Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Thursday, November 18, 2010

X is for Xanax: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963)

 Nat: Mister Birnam, this is the mornin'...
Don: That's when you need it most, in the morning. Haven't you learned that yet? At night this stuff's just a drink... but in the morning it's medicine! --Ray Milland - LOST WEEKEND (1945) 
Dr. X: "I'd give anything! Anything to have dark!"  -Ray Milland - X-THE MAN W/X-RAY EYES (1963)
Science has proven our senses capable of far more than the limited strata and spectra of processed information we know as collective reality. Like radios tuned to one station, our brains screen out the static and noise of whatever channel isn't immediately relevant for survival. After we have everything we need and want to feel safe and secure, 'set and setting' all set, we may want to slip the dial a smidge, see if we can pick up some other station. We might find some beautiful music, but sooner or later we're deafened by the holy static, spinning the dial quickly back to the starting point, hoping we can find it again. If we don't, we wind up in the psych ward. If we do, we've just had a successful 'voyage' beyond the confines of collective 'reality.' We can try to transcribe what we heard, or paint it, but until we flip the dial again, we're back.

William Blake once wrote that if the doors of perception were cleansed the world would appear as it really is, infinite... but Lovecraft might add that once the novelty wears off, the infinite is a hard thing to live with.  We remember, on some deep cosmic level, why the doors of perception aren't cleansed very often.  Unable to 'turn it off' and catch our breath, we can only hope the 'finite' illusion comes back quick, or we may wind up strapped to a gurney, trying to claw our eyes out, begging the nurse for a sweet, sweet Xanax and/or Thorazine drip. More than likely though, we'd just get rip-roaring drunk, and finally "get to see the world in real black and white," as Tiny Dr. Tim says in "W.C. Fields Forever." That's by the Firesign Theater. You can tell right quick they've cleansed a door or two.

Yeah, you need to be insane and/or holier than hell to live with those cleansed doors all the time, the X-ray eyes. And you need to know that I didn't even have to look up the above quote from LOST WEEKEND, also starring Ray Milland, because I know those lines by my drunken black X-ray heart, which makes me uniquely qualified to discuss X. For like Don Birnim in WEEKEND and Dr. Xavier in X (both played by Ray Milland), I see too much, feel too deeply, and sometimes have the power to see through my own eyelids. Anything to numb the mind, to shrink the aperture, is welcome, but it never works for long, leaving me eventually a twitching, hungover mess on fire with thirst and delirium tremens... trudging hesitantly like reborn snail to school, waiting for another crack at the canon's maw.

1963's X (AKA- THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES) prefigures the psychedelic explosion of 1966-68 by a good four years, putting it way ahead of its time, as if Roger Corman could himself could see far into the future. It's still light years more 'true' to the psychedelic experience, especially the bad trip, than nearly any other film trying to actually capture it. Corman's thrifty sets and leftover costumes and props give the thing an air of hackwork, which makes the way it blows the mind with its psychedelic implications all the more potent, as if the full wave spectrum reveals the city you live in to be just painted plywood fronts. This makes it hard to tell whether it's a nouvelle vague deconstruction (the French flag colored light bulb/balloons in the photo atop would fit right at home in MADE IN THE USA) or a brilliant meta-metaphysical inquiry into the 'gaze,' buffeted by waves of post-modern accidental Brechtian cheapness. Since we can't see the difference, we feel sure the difference is there. That's the kind of faith poor Mr. Birnim Wood Xavier doesn't have anymore -- he knows.

Here's the plot: Dr, X, as grumpy as Don Birnam on Yom Kippur, feels skittish about the experimental eye drops he's invented and which he administers to himself as experimental subject. Milland played an alcoholic so well in LOST WEEKEND he became one, so his character's sociopathic surliness seems a case of well 'write it in' rather than try and change Milland's foul mood. The medical staff at X's hospital of course try to stop him, but it's too late. He sees it all: everything from under a women's skirts to, to inside their organs, to behind cards in poker and eventually, the chewy tootsie roll center of the universe, and to hell with anything that gets in his way of driving headfirst into the desert on a quest for glorious opaqueness.

Then again, there's hot chicks scattered all over, so hey -- just dig that crazy looking girl in the photo below, with that awesome Cyd Charisse-meets-Vampira-style black gown! Note the swingin' way Milland has with a martini! Oh, Ray knows his way around a cocktail party.


Attractive Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van Der Vlis, below) is Xavier's love interest, though he doesn't pay her much attention. In fact he tries to hide from her once he's wanted for murder, but she follows him around like that girl with the leopard coat. I say give him a break, Nat. Poor Xavier is so busy seeing through things that he can't even sleep! You can't EVER sleep if you can see through your own eyelids! It is never dark for such a man. Have you ever woke up and not known whether it's six at night or six in the morning? That's the devil of it, Nat! Without a Valium or a bottle of Nyquil you're finished! And Nyquil hasn't even been invented in 1963! And for Valium you need a prescription. Why, Why Nat?!


Luckily for every wanted-by-the-cops freak like Dr. X there's a sleazy sideshow barker who'll hide him in a fortune teller costume in exchange for a bottle a day and a place to sleep it off in, and lucky for us that sleazy barker is Don Rickles (below). As with past Corman carny films (remember CARNIVAL ROCK!? I do), there's very little attempt to convince that the interior threadbare sound stage sets are anything but sketches meant to support the thesis, but what a thesis! And Don Rickles--a regular of AIP's Beach Party films--is a natural impresario of see-throughitiveness, alternating compassion and hucksterism in a way that lets you loathe him and love him in alternating waves.


Diane and Xavier later have to split for the glitzy neon exteriors and the threadbare casino-set interior of Las Vegas, where his see-through card abilities parlay into a small fortune, but 'crowds' are attracted by his luck, leading to casino scrutiny, and Xavier's a surly sod who doesn't take his huge sunglasses off even in the dark of the casino, so ere long a police helicopter is chasing them through the desert after Xavier's car crashes because he can see through the road. So he runs around the desert while engaging in a staring contest with the eye in the center of the world and well...  I won't tell you who wins... I will say that the impressionistic free-form Les Baxter jazz score runs under everything like it's a drum-legged magnet pulling Milland by his giant dark glasses through the rattling sets.

Truth be told, like Milland's grumpy character, X is a hard guy to love. Ray's just not the well-meaning basketcase he was as Don Birnam, but the film is still impressive and balls-out original in the way Corman just goes for it, and by it I mean the infinite trip -- pre-2001. I mean, there was no precedent in 1963 for this kind of trip.

Milland's career was off the rails anyway by the 1960s, meanwhile, due to his own penchant for mood-altering substances... he was taking whatever he could get, even if it meant his head had to be sewn on the the ample frame of sensitive linebacker Rosie Greer (THE THING WITH TWO HEADS) for a post-op recovery shot of Demerol. But even straining to appear less hungover than he was, Milland is never less than compelling and Dr. X as a character benefits from his peevishness.


 The film's Richard Matheson-like script was penned by Ray Russell, whose credits are not otherwise impressive (MR. SARDONICUS? Yeeesh!) and Robert Dillon (FRENCH CONNECTION II). But it compares well with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in its gutsy exploration of the yawning abyss of the fourth dimensional existence, in its going beyond the illusory atomic structures of our familiar universe; and in its leaving sanity behind like a nagging wife, and--with a beatnik beanie in lieu of swim cap, diving into the center of the known universe to prove its pasteboard flimsiness.

"I just do eyes!"
I'll share two personal anecdotes at this juncture:

1) In autumn of 2003 I was struck by a huge electro-magnetic freakstorm crown chakra third eye lightning bolt which enabled me--albeit briefly-- to see the same image with my eyes closed or open. The black-electric gray field of inner vision behind my eyelids had come into perfect alignment with the 'real' world around me. It was a moment both terrifying, exhilarating, liberating and mercifully brief.

2) I once was talked into taking two tabs of blotter when a half would have been too much. I found myself walking down the middle of the street, clutching my hair and screaming and laughing at my own terror at the same time. If you can imagine being on a terrifying roller coaster plunging straight down, nonstop, for hour after hour, getting faster exponentially but never hitting bottom, maybe you can get an inkling. I was hoping a car would run me over and free my twisted soul from its melting shell. I saw through everything and I saw the skin cells flaking off all the bodies of the world; I felt the breathing of every living thing; my breath was the murderous exhaust of cars and my thoughts the howling jackal-like yelps of playing children, buzzing engines cutting through the once sacred cake of my mind with their chainsaw mindless exuberance. With everyone's ape faces dissolving and aging in spiral movements I could barely even dare to look at my shoes. I walked on instinct towards the park, with my dog - who took one look into my eyes and moaned piteously, as if seeing the devil.


It took a long time, but in each example of my own experience -- the good and the terrifying-- I eventually got back to normal's soft gray field of blandness blanket. So I can feel Dr. X's pain at never being able to get back to that. It's the inability to turn it off that makes the schizophrenic seek the shelter of madness, and cigarettes. You can try to get drunk, but your senses are so heightened that even water tastes too strong for your senses. A shot of bourbon is so strong you can't get it to within six inches of your lips without gagging. And lord, I've tried. It's Roderick Usher-style morbid acuteness of the senses and it's not for lightweights.


I first saw X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES in the early 1970s, with one of my first babysitters, 'Toots,' a blue jean-jacket and straight blonde hair 16-year old hippie runaway from the shelter where my mom volunteered. Ten minutes after mom left, Toots's boyfriend was over, the TV was on, and though they made out between commercials they snapped back for the film, and between the three of us, we talked of it avidly. In my first grade brain it lay as a cornerstone of mythic, intense older kid power. They explained the best they could what was going on in ways no other parent or babysitter ever could. It seemed strange, this film, savage, like an episode of BATMAN beamed in from a much more inhospitable, terrifying adult reality. Still, as with the above narrative about the two tabs, I was glad when mom came home, Toots left, and Ultra-Man came on.

So in short, X is a film that needs a sweet Xanax. It's the raw truth of God's eye staring you down through the center of all things. A Lacanian like Slavoj Zizek could have a field day with it. But it's over, it's gone. The magic and mystique of being able to 'crack it wide open' has been lost in our simulacratic age. No parent in their right mind would let a hippy runaway chick babysit their nine year-old today, or probably even allow them to watch a film like X. Now the TV eye has seen through us, not vice versa, and if anything it is the characters on the TV who will one day squirm in horror at the awful truth when their vision is no longer blocked by the fourth wall and they can finally peer out of their hole in the screen at us on our couches. Offended by our blank impassive eyes, they shall reach out from the screen to pluck them out!


 NOTES:
For further reading check out my 2005 opus, Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child from Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #3

10 comments:

  1. Eric:

    I am sorry for being off-topic, but I was just wondering if you were going to write about ENTER THE VOID any time soon. Maybe you have, I don't know, but I was eagerly looking forward to your take on the film, which I just saw two nights ago, and which I can't stop thinking about. My gut is telling me that it might be the best cinematic representation of childhood trauma/PTSD ever, especially the section of the film (which I guess you could call the 'Purgatory" section), where the entire P.O.V. is from behind Oscar, where all we can see is the back of his head and neck and shoulders. I feel like Noe tapped into something during this section of the film, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Anyway, I hope you choose to write about ETV, as your film writing always seems to burrow underneath the surface and discover the hidden depths of a film's psychopathology.

    Always a pleasure.

    Chris Okum

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  2. Thanks Chris! I'm going to have to get on that, though I confess I'm dreading the possible trauma... will try and see it this weekend, I notice its on IFC pay per view on cable...

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  3. I too have assumed freakish x-ray vision-type supernatural-ness, only to wake up the next evening wondering if it'd actually happened or if, perhaps, I'd drank too much of San Pedro's sacred, rancid, chalky sinew and imagined it all. So many unexpected thrills to be found in a piece about X:..., of all films! You are an inspiration, Sir!

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  4. Nice article. You're right: X is a hard film to love, but there's plenty in it for fond recollection... though I've no desire to see it again any time soon. While I was reading your review I began to wonder if there are links connecting X with 4D MAN starring Robert Lansing (aka Steve McQueen Lite), re: the God Complex subtext.

    Congratulations on your Anniversary. I celebrated my 22nd year last July. I really don't want to drink again, but a nice bowlful of hash sounds positively divoon.

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  5. HAVE YOU ENTERED THE VOID ALREADY OR WHAT?

    I'm reaaaaaaaaaally looking forward to see your comment on that one.
    Really, really, really.

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  6. THanks Mr. Pink, I was going to see it over T-giving, but my 'guide' fell through. I want to really 'see' it right the first time, if you know what I mean. But I wont let you down, and that's a promise. I appreciate your interest in my humble commentarying.

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  7. Compliments on the blog. Speaking of acid, maybe "Chappaqua" might be worth a few lines...

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  8. Hey! I saw this on the big screen yesterday, compliments of Austin Film Society, with a really gorgeous - scratch free new print! I loved the cheapness of the sets, and the groovier elements, but yeah, it is still a hard film to love. Dr X claimed to need to advance medicine and science with having his X ray vision, and the early dialogue was really great at looking at the spectrums and all, but once he got hooked on the drops - and surely - he had to be hooked, didn't he? - he was just an asshole! Like all good drunks! It could have used a little more something or other. Roger Corman directed this one, and he calls it his best. I hadn't seen it since the 80's, so was glad to see it on the big screen, but man, it had a lull in the center. Your write up sells it more than it sells itself. The carny scenes made me think of Incredibly Strange People..., but without the choreography!

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  9. Hey, any of you know the name of that wonderful woman with hair blacks, dancing in the party of the film in the third photo. I'm in love with her. From 1963 to the present will be 'aged but at least we could look for photos of the era. The film is beautiful and I love it. And you?

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  10. I know, she and that dress are terrific.

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