Monday, June 29, 2009

There ought to be Freaks.

There's nothing like a neck injury to help you catch up with a backlog of unseen 1970s horror films... especially if you leave the remote painfully out of reach. Now you are paralyzed anyway so it may as well be with fear... so bring on... THE SENTINEL!

I don't know what kept me away so long from this 1977 gem, but I'll never leave again! It's got it all: super young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum in bit parts; PSYCHO co-stars Martin Balsam and Sylvia Miles; Burgess 'the Penguin' Meredith as a mincing elderly gay stereotype; Beverly D'Angelo as a freaky young lesbian stereotype... yeah, you heard me! she and her partner use masturbation as a weapon of uncanny frisson to creep out our already-very creeped-out (straight) suicidal heroine (Cristina Raines), who is very naturalistic, and sexy, and screams well.

I can't reveal another detail, but let me just add some more classic old faces: Ava Gardener, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine and Eli Wallach, and I must mention the very hot scenes in which Cristina investigates strange noises while wearing a sexy negligee, armed only with flashlight and butcher knife (see bottom last pic)... but forget it. You don't even need all that, because there are real freaks.

Real freaks. Genius! When have we seen real freaks outside of 1933's FREAKS (above)? Here in THE SENTINEL, the bizarre Thanksgiving parade (gooble-gobble!) of Browning's children comes to its final resting place 45 years later. THE SENTINEL reflects a time when homosexuality was akin to being a pinhead or a bearded lady and was all part of the exploitation of deformity and difference on which our circus sideshow culture is based; a last, armless bow before the onslaught of liberal PC brainwashing "saved" the freaks by  putting them out of work. 

I could swear I recognized one of the pinheads from Browning's 1933 film--looking suitably older--in amidst the madness. Had these poor souls been traveling the carny back-roads all this time? Retured in Florida? Suffice it to say, this film provides a nice breather from political correctness not just in its callous exploitation of freak frisson, but of homophobia as well. As I recall from my childhood street-corner conversations in those pre-AIDS days, the very idea of same sex kissing and fondling was considered stomach churning, hence the pro-gay flak thrown at the lurid depictions of William Friedkin's CRUISING (1980), for example, which plays up the same sideshow affect. A little behind the times, Friedkin's film's hostile reception showed we'd already matured a little as a cinema going public by 1980, to the point where the perceived "freaksploitation" of homosexuality drew outrage instead of titters, at least in some papers.

If it's not quite in the same league as its 1970s compatriots (like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), THE SENTINEL'll do until some other movie with Bevery D'Angelo as a creepy lesbian masturbating in a leotard comes along. And as for the poor freaks, I am sure they appreciated the humanitarian concerns of not being exploited anymore, but they probably missed the paychecks. And isn't it sad this great American institution is gone forever leaving only a bunch of insane but non-deformed humans hammering nails into their noses and swallowing swords down at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore?

THE SENTINEL is one of those great last gasps of 1970s split-level thinking: we're meant to recoil from the lesbians as if Robert Aldrich was directing, and to recoil from the freaks as if they're demons from hell, making this a conservative horror pic when all's said and done, validating the patron's conservative "wholeness" in contrast to filmic celebration of the grotesque and abject. In 1977, NYC was still where one went to recoil in horror from X-rated film marquees, wobbling hookers and urine-stained winos--not lug the kids around Disney Stores and Nike flagships--and THE SENTINEL's not trying to impress you with its liberal bias, it's trying to scare you and creep you out, like a day trip to what NYC used to be--one giant sideshow up and down Times Square. See Ratzo Rizzo, half rat, half man! See Jackie Superstar! She thought she was James Dean for a day! Step right up!

There is underlying it all a rationale for the use of lesbianism and physical deformity as signifiers of horror--at least in the past--for when used as a measuring stick these films reveal our current culture to be more progressive than we sometimes give it credit for. Being publicly skeeved out by the thought of gay sex was on its last gasp, but still a permissible reaction, in the 1970s, and movies like CRUISING (w/ Pacino, pictured above) and THE SENTINEL played on that, but in the process they helped audiences grow acclimated. If familiarity breeds tolerance, it's repetition-compulsion disorder that breeds familiarity, and it's shock and horror that breeds repetition-compulsion disorder, therefore: Repeat repulsion = eventual tolerance = le mepris.

After all, even more skeevy than deformity and homosexuality back then was the most commonly used "free" horror effect: old age!  First introduced in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), the idea that old age was inherently demonic--as in emaciated corpses with shambling gaits and nightmarish dentures--faded in the all-drenching teenage blood wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but man it used to scare the shit out of us! We recently saw David Lynch use old people for creepy effect in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but you have to be a certain age yourself to be afraid of the elderly, and now Lynch is. Just as Niagara Falls is lovely from a window, but terrifying if you're stuck in the current; it's a matter of proximity.

So what is left now that old age, homosexuality and deformity are all no allowed to be horrific in and of themselves? Instead of "one of us! one of us!" we have ghosts coming through the computer screen. Instead of horror we have horror signifiers strung together cheerlessly like gold dollar signs in a rap video: an eye through a key-hole, water leaking in the basement, a girl with dark hair drawing a pentagram, thunder! a chainsaw! a girl in a shower seen from outside the steamy stall door; Satanic graffiti, hands scribbling in a journal while monks run down stone staircases; partial nudity highlighted in thick felt markers, and golden-hued car commercial subtext-- all bathed in a sugar crust of flashy editing and served with nu-metal flatware, and then the credits: please exit quickly the next show's about to start there will be no refunds step right up!

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Read Tenebrous Kate's valuable take on Cruising here
and the Costuminatrix on The Sentinel here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Last year at Marien...something something


"This shows how far we are incapable of looking at (I wont even say understanding) an incident without interpreting it and without our look added to the amalgam, a mixture which by nature belongs as much to the documentary image as it does to the fiction with which we envelop it." - Andre S. Labarthe (Cahiers du Cinema, Sept. 1961)
"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" - Chico
Everyone has their own take on the formally modern jigsaw puzzle that is Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), soon to be released on a beautiful DVD by Criterion. Is it the story of a repressed memory of possible sexual assault? Or is it just a collection of images that Resnais relies upon the viewer to make sense of? Or is it just...bad? As in the old "Le Bad Cinema" from SNL?

For me it's a horror movie, where everyone concerned is in hell: the audience plays its own part as stuck in the hell of pretentious wankery, the characters are in a hell of art, located in the center of a pyramid bordered by Carnival of Souls (1962), the Shining (1980), and Jess Franco's Succubus (1968), all three of which seem--at some level--influenced by Marienbad, and for this writer at least, all three help situate the Marinebad experience.... somewhat. That said, Marienbad itself seems influenced, unfortunately and not its fault, by the duty-free shop bourgeoisie claustrophobic jewels and gilded edges of Lola Montes and The Earrings of Madame de... 


There's even a few unofficial horror sequels: Daughters of Darkness (1971, pictured above) features an older Delphine Seyrig still wanders the halls of a decaying empty old European-style resort but this time being the one who pulls the "I've always known you" gaslight on the sweet young thing of a possessive scumbag; Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) offers similar editing schemes (such as the justly famous sex/dressing afterwards montage), a similarly desolate grand hotel and a similar "you were here before" gaslight, this time worked on the man (Donald Sutherland) by two batty psychic sisters. All these films operate on at least a few of Marienbad's ghostly frequencies--particularly the "living corpse" analogies and the possibly supernatural origins of the female protagonists' husband or "keeper", and most need to be seen more than once to be fully understood. Don't Look Now, Succubus and The Shining actually only begin to get enjoyable with the second or third viewing. With Marienbad, Resnais makes sure to show us the film several times all at once, so we can get over that hurtle and really enjoy it, which is to perhaps come to the realization that we have never actually enjoyed it, or even seen it... again.

The first time through is fairly taxing, but by the second you've prepared counter-expectations. In modernist form ab abstractum tediorous, one longs for some circus freaks to parade by, ala Bergman or Fellini, just to liven things up, but this film is totally static and clownless. It's instead the nucleus for all the aforementioned horror movies to rotate around, gaining meaning and resonance with every revolution. Ultimately it's about the impossibility of memory and perception, with every image reflected and refracted into oblivion, and Seyrig as the ultimate vampire queen at the center. The one person who provides the illusion of a soul, of depth behind the facile masks, is the one person who is, in fact, completely soulless, and why isn't she a blonde? That, at least, would make sense. 

It's the hell of the endless party out of time, where Candace Hilligoss (left), Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, and Janine Reynaud all end up; hell is not after all a land without enjoyment, but a land where enjoyment is never allowed to cease... as in the old Disney cartoon of Satan's helpers force-feeding naughty children on conveyor belts. Instead of sweets it's the over-cooked trappings of the bourgeoisie that are inescapable here, the way an American child who doesn't understand witty banter might feel being dragged to a French film without subtitles--the decaying crumbling land where perfume ads really do come true, and once inside you can never escape. As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais uses repetition of imbecilic phrases over and over to make some kind of post-hypnotic point and like Hiroshima Mon Amour it's damned irritating to anyone not easily enthralled by a strain of modern art that takes itself too seriously, that hasn't pre-empted hoots and hollers from the back row by having a stooge wandering through occasionally slipping on a banana peel. Godard's satiric edge and short attention span saves his films from the abyss where Resnais doesn't fear to plummet.

That the picture on the Criterion disc is so beautiful and pristine is probably not entirely positive as it leaves no room for improvement: One might look at an old crappy Koch Lorber disc and think, "Well, perhaps if the picture were better, it would be a kind of work of art," but with Criterion's beautiful disc, there's no longer room for doubt. As Seyrig puts so eloquently, "I don't know that room, that silly bed, that fireplace with the mirror. There's no mirror over the fireplace. It's a painting." Oui, mademoiselle, at's a no painting, at's a spinach.

This movie is what might have happened if there never were a Marx Brothers, who knew how to deal with these types of posturing jokers back in 1930's Animal Crackers. I kept wishing Groucho Marx would inhabit Seyrig's body and do his "strange interlude" impression: "How happy I'd be with either of these two, if both of them just went away." I kept hoping Chico would run up and steal a famous Bogarde. But the Chico never comes: that's my nightmare, that's my hell, crawling across a straight razor. There's nothing wrong with that if it works. What does Marienbad mean? Whatever it meant, it's meaning it now.

The shattered glass effect is also one of the process of filmmaking itself, which involves watching the same scenes over and over, different takes, different edits. Some of the jump edits here in Marienbad are sizzlingly witty, but some are just headache inducing, the artsy version of a kid flicking the light switch on and off really fast to annoy his older sister. Alain Resnais! Quit it this instant and go to your room!


The rationale here of course is that Resnais is being French and focusing on French cinema and architecture rather than delving into American pop iconography with the kid in a candy store glee of a famous Godard. The modern salts in the Marienbath have no American counterparts, they are purely French in the way that makes Yankee tourists in Paris feel slighted, the pretentiousness without the naturally self-effacing wit which the French don't even realize lies inherent in the poetry of their language. The completely self-serious bourgeoisie posing at work in Marienbad is something we in America are only used to seeing from behind velvet ropes or through the jaundiced eyes of Billy Wilder, the stuff that makes the henpecked husband roll his eyes while his matronly wife applauds. It's a representation of a bourgeoisie we in America have been trained from our Max Sennett birth to deal with by either a) throwing pies; b) sending a Barrymore up to steal their jewels; or c) showing them the error of their ways through a moving speech.

Left to their own devices, the ennui-ridden ghosts of Marienbad and their sordid modernist loops of romantic betrayal are un-signifiable. They are inherently obscurantist. They are for someone else to like, someone who actually reads Gertrude Stein instead of just carrying the book around Washington Square Park, and in that sense Marienbad cries to be adapted by a modernist multi-media troupe like NYC's Wooster Group, with three different video screens alongside a bawdy vaudeville show. I'd go. Twice, and be secretly bored each time, though twenty years later I'd boast about it (did you know I saw the Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones--with the amazing Kate Valk in blackface drag and dressed as a samurai back in 1995?) It's true, matey. And let me tell you one thing I learned from art school: just because a film is so boring it makes you get up, leave your seat and go to the bathroom and then go to have a cigarette outside and then not come back doesn't mean it was bad. It only means its modern. Forget it Jake, it's Marienbad!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Get in My Arachnid Black Belly!

There's something doped up and jet lagged in the giallo tropes of La Tarantola dal ventre nero (1971), one of the many "commercially minded" animal-titled films to come out in the wake of Argento's big hit, The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970). Everything good La Tarantola has going for it seems borrowed from Plumage, including the use of a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score. Well, sometimes a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score is enough! Add some Bond girls and... well, even if nobody goes home happy, nobody goes home disappointed either.

Our cop lead (Giancarlo Giannini--"Inspector Mathis" in Casino Royale) gets the most screen time, with the hot starlets (Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Barbara Bach) barely registering as characters before they are set up and knocked down like puling bowling pins. Too bad, because while he's very expressive--with big doleful eyes that define "puppy dog"--Giannini lacks his future self's gravitas. He's less a cop here and more a benzo junkie swimming through the tail end of a bender. He lets prime suspects go if they sass or stall him and though he's clearly way out of his depth never thinks to ask for a partner or back-up to helps solve this multiple homicide case. Not even a partner helps on a case that gets new victims nightly. Oh well, there must be a bottle of J&B somewhere around here amid all the other giallo niceties: a fetishistic serial killer, blackmailers, acupuncturist accessories; red sports cars; musty offices and plush love nests; stamps on envelopes in the jacket of the murder victims; nature films (the wasp paralyzes the tarantula then lays eggs in its big black belly!); loads of tracking shots and pull foci through trees in the park and the hustle bustle of Rome's bustling streets; running over sewer grates (shot from below) and up and down twisting outdoor staircases past little dingy gray polizia cars.

Giannini fits the bill in body but not in spirit. He needs a handsome bland photographer or musician--inexplicably linked to the killer--to play cat and mouse games with. Without such a foil, Giannini has no one to spar with but himself and a handful of trite clues: yards of film flow by depicting his subtly rendered internal struggle --usually via sitting in his car staring blankly out the side window, or buttoning his drab raincoat. When he's not moping around, however, Tarantola is giallo right down to its kinky gold curtains and fetishistic toys and latex gloves... and mannequins, naturally.

It would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here. All crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car.

Considering the by-the-numbers direction of journeyman-hack Paolo Cavara (Mondo Cane) and the fact that Tarantolo's screenplay was written by woman (Lucille Lans) it's perhaps no surprise that a) the film is lacking the drive and momentum that Catholic male guilt and sexual frustration can provide, and b) its strengths lie in its 'weaknesses,' in its swooning, feminine sexuality,  which feminist horror studies fans will note is almost completely free of voyeuristic "eye"-conography. The stripping nude of the female victims and the paralysis method seem to set the stage for kinky sexual torture, rape, etc., but censors or soft stomachs mercilessly (or--if you prefer--mercifully) make these scenes short, as if the killer, after going through all the trouble of getting victim set up for torture, wimps out and just stabs and runs (though this also serves to keep the killer's gender open to question).

Dull as the film can be in stretches, the great disc from Blue Underground is so crisp and uniformly strong in color--the music so boldly reproduced--that a discerning trash film fan has little choice but to embrace it. I can imagine really hating The Black Belly of the Tarantula on a faded badly cropped and edited VHS, but seeing it on a good widescreen TV or projector is like being part of a glorious archeological excavation, digging a window back to a long gone world of macho mustaches, shoulder-length hair, drab grey raincoats over shiny shoes, relentless drizzle, bohemians, cocaine smuggled in tarantula aquariums, and Barbara Bach, who sports some of the longest, straightest, shiniest hair in all of gialli land.

The most off-putting aspect of this film, which makes the murders more a relief than a source of tension, is the sleepwalker idiocy of all the characters (not just our Ritalin-deprived sheriff, all of them). Most notably dumb is a woman who, after running into her apartment building while being chased through the streets by the killer, rushes inside her door, and stands panting right by the door while refusing to even lock it, leaving the big heavy chain just hanging down as she stands panting by the door, dazed, perhaps struggling to remember her lines or to hear our shouts at the screen from the presumed audience of the future: "Lock the damn door!" All the victims of our maniac rush to their deaths like lemmings (note to giallo characters: if you want to rat out your friends to the cops, don't boldly announce your intentions to them in a darkened, deserted, cavernous health spa).

In the way that would become de rigueur for the slasher films of the 1980s the slack-jawed dumbness of the victims not only lightens the load for the screenwriter but allows the audience to retire to that dubious place of moral safety so cherished by repressive cultures like Catholic Italy: the she was "asking for it" defense. But while this can enable our emotional distancing so the violence is more bearable it also makes us lose interest; I found myself sighing in relief once each murder was done, knowing I'd have at least a few minutes to relax and go get a drink before having to endure watching another eloi passively bow her head to receive the morlock needle.

With so little suspense or empathy generated by the killings, the big mystery becomes how a cop as foggy and strung-out as Giannini's Inspector Tellini ever made it to homicide in the first place. He should be handing out parking tickets, at best. When you see him first step into an abandoned house where the killer might be hiding you know you have time to go to the bathroom and mix a round of cocktails for your guests, flip through your phone message, and he'll still only have made it a few feet farther inside than when you left. No wonder all these sex killers ran so rampant in 1970s Italian cinema! Drunk cops soaked in ennui are no defense. Thank God he's handing in his resignation at the end of the case, or at least considering it: "I was unable to save a woman last night," he groans to his wife/girlfriend, who is too busy dealing furniture to pay attention Meanwhile the heavy sighs on the soundtrack begin to resonate less with feminine lust and more with resigned exacerbation. He was unable to save a woman? No shit. Well at least he kind of halfway tried.

From a surrealist standpoint the detective's confusion puts him in the rarefied realm of somnambulist shamuses, inhabited by the likes of Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart; Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense; Asia Argento in The Stendahl Syndrome; Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly--characters who may or may not be already dead, as if they awoke from a dream into the film and don't really remember a damn thing about investigative protocol. But at least in those films the target always turns out to be someone or something intrinsically tied up with the pursuer. In Belly the final disconnect becomes more of a Dirty Harry sort of "this time it's personal!" punch out, which illuminates our hero's darkened path not a watt. Oh well, if you're so Xanaxed out you don't even know where or who you are it helps to have some really weird Morricone to help you home. One psychedelically twisted note of discordant guitar and you know that you're safe in the beloved giallo genre, where druggy amnesia isn't only forgiven, it's practically essential.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Acidemic Film Journal #5 now online


It's up and it's EVIL,

with new contributors like Dr. Suzanne Verderber, esteemed west coast journalist Kim Morgan, film historian David Del Valle and up and coming scholar Deborah Michel plus abstract oil on canvas commentary by Audra Graziano.

This issue examines Godard's 1967 film ONE PLUS ONE, aka Sympathy for the Devil, and from there delves into the world of Satanic film and evil on cinema, covering THE HUNGER, BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, THE EXORCIST and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Click here or at box on upper right.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"There isn't any other song": Niagara (1954)

To celebrate Marilyn's special day (yesterday, June 1), I want to celebrate NIAGARA all over again!

NIAGARA is my favorite Marilyn Monroe movie (dramatic category), with her performance and form-fitted red dress so perfect against the misty location shoot backdrop that I play it constantly during my more stressed moments, both soothing (the water) and distracting (the curves). DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK and THE MISFITS feature more nuanced (as in vulnerable, batshit crazy) MM characters, but neither quite captures the paradoxical cunning and sheer sexual potency the actress was capable of like NIAGARA, in which she is a femme fatale par excellence. Here the dysfunctional death drive underpinning Monroe's allure is elegantly tapped into via the iconography of the falls and realized brutally in the crushed soul of Joseph Cotten as her cuckolded older husband. He's a bit of a loser, and I can sure relate.

Falling for Marilyn has always seemed to me like a bad idea, like Dracula in reverse: Dracula takes and takes, MM gives and gives until you just have to run and hide in a dark cool corner, which is almost worse. Most protagonists in MM films are tempted by her unyielding yielding but manage to escape before it's too late. Joseph Cotten's shell-shocked sheep rancher George Loomis, on the other hand, starts out his tour already totally worn to a shaky "In the Gloaming" rocking chair nub. He's super-jealous of his young trophy wife, Rose (Monroe) a "tramp" on whom he's flitted away his ranch and life's savings to buy expensive gifts and dance club bar tabs. Their stay at the falls is supposed to heal their rift but Rose is actually luring him there to make him jealous and crazy in front of the other motel guests for purposes too shocking to reveal here. Suffice it to say, even though he's far from sympathetic, Loomis gets our sympathy, and when you sympathize with someone who gets to sleep with Monroe, you know something's wrong. 

Some claim Cotten is "miscast" in the role of George Loomis. I think miscast is the whole point: Cotten represents any man who gets sucked into the rushing flow of Marilyn's hot voodoo and has no choice but to let the flow either drown him or send him over the edge and down down down to the rocks below. He's every "human" male in the audience who longs for Monroe's quivering form but knows, deep down, if he got her in real life she would destroy him, leave him broke and broken-hearted, much the worse for having ever gotten involved since now he could never enjoy "mere life" without her awesome sexuality in his private constellation. And yet, our "human" male viewers nonetheless also know that if she cast her eye their way, they'd still jump into that lethal current like a lemming, tossing savings and sanity to the wind in her wake.

Wouldn't you?

Contrasting this doomed tragicouple are a pair of clean-cut marrieds (Casey Adams and Jean Peters) on their belated honeymoon. While producer-writer Charles Brackett treats George Loomis like a tragic fall guy hero, Casey Adams' grinning all-American Madison Avenue square is lampooned ala a Frank Tashlin comedy. "We're the Cutlers!" he announces from his convertible driver's seat as they pull into the cabin grounds, as if he expects everyone to cheer and break out the sparklers. He brings his books to "catch up on his reading," to which the Canadian border patrolman--scoping out Peters' sexy body in the passenger seat-- shakes his head in sad disbelief. Sheer thickness of skull has apparently shielded Mr. Cutler from the monstrous sublimation of sex that constitutes his plastic fantastic Madison Avenue scene. For him, Monroe's hussy walk is alluring--"Get out the fire hose!" he says when she saunters by that evening--but he'd never dream of pursuing. He doesn't even pursue his wife, except to take cheesecake shots of her sunbathing. He's strictly commercial, as Frank Zappa would say. The production code never thought a guy like this would be the result of all their moral meddling. He's enough to make the Pope send for Mae West.

His wife Polly (Peters) is allowed to be much more restrained and human, meanwhile, and her big scene with Loomis in his petulantly trashed cabin offers a moment of genuine connection, probably the only one in the whole film. Unlike their American dream caricature mates, the more restrained Polly and George linger in shadow as a gloomy contrast: real characters, with sorrow and quietude in their natures, struggling with the shrill farce that passes for 'normal' in 50s America. But opposites attract, and though these muted key types might find some weird bond, they are chained to their respective "phonies" like life support.

Another reason I dig this film: the soothing quietude -- the rush of the falls-- is constant and reassuring. When George or his boss (Don Wilson, from the Jack Benny show) aren't bellowing and guffawing, it's totally serene. The score only bursts to life during key moments of danger or foreshadowing of danger. Otherwise there is only the ambient, soothing rush of the falls, both comforting and eerie, everything a film you watch over and over on DVD in an insomniac haze should be. The quiet emptiness of the town in contrast to the mad rush of the falls creates a sense of contemplation. You can imagine Siddhartha ending up working as a motel manager around here, attuned to the profound mystic frequencies, and perhaps he has, and is even there now... yet the environment functions also both as a classic "automotive tourist trap" and a perfect backdrop for Monroe's fatale Americain scheming. The result is a movie as durable as a life preserver, the perfect film to keep you cool during the hot summer city months, glad to have access to the beauty of Monroe and the falls but grateful in the end to be just where--and with whom--you are.

(a different form of this article originally appeared in Bright Lights After Dark 08)

Monday, June 01, 2009

"Zabriskie Point is Anywhere"

This month saw the DVD debut of Zabriskie Point (1970), which is a major event for Antonioni fans and lovers of the Woodstock fall-out cinematic era, or anyone who ever stuck up for Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. I'm a big fan of the pristine, shimmering Criterion DVDs of L'Aventura and L'Eclisse but can imagine hating them just as much if they were on crappy "Genius Entertainment" like La Notte (pixelated picture with burned in subtitles! Dude!) or didn't have Monica Vitti or weren't in black and white. In its isolation and contrasted moments of meaningless capitalist sound and fury, Point is practically a gender reversed L'Eclisse with Los Angeles instead of Rome and the emptiness of Death Valley instead of a corner near a rain barrel. The motif of Monica Vitti digging the wind rattling the flagpoles like a song is repeated with the sullen kid playing the ruined piano strings at the desert commune; the stockmarket hullabaloo is replaced by Rod Taylor's pervy real estate dealings, explosions instead of eclipses. Rod "Time Machine" Taylor presumes he's here to work, and does in a very modernist office and in the hay with hippie temp Daria Halperin. Soon she's driving off into the desert, where Rod's eyeing space for a real estate development. Meanwhile the young radical of her dreams is maybe killing a cop and stealing a pink plane. If he can fly a plane, you'd think he could get a real job.

All the rock stars who contributed songs get star billing early in the credits, which roll over multiracial revolutionary arguments at the UCLA student union in a semi-documentary commune style reminiscent of Billy Jack but with a Godardian edge of disbelieving cynicism. The bands are all good: Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, Roscoe Holcomb singing "I wish I was a single girl again." I had this LP decades before seeing the film and the film doesn't do it justice, then again there is no justice in an Antonioni film.

Before meeting our cop killer hero, Daria pulls over at an obscure town to locate hippie guru James Patterson, who has been turning a peaceable desert terrain into a David Koresh-ish playground of burnt out cars --"he's gonna ruin a piece of American history," warns the grizzled cafe-owner. Kids throw rocks through the windows, echoing our hero's own rock tossing and hinting Antonioni is more than a little worried his free love generation is one boar's head on a stick away from Fliestown.

Gradually all the harshness and industrial "Red Desert"-style offenses -- red cans, black trailers and malevolently inexpressive hick faces-- lead to epiphany, freedom and "nothing's terrible anymore" ("far out") revelations which are then dissolved in the simple grace of a beautiful Jerry Garcia guitar solo and the sex/orgy scene to end all desert sex/orgy scenes, an ecstatic release into mellow gold after all that nerve-wracking industrial clatter. Daria's dress and costume changes in a quick montage and she looks like the ghost of an old settler; the interchange of actors hips us to the mythic ego dissolve of groovy love. They are no longer themselves but man and woman in the primal sea of masks and derivations; a long shot of the orgy resembles a Bosch painting or what the final scene in the Beyond would look like if Fulci had the same budget. It's Antonioni trying to be open-hearted even as he recognizes this new paradise is just the old inferno with a forced smile. The "nothing's terrible" mantra is spoken by Daria but then--even by her--forgotten and so revealed as an elitist vanity clique high. If nothing was terrible then the by-now very sandy hippie chick should bless and show love to the ugly tourists Antonioni satirizes. She also fails to show love to a cop who pulls up near her probably just to see if she's all right.



For Antonioni then, it's really a matter of (r)evolution rather than the acceptance Daria preaches (but doesn't practice); even the revolutionaries seem stuck on the hateful caterpillar trip. The butterflies awaken and are usually shot down by the sheriff within a few reels (this time one gets to literally soar in a stolen plane) during which they may or may not love a lifetime's worth. The wild destructive children of the wrecked car playground are just the end point of the revolutionary edge of butterfly, the sort for whom a lifetime of caterpillar misery is preferred to the deadly brevity of transformation. Cocoon phase is the long journey in the plane or on the car and the gradual shedding of inhibitions and clothes (but nothing is terrible - far out, yeah right). Drugs too, maybe, though Frechette doesn't turn on, just like his alter-ego Travis Bickle wouldn't and like Travis, we're never sure which of any of Frechette's exploits are real or vividly imagined.

(SPOILER ALERT) Sandwiched gloomily between the Woodstock idealism and the casual Romeo-Juliet murder sprees of the early 1970's, Zabriskie Point has no way to get attention except to blow up for real a zillion different ways for the notorious climax. While crazy Pink Floyd music builds to a thunderous scream we see books, tons of them, blowing up like beautiful sea anemones and octopi and fireworks all made of pages of print. It's an apocalyptic rejection of language, maybe, but Daria Halperin is just not in the same league as Monica Vitti and when she stares emptily off at this real or imagined spectacle we're not transfixed by her. The dew is off the lily. It's only later with Sissy Spacek and her glowing like beautiful golden wheat fields hair in Badlands (1973) that the transfixing spell of "hellion next door" beauty is restored and the modern artist as outlaw role play can sally forth. Malick knows better than to hold back tastefully on color saturation during a once in a lifetime natural sunlight-hair combination. Halperin's hair isn't even considered as a means of reflection and natural beauty.

If we too feel a little excluded from the party of Zabriskie Point its perhaps because Antonioni seems to be coming to terms with the realization he'll always be an exile, even in the post-post-modernist cultural landscape he's helped shape/destroy; he doesn't know what to say, only how to look at the items on your shelves, like an apartment party wallflower. The new world is for the young and tripped-out and he has no clue how sit around paradise playing games; all he can do is help blow up the old world, then just keep the camera rolling while he whispers like a proud parent to the corpse by his side: "That's my daughter up there!"