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?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why don't we Go ASK ALICE?

The reverberating mythic chord struck by Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are the grand signifier for the "girl you'll be a woman / soon"-style myth of sexual awakening and of course, dropping acid. Alice was a catch-all signifier, not just a woman or a girl but any and all cute blond chicks on acid. The "anonymously" published memoir "Go Ask Alice" became a bestseller in 1972, it's "true" story of a runaway who hooks up with angry drug dealers spawned a hit TV movie that my fellow children of the 1970's may dimly remember seeing either in or after school. All I remember is seeing it in 3rd or 4th grade and falling madly in love with the straight blond hair, the denim, the glazed eyes belying an intelligence and unconcern that could topple nations in its disregard for American cornball value systems. It was probably not the intended message of the screening, but I was hooked for life.

The story of the anonymous and supposedly true book--an alleged diary of a runaway girl who gets mixed up with the wrong kind of hippie boys--drew parallels to Carroll's Alice and was itself based on the Jefferson Airplane song from 1967 of the same name, with its memorable catch phrase "Remember / what the doormouse said / feed your head." Has there ever been a healthier moment of zeitgeist than that collective recognition of a universal myth in action?

The motif of a "little girl lost" winding her way--more or less sans parental guidance or protection--through a maze of ambiguous and sinister (usually male) creatures while under the effects of disorienting drugs (or even just the introduction of sex and alcohol) is one that reverberates the foundations of the human psyche, from Red Riding Hood to Clarice Starling to Lindsay Lohan. Alice is the perfect symbol of everything at once kind and cruel in feminine innocence, in a man she stirs a mix of protective urges and wolfish desire, generating enough internal conflict that you may be uncomfortable. The worst is, you sacrifice yourself to protect her, and she forgets your name two minutes later. She has no respect for patriarchal values and hierarchy. She might only wrinkle her nose in bemusement at watching a city fall or a man lose his head ("How curious!") but then the next minute cry over a dead rabbit in the fridge. No adult male can hope to compete with a cute bunny wunny. To a guy like me none of it made sense, but she made being obliterated by a single smile into something way cool. As W.C. Fields once said, "I was in a love with a beautiful blonde once dear, she drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for."

If the "mirror" to the (male) hero's journey into the underworld is the boy-to-man transition of the male psyche (and vice versa), the Alice iconography similarly is both a metaphor for the transition from child to adult and from accepted member of the social order to "outsider" and then back again, hopefully with some souvenir from the other world that will restore some much needed life to the stale society one left behind (i.e. we all seek the holy grail for our wounded fisher kings). But if no one wants to hear that "it's all about love, man! Stop the war, and just love each other" then one is left with a myth half-finished. Or they do like the message but end up commercializing the properties that exist through the looking glass. The Queen of Hearts is held for questioning, the Mad Hatter sent to Bellevue. The masses have been hypnotized by TV to not listen to wild-eyed blond girls when they rave about black holes and peace and universal love. Boys may trudge off to the woods and come back men with swords and gorgon heads in tow, but girls disappear into the void and sometimes--as in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (below)--are never seen again. Best to not encourage them.

The male heroes quest might involve bravado, swords and slaying of monsters, but the girl's journey requires more cunning and quietude. She must ensnare the male figures that wield swords to her will, not wield the sword herself. Thus she must beguile and entrap, the powers that she picks up along the way are often tied into accessorizing: jewelry, bags and shoes, such as the cursed Red Shoes, or the earrings in Valerie and her Week of Wonders (pictured at top). Her powers of allure are then displaced onto these fetish objects. Shoes in particular represent mobility, the phallus harnessed underfoot. She moves past you in a blur and suddenly you're empty. What did she take from your pockets in that split second? How come you are now so empty when all she did was smile wryly at you and continue on her way?

In the myths and folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and analyzed via a Jungian lens by writers such as Robert Bly, Maria Von Franz, and Joseph Campbell, the hero-boy on his long journey will often be met by princesses or maidens and given charms and curses: lockets, purity rings, tie-dyes, fruit, pills, magic armor, STDs, shrooms, money, keys, alcohol, friendship bracelets, sex, etc., that will protect and aid--or curse and bedevil--him on his quest. Seldom do these anima-based female characters proscribe a direct physical threat to our hero, the threat is in side-tracking their mission, an ensnarement from action into dolorous comfort. They reroute his phallic arc and castrate with their hot little dentatas. Odysseus wants to spend his Sunday practicing guitar and Circe coerces him into re-tiling the bathroom or taking her shopping. But the anima is always enigmatic, and in attempting to translate her strange edicts, the male hero will inevitably stumble. The woman's journey is much the same, except she doesn't have to ask "What do men want?" She knows, and if they get what they want, they'll never want it again.

The girl hero actually faces a very different impediment from the shadowy male ego of her unconscious mind, the animus. This creature is violent, overtaking her in dreams like a sex-crazed wolf or a flying bat-like vampire. This incubus (ala PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE ENTITY) cannot be fought or conquered, it must be incorporated, harnessed, employed and/or drugged into a coma and ultimately, forgiven and incorporated into the self. If the girl learns to refrain from fear and react towards the beast with kindness and wary but benevolent affection, she will earn a prince. If she fails to incorporate this force, she can become a masochistic "perennial" victim, ala Deneuve in Repulsion (above), the type who sees predators around every corner and end up alone for life, except maybe for 1-25 cats.

Many girls of course are molested, which is horrifying, but of course there are also unresolved animus situations in many an unmolested girl's psyche, girls who resist the terrifying advances of the shadowed animus and wind up in a state of perpetual siege. When the white rabbit crosses their trail, these girls adamantly refuse to follow it. To cover their fear and regret, they judge and decry loudly from their Oprah pulpit "Following White Rabbits down holes should be ILLEGAL!" The headlines rage:I was made to eat mushrooms by giant caterpillars," raves hysterical looking glass survivor! But there's no shaming your own inner wolf-man, honey. He will not stop clawing until you finally hug him, and love him even as he spiritually devours your little girl ego and leaves you blazing with crown chakra sunshine you never knew was always there, right below the black enamel of the falcon. You may wind up in the hospital from jumping off the roof thinking you can fly, or in jail for putting the baby in the microwave, but in the end, it beats shopping for another pair of shoes you don't need. When the red queen's off her meds, do you really want to cling to the logic and proportion, knowing as you do they're illusions? Go ask Alice if you want a woman's opinion. I think she'll know.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sinking like a Tar Pit Tapir: UNDER THE VOLCANO (1980)


"Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!" 

That's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of John Huston's adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-8 pages into) about the last day in the life of a British consul in Mexico in the 1930s. After a late night screening on my blurry VHS dupe, we'd talk for days in Albert Finney's eloquent slur, digging that our mirth was rooted in violently escalating alcoholism, a black humor joke where we too were the punch line. And we wouldn't have it any other way, baby, neither would Albert Finney, who regularly reaches out for the shimmering Jacquelyn Bisset as his ex-wife who comes back from Europe wanting another chance, like she's a mirage of longing (like Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP), and then shrugging her off like the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint before resuming his wide-eyed stare into the awful abyss.

His brother Hugh ( has been taking care of Finney in his darkest hours, giving him strychnine to taper off with and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates, but he's also very creepy and laden with suspicious agendas, ala Bruce Dern from THE TRIP (if Dern was after Strasberg instead of Fonda). There's no acid in the film (though surely that would be good to "shober up with" as well) but I assure you that being drunk for days on end will get you pretty much to the same place (even if it kills you faster) and this movie has the same ability to transcend the life/death dichotomy and point towards the terrifying ambiguity of the real.

Finney's slur is much more decipherable under some sort of influence, but there's little that can help with Huston's constant visual metaphor as he cuts from El Dia de la Muerte skeletons to Finney's "skull eye socket" sunglasses and white tuxedo. The comparison never quite gels, and it seems to drive Huston crazy (it's because Finney's not thin enough, perhaps). But that's the problem: on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD these allusions are glaringly obvious, the scream subtlety, if you will. On the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded) the tracking was bad and the image blurred to an extent that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be always dissolving into wormy abstraction - a perfect symbol for the characters' own unstoppable deterioration.

The Criterion DVD restores the film's sense of period piece over-craftsmanship, making every scene packed with prettiness, no matter who's throwing up, showing that even the great John Huston can make the mistake of assuming that just by filling a drunkalog with polished old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers in tuxedos the story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." The video cover (pictured at left) hints that Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) is the wound for which booze is the cure, but really the whole film is a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing, which makes sense considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course. Now that boy could take a drink or two!

But there's some moments when things really get properly weird, like the entrance of a dwarf whoremaster (played by a Mexican actor named Rene Ruiz (I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST); or Finney's monologue about halfway through, when staring off into the abyss as Bisset and his younger brother Hugh (with whom she had an affair -which led to the beginning of his bender) try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help.
Geoffrey, what posseses you?" Bisset asks. "Sobriety, I'm afraid," he answers. "I must drink desperately to regain my balance."

Hell yeah!

I think in the same scene he also leans back and says, "Hell.... is my natural.... habitat!" A perfect battle cry for those of us for whom booze, drugs, and the inability or unwillingness to stop using them, had led to spiritual, mental, and physical dead ends. Perhaps the problem in the end is that the story cries out for a more poetic or abstract approach, something they might do today with CGI to create ever so slightly shifting hallucinations, or failing that, to cast an actor we perhaps love more than we do Finney, like say Richard Burton, who had to tell us he "was at the end of his rope" in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, but we never really believed it, or the way Dean Martin deals with his shakes in RIO BRAVO or Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND -- all three actors were notorious drinkers who certainly knew the rough issues they depicted, but they never really seemed to sink deep into the depths. Most actors are far too vain for that -- no matter how low their character gets they know we really want to see them still be charismatic stars; they figure we can use our imagination to carry their character the rest of the way --and they're right. But Finney doesn't go that route. With his weird wavy hair and puffy pink froggish face, he looks like a drunk-- blushing and bloated on too many empty booze calories. In fact the only other actor of his caliber who really opened himself up like a can of prickly pears and dumped his guts all over the floor wouldn't even get the part for another 17 or so years, by that of course I mean Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. By then, though, even I had the shakes, had become less a Burton and more a Finney, and though I loved them both at the time, and drank along, now that I'm sober I can't watch either one without an AA big book handy and a finger on the remote to flip past the grim, terrifying... I AM BLACKSTONE THE PIRATE DO YOU HE----BLACKSTONE!!!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Great Acid Movies #4: The TRIP (1967)


Boy meets boy meets pill meets Death!

The first boy in the above bizarre and inaccurate tag line is a disillusioned TV commercial director (Peter Fonda) in the midst of a divorce from a hot girl in a pink coat (Susan Strasberg). The boy he meets, the "guide" played by Bruce Dern, arranges the meeting with pill, for Fonda's first lysergic play date, bringing him to dealer Dennis Hopper's hippie pad to score ("Let's make it upstairs, man") and then up to Dern's place high in the Hollywood hills, which has been 'proofed' and bedecked with odd toys, and a book ofAllen Ginsberg poetry, so Fonda can drop and safely frolic. But Dern ends up hovering over poor Fonda, creeping him the fuck out. As Michael Weldon wrote "Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?"



Fonda then hallucinates a couple making love under a blanket of patterned light, 'dies' symbolically in a Big Sur cave stocked with leftover props from Corman's Poe films (and a dwarf, of course), tips out on an orange ("the energy is dripping all over my hand, man!") all while Dern tries to get him to touch his fingers.

Fonda eventually escapes Dern's clutches and the film picks up the pace; his nocturnal wanderings as he makes it down to the Strip are another psychedelic highlight - including breaking into a neighbor's house to watch TV, and freaking out a girl at the laundromat, all while (he imagines?) the cops are after him. Finally he makes it back to Hopper's pad and the hot blonde who came onto him whilst there.

Peter Fonda's bug-eyed, spot-on performance as the tripper has some great moments. My pal Lucy's dad, Michael Blodgett (Lance in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) appears during one of Fonda's guilty/jealous hallucinations in bed with his wife Susan Strasberg. Fonda watches them, horrified but ambivalent at the same time. Jack Nicholson did the script, and ain't no doubt he did his research!


In his big LSD peak moment, Fonda hallucinates his way into a plastic fantastic merry-go-round set filled with the carnival props leftover from Corman's films Carnival Rock and X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (reviewed here); Hopper and the dwarf preside over things and they all watch clips from Fonda's advertising reel so that Fonda can realize he's guilty... guilty...of poisoning the well of myth with his bland imagery. "Guilty... guilty," Fonda keeps saying. "Yeah, but don't wallow in it," Hopper chides, "because it's weak and pathetic!"



Susan Strasberg is only around in little bits here and there as the wife Fonda's about to divorce, but she's a maze of kittenish yearning and aching feminine sincerity and she makes you feel guilty and sad that you prefer LSD and painted go-go dancers to her simple charms. Anyone who ever broke a heart will feel Fonda's pangs and LSD really does amp up that feeling of you can't go home again, and you want to reach out to her --you can feel the sexual yearning and pink vibrations of nurturing maternal warmth emanating out at you in waves that turn your leg muscles to jelly.



And then there's all those hot, zonke- out love-vibing chicks, especially Salli Sachse as Glenn, a free-love far-out kitten who wanted originally to hang with Fonda back at the start of the film (it all occurs over the course of an afternoon and night) because she loves being around the energy of acid first-timers. She finds him at a bar and takes him home and when he mentions the police are looking for him she dismisses it, "I don't believe in police!" Hey far out, Glennn. Far out!


 So it's free love central, but it's not free love in some grimy Ratzo Rizzo / Herschell Gordon Lewis way; it's free love in a cool pretty Fonda hipster next-stop EASY RIDER way, with serious acting and a real sense of drugged interconnectivity. If you were tall, young, successful, good-looking and free, paisley LA was yours. With her iron-blonde hair and nice car she whisks Fonda away to her swanky pad to cap off a perfect evening with some fading light-show sex, all set, unbearably, to stock recording-ish New Orleans jazz.

Yeah the music is super lame, from the oddly named "American Music Band." Some songs sound like something Corman fished out of the trash at a high school pep rally. It's the sort of thing Otto Preminger might put in SKIDOO. The absolute worst musical moment is that Dixieland jazz when Fonda's coming down, the kind of stuff Kevin Spacey might play to torture prisoners in THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. I love Dixieland jazz, don't get me wrong, but not when it's so generic. My guess is Corman grabbed it from a royalty-free sound library where it was used as the score for Harold Loyd silents that used to be on TV with 'BOinggg!'-style sound effects added.


There's also some other dull stretches of (silent, scored the AMB) SEVENTH SEAL-y footage which Dennis Hopper apparently shot on weekends out at Big Sur with Peter Fonda, a horse, and some props left over from THE RAVEN. They enact Fonda's trips of dying and being reborn in a coffin in a cave in a haze of medieval costumery... which would be fine if the music was interesting, like Pink Floyd or "Dark Star" or something... but not roller rink organ and kazoos. I mean it's 'psychedelic' but there's a thick, wavy line between a band that takes the ingredients of the jug band and makes something truly awesome like Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" and American Music Band's 'trippy' SF sound.

The peak moment for me, in ALL FILM, is when the spooked Fonda hides in an all-night automated laundry and starts opening all the washers, as if he feels they need to breathe. Barbara Mouris, in curlers, is reading a magazine and waiting for her dryer to finish. She has been watching him and once he notices her he starts slowly closing the lids in fear, like he's trying to hide the secrets inside from her prying eyes. They start talking ("Let's, you know, really try and connect") but then Fonda sees a prettier girl trapped in her dryer and tries to free her, freaking out Barbara so she yells for help, which sends him on the run again.

It's telling that Bruce Dern never actually took acid before or after this film, and in the talking head interviews that accompany THE TRIP on DVD he alone seems really out of it, kind of unfocused and cranky, as be badmouths psychedelics. One day, not far from now, cooler heads in medicine will discover just how important a good acid trip is for preventing Alzheimers and countless other maladies and problems but back then it was considered a big risk and Dern bowed out because he was marathon runner. But considering the futility of living for longevity as opposed to the brief sprint to the flaming finish line of lysergic glory, especially in the show business, I would say he should have gone for it. Those who did are still going strong--coherence wise--and he's, quite frankly, a mess (at least in the documentary).

See, what the anti-drug ads don't tell you is that contempt prior to investigation is easy (with eyes closed). It takes guts to say yes and open up to the unknown. In the end no artist should abandon the pursuit of knowledge, the discovery of the depths of self, the furthering of craft in favor of mere longevity and health. Anything is worth the risk, for, as John Lennon sang, "all I can tell you is, it's all / show / biz."And if you believe that old lie about it mutating your genes, then you probably believe we won Vietnam.

See also my 2003 Popmatters review of the double feature with Psych-Out


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great Acid Cinema 13: PSYCH-OUT (1968)


This non-Corman (better than THE TRIP!) 1968 AIP classic has awesome documentary footage of the Haight-Asbury scene while it was at its zenith, with shocked squares rubbernecking by inside tour buses like they're driving through a African safari preserve. As for the characters on the street and in the coffee houses, they're pretty damn authentic at least as (sometimes) written and clothed and (sometimes) acted; if my own memories of playing in psychedelic rock band are correct, which is doubtful, even if we jammed in the late 80s, we played this music, and worshipped the films and music of the Hashbury scene like it was our own bountiful bonkers Bethlehem (i.e. we were Deadheads). For me, more than anyone else in 'my tribe,' this movie captured our dynamics to a perfect tee, to the point it was almost scary.

There's the Dean Stockwell (top) pseudo-shaman (that was totally me), carrying STP-laced fruit punch around like its just another drink and arguing with the band's smarmy lead singer and guitarist, Jack Nicholson (that was Dave), while simultaneously play-stealing his girl (that was Elizabeth); and her and I becoming partners in crime, smoking Dave's weed and talking about how annoying he could be while rummaging his drawers in search of secret stashes  that's just for starters, I could go down matching the cast list with my photo album but you probably would just skip over it. (Or go here), but! Ask yourself why the similarity, only one reason - acid makes you tarot-myth tribal, it assigns you a role in your group - the clown, the king, the shaman/wizard, princess, Morganna, Lancelot, it's all there waiting to play out amongst your friends; it's in your DNA... the man, the system, authority can't burn that out of you, but you can't even reach it without a little boost from our machine elf friends behind the curtain, so trip them well!


Point is: PSYCH-OUT strikes a rare and right note of genuine people engaging in cautious lysergic idealism, like HAIR: the psychedelic love bead and budding branch pull focus magic of Lazlo Kovacs making deaf mute tourist Susan Strasberg into a love child overnight, and we're contact high and beside her all the way. But then the film also shows the dirty morning after, when one tin soldier rides away without doing his share of the dishes, and instead of trying to pick the lice off himself, just names them.

The sad part is that once post-Vietnam disillusionment with the system got rid of patriotism, countercultural "freedom" became the ad hoc refuge of a scoundrel, and then the CHUDS came--grabbing girls and dragging them into alleys yelling "gimme some a dat free love I done read about!"--and you may as well move to Los Angeles. At the end, when Stockwell is dying he says "I hope this next trip is a good one!" It was, man it was WOODSTOCK, And it wasn't man, it was GIMME SHELTER, and yet we rode on, man, until the times they are a changing back. Now take him away for re-grooving!



Lastly, the film is essential for truly nailing the psychedelic experience, which can be beautiful and creativity-fueling one day, and a skin-crawling literalized nightmare the next. It's very rare and precious to have such an even-keeled look at the psychedelic age, neither as blissful as Woodstock or as negative as Altamont. To me it sums itself up perfectly: the scene when a STP-addled Warren is found "freaking out in the gallery" and hallucinates all his friends are undead Vietnam vets. They advance towards him, trying to get him to cool it and put down the power saw. And it's not long before he's trying to cut off his own hand--because for the first time, maybe ever, he sees it as it truly is, a decaying, half-blown away hallucination.

It's funny because it's terrifying.

In short, this film is the shit - a personal favorite. Alas, the MGM DVD seems to missing a reel, though maybe i was, you know, out of it. I would love to do a 'head's cut' one day and fix up some of the hallucinations (to add a giant close-up of that burning tin of Susan Strasberg's stuff as a child, which her evil mom threw in the furnace --and which led to her psychological deafness -- a condition which it's also implied but not really that she can now hear again after this mind-shredding return to the ground zero of her individuating trauma. Or to have her look in the mirror and see her face melting to reveal her taunting evil mother, that kind of shit - would have been awesome. But what we got, it's still pretty fucking great. And no squares man, at least not outside the bus.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MADE IN USA: Someone left a Maoist in the Rain

AKA: BITCHES OF '66
"We were in a political movie, which means Walt Disney with blood."

It's exciting times for Godard lovers as two of his 1966 films: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in the USA make their way to the few remaining stores next week. Set in "Year Zero" at some Alphaville-esque locale called "Atlantic City," (apparently Suburban France), Made in USA is a great little road marker connecting the dots of Godard's earlier and later pop cinematic narrative deconstructions like Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and First Name: Carmen (1983), the stuff before and after his anti-entertainment unionist phase, providing surrealist wordplay, collage, satire, intellectual critique of the right/left dichotomy, a eulogy for countercultural idealism almost before it starts (May '68 was still a couple years off), and a last waltz for his crumbling marriage to the leading lady, the heavenly Anna Karina (she looks weary, as if she's been screaming at him between takes).

If you've ever basked in the primary pop glow of Pierrot Le Fou and wished Godard had made a whole slew of movies in widescreen color with Karina, guns and anti-American sloganeering, then Made in USA is your film. It delivers the goods while showing you just how much less good such goods are a second time. Made just one year after Fou, it seems as if it's the end of a twenty year run of sequels. Karina's femme fatale is still beautiful but less fresh, less gaminesque. There's no trickster male of Jean Paul Belmondo's manly charisma to balance her star wattage and sex appeal (Jean Pierre-Leaud tries hard to be manic, and maybe that's the problem) and so she has only the mirror to work with. In this noirscape of bright primary colors Paula Nelson (Karina) is all alone with a sea of bit players, trying to find the one guy she liked from earlier films, a raving commie intellectual believed dead, named Richard P. Though hard to find, we get to hear him ranting away in the form of shrill tape recordings (of Godard reading Maoist obtuse ideology with the terseness of Milenay and pomp of Renfraux).

Paula is a possible spy for either side of the left/right divide but her true motives for wanting to find Richard P. remain unclear; we assume he's an on-again/off-again boyfriend and/or symbol for Godard's own lost idealism, a Maoist Rosebud. As she hunts this invisible, presumed murdered communist through Raoul Coutard's impressionistic landscape (at one point Karina name checks Monet while standing in the foreground of a backyard full of beautiful trees out of focus behind her -- was Impressionism a symptom of weak eyesight?) we get the notion that this is just one of those films that masters make when they're off their a-game, like Dial M for Murder or Testament of Orpheus.

I don't mean to disrespect it, because many a master's b-game is still fascinating and worship-worthy, maybe even more so than their A game (I like Made in USA much more than the dreary industrial landscape of 2 or 3 Things, which most critics consider superior) so long as they include deconstruction of B gameishness into the film itself, as in riding right along with audience expectations and observations, tweaking or thwarting them at every turn (without turning them off) and yet delivering what is promised in such a way that our own desire for it is called into question.

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 Faithfull. 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.

No wonder in the next scene Karina visits a health spa beauty parlor, where-- fittingly--any possibility for tranquility amidst the clients is destroyed by shrill announcements over a crackly PA system. When she tells the resident doctor Ludwig during her interrogation to stop "dicking around," you feel her weary rage, that she's indirectly talking to Godard, wishing he'd just write a script and stick to it so she could go home on time and put her feet up. She must have been full sick of his 'dicking around' by then, of waiting around on a hot set for his little direction notes, film after film. It shows. Only when she gets to be mean does she light up with the synthesis of truth and illusion.

The counterculture was beginning to catch fire in 1966, and Faithfull still looks like she was recently conjured out of a magic cloud of smoke, or pulled out of a junior high school gym class before she bruised her complexion in dodgeball, but Godard and Karina were already burning out on decadence and freedom. Even if that's not true, it shows. This isn't complaint, just observation, since Godard naturally ties in this weariness to the film itself, the way for example, Tippi Hedren's bitchiness about working with an obsessive like Hitchcock two films in a row may have led to the audience-alienating (but great!) outbursts of castrating rage in MARNIE.

What saves MADE from being just a misfire, in the end, is the way Godard accommodates his ingenue's hostility by linking it to the shocking effect of watching people get casually and suddenly shot--or seduced--without all the usual booming orchestral music of Hollywood that gives each romance or death such magnified resonance. MADE teaches us that in real life people don't have to brandish their gun and make speeches before firing- it can be so random and sudden that you never know what hit you. During a philosophical discussion with a suspect, for example, she asks, "Would you prefer a long slow old age death or a short exciting death in the moment?" and when he answers the latter, she shoots him on the spot. No fanfare, no warning. Crack!

In addition to the violence, there's some welcome cultural intolerance: When Paula meets a guy who does an impersonation of a typical American--a lobotomized hick Jerry Lewis--Karina ups the ante by making slanty eyes to indicate it's "all Chinese to her." In addition the usual disruptions appear: random silences, the roar of passing planes or honking cars, and many stabs of Ludwig Van's 5th keep interrupting the dialogue, making full grasp of the plot impossible, though oblique interview sequences help, as do peculiar conversations overhead in front of comic book splashes, movie stills and mentions of streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht, and of course a pinball machine, though every bell and ping seems to hurt Karina's hangover.

More than most of the films that would follow in Godard's cannon, MADE actually struggles to maintain just enough plot to flirt with your attention span, luring you close enough to the amniotic wall between alienation and narrative immersion that you feel like your whole movie-going life is flashing before your eyes, as in the slim gap between watching a film and reading its back cover synopsis at the video store. Godard's idea of a mystery film is to have a character read Dashiell Hammett aloud in front of a gas station, but for MADE, though the characters may read a bit, they at least still shoot each other.

The shooting is key, since it fits the anti-American ruthless amorality on display (i.e. our production code wherein femme fatales must never go unpunished). Paula is a lethal combination of unpunished femme fatale and Chandleresque gumshoe. Her blase attitude towards being arrested and/or murdering people in cold blood is charming and alienating at the same time. Dario Argento could have spun her into three separate characters, but Godard is too political to divide a fractured psyche for the purpose of mere suspense; even the climactic showdowns are filtered through rhetoric and suffused with ennui, as when Paula--almost apologetic for the film's inertness--remarks:
We live in a part of the universe that's already old, nothing much happens, while elsewhere new galaxies are exploding into action.
A fatal mistake of many lesser filmmakers is the idea that mid-career crises make good cinema. You just tie a film up with past tricks and successful ideas like a greatest hits collection, it wont work on either front, unless you keep the energy high (as in Scorsese's Casino, which moves too fast and vicious to let you realize it's not that great). Godard is too frenetic and hip to let the acres of sadness between Karina and himself sink the movie's energy level, so he focuses his rage on Madison Avenue, which has dared to co-opt Brechtian "full disclosure" (recuperation!) and metatextual self-mockery. Godard wants Brechtian cut-up techniques to be sole domain of the French Communist Party, but Madison Avenue wants to use Godard's methods so they can appear to enjoy their own intellectual self-loathing. For example, if Godard says "Down with Kelloggs!" then Kelloggs' says "Godard says 'down with delicious Kelloggs!'" to which Godard can only get redder in face and party, trying to end the game by saying "Down with advertising that co-opts the tactics of Debord and detournement, to infinity squared!


To a Brechtian post-modernist who loves quotations as much as Godard does, this is the ultimate defeat: you can't critique a power system that incorporates its own critique--Todd McGowan wrote about this in his Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment:
The insight into the functioning of power... has the effect of cementing power's hold over us rather than relaxing it. It does this by cutting off all lines of critique prior to their articulation. (54)
In the end, none of it matters, because we have Anna Karina. Young and gorgeous, she's preserved for all time in vibrant, colorful dresses against the same color scheme of Pierrot Le Fou, which is probably the movie to see first if you're new to the game. After Made in the USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (shot at the same time, with Godard originally wanting to show them in alternating reels), Godard would begin his descent into nihilistic ranting (Weekend) and post-modern Commie pedagogy (La Chinoise, Tout Va Bien). Still witty, but sullen and sanctimonious as well, enraged that his rage hasn't made a discernible difference. His became for awhile a fate that I've watched subsume many a Cultural Studies professor who gets mad at contemporary culture the way an impatient gardener might get mad at a reticent flower.

Luckily, old Godard got his Baudrillard-esque groove back as a mid-life crisis 80s reward, finding a vein of poetry deep under absurdity's skin and he's been popping it ever since. And even now, 40 years later, Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull are paragons of cool, still appearing regularly on TV and in movies, acting and singing with their beautifully smoke-ravaged voices. In an era when our own president is harassed by the media for occasionally having a cigarette, these two ladies are reminders that you can all just take a fucking walk / and I guess that I just don't know / and I guess that you've come a long way... baby.

Friday, July 10, 2009

So close to Heaven..: MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952)


Spider women, Poverty Row little person mainstay Angelo Rossitto, Ed Wood regular Dolores Fuller, Jackie 'Uncle Fester' Coogan: add them together with random disregard for audience sanity and whadda you got? The Mesa of Lost Women! A film by the amazing Ron Ormond, whose tentacles, the Astounding B-Monster notes: "tap into everything from 'adult' sex-dramas, like Please Don't Touch Me, to a string of Lash LaRue westerns released by PRC in the late forties," I've seen Mesa millions of times and don't remember a single thing about it, except that it rocks, like the flat-topped tower of stone from which it gets its name. I forget the writer, but someone wrote of the Rolling Stones' 1972 album, Exile on Main Street: "It kicks ass though it can barely stand." Mesa of the Lost Women is like that: it can't walk, though it has eight legs; it's got no bite, yet oozes tasty venom.

The Image DVD is apparently sourced from the film's only surviving source print, laden with aesthetically pleasing emulsion damage, jarring "missing scene" scotch tape splices, jumps and scratches at a level of near-Brakhage abstraction. Am I giving too much credit to a film with a score consisting of the same few seconds of Spanish guitar and dissonant piano chords, looped over and over? No.

That crazy Godardian stop-start score is just perfect, for it mirrors the film. The piano parts were seemingly recorded in a different era from the guitar, and spliced in with enough random atonal frisson to make even John Cage wince in agony. The "music" is so pervasive, so repetitive, and so grating, it becomes good enough that Ed Wood re-used it for Jail Bait. Is Mesa bad-brilliant or just bad? Mesa of Lost Women needs no justification! C'est un meisterwerke!

The story begins with a couple found wandering in the scorching El Muerte desert. A "we dont need no stinkin' badges"-style Mexican stereotype brings them into police headquarters where they relate a tragic saga that begins, oddly enough, with the arrival of Dr. Leland (Hammon Stevens)--alone and unwitnessed by said couple--at the mesa of the mysterious Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan), though how they could describe those scenes is a mystery. Now right there you're in heaven not just because Coogan was in The Addams Family, but because he was the "H" dealer in High School Confidential.



Years or days later, Dr. Leland escapes the Mexican insane asylum he's been residing at, and gets a very clean drink at a local cantina where a spider woman named Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) does the "Tarantella" for agog patrons. Leland shoots her, interrupting her performance and leaving the audience aghast --though no one makes a move to help her, and she dies lonely and forlorn while actors stand around and the director presumably sways drunkenly in a corner, trying to remember if it's a rehearsal or they're really shooting.

Fudd/Leland
Why is Leland hostile to black-haired beauties with gigantic finger nails? Was he mad that the film, for a few brief minutes, was actually genuinely fascinating, thanks to Aranya's undulations? What's this weird guy's deal? Michael Weldon calls him "a lobotomized scientist doing a weird Elmer Fudd impersonation." It's not really a Fudd impersonation, but having read and re-read the review many times as a kid before actually seeing the film, it's tough to think of Leland any other way.

Fudd/Leland also becomes the dispassionate existential core of the film, enunciating his words in such a bizarre way the dancing dwarf in Twin Peaks would probably take one look at him and shrug. One mis-accented Leland quote which always pops into my head at odd moments, is: "Now we will all fly!" He says this while hijacking Allan Nixon's plane, which comes replete with bored millionaire, trophy wife, Asian houseboy, and sanitarium worker George (George Barrows), who runs around making sure no one tries to take the gun from "dangerous maniac" even though they have plenty of easy opportunities.

While in the air, Leland's eerily vacant grin never waivers as he looks at the clouds and notes "So beautiful... so close to heav... en." Once crash landed on the mesa, the gang all have a stiff drink (which when you're drinking alone while watching is a great cheery moment), then they wait around by the fire, exploring strange screams in the darkness, one at a time so they can get killed off by mismatched cutaway shots of leering little people, a giant leaping tarantula, and blank-eyed beauties culled from the dustiest of Hollywood casting offices. Every time someone else dies, the survivors return to the fire and drink some more. Each time it is a great cheery moment to be drunk and watching this alone at five AM.  The dwindling survivors wish they had some food, and Leland seems to think he's still at the hospital with a tray of dinner due to arrive any time soon:

"George will bring it. (wearily
He always does."


One of the finger-nailed beauties on the mesa is allegedly Ed Wood girl Dolores Fuller though I can never find her. George Barrows is played by the same heroic guy who trudged all over Bronson canyon in a weighty gorilla suit and diving helmet for Robot Monster, made the same year! What a man. Lyle Talbot is even on hand as the doctor who tends the surviving couple and narrates. See it at least four times in one evening for proper effect, alternating with Spider Baby and Dr. Strangelove. Now we will all fly!

Read my NIGHT OF THE GHOULS piece on Bright Lights
and the Cinema Styles Ed Wood roster here

Thursday, July 09, 2009

"Yes! I am Here!" DEMENTIA: DAUGHTER OF HORROR

It's not by Ed Wood, but John Parker's 1955 surrealist grade Z nightmare, DEMENTIA (AKA DAUGHTER OF HORROR), is full of poverty row trimmings, with Ed's same weird love for all the seedier elements of late 1950s life as a closeted schizophrenic beatnik prostitute. It's like a cross-dress between the crazy dream scenes in GLEN OR GLENDA and Polanski if he was a crackhead and making REPULSION in a dingy basement with a young Mercedes McCambridge instead of Catherine Deneuve.

John Parker's only film (his parents owned a few theaters in Oregon, and mom gave him most of the money - I wonder what she felt about the result? Probably a lot like my mom re: this blog), if it had made it to Cannes or Greenwich Village, it might have been a hit, but shown to a bunch of linear-narrative-expecting 1955 folks on some triple feature horror bill, it must have sent them yawning and off to the snack bar or home. The film's like a drier, slower Ed Wood, someone for whom the grotesque poverty row-style fantasma on display is genuinely "their cup of tea" and not just what jaded producers think will sell drive-in tickets.

Not a word of dialogue is spoken as we follow a woman known only as 'The Gamin' (Adrienne Barrett) on her midnight sojourn through a desolate urban landscape to do what? Turn tricks? Seek kicks? She encounters a drunk, a sadistic cop, and a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who sells her a paper, all in the first few agonizingly slow minutes. Later a masked figure leads her to where her dead parents are boozing it up in a graveyard, and in between she is led around to various seedy bars by a rich fat guy with a cigar (Bruno Ve Sota).

The original version was stopped in its tracks via two years of censor battles and was barely released. Later it was picked up by Exploitation Pictures and given a voice-over and a new name, DAUGHTER OF HORROR. Purists rant, but the narrated version is plenty awesome, with heavy breathing lines (supposedly by Ed McMahon) like: "Come with me to the haunted, half-lit night of the insane... for this is a place where there is no love, or hope and the pulsing, throbbing world of the insane mind, where only nightmares are real... nightmares of the daughter of horror!"

If it is Ed McMahon it sounds nothing like him, but who cares? Whomever he is, he enunciates every word as if he's getting off on his first hit of reefer while having his toes cut off. It's with the narrated version that the true Ed Woodiness comes roaring out, thanks to Criswell-esque lines like this: "Yes! I am here.. the demon who possesses your soul. Wait a bit... I'm coming for you. I have so much to show you, so much that you are afraid to see." You keep wanting him to add: "Beware of the dragon that sits on your doorstep! He eats little boys! Puppy dog tails and big... fat... snails!" Each word is emphasized and dragged on, like the film itself, struggling to stretch a short film into a feature length and only getting as far as around 57 minutes. Perfect for an all-night horror film fest, such as the one visited by the unwitting denizens of Anytown USA in the BLOB in 1958.

Connecting the film with Roger Corman is the presence of Bruno Ve Sota -- he plays a fat capitalist with a cigar who lures our gamin up to his penthouse, where a bartender has been waiting all this time upstairs to serve them. She looks at Ve Sota, quizzically. What is she expecting? Certainly not for him to jump on the piano and start banging out some classical jazz. He's certainly not expecting her to... but wait, I mustn't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the usual "innocent girl down the rabbit hole" stuff (males leering and groping, getting drunk and slapping taunting bitches in furs, etc.) is countermanded by the gamin's own sadism. When a cop beats a drunk who was harassing her to a pulp, she just stands there and laughs delightedly.

The score is great with George Antheil's weird orchestral booziness and the Yma Sumac-style upper register wordless eerie whooping of a theremin welded to Marni Nixon. When our lesbian gamin outlaw hides out from the cops in a dingy basement jazz club, she ends up literally throwing on a cocktail dress and singing with gone-daddy jazz combo Shorty Rogers and His Giants, until her paranoia gets too deep. It's pure Wood to watch her continually open her mouth and then quickly close it while on stage, trying to lip sync to Marni Nixon's wordless vocal noises and stopping when she realizes Nixon's voice isn't coming where she thought it was. Meanwhile sleazy dudes grope drunken party girls and lonely old guys with five o clock shadow drink up and look sad and repulsive for the camera. Shorty Rogers and his Giants take up half the basement; the drummer bugs his eyes and makes goofy faces. The cops shove a dead man's head through the basement window bars, so he can dig the sounds. Everybody's happy and a creepy classic is born... or is it? Do you fear the demon with... the daughter of horror?

And the best part is, you can see it in its entirety, for free, on the web right now: Just click here

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Patron Saint of UHF

(Part of the Ed Wood Blogathon). Like many of the older Ed Wood fans out there, I first came to him via those weird circular UHF antennae that existed long before cable and VHS. Back then you had to tune in the UHF channels -- local channels that showed the news, the local TV shows, and lots and lots of great old black and white horror movies -- like you would a radio station. Sometimes the picture was bad, sometimes it was worse, and standing there twisting tin foil around to connect the antennae to the your leg for example, was not uncommon, especially during bad weather.

Many of the horror films they showed regularly were really boring, especially if you were too young to understand 90% of the plot. Many directors for poverty row were drunks and lazy asses, like William "One Shot" Beaudine, so most of the time they just had a newspaper reporter smirking while they tried to keep him in focus. If you were lucky, maybe there'd be a gorilla suit or a guy in a mask towards the end. There was a film they always showed called The Invisible Ghost. The trick title's no lie: ain't no ghost, just Bela waiting until people fall asleep and then killing them by waving his coat over their heads. It's torturous to see that sort of thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon when you should be out playing. Before you learn there's no ghost you have long commercial breaks to wait through and you hold on thinking a monster's got to show up eventually, but one never does... and then dad comes home and flips it to golf.

Ed Wood wasn't like that. He was the bright shining light amidst all that sadness, the patron saint of UHF, cramming enough monsters in every film to rocket any five year-old straight into monster heaven. That was the 1970's, though... and once Wood made it to digital, and we grew up, then what?

In the forgiving fuzziness of bad receptions, the strings holding the UFOs in Plan Nine are invisible; you can't see the folds in the black cloth that constitutes the graveyard turf. In the clarity of DVD, however, Wood's threadbare aesthetic enters a whole new realm of sadness, beyond the bleak heartache of The Invisble Ghost and into some shit so Brechtian even Brecht would cry to see it. When you can see every brush stroke on the painted rocks walling Lugosi's laboratory in Bride of the Monster, then you have seen too much, not unlike the witnesses at the real-life Plan Nine of Roswell 1947. It's the bad movie lover equivalent of going into a black hole.

It didn't matter that it looked fake. When you're a kid in the 1970s, and CGI is still a few decades off, you don't care that things aren't realistic, you don't even know what real is, unless you mean the bugs you're looking for in the dirt under the porch. If you can have hours of fun with a few army men and a rubber alligator in your backyard, you don't care if the saucers on TV are hubcaps. What you care about is that you have Dracula, zombies, a hot chick vampire AND flying saucers and aliens all in one movie. With Bela and Tor Johnson together, for example, you didn't even need a giant octopus, that's why Ed Wood was so awesome -- you got one anyway. PRC and Monogram sure as hell weren't about to sneak into some other studio's prop department and steal an octopus, not when they felt they could get away with Lugosi and an overcoat.

Like all the other horror films in UHF rotation, Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster were shown usually on early weekend mornings, while you were still supposed to be in bed. Nothing was better than getting up before everyone else on a 70's Saturday morning and finding Plan Nine from Outer Space waiting for you, hours before the cartoons began. With the combined fuzziness of the picture and your still half-asleep mind, it was literally a weird kid's dream come true.

In fourth grade, I remember running home to get a baseball glove on a sunny, lovely fall afternoon and noticing BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was on. One look at those crazy tentacles and suddenly I had to stop and stay, ignoring my friend's angry calls and the pull of the sunshine. In that key moment, the dark path towards this blog was begun. When I saw Nightmare of Ecstasy on the shelves randomly at a bookstore in New Hope, PA, around 1991, I thought I had died and gone to sweet velvet curtained hell. No one was really celebrating him much at the time. Tim Burton must have felt the same way, because that book became the basis for the movie. I remember clenching my flask on a dim routine Saturday matinee of Ed Wood, and when the crowd cheered as Bela tossed the bottle and jumped boldly atop the lifeless rubber octopus, the whole audience broke into applause. I cried. My basement hero had made it to the top of the tower. Say what you will about his later years penchant for alcoholism and pornography, Ed Wood was a king among men, his strange stories real and true. He stuck to his weird guns and now he's immortal. And don't even doubt that he's an American hero. Landing at D-Day is one thing, but doing it in ladies underwear, now that's guts! Sometimes guts is enough. And liquor.

(Read my Christmas 2008 celebration of Plan Nine here)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

RIP, Angel Baby...

In all the anguish and rush of celebrity obits of late, it's Farrah who goes under-celebrated. Karl Malden is gone but it was certainly his time; Michael Jackson is gone and perhaps he is happier now that the spotlight is finally out of his eyes. For me, Farrah Fawcett's departure is the true tragedy of the last few weeks.

She was a genuinely mythic goddess, ruling in the final decade where goddesses still commanded archetypal mystique, before videotapes made the remoteness required for such ascendancy completely impossible--the 1970s. You might even say she was the 1970s.

I remember buying her poster when it first showed up at 7-11. It was one of the first posters ever. BUT it scared the shit out of me. Never mind that nipple, take a look at her deranged eyes and anguished smile, like Marlene Dietrich after 30 takes of the same scene with Sternberg (I'm so traumatized I can't even show the poster ). I liked her on Charlie's Angels, as Jill Munroe her fearlessness and athletic prowess made her much more than a pretty face and agile mind. Where angels feared to tread, Farrah charged in. She even scuttled her contract with Aaron Spelling to go the feature film route, where she promptly bombed and fell out of favor, like David Caruso after her. If Saturn 3 (pictured below)--her big sci fi feature co-starring Kirk Douglas--had been better, she might have been a huge movie star. It wasn't her fault it bombed, but that's show biz

Instead she kind of disappeared until returning as a serious dramatic actress in The Burning Bed and The Apostle, a decade or so later. It doesn't matter that she later won respect as a hard-bitten actress capable of drama and flighty comedy (she played the racist wife of Danny Glover in The Cook-Out if you care, and you should). All that matters is that she was a goddes of the 1970s and everyone dug her hair, I mean everyone. All that horrible "pouffy" hair in the 1980s might even have been her fault, in a way, the mutated evolution of her feathery wisps writ large and gaudy on the newly emerged MTV generation. Even the second season of Charlie's Angels fell in. You can suddenly see the Farrah hairdo all over the extras, the bit players, and Jaclyn Smith.

It's a tragedy that we lost her, and a tragedy that her death's been overshadowed by Michael Jackson's. I don't mean any disrespect to Mr. Jackson, who perhaps united more of the world and for longer in his rein than Farrah did or could or probably would ever want to. While Jackson's mythic presence spans his own lifetime since childhood, Farrah's is rooted in a single pop cultural moment, but it's not a race, at least not a race anyone wants to win. In fact we're all walking as slow as we can towards that inevitable credit roll finish line, but now, wherever we're going, we can hope our angel Farrah will be working the reception gate like it's a Honolulu airport, ready to set our nervous hearts at ease with a lei, a flash of a smile and a shake of her golden feathery tresses.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Osaka on His Mind: GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)

Like it's admittedly superior predecessor--the 1955 sequel to the original Godzilla-- Godzilla Raids Again (AKA Gigantis the Fire Monster) is shot in stark, grainy black and white, suffused with a dark postwar melancholy, and haunted by a solemn edge of nouvelle vague existential fatalism. And in Media Blasters' beautifully restored DVD the photography is gorgeously bleak, with great deep blacks and grain to spare.

Since the events of the first film are still fresh in the minds of the humans in the sequel, no one doubts the two fishing company pilots when they report seeing Mr. Zilla tussling with an ankylosaurus-style monster (the humans in the film call it "angilosaurus" or Angilas, or sometimes Anguirius, for short). In fact, a tearful and defeated military advisor (Takashi Simura, who starred in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai the year before) comes into the big summit meeting and--trying to be a brave boy and failing--exclaims how Godzillas (note the plural) are indestructible. If the monsters come to the mainland, Japan is doomed.

This is so cool because a) Americans refuse to name their mutations; titles like The Beast from 2,000 Fathoms, Them, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula bespeak a lack of respect. Refusing to call the monsters anything but "them" or "it" or "that.... thing... in the ice" is our way of letting ourselves off the hook for destroying them in cold blood.  The Japanese definitely respect and masochistic yen for the gigantosorically leviathenesque behemoth stomping on them (though they try to bury him in the ice or otherwise get rid of him at every opportunity), hence the holy-ish name Godzilla. Imagine if John Agar called the giant tarantula something like "Aranya Jesus" or "Enocharius"? But no, we're too snobby.



I was a fan of Godzilla as an indiscriminate child, and then once I "grew up" became annoyed by bad dubbing, cheap effects, cropping for television, faded colors, and pointless insertions of talky go-nowhere "added-on" scenes with American actors like Raymond Burr (for the presumably xenophobic US market). With the glorious new DVDs from Media Blasters all of those problems are long gone; and if you're a glutton for punishment all the movies are presented in both versions: the original Japanese and compromised American dubs (for those who really hate reading subtitles). To cinema snobs like myself who are always trying to balance an inbred love of schlock and learned artsy pretensions, Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, the chance to experience these less as kiddie shows and more as nouvelle vague Japonais.

Keeping an almost Antonioni sense of snail pace and meditative vast wasteland landscape / cramped warm interiors contrast, Raids Again flows icy, with long scenes of pilots in the air against Rothko-ish blocks of empty black sky, with the Osaka factories and temples way down at the bottom of the screen, humbly blowing up in big white gas explosions for your viewing pleasure. In the composition of these shots one senses the unspoiled artistic eye of a child, for whom the ground is always a line across the bottom of the page, the sun is always in the upper right and the sky is a blue bar running along the top of the page. Even when monsters aren't onscreen, the camera is always waiting and watching from a safe distance - it's a good trick, because the close-ups of each monster look rather ridiculous (though striking in the high contrast blacks and grays).


This being a sequel, the Hokkaido militia knows about Godzilla's problematic invincibility beforehand; they know they need to play it cool, to pretend they're not home when Godzilla comes calling. The Osaka militia coordinates a total city-wide black-out and when Godzilla comes trudging ashore looking for fast action he's at first quite confused. Studying footage from the previous film, the Japanese officials know he follows and attacks mainly sources of light (due to H-Bomb trauma). So while the city blacks out and stays deathly quiet, the planes shoot a barrage of flares back out to sea, and Godzilla stands there looking one way, then the other, his animal brain endeavoring to figure out what's going on. But then...  Oh no, I shan't spoil it!

The guys at Stomp Tokyo aren't particularly kind to this movie; the touching camaraderie of the fishing company is completely lost on them:
"Somewhere along the line someone decided that devoting twenty minutes to the reconstruction of the fishing fleet and Kobiyashi's brotherly devotion to Tsukioka would increase the human interest in the story, but the results fail miserably. It’s tough to imagine any viewer who wouldn’t be waiting for the next monster scene to start.
Yet here I am, Mister Sparkle! Anything partially set in Hokkaido, renowned for its countless soap factories, is all right with me.

According to Stomp T, the film bombed and Godzilla disappeared from the radar for almost a decade. I don't think that's quite fair. The scenes of quiet blackout in the empty city carry a ghostly melancholic charge and though the battles are sped up instead of slowed down (and look ridiculous) at least they're not boring and best of all are always presented from a safe spectator's distance. When everyone is quiet, hoping Godzilla will go back out to sea in pursuit of the flares, the film has a hushed, suspension of time quality reminiscent of the first Infernal Affairs or certain scenes in Michael Mann's Heat.

The music too is tastefully restrained, aside from the Japanese pop hit title track--but the subtitles include the lyrics, fitting the nouvelle vague trend of subtitling chansons. There's poetry in this crazy flick, I'm tellin' ya! If you go into this expecting an all-out monster fight you'll be disappointed sure, but if you go in assuming it's a proto-new wave film about the loves and losses of some pilots at a fishing corporation (they scout the schools and currents from on high), then it's a pretty far-out narrative disruption once giant monsters arrive, like Only Angels Have Wings meets the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The puppet-like nature of many of the monster close-ups make it all a kind of a fractal loop where the very small (children's rubber monster toys) are also very very big and vice versa, as if the fate of the human world hung on the balance of god and evil waged in the rec room basement with the kids' train set, HO scale model airplanes and spark-breathing wind-up toys ordered from the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland. It's all connected, all summed up in a cup of sake and a churning sea... and a rubber suit with your name on it, so when I say zip up... ZIP UP!