Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Hanged Man (CinemArchetypes #4)


 "He who can understand that the story of his higher nature as embedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection." - A.E. Waite - The Pictorial Key to the Taro
I'm not sure Jung ever thought of the Hanged Man as a psychedelic space cowboy seeker the way I do, but certainly he recognized the alchemical properties of the tarot and other processes of divination, and if the hanged man represents stasis, well, there's a good and bad element to that, and both aspects are entwined in any good psychedelic experience. While hanging upside down, frozen in space and time as the world revolves beneath your head, aren't you in fact moving? If you can hover suspended in one place, truly not moving from a fixed point in space, will you not eventually circumnavigate the earth as it revolves beneath you? and eventually it will revolve away from you altogether?

And the hanged man and I have so much in common! For one, it's the way I sleep, one leg folded at the knee behind the other and it took me awhile to realize hey - I'm the hanged man, and only the hanged man would take so long to realize hey, he is the hangman. And like the hanged man I took it as a compliment when my dad told me I had perfected the age of 28. I had decided 28 was the age to be, and just froze there, he said. And that may still be true, but in doing so haven't I gained my soul, perhaps, at the loss of the world? To inverse Scarface, What won't a man have if he should lose the world but gain his soul? 

The hanged man is neither here nor there, nor now nor then. He exists in many doorways. He is the threshold lingerer. He is not quite the shaman or the knave, neither awake nor asleep. Faced with any fork in a road he won't pick one less or more traveled but instead climb the nearest tree and hang there, creating his own weird path, the third option - no path at all.

But this path of inactivity often leaves him trapped, shut out of his own process. For example, absinthe and hashish may be his tool to make contact with the land beyond the veil, but then suddenly the absinthe and hashish just use him, and he's just a drunk burnout shut out of the deal. The hash and absinthe come back from behind the veil and are like "Dude, that was awesome, too bad Dingus here is too burned out and drunk to see it! Burn!" So now he's a burnt-out 48 year-old drunk working in a guitar shop and dating a 19 year-old community school dropout who smokes all his weed. While he's brave in that he risks his life and sanity in pursuit of the unknown, he's running across a bridge to nowhere as the bridge falls away behind him. All out of bridge he goes leaping finally into the air in slow motion and suddenly the young girl watching him presses pause on her DVR, and there he freezes while she goes and feeds the fucking cat!

And ask not what the cat eats...


A common problem of we hanged man acid casualties is we've seen too much too fast and now just don't give a shit about water slides and trips to Yellowstone and spring. Instead of climbing the mountaintop we just sit around, because, hey we already have been up there, and yeah, it's awesome but the air is too damn thin. And now here we are in our empty theaters, looking out the window at the one place all the magic and illusion was to prevent us seeing, that foreign film screening room from which no moviegoer returneth.

Simultaneously enlightened and flash frozen in adolescence, we know what's behind the wizard's curtain. We 'get' the cosmic joke (an accept it's at our expense). The sting we felt when first hearing the watery, whispery mocking laughter of the demons devouring us has long faded; there's nowhere new to go but through the mortal coil exit door. We're not suicidal, just jet-lagged from the cosmic shortcuts. We're fine hanging in the threshold, pretending the big projected green head shouting oaths about witch's brooms is legit. We play along so the wizard will float us some cash and let us harvest as many poppies as we want from his big pink field.

We know the myths and we're proud to assume any archetypal role that's needed: prince, ogre, lover, monster, or sage. But our own self, the hanged man, remains frozen three minutes from "The End". We couldn't wait to see how our life movie ended, so we FF-ed ahead, foolishly thinking we could go back to where we left off. Turns out we can't rewind, so here we twist, frozen, hung, waiting for the world to catch up so we can all exit together through the credits. We shot for the moon and now are marooned there, all alone, getting blunted watching Rocketship X-M. For god there is no zero, but we lament the lack thereof for the benefit of the Mr. Kite hidden microphones.

We rant against the non-dying of the light, but we like it this way, and never doubt otherwise.

And after all, all is vanity. 

1. Kier Dullea as Bowman - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The last segment of Kubrick's film is almost intentionally confusing to the laymen, but probably very 'logical'  to the acid heads who flocked to see it in its original release at the height of the psychedelic era (and they year LSD was officially and for no real reason made a schedule 1 illicit substance, thus instantly ending countless research and successful therapies). What the hanged man comes to understand is that outer space and one's own unconscious mind are in fact the same thing, that outer is inner, and if you see something it exists through your seeing of it. Nothing is real, and nothing to get hanged about, but you may as well hang, Johnny, hang.

2. William Hurt as Prof. Jessep - Altered States (1980)

Director Ken Russell re-imagines hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, missing perhaps the point entirely, literalizing like a fundamentalist...in telling the story of Adam and Eve he'd no doubt show a naked hunk actually tearing out one of his own ribs and having a full grown woman morph out of it, with geysers of blood and latex. Similarly, Jessup transforms into a guy running around with dogs, then later morphs into a big half-blob, half-man! He's gone "too far" and is having crazy flashbacks! Only Blair Brown's love can save him now! To the hardcore 'heads in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating.' Wavy Gravy could have talked Jessup back into a human form in five minutes at a Woodstock chill-out tent. Dude, you make your own reality, especially if you manage to snag a grant and a course release. To take drugs and lie around in body temperature saline solution like a lazy bum and then announce God doesn't exist doesn't make you pretentious as long as someone's monitoring your EEG, apparently...  8/09 (more)

3. Peter Weller as Bill Burroughs - Naked Lunch (1991)

Bill's very nature reflects the inextricable union of life and death: he works as an exterminator, but gets high on his own bug powder. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are unafraid to look death in the eye and see it as merely temporary (like life), the tunnel portion of an endlessly looped carnival ride. The topography is changed just a little after each journey into the Stygian darkness, but memories of past events warp to accommodate new information. And then Benway appears with a trial prescription like Glenda the Good Witch, with a new pair of rubier slippers to celebrate your completing the first level of Oz. But each pair has a price: like Moira Shearer you can't stop dancing once you put them on. For every bridge deeper into the Interzone another universe of possibility dies behind you. What Buckaroo Banzai didn't realize about the 8th dimension is that you don't need a fast car driving into a rock to get there, you just need a taste of Dr. Benway's patented black centipede syrup, and a deadpan facade. Wherever you go, there you are, but then, also there you aren't... so best take your time...'.- 12/09 (more)

4. Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

To my mind, nothing's more romantic or ballsy than walking out on your whole staid bourgeois life for a wild card babysitter who drives too fast, calls you Pierrot and admits she can't be trusted. But then of course, time sneaks around the end zone and drags you down, but you knew it was coming, and it's to your credit you barely tried to stop it. It's heroic watching Ferdinand heroically keep his Groucho Marx-ish elan and surrealist edge while Anna Karina runs him ragged. 

 In the end he even assumes a certain kind of Duck Soup Groucho pose, by wrapping dynamite around his head, the only conceivable way he can wreak any kind of victory from the shambles he's made of his life just by following Elliot's Wasteland edict "The awful daring of a moment's surrender / which an age of prudence can never retract / for this and this alone have we existed."


5. Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin -- Under the Volcano (1984)

"Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!" that's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of this John Huston adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-28 pages into) about the last days of a British consul in Mexico in the 1930s. We'd talk in Albert Finney's eloquent slur for days on end, digging that our mirth was rooted in a violently escalating alcoholism, a black humor joke where we were the punch line. And we wouldn't have it any other way, baby. Neither would Albert Finney, who regularly reaches out for the shimmering Jacquelyn Bisset like a mirage and then shrugs her off like the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint before resuming his wide-eyed stare into the awful abyss.  (7/09)

6. Mick Jagger as Turner in Performance (1968)

Always an interesting screen presence, here Mick relishes the chance to play a darker, more genuinely Satanic version of himself. According to Faithful, Jagger really wasn't into Satanism and black magic per se, he just liked to pose in the clothes and use it as excuse for shamanic gyrations. Under the warlock-ish spell of (director) Cammell however, Jagger lets loose into some terrifying and funny places. At one point just shaking a stick to one of Jack ("The Lonely Surfer") Nitzsche's instrumental tracks (which Turner is supposed to have written), you get a sense of how truly sublime and mind-altering Mick's snake charmer dancing is. Later he even plays guitar and sings Robert Johnson's "Come on in my Kitchen" and if you never understood what Johnson's blues had to do with the devil, now you know. Mick may not be the devil, but he's a hell of a good recruiting officer. There's got to be some sinister reason he and Keith are still alive, kicking, and--even in their withered shells--still super sexy. (7/09)

7. James Stewart in Vertigo (1958)

Looking into Medusa's face is best done via a rear-view mirror or a quick coy glance, like one gives a hot lady or gentlemen going the other direction in the subway rush. If you gawk, you shall be ensnared, petrified, arrested. As Scotty stares too long, he winds up a statue, which gradually crumbles and melts like the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. (9/10 - more)


 8. WC Fields in Never Give a Sucker and Even Break (1941)
The chickens have pretty legs in Kansas.
The chickens have pretty legs in Kansas.
That is really is not a joke,
Wanna roll me for my poke?
Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas.


9. Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

The big tragedy in this film isn't that Nurse Ratchet is mean it's that McMurphy would rather strain against the bars than run in the sun. Inches from a clean get-away he pauses at the door and makes a big to-do of getting his stuttering mentee laid and then winds up drunkenly crashing on the common area couch. Of course the prostitutes who've been brought in don't get a vote on whether or not bed freaky mental patient virgins, but feminism was never Kesey's strong point. That kind of pimping may have been read as heroism once but over time McMurphy just seems like one of the more embarrassing anachronisms of the pre-feminist era. Outside the walls of the institution he'd just have a walk on part in the war instead of a lead role in a cage which is what he's got let's face it Charlie.

I do approve of Kesey's drug use though, and he himself is an archetypal hanged man. A once promising literary genius who let himself lapse into trippy non sequitors, he fits most of what I've been writing here about that 'seen too much of the infinite to focus in on a long term project' vibe so essential to the hanged man.

10. Grant Williams as Scott Carey - The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The shrinking is a fine metaphor for drug addiction, as the world does seem to shrink, until you're alone in what seems like a gigantic basement even if it's just your bedroom, every drop of water dripping from the kitchen sink echoing like a sonic boom in your swollen temples. Carey's eventual realization he'll survive no matter how small he becomes is a 'when you're falling, dive' mantra ala Joseph Campbell. Or to paraphrase Dylan, for god there is no zero, and zero is no 'is' at all.

11.Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon - All that Jazz (1979)

"... like a great older brother or cool father, Scheider showed strength without bullying, grace without mincing, and style without pomposity. Most of all, in Joe Gideon's tired eyes we saw a reflection of what's best in ourselves: a hard-won universal love and Cheshire cat grin that only got wider even as he danced the mashed potato into the hungry jaws of death. All who needed sustenance were welcome to follow his warm light through the darkened terrors of the deep. We did, we do... we will." (2/08)

12. Peter Fonda as Captain America - Easy Rider (1969)

"We blew it.

 Other Nominees: The entire cast of characters in  Two Lane Black-Top; every character in every movie by Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (not including Punch Drunk Love); Jett Rink, Matt McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, John Barrymore and John Gilbert in the sound era, Don Birnim in The Lost Weekend, and Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

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