Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten of the Decade - 2000-2010


I had a good time this decade! Sin and sensation abounded and alternated with austere sanctimoniousness. My old boss escaped from prison in Brazil, I got divorced, had scandalous affairs, became enlightened, disillusioned, dizzy, co-starred in AA THE MUSICAL, found true love and the glory of chemical psychiatry, watched a crane fall onto my friend's bar, flaming death from the sky, a dog is born, job I worked, ocean I slept and then took a nap in between, and seen pictures.

The films here mesh beauty and ugly, truth and illusion, and generally have actors I like or love or sometimes generally can't stand! Most of these entries come with a quote from an older blog, unless I never wrote about it before, and a lot of times if I really, really dig a film, I don't write about it, as if afraid I'd dim the magic of it for myself or perhaps just realized I was or am simply not up to the task. Truly great movies make commentary seem almost superfluous, don't they, Paul Bettany?

1. DOGVILLE (2003)
Directed by Lars Von Trier

"A condemnation of the hypocrisy of the New Testament by way of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. One needs a certain amount of pop culture history to understand this chthonic purging, as if no cinema after D.W. Griffith exists. Lillian Gish turned out to be Jesus in disguise, and after all her frenzied prayers didn't save her virgin honor, she decided to burn the world down. It's Frances Farmer having her revenge on Seattle, as Kurt Cobain once prayed for. Nicole Kidman here represents all the vengeful icons ever idolized to the point where their unwashed fans ripped their clothes. I left the theater feeling like a century's worth of crud had been laser-surgically removed from my eyes." (Popmatters, 03)


 4. MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)
Directed by David Lynch

If it's too weird, just remember: it's all the same soul, ever-dividing and re-aligning itself. If the cowboy looks at you twice, you're done and whatever contract you take out on someone is really always on yourself, bro. Lynch actually illustrates the impossible-to-illustrate process of multiple life/death Buddhist reincarnation. We eventually become the recipient of all our kindness or cruelty, the way the Moebius strip connects two sides into one endless road, and that whatever we do, it's already happened.  Just as we can see the future, the future can see us. Somewhere far ahead on the timeline, we're watching it all happen as ghost shadows on the wall.


3. THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008)
Directed by Lucretia Martel

In THE HEADLESS WOMAN, the (possible) amnesiac is Veronica (Maria Onetto), a dentist in a small Argentine town. Wherever she goes people know just who she is, or seem to, and someone seems to be cleaning up her past behind her as she goes. Her amnesia begins when she hits her head on the roof of her car after running over... something, either a dog or a small boy - she can't trust herself to remember, and as the film goes on, we don't know what her game is --is she playing dumb, in a fugue state, pretending she's got amnesia in case anyone's watching. What first looks like a cop digging up bodies on the side of the road turns out to be a plumber digging up a clogged pipe; the droning dissonance of pop songs on the radio seem halfway to being haunting ghost voices in her head, they almost seem to accuse her. In one of the greatest scenes she hides out in a bathroom in the hospital and neither she nor we quite realize the nurses barging in are not after her at all. The only thing we do know: director-writer Lucretia Martel is a friggin' genius. (more)

4. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2005)
Directed by Michel Gondry
"When the shattering of the mirrors comes, at first it feels glorious and freeing. Later we come home damaged by defeat, or torn by obsessive fall-out from petty triumphs. What is this ego shattering moment for you? What is it that splinters your sense of self and time so that for the rest of your life you long to gaze into those shattered shards just one more time? Maybe it’s the moment you finally got a chance to tell the one you truly love how you feel and she wasn’t into you. Or maybe you realize that the girl you thought you were in love with years ago, you really weren’t. It was just that she was so gorgeous, and so damaged, and looked like she would fade so fast. " (Acidemic, 2006)

5. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

 "Men who have grown soft with unearned privilege will probably not like Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and are probably the reason Brolin's not even nominated. The return of the true king is never welcomed by the pretender to the throne. The haters thought this sort of moustached hombre long vanished. Now he's back, covered in the dirt used to bury him, but his eyes are burning through the dust with the fire of a thousand Bronsons!" (BLAD, 2/08)

6. THE HURT LOCKER (2008)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth,  what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle). (3/7/10 - more here)

7. AMER (2009)
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Until mon Amer there's always been a weird dissonance, a grinding disagreement, between the iconography of experimental film and narrative film, even in Europe, where art doesn't have to be framed and velvet roped the way it does here. A mirror to this twin dissonance might be found between the Jungian anima and the Mulveyan male gaze, between Jess Franco's 1967 Succubus, let's say, and Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman. But Amer brings to this twin dissonance (experimental vs. narrative / male fantasies about what girls dream vs. female artist's impressions of girls dreaming about men) a twin serpent DNA lover's frequency that harmonizes all those dissonant tones, and the resulting unified field harmony expands wider and wider until it envelops and entrains other dissonances, widening its wave until even the most ideal sympathetic response to the film is swamped and carried off ever outward into space until the floor rises up to meet you like a hugging tree.

8. THE HOLY GIRL (2004)
Directed by Lucretia Martel

Another one I never wrote about. I know a film's good when I can't even begin to write about it. Ahead of its time and ably capturing a sense of intimacy and texture that is totally Argentine in a way America needs to learn for itself, or become Catholic in mind as well as deed. Imagine Altman-style seamless ensemble overlap and a Bressonian feel of gloriously unglorious martyrdom. Her THE HEADLESS WOMAN might even be better, but is harder to love.

9. PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (2002)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

"The pinks and blues and whites and deep black silhouettes are all the sort of stuff many directors use to hide the flimsy material within, but in PUNCH-DRUNK's case, it is the material, the style shapes and frames and focuses and blurs until we recognize that pure art is the way to shift attention from the banal blinders-on crawl of drab social reality into the liquid present, where life is a continually moving, breathing changing force expressing itself constantly through the air, the stars and the sea and every random song select or spin of the roulette wheel. So when you see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE even stone cold sober you can follow Anderson's breadcrumb trail right into that same candy colored universe of egoless nonjudgmental acceptance of all life as it is right here right now. In short, watching this movie gets you totally "TOASTED" on art, love, and a dizzying array of overlapping dialogue by the seven sisters, who make the witches of MACBETH seem like Girls Gone Wild." (9/09)

10. SCIENCE OF SLEEP (2006)
Directed by Michel Gondry

"Mark my words, this film will one day be regarded as highly as CITIZEN KANE and LA DOLCE VITA and PERSONA as a benchmark in art cinema, that is to say, art cinema that is accessible to the layperson and trenchant regarding genuine issues of its days and it elevates one's perceptions even as it captures the way we really think, the way we see, etc., in short Gondry has re-created and perfected "instantaneous cinema" in a manner that takes the dreams of the 1960s New Wave and art house movements and fully realizes them, even if it is in the painful service of a struggling artist in Paris longing for the intellectual girl next door, not quite fathoming the extent of his own worth, and so forth. Still, one day SLEEP, along with the tremendous ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, will be regarded as one of the true masterpieces of the new century." (BLAD, 10/2007)

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And what about Wes Anderson's underrated DARJEELING LIMITED? Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION and Jody Hill's OBSERVE AND REPORT? And of course, Quentin and of course, BIRTH, maybe even THE WRESTLER.

But my best-of decade films had to reflect not just a freedom from bourgeois morality and unconscious status quo obedience, not just a sense of love and spiritual awakening, but deep and perfect artistry and a sublime mix of style and substance. What films leave you shaking with awakened sense of love and purpose, or of healing -- without being dull or didactic, or 'family ensemble'-driven? Of having some long unresolved inner issue suddenly solved and healed over by the power of cinema? These films showed us things we needed to see, and they rock, They've made the '10s a safer place to be unsafe in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Acid Sight/Sound Symphonies: FANTASIA (1940 - rereleased in 1969), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

T to B: Fantasia, 2001
Walt Disney was determined to not just blow minds and thrill art lovers with his 1940 epic animated classical music film FANTASIA, but to bring what critic James Agee referred to as "middlebrow highbrow" culture to an America on the edge of war. It didn't... but yet, when re-released in 1969, it caught on with a new kind of American at the edge of war, the stoned draft dodger. As Wikipedia notes:
Fantasia did not make a profit until its 1969 re-release. By then, Fantasia had become immensely popular among teenagers and college students, some of whom would reportedly take drugs such as marijuana and LSD to "better experience" the film.[4] Disney promoted the film using a psychedelic-styled poster. The re-release was a major success, especially with the psychedelic young adult crowd, many of whom would come lie down in the front row of the theater and experience the film from there.
You know how Disney used to do with their best titles... and still does with their DVDs: letting them go in and out circulation, then re-releasing them (with "timeless" hype of the "now more than ever" variety). Acid similarly comes and goes from the American popular imagination, and in 1969 it was still "cool" the way cocaine was in the late 1970's, or ecstasy in the early 1990s, something even "normal" people want to try (they read about in Newsweek or heard about it at their Wednesday bridge game). Naturally Disney and acid came together --seeing a good Disney film with "mind expanded" was to truly appreciate its abstract beauty, so the bridge partners said. The idea of acid cinema had reached a nice peak with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and YELLOW SUBMARINE the year before. Whether any of these films were intended for drug use or not, all three were ideal for a cinematic trip.

Imagine that you're used to seeing television on a small black and white TV in a room crowded with cigarette smoke-- you've been watching TV like that for 20 years nonstop--and now you're in a New York multiplex with 3-D surround digital sound. Everything about the experience of viewing is now a complete sensory overload--your inner blinders quickly scurry to adjust their levels but until they do you're suddenly in a wild and wondrous place. The sheer miracle of a moving picture, the miracle of the people around you, is enough to delight you beyond all endurance. You gush with gratitude at being able to process all this information in a setting where you feel safe without feeling lonely, where it's dark enough to be free and don't have to talk to people or make eye contact while you endeavor to catalog your newfound wealth of sensory information.

Your natural tendency to be hypnotized by a glowing screen keeps your loosened mind from wandering (usually) into bad trip panic attack territory, which is important, since your mind is so open and unguarded, one nasty image can get right inside your head and warp your soul forever. Of course, it's good in that sense to avoid films with lots of guns and violence and negativity or a heavy emotional plot that your unprovoked laughter will disrupt. So what you needed in the acid heyday of 1967-70 were long, slow panoramas filled with soothing, positive music and flowery images, expressions of love or else total blankness. Living is easy with eyes closed! But when your eyes are suddenly open, you need a break from all the lonely people, their beady, needy eyes imploring you, their hungry ghost carny people hands darting in and out of food-stained sleeves. Flowers and sunshine were like the balm to that illness.

Fitting the bill perfectly for supplying the positives without the negatives, right at the start of the acid spike in 1966 was a surfer movie called THE ENDLESS SUMMER. As Laker34 notes on the IMDB user comments "See this film because it is not violent." Rather than a drama it was a meditation, a music picture show in the best sense... waves, man, it was about the waves.


Then came YELLOW SUBMARINE and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968. With these films, the cinema was now safe for heads (as they were known at the time). The posters for 2001 even came right out and labeled it as "the ultimate trip." While YELLOW SUBMARINE said it all, a psychedelic journey with Beatles and the safety of a little hideaway beneath the waves. It even had a total selfless love ending, when John asks the defeated Blue Meanies to join the celebration. Was this not the lesson we as people most needed and could most easily grasp when high out of our gourds? That to reject or fail to love even one person, no matter how bad they smelled or how hard they cracked our skull with their baton, was to render the whole thing worthless? That's the lesson we didn't learn though, only Lennon and Gandhi and King learned it, and look what it got them! That kind of selfless love is a bullet magnet, speeding you up to God like you'd speed a candle out of a gas-filled kitchen. We the gas learned to reign in our smell, to hide in pockets behind the stove and wait for our chance. In short, though we still wanted to love everybody, we shut up about it.


Kubrick's formalist dehumanizing motifs reflect that "shutting up about it" and once that's taken into account it's all suddenly revealed to be just the cynical armor of an existential humanist, one unafraid to stand in the bathroom mirror and watch the stranger through the glass age into newborn baby. While 2001 sent many a conventional sci fi narrative lover out the door in boredom, many of them had read about the drugs and they knew it was their fault if they didn't 'get it' -- they probably just weren't high enough. The truly high and hip fell into the movie like it was a black pool and the sober people would see them float up out of their chairs and vanish into the screen, enviously. Here was a movie man's killer instincts were depicted as entwined with alien genetic manipulation, and the concept of outer and inner space were colliding, and withered old age was turning naturally again to embryonic, and these straight edges were dozing in the aisles just because absolutely nothing was happening for whole minutes at a time. Both things happening at once, in the same universal mind. Truth or illusion!


It was all stuff only the heads could totally grasp and the idea of classical music piping through space kept the whole thing at enough of a measured pace that no dosed human watching it was likely to get a panic attack, until the whole heavy breathing out in space rescuing Dr. Poole part at least, and even there it seemed Kubrick had slowed down the action deliberately so the heads could sneak out for a smoke. Heads may have been distracted, but they knew that it all meant something, had something to do with birthdays. And circles. It wasn't a story of dudes in space but the story of human evolution carried from start to finish - not a circle but a straight line up from the caves and into the eighth dimension. And the obsidian obelisk is like a great big tab, man!

Kubrick's use of classical music connects the abstract imagery to the equally sleep-inducing FANTASIA, re-released the following year. Here too, those straight folk trapped by expectations of conventional narrative were flummoxed into submission while the enlightened presumably blossomed out their crown chakras.

As we've seen in our film thus far, the idea of the theater as a place of reflection and spectacle (rather than narrative absorption) was big in the late 1960s as a result of the newfound "midnight movie" crowd, those going in with altered consciousness or just looking to see if they could catch a contact high. It was in the papers, so even if you'd never done a single drug, for example, you knew that 2001's big ending was "trippy" and you consoled yourself that maybe if you were high you'd get it. If you weren't high, and didn't get it, both FANTASIA and 2001 could be as intense and moving as a trip through a crowded art museum with relatives who have to spend several minutes before every picture, and your feet hurt. "Yeah yeah, pretty, but can we go?" Andrew Sarris famously issued two reviews of 2001: The first review--sober and full of high expectations--is grouchy and disbelieving. Sarris' second viewing came after he'd "ingested a substance" resulting in a complete conversion. At least he was critic enough to admit it and write the second one. And both together really illuminate the power of set and setting.

Now, later, on DVD, it's easy to forward through the draggy stretches of Kubrick's film, or pluck the good segments of FANTASIA (Night on Bald Mountain, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Rite of Spring) out and fold them in with pre-code Betty Boop and wartime Bugs for a night of weird but blissfully centaur-free animation.

So why is FANTASIA so dull to the sober? We must inevitably look at the Disney juggernaut itself. Was Walt a humanist or propaganda merchant? Nazi collaborator or Hero of California? Either way that Wonderful World of Walt Disney TV show--that ran all through the 70s on Sunday nights on ABC--was excruciating. It was boring and brown with faded outdoor photography color, but it was all that was on and we kids slogged through it just to make the night before going back to school last longer. Sometimes Walt would show some nature documentaries (ala Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom), but mostly it was apple-cheeked youngsters learning drab conformist lessons from folksy trackers. Occasionally the youngster would run from a bear, snake or wolf, and sometimes I'd stay up just to see if he got eaten--the attack played up in the commercials and kept to the last minute just to keep us antsy JAWS fans in front of the endless commercial. That ultra-square sense of what constitutes entertainment suffuses FANTASIA. However, in the right mood it can be as brilliant and riveting as watching a snail... crawl along the edge... of a straight... razor... and surviving... to the stern Teutonic strings of a little fellow named Richard Wagner... We start with a soft timpani roll, Mr. Stawkowski... if you please...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Great Acid Movies #11: NAKED LUNCH (1991)



The year of 1991 was a scary one to be a recently graduated, unemployed alcoholic writer: there was a terrible recession, political turmoil, and worst of all was George Bush Sr's CAMP (California Against Marijuana Production) robbing Northern California of its income and making all hip Americans miserable. At least we had fascist action movies to soothe our angry hearts, and the beat canon staple Naked Lunch being adapted into a movie... wait, what? How in the hell could a non-XXX film version be anything but an embarrassment, even with David Cronenberg as the director?

But then we learned in the trades that even Burroughs approved of the final script. And so, as Nirvana prepared to descend from Seattle and lovingly fog our panes with layers of heavenly grunge, and CAMP failed, as evil always does, our LUNCH--a mescalin salad of disturbing  hallucinatory creatures, sublimely deadpan comic croutons, and a Burroughs-biographical dressing ala JUNKY or EXTERMINATOR--was served. Replete with creepy, slightly "wrong" (probably intentionally so) renditions of Kerouac and Ginsberg, the memoir aspect didn't succumb to gushy bourgeois period piece hero worship like so many druggy cult figure bios/memoirs of the past and future (THE DOORS, FACTORY GIRL, etc) and wasn't the core of the film. So what was?

What was, what wasn't... the point is Cronenberg had made a good adaptation of a very weird and purposely disturbing, non-narrative book, one originally (apparently) aimed at the ever-dwindling demographic of gay autoerotic asphyxiation devotees. But clearing out all the post-hanging orgasms for the movie there's still enough in LUNCH to, if not quite blow our minds, at least penetrate the frontal lobes; and, if it doesn't quite have us doubled over in laughter, at least it's wryly aware of just what hipster cool is really all about, the whistling-in-the-dark surfer on the swamp of madness deadpan that all brave psychedelic explorers need to not wind up in the bughouse.

Maybe it's because he's Canadian?? When Americans and Brits try to adapt druggy literature they tend to shout and overemphasize too much and the result is a lot like Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS or BASKETBALL DIARIES. But Candian Cronenberg understates, and stays loose without being flippant, the trippy lines come out like a bare whisper out of the corner of his actors' mouths. You pass him the money in a handshake and follow him through the Moroccan marketplace to a quiet tent, your paranoid ears tuned to the the hiss and crackle of black centipede meat as you whisk past the vendors' twirling spits. Whatever he gives you to eat, quick, you eat it! The monsters may come and may go, but if you don't freak out no one will notice you're crazy.

Casting is everything and Cronenberg's great deadpan style would still add up to little more than half a film if not for Judy Davis as Sally Bowles. She has such incredibly dry, cool hipster rapport with Peter Weller's bug-eyed Bill that Hollywood matched them up again in a film called THE NEW AGE shortly thereafter. Davis blazed along in many great films of that year. She was the indie artistic mature goddess of 1991-92: nurse/succubus/enabler to a Faulkneresque drunk in BARTON FINK ('91); a droll and saucy George Sand chasing Chopin for IMPROMPTU (1991) and most famously as the jaundiced object of Liam Neeson's unwanted affection in HUSBANDS AND WIVES ('92). She was the older, more gravitas-engorged Parker Posey of her day. For a brief while she shone in enough nervy, sexy, intelligent roles to cause many a prematurely disillusioned young writing student to fall in love with her. She alone seemed to nail the ideal antithetical mix of sexuality and brains, insanity and maternity, canny courage and vulnerable confusion. She was quiet but no doormat, and--best of all--she was nonjudgmental. You could drink, shoot up, shoot her, cheat on her with a rentboy, she could care less and expected the same allowances for her dalliances. In fact in one of those weird coincidences of cinema, there's a lot of similarity in her two roles of 1999, BARTON FINK and NAKED LUNCH. In each she's a writer connected to an older male writer and desired by a younger rival. Both films feature hallucinations and fearsome black insectoid typewriters sat before by our young writers in hotel rooms in foreign lands (Isn't Hollywood America's interzone?). Each has interesting use of beaches, weirdo muse figures, surreal expressionist digressions, Kafka-esque elipses, etc.


Top: Lunch, Bottom: Fink
 Back to Peter Weller: before LUNCH he was the lead in BUCKAROO BANZAI and his ADVENTURES ACROSS THE EIGHT DIMENSION (1984). There's only one scene from that film everyone remembers: Buckaroo is in a club, jamming with his band and Ellen Barkin is crying at a table in the darkened back of the room but he stops the music because he can tell someone out there is sad, and he says his famous line: "You know, no matter where you go... there you are." The quote stuck in all our brains, though a lot of us felt the film was a little too sure of its future cult status to make us want to embrace it the way, say, a younger generation has embraced DONNIE DARKO. But that wasn't Weller's fault --he played it perfectly. You could barely tell he was even acting, and that was why the moment landed. If that ambiguous "there you are" was a quantum entanglement butterfly wing, NAKED LUNCH would be the tsunami that roared ashore seven years later. They knew he was perfect because he was handsome and relaxed yet possessed of the thousand yard stare of the war vet or martial artist, and that thousand yard stare is what you need in the Interzone. You need to be level-headed and whistling a mellow happy tune even as the people around you on the street devolve into creatures so comically obscene you can hardly stop from pissing your pants with deranged laughter. Cool must be maintained or else mounting panic amplifies like feedback and that's the whole idea behind the title, taken from something Kerouac said to Burroughs about how when you're dosed on mescaline and trying to eat dinner with your parents, and your food is squirming on the fork as if alive, and you can't freak out. You must smile and say nothing and eat as if all is well, trusting that the thing squirming on end of your fork isn't really a tiny tentacled monster clinging for dear life to the tines. Although some say the title was supposed to be NAKED LUST and Ginsberg typed it wrong from Bill's illegible notes, I like to think it's this meaning. For the true hallucination is not that people are monstrous, but that they aren't. Stripped temporarily of all the social indoctrination and laziness by which we filter our sensory input down to the bare minimum, we finally see the world as it really is. The lunch i exposed as the still twitching evidence of animal and/or plant slaughter, trails of life and energy still clinging to the (barely) inanimate matter.


And the weirder things get, the cooler one plays it, for one doesn't want to be shipped off to the bughouse or to make a public spectacle or otherwise end up pinned to the ground and frisked just because your foaming at the mouth and raving at everyone on the street to hide their drugs because cops are coming out of the cracks in the sidewalk.



Depicting hallucinations has always been a tricky issue in cinema. It's not that typewriters turn into actual insects on drugs, it's just that they almost do, their true insect nature is revealed. And when you're alone and hoping the acid you took will lead you to write some brilliant poetry and the letters start squiggling and trying to escape the page as soon as you type them, the typewriter seems more and more alive and shiny with arthropodical imperviousness. Fictionalization naturally ensues. On good hallucinogens one is allowed to see all the nuts and bolts of vision and how we're still hard-wired to identify insects camouflaged in trees that might sting our hands or perhaps provide food. I could go on and on about how if we learned to eat insects all our problems would be solved, that it's a jive corporate mind fuck that makes eating slaughtered mammals acceptable but bugs disgusting. If aliens saw what we eat they'd think we were cannibals! Why bother eating your own kingdom when rival larval arthropods are so much more deserving. That's why when people have the DTs or are twitching on cheap meth they see bugs everywhere. We're hardwired to be seeing bugs everywhere because we're hardwired for outdoor, forest living. Bugs are meant to be everywhere. So while our symbolic stencil kit tells us the thing we see on our desk is a typewriter, if acid dissolves that stencil symbol kit, just what is that thing?



Then there's the gay aspect. NAKED LUNCH scores extra eerie frisson if you're a sexually frustrated straight male in 1991, a time when queerness wasn't yet PC police-protected and thus allowed to carry a creepy closeted charge, even to the extent of casting the uncanny Mr. Julian Sands as the first character to use the word 'queer' and get it out in the open. You remember when he was Elisabeth Shue's deranged Russian pimp in LEAVING LAS VEGAS? In 1991, being gay was still much more controversial than it is now, and the brave thing about LUNCH is how it gradually "outs" its protagonist, from flinching at Ginsberg's suggestion that he and Bill "join" Jack and Judy Davis in an orgy (like he's ashamed he's in the same sexual set as this Rick Moranis-ish poet) to conveying disgust at the advances of Julian Sands, to waking up quietly contented and happy next to Kiki, a pretty Moroccan boy hustler. Without trumpets and a big fuss, through this gradual process, LUNCH brings queerness into the acid cinema canon without raising a single hackle. The way it does this is first by shocking the audience--with the gay come-ons which are creepy and rejected--then retreating back to heterosexuality (with Judy Davis), and then, once we're completely confused, setting Bill up with lil' Kiki. By that point in the film you're too dislocated to be able to muster any knee-jerk homophobic horror. You're just glad Bill's finally found a friend.

Lastly, there's the late, great Roy Scheider as Dr. Benway. When near the end he rips off his disguise and shouts "Benway!" with a roar of delight, you know you're seeing a fuckin' great movie, it may have taken the whole film to get there, but there's no denying it now.

In structure, NAKED LUNCH bears similarity to the sacred ritual myths of initiation and creative evolution. In that sense Scheider is like Prospero in THE TEMPEST or Sarastro THE MAGIC FLUTE, or even the little girl hologram in RESIDENT EVIL, letting you know you're ready for the next level, the higher initiation; and every time the serpent takes another swallow of its own tail, the circle gets just that much smaller, i.e. wider.

Bill's very nature reflects the inextricable union of life and death: he works as an exterminator, but gets high on his own bug powder. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are unafraid to look death in the eye and see it as merely temporary (like life), the tunnel portion of an endlessly looped carnival ride. The topography is changed just a little after each journey into the Stygian darkness, but memories of past events warp to accommodate new information. And then Benway appears with a trial prescription like Glenda the Good Witch, with a new pair of rubier slippers to celebrate your completing the first level of Oz. But each pair has a price: like Moira Shearer you can't stop easing on down the yellow bricks. For every bridge deeper into the Oz Interzone another universe of possibility dies behind you. What Buckaroo Banzai didn't realize about the 8th dimension is that you don't need a fast car driving into a rock to get there, you just need a taste of Dr. Benway's patented black centipede syrup, and a deadpan facade. Wherever you go, there you are, but then, also there you aren't... so best look like you intended to be... wherever it is... from the beginning. That's what you call 'turning pro.'

Sunday, December 06, 2009

MAD MEN Substitute: THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964, d. Edward Dmytryk)



While Mad Men is out of season, get your hot angry period piece businessman fix with Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of the Harold Robbins' bodice-ripper, THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964). Age has been kind to this loose adaptation of the Howard Hughes mythos. It keeps all the juicy bedroom camp alive in long, well-structured scenes that should have been studied by Scorsese and DiCaprio before they made the far less virile AVIATOR. While Scorsese's film made Hughes into a saint too fine, broken and dreamy for this world, the fictionalized Jonas Cord (George Peppard) is a misogynistic chick magnet. His marriage to the Winthrop heiress is scrapped when he finds out she's a clingy conventional hausfrau. His true love is his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) who was his lover before his richer dad stole her away and married her. Amoral and manipulative a pair of hot-to-trot relatives as you're likely to find this side of the 80s, they're like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both"). Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith (the cowboy outlaw turned millionaire kid's bodyguard/pal, ala William Demarest in THE LADY EVE or Rock Hudson in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, or Viggo in EASTERN PROMISES), and Leif Erikson rants nicely as Joanas Sr., who yells at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!"

As I mentioned in an old post, THE CARPETBAGGERS makes a great unofficial sequel to GIANT, with Jett Rink changing into Jonas Cord, and Caroll Baker growing up and over to Hollywood to pursue her dream in pictures, and Dmytryk knows Baker's method hotness is the film's best asset, and so gives her room to breathe and lounge. Meanwhile, Monica, the clingy Winthrop heiress (Elizabeth Ashley) sounds exactly like Kate Jackson, and through it all George Peppard is a real pleasant surprise as a taciturn, ruthless hedonist businessman workaholic with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred.  His voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover, or has a cold, or all three, like I used to have when seeing him in Breakfast at Tiffany's screenings Sunday afternoons in Tribecca circa 1997. 


I was too much of a boy to watch Dallas and Dynasty and all that back in the 1970s-80s, but  now I love the CARPETBAGGERS, and to me, the nymphomaniac stepmom is clearly the good guy. Actually sex itself is the good guy. Those who wield sex wantonly gain the world and lose the soul they never even had, a more than reasonable exchange when your life doesn't extend past the credits.

And yeah, it has that 60s Mad Men panache as well. What was once misogynistic becomes quaint and inspiring in our post-modern age for it reminds us we are not like that now. Even the most sordid sexual expression can become socially acceptable through the prophylactic rose-tinted windshield screen of time. As CARPETBAGGERS is itself set thirty years before it was made (in the swingin' 30s), our windshield here is double-tinted. Baker's boozy harridan becomes less a sex object through all this filtration and more of a third-wave martyr. Oh the things she could have done with a guest spot on the O.C.!

Of course it all ends happily, and I shan't reveal any more. But know that the DVD is in splendidly refurbished colors and it all glows with nice dark red wallpaper and tastefully dusky furniture and none of the usual suffocating bouquets and endless white marble that chokes so many other rich folk films. So when you have that yen for martinis, suits, gowns and a complete absence of political correctness, pick up CARPETBAGGERS the way you'd pick up a Kantian dissertation on 60s soap operas for the beach. Raunchier than Sirk, not neutered like Tashlin, not smothered in chintz and expensive perfume. It's about ballsy men, and deep oak and mahogany surfaces, and women who are allowed to make the kind of prolonged, sexually aggressive eye contact that would send a 21st century boy or 19th century girl blushing from the coffee bar. Edward Cullen would probably explode into CGI dust if Baker so much as batted an eyelash his way. Here's wishing there were a dozen more as good... or as bad... as Baker.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Idiot's Delight (1939)

Who are the idiots?
There must be some word.
I want them all.
I want all the idiots."
--Riffs' leader if "idiots" was substituted for "warriors" (THE WARRIORS, 1979)

And that's just what MGM does here. "Warrior's Delight" would be a much better title, because all the local soldiers at this Alpine border want to do is bomb some stuff, and stranded traveler Burgess Meredith gets all self-righteous about it: "Ten thousand tons of flaming death and none of you want to stop dancing!" Why doesn't someone shut that pacifist up, you ask, mootly, at the screen? Gable and Shearer are trying to play screwball and the soldiers are trying to dance with Gable's devoted dancing blondes, and the pacifist wants to rain on the parade.

The best thing about this play/movie is how transparently it reveals anti-war modernist tracts to be self-defeating. Now that an annoying sanctimonious tub-thumper like Burgess' pacifist has expressed all these humanist sentiments, humanist sentiments are suddenly very uncool. Once you hate the haters, you just switched sides.

Two big MGM stars were Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. Both having been MGM top talent since the silent age, Garbo was basically retired by 1939 (though she came back the same year in NINOTCHKA), but Shearer was only slightly the less for wear, a little paunchy maybe, but bravely, brazenly--for endless pages of campy but gleefully nihilistic dialogue--willing to alternately satirize, celebrate and lovingly impersonate Garbo, at times coming off like a drag queen, other times like a legit and loving sociopath who "vonts to be alone." And then, when you're just about ready to press stop, Clark Gable busts loose in his big number, mocking both Fred Astaire and the whole concept of song and dance men in his hilarious "Puttin' on the Ritz." It's worth watching just for his facial expressions, which are pure Groucho Marx impersonating Maurice Chevalier in MONKEY BUSINESS.

Edward Arnold is pretty ballsy as the ruthless arms magnate (Shearer's his arm candy). He explodes in a big burst of anger when she's cynical about his genius at sewing death. "If someone's going to be so petty as to take up arms they deserve to die! I help humanity by getting rid of them!" Or something like that. No argument from me, brother! Probably not from MGM either, with scrappy little Burgess Meredith's hysterical outbursts. The self-appointed "prophet" spreading brotherly love and peace, he's the lynch pin by which to measure and hang the rest of the cast. Gable and Shearer's doomed couple ultimately transcend it all since they're not too terribly afraid of death. That's what true love is, after all, a kind of painful form of living death, in and of itself, like enlightenment, and death is just another station on the endless spinning dial.

In short, there's far worse examples of that Barton Fink feeling than this adapted pacifist play! Simmering with cross purposes, it fairly begs to get a post-modern de-adaptation by the Wooster Group. I can see Kate Valk acing the Garbo by way of Shearer MGM elocution accent, and Willem Da Foe a psychotically chipper Gable, acting out love scenes in front of a screening of some confiscated Third Reich Alpine nature documentary footage and psychedelic bomber shadow explosion lightshows. And the conscience represented by Burgess Meredith in the film could be one of Godard's deadpan commie sermons playing on an old reel-to-reel, before it's finally replaced by the smooth no worries shine of Compakt Disk.

The Brotherhood of Melted Wings: THE DAWN PATROL (1938)


Say a prayer for the dead already / and salute those next to die!" -- Lucy Westerna, reciting an old airman's drinking song (DRACULA, 1931)
A bad LSD trip can leave you traumatized for weeks, cut off from a general populace who cannot see beyond their collective fog of assured continuity to understand why you're so pallid. The blinders that obscure the constant threat of death for them are, for you, broken; the rays of the black void shine into your soul even if you close your eyes and look away. For those poor fools around you it's business as usual; they are glazed-eyed consumers on their endless rotation from cubicle to couch to bed. You sit outside it all, screaming inside, clawing softly at the fleshy disguise you call a face as if its a prison you might escape. A feeling of lost futility overwhelms your every thought and gesture...

But lo! THE DAWN PATROL is waiting!

In soothing black and white the doomed airmen await their time to die up in the air over the blackened trenches of WWI, they understand your existential anguish! Are they not, in their way, the living dead? Look at the way the pilot up top resembles a corpse right out of a Joe Kubert WEIRD WAR TALES cover. (left) You can feel both the beating of modernism's horrified, hideous heart and smell the dread of the next war, already in progress, which America was eyeballing with the remorse of a redacted father. 


Though helmed by "ladies' choice" director Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL, DARK VICTORY), DAWN PATROL is all men and--manlier still--a remake of an early sound Howard Hawks film. I've no qualm with this version as Goulding is just fine at capturing camaraderie of either gender, and always had a great fatalistic streak -- you can feel death and despair being ever pushed back, every gesture of his actors like drowning souls struggling through the La Brea tar pits. Like Hawks he keeps shots at a medium level to allow us to feel part of the action, part of the brotherhood of airmen, who treat their captured German pilots with respect, giving them drinks and food before the MPs take them away. And of course our airmen agonize over all the fresh young recruits, most of whom are shot down during their first soiree. What's most important in a film like this, since it's almost all male actors, is that the actors be first rate and with Basil Rathbone as the C.O., bravely taking the heat from righteous pilot Errol Flynn and drunken wingman David Niven, you got a deck stacked for easy grifting.


And drinking, man is there a lot of well-deserved drinking, and after a bad trip, honey, if you don't have a drink or something to put your lights out you're going to be hallucinating ghost fingers ripping your soul apart all night. But you do have drinks, and they're apparently free, since the bar is your HQ. DAWN PATROL puts you in that same pleasant zone, that land where you too belong to something cooler than yourself and the bartender is a personal friend.



The big existential question for these pilots isn't how or why, but when? The answer is always the same: very soon. Eckhart Tolle (or was it Ram Dass?) writes of working with death row inmates and how they would have big breakthroughs when death was looming, turning to the glory of the eternal now like instant messiahs. But then, if, say, the convict got off the short list and were put back in the general population, they'd get cocky and forget the eternal now, becoming hungry ghosts bartering for smokes once more.

Hawks and Hemingway understood it: they knew they had to be cozied up to death to write worth a damn. Like it or not, having survived the horrors of a bad acid trip, you're now in that same league as Hemingway and Hawks surviving the horrors of war. And knocking back a few with THE DAWN PATROL can be like starving for days as a stow away in a filthy crate on a boat only to learn you've got a pre-paid royal suite with a fully-stocked bar. You wouldn't appreciate the glory of the bar without first enduring the fear and filth. Every Icarus needs his wings melted before he can be of any mythic use, you just don't get to find that out until your wings burn, and you know Marlene's not to blame if you never got a chance to practice your roll.