Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Uneasy Riderless: THE OREGONIAN (2011)

If you're ever driving west, skip northwestern Oregon. Back in 1989 my girlfriend and I decided to take the road less traveled, a smaller, woodsier branch off Highway 90, and soon found ourselves creeping along twisting crumbling two-lane blacktops, snaking around gnarled tree trunks, deserted plows, empty pastures, collapsed barns, boarded-up feed stores and closed motels. We saw: caved-in mailboxes; smoke-blackened trees; unlit neon bar signs hanging by one chain; and big trees edging up against the twisty road. No life --not even a bird. And as the sun set down in front of us, lengthening the shadows into Nosferatu shapes, the road seemed to be pulling us forward into the sheer blackness of the next turn like a twisting yellow line jellyfish. Something waited for us in the darkness behind the tall trees. It was coiled to spring on us with cottonmouth quickness, to flash its genitals at my traveling companion, abduct her and force me to spend panicky hours asking for help in a high, crackly voice as I navigated The Vanishing or And Soon the Darkness-style scenarios while already paranoid from a day of weed-smoking.

Sharing my experience of western Oregon as a Lovecraftian mire: Calvin Reeder, who has recently blown some festival circuit minds, and irked others, with The Oregonian (2011), a landmark debut of high 16mm film strangeness in the Alice in Wonderland / limbo / post-apocalyptic / dream world / experimental mode. Without half trying, it joins the ranks of works by David Lynch and Herk Harvey in the nightmare logic pantheon, but with the tactile American flannel shirt dread of Coscarelli and Carpenter as a backdrop. With it's droning electric guitar score and refusal to explain itself or offer any stable reality to warp, Reeder's film turns to the groundless ground previously inhabited only by Eraserhead, and then goes deeper down into the muck, attacking along the fault lines between avant garde 'le bad cinema' and psychedelic Xtreme horror; waking reality and nightmares and a grunge-tinted road movie. Iit's Dementia AKA Daughter of Horror if it wanted to be Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on a Plan Nine budget and too much acid stumbling through the Carnival of Souls in search of a Mark Frost psychotronic spice grinder;  a panic movement Easy Rider retooled as a Dali nightmare in flannel by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The story progression centers around the experiences of a blonde hippy-ish smoker (Lindsay Pulsipher) chilling at an isolated lama ranch; a creepy stalker fuels her boyfriend's jealous insanity; boyfriend passes out drunk, so she bails in his car; suddenly she's waking up in a car that apparently crashed into a father and son who were having a picnic by the side of the road in the dead of night. Now they're lying dead, and her forehead is covered in blood, but no one is around anywhere to help as she staggers down that lonesome road. There is no phone to call the cops and the Northwest Oregon desolation of which I spoke stretches for miles; everyone she meets stare and smile insanely. Her only friend becomes a degenerate in a big frog costume, and later she hooks up with a bunch of weirdo musicians who drink gasoline (?).... Luckily she finds a shotgun, and a few guides who advise her to just relax and, as Martha advises in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, "sink into it."

I love that Reeder refuses to pick a side, to explain the madness, to have some root answer to whether it's all a nightmare or Phantasm-matic inter-dimensional death drive film school experiment. Unlike few other films, it maintains it's madness with the patience of a gardener. For my money, The Oregonian is way better than a lot of over-praised existential stuff like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (though Refn's awesome Valhalla Rising compares well).

I'd warn that there is a very strange bit of sexual dream violence in case you're squeamish, but if it didn't offend me, it probably won't offend you. It's too far gone into nightmarish surrealism to be misogynistic. There is a chance everything our looking glass Alice heroine sees and hears is all just cover memories to mask the trauma of a past rape ala Last Year in Marienbad but there's way too many abstractions to be traumatized from as a viewer, any more than you would be if Louise Bourgeois and Edward D. Wood collaborated on a 1972 road movie version of Repulsion.

That sound good? Then you're sick, like me... put on this costume!

1 comment:

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