere and fear their fathers, the boys simultaneously resent and "represent" their mothers.In order to blast loose the Self from this repressive quagmire of unassimilated archetypal energies, some real force is required. Death--real or symbolic--is often not even a viable solution. But the egocide of acid works, baby: you don't have to die, just let go of your gun and submit to an alien frisking, with looove.

'Twas the psychedelic drug explosion of the late 1960s that first caused a drastic and much needed push in this direction. Women were shown a different way forward than just copying or condemning men, or buying into their narrow view of what constituted ladylike behavior. When the scholars, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers got a hold of LSD, the whole pop culture burst at the seams, adding a revisionist slant towards like-minded artists of the past - the Marx brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Dali, and of course Lewis Carroll's Alice. The "Go Ask Alices" are indicative of this as bump up a notch as well. Girls who would have aged into light blue/gray beehive hairdos and terrible dress sense became instead goddesses of eternal coolness and debauched vengeance, and/or O.D-ed. But even demonizing drugs opens up a discourse, just talking about altering one's mind has a tendency to alter it, so it makes sense that in the 21st century it's not even polite to talk about why you don't want to talk about it. It's the pink elephant in the room and once you dare to actually behold it, reality itself begins to loosen and slip away. Pretty soon the elephant is right there, bigger than life, getting more tangible by the second, and within minutes you don't even remember a time it wasn't always there; reality bends and folds and now you remember the elephant from when you were four years old and it just came home from safari. Sounds messy and costly in the long run and yes, you do get stomped on, but hey, you got to see an elephant!

Psychedelic drugs have their own animistic shadow in the "gifts" that help the heroine on her mythic journey. Before acid, the mythic jewels bequeathed on Alice by her hippy caterpillar animus figures were mere signifiers. LSD was the white rabbit-shaped booster rocket. Millions made the journey before the door was locked shut by police and bad karma. Now these opportunities are crippled by media-perpetuated fear, urban legends, and draconian drug laws. But for a stretch of time 40 years ago or so, the doors of perception were blasted open. For a nominal fee anyone could buy a round trip into the recesses of their own forests, where boyfriends were revealed to be wolves and woodsmen rolled together, and fathers were revealed to be slackjawed televisual zombies. Lit up in a brilliant flash, the lines dividing light and shadow in the soul vanished and you were free.

One of the places this sense of awakening and possibility really flourished was in the Czech new wave cinema which brought such avant garde weirdness as DAISIES (1970) and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970). This last is especially fascinating, a truly complex "adult" fairy tale, fragmented through the psycho-sexual looking glass of vampire imagery, straight out of a storybook you remember from childhood that may not have existed in this reality.

A young girl, Valerie, lives in a small Czech town that's being visited by a circus/carnival. While surveying the clowns and jugglers from her window above, Valerie spots a mysterious vampire figure--The "Weasel"--and from then on its a mad masquerade, as he menaces her and vampirizes her grandmother (her mom is--as is usual in fairy tales--absent) and later the Weasel turns out to be Valerie's father, maybe even her son. Meanwhile Valerie's grandmother regresses in age, and there's near-incest galore. Valerie is given a pair of magic earrings that cause her to teleport through time and space.  In one of the most beautiful and bizarre scenes, Valerie is implicated as the devil and fastened to a pole in the center of a bonfire by the hostile townsfolk. Yet she merely smiles down at them in a warm, absolving way, and uses her earrings to vanish at the last possible second. The end finds her walking through what seems to be a post-production picnic orgy, that same enigmatic Mona Lisa smile on Valerie's face, grown now to bewitchingly mythic proportions. At one point she even looks right into the camera and smiles warmly. Anyone, male, female, straight, gay, old, young, is bound to be bewitched by this young actress's preternatural serenity and auburn beauty, causing a vast frisson of potentially impure thoughts mixed with the urge to protect and nurture her already impressive intelligence. We might flip back and forth from good to evil a dozen times as spectators all in that one moment, and she's already seen it happen with her own Weasel father. She's beyond it all; to paraphrase a metaphor from part one, she's already hugged her werewolf. It may not be quite a prince yet, but for the nonce she's just fine with having an attack dog at her side.

The always trenchant Michael Atkinson sums up LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL in a Village Voice article:
Richard Blackburn's long-fabled Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (also 1972, obviously a key year) exists in a suffocating, ur-Southern Gothic nightscape all its own. Unashamedly shoestring, Blackburn's dream odyssey through pubertal agony drips with Freudian syrup, but it's also a fervidly physical film—the midnight back alleys of Old South ghost towns are not places you'll be longing to revisit. More so even than Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, this mysterious phantasm plays like a visit to the underworld.....

The "unashamedly shoestring" element, as is the case with fellow indie cult hits CARNIVAL OF SOULS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (both 1968), is part of the creepy affect, the feeling one is adrift in a flea-bitten midnight zone between intentional Brechtian distancing for a post-modern aesthetic arrest and the cheap carny spookshow thrills of schlock. Like all good Alice tales, LEMORA involves a plucky young heroine, Lila (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith). leaving her kindly but clueless preacher guardian in the middle of the night to seek out the wild dangers of her "real" father, a presumed weasel (i.e. gangster werewolf).

The poverty row emptiness gives LEMORA the eerie frisson of a childhood nightmare. Lila's journey begins when she stows away in a car of a sleazy couple to get to town, which turns out to be a few cardboard storefronts in a small, darkly lit, empty soundstage. Rather than making the film laughable, this "unashamedly shoestring" quality adds to the dreamy disconnect - our own dreams have this same cardboard two-dimensionality. All the extras and actors she encounters are grotesque parodies of sexual adults as seen through the eyes of a child, a drunken pair of brawling lovers, a creepy bus ticket cashier, etc. The more cheapjack and surreal it gets, the creepier, the more uncanny.

But the "Alice effect" in LEMORA actually comes not from the usual stock of menacing males, but from the coven-like peer pressure of the older women. Lemora herself is a succubus-type who gets Lila eating raw meat and drinking blood and possibly dabbling in lesbianism--and there's an old hag who sings an eerie nursery rhyme while walking slowly in circles around Lila while she's imprisoned in a shed. There wouldn't be another matriarchy this creepy until Neil La Bute's WICKER MAN remake! And here we realize why:  the Bruckheimer bottom dollar feeders of Hollywood have a frat boy's fear of castration and so there's no powerful women like these in our modern Hollywood myths - only arm candy and maybe a syrupy old grandmom for Peter Parker. And LEMORA has all the things big money boys are still struggling in their inner female's sticky webs to get away from; they'd rather not be reminded, like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO, that they're not ever going to escape. Ain't no amount of bullets and bromance gonna change that, Jimmy. You got to let go.

They say the soul of every old man is a young girl, and vice versa, that all the ages and genders ultimately even out in BENJAMIN BUTTON-style criss-crosses, I believe that's so, and when we grow weak and elderly our soul thins out until it's barely born. Old interests return, part of the reason why children and old people get along so well. The key to discovery of self then is the brave meeting with these inner figures of your past and present and shadow; the magnetism between genders and generations is then sublimated into art and myth, not repressed, banned or condemned. Drugs like LSD should be regulated and dispensed gingerly, but never suppressed or demonized. With research and proper set and setting, they could change the world overnight for the better. The real dangers to our future, as LEMORA indicates, are the preachers and moralists and hysterics, the ironic distancers and the ego-blinded. The addictive nature of repression is the real dark power at work in our communities, censoring with violence what it can't control, never admitting to itself that without darkness, light itself becomes dark, to compensate, and bad things happen. The outlawed darkness is forced to become light just to go in there and save the day. Balance--not triumph--is key. That's why John Lennon knew he had to invite the defeated Blue Meanie to come hang out at the end of YELLOW SUBMARINE. Alice would have done the same for you. would you arrest her just for that?


  1. Saw VALERIE at the much-missed Elgin on 7th or 8th Ave/17-18 St just after I'd gotten out of the Marines, back from Asia. *Definitely not* my kind of movie on paper [I'm DEATH on indie-type coming-of-age flicks, grrr], I went to see what was with it. I can't remember what that was, but VALERIE pulled me right in and stayed with me since. It is one of a kind, surely---and I mean then AND now it's in a class by itself. Needs to be seen on a BIG screen for maximum effect---all pre-'80 movies were made for theaters that had *no fewer* than 800 seats.
    Another film for those who liked this is about a *boy* VALERIE'S age,"L'échelle blanche" ['69 French, U.S. Fox release as THE SECRET WORLD]. I only saw it the once, back then, on the deuce NYC and would say it's probably an *acquired* taste the way VALERIE is: It works the same territory thematically, but from a very different angle.VERY different. Written by Gerard Brach, Polanski's star writer since '60s England, just died 2006. SECRET WORLD stars Jacqueline Bisset at the height of her *hotness*. You might like it.
    Cheers !
    Matthew H. Davidson

  2. jervaise brooke hamster18 May, 2013

    I want to bugger Milla Jovovich (as the bird was in 1993 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  3. jimmie t. murakami18 May, 2013

    Erich, have you noticed how Jervaise edits out all the acidemic and intellectual stuff and just gets straight to "THE TRUTH" ! ! ! (as it were).