Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Totaled Recall: THE HANGOVER (2009) and WHO IS HARRY NILLSSON? (2010)


Full of triumph, tribulation, amusing comic turns, and a manageable portion of tiresome dick humor, THE HANGOVER is a fine way to end mid-life crisis month, i.e. November. It's all about memory and manliness and lack thereof, and if it took me awhile to see it, well, I confess I used to have problems with Bradley Cooper - the beady eyes, the cocky glassiness, the way he didn't deserve Jennifer Garner in ALIAS - but all is forgiven. Now I love the nasal nonchalance with which he greets the next morning's calamities, greeting each new bit of madness with a shrug and a swagger. Annoying Ed Helms (THE OFFICE), meanwhile, wakes up and starts instantly to fret about a missing tooth and that there's a tiger in the bathroom so he can't even check his gums. Cooper just chortles and rolls with it, like most people would. Dude, to me it was just like every morning/afternoon waking up on tour with my band! I was always trying to find my pants, like Zach Galifianakis does, but we'd never slip anyone Rohypinol unless they specifically requested.... which they did. My crew loved Rohypinol, we didn't waste them on girls, we didn't need to. We were men, y'all, men who loved to pop Mexican Quaaludes as they used to be known. Even if they made our parties turn into snoring Jonestowns, I'm sure we must have had fun before we crashed. Didn't we? No one had phone cameras in those days so we'll never know. But also, our crew had no Ed Helms whiner character, just various degrees of Galiafinakis, and all was bearded and chill with the worrlzzzz.


Erroneously called 'rufflin' or something in the film, by a dentist who should know better, Rohipynol is sooo much more than a date rape drug. Don't let the frat boys give it a bad name. May any man whose ever spiked a girl's drink with one drop dead instantly, by Crom!

Oh yeah, THE HANGOVER. Well written, well directed, well photographed, it solves nearly all the problems I usually have with dumb Nevada-set comedies, and in fact is better at depicting that special drug fueled blur than Terry Gilliam's much more pedigreed FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Frankly, despite Helms' histrionics (he's worse than Alan Arkin in THE IN-LAWS) there's a real sense you'd want to hang out with these guys, whereas Depp and Del Toro in LOATHING seemed way too pretentious and violent to want to actually have more than a quick shot with before excusing yourself, going to the bathroom, and getting running for the hills. To bond with the HANGOVER posse one need take only a six shot of Jaeger, whereas Hunter would need to wave a gun in your face and scare you off, so you wouldn't see how alone and twisted he was inside.

Yeah, when it comes to drug-fueled mayhem, Zach, Brad and their dorky friend are like a good band - the alpha, Bradley Cooper on lead guitar and vocals, getting them in trouble with daring reckless drive. On bass, the rooted crazy calm of Zach G, and the clatter of nervous Helms on drums. Hunter's band would never even learn two chords before they smashed their guitars... that wouldn't fool me. I saw the Replacements in '84! Matsbra!

But, for all that, THE HANGOVER ain't perfect. First of all, these guys are pussies, because when you wake up with a super hangover like that, the thing is to just keep drinking. Nothing cures a hangover like more alcohol. There's no earthly need to sober up, dear friends, til the wedding's over. The wedding photogs can always redden up your pale, sickly countenance in Photoshop. Not that they did for me, that's show biz.

But, I totally felt that anxiety Ed Helms feels due to their  staying in a designer hotel suite, where you're surrounded by luxury items that cost ridiculous amounts, so you're dying for a drink and there's booze all around, but if you take it they charge you like $45 for an airplane bottle, or $25 for a small tin of nuts. Dude, when I go to a hotel I don't want to feel like I'm sleeping in the lobby of an expensive department store, afraid to roll over in bed lest I occur some exorbitant charge by knocking over a pillow. I mean, are they charging me for every splurb of ginger-lemon-scented hand soap? The whole thing never fails to throw me off, so even if I get a comp bottle of designer mineral water I become afraid to open it, afraid to even go down the hall for ice cubes, lest the top flight party girls see and judge me... and charge me. Is there even an ice machine at those places?


On the other hand, when you're with 'the guys' there's often a kind of vertical displacement of responsibility, as opposed to going to one of these places with your girlfriend and being expected to show her a great time even as it's plunging you into debt and she's rolling her eyes and making wearying demands for 'spontaneity.' Groups of guys are more fun because there's no need to constantly prove why your a good boyfriend, and the HANGOVER is brilliant at showing how four guys riffing and going off in random directions at the same time in the same place, concurrent yet counter-intuitive, can bewilder the world around them in a kind of on the spot detournement societal melt down, thus enabling you to get away with everything short of arson. My band and I, for example, could take over and completely change the vibe of, say, a sleepy all-night diner, or an understaffed bar. Special shout out to the girls of Old City Hall in Oswego, 1992. Favorite blurry memory of that tour: Five in the morning, skinny dipping in a freezing Lake Ontario while the snow drifted down! Alcohol rules!


Aside from the not drinking more to cure the hangover aspect, my only other issue with the film was the shameful portrayal of women, which I will only excuse because of the sacredness of the "what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas" male bond. Still, why does Heather Graham always get stuck playing gorgeous sexually aggressive doormats? And even if that girl waiting at the altar wasn't Megan Fox, she was mighty Megan Foxy, with a dash of Catherine Zeta-Jones. Awesome, but one-dimensional. And wait, is that Cheri Oteri as the mom?


But again, this is Vegas, the city of bromance and legalized prostitution...SPOILER: the final photos of the lost night smack of all the things the aforementioned stone cold bitch is right to condemn... Those implants have families damn it. They were once beautiful breasts and now just embarrassing, shocking reminders of a world gone wrong. Still it is cool to see the enemies of the day-after suddenly as the friends of the night before, preserved in the fleeting amber of digital phone memory cards. Healing, you might say.

The HANG director also made OLD SCHOOL, which I haven't seen, but I remember seeing photos of Will Ferrell at the keg, and remembering that I once partied with him, or his Syracuse equivalent, Mike "Ellis" DeAngelo. Ellis! Boys need to be boys, and what goes on under the roofie stays under the roofie, unless it doesn't, in which case, everybody's goin' to jail this moan-NIN! Some of us never left. Some of us have been here the whole time, shoveling our buckets of coins into cold, dark slots while the sheriff stands watch and we sing work songs. There is no jackpot so sweet as the one we don't remember, Lord. Just look at Harry Nilsson! What, who is Harry Nilsson? Glad ya acksed. Pull up a chair... grab a cup. Oh. No more cups? There might be one in the sink you can rinse off.

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In the pantheon of rock/pop there's always those artists whose albums you see everywhere and never buy, though there's always one or two people who are into them and try to tell you how great they are and you're just not having it... Procol Harum? Molly Hatchet? Todd Rundgren? Foghat? Whaat? I used to always put Nilsson in with them, some relic of a bygone age...That won't happen again now that I saw WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (AND WHY IS EVERYBODY TALKIN' 'BOUT HIM)? a documentary with a title that instantly places him as the singer of that song in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969, rated X).  Off to a good startbra.

Seeing the documentary helped unearth a lot of 'lost' childhood memories, such as being five and excited for the premiere of Nilsson's psychedelic 1971 TV cartoon, "The Point." Even then, at five or whatever, the cartoon made me annoyed with its YELLOW SUBMARINE psychedelic puns and Seuss-brand nonconformism. But I shouldn't blame Nilsson for being so proud of his ABC prime time slot-winning. Do we devalue Vince Guaraldi because that bridge in 'Linus and Lucy' is so popular? Nilsson was a partier, to the extreme! That is what we must struggle through the cold Las Vegas afternoon to 'remember'.

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Throughout the documentary various musicians talk about losing huge stretches of time partying with Nilsson. Wives all across Laurel Canyon came to dread his husband-napping phone calls.  He'd pick up their men and they'd vanish into the 'Rufflin' haze... surfacing later drunk and belligerent, just to pick up their guitar and accidentally break a table. Meanwhile Nilsson's record producers loved his incredible voice and gifts so much they seemed to just let him go too loose, recording every drunken sing-song blather that came into his head. They were all broken up still by his leaving them. (Apparently John Lennon was a negative influence). And leave them he would.

His younger Irish wife speaks as well as she can of our Harry in the documentary, and she still looks a pretty hot, and his gorgeous children remember a loving but mostly absentee dad. Though I wished there could be a Polaroid trail of his wild lost weekends, ala THE HANGOVER, it was enough of a change of heart for me that I ran to my emusic account and downloaded NILSSON SCHMILSSON and NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN. A long time Randy Newman fan (pre-TOY STORY only, playa), it's been my pleasure to hear Nilsson sing "We got to tell the people 'bout Utah / 'cuz nobody seems / to know," while walking to work down Brooklyn's scenic Vanderbilt Ave. every morn...nin'. 

But man, this country needs to remember more than Utah... we need to remember that hangover cures don't come better than a 50-50 mix of gin and grapefruit juice... chased with black-outs, a minor jail sentence, rehab, 35 AA meetings, and... toast... But in the end, is having all that candle at both ends-style fun even worth it if you don't remember a damn thing? As someone who used to spend his week dreaming of Friday when I could grab a bottle like a reverse parachute and just plunge into the void, I can tell you flatly, "nobody seems / to know." Memory is not to be trusted, and the moment itself doesn't exist outside your own slicing of past and future like a dwindling cube of sopium in a room full of grubby jonesers. You're better off seeking Jesus, but churches smell like the elderly, and you can't smoke in the pews. Your best bet is this: download Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire" and listen to it walking down the street pretending to be a coked-up Henry Hill. That should answer all your questions, you black-out reincarnater: you jumped into the Lake Ontario fire a million times and don't remember Jack...that's how you know you must have had a good time... Hopefully, someone right now is up in the ether, savoring your every lost howl.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

High Strangeness: LANA TURNER'S HOLY MOUNTAIN and Rose Hobart takes a trip


2012 note - Frost apparently remixed both films together to form Lana Turner overdive, which I herewith present, leaving the text as is.
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A follow-up to Helsinki Productions' awesome LANA TURNER'S INLAND EMPIRE. This one was just posted a few days ago, and finds Lana continuing to lose her mind as she seems to connect with some cat spirit that may or may not be an old Egyptian star goddess... Just roll with it! Spot the connections to Dario!

These Lana epics remind me of one of my own psychedelic remixes, DRUNKARDS OF BORNEO. Ever see it? I'm supposed to do a poster for Ethan Spigland's class on the Situationists so I've been learning about 'detournement.' And honey, this is it:



When we think of 'reappropriation,' 'collage,' 'detournement,' don't we conjure a  handful of images, and a handful only? A urinal signed 'R. Mutt', a soup can, and a slice of film from 1933 called 'East of Borneo' that became the first remix, courtesy Joseph Cornell, called Rose Hobart?

I stumbled upon the original East of Borneo by happy accident at the Whitney Museum's Edward Hopper show back in the 90s. I never forgot it: Drugged leopards dropped onto screaming stunt men, a satisfyingly alcoholic Charles Bickford stirred to sluggish life when his non-white prince pal makes a play for his wife, come to fetch him like a dutiful, confused puppy. Imagine LOST WEEKEND if the girl in the leopard coat followed Ray Milland all the way to Borneo, where she got hit on by Bim and Ray had to disguise himself as a little turkey in a straw hat? Talk about codependence! Basically, her intrusion topples the whole kingdom. Women.

So in my version, the idea is of course, acidemic. The girl comes, takes a trip while never leaving the grounds, and is amused by a sacrifices both human and monkey. Through it all, a mystery man laughs and laughs! But bromance triumphs!! Bros before ho's, that's the moral. Even if I've never practiced it, personally. So.. let DRUNKARDS OF BORNEO create the space for post-modern healing, and god bless us as November 2010 crumbles into the rose-tinted abyss of memory. And if you want to get in on the weirdness... get on it. Rent THE BIG CUBE and deconstruct that tall drink of bitch!

PS - Right as I was writing this, the unimpeachable, Film Doctor was posting a bunch of great 'detournement' links. Debord is in the air! If only we could bottle it... for profit... and peace!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lyon in Winters


Where I come from, home for the holidays means dying lawns, cloudy suburban skies, foil-covered crock pots brought unwillingly from the car to the front door; chattering hellos from perfumed relatives; ceilings slick with condensation from ever-baking turkeys and boiling rutabagas. Football drones on in one room, punctuated by manly voice overs extolling beer and Ram trucks. In the other, women natter about whose kids are getting A's in college (not me!). It's a time to go to school reunions just to get out of the house, a time to fess up to the way family and hometowns leave their mark, like a lash of sameness, slash of lameness you'll never paint over... but is it that bad? What if you come from a family rife with divorce, guilt, skeletons, incest? Pedophile freaks subverting the family dynamic? Lolita cousins coming onto you while aunts and uncles look at you harshly but you're too drunk to resist? Your honor, I was not even her first lover.

I had a fine, breathless Kubrick discussion with Jamey DuVall at Movie Geeks United for an upcoming (Dec. 5th) 8-part series, 'The Kubrick Series' -- and so I've been thinking of LOLITA all day. Let me share it with you as we close the holiday down:

Laws dealing with minors and corruption are tricky things. A kid (under 18) who rapes his cousin can get off with just a flick on the wrist, but a guy who sends one of his prostitutes home for Xmas on a train can go to jail, just for buying her a ticket that takes her across state lines. This all goes back to 1910 and a law meant to catch white slavers that was amended as the Mann Act in 1948 largely due to the newspaper headline case of Frank LaSalle, a an old pervert dragging a naive shoplifter named Florence Sally Horner, off on a two-year cross-country spree. The constant travel making it hard to discern the unkosher relationship kept in place by blackmail (he saw her steal a notebook from a five and dime and played copper) was a shot heard by journalists around the world, and the headlines have never been the same, for better and for worse.

Kubrick's film LOLITA, as well as Nabokov's original book, seems to take the Horner backlash as a challenge to depict the corruption of a minor in a non-hysterical manner, with trans state-line travel galore. I've seen the film and read the book numerous times, but never thought of that strange but valuable law... suddenly, this past viewing, it was all I thought about.


My dad has a terribly long and ornate joke dealing with this law, involving transporting immortal porpoises over staid lions. The point is, it's a law designed specifically to counteract the moves of people like Humbert, himself an evil user of pretend morality. Humbert's relationship with Quilty is an ultra-cool mirror of the moral code that was challenging Kubrick to both adhere to and defy the "How could they ever make a movie of Lolita?" marketing catchphrase.


Over the years this film's been many things to me, but this last viewing it seemed to be about art vs. censorship and the way the promoters of 'childhood wonderment' and the Peter Pan 'if you can dream' aesthetic--the Norman Rockwell fishing boy logo of Dreamworks and the mouth agape wonderment of E.T.-- are the both the critics and culprits who bring us the hyper-awareness of pedophilia. The two are entwined, a double exposure of exposing, like a cobra with the head of a tail-eating mongoose. The more you pine for and prize a 'perfect family' aesthetic the more pressure-cooker force you put on those latent incestuous, pedophile dark desires. Pedophilia is the ultimate evil, after all, the kind of thing even the other prisoners will kill you for (in jail); it goes deeper than Oedipus, down into the murky swamp behind the Bate's Motel, and it is embedded in the very fabric of our modern trend towards the deification of children and their 'innocence.' Is it any accident that the two main architects of this hypocritical saintly children-izing in the early 1980s were Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg?

The difference in the pre-ET 70s was that no one wanted the Norman Rockwell 50s 'childhood wonderment' thing, so there was less to repress, and what you don't repress you don't have to 'act' out in sexual transgression. The pedophiles and flashers were still around in the 70s but the intense fear and guilt parents had over their children's safety didn't seem as ubiquitous. The Don Draper cultural rubric didn't include constant monitoring of playdates. The kids were left to roam the house, yard, or neighborhood while parents smoked, drank, swapped, played bridge, and carried on. We kids knew not to get into cars with strangers or accept their candy, except on Halloween, and above all we knew when to stay out of our parents' way and when was the right time to creep downstairs and steal from the candy dishes. We knew when the bridge games would devolve to the point that our presence would be greeted with hilarity and welcome; we knew the tartness of our parents' whiskey sours and Tom Collins' kisses; we learned to mix drinks with the powdered packets of whiskey sour mix. Adulthood was virile... there was no clear line to cross. Sometimes, it just reached out and grabbed you. You felt safe around it, yet knew that it was, itself, unsafe. 


The sad thing now for an old rager like me watching LOLITA is to see the inexorable passage from mom to daughter to daughter-mom in Sue Lyon, as it so preternaturally predicts the arc of America's cultural mores, from repressive 50s-early 60s, (Shelly Winters) to liberated late 1960s-70s (Sue Lyon) to repressive 80s (Lyon-in-Winters). Elaborating the transformation is Sellers as the liberal media elite and James Mason as the outflanked conservative imposter. Just as the most vocally anti-gay politician is inevitably found drunk in a gay nightclub, so does Humbert Humbert hide, like a scoundrel at his last refuge, behind the outrage of conservative wagon-circling.

The message was clear and simple to a generation for whom Freud was like Oprah: the more concerned you are over your child's well being the more suspect you are. I was more or less Lolita's age when I first saw LOLITA, and my perspective and identification with it has changed a bit now that I'm Humbert's age, or rather Quilty's. It's the Quilty character who dominates now, more, for me. The vantage point from which art--through its transparency and deliberate digging for dirty truth--looks down upon dull, corporeal expression of desire. To paint a nymphet, like Degas with his ballerinas; to film a nymphet, like Rollin with his vampire women; to write of one, like Nabokov, is to effectively sublimate the desire to corrupt them in the real. The artist has 'already' tasted such forbidden fruit in this sense and found he much prefers using the desire and rapture as a inspiration, a springboard into art. Compared to the divine rapture of creation, orgasms are strictly commercial.

Kubrick's film is also a fine metaphor for art vs. censorship, with Lolita as the muse, dragged down too soon into the tedious abyss of mortality (i.e. getting knocked up, moving to Alaska, where maybe she'll grow up to be Sarah Palin!), and Humbert the bourgeois authority that proclaims things art or pornography according to his own licentiousness (he makes things -- Lolita herself -- forbidden to the masses so he may enjoy en toto under the pretense of protecting her morals) and Sellers is the artist, the Bugs Bunny trickster who actually controls the stuff of 'real' art, for he knows what's really going on... and that is the primordial jazz of constant persona dissolution.


Quilty, after all, could snatch away Lolita at almost any time from her pedophile stepdad but prefers to toy with him, the way filmmakers could just imply sex straight under the code, but instead dance in the dirt of repressed desire without ever getting their boots wet. Artists understand that sexual gratification means an end to the dance, a sudden return to shame and self-consciousness, a hasty, guilty retreat through the parking lot. Instead of making art you made a 'situation', a guilt trip, a baby, or a messy crime scene.  The trick is not to 'grant' the sleazy pay-off... and thus avoid orgasm's desolate attic.

The moral to all this? Family ain't perfect, but you can trust it's imperfection a lot better than you can trust the TV that tells you the true family is perfect. TV gets its messages from the Quilty/Humbert elite and they don't have your best interests at heart, and never did. In the 1980s, before SSRIs were popular, some of us had to kill ourselves just to convince our parents we needed therapy. In the 1990s it's reversed, but the same principle of fear and gray flannel blending applies. Therapy was once taboo, now the attitude that it's taboo is itself taboo. We've got to get the Lyons back out of the winters and free the immoral porpoises. If we can wise up to the tricks by which our desire is inherently unfulfillable then we can wise up to the double-edged sword; it mean a thing if we ain't got what we'll never have! The only exorcism of desire that truly fulfills the spirit is art. Humbert can shoot up the Quilty art museum all he wants, he's already lost the war, before he even started.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gone Draper Don: THE SWIMMER (1968)

"He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools."
-- The Swimmer, John Cheever

Of all the great white male midlife crisis epics, outside of TV's MAD MEN, who can beat the Burt Lancaster-starred adaptation of John Cheever's short story, THE SWIMMER? The recent Time Magazine cover lauding Jonathan Franzen as the literary canon's next great white hope sent a shock through the up and coming, young, brilliant and angry writing community as yet another middle-aged white male of means got noticed writing about mid-life crises, college tenure boondogles, car accidents that leave multi-generational ripples over sprawling families that interact with colorful characters and dialogue that makes everyone right down to the precocious daughter sound like the same pithy writer in love with his own voice. But the joke is on the old, not the young. Time Magazine is grasping at the last straw in the arsenal for keeping awake their dwindling upper middle class white male readership (1). The lionizing search for the next great white hope, the Norman Mailer, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or John Cheever is not unlike the drowning grasp of the Swimmer himself. 


What's great about the 1968 adaptation of Cheever's THE SWIMMER, then, is how morbidly aware it is of the absurdity of such lionization. Where the lionizers massage and whisper ribald limericks it digs into the nasty heart of white male 'pride of ownership' and finds the rotting crotch within. This crotch wrings especially true after first going through a few episodes of MAD MEN: Don Draper and the mourning of all the sexism, racism, high-functioning alcoholism, and other -isms that we're technically 'glad' are gone-- but man, we've been so busy this decade cleaning things up--Times Square, indoor smoking, workplace sexual harassment, public dancing (forbidden in NYC), outdoor smoking, racial profiling, equal rights--that we've forgotten what we've lost: Burt Lancaster.


What happened? According to one disgruntled ex-friend of Burt's in THE SWIMMER: "You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that's what happened." As an entitled sexist white male myself, born in 1967, I grew up hearing racist, sexist and Polish jokes over parental cocktails, sitting on the couch beside them in awe, rushing to refill their drinks on request, blending the whiskey sour mix, smelling the sweet sugar sweat of hungover adults on Sunday mornings during the Dunkin Donuts run. It's built into me, along with second-hand smoke; it created me, and though I know it's all wrong I smoke nonetheless, and have an attitude of entitlement that is seldom effective. So when I see Burt in THE SWIMMER gradually sink into the deep end of illusion and time, I weep. The scene of his humiliation at the hands of the filthy ethnic grocers at the public pool especially wrankles. This is the ultimate in both comeuppance and validation of the class system the film is watching die. When the playing field is equal, the lowest common denominator always rules. Once you let the poor people in, your pool is officially a slum - it never works vice versa. On the other hand, maybe it's you who was the slum the whole time, Mr. Merrill!

"Ya wanna know what your kids thought of ya, Mr. Merrill?" the grocer says. "They thought you were a big joke!" Exemplifying the nouveu riche (they're the ones who have to tell you how much everything cost), they're like devouring birds who wolf down our swimming aficionado like one of Sebastian's baby turtles.

Standing forth from the fray and creating the film's most touching scene is Joan Rivers, playing just a guest covering her bad skin with more makeup at the ethnic ugly new money afternoon bash. She sees--just for a minute--a chance at something new and exciting by driving him off to a quick one. But before she can find her car keys it passes. Everyone But Lancaster meets before her is either oblivious or resentful but Joan is just lonesome and hung over, and her sad yet witty resilience creates a small oasis of realness in the downward spiral, like if Burt wanted he could just scram out of there, grab a fifth of vodka from the bar on their way past, hop in her BMW back down the river to the East 82nd street and shack up for a lost weekend... And he'd never have to get his well-deserved comeuppance. It's easy! I've done it a thousand times!


Never go back to the house, Burt. Never get out of the goddamned pool. Just grab the first boat that comes along. Absolutely goddamned right. Burt in THE SWIMMER, doesn't get in the boat, and it sails without him. The age of the great white sharky novel sinks as he pounds the iron doors of his golden playpen like its the locked steerage gate on the Titanic. His future is all used up. His key don't fit that lock on his door. Another mule has long ago kicked down his stall.

Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER is like the last helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards like a sperm whale who realizes there's a prophylactic fishing net ahead. But there's no going back, oh paragon, your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you, but know there's lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed summer break swimmer, and for far too long you've coasted in a sea of spoonfed chum. Are your teeth sharp? Is your skin hard? Is your mouth a little weak? Are you smart? Or would you rather be a duck? Quack for us, Mr. Draper, quack a little dream... of Time.

NOTES:
1. My dad's subscribed to TIME all my life, and I grew up reading Richard Corliss and carbonizing my growth hormones via their pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Charlie's Angels. It's informed my development for better or worse. I hate it but it's a part of me, that's a fact.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

X is for Xanax, that's good enough for X: 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 sensory organs and neurons 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 whole lives, we may want to turn the dial to find other stations, but if we do we're soon deafened and blinded by the holy static. What's worse, we may never find our way back to our clear, normal starting point. To paraphrase William Blake, if the doors of perception were cleansed the world would appear as it really is, infinite... but then after the initial beauty wore off, you better hope the 'finite' illusion comes back quick, or you may wind up strapped to a gurney, screaming your eyes out, begging the nurse for a sweet, sweet Xanax.

You need to be insane and/or holier than hell to live with 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.

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. As grumpy as Don Birnam on Yom Kippur, Dr. X is pretty skittish about the experimental eye drops he's invented, which he tries and which enable him to see through everything from women's skirts to, eventually, the chewy tootsie roll center of the universe. The film still blows the mind with its psychedelic metaphors, but is so cheap-looking under Roger Corman's economic hand 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 metaphysical inquiry into the 'gaze,' buffeted by waves of cheapness.

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, he 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. But hey, 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!?), there's very little attempt to convince that the interior threadbare sound stage sets are anything but sketches meant to conjure carnivals only in the very imaginative viewer, but Don Rickles--an AIP regular over at the studio's endless slew of 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. Ere long a police helicopter is chasing them through the desert. He crashes because he can see through the road; he runs around the desert, 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, X is a hard film to love; Milland's just not the well-meaning nutcase he was as Don Birnam, but the film is impressive and balls-out original in the way Corman just goes for it, and by it I mean the infinite trip -- pre-2001.

Milland's career was off the rails by the 1960s, 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, or going beyond the illusory atomic structures of our life - leaving sanity behind and having a cameraman brave and cheap enough to keep you in the center frame at all times, and let the subjective universe prove its inherent flimsiness.


"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.


 NOTES:
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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mid-Life Crisis Superstar: Humbert, Lo, and the Bait-Switch Cycle



I'll be a guest on Film Geeks tribute to Kubrick podcast this Dec. 5: here's an excerpt from my 2009 Bright Lights Film Journal article:

"All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives"  Stanley Kubrick's LOLITA:
 
It's hard to believe now in our jaded world but in the late 1960s/1970s, even first-class artist filmmakers such as Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) earned X ratings, making their movie posters reverberate in the deep recesses of my child mind.  Back then an X meant pulling no punches but also being artistic and thus these films still carry the potent whiff of sexuality as a genuine danger, whose loss Camille Paglia, and this essay, laments. The danger still exists, but we are disconnected from the accompanying desire, it is too late to feel things deeply, in the flesh. We check in with our bodies periodically, during a commercial break, or when it's time to pass the joystick. Only later, when the TV and ipods are all shut off, do the demons and traumas make themselves felt.



Like most of Kubrick's work, Lolita (1961) reflects this gradual rotation ever further into the simulacrum but from an earlier epoch, going from the refinements and closeted perversities of old Europe to the postmodern "no tell" motels of modern America (remember these were the days when police could arrest you for transporting a minor over state lines, or just having a woman in your hotel room). There are three levels of time passing in our filmic discussion: the span of time since Lolita was released, the span of time of the actual movie (2 ½ hours), and the time spanned in the movie's mise en scene (as in "3 years later"). Kubrick ingeniously unites all three. As the film progresses, it moves from shrill bedroom farce to tense Freudian scenes of insane jealousy and the film itself becomes full of deep, sad shadows. This progression into madness is similar actually to another of Mason's roles, that of the cortisone-maniac dad in Bigger Than Life. The monstrousness of his actions becomes apparent only later, when he's struggling to keep his mask on in the face of all the subterfuge --the self-fulfilling prophecy of jealousy. Simultaneously, we move as a world from a genuine sexual revolution through to the launch of the AIDS miasma and into a simulacrum fog. Sex now involves so many layers of protection we're better off just imagining it --in your head you always ride bareback, so to speak.

In the 1970s we wished for the some weird new form of cassette, where we could compile our favorite movies around us as a fort, to not be enslaved to the TV Guide (I sometimes arose at dawn just to see some bizarre piece of crap like Zombies on Broadway). In the 2010s we are stuck, like James Woods in Videodrome, with our head halfway into the cathode ray mouth; our Satanic wish has become fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams, in excess to the point of nightmare. Now that the entire world has access to all the movies ever made, almost, being surrounded by favorite movies carries no currency. As Baudrillard put it in The Conspiracy of Art,: "It is useless to be dispassionate in a dispassionate world. Being carefree in a divested world has no meaning. That is how we became orphans."

We can see the bait-and-switch of the simulacrum in the commercials shown before movies in theaters now. I remember seeing two commercials back to back after not having seen any for a while (I gave up cable for a few years) and was flipped out of my gourd. The first ad was one of those anti-drug messages, aimed at teens: "Coke Kills." The next is a Coke (as in Coca-Cola) commercial, where a sad little boy takes a sip from his glistening black bottle and flowers and rainbows shoot out of his head: "Coke is life." These are cinema's options — the approved drink is named Coke (which originally had cocaine in it) but is pitched at having the exact effect of the one drug it does not have, the forbidden drug from which it gets half its name --"the real real thing." This is a very devious switcheroo, regardless of whether it's for our own good. My shrink told me the other day that one of the strands of drugs I was on was scheduled by the FDA on the level of Valium, etc. And why? Because the rats liked it. They kept pressing the lever. No other noticeable problems to long-term use but the rats liked it. They just don't want us rats to have a good time,  or is it that, like our concerned parents, they want us to stop watching old movies and go outside and get some fresh air?

I'm all for keeping irresponsible people away from drugs, but the switcheroo presented by these two commercials is a Pavlov equivalent of forcing the rat's hand on the lever while giving him nothing in return. If you're feeling high off drugs, why tell your doctor? Now he has to do something about it, the twin serpents on his profession's fraternal emblem obligate him to halt your ecstasy. The doctors hold the keys to the kingdom, dangling the precious pills above our heads like we're doggies. If we pant and beg, no treat; we have to seem utterly disinterested. Thus displays of enjoyment are rendered dangerous unless completely faked.

This cycle of bait and switch is the feature selling point of Lolita as it revolves gradually from the bourgeois end game hungover morning after (death) to bucolic innocence, to gradual dissolution and back again. Lo's glasses and pregnant belly (at the end of the film) prove a less shrill but nonetheless archetypal blonde suburban mom a la her mother, whom Humbert visited with equal muted horror at the beginning of the film. A similar revolution on the meta level mirrors this: as the film grows less and less "contemporary," it grows less "obscene." Yesterday's pornography is today's literary canon, though a return to it being burned in the street in some Handmaid's Tale-style future seems still distantly possible. Even so, Lolita is an odd-film-out in the Kubrick oeuvre, particularly in that it's one of his few films that attempt to deal with sex, his Achilles heel. Always squeamish about consensual sex, for Kubrick impotence becomes, by default, his sinthom magnifique. (Sterling Hayden's mad general in Dr. Strangelove: "I don't deny myself the company of women, Mandrake. I just deny them my essence.")

To see how Kubrick's 1961 film is really the first 1970s movie, we have to look way back before that, to the late 1950s: repressive Cold War paranoia was giving way to the emerging strands of freethinking that would gradually weave into the rope of countercultural "free love." Sex, which had been safely encrypted in the pre-suburban "Our Town" style of living before WW II, came roaring up from the land of the repressed in cinema via films such as 1954's Baby Doll. The Kinsey Report had made "the sex life of suburbia" into a hot topic, as did the craze for Freud and psychoanalysis. Why not swap wives when we're all comfortably middle class and hip to the Oedipus complex, and drunk? Kinsey made it seem like everyone else was doing it, and one wouldn't want to be left out. Scandalous intellectuals-only satire, however, would only do for so long. Without the same amount of repression to work your lusting Wildean wit against, Lolita ceases to be subversive. Viewing the film in the 1990s, it was no longer risqué but a shrill bedroom farce in the style of Fox's early 90s sitcom, Married with Children (which also featured a hot, nubile daughter perched scandalously amidst a family of raving sex maniacs). What was once scandalous had become cartoonish.


Lolita sits at the tape mark on a Moebius strip of time dealing with our national obsession for nymphets: A huge backlash against the loosey-goosey sexuality of children began in the early 1980s, with day-care molestation scandals and TV's America's Most Wanted. We went from letting kids run wild in the streets if they were old enough to walk ('70s), to freaking out if they're out of our sight for a second ('80s), to accompanying them to school and sitting through their classes with them, arranging play dates as if working for the secret service ('90s-forever). Yet nowadays you walk down the streets of middle America and you see the 13- to 16-year-old Hannah Montana nymphets glorified in short shorts they never would have been able to wear outside the house even in the '70s, and a salon tan, and bottle-blond hair, Britneyed to the nines, wobbling around the mall on their high heels in the company of their moms, who are doughy enough to make Shelley Winters look like Nico and don't seem to even notice. Women teachers sleeping with young male students, meanwhile, has become top news and fodder, and multiplexes pack in single working women on Friday nights to see Notes on a Scandal, Sex and the City, Elizabeth, The Reader. Koo Koo ka Choo, Mrs. Robinson! And let's not forget the dour, craftsmanship-suffocated Lolita remake by Adrian Lyne! As with everything they touch, the bourgeoisie keep the sex and scuttle the myth, and first demonize, then overvalue, that which was better off without their meddling.

What's most altered our perception of Lolita's "sexuality" is the tumbling down of the enforced moral code, which has eliminated altogether the "did they or didn't they" question. As a code-breaker, Lolita really has a lot in common with Baby Doll, such as the way Quilty and Lolita exploit Humbert's insane jealousy, just as in Baby Doll, Carroll Baker (below) and Eli Wallach deliberately provoke and tease the dirty-minded hick played by Karl Malden. Each self-diagnosed cuckold wants to "know for sure" what the code can never explicitly say. The code itself is then the meta-textual source of anxiety, a stand-in for sex itself and thus the films' code-enforced sexual ambiguity serves as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," driving the hicks mad. We can imagine one lone dude in the theater who still thinks there's a way to prove for sure what Lolita and Humbert did or didn't do that morning in the hotel room with the cot, or Eli and Baker in the room with the crib in Baby Doll. That one lone dude in the theater is the censor.


One of the best ways to use the code to frustrate our prurient censors is simply changing the time of day when sex occurs: It's implicit in code-sanctioned romance that the sex happens in the fade-out between a kiss at night and breakfast the following day — with no distinct demarcation of sleeping on a couch or in the other room. The actual sex is absent, and the length of the time elapsed in the fade-out can range from a few minutes to decades. Only when the filmmakers deliberately toy with these symbolic markers for the express purpose of beguilement do genuine subversion and satire finally occur.  

Lolita and Baby Doll are movies that explore the frustrations created by the code on our desire to know what happened in between the kiss and the next day, the Oedipal detective mystery of childhood consuming us as if it had never been dormant. Even if we've had actual sex since then, it's been no more than a phony head getting sliced off by a castrating sheet of glass compared to the wild lurid promise of our imaginations. (read full article here)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dino De Laurentiis: Warrior, Poet, Profit. (1919-2010)

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There was something so refreshing about the man, a kind of larger-than-life dreamer quality. As my friend Sean Kelly noted, a De Laurentiis movie was such an event and yet so tragic, as they always start out super grand and big budget, and all the $$ is on screen, and then, about an hour or 40 minutes in, the budget is all used up, and things get cheap... by the big climax you can practically see the repo men in the background, hauling away the icebergs and jungle canopies... and yet somehow the film just seems to get better as a result.

I don't mean that as anything but a high compliment to a man who cared about movies first and foremost, and loved to spend money, and who radiated a larger-than-life warmth, a combination celebration and winking satire of the Italian film mogul. And to celebrate, here's a link to a review I did--one that happens to perfectly embody the core values and lack thereof for which Acidemic's Mid-Life Crisis Month is best embodied-- for the DVD of ORCA (1977) on Popmatters 9/29/2004:

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 The Old Man and the Feminist and the Sea

Recent killer whale movies feature children (see: 1993's Free Willy). Orca, now on DVD, reminds us it wasn't always that way. In 1975, Jaws (sharks, not whales) did have incidental kids in it, and youngsters were surely part of its blockbuster audience. But Hollywood in its dumb literalistic way,  apparently took kids' interest in sharks and whales to mean shark and whale movies needed to star kids. You can see the shift as early as Jaws 2 (1977), when the focus moves from adults on a boat to a crew of bland, disposable teens adrift on a catamaran. Still, not all Jaws knockoffs of the latter-1970s fell into this trap. Orca falls into traps all its own, but keeps the adults at the helm every step of the way.

The film opens on a pair of happily wed killer whales in Newfoundland, under a twangy Ennio Morricone score. Produced by Dino DeLaurentis, the movie offers not just these killer whales, but also a great white shark, a Christian allegory, a Sergio Leone-style showdown, and a relationship between whale and man à la Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. And, while Orca frequently annoys and bores, it also lingers in the mind long after the credits fade.

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The primary reason is protagonist Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a proud Irish seaman who prowls around the Newfoundland coast in search of great white sharks to capture and sell to aquariums. He meets local killer whale expert Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) by accident, coming to her aid when she's threatened by a great white. In turn, she spends some quality expository time filling him in on how killer whales are mammals, not fish like sharks; they can communicate over great distances, and may in fact be many times more intelligent than people. He becomes determined to capture one to sell to the aquariums instead of a shark. Ill-equipped for any sort of serious whale-capturing endeavor, he soon has a bleeding female orca hanging off the mizzenmast, ejecting her unborn fetus onto the deck of his boat.

Though Nolan instantly regrets what his casual masculinity has wrought, the female whale is too entwined in rope to be loosed, so he shakily hoses the fetus off his deck and sails home, the anguished papa screaming off in the distance, vowing revenge. Orca thus bangs up Nolan's boat on the way back, so that the captain needs to dock for repairs. When he cuts loose the now basically dead female whale, her mate noses her body onto the shore, so all the locals can see the result of Nolan's callousness.

This makes the locals eager to fix up Nolan's boat as quickly as possible and have him be on his way, for they be sensin' a fight. Will Sampson (Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975]) plays the Native Newfoundlander Umilak, delivering turgid lines about the orca's fighting spirit. This whale also has special powers, apparently, as he can tell whenever someone is leaning out of Nolan's boat, and so jump right up and swallow him whole. It also knows about electric current and fire, blowing up half the town by strategically rupturing some local fuel lines, then knocking over a nearby cabin's lamp. 


PhotobucketNolan, meantime, remains determined. Though the days of Jaws' salty Quint (Robert Shaw) were more or less over by 1977, and stars like Burt Reynolds or Harrison Ford came with a glint of self-awareness in their eyes. Nolan has no such glint. He remains unable to confess, ask directions, or let a woman drive. Orca then is about masculinity in transition-- the white man recognizing his guilt for thousands of years of oppression of sea mammals, women, and Native Americans. Still, Nolan bears his guilt with Hemingway-esque stoicism.

Though Nolan plans to sail away on his boat in the dead of night to spare his crew, wanting to offer himself to the whale's mercy, instead, he's accompanied by (inexplicably) Umilak and Rachel. The climax leads them all up to the frozen waters of the Arctic, where everyone tries to act cold while sweating in front of fake-looking icebergs. Despite all of this artifice, the orca is never less than convincing, making one wonder if any killer whales were harmed during the making of this film. When the whale lifts its head out of the water to stare down Nolan, it's incredibly strange - man and whale in squared-off gunfight pose, surrounded by thick, fake, white ice.

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Due to some fuzzy motivations, the phony icebergs, and the godawful end credits music, one doesn't come away from Orca feeling very positive. But, as a 1970s ecological disaster film mingled with Jaws knockoff, it does provide a provocative protagonist. Nolan is a Christ figure, at the crossroads between the tough old men of 1950s shark- and communist-infested seas and the girly men to come, the "sensitive" white males who don't drink or smoke in front of their children, arrange play dates, worry about political correctness, and run to Human Resources when they overhear sexual conversations in the neighboring office cubicle.

Nolan is like a 70s version of Captain Ahab forced by the New Bedford Whaling Corporation to take sensitivity training. The orca, meanwhile, rises from his peaceful place in the sea to become a sort of eco-Arnold Schwarzenegger, not interested in Nolan's feeble attempt at apologies, only in a fair showdown. Captain Nolan was one of a dying breed. The next movie generation of seagoing salts will be clean-shaven youths, driving Greenpeace vessels, and carrying tear-stained children at their sides. Me, I'll take the flawed male who has no choice but to aim his shotgun one last time at merciless chthonic nature. I guarantee you any kid alive would choose the same. 



— 29 September 2004

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November is Mid-Life Crisis Month on Acidemic!


The sudden darkness and creeping cold makes November (my 'anniversary' month! 12 years! Keep coming back it works if you work it but if you stop working it, it's usually November) the perfect month to curl back up in your nest and prepare the stack of movies... about mid-life crises! I can tell you a thing or too about mid-life crises... in movies!! Mid-Life... crises! (Sing it like Hendrix "Midnight Lightnin'")


Okay, what is a midlife crises? Why, it's a manic high that overtakes you after you've let yourself slide into a low-grade depression for too long. Suddenly, something clicks inside your head, and you're FREE! You jump around and don't give a fuck. There's some classic examples - Kevin Spacey in AMERICAN BEAUTY (below). He's stuck in a rut with a nowhere job and a shrewish wife, but then a combination of good pot, a hot cheerleader, and sudden threat of job loss  come merging together to bust him loose. For Warren Beatty in BULWORTH (above left), it's political compromises and disillusionment that cause him to take a contract out on his own life, and the threat of death triggers the wake-up. Tom Wilkinson in MICHAEL CLAYTON (atop) suddenly shrugs off his evil lawyer ways and becomes a nudist champion of chemically deformed yokels. Dudes be trippin'! 



Coming up: THE SWIMMER!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weird Acid Films #45: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)


Shot at a castle in Hungary over two months on a mix of money provided by Pepsi (to slyly fund a bottling plant they were setting up there) and author William Peter Blatty's EXORCIST profits, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980) is a dark mix of anti-war/ masculinity deconstruction craziness (based on Blatty's 1968 novel, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane) that could only have come out in the late 1960s-early 1970s, but didn't. Released at the dawn of the 80s it's understandable the film wouldn't make any sense until the 21st century when DVD could help it sneak quietly away from it's uncouth 1980s brethren and back into the realm of 70's anti-Vietnam / cold war satires and post-traumatic masculine character studies-- DR. STRANGELOVE, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, M*A*S*H, CATCH-22, TAXI DRIVER and APOCALYPSE NOW--to which it belongs. Blatty, himself, directed. With a powerful hand!


Catholic spirituality lifting a man from the darkness, but then making him question the light; masculine psyche-probing in an inmates running the asylum line-blur; BILLY JACK-style pacifist vs. bikers mythologizing; the garroting of children --it's all wrapped up in a a story about a remote experimental military officer's mental hospital which blossoms under the loving leadership of a Kane, a guy crazier than Gregory Peck in SPELLBOUND. Said fella is played by the perennially underrated Stacy Keach, whose tight, pulp magazine face, scarred lip, musically complex voice and eerily round eyes make him ideal as a mix of Christ and cobra, Gandhi and Golem. He says his lines like he's barely holding back toppling Gomorrah, reaching for an olive branch like Samson might reach for a wig he knows in advance is far too small for him.

Kane condones the inmates' cuckoo plans to--among other things--dig elaborate GREAT ESCAPE-style tunnels to freedom. There's communal madness afoot and you get a real sense that production was a real boondoggle for cast and crew, with the Bavarian beer hall/castle interior carrying a smoky post-party Sunday afternoon frat house vibe. Murky cloudy day photography uses exterior castle shots, lunar crucifixion, and Vietnam flashback dream sequences to break up the drearily-lit, mostly indoor scenes of bemused doctors and their carousing patients. After awhile the washed-out dreariness of the film fosters that dopey feeling you get when you wake up with hangover on a friend's couch and start drinking watery beer from the still-some-foam-left tap, and while it cures your hangover it makes you more existentially depressed than comfortably numb. The camaraderie of hairy, foul-mouthed bros playing pool and cavorting around the room with you does nothing to quell your heartsick longing for some girl you stayed up all the previous night with, and anti-depressants don't exist yet, and it's a lonely on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon mix of aching in the shoulders and jaws, a nonspecific heartsickness that overtakes you while you wait for the pot dealer to come back from wherever. You can barely care about the pool score and each clack of the balls hearts your eyes, at such time every earned laugh is like a stray sunbeam in your cloudy constellation and you can feel the need for amusement and male bonding like a junky in permanent withdrawal. The cigarettes, the watery beer, the laughs all combine to lift the spirits, for three or four minutes, then the mood passes and the terrifying, cold burn of the shadowed soul in torment chills the November air once again.


Believe it or not, I can also vouch for the authenticity of the 'letting the inmates run the asylum" approach, having interned at Bellevue's alcohol clinic in '01. Our head doctor was a sexy Swiss woman with huge antler horns in her ears and an office full of bizarre trinkets she'd collected from Africa. When Keach shouts "Where's the love, man!" at the stern staff sarge, or just keeps reading and drinking as Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) hams it up with tantrums and wearily Marx Brothers-esque anarchy, I'm reminded of when this doctor would do the same thing, patiently listening as nutty patient rambled excitedly away for hours on end in her office while I tried to figure out the admittance software and quietly watched the clock.


NINTH CONFIGURATION is not all hell and high water however. Good as Scott Wilson may have been as one of the killers in IN COLD BLOOD (1967), here he's way too ectomorphic to be a believable astronaut (his character was told "you're gonna die up there" in THE EXORCIST, making this a 'sequel' in the most sketchy of terms). He wasn't Blatty's first choice; Michael Moriarty pulled out at the last minute so it's not Wilson's fault he's miscast. Moriarty doesn't have the mesomorphic right stuff either but at least he can loom and swagger and lunge. Wilson just kind of chews at the corners and the scenes seem too moistened with saliva (not Salvia) to really rip. Insanity really needs to have a hunger behind it. To tear the screen one must be a little rabid... like our friend below, Jason Miller.


Far more alive than he was as Father Karras in THE EXORCIST, in NINTH Miller shows off a deep understanding of deadpan comedy, playing an officer playing a theater director who's doing Hamlet with a cast of dogs. Miller also shows a fine rapport with Times Square grime legend Joe Spinell who plays his devoted "Aww, gee boss" production assistant. At times they seem to channel John Barrymore and Roscoe Karns in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1933). So yeah, there's a lot about this shaggy dog boondoggle of a movie to love, especially the way Blatty shoehorns in a Saint Christopher medal and issues of loss of Christian/Catholic faith. I'm no Catholic, but I appreciate the balls it takes to shoehorn spiritual allegories into a shaggy dog story. We could use more such shoe-horning in our shaggy dog cinema! Here, at last, we find the kind of allegory that insists on a genuine striving need for spiritual connection as opposed to the drab sermonizing of most pro-Christian allegories.


In fact, Spinell and Miller have--in spades!--what's missing from Michael Shannon's matricidal nutter in MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE (which I lamented the lack of a few weeks ago), that Radium X of deadpan absurdity and detached gamesmanship even in the face of existential horror--the Kinski precipice as I call it--but hey, not everyone has it. Does this astronaut played by Scott Wilson have it? No, well, sometimes. Luckily, Keach has enough of it that he can pass it around like a spliff in a trustafari drum circle.


Alas, decades of reruns of the hit TV show M*A*S*H has made military silliness (showing up to roll call in bath robes and summer dresses, for example) banal with repetition. But we should also remember that at the time of CONFIGURATION's inception, Hawkeye Pierce was still a little cutting edge. In some ways he still is. Just imagine how much less drinking and sexual harassment there would be in a M*A*S*H remake now! But the 1970s was when adults first realized the government and military weren't always on the square, and they acted accordingly, swinging for the aisles. In other words, they were adults and declared themselves their own masters irregardless of the protests of the established authority.

 That attitude now seems almost quaint, like watching Father Karras wrestle with his faith in THE EXORCIST (1973) in the light of all the 21st century charges against the Vatican for protecting child molestors. But this quaint above-it-all disillusionment is not a sign we've matured, quite the opposite. It just means there is no longer any reliable pillar of authority to rebel against. The Hawkeye antics have been co-opted by the establishment. Reagan and her advisor/war counsel Pazuzu run the country. The Karrases of the world have dissolved back into the NY Post-headlines. They all took the plea bargain, and now are raising kids and chickens in the suburbs. They say they're happy but their eyes plead for you to dig them an escape tunnel.


In the amnesiac lathe of time we've largely forgotten that THE EXORCIST was shocking not only because of what the devil did to Linda Blair's little girl body, but what the medical community did. Nowadays kids get that kind of treatment for something as innocuous as being caught with a joint in their backpack, or testing positive via a mom's at-home urine sample kit. Blatty has clearly predicted all that - it's the Reagan generation! Stop them before they start and the result is a nation stunted at the knee. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is Blatty's attempt to imagine a saner policy for the insane, the humoring of madness to get at its root, the notion that people who act crazy do so to keep from going truly crazy. Only by embracing madness can they stay above it. Like any other jealous lover, mental aberration chases you if you run from it, but pursue it with open arms and it shrinks back into the shadows like a frat boy in a Courtney Love song.


In the scheme of NINTH CONFIGURATION, belief, love, and faith are all that prevents us from falling into the yawning chasm of meaningless carnage and despair. Acting crazy is just a way to try and own your own plummeting. As someone who, in 2006, was touched by God (on the shoulder) and told to preach the gospel, and realized I was just creeping people out and so stopped preaching said gospel, I can relate to the issues Blatty explores. If you ask for a sign from God, to prove to you He's real, and God gives you one, do you stammer an excuse why you still don't follow him? Do you shrug it off as coincidence? Do you prefer to cling to your life raft of earthly possessions and egoic fears? Or do you jump into the sea and follow Saint Francis Aquarius of barefoot mermaid flower power bowl haircut love like a cult-brainwashed sailor to the ocean floor? Either way you wake up cold and hung over one morning feeling like a sucker, shivering in the hungover cold of post-party frat house, waiting for the pot dealer to come take the pain partly away. So, make every touch of God count... and boondoggle your way under the barb wire fence of drab rationalism to whatever illusory truck stop freedom you can find!