Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

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! --LOST WEEKEND (1945)
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, we may want to turn the dial, see if we can pick up some other station, but if we do we're soon deafened and blinded 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.'

William Blake once wrote that if the doors of perception were cleansed the world would appear as it really is, infinite... but Lovecraft might that once the novelty of infinite perception wore off we'd remember right quick by we dirtied those doors in the first place, and all we can do after seeing the shattering wholeness is 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. More than likely though, we'd just get rip-roaring drunk, and "get to see the world in real black and white," as Tiny Dr. Tim says in "W.C. Fields Forever."

Yeah, you need to be insane and/or holier than hell to live with those cleansed doors, the X-ray eyes. And you need to know that I didn't even have to look up the above quote from LOST WEEKEND, 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 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 capture it. The film still blows the mind with its psychedelic implications, while being so cheap-looking under Roger Corman's thrifty supervision that it can be 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.

The plot follows Dr, X, grumpy as Don Birnam on Yom Kippur, feeling skittish about the experimental eye drops he's invented and which he administers to himself as experimental subject. They enable him to see through everything from women's skirts 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-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! He can see through his 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 bottle of Nyquil you're finished! And Nyquil hasn't even been invented in 1963! 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 conjure carnivals in only the very imaginative, half-asleep, or child viewer, but Don Rickles--a regular of AIP's Beach Party films--is a natural impresario of see-throughitiveness.

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 shan't spoil the shock ending... I will say that the low-key, moody Les Baxter score sees it all through passing window of an evening train.

Truth be told, like Milland's grumpy character, X is a hard film 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 thing.

Milland's career was off the rails 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's so Matheson-like it compares well with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in its gutsy exploration of the yawning abyss of the fourth dimensional existence, its going beyond the illusory atomic structures of our life bravado, its leaving sanity behind and having a cameraman brave and cheap enough to keep you in the center frame at all times patina, and its let the subjective universe prove its inherent flimsiness reflexivity.

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

1) I once had a huge electro-magnetic freakstorm crown chakra lightning strike which enabled me--albeit briefly-- to see the same image with my eyes closed or open (the electric bands behind my eyelids had come into perfect alignment with the 'real' world before me). It was a moment both terrifying, exhilarating, liberating and mercifully brief.

2) I once was talked into taking two 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 rollercoaster 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 cutting through the once sacred cake of my mind with their chainsaw joy. With everyone's ape faces dissolving and aging in spiral movements I could barely even dare to look at my shoes.

It took a long time, but in each example of my own experience -- the good and the terrifying-- I 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 thet. 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. It's Roderick Usher-style morbid acuteness of the senses!

I first saw this film in the early 1970s, with one of my first babysitters, 'Toots,' a blue jean-jacket and straight blonde hair 16-year old 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, me with my mad  nine year-old's crush on her and awe of him, and them just these cool hippie types, THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES became mythic, intense. They explained the best they could what was going on in ways no other parent or babysitter ever had. It stuck with me. It seemed strange, savage, like an episode of BATMAN beamed in from a much more inhospitable, terrifying adult reality. I loved it, but was anxious to retreat to the safety of mom's oblivious tunnel vision.

So in short, X is a film that needs 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; dodge the swooping bats, look over and see us, our God-like camera lens eye staring mutely back at them through the plasma flatness, and reaching through, choke us with their waterlogged hands. (1)

All fine, all good, until we wake up at Bellevue, surrounded by little turkeys in straw hats, and Bim. His friends call him Bim.

You can call him Bim.

1. That's totally a reference to THE RING, so for further reading check out my 2005 opus, Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child from Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #3


  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

  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...

  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!

  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.


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

  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.

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

  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!

  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?

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