Monday, November 30, 2009

Escape from Heaven: BAD LIEUTENANT: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS represents not just a triumph of a great European director over the cop film formula, but a triumph of drugs and the human spirit over the forces who've been playing them against each other for the last 70 years. With PORT OF CALL, Herzog raises the victory sign and lets the freaks know they can lay down their crack pipes and go home. In the face of maniacal Nicholas Cage, no locked-in-concrete reality stands a chance, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans.

When all the world is underwater, fishmen shall reign.

Herzog's great victory here is over his own Germanic fear of unheimliche abject dirt and devouring nature, a burden welded to an explorer's soul that hitherto has led him all over the world, his anxiety never more than a few paces behind. Herzog seems to have been born without a nesting instinct, or thick skin, and the combination signals the same amount of pain Cage's bad lieutenant endures from his injury and withdrawal symptoms; the same manic highs of crack are nice mirrors to the highs of art. It's a perfect synthesis of fearless maniac actor, the right material, and a maverick auteur who has done more than most to erase the line between fiction and documentary.


With it's weird non-sequitur scenes and throwaway framing (plenty of smokestacks and gutted pier backgrounds) it could just be random quirkiness but it works because in the case of both Abel Ferrara's original and Herzog's 'sequel' we have fearless men making movies about fearlessness, the holy grail of masculinity. It takes guts to go off the rails at will, and not edit out the embarassment later. These are films that keep their noses close to the pavement, like a bloodhound or drunk slowly waking up on a hot Sunday afternoon to the sound of concerned passers-by, sniffing the pavement for that one lost speck of cocaine from the night before. 

A lot's been written about the reptiles in this film, particularly the alligator's eye view along the highway, low and mean, mirroring our own as viewers, sunk deeply into our cinematic darkness. You imagine that gators feel not much pain, but plenty of joy, like a kid allowed to crawl in the mud all day in the rain, biting anything he wants, the murky, wet freedom. Then again, that gator is perhaps mourning its mate, leg still twitching with its guts hanging out after colliding with a car. For Cage's cop, the world of New Orleans is a seething swamp and like the gator he carries grief and pain that makes his mud-crawling joy sorely earned. His badge gives him power over every situation, a power he abuses copiously, but we're never really meant to feel sorry for those he oppresses, who include his call girl-friend's johns. Eva's sleazy exploitation would be played up with lurid, evil music and leering close-ups in less capable hands. But like Abel Ferrara, Herzog is  way beyond such petty morality. In both their worlds, the deep-end net between mere sick druggie sex stuff and actual murder is the only one our sympathies aren't meant to swim cross

The way our hero earns promotions via planting evidence or blackmailing football players shows that while America still wrestles with its emotional dependence on big brother and its unrealistic appreciation for nature as some warm, cuddly benevolent force that needs our help to survive one more day in its little hutch, Herzog and Cage have beat the rap and found contentment in the dog-eat-dog world of corrupt nature, which Herzog previously --in his documentaries at least--recoiled from as much as he embraced. Anyone can find a cute bunny rabbit cuddly, but that's not nature. If you can find an alligator eating a rabbit to be cuddly, then come hang... but not too close.

If you're familiar with Cage's oeuvre you will undoubtedly realize this role is something of a mid-career capstone. He even finds his way home to the nasal whine he adopted in his uncle's time travel story, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986). Lots of us back then who were in awe from him over BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and MOONSTRUCK (1987) thought to ourselves, "Where the hell did he get this ridiculous nasal vocal style?" Now we know, from all the crack he be smokin' in the future!


Lastly is the brilliant way they bring in sobriety as an option. Going off to AA and leaving your druggie mate behind to drink alone is hazardous to any relationship, an instant point of cataclysm usually seen from the sober person view (28 DAYS, CLEAN AND SOBER), but Herzog would never dream of following the sober person and leaving the crazy druggie behind. When everyone else is slinking away as the abusive crackhead rants and raves and loses his shit, Herzog walks boldly in with his camera and asks him about his dreams. Herzog would be a great "guide" on an acid trip. You can see him getting all up in a cop's face over his charge's right to eat the flowers in Central Park or to bite the heads off slow-footed squirrels. And that's how it should be, maybe, in a perfect world.


The only possible bid for moral high ground with a philosophy that Nietzschean is selflessness, the root of Cage's addiction (he hurt his back diving into a flooded prison to save a convict) but Herzog dispenses with showing us the moment of the actual accident or Cage's early days of dependence, i.e. his first week of, perhaps, trying to stick to his prescription regimen and be a good lieutenant. Did he do drugs ever before he got his back problem? Or is Herzog agreeing with the conservative notion that a prescription for Vicodin leads to heroin and crack like rain leads to mud? It don't matter, because we want Cage to be messed up, and there's a refreshing lack of cliche here, no Hoodoo doctor, no fortune teller woman who gets killed by her own cat moments after revealing some arcane clue to Mickey Rourke. In fact, the one wizened old salt grandma in PORT OF CALL gets a magnum pointed at her head for being "part of the problem!" (above, note Cage's resemblance to a German Expressionist). With no moral high ground to worry about, in other words, the story is left to fend for itself. It takes a long way to get not very far, but it's a got a great serpent's tail-eating-style plot -- once the events sort themselves out, the whole thing disappears.


Lastly, Jesus Christ will they throw away that market research report that said ticket buyers respond strongest to recognizable faces brooding in the foreground on movie posters? Look at the one on the left and you see a poster inescapably similar to 80% of the movie posters out there. One face in front, second face to the right, possibly a third even smaller one to the left, shrouded in ominous  darkness, with a crime scene in HO scale at the bottom, like something you'd see at Blockbuster and not rent. Now go look at the gloriously pulpy poster Russia gets up top, and weep! Weep for the chickenshit nature of our America's cinematic marketers.

Here's my idea, take any script and roll a set of dice for each character to determine who should be male or female, which would then determine if they were gay or straight. So in any film any character's gender could switch. Why not let Fairuza Balk play the Bad Lieutenant next time? She could even have played Cage's part and even kept Eva Mendez as her girlfriend! Que caliente! The only film in which I've seen Balk really rip the roof off with a fully formed lead role was in 1996's under-appreciated THE CRAFT! Shit, son, that was almost 15 years ago! She's still hot enough to melt rocks without an oven or lucky lighter. Give this girl a seat at the table and chop her up some lines of cred! Que Guapa ella!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Acid Cinema #1: DAZED & CONFUSED (1993)



Yeah so what if they don't do acid in it? It's still great acid cinema, as in a good trip, since a joyous awareness of living suffuses it and like any good trip it starts in the late morning and ends at dawn of the following day, leaving our heroes driving into the sunrise cranking "Slow Ride / Take it Easy" to go get rock concert tickets in a neighboring city. Oh yeah, when you're young, sexy, high as hell, and surrounded by the cool, confident tribe of your choice, the world is a ball.

A thing unto itself, unfortunately, there's no comparing DAZED & CONFUSED to other nostalgic "day in the life" teen nostalgia-thon. It belongs in its own section, as far away from THE BREAKFAST CLUB as the original WOODSTOCK is from WOODSTOCK '98. I was a teenager taking my first girlfriend to see BREAKFAST in the local cinema, and while it resonated it also skeeved me out. There was no place for me amidst these stock types - I was too cool to be a geek, to uncoordinated to be a jock, too sober to be a burnout. I needed rescuing.

DAZED would have rescued me. For one thing it would have taught me that in order to be confident, drunk, coordinated and cooler, I needed to understand it was cool to embrace pot and understand its rightful place in the culture of these United States. It's the substance that breaks down the rabid dog fascism that passes for high school football and class separations between jocks, stoners and geeks. Anyone who gets high is suddenly cool, as in less violent, less self-righteously scared (stoner paranoia is quite different from FOX News paranoia), and yet the film also understands the positive aspects of apparently brutal ordeals like hazing as far as creating important rites of passage in a mythic sense-- the transition of boys to men, girls to women--the ceremonial effect of physical trauma, and the way the entire senior class works harmoniously as one giant good cop/bad cop machine, the bullies creating a trauma which the nicer seniors then step into heal, and to extend the olive branch invite into the cool kid clique, relative to the stoicism with which the beating is endured. There's a sense of interconnected belonging in DAZED that you don't find much outside of Howard Hawks. Interactions and hellos in the film are as fascinating as the fly on the wall stuff of Larry Clark's KIDS, and the slightly edgy, dangerous  THIRTEEN, but without the subtextual critique. If Howard Hawks was a teenage pothead in the 1970s, this is the film he'd have made, or wanted to make.

So casual it's almost unnoticed is the ingenious way that Linklater moves gradually from a larger school cast of characters in the opening scenes to just a couple kids by the end, the ones who got transformed, who made the change, who stayed up all night: the taunted junior league pitcher who takes a licking from Ben Affleck and winds up in his first make-out session; the antsy Adam Goldberg who gets his first bruises, admiring them on the way home in the rear-view mirror and the stoner quarterback who decides to not sign his sobriety pledge even though it means missing all the senior year football glory.

The coaches who enforce this pledge are brutish caricatures (ala Cloris Leachman's hubby in LAST PICTURE SHOW) but the rest of the adults are all seen as complexly benevolent, just pretending to be enemies of the teenager universe, understanding the need for these bizarre initiations, playing their parts as parents: the dad who stays home and scares away the stoners coming to the door expecting a party, like its reverse trick-or-treat; he lumbers out after them in his big Texan get-up like the new sheriff in town, only to let out a sly grin when they're out of sight; an irate local shoots at the kids for smashing his mailbox, but you know he won't call the cops on them. These adults dig that it's their job to throw up many obstacles as they can in these kids' way, but to not make them too insurmountable, and to not get mad when every last one is hurtled or ignored on that last ditch blaze out of Dodge.

While some coming-of-age films unconsciously advocate the status quo (John Hughes) and others outright challenge it (Jody Hill, Werner Herzog) there's also in-between pictures like DAZED, which does both and neither, thus actually offering a unique hybrid wherein high school stoner cliques become like indigenous tribes of old, with all the violent initiation rites of piercing, burying alive, scarring, masked dances, etc. having been transformed into wooden paddles and threats over loudspeakers, chases and inflictions of pain, all followed by welcoming and sympathy ("Heard you got it, pretty bad," a hot girl consoles. "In my day it was much worse," says an older mentor type). The noble endurance of pain/trauma initiates a positive response in the community, triggering either sadism or sympathy and connection, and giving all concerned a feeling of genuine connection to the initiate.

Men tried to recapture this in the 1980s by going out in the woods to bang on drums and whatnot via the men's movement, but the pain was forgotten, to their eventual regret. But it's the neo-pagans with their tattooings, fight clubs and acts of defiance that are closest to true bonding. The pain of a tattoo or a fight (or acid trip) has permanence. It creates an event from which, in neurological terms, creates all sorts of new pathways and possibilities for change. People get tattoos at certain times to mark occasions. The paddling and grilling of football creates this same mark, so does overcoming the anxiety associated with your "first time" getting high, or making out, or riding with the big kids, or standing up to a shitheel even if it means you're going to lose a fight.
The best thoughts I've read about DAZED AND CONFUSED described the film this way: for all of the film's accuracy in depicting 70s suburbia and its associated ennui, this is not a film of how it was, but how it is remembered. Like a disconnected daydream. Linklater admits that DAZED was his opportunity to "make things right" by giving characters the cool muscle cars he never had, the follow-through on getting back at class bullies, etc. -- Redeyespey (Lamplight Drivel)



Making things right, man. Absolutely goddamned right. The only film that matches it is OVER THE EDGE. If you've ever been "cool" or been giddily excited to be sitting in the back seat of some badass car getting high for the first time, in quiet awe of the older longhairs in the front seat, blasting hard rock and the feeling something dangerous could happen at any moment, and yet feeling oddly safe and secure, that's the vibe Linklater captures in DAZED. While OVER THE EDGE found our kid's dogged by the aptly named Sgt. Doberman, these kids don't fear cops so much as boredom, the future, emptiness. What they don't realize is that they've created a perfect social network right there, a community in the strict sense of indigenous populations, of cultures centuries older than our own, who understood it was dancing, drugs and cool friends that made one whole, not expensive cars and financial prosperity. Looking back through time at this era, Linklater "makes things right" instead of critiquing or reminding us how shitty it all really was.


I had trouble picking a number one for this list. If it was pure hallucinatory weirdness I was going to have Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. OR EASY RIDER for the more straight-up influential counterculture, or 2001 for the arthouse. But ultimately none of those are really about us, man. Kubrick looks at man as just another form of intelligence on an endless journey of evolution discovering itself; EASY RIDER is ultimately more about condemnation than solution and Jodorowsky's endless penis/vagina humor and freaks-for-the-sake-of-freakiness gets wearisome after awhile, even when stoned out of your mind.

But DAZED leaves you on a full-blown contact high, full of that drunken giddy sense of possibility that comes from being newly free from parental curfews, open to the possibilities of the universe. We come away as happy as Mitch Kramer when he plops down into bed and puts on his big headphones to rock himself to sleep. Compare that to the up-against-the-wall headphone desperation of Carl in OVER THE EDGE and you can feel the healing. While most cool teen films spend their time pointing fingers and selling soap, DAZED AND CONFUSED whispers in your ear to meet you outside in five minutes, then drives you off to a place where you can be, as John Sebastian put it at Woodstock, "walking around this big beautiful green place, and not being afraid." When all the bullshit's cleared away through memory's uncloggable filter, that's what remains, that sense of "not being afraid" and being connected to everyone around you the way your chest is connected to your limbs, or as J. Sebastian later noted "You couldn't get one page of a book between me and that crowd" .

That's why we're here, to shrink the distance until it's less than one page between you and the crowd, and Linklater's the only one who's truly been able to capture it. DAZED & CONFUSED is the rare case of lightning actually staying in the bottle. Every time you watch it you get as high as the first. No other drug in the world can make that claim, nor group of friends, nor band, nor film. Just thinking about that awesome opening,  the orange 1970 GTO rolling slow into the school parking lot as "Sweet Emotion" pumps though the soundtrack--makes my mouth dry up, my spine tingle and my heart flutter with pre-trip-ticipation. It's our Valhalla. It's our Motorcycle Boy. It's our one shining moment.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Love Freezes: THE DEVIL COMMANDS...

In the late 1930s, early 1940s horror was at a low ebb, what with the real horrors going on overseas, blah blah. Boris Karloff made six pictures in 1939, eight (!) in 1940, and then in 1941, just THE DEVIL COMMANDS. In 1942, just THE BOOGIEMAN WILL GET YOU, largely because of being tied to the endlessly successful ARSENIC AND OLD LACE back east. With that play's old dark house crashes into Brooklyn comedic vibe, one could surely get a sense that typical Karloffian bogeymen were fading under the glaring lamp of Nazism and industry. The sense of losing one's place in the iconic understructure comes most to the fore in the much later TARGETS (1969). But, in THE DEVIL COMMANDS, Karloff taps into melancholic desperation, expressing the anguish of a million housewives and newlyweds terrified to open each new telegram.

The main storyline for DEVIL is A-typical for Karloff's films of the time: a kindly scientist is turned evil when his formula for bringing life to the dead is stolen by heinous gangsters. Inevitably he winds up back from the grave to bump off his betrayers, one... by... one, or else sends his zombie slave do it. This was the more or less same plot for: BLACK FRIDAY, MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HANG, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and THE WALKING DEAD. Surely the fascination with hanging and life after death tied symbolically with the sense of suspended animation associated with the home front during wartime.  Memories of the first world war still fresh in the collective consciousness, the dread of being a parent of a solider or a war bride encompassed the fact that one could receive letters from the front, weeks after the writer's death, a voice from beyond the grave... quite literally, all mishmashed in the swamp of the collective unconscious alongside the suspended animation of newly minted young brides who'd enjoyed only a few hours of conjugal bliss before their husbands were shipped off to the front.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) appears at first to follow the trend of bringing back the dead (this time via radio) but manages along the way to invoke something darker and more interesting than the usual gangsters and nooses. Here they're swapped for a mysterious lady spiritualist, played with great depth and malice by Anne Revere.

As pioneering brain wave researcher Dr. Julian Blair, Karloff begins the film a cheerful family man and respected scientist, we see him say good-bye to his loving wife, Helen (Shirley Warde), before she leaves on an errand and is hit by a car, and though she appears in only a few scenes before her death, one still feels the warmth between them. The sense of connection and esteem for one another is palpable and touching, making Dr. Blair's subsequent, prolonged grief after her death something genuinely palpable. Eventually Blair's obsession with contacting Helen from beyond the grave via radio waves starts to be a real turn-off; he spooks his respected colleagues and doting daughter, Anne (Amanda Duff), and is eventually run out of town.

Setting up his equipment in a remote country house, still determined to use his brain wave recording technology to contact his wife "beyond the veil," Blair takes up with a manipulative spiritualist, Mrs. Walters (Revere), abandons his daughter and even helps Ms. Walters cover up the murder of his own maid, when the poor woman gets "too close" to their disturbing secret.

The big secret is a doozy: a gaggle of diving helmet-wearing corpses seated round the table in a combination Frankenstein laboratory and spiritualist seance, the perfect merging of science with the occult! To detail any more would be a sin, but suffice it to say that with Revere's sinister spiritualist, Karloff finds another excellent actress to work with. Where he generated great warmth with Warde, he generates conflicted remorse and determination with his wife's dark shadow, Ms. Walters.

It is to Dmytryk's credit that the film takes some time to let characters develop in both negative and positive directions. The fears of the general scientific community towards something beyond their understanding doesn't stem from a knee-jerk hostility to new ideas as such, but rather the worry that in opening the gate between this world and the next, we risk exposure to some demonic force beyond our power to control. Whereas most scientific communities in these films just snicker and deride, this attitude is at least open-minded and refreshing.

This deviation from simple religious and scientific dogma provides an unusually clear window into the era's fears; in 1941, the U.S. was still dealing with its isolationist stance with regard to the Second World War. Dr. Blair's fellow scientists don't mock him, being too respectful of his previous brain wave research, but they argue: "We don't know what evil may be lurking beyond that veil!" The dread here is less about death than about opening a telecommunications bridge to the afterlife, i.e. once we start messing in Europe's affairs, what's to stop Europe from messing in ours? Once we let the dead back in, what's to keep them out again?

It's a complex narrative for such a short running time (barely an hour) and without Karloff adding so much heart and sympathy it wouldn't be the little powerhouse it is. Revere is great, dark and oddly sexy as the unscrupulous Mrs. Walters, but her horror career never materialized (though the granddaughter of Paul Revere, she was blacklisted, along with Dmyrtryk!). Her performance here will intrigue classic horror devotees, for whom a new scary face is always welcome. In short, one goes into THE DEVIL COMMANDS for Karloff, one comes out with Karloff, and Ann Revere!

Go to FRANKENSTENIA for more Karloff Blogathon entries!

(Portions of this entry were originally written for popmatters in 2003)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Momentum Mori: TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934)

"I never thought I would sink so low as to become an actor."

A zany screwball masterpiece where for once all three of those words are stunningly apt, Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY is a must-see regardless of its flaws and PS - it's called that cause it's on the train, the 20th Century Limited, that runs from New York to Chicago; it's not one of those historical odes to a simpler more morally repressive time that make you sleepy with all the trotted-out old frilly clothes and quaint old aunt spinsters. Man I hate period pieces (pre-1920s) but this aint that: this has John Barrymore as more or less himself, born under the sign of Sagittarius ("That's the Archer!!") harassing Carole Lombard, all night long!

I mention the frilly old clothes because TWENTIETH CENTURY is one of the more self-reflexively psychedelic of all the old pre-code comedies, not because of any surreal montages (has Hawks ever used a montage?) but because of the way it explores the nature of persona, of mask-wearing, of "Who am I this Time?"-style thespian identity melt-down. Consider Barrymore's co-star, a young girl named Jane Alice Peters who changed her name to Carole Lombard, here playing a girl named Mildred Plotka who is redubbed Lilly Garland so she can play Mary Jo in Jaffe's latest southern Gothic melodrama. "You're not Lilly Garland anymore," Jaffe coaches his terrified new protege, still under the delusion her name is Milred Plotka. "You're little Mary Joe. The scene is pure purple!"

Director is Howard Hawks working with a Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur script, adapted from Charles Millholand's play, Napoleon of Broadway, of which I profess to know little. I do know something of Hecht, who wrote SCARFACE (1933), a seasoned reporter with a rare ability to stare death and dysfunction straight in the face and laugh, wryly. Hecht liberates the Broadway-centric aspect Millholland's theatrical farce, blowing it out into the void the way Ahab might lob a harpoon at the vast white canvas of Moby Dick.

Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY, as Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses; in just one example he's contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde, hands curled in pre-strangling mode -- only to lower them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest when said manager comes in and tells him a hick backer wants to finance his play "from a religious angle." In a split second Barrymore's whole countenance conforms to a benevolent sincerity. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the  great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a better locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.

It may be hard to believe for modern audiences, but Barrymore played romantic leads in silent films (he was known as the "Great Profile"), but with the coming of sound--though his was a most mellifluous voice (he was stunning onstage, and apparently did the best Hamlet ever)--he was already "washed up," an alcoholic for whom coherence was a matter of some effort and little regard. CENTURY was amongst his post-code last gasps, proving he could definitely be counted on to play himself, a gentlemanly but hopeless drunk with sporadic moments of genius clarity peppered through his UNDER THE VOLCANO-like staring contests with the Lovecraftian blackness of his impending mortality.

He brought plenty of tragedy as the debauched, broke count wooing Greta Garbo in GRAND HOTEL (1932); was a believably mentally ill father returned from the asylum to re-connect with daughter Kate Hepburn in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932);  brokenhearted that Trilby doesn't love him as a hammy SVENGALI (1931); and like a gut-crushing portrait of me in the early 90s as a suicidal alcoholic movie star dealing with his much younger paramour named Paula in DINNER AT EIGHT (1933 - left). In all these he's alternately brilliant and unfocused, but also very cordial. In DINNER AT EIGHT in particular he's amazing, preparing his suicide (a recurring theme!) with great formality only to emit this pained choked back cry, only for a second or two, before choking it back, as if still acting for some unseen camera and determined to be stoic to the end for whatever ghost cameras happen to be around.

As Oscar Jaffe in TWENTIETH CENTURY however, he is transcendent, as if arising from the grave of EIGHT for one final phoenix expenditure. Imagine an alternative ending for SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), wherein Norma Desmond convinces DeMille to make Salome, bending reality to accommodate her grandiose self-image by, say, playing both herself, Von Stroheim, William Holden, the dead chimp and even Billy Wilder in a frenzied audition, channeling the spirits of every Broadway and Hollywood has-been and vindicating their endless struggles against death, disease, age, and--worst of all--obscurity. Good as that might be, Barrymore is better.

Lastly, there's the coolness of the train itself. Why are train movies so cool? What is it about hurtling through time and space aboard a giant locomotive (hopefully in a first class sleeper) that's so awesome? Something about the soothing rhythm of the rails, a sense of freedom from the illusion of control and permanence, maybe. It makes no sense to be walking around, sleeping and eating dinner in comfort while hurtling through the dark on complete faith that there are tracks ahead... or steep mountainous caverns, tunnels, and other dangers, whipping by at incredible speeds. No sense unless of course you're already hurdling through the cosmos on a spinning rock revolving around a star, then somehow it makes sense, somehow the two sets of motion cancel each other out to create a rare space of perfect stillness.

Then there's the light and shadow aspect of the film, deep shadows Hawks absorbed back in SCARFACE that allows the relatively cramped train sets to appear deeper than they are. At the end, after Jaffe's been shot and lies "dying" in the middle of his compartment the lights are dimmed for perfect mood and suddenly we too are swept up in the drama of it all. With everyone crying over the fallen Jaffe as he reaches into the approaching darkness for one last contract to get Lily to sign, you get the feeling that everyone is moving into a place of perfect freedom. In dramatizing death, we defeat it. With opened eyes you can see right into the frame, like they've conjured a rip in the screen via this self-reflexive celebration of ham acting and the power of pretend death to grant eternal life. The darkness of an empty theater becomes reflected now in every depth-filled shadow. As the stickers the crazy backer spreads around the train read: Repent, for the time is at hand!


It may be the healthiest choice of all to live in a state of constant morbid obsession, keeping reality forever at bay through constant play-acting, a kind of forward momentum mori. Or maybe it's just that TWENTIETH CENTURY was my first post-modern art wake up call, the Joycean slap in the face of aesthetic arrest, the first time the curtain pulled back for me and I realized that not only is all the world a stage and all the men and women in it merely players, but every action and reaction is properly blocked (with chalk) by some unseen guiding hand. Are we our own Oscar Jaffes, coming from a place far in our future, bedeviling our present time/space-anchored coils with outrageous stage directions from a place on high? Get free of your superego's incessant whining, open your mind and grab hold of Barrymore's coattails as he rides into the valley of the shadow of death at a mad gallop!

The tragedy is, don't go looking for anything else as good in the J. Barrymore canon, though you will want to later. Perhaps the only thing close is when Frederic March hams it up as John in THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY, a filmed version of the play based on the Barrymore family which is, irritatingly, unavailable on DVD. True to the reckless juggernaut character of Oscar Jaffe, Barrymore continued for a few years longer than pop culture could bear him. He found temporary shelter as a foil for tiresomely wholesome crooner Rudy Valee on the radio, and played woebegone deans in squeaky clean college football/romance films. Don't bother with those, just value the madness of the film wherein he and Lombard broke the illusory difference between sincerity and manipulation, persona and self, character and living creature, to reveal the dark ghost in the moving machine, the momentum of a huge tube of iron hurling through mountains and over rivers like an unstoppable plummet into the abyss.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Psychedelic WebCinema! The THIRD AGE Begins

A plug for my friends of the THIRD AGE, a new webfilm series with some seriously warped psychedelic edges! It launches today... so get ready, set, setting, and click here

Friday, November 13, 2009

Acid's Greatest Horror #1: ANTICHRIST (2009)

My original conception of a #1 one horror acid movie has hovered between THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, THE WICKER MAN and HOUR OF THE WOLF. How awesome then, that Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST should come along and perfectly encompass all three, and work almost a a remake of POSSESSION besides?

Anyone who ever wondered what ZABRISKIE POINT would be like if done by David Lynch,in the forest, if Lynch was a bigger fan of David Cronenberg and D.W. Griffith, would be wise to... but wait, I'm mixing too many references and comparisons. Sum: ANTICHRIST is great, don't let the frightened critics spook you just because there's some genital mutilation and shocking sexuality. You can handle it. If you're like me and a lifelong victim of anxiety and depression, then you'll really handle it. In fact, you'll dig into it so deep you may just decide to lie in it like a deep root coffin, hoping for your own Charlotte Gainsbourg to come fill the hole above you with comforting black dirt, while you wait for the comforting kiss of the conqueror worm!

Though a toddler figures into it, and some talking forest animals (!) this is a two person piece, which is fine when the people are Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg and the man behind the scenes is public depressive Lars Von Trier (and even the illiterate can relax since it's in English!) The story is simplicity itself: a pair of screwed up marrieds return to a cabin in the woods after their child dies, there to "face her fears." Charlotte goes insane from grief and her man's constant self-righteous attempts to "cure" her crippling anxiety (he's a behavioral therapist). Along the way, ye olde link between psychiatry and witch burning is exhumed, but mainly the landscape warps and weaves just like its wont to do when one is... warped. If you've ever been on major psychedelic drugs in the woods and gotten lost and wound up having a six hour conversation with a tree root about your impending death by starvation and exposire, only to find out you've been sitting in the petrified remains of a half-eaten fox and--oh wait, it's just some leaves, and anyway you've only been outside two minutes, and you're just a yard from the house where your friends are inside fingerpainting, then you'll know why this movie rocks so bad!

It's always amazing to see how many apparently normal people think Von Trier is a misogynist because he makes films that address misogyny -- as a warping factor in archetypal cinema-psychology -- not as an unconsciously endorsed lifestyle ala the "rom-com." If you want a list of real misogynists in cinema, just look at: Michael Bay, Cameron Crowe, or the geniuses behind PORKY'S, LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN and/or any stupid sex comedy to come along in the early 1980s.

Can I venture to say that the label "misogyny" is in this context only a detriment if its clearly unconscious on the part of the director and the film is marred by a subtextual contempt/hostility for the feminine. Von Trier's film may be partially about the "misogynistic response" but it in no way condones that response, and in fact rejects it. Yet the same critics who hate ANTICHRIST undoubtedly are rejecting something too, the right of femininity to show its true warts-and-all self, the raw ambiguity of desire and creation/destruction. For many supposedly enlightened critics, to see this thing is to automatically have to throw a rock at it, like a snake in the woods. And yet, it's Von Trier that they then accuse of hating snakes, just for daring to show them.


Compare ANTICHRIST now to a Michael Bay movie such as TRANSFORMERS, wherein the fear of the feminine means every chick in the film (the few) have to be stunningly gorgeous in a wet t-shirt, walking in slow mo to an Aerosmith song... That is objectification at its worst, and men in the audience are encouraged to leer from the safety of the dark and their pack of dudes. This snarkiness stems from a fear of the "other" that hinges on sociopathic. Since there's not enough access to full understanding of female oppression vs. the barrage of sensationalistic media that assaults the average American every day, it's not surprising they see so shallowly into the murky waters of the female psyche. The film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's HANDMAID'S TALE (1990), for example, shows misogyny as a widespread institution, yet what feminist would dare accuse Margaret Atwood? and the genital mutilation shown in ANTICHRIST is forced upon many girls--even today--as they reach puberty, so who is more a misogynist, Lars or the all the people who just ignore/deny the barbaric practices of our more extremely fundamentalist Muslim brethren?

May I venture to take a page from the book of Camille Paglia and suggest that if someone is afraid to look head on into the wild devouring Dionysian oceanic dissolution represented by pure unleashed feminine sexual drive, then it is they who are the misogynists not the artists who at least have the cajones to face it? Women get knocked around in the films of Von Trier, Peckinpah, Polanski, Hitchcock, but they don't fall down. Their films are more fearless and honest than those of the countless directors who--rather than wade into the vaginal sea-- just scoop out a handful of muck from off the bank and then parade it around on a stick, or wrap it in tight spandex and shoot it out of a wet t-shirt canon, then wait to film it after the threat has been "subdued", i.e. objectified, crashed, burned at the stake, and/or mangled. Is there a difference between silicone and sawdust when it comes to Norman's mommy's smothering breasts? Ding dong the witch is dead but when the witch melts back into ooze it's no more a permanent defeat than it would be for Medusa losing a snake of her hair. Norman knows this all too well; he must kill and display his trophies over and over again; the hair keeps growing long after the body has withered to bone and parchment skin. Death not ends it, only castration... Ancient, old Teiresius with his dugs, wandering off into the Led Zeppelin wasteland night.

In short, it's only when you need to prove you're not afraid, via sexual violence, winky objectification or smug condescension, that misogyny does its true damage (cinematically speaking). That is, unless you're the type of person who mistakes ignorance for innocence and conscience for guilt. 

But enough of my tirade, let's wander back to the woods, where there's Charlotte Gainsbourg--raw and feral--as a castrating lunatic, digging deep into warrens to hunt her smug covertly gynocidal therapist husband. Gainsbourg even as a child showed she gave not a crap about social taboo, just by being sired by reprobate Serge (they sang "Lemon Incest" together on her teen pop debut) and here she is, acting it up in a string of solid Gallic hits and now this performance, which is the gutsiest, rawest thing I've seen since Isablle Adjani in POSSESSION or Isabelle Huppert in THE PIANO TEACHER, and if the Oscars had any chutzpah she'd win next March, but there you go, more proof who really is the misogynist here - c'est Oscar!!


If you don't know what I'm talking about, just see it! Or warm up with DOGVILLE and ZENTROPA, for this film seems truly like a combo of those two, and the canine presence just adds to the trippy fun. If you get confused, don't compare ANTICHRIST with anything else you've seen this decade. Compare it to 1960s and late 1950s Freudian Gothic like SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and WHOSE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF... lastly, of course, you should compare it to IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and every other good movie about castration! Hubba Hubba! Aint nothing wrong with genital mutilation if it's done with clear-eyed awareness of the symbolic associations thereto. Lastly, dig up some moldy wet dirt-encrusted comparisons to the Japanese horror film, MATANGO!

In the end, just keep repeating "No sexual organs or appendages were harmed during the making of this movie." It's all a dream, all just stuff that transpires in that murky woods that exists between the unconscious symbolic and the ambiguity of the real. If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, otherwise the loving people there will rip you to shreds and eat you alive, until all that's left is just a mouth, still screaming down the wind... for puss-ay.

(see my list of ANTICHRIST'S Cine-chthonic relations on BLAD)