Friday, August 28, 2009

Acid's Greatest #15: ALTERED STATES (1980)


"There's really very little literature on this type of research. There's good people in the field: Tart, Ornstein, Dykeman, but most of it is radical hip stuff, drug culture. Obviously the first thing to do is to set up some kind of sensible methodology to see if we can't study these experiences in controlled laboratory conditions.
An effective medley of sci fi suspense trappings and Ivy league psycho-pharmacological grandiosity, ALTERED STATES works best from the perspective of an outsider to the psychedelic experience, for whom this sort of thing is super scary, such as young children and squares. As Jimi Hendrix once said, "But first, are you experienced?" If you are, some of ALTERED STATES may seem ludicrously over the top. I quoted the above rant from Hurt's Dr. Jessup to illustrate the bizarre paradox of trying to use positivist scientific methodology to document and analyze spiritual experiences. As Tyrone Power put it in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, "it's like trying to put the ocean into bottles."

The story of psycho-research maven Dr. Jessup and his isolation tank is turned into a horror story along the realms of Cronenberg's THE FLY remake or James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, replete with mad scientist enthusiasm, dark laboratories and concerned wives and research assistants. Unlike the usual tanks wherein one kind of lays down in what looks like a roofed racing car bathtub, Dr. Jessup (William Hurt) goes into a vertical combination old fashioned diving bell and water heater, wearing special headgear and so forth, all moodily and mysteriously lit. He climbs out and proudly announces he was hallucinating "a lot of religious allegory, mostly out of Revelations." This kind of self-important raving would bring a smirk to any knowing tripper, but Hurt's such a strong charismatic presence that you swoon along with Blair Brown at his every eye dilation.

Russell re-imagines hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, missing perhaps the point entirely, literalizing like a fundamentalist...in telling the story of Adam and Eve he'd no doubt show a naked hunka literally tearing out one of his own ribs and having a full grown woman morph out of it, with geysers of blood and latex. Similarly, Jessup transforms into a guy running around with dogs, then later morphs into a big half-blob, half-man! He's gone "too far" and is having crazy flashbacks! Only Blair Brown's love can save him now! To the hardcore 'heads in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating' - your ego getting in the way and holding up the parade. Wavy Gravy could have talked Jessup back into a human in five minutes if Hurt had taken the time to set up a chill-out tent. Dude, you make your own reality, especially if you manage to snag a grant and a course release.... to take drugs and lie around in body temperature saline solution like a lazy bum and then announce god doesn't exist doesn't make you pretentious as long as someone's monitoring your EEG, apparently, and if your synaptic disturbances manage to create interior lightning, bully for you, old Dr. Frankenstein Hyde!

Now, we've all had our moments, gone a little Hunter S. Thompson-style savage, and some of us may or may not have crawled into a zoo to kill a sheep or a ram once the drugs began to take hold. I'm not naming names. But none of us ever did it in such glossy Hollywood style, with ape make-up and sound effects. We just revel in possibility, maybe howl at the moon or chase some girl around the party until we find the bar. The next day we have to get up and go to our catering jobs. All hearts, when dying's done, do beat again.

If you want to literalize, concretize a mystic experience, you got to find the mythic undercurrent and be consistent with that-- the way Boorman did with EXCALIBUR and then didn't do with ZARDOZ. Otherwise it's just tony schlock. William Hurt goes to the end of the universe on STP and then announces "there's nothing there" and runs back to his wife like a little baby and wants us to nod and toast with the baron for an heir to the house of Frankenstein, but if Jessup would just let himself get subsumed by his space amoeba blob self, surrender fully to the horror, he might have had better luck seeing that beyond the terror of the first thought are many other layers to cross, from Pleiadian star space-time continuum conceptions and endlessly outwards and upwards to levels where being and nothingness dance in ones and zeros like a bountiful flowing nerd river and the third eye that sees it creates it as it sees and then, too, is subsumed, and born again.


Hurt's character may or may not be full of shit, but one thing is for sure, Hurt the actor does the best tripped out expression in all acid cinema and our hearts flutter during the sandwich-making seduction scene with Hurt and Bonnie Brown. Hurt has no problem ranting in undertone stream of conscious scientific jargon and that makes him not only believable but fascinating. While his character loses points by being so contemptuous of the "drug culture" (an experienced guide could have helped him avoid all that property damage), one must admire his willingness to put his own sanity on the line, even if he can't admit it's really just for kicks. And it's cool the way Brown is set up as the pursuer, nervously asking about him at the faculty party before busting her moves. As a piece of man art, Hurt is without peer.

Even worse is that STATES saddles Hurt with an annoying doubtful Thomas played by Hill Street Blues' Charles Haid, whose always telling him, "Jessup, it's too dangerous!" Freaking out and grabbing for the Oscar gold with his hamfisted hand-wringing ala Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, he makes you want to slap him and shout "Dude! Anxiety is contagious! Don't freak out your subject! There are a lot of people who trip in isolation tanks without you fussing and yelling and bringing everybody down and taking our temperature every thirty minutes."

What this insistence on correct clinical procedure ultimately does is attempt to short circuit the psychedelic movement by the same tactics the American Medical-Industrial-Organized-Religion complex has been using all along to demonize anything that would get us closer to realizing our godliness -- privileging the information (Hurt doesn't, for example, offer his wife a hit of the stuff he brought home from the Amazon) and then both glorifying and demonizing the actual experience, so no one else can do it.

The amazing "Riverman" at Strange/True reports on the actual research, by John C. Lilly, that likely inspired Paddy Chayefsky's original novel
In the 1950s and 60s a series of pioneering isolation tank experiments were conducted by John C. Lilly at the National Institutes of Health. Chayefsky clearly based much of "Altered States" on Lilly's accounts of these experiments, which you can read online and in his book "Tanks for the Memories" (oh, what a title). Like the fictional Dr. Jessup, Lilly used a hallucinogen (LSD) during a "tank trip"; here's how he described it: "That's when I learned that fear can propel you in a rocketship to far out places. That first trip was a propulsion into domains and realities that I couldn't even recount when I came back. But I knew that I had expanded way beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and as I was squeezed back into the human frame, I cried." A common theme in many tank experiences seems to be this sense of leaving the body behind and entering a vast metaphysical space where inner landscapes long obscured by earthbound fog are at last made clear.

While Lilly never actually changed his physical form in a tank, he did recount the following anecdote about a colleague of his, Dr. Craig Enright: "While taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, [he] suddenly 'became' a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, 'Where the hell were you?' He said, 'I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.'
"

Notice however that Enright was just taking a trip "by" the isolation tank. What does that mean? He was just hanging out watching his friend inside the comfy tank, then got jealous, so started jumping up and down to scare a ghost leopard? Sounds like he was just trying to get attention. No reason to go yelling for your Rick Baker!

Ever want to see yourself as a primate? You don't need drugs (though they'd help): just go to the mirror and stare deep and long at your dilated pupils. Don't re-focus your eyes to see the peripherals of your vision, just gradually let the bathroom melt away to jungle and recede behind you as your slackened jaw grows fangs and hair in the peripheral blur. There you go, my pre-hominid friend, 200,000 years of evolution gone with just a little soft focus.

P.S. I ran "Der Hollentrip" through babelfish Dutch-to-English and the definition I got was "To run, sniffing." Amen, bruder!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Acid's Greatest Hits #8: NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

Oliver Stone is that rare anomaly of craftsmanship-overkill directors who try to achieve the psychedelic effect via glossy bombast--ala Ken Russell or Terry Gilliam--in that he succeeds in spite of himself, sometimes. A lot of it has to do with his choice of material: murderers, politicians, political murderers, combat troops, football sharks, Wall Street sharks. Even more of it has to do with his ability to take a clear-eyed look at the threat of immanent death or financial destruction. He gives them both the thousand-yard stare of a true Vietnam vet. And most of it has to do with his willingness to spin the moral compass. In the end of the Oliver Stone trans-global thesis, desperate times justify insanely over-the-top measures in order to crack reality's brittle shell wide open. Charlie Sheen may rat out his dark father Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) in WALL STREET, but we don't particularly love him for it. We'd certainly would rather watch Gecko ranting to his monitors than Martin Sheen playing blue-collar saint. Tom Berenger's cobra-like killer in PLATOON turns out to be a better soldier than Willem Dafoe's sweetie pie sergeant because he sinks to match the madness of his time, as does James Woods in SALVADOR. But in NATURAL BORN KILLERS there isn't a Dafoe or Woods or Sheen left, and that's part of the film's charm, and undoing. In re-creating the wild highways of America as a shattered glass simulacrum, void of 'good guys', Stone encourages our emotional divestment to the point of disinterest. The nominal heroes--Tom Sizemore as a star detective and Tommy Lee Jones as a warden--are just as savage as Micky and Mallory and with good reason. What makes them "bad" in this sense is that they have less charisma; they're too sweaty and full of craven sneers. Plus they're not in love, so they're how you say nowhere.

Stalin his orgasm... for her pleasure
It's the charisma that counts, and Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson and Rodney Dangerfield each lend enough to save the mess from toppling into "who cares?" country. Trent Reznor's ingenious score, a mash-up of everything from Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nig**r" to Jane's Addiction helps keep the ball rolling. As Micky and Mallory, everyone's favorite serial killer couple, Harrelson and Lewis buck all odds to emerge as horrifyingly sympathetic, even when killing innocent people. We never even realize how much we care until they are separated after their arrest. No matter how many times you see it, no matter how bludgeoned you are by the cartoon violence that's come before, their jail break-out reunion never fails to provide a tearful catharsis and a sense of romantic triumph.



Where Oliver Stone also rises above Gilliam and Russell is there is no doubt this man has walked the walk, psychedelically speaking. He's quite open about it in interviews, and the thumbprint of the trickster is heavy on his brow... which is a very paradoxical weight for the trickster thumbprint. While yes, the overall Stone bombast can wear thin if you're in a peaceful mood, it's great when you're wasted, and even better when you're really wasted, as in on the third night of a bender, or waking up out of a black-out and discovering it on the hotel HBO along with a still half-full bottle of vodka on the bureau. The scene where Micky and Mallory take mushrooms in the desert is so vivid you can feel it in your pineal gland. They wind up, as desert voyagers will, in the strange tepee of an ancient Native American, who reads "Too Much TV" on their shirts and realizes almost instantly he's already as good as dead. The presence of many rattlesnakes on the ground is another indication of the psychedelic effect, the feeling that dangerous critters are all around, and that being bitten by a venomous snake has, in some sense, already happened to you before you are even bit... if you even are. In the realms of the psychedelic spore, all shadows take on serpentine dimensions, the world breathes before you. Seeing our sociopathic lovers stagger through an all-night drug mart is to remember perhaps doing the same thing yourself once, racing down twisting over-lit store aisles at 4:20 in the morning, your brain exploding with overpowering images of blood and carnage and thoughts you took too much of whatever you took--hopefully not datrura root--and are going to die, trying to find the gallon-size bottle of Nyquil to knock you unconscious before you start screaming and laughing at the same time and then can't stop, and then someone calls the cops who call your parents. Bummer!



There are lots of moments of great revenge along the way, from the beating up of Rodney Dangerfield through to the scene illustrated below. The idea here is that all of society has committed a heinous crime against our violent young lovers, either through inbred sexist piggery or accompanying tolerance of same. Stone's a deconstructing over-thinker like the Scotts Ridley and Tony, the Terry Gilliam, etc., but at least where they refuse to leave the safety of a corny core narrative, Stone plunges into the abyss of Godardian self-reflexive post-modernism --everything from French New Wave to McDonald's, even the sailor who does the soft shoe. Even if stretches bore you or seem trite it's never long before there's another memorable set piece or off-the-cuff cuff-offing. Just don't, if you end up going on a killing spree after watching it a hundred times, let your parents sue Oliver Stone, or me. If you play it backwards you'll get the real Satanic message of the film: All is Love... All is love. Kill your ego first, and the asses will follow, one by one, like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still the Tourist: FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)


And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.--Hunter S.
Poor Terry Gilliam, a high brother from across the pond (though born in the states, which just goes to show ya) - he's always made the mistake of going bigger when smaller would serve, and Hunter S. Thompson has always been a difficult figure to capture either small or largely. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM was a small mess, and Hunter himself has few kind words for Gary Trudeau who's satirized him for decades in Doonesbury, and then Gilliam hits the story with an elephant gun.

The mighty Thompson has been Hard Rock calcified as the trustafarian's badboy,  the party animal supremis for Bob Marley's LEGEND-owning frat guys who want to be "edgy" before they're swallowed up by dad's law firm. Mixing acid and testosterone is a bad idea even in the sunniest of locales, and bad ideas are what Hunter S. Thompson seems to run on, but it's an easy mixture to misinterpret, and Gilliam's film is so busy being beautiful and full of time capsule relevance and hot color intensity that it forgets its primary job, to be a goddamned movie about a goddamned guy in Vegas screwed up on goddamned drugs. Mike Figgis, where is thy stinger?

Gilliam does the classic original book a disservice by this glossing of every dingbat realization of our addled narrator until it shines with Hard Rock petrification. You can imagine dopey kids soaking their car floor covers with ether and then crashing their car and the suing Thompson for making it cool. It's not his fault but Hunter's been consumed by the consumer culture vultures and when he screams in pain the vultures imitate him like it's the hot new song on the charts. They did the same thing with Kurt Cobain and it drove both these poor besotted poets to the shotgun. The vultures know no better way than this; the tourists shall inherit the earth and bring back postcards with God's genuine imitation autograph. And that, I think, is the handle. If you go to a high hill in Woodstock, NY or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you see that the beautiful wave never really broke and rolled away at all. It just learned to hide its foam from Hunter. As long as Hunter doesn't know, the vultures don't either, and the wave can quietly roll on.


We see glimpses of how great LOATHING could be early on, as when his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, stealing the show) guides a flipping on too much acid Hunter through the casino bar: "We'll get you some peanuts, they're good for you, man," he says--capturing exactly the right way to talk to a person peaking on acid, like it's their birthday and wherever you're taking them is going to be safe and full of peanuts and all the demons and distorted elderly faces leering in hushed church hostility will be gone -- to which Hunter screams "Peanuts?" way too loudly, jumping like a coiled slinky as he tries to walk. It's true and funny and clearly Depp has 'been there' and the red checkered carpeting pulses just right in the hotel lobby. But considering the amount of digital altering effects at his disposal, Gilliam's visuals end up remarkably disengaged. After the carpet design breathing, there's nothing in the way of hallucinations for the rest of the film, other than light effects and puppetry. Why not have the whole room swim in overlaying imagery, elaborate twirls and swirls of movement traces? Gilliam's been there--that's clear enough--so why didn't he bring back some ruby slippers?


For some ungodly reason, Gilliam prefers to keep it 'realistic' --even while ole Raoul Duke is flipping out on adrenochrome in the hotel suite the best Gilliam can do is blaze some intense pink lighting. One longs to see some CGI artist who's "gone the distance" really add some trails and vortexes, the glimmers of alternate realities that create shadowed 'near' events overlaid over current ones. But after awhile it seems that no one involved in the production has gone the distance after all... maybe not even Thompson. Compare the scene where he asks "how much for the ape?" to scenes of James Fox trying to buy Mick's coffee table in PERFORMANCE and you realize Duke's a tourist! He's no boundary-busting free spirit at all, just a political journalist with an expense account and a masochistic yen for bad acid and violence. I know because I've embodied that persona myself, a John Wayne framed in the closing door of THE SEARCHERS, deciding to stay behind as the kids all go back to the garden without you. But unlike Raoul Duke and the Whale, the real Duke and I know the reason you stay behind isn't heroism or sacrifice, it's so you can scream oaths into the wind along with the dying old guard rather than have to act like you dig garlicky vegan stir-fry and patchouli-soaked girls with hairy legs and no make-up, and man, I don't blame you.

I blame it on the budget, which is way too large. Never send a white elephant to do a termite job. There's an extra on disc two of the Criterion edition wherein we see Hunter in his dressing room, being led to the set where they're filming a hallucinatory courtroom scene and they end up sitting in the back row of a huge throng of seats on set, while far up ahead, barely visible, is this ridiculously lavish court set, all for this one small scene. You can hear the money just leaking in buckets down the drain. Like Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick, or Tim Burton, Gilliam has some deep-seated artistic insecurity wherein he has to keep tinkering with seemingly every scene until: a) his producers are brought to the brink of bankruptcy, b) it his personal stamp on it and c) it's completely sapped of momentum and useless as a connection to the next scene and overall story arc.

Inevitably, this strategy means that the film begins to hang together more as a string of exotic, beautifully crafted but empty scenes rather than as a coherent narrative; one longs for the giddy, ballsy high wire flow of Thompson's prose to find a match in the images, but Gilliam's still setting up the high wire to reflect the green gel spotlight just right, no a little to the left... and by the time he's ready to shoot the sun is going down, the drugs are already wearing off and people are beginning to slip out the door... What makes LSD such a good experience (when it's good) is that it helps you escape the kind of situations Gilliam seems addicted to, the ones where you're expected to voluntarily sit in someone else's ego prison.

Now as an old 'head, I don't want to knock this film as bad as I already have; perhaps it will become more relevant with the passage of time. Then again, maybe not. A film like EASY RIDER or PSYCH-OUT makes you feel like the psychedelic lifestyle choice is within easy reach of anyone with guts enough to stick out their tongue, FEAR AND LOATHING makes it seems like the best you can hope for is to touch the hem of Johnny Depp's loud Hawaiian shirt as it hangs over your booth at Planet Hollywood. The physical effects of dry mouth and nervous anticipation that accompanies the best acid cinema is replaced by mere idolatry. Instead of trying to ride the waves you just buy an autograph from some old junky surfer.

My anti-idolatry rant aside, FEAR does have great moments such as the orange in the tub scene; the mind-fuck with the hotel maid; the carpet swirls as mentioned, and all the scenes where Del Toro's character is presented as an unlikable but powerfully magnetic, lysergic monster, challenging our impetus to love him the way Bogart did as the violent screenwriter from IN A LONELY PLACE. Del Toro is the best part of the whole film because he alone magnificently captures the tortured feeling one can have riding in an elevator with some gorgeous tan creature like Cameron Diaz; how while peaking on acid one can seem to absorb a woman's beauty at such a deep, aching sensory level that the rest of your trip becomes tortured by her imprint; how your whole mission in life id compromised in a warm fuzzy second h and the deep animal longing that goes beyond sex--beyond even cannibalism--into the tortured realm of pure sensual feedback.

Depp is fine, as usual, though clearly treading on eggshells between wanting to be unhinged and yet also portray his friend Hunter in a favorable light. When he likens del Toro's Dr. Gonzo to the last of the buffalo--a unique one of a kind original--at the end of the film, you finally begin to understand the relevance of what you have just seen. From thence forth drugs will have to be done on the sly, indoors, at shows or other safe havens. The days of giant monster men carving their carnivorous hallucinations large into the flesh of the mainstream are over. The gonzo method, apparently, includes leaving no bridge unburned, only strings of draconian laws made to ensure no one pulls the same shit you just got away with.

Only Hunter's angry, wistful original book is left as a possible escape plan. Read it, of course, as many times as you can, but then use it as inspiration for your own mad dream or else face the consequences of being just another spectator, just another dupe in line at the corporate-owned 'High and Beautiful Wave' ride at Disneyland. One of Hunter's big catch phrases was "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." The tragedy of Gilliam's film is that he reverses it. He's a pro who tries so hard to be weird that he ends up missing the turn altogether. 

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Great Acid Movies #16: FLATLINERS (1990)

Seeing a movie with expectations is always iffy, sometimes the best movie experiences are when you turn on the TV and don't even know what it is you are watching. If you're in the right frame of mind, you can think God is talking to you directly via the television. Let me tell you one such story:

Imagine a kid tripping his face off, watching his trusty VHS of John Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1933) and drinking a highball while alone in his parents house on a Sunday afternoon. Suddenly he realizes the TV is telling him he's going to die. Hallucinating with feverish intensity he feels the dull generalized pain in his left side that he instantly interprets as cirrhosis! It's all over. The TV is acting as a heavenly conduit, John Barrymore pretending to die, his cronies gathering around him, dimming the lights... prepping him, the celestial equivalent of a medical pamphlet. Oh man, the kid is tripping too hard. He'll never see his parents again he realizes. They'll come home to smell his corpse even out in the garage. His side is throbbing and he knows the gallons of whiskey he's drunk over the years have caught up with him. He falls to his knees weeping in front of his dad's old floor model, fumbles to shut off the VCR before it sucks him in, like he's that little girl in POLTERGEIST.

The VCR tape goes off and the TV channel underneath it shows a beautiful radiant old angel woman lying in her death bed in a hospital. Her big eyes moist with heavenly awareness and earthbound fear. Julia Roberts is the young intern at her side, matching the older actress in depth of dewy gaze. The old woman's blond hair is splayed beautifully out in all directions, like an angel - an angel dying and being reborn at the same time. The old woman asks Julia Roberts if she believes in a life after this one. Sincerely, tenderly, Roberts says she does. The young kid watching the TV on his knees, like he's praying to the screen for deliverance, starts to cry; he realizes that, alone in his parent's living room, he is being instructed not to worry about his immanent death. He has found salvation right at the poetic point of no return. Don't we always, usually?

Such a thing happened to me, in 1991... and I cried all the way through the film; it left me a devastated weepy mess. I gradually realized--through the lysergic mist brought on by half a hit too many--I was watching FLATLINERS. I'd refused to see it before this moment, because I didn't like any of the "brat pack" stars in it. I hated Kevin Bacon's snub nose and self-righteous narcissism; I was displeased with Keifer's jowly attempts to sound resonant and grave; abhored William Baldwin's smarmy seduction strategies, Platt's moral high-ground method showboating, Julia's glum sanctimony. But in my addled state I was humbled enough to not judge them for what I knew were just faults I didn't want to recognize in myself.

And anyway, their tics fit for this bizarre and strangely ambitious film, where they're supposed to be egotistical douche bags; they are med students, playing with near death experiences like other kids play with acid, or whippets. Gradually those who've tried it notice they are either having flashback hallucinations or death is leaking into their daily lives, confronting them with unresolved issued from their past. (In AA terminology, they have to do their 9th step before they get into heaven, they have to make amends with those they've wronged, even if the wronged are already dead). Subtle gradation's in lighting and what I perceived as subliminal overlaps of skulls on faces, etc., made me think this was the trippiest film ever made, though when I saw it later, all the subliminal traces seemed to vanish, so I stopped watching it, to not tarnish the profound memory of when God spoke to me through a film by Joel Schumacher (that's right, go ahead and laugh!).

As ingenious as the devices are through which the past comes to haunt our protagonists, and the clever and transformative use of color washes (images are all stained deep blue but glow brighter when wounds get healed), there is also much dull moral posturing and hand-wringing over the dangers and ethics involved with regular deep-sea near-death diving. Kiefer Sutherland gives it his all but lacks the manly gravitas he thinks he has, and Platt is way too pleased with his range as he treads the stunted moral high ground like Charles Haid before him (in the similar ALTERED STATES). Even worse is Kevin Bacon, smarming his way around as Roberts' creepy would-be love interest. I think he finally wins her over by just breaking into her house and climbing into her shower, like Geena Davis' sleazy ex in THE FLY (1983). It seems like Roberts gives into his incessant pawing mainly because she's just too tired to keep resisting. I've known guys like this and it skeeves me out to see Hollywood justify their creepy persistence.

Then there's Billy Mahoney (above).

Keifer Sutherland's return of the repressed is the worst of all the others, a mysterious incarnation of a bully who used to torment him in grammar school. Dressed in Halloween hoodie and toy scythe, Billy beats the crap out of grown-up Sutherland with the force of a Scorsese bouncer. Later, Sutherland has grown used to the assaults and every night develops a new strategy to deal with it, like trying to get rid of the hiccups through sheer will power-- which sometimes works... with hiccups, not with Billy Mahoney. In a great scene we see Keif has become a kind of death junkie: he rocks back and forth, chanting, "Come on, Billy Mahoney! Come on Billy!" daring him, invoking him like a demon. Anyway, a chill enters the room, and his skin gets paler and skulls are superimposed everywhere, not in the cheap EXORCIST THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN way, but in the barely noticeable way... the way you can only detect if you're very sick or otherwise open to hallucinations (for what are hallucinations but the ability to see all of life as it really is, alive with dying?)

The climactic confrontation which I shall not reveal forges a link with the end of THE BEYOND, imagining the netherworld as a scorched landscape where size doesn't matter and everything is permitted. Maybe you won't be drowning in spiritually absolving tears as I once was, but you're guaranteed to at least get a shiver up your spine... and a lifelong fear of spittle.

Billy Mahoney - 1997 - Acrylic on Canvas - by Erich Kuersten


POSTSCRIPT - 8/15/13: 
I just saw this again on blu-ray, for the first time since the aforementioned 'episode' back in 1991, so now I know for sure all those ghost skulls around Kiefer in that 'C'mon Billy' scene were just my lysergic reinterpretation of the streaks of analog TV. I wonder if that level of gonzo hallucination would even be possible with blu-ray! Is that why blu-ray is so sharp, to totally stop hallucinating into your TV? Also Billy Mahoney looked like a giant at least 20 feet tall in '91, now I see it's just a clever angle. And the scythe and black hood are just subliminal if anything, the scythe is actually Kevin Bacon's pickaxe --he's a rock climber, oooh ooh child - and he doesn't creep into Julia Roberts' shower, just takes advantage of her post-death weakness, but it's okay because I'm now too old to feel competitive towards him (I was born the same year Billy Mahoney was, according to his gravestone) and because the blu-ray shows she's sending him subliminal signals she likes him, which I didn't notice the first time 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Acid Shorts #1: Betty Boop in SNOW WHITE (1933)


In true pre-code, reefer-smoking, laudanum-quaffing glory, everything in SNOW WHITE is alive and wriggling and--best of all--swathed in the groovy music of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. Betty was always great to "come down to" after a night on the town, utterly alien and bizarre yet comforting -- all the trappings of a Saturday morning cartoon childhood were there, so why was everything so "adult"? We were without internet then, so had to figure it out all for ourselves. Now we know, and now we don't even have to go rummaging at the back of old video rental places to find them. They're on youtube!

Regular musical guests in the land of Betty, Cab Calloway and his orchestra were perfect foils to the squiggly giggles and (literally) loopy adventures of the saucily under-garbed Betty, her dog/pimp Bimbo and the frighteningly balloon-like Koko the clown. All of them run rampant through what's considered to be the best and most surreal of all Max Fleischers's pre-code Boops, SNOW WHITE, wherein Cab sings "Saint James Infirmary," with plenty of dynamite "Hi de Ho", his lanky white tuxedo-ed frame rotoscoped into the figure of a twirling dancing ghost with improbably long legs, accompanied by swirling phantasm chorus in the hell/underground/uptown jazz joint, "The Mystery Cave."

As anyone who ever took an African American culture course knows, Harlem in the 1930s was a very cool and artisitically happening place, and Max Fleischer clearly had a yen for it, seeing the trip uptown to Harlem as a sacredly profane initiation rite, akin to mystery initiation rituals of ancient Greece. Life and death mixed together in a ghoulish romp, with Boop encased in ice as a temple sacrifice. It all fits beautifully together to make SNOW WHITE one far-out pinnacle in pre-code cartoon surrealism. In those days the Harlem clubs were where one went to frolic without the peepers of the law on your ass, so miscegenation, reefer-toking, hops, homosexuality, the threat of violence was all in the air making excitement and giddiness de regeur... and the Fleischer brothers, two very hip Jewish cartoonists, captured that sense of danger the next day at their midtown animation studio.

Seen today, it behooves one to keep these details in mind, which adds to the cartoon's mythic and historical resonance, however none of that is ultimately needed to dig Betty. All you need bring with you is the realization that Miss B's magical universe is the perfect code cover for transgressions made under the ruling elite's very noses. Kids could watch it and just dig the slapstick, squaresville parents might just think it a lot of kiddie nonsense, but the "awake" hep cats up on 110th Street or down in the Village could dig how far gone Max Fleischer was, doing his thing in the heart of Manhattan, the Jewish intellectual Paramount-style east side answer to Disney's MGM-ishly dull west coast cutesy pie critters. Working all day with pen and ink / to win you with a wink / aint she cute / boop boop be doop / then trucking up to the Cotton Club to scope out new bands for the cartoon soundtracks, not lilly-white crooners but the real jumpin' jive swing of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong... that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Acid Cinema #0: Woodstock (1970)

You can say you were at Woodstock, and no one wont believe you, no matter what your age. Maybe you were there in a past life, or as a gleam in your father's eye, or as a swirling little mess of DNA and placenta, or a spirit drawn from another dimension by the flame-like heat of Hendrix's guitar, a spirit who didn't intend to stay for the encore but wound up caught in a wandering womb matrix. Somehow, in one way or another, a whole future generation was born there, in the crucible heated by the flickering counter-culture's brief, brief candle. The sudden, ecstatic group realization that no one was pushing, shoving, fighting or bitching even in these intolerably wet circumstances rippled through the crowd. If you've ever done something nice for some stranger, for no reason, then you understand. Or ever been at a party where you loved everyone, every single person in the huge mass, and there wasn't even one person who was preventing you from being totally free and yourself, so comfortable in your own skin you slip right out of it.  It was a fire of love, literally, and Joni Mitchell was right: we've been trying to get ourselves back to the garden ever since (Joni actually missed it, stuck in New York, afraid of the traffic and I don't blame her).

However, if Joni had gone to Woodstock, where I was this weekend, visiting my friend Abbe, she might have realized the garden is still alive and well, just cautiously off the radar. During my 24-hour stay, coincidence and cross-currents of fate led me to meeting original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang's wife, Tamara, and his co-planner Lee Blumer. All I could talk about with them was movies, of course, and they were busy actually living something better than movies, like being in them. Oh man! I wasn't familiar with the idea that alternate lifestyles not only had progressed since I was away, they'd surpassed me. I was like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS. All I knew was the search and the struggle, and here they were, back in the garden the whole time, which was now tricked out with hummingbird feeders and heated salt water pools, children who practice their box-stitches without fear, and transcendental beauty everywhere. Even the oak leaves seemed evolved, with tips warped into permanent trail curly-cues.

Whether you're living green and free or beat in a fifth floor walk-up in the city, you can still feel the currents of change, love and empowerment every time you plug in your DVD player and watch WOODSTOCK (1970), a sprawling concert film that's recently been extended to, I believe, 145 hours in length.

Early in the film, we see the curly haired jester/concert promoter Michael Lang riding over the empty rolling green hills on his motorcycle, maybe just a speaker tower or two in the background. Appearing very pleased and unstressed, Lang can't know in these early scenes the extent of his impending success, that his baby would close the New York Thruway. His confidence seems a little weird, then, in the circumstances. People love to forget that the psychedelic drug culture was actually very sharp and high tech. Still, no one would really know just how rare and monumental this event was until they saw GIMME SHELTER and realized Woodstock was a one-time miracle, not the "way it was gonna be... from now on."

To watch a drunk in his cups is to see the arc of a generation daring to toss repression to the wind --they transcend and get accolades, get cocky, and then hungover and remorseful, self-righteous, sacrosanct, dogmatic. Wherever the visionaries, artists, musicians and beautiful people go, the eager-to-get-some free love/sex or in-exchange-for-coke skeezeballs, corporate profiteers, sycophants, home-wreckers, moochers, and knife-wielding loners follow. 

But Woodstock still lives. It turns out my visit coincided with the Woodstock Festival's 40th anniversary, replete with Ritchie Havens and tons of other stuff going on, which I missed, preferring to lie low in Abbe's garden. Apparently the big event planned at Yasgur's farm had fallen through, but the spirit raged on, somewhere in town, some outdoor stage now enriched with hyper-intelligent children in solar-powered geothermal strollers. Again, I was there by chance. But chance is not the same in Woodstock as it is other places. If you were ever once a true freak, you will find your soul's true parents thar.

The peak of the show for me is Joe Cocker, "A Little Help from Me Friends" -- It starts out low and gradually Cocker's burly thick voice builds to a furiously joyous crescendo: "All we gotta do is love now," the bass starts sliding away then comes back with a spine-tingling acceleration, piano, pounding drums, Cocker just roaring along like a big Welsh maniac on his first trip into total freedom, pure love awareness. The charge of "getting together with all my friends" was huge at Woodstock, the song had to measure up, and this one did. The sound quality is supernatural, an amazing moment in time when God is in the machinery, and love surges through every perfect second; the blinders are finally off, and things like private property, shame, anger and resentment all evaporate like water in the blast furnace of Cocker's diaphragm.

The perfect blend of high, help and friends surges through Cocker's soulful voice for this song, his body seems to barely keep up, it contorts in frenzied devotion as the "sound" belts forward, and one can't imagine a better one in a rock singer's life: a big crazy stage, loud, fans into infinity, the dawning of the age of Aquarius; everything was going to be okay. Cocker comes onstage with a little glass of beer or water or something, a little drunk maybe, tripping definitely, coasting through that open hole in the defenses of egoic self that enables open-hearted hugs to palpitate through one's every motion. How can that little paper beer cup ever serve to quench such an enormous thirst? Or is it the reverse of thirst he is projecting? His is a fury without anger, with mystical, massive beautiful side burns, a colorful t-shirt completely soaked, hair wet. He howls like a deep man-banshee and all it's in the name of love, an electric feedback squall of selfless but sexual, fraternal but carnal, chaste but ravenous, universal but familial, love baby. You realize how much 'benevolent ferocity' we've lost as men. Look at the picture up there, with his tie-dye exploding outwards like he just took a love bullet in the ribs, his wild English face is the mirror to the explosion on the shirt, from the depths of his diaphragm and soul, all chakras blazing, out through the diaphragm to Woodstock, to and through the people, the past, the future, and to and through the endless masks of God.

The performance would be nothing without the Beatles' influential Sgt. Pepper's, from which you know comes said song. Ringo's pleasant modesty in answering the spiritual questions: "Yes. I'm certain it happens all the time," was too much genuine open-hearted, non-gender specific communal love for the unprepared ego to handle, it flooded you over and sent you to the ground laughing and crying at the same time. You didn't have to lick the buttons on their tacky uniforms to get way high... it was in the wind, troop! A wind which had fanned a big flame that was now a raging Woodstock bonfire sea. The words are like Poe's Purloined Letter finally and inevitably arriving at its full expression, all that stuff we put out there, those bottled messages, all came pouring down on us all like rain. Just one simple message in that letter: Love Everyone, Right Now. It's okay. We all love you, I love you. It was a transcendental now as just once everyone got attuned to that blazing pink and red serpentine rhythm and release. That was all we needed, and in that one moment, Cocker was its elected voice, a howl of love that overwhelmed lyrics like "I can't tell you but I know it's mine," the way the incoming tide overwhelms a sandcastle. Whether it wiped out the sandcastles of Vietnam and unrest is irrelevant ultimately, despite the felt failure of the hippie protest system (it was protesting got these people together, so in a way, Vietnam created hippies). What counts is there was a wave. And if ever a concert movie captured that elusive power, it's WOODSTOCK. If there's ever another such wave again, we should name it Michael.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Great Acid Movies #30: TRACK 29 (1988)

Nicholas Roeg is a far-out dude, and TRACK 29 was so far out that few, apparently, were hearty enough to be able to get on board before its train left the station. For my hippie house it was lucky enough to show up at the end of a 6-hour tape that saw heavy rotation (Persona - Night of the Living Dead- Track 29) and we ended up watching it dozens more times than we normally would have, just because we were unable to change the channel or press "stop." Sheer coincidence? Not where TRACK 29 is concerned.

The story follows an alcoholic pillhead housewife played by Theresa Russell. Her husband (Christopher Lloyd) is a doctor having an affair with his nurse (Sandra Bernhard) and ignores her. His home time is spent obsessing over a sprawling electric train set that winds through the whole upstairs. Russell finds her own obsession when she meets Gary Oldman at a roadside dinner; he acts as if he's her long lost son given up for adoption and for years he's been tracking her down. Only she never had, lost or gave up a son, she had an abortion, maybe... who really knows? It's that kind of movie, and in lesser hands it would be a mess of irritating Sundance quirks. Here it's a foggy indictment of the middle class and a meditation on the thin line between motherhood and cougardom, and a tragic tale of incest and redemption, or just a big mess, or something else altogether, depending on the viewer and their frame of mind.

There's been few post-1970s films with the guts to really, really take it on a limb -- not the quirky Diablo Cody kind of "faux-limb"-- I mean fifth martini of the morning, the milkman disappeared into your carpet, you need to find your keys because you left something... burning... somewhere and the TV is giving you secret messages kind of limb... the kind way high on the tree and too flexible to merely break off and fall, that would be too easy. It's the forced to endure a life of constant waving in the breeze, with all the drugs you can get your hands on and a spouse having an affair with Sandra Bernhardt kind of limb, and Theresa Russell rides it like a hurricane. The TV really does talk to her, in that background subconscious kind of way only Roeg and Alex Cox have ever got just right (as we'll soon see when Great Acid Movies continues after this commercial).

To "get" this movie, qualified doctors recommend you take a bunch of acid then when really freaked out, start drinking yourself back to normal, keep drinking for three straight days and then, on the second day of calling in sick from work, put this on while you putter about the house in the morning after not sleeping, with your tumbler of gin and juice and three cigarettes going in different rooms, robe splayed open, burns and bruises you don't know what from. Then and only then... maybe.

The dosed goodness here really hinges Gary Oldman's ability to be both real and imaginary at the same time, all the time, a mix of returned repressed moma you had me howl of primal John Lennon "Mother" on the soundtrack scream therapy via David Cronenberg's THE BROOD, a psychoplasmic-alcoholic miasma of sexual frustration and resentment against her closed-off train fanatic doctor husband manifesting in a Satanic visitation. Oldman manages to embody all this stuff at once and still be sexually potent (capturing the same woozy sense of intimacy-enhanced altered reality he and Ryder pulled off in the otherwise mega-crappy Coppola's Dracula). What a man! What an actor!



DISCLAIMER: Neither the author nor most qualified doctors actually recommend you take a bunch of acid then when really freaked out, start drinking yourself back to normal, keep drinking for three straight days and then, on the second day of calling in sick from work, etc. Sic transit gloria, bitchez!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Coming Down in Style: INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933)


When Hollywood decides to dump cavalcades of stars into one comedy, the results can be over-baked. Paramount's ALICE IN WONDERLAND was a disaster but INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (both 1933) on the other hand, is half-baked, which is just right. I love it so much if I had only one film for a desert island, it would be this. It's my safety net, my life preserver. My drinking companion.... one of the few non-Hawks movies to earn that admittedly dubious privilege.

Just so just so.


The love story began when I was fourteen years old in the early days of VHS, scouring the pre-cable days of TV Guide for things to videotape and ease my lonesome adolescence. I had a thing for 50s monsters and 30s old dark houses. I loved the secret panels, and furry suits of the Lugosi Monograms, which were always on when I was very young. I taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE because Lenny Maltin's guide (my bible back then) gave it ***1/2, and it had my main monster man, Bela Lugosi, in the credits. I was desperate for something new, down to try anything since I had exhausted my Marx Brothers movies (I know their first six almost by heart) and was scraping bottom with things like THE GORILLA (the awful Ritz Brothers --identical triplets nursing the same half-baked overacting schtick, now well-forgotten), and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (with a horrible fake Martin and Lewis, as if Lewis wasn't bad enough - and poor Lugosi so old and shattered he could barely keep up with them). Even so, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE was a risk. It came on at three AM, my VHS timer was hit or miss. But a miracle happened. It actually worked. And I fell instantly in love with W.C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and the whole pre-code saucy comedy genre in one collective cupid arrow burst.


A few years later, I brought it of it to college and my drummer and I watched it nightly while pounding bourbon and ginger ale. Decades later and we still have long conversations set to the vaudeville rhythm of Burns and Allen ("You had a raffle for poor old woman!?" / "You wouldn't say he has flew!") And of course there's W.C. Fields at his most insane; to drink along with him in this movie is to know a rare anarchic joy, and then to pass out.

Waking to a job well done

A lot of the early Fields pictures can get exasperating, even IT'S A GIFT, because of his weird need to play henpecked small town husbands, but not so his marvelous Professor Quail in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, perhaps due to not having to carry the film by himself, he finally lets go completely and plays a drunken autogyro pilot and reckless adventurer, who lands on the roof deck of the Wu Hu, China Grand hotel, sneaks into gold digger supreme Peggy Hopkins Joyce's boudoir, scrounges everyone's leftover floorshow bottles and trashes the front desk, all while swirling about him a veritable cape of American arrogance; gathered guests are bemused but hotel manager Franklin Pangborn throws a hissy fit (and tells Quail, "I suggest you get back into that flying windmill of yours and depart!" Pangborn, always marvelous.


Bela Lugosi as the Soviet ambassador suspects Professor Quail of being the American representative. He's also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Like mealy Tommy Nash (Stu Erwin), whose imagined measles puts the hotel under quarantine, Lugosi's in Wu-Hu to buy Professor Wong's radioscope; Wong will only accept sealed bids for the rights to his invention, and his demonstrations of the radioscope include Cab Calloway singing "Reefer Man" replete with zombified bassman: "Why look at that cat, he looks like he done lost his mind," notes Cab. "He's high!" shouts the band. "What do you mean he's high?"/ "Full of weed!" they shout. "Full of weed!?" And there's Baby Rose Marie, a little girl belting the down and dirty blues with the voice of a 50-year old smoker on her fifth whiskey, and dancing in a dirty frock who is undoubtedly the inspiration for the dancing moppet singing the "Reefer Song" in Day of the Locust. 

No doubt West loved this movie!


As per most 1930s movies, the more illegal drugs are done under the table (we never see Cab's bassist actually take a puff), but there's plenty of drinking above board, with Professor Quail dropping his empty Muerto Blanco beer bottles onto people's heads as he flees his massive Mexican bar tab, and there's wry gay references ("don't let the posey fool ya"), one shot of a Chinese drag king, and Fields' bravado is heartening: "Is this Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri?" When Pangborn tells him he's lost, Fields decrees: "Kansas City is lost. I am here!" This reminds me of what the Sufi mystic Bahauddin once wrote: "A candle has been lit inside me / for which the sun is a moth." It's small wonder that Firesign Theater dubbed their satire of the 1960s counterculture "W.C. Fields Forever."

Hell yeah the Firesign loved this movie!


Like the Paramount Marx Brothers movies, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is especially good for coming down off acid, since the behavior of every character is so "off" - there's no one to bring you down with bad vibes. There's even exotic fan dancers in faux-Ziegfield number, "The China Tea Cup and the American Mug," with Sterling Holloway as the mug, bouncing around on a wire after Lona Andre in full exotica headdress. And there's simply nothing better to hallucinate onto than a shimmering exotica headdress, skimpy pre-code spangles, and Holloway flying around on wires dressed as a sailor.


That's because on psychedelics many 'normal' forms of human interaction--such as registering for a hotel room-- become suddenly absurd and even frightening, while the spontaneous "outside the box" actions of free-spirit surrealists--such as boldly walking along the registration desk and kicking over the mail slots--are a breath of "normalcy." It's the difference between seeing sleeping souls shambling through habitual rituals and running loose with living, breathing, awake people. Such is the effect in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, which has just enough normal dull "Grand Hotel" style characters to keep the more dysfunctional ones looking even cooler. And casting Peggy Hopkins Joyce seals the deal: Margaret Dumont and Thelma Todd rolled into one, the Paris Hilton or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Charro of her day, decency prevents my showing her here.


One of my favorite moments: After getting kicked out of Joyce's bed, Fields winds up sleeping with Dr. Wong, who's mistaken him for the American representative. "I feel like the whole Chinese army's been marching across my tongue with muddy feet," Fields laments the following morn.


The houseboy asks: "Shall I get you some water?"

"A little on the side," Fields replies.

That's how I roll with INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. I want to steal the whole bottle and throw chaser to the wind, just a blast of soda in a gigantic highball of whiskey. There's never been another like it. Woo-Hoo! As a fourteen year-old besotted with the whole fractured business, I knew my fate. Four years later I'd be introducing it as the perfect post-show come-down chillout drug -- one glance at the spoon lady, or that crazy autogyro, and burdensome morning would fade into cozy blackout.

Depth of Mordor: THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976)


If there can be "J-Date" and "Christian Singles" why can't Led Zeppelin fans have their own dating site? Zepdate? Zeppelin Singles? Is that idea too drunken Viking Anglo-Nordic Imperialist swaggerific? Imperialist? The drug-addled, tall, emotionless Teutons of the North, the artistic, insane, and the mad killers never get their own religion officially, let alone a dating service, but the cult of Zep is just as valid and just as fervent and most importantly, most high, and most totally rock-sanctified.

In the TOP 100 at the back of an old late 1980s High Times issue, right between "Hash!" and "Harley Davidson," was: "Becoming an instant Led Zeppelin fan by watching Song Remains the Same on acid for the first time." AWESOME, I thought: its synchronistic black magic is still winking at me, reverse engineering the miracle because the week before reading it I had become a Led Zeppelin fan in that exact same way. I never liked them before because Zeppelin was the chosen boombox bus music of the imbecilic, bullying burnouts at my high school. The combination of a Zeppelin-worshipping girl named Chrissy, LSD, and a post-party screening of SONG REMAINS THE SAME freed me of all that, in a single night. 

My band just played and I was working through some post-performance lysergically "enhanced" paranoia so I could bust a move on Chrissy, with her long dark, wavy hair and great legs, her beauty and warmth marred only by a blue-collar Pittsburgh accent that would scare off a teamster. Man I just needed some time alone to think for a second, but there were twenty people in my bedroom all looking at me with needy, yearning eyes, their hands twitching and pulsing like writhing hydras. Seeing my predicament, Chrissy took me with her to see THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME at her friend's house. No goodbyes to the housemates. I didn't even bring my keys. I was way too high to offer my usual disparaging Zeppelin remarks, and felt calm only while hanging onto her so I just bailed on my own party.

The film itself, watched while sitting on the floor with a small crowd of tripping Zepp fans in a darkened apartment living room on a small TV, flowed like a dark/light fairy tale; the open-shirt beauty of Plant and Page tempered by the immense industrial thuggishness of their manager Grant and the ferocity of John Bonham proved a heavy combination: weird acid-soaked visuals and music that engaged the ears from four different directions, aided and accelerated the evolutionary state I was in; it was initiatory, transformative, impossibly beautiful because it never tried to shut out its darker side even as it reached for the light.



Perhaps I use the word groupie unfairly in talking of Chrissy, though not long after that night she drove off with some friends to follow Plant's then-band, The Honeydrippers. Before seeing the film I'd have thought she was just some Pittsburgh bimbo, but after this film I knew different. She was just a true believer-- when you've found your thing, nothing matters, even if the object of that sort of love is unworthy of it... who cares? You're already free. Just ask Squiggy Fromme. Rocking out to my band or following the Honeydrippers, or watching SONG for whatever millionth time, it was Chrissy's rock freedom. She was Marlene Dietrich, walking barefoot into the Sahara after Gary Cooper in MOROCCO, or Richard Burton and Jean Simmons marching towards their execution in THE ROBE.

I had no notion of God or spirituality before that night, myself. But when the movie was over,  Chrissie took me home to her dorm, seeing plainly I was too high to ever make it back to my house by myself. I was a new convert, adrip with lysergic fever sweat--and when she had signed me in, unlocked the door and turned on the light I gasped in amazement. Her room was completely covered with holy Led Zeppelin pictures, postcards, posters, and paintings.. all over every inch of wall and ceiling. We both knew my being there was no accident of chance, but a cosmic convergence. She had turned an ordinary dorm room into a Zepp temple.

Before I left her the next morning, she loaned me her dogeared paperback of Hammer of the Gods: the Led Zeppelin Story, with the just solemnity of a missionary giving a convert his first bible.


It's over fifteen years later and still one thunderous note of Led Zeppelin's music brings me back with a heady reverence to those transcendental moments: walking home as the sun comes up like a cherry red joint tip, still tripping, hands shaky, the beautiful, pungent smell of sex, patchouli and hash on my fingers, cigarette to my lips, a few cars roaring sleepily to life here and there, and me feeling like the Prince of Swords in the Zeppelin tarot deck, the mirror opposite of my usual panicked, self-absorbed, sexually frustrated, myopically sleepy slacker state.

Does the film live up to that promise now, ten years gone plus more and cold stoned sober? Of course it does, for me. Your mileage may vary on the fantasy excursions (each band member gets a vignette). Three of the band mates have young children at home and it's a sterling example of how cooler things were in the 1970s that living on rural England estates with wives and moppets in tow actually made you even more COOL. Nowadays no one is free like that, it seems. Now the kids are in charge of the cultural stimuli and parents dutifully learn Tickle Me Elmo songs and arrange play-dates; but back then, in the 1970s man, kids ran wild in the woods, grew up long haired and gonzo while their parents looked on with lordly bemusement over their hash pipes. There was none of that mawkish 1980s Spielberg child worship, nowhere the cornball CGI-repainted, "safe" sanitized azure wisps of stratus clouds from Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS adaptations. These guys lived the real deal, the grungy 1978 Ralph Bakshi adaptation, wherein fantasy, sword and sorcery as it was called then, still had a dangerous, sexy currency. This wasn't dumbed-down MTV faux-angst but a living Pre-Raphaelite painting, with all the full mythopoetic heft that implieth.

Onstage at Madison Square Garden in SONG, the band is at the same gaudy golden pinnacle, the same level of Godly perfection of, say, Muhammad Ali in 1974 at the "Rumble in the Jungle", or Elvis Presley in THAT'S THE WAY IT IS (1970) -- at the peak of their powers, able to command the full engagement of a packed theater without betraying any effort; barely breaking a sweat, chests toned but not too ripped: persona, speed, savage precision, sexy sweetness, fire and soul, stop on a dime rock anarchy, a bundle of animal fury and godly humor.

Now, it's not a perfect film: Peter Grant's fantasy opener is rather dopey - a bunch of gangsters machine gunning Nazi werewolves in slow motion like American Werewolf's dream sequence in reverse. But at least it's fairly quiet. The whole first twenty minutes have no music at all, actually, bringing to mind the hushed reverence before a benediction... which is okay if you're with a roomful of worshipful groupies for whom anything Zepp does must be taken as holy writ, and who are still finding their seats and papers, but otherwise beware... or even fast forward.


And while there's nothing in the light show effects one couldn't easily do today with Final Cut Express, it works. It may seem a bit silly sober but one must remember it's not meant for sobriety. There's a deep kind of black magic at work in the editing, the ghost that guided Kenneth Anger's editing on Lucifer Rising works overtime.

There is, alas, the unfortunate matter of John Paul Jones' Prince Valiant hair. Is that a wig? (1) He has no visible part or scalp line, it all seems to meet at a center point at the top of his head, like a Beatles moptop.


Then there's the music: so rooted in a mix of swaggering sex and Darkest Depths of Mordor-related mythic imagery that without a personal connection like I described above the film might be hard to take seriously until you notice three things:

1) The band themselves aren't taking it too seriously, nor too lightly. They are perfectly balanced between mythic resonance and playful cheek, and most of all, completely tuned to their music; the music controls their swagger, not the other way around. It's archetypo-magickal possession, not ego, so it never seems fake or a put-on, or pretentious. For an example, pay particular attention to Jimmy Page's arms during his third solo in "Dazed and Confused" -- notice how they bend and vibrate like rubber bands, like he's a standing electric chair plugged into the ghost of Chuck Berry's amp. It made me realize just how "outside of the Platonic cave" Zeppelin is. They're the original version of themselves. They created this sound from Robert Johnson records, Tolkien, and their own ESP, but those were just building blocks; they are heavy but always in the light.


2) You can't blame Robert Plant for the hair metal 1980s, just because he's the unbleached root of that strain on the historia del rock tree. Don't laugh at Jimmy Page's double-necked guitar, either, because he's really using both necks--12 string and 6 string--all the songs, "Stairway" particularly. And Plant's hair really is awesome. The telling point in that is how a boy like me can swoon when Plant casually, languidly brushes back his huge tangle of curls in between lyrics, not because I'm attracted to him, but because he is Arthur, my lord and King.

The cool kids' Lord of the Rings - 1977
3) Don't laugh at their fantasy excursions, because as I said, at the time (mid 70's) all that Dungeons and Dragons / sword and sorcery stuff was still dangerous and sexy; it hadn't been overrun by nerds, Spielberg/Reagan conservatism, the Disneyfication of Times Square, the re-chastening of AIDS and the rise of Harry Potter. Don't forget - in the real LOTR and THE HOBBIT, everyone smokes!

In fact the Ralph Bakshi animated version of LORD OF THE RINGS movie in 1978 (above, left), by way of illustration, was dark and violent; it was something older kids got high and went to see at midnight shows. Fantasy of that sort wasn't for children, but for teenage stoners - the world of HEAVY METAL, THE WALL, and Bakshi's entire ouevre. Try to image that kind of stuff coming out today and you can't. Even then you couldn't. Those sort of movies never ran TV commercials (their soundtrack albums were enough) and there were no videotapes yet, no cable, nothing to watch at home for slumber parties. If you wanted to see LORD OF THE RINGS you didn't wait 30 years for DVDs to be invented, you snuck out when your parents were asleep, jumped in your friends' battered Mustang, got high on the way, and-- still in your pajamas and slippers--snuck in through the back door of the theater. SONG REMAINS was almost a prequel.

In terms of rock music films, SONG REMAINS THE SAME bridges the gap between post-1980 downers like THE WALL (1982) and pre-1970 uppers like YELLOW SUBMARINE. Zeppelin's movie isn't a downer or an upper--its trip is the balance between light and dark, good and evil, eloi and morlock. Zeppelin is not afraid to screw with the vibe by showing Peter Grant belittling weak management or sullen cops in the soulless gray outer corridors of the stadium. In other words, the band's not scared of showing the nuts and bolts of their fantasy operation, and it's somehow perfectly aligned to being young, dosed, and willing to surrender to the source of swagger: i.e. they've surrendered to the swagger within rather than just swaggering, with the result being that they become Swagger itself. They simultaneously give you the great and powerful OZ light show and also expose the man behind the curtain. They make it okay to be a straight man swooning at the sight of another straight man strutting around in tight, flared pants. It's way past sex, way past fantasy, it's the mythic chord we vibrate to, we who first came to know God while riding in an older friend's Trans-Am, eight track blasting, pretending we already knew how to smoke, and then smoking.

(P.S. The black magic synchronicity continues as the sublime Kim Morgan also shares SRTS memories over at Sunset Gun)

NOTES:
1. It was, during many of the close-ups, which were re-shot in a studio when the original director's concert footage was revealed to suck. Filmed later with some effort to make it appear to match the concert stuff, Jones' hair had been cut short by then, so he had to wear a wig made to his original show length.