Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Praise of Dangerous Men: George C. Scott as PATTON (1970)

"The very idea of losing is hateful to Americans."
- Patton (1970)

Now that Kathryn Bigelow has made it safe for us to recklessly court macho annihilation again, let's examine one of the more respected and controversial military leaders of our time-- General George Patton, and the 1970 film that bears his name, starring George C. Scott, which I recently had the pleasure of acquiring on an excellent blu-ray disc, and which is highly recommended to fans of THE HURT LOCKER (2009), THE DEER HUNTER (1977) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and anyone whose ever had a heart, who wouldn't turn around and expose its flank to daily howitzer bombardments... or who is interested in this new Tom Hanks-produced mini-series, THE PACIFIC (though Patton wasn't in the Pacific, it's still the same God-damned wonderful war!)


From the famous opening (quoted above) -- Patton's clinically insane and perhaps wrong but nonetheless inspiring opening speech in front of a giant American flag -- onwards, we know we're in for some heavy stuff, as Scott has no plans to pull punches, glorify the American dream or lament the unfairness of war. Indeed, as the esteemed general of the magnificent Third Army, Scott's ranting makes you realize, as a man, that part of cowardice involves forgetting there's no real reward to being alive in the first place, as a coward.  Unless you risk it all, it's all wasted.

It makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script, since the man knows a thing or too about the seductive lure of megalomania and the high of facing death on a daily basis. Coppola was kicked off the PATTON production but later found fictional editions of that kind of military mindset in characters like Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW, and brilliantly captured the way an ordinary man might find himself manifesting the cold reptilian killer via Michael Corleone's transformation from idealistic young lover of Diane Keaton to cold-as-ice Don in THE GODFATHER. And of course, there's the inspired use of Sicily, a deeply-rooted trans-historical lyricism seems to emanate from the very soil of that island, and Coppola knew it and let it infuse GODFATHER 2. 

In order to rouse his newly assigned group of men from their first defeat in North Africa (he's replacing an ineffectual general who let the boys get slaughtered), Patton initially presents himself as a maniac for discipline and army regulation, making his men fear and hate him, but the hate makes them better soldiers, and when they finally measure up, his admiration becomes enough of a reward that they're ready to die for him. As Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Milan would say, he is an excellent pack leader, radiating calm, assertive energy and understanding that all affection must be earned for it to have value. Or as Tura Satana said in FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL: "You don't have to believe it, just act it." Patton doesn't mind that your hands shake so long as you're trying to keep them steady. It's only when you cower and quit that he boots you into the deep end like a sadistic but wise pool instructor (my own most hated-feared childhood figure).


I don't dare presume I wouldn't be ten times more afraid and shell-shocked in the field of battle than the man Patton slaps, or even Jeremy Davies in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). One can't know from a besotted armchair field position, but there are other ways to prove your courage, such as smuggling drugs out of Istanbul, or trying to score with the hottest chick in the room without any wingman or back-up, or bluffing your way past the velvet ropes at a hot nightclub, or even just not drinking, one day at a time. True adult courage is important to bear in mind as the alienating effect of technology quietly mutates us back into children via unsupervised lengths of time in complete privacy, allowing the illusion of a mommy bound to serve you instead of vice versa. If God had given us wings he'd expect us to fly, even demand it, so in the age of internet, why not go all the way and abandon your body? If God hadn't meant us to leave our bodies he wouldn't have given us the internet. Needless to say, that kind of alone time is deprived our common foot soldier or tank brigadier. You can get almost anything in the army except privacy. A soldier is booted into manhood and has to stay there until he likes it, and that could take years. By the time he figures it out, the war is over.

Patton's discipline is intended to create that condition of initiation, Stockholm syndrome in the service of country - there's still going to be the odd soldier who resists the comfort of berserker madness and thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his childhood persona will preserve rather than destroy him. In the end all the military drilling and exhaustion is to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets--against all self-preservational logic. But as long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. Hence a little bitch-slap, which he performs in a sense as performance for the other men. Watching this with my dad as a child I used to think Patton was being a bully for slapping the soldier. Later, as a hippie, I thought he was existentialist and square. Now I'm all into his heart of darkness. Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequences that may stem from disrespecting boundaries, for the best defense is a good offense and therefore disrespecting boundaries is the mark of a good general. Eisenhower also shows himself a good general too in the way he masterfully plays up the slapping event up to deflect Nazi attention from D-Day (he had Patton scoping locations in Turkey, tricking the Germans sure into thinking he would invade there, and that the slap incident was a flimsy smokescreen - double reverse psych!).  A slap from a general may be humiliating, but in a way it did more for the war than getting blown up by a stray shell from Rommel's Panzer corps.

A word should be paid in tribute to the blu-ray version of this film: Dazzling! Originally shot on 70mm the picture is deep, and that has made all the difference in the 1080 transfer, enabling a dazzling clarity that lets you look up the nose of a man in a tank 5,000 yards away. The many long range desert battles seem to be in 3-D. The horizon line of the desert (this movie is always very horizon line conscious) warps the sides of the frame (Todd AO fisheye Cinerama 360 lenses) into a sloped elongated triangle, so it's like looking into a sloping Victorian house attic with North African desert wallpaper. If ever there was a reason to get blu-ray, this or Polanski's REPULSION would be it for me. I tried looking at the GODFATHER blu-ray, but got freaked out that you could finally see Bonasara the Undertaker's yellowed teeth clattering in the shadows as he talked of "vengeance for my daughter!"

Scott's nose is amazing on blu-ray, too: we can see three layers of veins in.  But his aim sucks. When shooting at German dive bombers, you have to lead them, not shoot behind them! He should have shot straight over his head - you got to "lead" em (1)!

Consider the line from the hippest movie ever made, PERFORMANCE:  "The only performance that truly makes it is one that achieves madness." When George C. Scott looks out at the carnage along the River Elbe, and says of war, "I love it. God help me I do love it so," one's aware that this right here is a performance that "truly makes it."

I've seen this movie all through my life and my reaction to that line varies with age. As a child watching it with my dad on TV I thought it was pretentious. Later, it seemed existentially gutsy; still later, callous. Now I see it as a coping mechanism, the very nature of heroism is perhaps this coping mechanism, an alchemical transubstantiation that enables one to derive perverse, counter-intuitive satisfaction from horror, the "you must make friend of horror" aspect, a looking down under the pretty flowers and below the serpents under them, to the deep roots wherein one endures the unendurable through a cultivated detachment, the stripping away of illusion's bodice, to reveal the grinning skull and scythe below. The tripper and the warrior both must kiss this skull and call it love.

To survive this awful surrender the hipster has his rueful irony, the court its jester, the American G.I. his endless complaining and satiric reading of army sloganeering.  The Germans never got that sense of humor -- they considered it our weakness.  They didn't realize that irony can be a kind of casual loyalty that works better than attack dog allegiance because--and this turned out to be a crucial advantage--the GI could improvise and think on his feet while the German was trained only to follow direct orders. As long as we can gripe and crack wise about it we can endure anything, that was what made us the winners: freedom to gripe about being losers!

One of my favorite war stories is how, during the Battle of the Bulge, the US tanks' top machine guns froze solid and couldn't be fired at the closely advancing enemy. Here it is, Germans breathing down their necks, bullets all around; it's freezing out, guns jammed and what do the machine gunners do? Urinate on them for a quick defrost! See, a German soldier would never think to do that. One needs a certain level of free-flying insanity to win a war, and that's what Patton had, and inspired in his men. To paraphrase Cesar Milan again: Insanity + Discipline, then affection.

Perhaps in war there simply is no rational response other than hoorror and heartbreak, neither of which wins wars. Therefore an irrational response is required: surrender completely to the "I love it, I do love it so," like a mantra, a relishing of the insane response. Do not the true prophets teach even that? To love your enemy like a brother even as you blow him to pieces? The movie ends with Scott intoning Patton's description of the triumphant Roman processionals of loot and conquered slaves before him: "And behind him, stood a slave with a golden crown, holding it over the conqueror's head while whispering in his ear, 'all glory is fleeting.'" But the film holds an even more shattering truth: life fleets even faster and death is not the end. Ladies and gentlemen, as he was in ancient Rome so shall he be in this future life. General Patton will be back!

(1) from the pages of the DC comic Sgt. Rock (c. 1980) - "You got to lead 'em! Lead 'em" when shooting at passing Messerschmidts. My friend Al and I quoted that a lot.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Bleating of the Wallies

A leading scientific journal in Pakistan, The Journal of Management & Social Science,* recently published a paper titled "A New Role for the Military: Preventing Enemies from Arising-Reviving an Ancient Approach to Peace," indicating that the military application of the Transcendental Meditation technique has merit. The paper discusses how militaries worldwide could use the Transcendental Meditation® and TM-Sidhi® program, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, as a non-religious and scientifically verified way to prevent war and terrorism. When used in a military context, these meditation practices are known as Invincible Defense Technology (IDT). (Medical News Today, 3/23/10)
I saw The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) last night, then read the above article this morning. Coincidence? No such thing, my man, but then why do I have the urge to read Catcher in the Rye and go into a black-op black-out with a mission to excise all traces of Ewan McGregor's annoying narrator from the film? Seriously, was TRAINSPOTTING a total fluke? Either way, I'm glad the above article shows that meditation/druggie/hippie mind tactics in the military is not necessarily just the whimsical semi-truth of a trembling yellow (as in afraid) journalist afraid of a little LSD-spiked water. Ewan's character in the film, the kind of guy I wrote about a few years ago [Kill All Jonesers 11/10/08] in regards to needy biographers and journalists who try to absorb by proxy the glory of their subjects after said subjects are dead or disappeared, even though said subjects have or would have scoffed at them while they were alive.


Sad that his wife leaves him at the film's start (and who could blame her?), our smug self-pitying freelance journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) heads off to Iraq to prove himself a man and show her a lesson. Not on any assignment or associated with any publication, and terribly out of place, he locks himself to the ankle of mysterious maybe-spy Lyn (George Clooney) and spends the rest of the movie being a cranky nag as Lyn tries to complete a strange shadowy mission. Bob is a real drag to ride with, whining about every little thing, refusing to believe or go along with anything Lyn says and then presuming--after the adventures are done--that he's now some kind of super op himself. Realizing at least some of what Lyn said might be true after all, Bob finally switches from neurotic to sanctimonious, determined to make sure the story is told even it shakes the government to its foundations. And um, what? Bob ranks right up there with Leo Di Caprio's little shithead in THE BEACH and MacGregor's 'poet' in MOULIN ROUGE as one of the most entitled little shits we were ever expected to root for at the movies.

I know, I know, you wanted to love this film. So did I. Well, if you think that Ewan McGregor stating he knows nothing about Star Wars or what a "Jedi" is makes for in-joke hilarity, then yes, you'll love it. (If you don't know that McGregor played a Jedi in the last three Star Wars films that makes you extra cool in my book) In fact, that tired in-joke goes by about five times; the director wants to make sure everyone gets it, right down to grandma in the last row.


For another painful example of this movie's level of wit, when Clooney confesses he feels bad about the time he killed a goat with his mind, McGregor blurts out: "The silence of the goats!?" as if he just decided on his entry for a New Yorker cartoon caption contest. And this guy is supposed to be a journalist? Who does he write for, Highlights? Ranger Rick? Dynamite? (left)


The goats themselves are awesome, but here again the movie shows no grasp on reality. The goats are kept in a big, dark, empty shed on the military base, labeled "top secret." Now, if you know anything about animals, anything at all, you know a few dozen goats aren't going to just stand around in a dark shed for years at a time in a stifling hot desert, waiting to be discovered by a snoopy journalist. Though they've been 'de-bleated' (yikes) so don't make noise, you would still smell them a mile away, and hear them trying to kick their way out, and then they'd all die of heatstroke or the fumes of their own piled up feces, or starve to death, within days. Goats need care, yo. Meanwhile goats wander all over the desert. Why not just buy one from a passing herdsman as needed? It's details like this which make MEN WHO STARE similar to one of those "earthy" romantic comedies about 'ordinary' people that were clearly made by rich Hollywood kids who've never even had a 'real' job.


Thank god for Jeff Bridges, then, as the film lights up whenever he's there onscreen, abiding. Maybe he's never had a 'real' job either, but he's the dude, and that makes all the difference. In a military pep talk he says that his recruits will learn to "see and hear everything" and to "stop talking in cliches" and live in the moment. Did you hear that last part about cliches, McGregor? You remembered it enough for a flashback but via one of the most tired cliches of all - the 60s protest rock-scored montage. Better stop, children, what's that sound? It's 60s rock cliche, barefoot servants too!


So, if you come to this film hoping, as I did, for a psychedelic ride into the mind of the military, man will you be disappointed, as the film seems to side more with the annoying journalist, making the end result a bit like APOCALYPSE NOW if Cathy (from the comic strip) played the Captain Willard role ("Day four - the river has too many bugs, and how come the army doesn't serve cake? Ahhhhh")

Most journalists are way too cool to whine every step of the way as they tag along for a story; they keep quiet or ask questions but don't sneer at the answers if they get them. But the times have a changed-in' and young men these days are, apparently, well, if not all mice, perhaps unaware of their non-mice options due to lack of assertive father figures. Compare the whining of McGregor's character, for example, with James Stewart in REAR WINDOW, trying to explain life in a combat zone to Grace Kelly. And Kelly's ten times the man McGregor is, and cuter too.


A plus about the film is the way it cleverly oscillates between believing in the stories of these psychedelic warriors and realizing most of it is perhaps bullshit. Any good shaman knows that all  rituals are 50% smoke and mirrors, not to hide the fact it's all "just" bullshit--it's not just, Clarice--but to create the realization that it's all bullshit, which is to say, there is no no exit from the bullshit, and no is, and no no, and therefore all is yes, which mean all is love, so love is nothing and nothing is everything -- all of which helps rope off a cordon of disbelief that allows visualization to occur. i.e. the way a child can use a dude with a sheet over his head going "Boo" as a screen on which to project real ghosts from his or her imagination--as opposed to that one smartass brat who says "that's just a man with a sheet on his head." Who is more the fool, the one who thinks he's a sucker to imagine the ghost, and so has no fun, or the one who can see what may not be there, and get all scared accordingly? What's the point of doubting and dismissing as a lifestyle choice? And where does our projection of fantasy end and 'reality' begin? Who gets to decide where that border lies? The flimflam aspect of psychic power creates a split which allows real supernatural events to exist--and if they exist for the subject then they exist in the universe, that's what quantum mechanics proves, o dour devotee clinging terrified to the sterilized feet of dogmatic science! Rise now and embrace the pseudo-shaman!


So yeah, see this movie, but just once, for Clooney and Bridges, tricksters who "get" the cosmic truths behind the quackery and who each bump the film up a star. But McGregor's 'Bob' is what we back in the semi-psychedelic 1980s used to call a "Wally," the sort of schmuck who clings onto your crew as you run with dilated pupils naked to the cosmic sea like immortal inner-tubed lemmings, laughing and skipping. He shows up late, with water wings and a snorkel, and goes "hey guys, wait up! Where are you going? Shouldn't we wait for Dan (another wally) to come back from class? Hey, wait up!" and then once there he refuses to join in the oceanic dissolving of egoic consciousness, and yet thinks he should still be able to hang all night and drag everybody down. And eventually we all hide with the lights out and don't answer the door when he comes around. Then, one day, someone slips him a dose without his knowing it and, as J. Hoberman writes, "he loses a smidge of his smirk." (Village Voice, 11.3/09) and then thinks he's Gandhi times ten, the humblest in the universe! King of humble! He becomes a mad prophet and then winds up insane, violent, arrested and soon becomes exhibit A in the dangers of drug use. Sigh, let's get some ice cream.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Luxury of Desperate Gamblers: Andrzej Zulawski's "L'Amour Braque" (1985)



Niche film fans of all nations and genres can rejoice with the release of three borderline hysterical (in all senses of the word) Andrzej Zulawksi films onto DVD, via the amazing Mondo Vision. The first of them I've seen is 1985's L'AMOUR BRAQUE, an insane, coked-up little miracle which prefigures the anarchic Joker scenes in LE CHEVALIER NOIR (below), including the maniacal burning of mass amounts of money and gleefully lysergic/anarchic assaults on the conventions of the bourgeoisie and capitalism! Did Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger see this movie? Or are they and Braque's director Andrzej Zulawski birds of a feather? Or is Zulawski more like a slavering psychedelic poet, post-Panic Movement/post-gialli post-Godardian in his heedless kineticism, surfeit de style and spastic physicality? Or did someone just dump LSD into the Parisian water supply? Any way you slice it, what a real treat to find an underseen auteur of his maniac caliber presented so lushly-- with a whole catalog of awesome films few of us have ever seen (Mondo Vision plans to release nine in all) coming our way on beautiful DVDs.


Though L'AMOUR BRAQUE mimics a 1985 French action movie in its gloss-punk style, with the violent 80s nocturnal neon decor of films you might know like SUBWAY or LA FEMME NIKITA (with which it shares the amazing Tcheky Karyo) it's actually an art film, or a drug film, Brecht-fast style. Those cheesy 80s synth stabs just makes the content that much more palatable in its nonstop weirdness and Mondo Vision's subtitles keep up brilliantly with Zulawski's poetic post-structural dialogue in a way that echoes the accidental poetry of old HK movie subtitles. BRAQUE looks on the surface enough like a normal 80s French action movie movie that without subtitles it would probably weird out a whole room of relatively un-intoxicated bros expecting Luc Besson-ish linearity in addition to the Luc Besson-ish glamor. And action fans who wondered--as I did--if Karyo was just a dud actor with his stone-faced performance in NIKITA can now know for sure, as his character in BRAQUE is wayyy out there. Not even the same guy!

Zulawski has a weird way of feeding you his movie plots subliminally. Somehow or other, as you're pulled along by the scruff of your neck, with no time to get your bearings, you realize that, if you don't think about it too much, you know just what's happening: A down-for-whatever Czech refugee Leon (Francis Huster) is spontaneously adopted by the drunken (coked up?) Mickey (Karyo) and his gang of laughing, joking, Nietzsche-quoting Arab terrorists. The beautiful Sophie Marceau shows up as Mickey's--and soon Leon's--obsession, a perennial 'lost soul" rich girl using Micky and his terrorist friends as dupes. Acting coy and lost and doomed so they fight over themselves to wipe out her enemies, she also decides to come between Leon and Mickey, cockblocking and seducing right and left. They chase and are chased and adore each other and then there's Leon's hot cousin Aglae (Christiane Jean, below) who competes for his attention while performing in a version of Chekhov's "The Seagull".


Meanwhile, a strange cop follows the gang around, and in one sun-dappled grilling scene, notes that Mickey and company carry on with the "luxury of desperate gamblers", a telling phrase I bothered to write down and thought a most clever title, because it describes most of the film--indeed most of Zulawski's output based on what I've seen. There's very little stopping to regroup or fortify positions here, the way someone on a manic high knows that if they stop to go to sleep or nurture negative thinking, their luck will change and their whole holy mindset will crash into nothingness and despair, so they keep on drinking, gambling and laughing like maniacs, terrified that if they fall asleep it will all be just a dream when they wake up. 

If things get rough with this film, may I suggest good way to get through the weirdness of the onscreen action (if you're not going to 'roll' along, as the slangin' goes--which would be the best way) is to ground them in other movies you may be more familiar with, like bizarro world remakes in a vein of post-modern ultra-violence satire we Americans have hardly seen except for Kathryn Bigelow.  When you see the robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of POINT BREAK, but when you see them horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, they're like a dozen Harpo Marxes on a blood bender or the Groucho-guerrillas in the films of Emir Kusturica. But these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework, because otherwise, goddamn it, this stuff is so fucked-up in its mad play on action genre and bourgeoisie art film expectations and modernist subversions that it can be hard to know where to set your bearings... I mean, unless you are first "experienced" or have spent time in a lunatic theater company, or seen a lot of Bergman movies about lunatic theater companies.

One might think that two hours of nearly nonstop shouting, kicking over vases, affronting the mores of capitalism and frothing at the succulently lipsticked mouth would grate on one's nerves, but Zulawski is such a master of pace and rhythm that he never gets you too worn out or cranky. And what works too is that, though these guys are all insane--and maybe this is just the French way--all the passers-by and authority figures go along with their gags, like it would be rude not to; when a crazy Marxist sticks a gun to your temple in Zulawsksi country, it's considered declasse' to panic or plead. One must do the right thing and smile and pat the man's hand in encouragement and go into a calm, submissive state  (Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan). Sudden gunfights erupt, cars get smashed and people run around throwing smoke bombs and breaking windows and all it gets from the gendarmes is that famous Parisian shrug. What ever happened to these kind of films? The most recent attempt at this kind of thing was, I'm afraid was BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS starring Bruce Willis.

One of my biggest regrets as an actor/filmmaker was in QUEEN OF DISKS (2007), when a Clare Horgan as the Queen of Disks stuck a knife to my throat as I was drinking coffee I missed a chance to do a spit take! My innate decency and worry about spilling coffee on my ratty jeans stopped me from doing one and/or dropping the coffee cup, just letting it spill all over me and crash to the floor and break. You know how impossible those things can be to do intentionally? Like when someone pays you to pee in your pants, and you just can't do it, no matter how hard you try?

These guys in this film? They don't have that problem.

They crowd surf into total candy-coated confusion; they roll around on tables laden with food and the waiters don't bat an eyelash; they spazz out and sing at the top of their lungs while being chased by cops in riot gear; and it would all just be posturing if Zulawski didn't capture a realistic sense of Parisian hustle and bustle like he's a freakin' Oscar-hungry auteur riche. When you're wading deep into a well-crafted, lit, Parisian streetcorner, man, you're into some fucked up architecture if you're seeing it on a good HD screen, you can see right up into the cobwebbed corners between the gargoyles. 

It all makes you realize that while someone like Godard's a great one for deconstructing genre, he's a bad one at capturing the momentum of genre itself-- poor Jean Pierre Leaud or Belmondo, for example, always seemed to carry an inherent decency that stops them from peeing on people's trousers or throwing grenades into dining rooms or dropping coffee cups full of coffee on themselves and letting the cup shatter on the linoleum floor. If they did, it was often just to a picture of a comic book "Bang!" or riot footage that exploded. Not in this film, baby. That's action like Van Damme! Zoot alors!  A+


PS - Speaking of Godard and watching things 2 or 3 times to get all the details, I highly recommend checking in with Drew at the Blue Vial, whose been on a Godard marathon bender, and, neatest of all, actually lists the numbers of times he's seen each film and skewers the review towards how his thought this time around differ from his earlier thoughts on the same film. It's a very steady and interesting project, and you can't help but marvel at his attention span, considering all the long, tedious stationary shots of girls being interviewed by condescending pretty boy trust fund Marxists. I ask you this: in a Marxist society would we have such cool DVDs of L'AMOR BRAQUE? Non? Then to hell with Marx!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To dream some impossible tree sloth: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)


For a lot of the new kids, 1950s science fiction is stilted, and dull, and perhaps those words could describe FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) if you were expecting constant laser tag and monster attacks, but a hundred viewings later and PLANET, for all its 50's patriarchal solemnity, still kicks ass. It just gets better, and its subtextual critique of its own patriarchal solemnity grows clearer. Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film is uninhibitedly Freudian in a way few science fiction films of the time dared to be. The name itself holds all sorts of clues:

Forbidden! Planet!

And who is doing the forbidding? Merely one of the driest and most patronizing of all patriarchy's authoritative voices, Walter Pigeon as the elusive Dr. Morbius. In elaborate dialogue that runs counter to most natural speaking patterns, Morbius lectures paternally, patiently, Disney-like, at nearly everyone he meets and "cannot be responsible for the well-being" of Commander Leslie Nielsen (POLICE SQUAD!) and his party if they insist on landing at the doctor's private, remote, and most forbidden planet.

Inquiring after a colony set up by the Bolero Fund years before, he's come out to see how the settlers are faring.  It's rare to have a movie start out in deep space, odder still to have earthlings piloting a flying saucer instead of the usual phallic rocket. Odder even still that a 1950s film bears a cold suspicion that private organizations will be colonizing and privatizing outer space, shades of Haliburton! Shades of ALIEN... and more ALIEN shades to come!

For Morbius, it seems, has found a groovy stash of ancient alien technology and doesn't want to share, like the Area 51 crashed saucer-hiders, like an acid dealer during a bad trip who decides "you aint ready" for this shit. "But Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, he's ready," notes Commander Nielsen, sarcastically.


Morbius, blind to his own amok tenure'd prof-style egotism, agrees that yes, he is ready: he took the Krell "brain boost" and survived the shock, but was then in a coma for "a day and a night." Having survived, he's in charge (in his boosted mind) and notes, "such portions of the Krell science that I deem suitable and safe, I shall dispense to earth."

Language like "portions" and "dispensing" perks up the ears of any dozing pharmaceutical enthusiast. How many grams in a portion and when will you please dispense it and should I wait an hour after eating and drink plenty of orange juice? The Krell "brain booster" seems not too far from, say, an upstate ayahuasca weekend (the death in this latter case being of the ego, far more draining and terrifying than real physical death). 

Still, both the captain and his own doctor want to try it: "One of us must take that brain boost!" they tell each other. But it's the measurability-fetish that indicates this intelligence-enhancement is all left-brained denial, the butterfly pinned to the wall by science and expected to still be ephemeral. We know this because when the doc sneaks off and takes it the best he can come up with by way of explanation is "you oughta see my new mind, it's up there in lights." Is he speaking in the vernacular for the sake of his captain, or is this Bowery Boys-ish metonym the height of his new Krell-heightened eloquence?


Either way for the doctor at least the brain boost is shown to be a liberator from the curse of intellectual showing-off which makes Morbius's loyalty to his dry Wonderful World of Disney-style of speech be still struggling with patriarchally antiquated egotistical insecurity. Morbius may have "beheld the face of the gorgon and lived," but he's still a squaresville "philologist." Strictly nowhere, man. No grasp of the cosmic joke. That boost was wasted on him!

And yet, there is also in Morbius something of the Lacanian non du pere, with its implied understanding of the dualistic nature of prohibition and enjoyment. For in the end, Morbius is all talk when it comes to prohibition. He verbally forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go visit the spaceship and flirt with all the crew, but no one listens. Morbius listens. He listens to his daughter swoon about these wondrous creatures called officers. He listens attentively and withholds his opinion, hardly the actions of a typical 50s dad. And yet, almost to put on a show, his questioning and addressing her in the men's presence  becomes patronizing:  "Then my little girl never feels lonely or confined?" It's almost like he's posing as the 'anal father' when he's actually the wise sage and is just testing our hero's wooing mettle... like Sarastro in The Magic Flute! Or, of course, the more obvious Prospero.

Coyly innocent, yet hilariously knowing, Anne Francis leavens Morbius' dullness with her lovely legs and sexual openness. If you've seen her in the Honey West TV shows (and you should) you know her voice dropped a smoker's octave not to long after this film was made, and she could make that other broad with the surname West look bashful, so it's great to see her here kind of knowingly sending up the role of an innocent 1950s virgin as she teases the nervous, sexually frustrated and rather prudish Leslie Nielsen with her nudity in an outdoor swimming scene, or asks him "Why don't you kiss me like everybody else does?"

Yet another key element in FORBIDDEN's hard to immediately appreciate weirdness is the soundtrack: the electronic tonalities of Louis and Bebe Barron are awesome, but totally unmusical. These tones are so random and abstract -- no orchestral swells or suspenseful string -- that when the invisible id monster approaches the tonalities merely swell up slowly and strangely, and merge with the sound of laser engines; when the danger sign is off and Robby and Alta are frolicking the music burbles like a fountain through a flanger.

This atonal bizzaro blend of tonalities both enhances and diffuses all tension as there's no  cliche-entrained expectations; there's no chintz or corn or bassoons or "paranoid" pizzicatos. The result is liberation,  a slowing down of expectations, allowing for an incredibly lyrical, relaxed quality in the home viewing experience. Crazy modern art sculptures and modular furniture enhance the experience of being over somewhere for drinks and gradually sliding from creeped out to enchanted as the whiskey takes effect. The movie is Acidemic in the way it illuminates the fundamental problem of western thinking in science and academia: the complete "blind side" to one's own inner demon, how all positions on issues are usually really only vain attempts to hide one's own warped desire from oneself. Our blind spots are synonymous with our inability to own up to them; the eye fills in gaps in sight and the brain covers its weak spots with camouflage and patriarchal bullying. Arguing with Morbius then becomes like trying to convince a Marxist professor... of anything. 

Adding to the spa-like fun is the leisurely goodwill and Bette Davis-ish sauce of Robby the Robot -- as he is voiced by a man who sounds just like, and is, one of the guys who do the voices for Rocky and Bullwinkle -- but is not Paul Frees! His deep manly voice is both familiar, reassuring and completely cool. And yet the drunken cook comic relief has to ask of the robot - "Is it a male or a female" and we're supposed to infer that this cook is horny enough to give it a whirl. In the end--even better--the cook and Robby become drinking buddies, with Robby jovially making our visiting astro-lush a whole mountain of "Rocket Bourbon" pints.  Robby also makes dresses for Alta. When she asks for a long dress to please the prudish captain, he replies "Thick and heavy?" as if he's a wizened old Shakespearean housemaid teasing his beloved charge. Both Ariel and Caliban in one Michelin-esque frame, Robbie is the ultimate in fifth business. 

There's another coded gay character in Oscar Madison (ala his momma's boy in THE LONG HOT SUMMER!) as the brown-nosing chief spark-plugger-inner. The camera makes a point of showing his complete lack of interest in Anne Francis' devastating hemline, instead eagerly but low-voicedly informing the captain that "I borrowed some solanite from your gyro stabilizers." Spock, who cares? There's a chick here! He doesn't even try to fake it the way, say, Sal in MAD MEN used to!


Last bit of weird 'impossible tree sloth' quality I need to mention is the film's odd pedigree: MGM is known for delivering heavy bourgeois morality, but here the studio seems to have tapped into some alternate universe of cool, sexually liberated science fiction. FORBIDDEN PLANET appears suddenly out of nowhere, as if it traveled back in time from 1967, with lovely Star Trek-pastel sets of red leaf plants, alien handwriting and long triangular doors; laser beams that make no sound and shoot little dashes of light that seem ridiculously, comically/ineffectually phallic as they dissolve tigers into wavy Disney lines. It's the driest anti-authoritarian parable we got, and maybe still the sexiest as well. I'll leave you with these kinky words from Morbius: "Young man my daughter is planning a very foolish action and she'll be terribly punished for it." O words, where are thy talons?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prepare the amphibious squadron!


A heady compendium of fanboy history and Weird Tales cover tunes, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004) seems retro-actively retro-futuristic again after the art deco zeppelin action of Pixar's UP divided by AVATAR's use of CGI live action combo plattering. Kudos galore should be paid to SKY's writer-director Kevin Konran--a CGI art director by trade who got to make this feature after wowing the brass with a 12 minute short version.  He's a great collage maker, is what it boils down to, but he's no Brad Bird or Joss Whedon. In fact, he's more a Tim Burton with less box office mojo.

For SKY CAPTAIN, Konran melds lots of post-modern image collages into his rather non-existent story, about a crazy Nazi scientist who's plotting to blow up the earth, or something, and has armies of giant robots that fly and stuff, to get 'er done. This would all be well and good, except then in comes our hero, Sky Captain (Jude Law) to save the (yester)day. This bloke's a sort of David Manners pretending he's Clark Gable in TOO HOT TO HANDLE and smarmy. Law can do smarmy without being too offensive, you don't send a gigolo robot (in AI, below) to do a man's job, unless you forgot what a 1930s ubermensch is all about.


Now, I admire Jude Law as an actor, not cuz he's pretty and dates (dated?) Sienna Miller, but because he's fearless in the face of his acknowledged limitations--he's trapped in a room full of mirrors. Annette Bening is the same way, for example, and it doesn't make her a bad actress, because she too can be aware enough of it to bring some existential reflection as to her inability to existentially reflect into the mix. And like Bening going full harridan in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Law's not afraid to dig deep into his inner creep (he was the best thing in Mendes' BEAUTY-follow-up, ROAD TO PERDITION, below).  Thus we'd believe him as the villain (or as an ambiguous nebula of audience alienation/identification, as in ALFIE and CLOSER), but when Law wearily informs his bitchy reporter girlfriend Polly (Gwenyth Paltrow): "I spent six months in a Manchurian labor camp thanks to you!" we don't believe him, because his nails are too perfect.  This is not a Captain Midnight-esque hero whose flown against robots and almost died a thousand times; this is a man speaking to a blue screen.  His voice is too silky and full of breathing exercise-nuance to have the forceful "I could give a shit"-ativeness that comes with tru gravitas (check out the way Clive Owen outguns him in their dueling douchebag dialogue in CLOSER). For starters, this guy should be smoking a cigar at all times.


I blame Law's miscasting for the film's lagging stretches, since he just doesn't have that John Wayne / Bogart quality where you feel kind of in the thrall of their competence. If he had it, then maybe his leading lady wouldn't have grown so obnoxious and curt (Paltrow was pregnant during filming which may explain that as well) in his presence. Before Law shows up (about 15 minutes in) she's doing all right. Although a scene where she's running down Broadway chased by giant robots is soooo unconvincing. There's a cutaway shot to Paltrow ripping her skirt so she can run that seems spliced in from a different movie, but before that she intones lines from Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast like she's listened to that broadcast as many times as I have, which is a lot, and so she's a "hell of an actor." She and Michael Gambon (her paternal newspaper editor) get off some shadowy underplaying before the fireworks begin.


And then proving the movie could work with some gravitas, you have Angelina Jolie show up halfway through or so as "Freddie", a one-eyed hottie version of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. A small part perhaps, but imdb.com informs us that "In preparation for her role, Angelina Jolie met with and interviewed dozens of British WWII veterans and pilots in order to adapt the proper mannerisms of her character. She also tweaked the script by adding bits of slang that were used during the era."

Hey Jude, why didn't you do that!? Jolie knows it's the little things mean a lot, Sky Captain. When she delivers a line like "Prepare the amphibious squadron!" you know what's up. You want to go prepare the amphibious squadron just for her, on your knees!

The music score is a bombastic piece of ripoffery, of course, and the sound effects and layered imagery are so over the top that at times it feels like there's an almost Brechtian disconnect, with nothing ever matching up. Still, the fractured nature of it all works to make us unable to focus on the actual story, which depending on the environment in which you see the film (it would be perfect at Radio City Music Hall or some Art Deco facsimile) can give it a meta-textual sense of breathing room. The result is like some Brechtian playwright being forced to write pulp fiction, or Godard reading smutty spy novels over the (non) action in SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. Heavy use of words onscreen, oceans come with esoteric compasses layered above the waves, everything crashing around like a "Why We Fight" entry replete with Churchill-esque radio broadcasts about how only Sky Captain can get to the bottom of this "series of events."

The heavy (cost-effective?) use of black and blurry edge recalls the pages of Heavy Metal and the old Marvel rip-off of that title, Epic! Not that I didn't love both. Epic was a kind of tweener version, the last stop before the unapologetic R Rating of Heavy Metal. But it lacks the minimalist angst of the Frank Miller SIN CITY adaptation, or the comic book boisterousness of Peter Jackson's KING KONG remake.


But it's got the light and dark thing down pat. If you keep your expectations low it can be like reading Weird Tales while hiding from your parents in a dank basement, with two once-cool friends who are now a couple and just bicker all the time and think they're being amusing though you just want to give them both a bitch-slap. But then Angelina Jolie comes along and you forgive stuff, like how it all reminds you of having an interesting movie interrupted by a daft date going "Who? What? What remote island? What? Why" as you're trying to get lost in the narrative.  But it's a great movie to watch while your doing other things and though Konran is not quite as hilarious as Bruce McCall (below) when it comes to seeing through the cracks of rose-tinted nostalgia to the big emptiness of the Adobe photoshop real, I'd rather watch this again anytime than return to the smug wordiness of Pynchon's Against the Day. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stung by the Belle: FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: Jailhouse 41 (1972)


No one "beats" the Japanese when it comes to sadomasochism in cinema: They whip each other right out in public; they rape everyone in sight while grunting and frothing at the mouth; they engage in uninhibited gang violence, glue-sniffing and arson. In American exploitation film we seem to be at a loss to "ahem" measure up, perhaps due to our (relative) lack of repression. Even our recent torture porn phase is really offshot/borrowed from 'J' (and 'K') in style and substance. We can do sleazy (the OLGAs and ILSAs) and we can do titillating (the Tweeds and Mundaes) and we can do violent, but but the Japanese know to turn over the apple cart and start humping it like a dog. Their films transcend words like 'transfigur-titiliation,' 'pop-arterial' and 'hypno-dermal.'

These films, of which the FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION series remains a stellar example, leave you dazed, disturbed, clammy, depressed and worn out, even strangely exhilarated. Their sexual fever cruelty opens up your cranial shell and then the pop art color patterns come in and blow out the previous contents. And yet, the Japanese are often terrified of pubic hair. Hilarious!

With their over-the-top butoh style acting ever diffusing any sense of adult sexual reality, Japan's Scorpion series becomes strangely cathartic, and undeniably artsy. The suffering of post-war prostitutes in 1950s Suzuki films merges with the Sergio Leone western's sense of surreal absurdism and subtextual anti-authority, with Scorpion's ability to "take it" so astounding that it becomes its own form of dishing it out.


I've always been in awe of Japan's Sadean way to wrap prurient transgression in candy-coated shells of guilt, feminism, deadpan drollery, and existential despair. When the French do S/M, you can tell they're clutching onto their copies of Bataille as defense against Catholic-school guilt, and as a result a creeping bourgeois airlessness sometimes suffocates the sleeping beast of voyeuristic-Gallic masochism in its cradle, but the Japanese crank the Masoch-volume down to minus-eleven and get you laughing in delight at the sheer absurdity of all human expression, from grimaces of ecstasy to grimaces of agony, showing that our deepest most profane desires, fears and unendurable pains all look the same from far away, and are as ridiculous as anything else when exposed to light--even fake pink cinema light-- and so the Japanese find their way to Bataille almost by accident, and that has made all the difference.

Nowhere in my experience is this more balls-out perfect than in FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41 (1972).  Alas, the DVD is out of print. It's the second in a series of four Scorpion films from the era, though, and the other three are available (from Media Blasters!)

JAILHOUSE takes the cake because Meiko Kaji has such a firm nail on her world-weary but mercilessly resolved "Girl with No Voice" type of avenging dark angel. Her role is mostly nonspeaking and barely moving; she's just standing there, waiting to strike; a perennial victim of double crosses, sexual harassment and unjust incarceration. And her hair is perfect. No matter how much humiliation and brutality she endures, she never flinches or weeps, and her hair looks freshly washed and combed and--even better--blows from her own private offscreen fan.

Then there's the music! Kaji sings the theme song in that great bluesy lounge pop style of the moment and there's some great surreal interludes, including a  Japanese kind of "Biwa" (the ancient Japanese folk ballad tradition) version of "Cell Block Tango (He Had it Comin')" from Fosse's Chicago. The musical score itself is a constant Greek chorus-style counter-response of swelling, trombone-heavy crime jazz; Jew's harp "boing boing" western leitfmotifs; big bassoon and reed sustains over close-up staring contests, all suggesting the Sino-Morricone-Leone connection courses throughout... or did Leone borrow the bold comic book style from the era's films or both from manga?


Thankfully, though it's certainly traumatic to watch, the sexual violence is highly symbolized. The way the Japanese filmmakers seem to placate their censors with a huge dose of self-conscious satire, a complete capitulation of all sympathy and dignity on the parts of all males and most females-- both cops and prisoners--everyone in fact, but our protagonist antihero. She keeps her dignity to the bitter end.

If you've ever been an alienated self-conscious kid in school you know what it's like: feeling humiliated and horrified as you see all the kids and teachers talking and hugging as you try and find your home room and no one notices or cares about you, yet you feel them judging you anyway, and frankly they all look disgusting and animalistic, like pigs at the trough during lunch time and brutes in gym class. Japanese pinku films are your revenge. Just as "The final girl" survives the horrors of slasher-filled cabins and lakefronts by her rejection of sex and gender differentiation, so we as viewers in these films are encouraged to take a final girl approach, regarding human contact as inherently corrupting. We're better off without them, alone in our little tricophobic dojos.

The sexual violence in these films is shown as having the purpose of subjugating and demoralizing women in order to strengthen patriarchal rule--but in fact, it just hastens that rule's demise, as the more violence done the more karma weaves its spell and Matsu waits like the patient spider-scorpion for the karma wheel to slowly turn her way.

There is only one pair of eyes whose gaze she seems to profit by: ours. She never addresses the camera directly, as, say, her 2009 British male counterpart, Bronson (from the 2009 film of the same name) does, but the effect is the same. As purely cinematic subjects, they each represent a distilled essence of masochistic cinema viewing. Without our gaze, their suffering would become unendurable. It's as if she senses our eyes and is trying to illustrate how she feels about school.


It's good sometimes to remember "it's only a movie," and this comic over-doing it also does much to undercut any potential over-identification with either side, so we can realize that at the core of these films lurks a deep revulsion for one's secret shame/desire; a need to pull out at the last minute from over-identification; the shame and guilt contorting their bodies even as the crime is being committed. Only in the later Scorpion films is the violence highly sexualized in a less academically applaudable state, as if the initial shock of seeing your most debased primal fantasies played out has worn down to a hollow numbness, requiring ever more dangerous dissolving of the boundary between the masochistic (ala Steven Shaviro) and sadistic (ala Laura Mulvey).


One's opinion is bound to be personal, but these movies are pure masochistic fantasy, which makes them, in a way, pure cinema. If soap opera martyr movie emotions had their own pornography, this would be it, a protracted defiance of death, Antigone caught in a Fujicolor prism. The western Gallic-influenced torture porn of SAW and company tends more towards the fearful anticipation of pain/gore and self-conducted limb amputations, but the frisson in the Scorpion films comes more from existential weariness as garishly violent beatings--replete with amplified, echoed whacking noises--stretch into abstraction, and we begin to re-imagine our whole earthly existence as one long stretch of watching someone get fake whipped on TV. The Scorpion films project this as the ultimate reflection of a bad acid trip, where every event, color, action, word, gesture, even act of shifting weather patterns, seems geared to illustrate that modern life is a living Hell, all for the purpose of either breaking our spirits or turning us into cold-blooded scorpions. The only deciding factor is our ego -- the more we cling to ego the more the pain hurts, but if we release ego and surrender to our higher self, we can endure the suffering and wreak a vengeance made all the sweeter.

In other words, it's mythic. In a scene filmed atop and around a recently erupted volcano, our escaped female convicts run dressed in gray cape/shawls, making us expect Macbeth and Banquo to come riding up for fortune telling advice, or a dinosaur to come roaring down from the sky. It's important to realize this innate sense of connection with primal, tribal forces is much more pervasive in the Japanese mindset than in, say, USA's melting pot blood splatter hurled-onto-fields-of-grain. With their insane eyes and gnashing teeth, the other women convicts are representations of a pure, undistilled animism, humanity without humanity. They are presocialized erotic apparitions pummeled by Apollonian logic into barely recognizable caricatures of longing and fear. They are the stain that endures no matter how much acid and electroshock beatings are poured onto it. Kill them and three more take their place. The volcano itself is a perfect metaphor for this Dinoysian chthonic real and while the female prisoners seem perfectly part of the landscape, the cops and dogs are out of their element, both menacing alien others and buffoons. These figures of law and order sense, on some deep unconscious level, that they've been led to a place where patriarchal law has no jurisdiction -- and that their whole purpose in the film is to be swallowed up by the unconquerable feminine force that Matsu embodies.


At any rate, SCORPION suffers from a very limited emotional palette including hysterical Satanic possession death throe squeak-speaking and screaming contests that drag on for minutes. I envy those who can watch these films on a regular basis and not become warped and misanthropic, or at least not get a headache. Color coordinated trash dump scenes are pretty awesome, at any rate, but man oh man, when she slashes at the bad guys, she tears the celluloid itself in half... it's artsy like that!

If there was a line between life and death, it's where Matsu, Sgt. James (HURT LOCKER) and Bronson all dwell. For some warriors, it's bleached Iraqi deserts; for others, dank prisons and heaps of volcanic ash and garbage; for an unhappy few, even their own household has become a battleground. The question is, when will they stop cringing in fear rise up as fearless, unfazable warriors beyond the illusions of life/death duality? Or as they die, die, die, die, when will they scream, in slow mo pitch shift squeakspeak: MATSUUUUUUUUUO!?!?!?!?!


(Thanks Aria at Muse's Garden, from whom I ripped some of the above beauteous screenshots - read her insightful and much more expositional review here)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I got a home in that 'Raq


Similar to the possible future prison showdown between Manson and Polanski, it will be interesting tonight to see whether the Oscars go Cameron or his ex, Kathryn Bigelow.  Now I'll confess up front, I haven't seen AVATAR. I just can't work up any enthusiasm for it, but THE HURT LOCKER (2009) gives us a remake of something I do have enthusiasm for - the tough guy "group" movie of Howard Hawks, where brave lads face death daily without flinching or preaching or engaging in expository dialogue.


William James (Jeremy Renner) stars as a fearless bomb diffuser, and his fearlessness makes him a warrior out of his own time, like Patton in World War Two. His nonchalant courage would be right at home in Patton's third army, storming through occupied France or repelling wave after wave of Japanese banzai charges on Okinawa. But Iraq is a different beast-- more like an occupation force, ala the British in India or the British in Palestine, or the Israelis in Palestine, or the French in Algeria. In short, the bad guys, or at least we're compelled to realize how thin the line is between colonialism and the best intentions of queens and walruses. But while his comrades worry and wait, James goes right for the fuses, as focused and relentless as Mel Gibson in a world of Glovers.


While none of this is made didactic in the film, a soldier's anxiety about being killed is seen as more of a detriment than an asset to a soldier's sanity and skill development. I've never even been close to a war zone (aside from 9/11) but I've seen a lot of war documentaries, and I can tell you: those marines and GIs? They were badasses. In Bataan or Iwo Jima or Okinawa, the marines would lose 40,000 men on a single island and bend but not break. In that light, our Staff Sgt. William James would fit right in. But this Iraq war he finds himself in is so screwed up that soldiers can get all whiny about losing only a handful of men, say a dozen--in a bombing, as if it's not fair that wars should involve killing and maiming. It's like why Patton was so tough on his men - give them dirt to eat every day and eventually they get stomachs like iron, they can't even taste cake. Let them eat cake every day and they all whine like babies when it's time to eat even a spoonful of good old dirt.

Man, we have a saying in AA: If you go to a barbershop, sooner or later you come out with a haircut. Or the shock of realizing you have cancer after a lifetime of smoking... mmmm, but so worth it, you thought... at the time, or do you worry so much about staying alive you lose all joy of living? The most vehement "playing it safe" proponent, Sgt. Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) freaks out constantly as James tries to focus on his bombs, yet later Sanborne admits he's got nothing to live for... it's just fear for the sake of fear, a true indication of how consumerism has warped our concept of tribal loyalty.


Kathryn Bigelow winning might mean more stylized semi-deconstructed violence in cinema than ever before, which would be awesome. 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).


The key to living the charge of THE HURT LOCKER is to embrace the chaos and the way all the Arab faces in the street vibe possible suspects one second and merely local citizens checking things out from their windows the next, possibly on cell phones, possibly with guns... oh wait, a paint roller. Firefights take place sometimes miles away (the sort of thing a movie like BODY OF LIES tried to achieve while also adhering to outmoded rules of dramatic cohesion and liberal equality) and the natural leadership of our James makes you realize that what The Dog Whisperer says is so: the leader is the one who is most relaxed under fire. Renner strides boldly forward where Leos fear to tread. Hurt Locker, I'll be praying for you to win... Thanks Renner for looking a lot like my gun nut brother Fred and helping me understand him more, and to see that shrapnel-burn can look a lot like acne and have that be okay, to have a square nose like Reid, the World's Toughest Milkman and have that be okay, and to have a clean shaven guy show up all these wispy characters floating around the ABC sitcom promos with their exquisitely disheveled casual wear and perfectly mussed 11-o-clock shadow.


I am imagining Kathryn Bigelow (above) as the Evelyn Mulray to Howard Hawks' Noah Cross and I mean that in the best possible way because I revere Hawks uber alles and this would be perhaps a non-incestuous version, one with more fishing and hunting and target practice. I'm sure Hawks would have called HURT LOCKER "a damn good picture" and Bigelow "a damnned good-looking girl."

Dear Kathryn, let Oscar be the wings that lift you into the A-list auteur roster next to Paul Thomas Anderson and John Ford and make us all re-evaluate STRANGE DAYS or at the very least, struggle to fathom your age-defying hotness. Praise the Lord and pass the hollow point BLUE STEEL ammunition.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Orphans of Jessieland

I like a movie that makes no bones about it's philosophical geekiness, even if that means we must endure the anal-retentive Michael Cera-clone, Jesse Eisenbeg as he nervously runs around rattling off do's and dont's in the post-apocalyptic American survival, noting: "You have to enjoy the little things," as if even we didn't know that from ED WOOD's rose-sniffing scene, and explaining why his Han Solo older brother asskicker guardian (Woody Harrelson) is hell-bent on finding twinkies in the post-apocalyptic Zombieland. They kind of represent to Woody what "home" is, i.e. civilization before the collapse, before America became Zombieland (that would have to be around 1982 or so), but of course this film could be aimed at folks younger than me, and if it steers them towards a better appreciation for the little things, and helps them gain deconstructive analytical skillz, then I guess I shouldn't curmudge. At least Jesse's voiceover spares us dot connecting as far as consumerism, slack-jawed troglydyciousness as seen in reality shows like the Kardashians, and computer game addiction. Or maybe, just maybe, no one remembers that those things are bad, and that they make Europe worry about our mental health.

For after all, the apocalypse has been floating over our heads since the days of Jesus "C" - a kind of mass suicidal ideation The apocalypse film appeals in general to the malcontents of all classes and creeds, cuz it makes us feel less caged to know there might come a time when our credit card debts are erased and we're free to loot and pillage and fight for survival like our DNA has programmed us to. In the meantime we sit around and do the best we can. We plot, and wait, and game.


Even back in the vulnerable pre-cellular/internet 1980s, we fantasized about the impending apocalypse. Back then however, zombies were confined to a few sequels and spinoffs from the Romero original.  For the real apocalypse fantasy we worried more about bikers, mutants and dwindling oil reserves, ala THE ROAD WARRIOR (aka MAD MAX 2, 1982). And we didn't much have to deal with babes like Kristen Stewart or Taliban Shire or whatever name is, in our Zombielands. If the girls showed up at all they were usually robots (CHERRY 2000, Pris in BLADERUNNER) or scouts for their underground breeding programs (A BOY AND HIS DOG). Alas, we find that in the zombieland of tomorrow, the feminists have stolen all our shit with the finesse of mutant biker older sisters.


In the 1980s--thanks to Pat Benatar--we knew love was a battlefield, but then came the 90s and it takes an army to raise a village and perhaps the second decade of the 21st century will be about how the army is overseas and the village has failed to raise itself, leaving boys with no way to turn 2 men other than leaving for the Middle East, or doing drugs and drinking... blood. And the beautiful Kristen Stewarts of the world will wither and die... or worse, go out with Jessie Eisenberg before he's passed his initiation tests, before he's actually stood the test of manhood, either by getting drunk and sleeping around and then hating himself, or tripping on acid and getting in a fight or riding the mechanical bull, or in the words of Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, "waking up in someone else's van with a backstage pass in your back pocket."

I guess I'm squeamish since I was just as insecure as Eisenberg until around 1985 when I started drinking. To use the iconography of ZOMBIELAND, I went from a Jessie to a Woody in one swift funnel. Thing with Eisenberg is -- the two movies I've seen him in are both a) one world titles ending in "land" b) about amusement parks - the first is the semi-fun comedy ADVENTURELAND, wherein he slavers after the delectable pout of (below) Kristen Stewart (I hope you can feel that every time I write that name there is about a 2 minute pause while I swoon to the floor like a 16-year old promise ring-wearing Goth).

If this was a WW2 metaphor Eisenberg (and me prior to discovering alcohol) would be tightass Montgomery and Woody Harrelson would be a mighty Patton. Picture if you will, a small boy. He is Russian, and acting as a scout behind German lines for the Soviet Army. This kid is so tough and adorable, he'll break your heart and inspire you to risk death in the name of victory, all in one Hawks-like swoop. The film, she is called IVAN'S CHILDHOOD (1962). If this kid can be that cool, surely our Ceras and our Jesses can get themselves some nice Mickey Rourke-style bruises and at least give heroin a try?! The Cera-Eisenberg principle instead operates on the kind of squeamish comic embarrassment Ricky Gervais smuggled over from the BBC. And of course, Judd Apatow, and the "growing up" element has more to do with letting a hot girl kiss you without running away, or going to bed with her without stuttering some excuse why "it wouldn't be right" before realizing that "hey, it's the little things that matter." Or as Bushwick Bill once said "Size ain't shit!"

I've got nothing against wimps and computer nerds,  now that I can stare like Clint and  have a deep voice... so I get mad when nerds betray their struggling nerd audience with a bad role model like Eisenberg, for whom everything is done the hard way, when meanwhile Xanax and booze are free for the taking at deserted pharmacies and supermarkets across the nation.

I'm sorry, ZOMBIELAND, you're okay. A good enough zom-com is good enough for me. If it was easy to make a good-enough zom-com, there would be lots more good ones, so take a bow. Let us fill up virtual racks at the rental store with these unfettered amalgams! And the best part is, one of us invented the whole unified zombie mythos, i.e. a 20th century indie film maverick (as opposed to a Victorian playwright), George Romero - yet no one has to pay him a ha'penny of royalties. I mean, I wish they did, so he could be rich and afford to make his own zombie films... better. I mean I couldn't even get more than 20 minutes into DIARY OF THE DEAD. Jesus Christ, it's worse than Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS!


What's generally missing in all these Romero homage/spin/rip-offs is Romero's original deeply embedded critique of consumerism. There's a scene for example in the original, long-ass DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) where the heroine is getting herself all dolled up in the mirror, with beautiful gold lighting done in a commercial manner, and with the gun seamlessly integrated into her ensemble. ZOMBIELAND by contrast would have Eisenberg's narration go "It was like we were living in a critique of consumerism." and show a Phillip Seymour Hoffman cameo as a zombie Marxist liberal arts professor.


Z is for Zombie, that's good enough for me, and if the movie is really more of an amusement park ride than an actual horror film, and even if Bill Murray has to show up doing a frickin' Be Kind Rewind -remix of the library scene from GHOSTBUSTERS with his home's invaders, who'm I gonna call? So just remember that Zombieland is about appreciating the little things, and family, and fire arms, and all the stuff we take for granted that's going to go down in flames in a few short years. Hallelujah oh Dark Lord whom I choose to call Kristen!