Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CinemArchetype #5: The Human Sacrifice

"To the primitive mind, good and evil, life and death are in the nature of materialistic qualities capable of transference or expulsion by quasi-mechanical operations... Sacrifice then is the normal means of transferring life and power to mortal deities to keep them vigorous and beneficent."- E.O. James
The innocence lost as a maiden leaps into an active volcano or a heart comes out in an Aztec human sacrifice, the ripping to shreds of a recently deflowered forest nymph boy to ensure a good harvest--where does it--the 'innocent' property--go? It's all deeply archetypal, with Jesus on the cross being the most glaring instance. The whole notion of 'he died for our sins' is deeply linked to the sacrifice of the virgin boy at harvest time in pagan matriarchies. His blood is spilled over the fields to water them with nutrients in an agrarian rendition of the sacrament. Come spring, a terrible beauty is born... again.

In a sense the sacrifice takes the scythe swipe meant for us. But what did they use before Jesus? And what if you believe that God is dead and that someone, some... thing rules in his place? You would need to get someone else to take the fall, or worse, be forced to take the fall for someone else. Such offered lives are our candles tossed into the wind of the other, our shadow beyond the wall of mortality, and the elder gods are waiting for us to join them... but we're hoping we can just keep stalling it by tossing more virgins on the fire. Don't say it doesn't happen, because it does, but then again they don't have to be virgins, sometimes debauched libertines are just as useful. And according to David Icke, virgin really just mean child. It got translated wrong over the aeons.

Bird of Paradise (1932)
The (symbolic / mythic) killing of these virgins, children, and debauched libertines serves many purposes --I would argue they need not die in the traditional sense, but are wed through the process of death to the anima mundi, a bride or groom for the unseen spirit-- their perspective vanishes but is not dead, merely diffused. Sometimes it takes a few weird happenings to make them realize they are already dead, so they hang in mid-air like a cruciform beacon before finding their way back to the foot of the throne. They are death's 'test case' - we hope death will like the present of their soul, accept it as an appetizer, rather than dig right into us. But then again, according to Jung, the sacrifice isn't useful unless your ego is totally wrapped up in the sacrificial object/person. That's why Abraham was expected to kill his son, or Wally Lamb's brother chopped off his hand in the library, or the Yakuza still dice off their little fingers as a way of apology to their bosses for failed kills.

In the movies the sacrificial subject creates a great unease because it hits so close to home; the death is intrinsically tied into the act of viewing itself. The tribe always gathers to watch the sacrifice, otherwise what's the point? Watching these sacrifices now stirs up deep archetypal responses from our past lives still seeing through the two-way crystal ball eye. If the film is clever about it the whole process sneaks up on us and suddenly, too late to do anything about it, we feel the big black body bag suddenly close over our heads and the credits roll us right into the cremation furnace. Sometimes we're led by the nose ring of desire, sometimes we're manacled unwillingly to the Satanic altar, either way it's like a spin the bottle game where sooner or later the bottle is going to point to us... and then when it does we're always hoping for that last minute rescue and when that last minute's up we try one last gambit: take my wife, please.

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1. Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)
"The Blood on Satan’s Claw dabbles in an idea The Wicker Man was to enlarge upon, transmuting the licentiousness of the hippie era into a meditation on a return to a pagan Britain based in an earthy, unfettered, inescapably corporeal creed, where bodies are the truest barometer of spirituality in substance. In a concept later stolen by movies like The Mummy (1999), Satan is literally assembled bit by bit from the pieces grown on sundry villagers, some willing converts to Angel’s cult, others innocent bystanders. Ralph’s initial discovery of the beast buried within earth releases a long-dormant yet sustained and readily infectious pagan force which seems indivisible from the scenery, and when Angel’s coven is glimpsed it comes garbed not in black cloaks and stygian paraphernalia but in nature-child garlands of flowers. The rampant miasma of sexuality sees the unholy mark spreading on the locals like the tell-tale stigmata of venereal diseases. Hayden, who gained initial stature as a horror starlet in Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) playing a respectable Victorian daughter turned into a vessel of vengeful sexuality to punish a hypocritical father, here plays the teenage girl as the embodiment of everything destructive to the settled order." (Ferdy on Films)
2. Suddenly Last Summer (1958)
"Williams' own real life sexual interests follow the Greek ideal, testifying to his profound grasp of Greek tragedy's ability to explain the cosmos in terms of rabid rentboys. With his body sacrificed to ensure the harvest, the ghost of Sebastian is free to hover over the fertile action like Poe's Lost Lenore or the dominating spirit of REBECCA. What does he look like? We don't even know, never see a picutre, and that gives the film extra power: we have to create his image for ourselves, and the only comparison would be Oscar Wilde, someone long ago from the past like that - Poe or Marquis de Sade or Anais Nin, someone too modern for their time, and who we think of as blood relatives of the terrible future. In short, ourselves." (August, 2009)

3. Bird of Paradise (1932)

This tale of a Polynesian princess Dolores Del Rio's love for hunky white man Joel McCrea is emblematic of Hollywood's fear of miscegenation. The climax involves McCrea and Dolores Del Rio escaping being sacrificed to Pele, the volcano god. But on the yacht ride back home--while McCrea's life hangs in the balance from some mysterious illness and the captain debates the horror and shame bound to strike Joel's family if he brings home this non-white girl--a deux ex machina solves the miscegenation issue for them, as Joanne Hershfield notes in Cinema Journal #37:
 "Luckily Luana's father arrives to reclaim his daughter and the crew doesn't have to make the final decision. The captain translates the king's speech for the other crew members: "The volcano curse has been put on Johnny. Unless Luana returns, Johnny will die." (...) Luana decides she must sacrifice hers to save his life; she chooses to return to the island with her people. The film's final sequence shows Luana in her royal robe and feathers climbing up toward Pele, the volcano's flames superimposed over her. It is clear that she will burn in hell for her sins... However Johnny, the white male hero, is acquitted. His male sexual potency is ultimately preserved for his family, his future progeny, the white race, and America." (p. 10-11)
4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
If you've always thought the big masked orgy center of Kubrick's last film seems like much ado about nothing (i.e. tons of security for an event that's masked and barely R-rated anyway so who cares if a non-member crashes the party) and if you never quite buy the the proposed theory that the event is supposed to be stale and 'safe' to comment on desire's ultimate emptiness, then maybe you're not surprised to learn the whole 'British' cut of the orgy was just PR to distract from the deeper cuts, of footage that may have caused Kubrick's death. According to some in-the-know paranoid conspiracy theorists there was quite a lot cut from the ceremonial scenes, i.e. child sacrifice, which would bear out all the stuffy preparations for this descent into posh spice hell. Well, of course I'm talking about all those horrific visions recounted by hypnotized children in the early 1990s of rich powerful people in the throes of reptillian bloodlust at top secret black magick ceremonies torturing young girls and children to create compartmentalized split personalities through ritual trauma, debasing them and killing them and drinking their fear. According to Carlee on the Freedom from Reptilian Mind Control message board:
The reptilian-illuminati hybrids are obsessed with sexual aggression and domination, which is evidenced by their sex magic rituals. Humans are routinely taken and programmed to serve them as familiars and sex slaves; more evidence of their desire to control and "own" others. Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is probably an accurate representation of what takes place in one of these rituals. He was certainly involved with some of their circles and must have been exposed to things like this on more than a few occasions.. As a side note, he was apparently killed because he refused to cut a scene which contained subliminal triggers that were intended to break the mind-control programs of the people in the audience. Following his death, the scene was cut and never made it to the final film.

I neither believe or disbelieve such a paranoid tale, but it's pretty weird that he always got these unlimited budgets and all the time in the world to make his little movies. And it does always seem like he knows more about the cold, brutal, shiny inner workings of the world than we ever will.

5. Lindsay Lohan  and Frances Farmer
The Hollywood system preaches freedom while constraining it, and the Sacrificial Woman is their bible. In the 1930s, Farmer was driven insane and hauled off the nuthouse for daring to speak her mind and not kowtow to the dull patriarchal scoldings of law and order. Lohan, with her missed court appointments and relapses, also knows the way Hollywood exploits hot mess 'truth' even while sacrificing it on the altar of insurance premium fiction, requiring daily drug tests on the set of a movie about drugs, and/or otherwise getting mad when their actresses stop acting like gentle doormats and start breaking windows, even though if their male actors do the same thing it's just boys being 'spirited.'

This is partly due to gynophobia and partly due to the sacrificial knife always needing a victim. They hope for a Marilyn overdose to turn their creative property into dorm poster legend, but they'll settle for a public burning, the threat of the witch, the chthonic feminine symbolically scorched from the Earth so sexually frustrated housewives don't have to worry they're missing something while they outfit their cages in the latest gilding.

6. Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1997)

Nordic wunkerkind Lars Von Trier gets accused of being misogynist by people who don't know the difference between addressing an issue and championing it, and they probably think Ken Russel's The Devils is pro-Catholic. No ma'am. The women LVT nails to the crosses of his films are martyrs who harken back to the women's pictures of the 1910s-40s, films made for the most coveted demographic in an age before TV soap operas: bored housewives heading to matinees before husbands come home.

The films these women liked were masochistic tales of suffering and redemption, wherein a naive country girl follows a smooth-talking slicker (usually played by Ricardo Cortez or Monroe Owsley) into the big city, believes his lies, and immediately finds herself penniless, pregnant, and unwed, forced into a choice between prostitution or starvation. So her out-of-wedlock baby goes up for adoption and grows up to become District Attorney, and our heroine doesn't tell him she's his mother while she's on trial for murder preferring a martyr's death in the electric chair to compromising his reputation.

Those plots are long gone, but Von Trier hasn't forgotten them and, in his breakthrough English language movie, Watson's sexual degradation on behalf of her injured husband's health is just an alchemical X-rated upgrade of the same dark sacrificial gesture. Ditto Bjork's letting herself get hung so her son can have an eye operation in Dancer in the Dark. It's not 'sexism' per se underneath this but the nature of true persona sacrifice, and faith that God (or the Devil) never misses a payment so long as you follow through on giving up every last thing you hold dear. It's not until Dogville that this sacrificial chain is finally broken, and the wrenching pain of every woman's sacrifice on the altar of their selfless love comes roaring back with a vengeance, like ripping the new testament out of the bible and using it to light a fire under a bound-and-thorn-crowned Rick Santorum.

7. The Wicker Man (1973 and 2006) + Burning Man
+ Dark Secret of Harvest Home 
(spoiler alert!)
Some Wiccans will argue that John Barleycorn was never meant to be a real human 'virgin' sacrifice, and Burning Man is just a place to inhale DMT and chalky desert dust. One of Christianity's most noble aspects is its complete hatred of human (and animal) sacrifice. Perhaps they knew way back that only demons feed on souls, so sacrificing a virgin to Satan is like popping open a amyl nitrate under a dying man's nose, or rescuing him from drowning, or pulling a thorn out of the lion's paw. Not only that, David Icke says the term sacrificial virgin is just a mistranslation of the word 'child' by some ancient squeamish scroll decoder. Child sacrifice would be a bit TOO creepy to represent in either film, so we're willing to accept a full-grown uptight Christian in the original WM (1973) and a full-grown chauvanistic dillweed in the remake. The child is just the ruse to get him interested.

See, the Christian bible HAD to make polytheistic agrarian matriarchal societies into a threat, otherwise we'd never have invented the car --we'd still be dancing around maypoles and killing our own livestock instead of buying 'meat' with a clean conscience (no sad porcine eyes to look into as you raise the axe). That may sound harsh but I'm serious: we had a few thousand years of agrarian pastoral happiness and a few thousand years is enough. And most of all, men needed to take back control because literally they had nothing else to do. Shut outside of all the group decision making they became little more than stud service workhorses, all but tethered in the barn when they weren't working themselves to death under the merciless one-eyed devil sun. (See: Port of Call Summer's Isle)
8. Venus in Furs (1969)
"Venus in furs will be smiling / when the moment arrives" sings Barbara McNair every time another of Wanda's victims die in this swingin' sixties X-ploitation from Jess Franco. The plot has Jimmy (James Darren), a jazz trumpet player who jams with Manfred Man before accidentally witnessing the kinky sex murder of the white fur coat-wearing, blank-eyed party girl, Wanda (Maria Rohm). Jimmy splits the scene for a job in Rio during Carnivale so that he can get away from the death and weirdness, hah! Apparently Jess Franco loves Carnivale since it means he can include lots of handheld footage of street celebrations, which he then cuts in with interior shots of Jimmy and his Euro-funk compatriots jamming in a rich dude's red suite. As Jimmy jams, his lady Barbara McNair sings, and then sulks as the ghost of Wanda shows up in the crowd to lure him afield.

Jimmy fools around with Wanda, now reborn (he's sure it can't be the same dame), and after they fool around she gets up grabs her fur coat and wanders out to seduce and destroy another one of the party people who thrill-killed her back in Europe. Imagine if the dead prostitute from Eyes Wide Shut came back to kill Sydney Pollack and everyone else at that Long Island party, one at a time, via seduction, and she shacked up with Cruise in between kills while wife Nicole Kidman sobbed and sang "Eyes Wide Shut will be Closin' / When the credits arrive!" Cheap as it is in spots, the sacrificial archetype aspect ensures that everyone but the outclassed McNair is at one point killed and the truly horrific aspect is the realization that Jimmy might not even know he's dead too, until his body finally washes ashore --- and the moment arrives. As Weldon put it, "far out."

9. Cherie Currie as Annie in Foxes (1980)

From the first time we see Annie bouncing around with a sultry smile and platinum blonde short hair, we know she's doomed. She's too free and easy to last to the end of the film, anymore than Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, or Matt Dillon in Over the Edge, or Mickey Rourke in Bullet. Her dad is a mean cop who chases her all over town while her mom sits paralyzed with fear and rage at home, flanked by two large Rottweilers to keep him from beating on her (Annie never goes to school, which is the cop's excuse run around trying to smash her face in). Currie's performance here is startlingly open, conveying the way some girls deal with childhood horror by just letting go of all fear, living from minute to minute, hopping from the back of one shady motorcycle to another, always one step ahead of their brutal demonic pursuers. But as is the case so often with hot mess beauty in the movies, freedom equals death. As much as Jodie Foster tries to protect her, you know Annie will be dead by the end of the film. She is the self-aware sacrifice, always one breath from the Aztec knife. To bear out the connection with agrarian matriarchal blood crop 'watering,' towards the end Jodie Foster mentions Annie wanted to be buried under a pear tree, sans coffin, so her friends could hang out above her resting place every year, eat a pear and have a taste of Annie, Jesus wine blood Virgin Spring-style!  

10. Don't Look Now (1973)
With his obsessive montage editing, Nicolas Roeg has always been the auteur version of one of Dali's melting clocks: time runs backwards, seldom forwards, and life bleeds out of the margins of a page crowded by notes on ancient architecture. In Look, Donald Sutherland plays an art restorer in denial of his psychic abilities, even though the sight of red ink leaking off one of his slides is enough for him to realize his red raincoat-wearing daughter has just drowned outside in the back yard. Flush with grief, Donald and wife Julie Christie head to Venice where a psychic old lady tells them their daughter's spirit is sitting right next to them at brunch. Donald is obsessed with denying it even though he's got the gift of second sight himself.

The way it's supposed to go down in life is that death attacks the oldest first--your grandparents--and gradually works it's way down the generations while you squirm helplessly on the wheel of time. You see the reaper take your grandfather, then your father, then.... suddenly the trail goes blank until you notice your daughter is alone and crying over a grave with your name on it. But if the daughter goes first, your sense of preparedness is thrown way off. Now death can come at any time, it may have already come and you don't know it, like for poor Jimmy in the previous film in this list. In one chilling scene Sutherland witnesses his own Viking funeral passing him on a black ship in the other direction as he sails down a Venice canal. That's the definition of the archetypal sacrifice: the scythe is already always in mid-swipe so you must offer someone else in your place or take it yourself. Because he can't stop pursuing that tiny figure in the elusive red raincoat and because he doesn't heed the warnings all around him, doesn't sacrifice his own obsession with reality and embrace the unknown, Sutherland's known collapses until its as ground down by gravity as the inter-dimensional red dwarfs of PHANTASM, literally.

 
11. Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960) /
Venetia Stevenson in Horror Hotel (1960)

There's so many strange similarities between these two films that, were they not made in the exact same year on opposite sides of the Atlantic you'd swear they were emulating each other. Both involve pretty blondes who wear their hair moddishly short and leave their comfort zones on big adventures, alone, against other people's advice or good common sense, and wind up staying at decrepit inns where they are killed, by a knife, in the middle of the night, and the middle of the picture. Then follows the boyfriend and/or detectives to investigate and eliminate the threat, but the damage has been done; our locus of identification is forever shattered. Welcome to the 60s.

The cute, inquiring Alice in Wonderland-like blonde who inadvertently winds up way out of her depth is an archetype we're familiar with, and we naturally assume we'll be riding with these babes all the way to the finish, and the evil will go up in flames, woodsman to the rescue, etc. Psycho and Horror Hotel betray that assumption, slicing of our eye's apple in half right when we least expect it. The experience is jarring, emblematic of the loss of innocence. The sacrifice of these curious blonde kittens is a wake-up call not to the chaotic uncertainty to come, the trading in of buried secrets and friendly barbecue rocketship suburban dream for corruption, hippies, and liberals who let killers go free on technicalities. Justice is gone. Only the victim's immediate family, usually father, boyfriend, her sister, can stop the menace.
Leigh careens from sex kitten to virginal bride and back, sometimes in the space of a single shot . . . and when she vanishes or appears, we hold onto our seats for fear of spinning out of control, reminded with a jolt just how easily our locus of identification can become uncalibrated. The second half of Psycho is haunted by her absence; she vanishes down the rabbit hole ink drain of her pupil and emerges a year or so later — none the worse for wear and much more worldly for the trip — in Manchurian Candidate, coolly coming on to a shattered Frank Sinatra in a train car doorway.(Bright Lights #59, 2/08)
12. The girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
The Australian outback is a very old, mysterious place - and if you send beautiful, virginal repressed budding flowers in between the old mysterious rock formations in the 19th century, well, you're basically just opening up a giant Wicker Mouth of Madness - a dimensional gateway into the unknown as only the super weird Peter Weir can suss them. Caught between his LAST WAVE - about a white lawyer struggling with the Aboriginal apocalypse - and GALLIPOLI, with its turn-of-the-century tale of beautiful Aussie youth needlessly ground down by Turkish machine guns, The HANGING ROCK is a mesmerizing tale of coming of  outback mystery (partly based on a real place, revered by the Aborigines) and the dangers of sexual repression, where all the search parties in the world won't bring your sacrificial blonde lambs back from the beyond, even if that beyond isn't death, but some strange sort of marriage.
 
13. Famke Janssen as Phoenix/ Jean Grey - X-Men: Last Stand (2006)

As a kid who collected X-Men comics in the 1980s I too was in love with Jean Grey and dreamed of one day owning the big double issue wherein she died in Cyclops' arms. Such romantic deaths / double issues are what dreams are made of for virginal 15 year-old boys. No one single real-life non-fictional girl can encompass the vast amount of longing and hormonal emotion we feel, nor would they want to, nor would we be able to talk to them without stuttering if they were to try. But in comics we're manly and confident and love at an operatic pitch, and that's why the death of Jean Grey was so wrenching. We loved her so much they had to bring her back. Her return was then partly our fault, the way Elektra couldn't stay dead in Daredevil and the bionic woman Lindsay Wagner couldn't stay dead after her two episode arc in The Six Million Dollar Man and so was given her own show, The Bionic Woman. Our gaze sends young girls into the abyss by instinct, but true love can draw them back out again, for sometimes whole story arcs.

Still, Jean Grey was different: our collective fanboy longing brought her back in her all consuming phoenix form, but the 'return' of Phoenix, while grand and death-drive fascinating, was a mistake, a kind of Monkey's Paw Deathdream moment that undid the nature of sacrifice and tried to 'take back' what was already been given. The phoenix from the sacrificial flames is, in the end, nobody's idea of a good time. She destroys the good, the bad, and everything else in her path, including those of us who still love her. With this heartbreaking reality in mind, we have no choice: we man up, take a shot of bonded courage, and ask a real live girl for an actual date.... gods help us...


Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscar Picks of the Bourgeoisie, in Salieri Shades

Beige in Paris
If you've ever (discreetly) wondered just who the "bourgeoisie" are, you're not alone. They are, indeed, mysterious. The old definition of middle or merchant class no longer applies, and it's become a more cultural 'choice' - a highbrow posture. Obviously 'bourgeois' is a French word and the French are very aware of who they are and if you've ever seen a French film where a pair of resentful maids murder their employer's family, that family is the bourgeoisie! In America we've forgotten we're supposed to expose and attack them at every opportunity. That's because we're unconscious of class barriers but that never stopped us in the 1930s, when the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields regularly savaged them. The thing is, the bourgeoisie loved them for it! That is, fundamentally, the good part about the bourgeoisie; they're sophisticated enough to prefer laughing at themselves than laughing at someone else. They are compassionate. They don't want to see others suffer.


Maybe you know some or are one, too? Here are some giveaways: golf bags, modernist white gallery walls, all surfaces adorned with cumbersome sculptures that make using, say, the top of your guest room dresser impossible; no TV visible in their living room (it's usually small and inside a cabinet -or moved to a back playroom), presidential biographies in hardcover on the bookcase, Basquiat books stacked on the coffee table; wine rack with dusty bottles; copper pots; catered brunches; chamber music recitals; paintings of horses; oak paneling.

When I think of the bourgeois taste in film and the way it snags the gears of true, dangerous art, only a few critics come to mind who have over the years tried to pinpoint it and get it to relent its stuffy, 'discriminating' choke hold. One is Pauline Kael:
Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art — of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theater. So we've been getting a new cultural Puritanism — people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety (Age of Movies, 570 - my book review here)
You can find these 'discriminators' all over pop culture, on TV and the movies:


TV: Frasier (but not his father)
COMMERCIALS: "Hello? I'd like to order the New York Times."
BOOKS: Jonathan Franzen
FILM: Anything by Woody Allen


While the bourgeoisie are very educated, generous, and cultured, they're also very cautious. They like to view the more turbulent stretches of the genius river from safer, higher ground. They wear Salieri shades to withstand the blazing Mozart. They use a bystander as a shield to block the tossed dishes of true art's angry muse. They love movies that make them cry and laugh and think not that make them scared, or unnerved. They love simple, decent folk who believe in their dreams and their bootstraps, not people who believe in stealing from the rich and slitting their throats in the dead of night. And as is most obvious from this year's Oscars, name dropping is an art for the bourgeoisie; theirs is a "name-drop" cinema. Here's an example: say your girlfriend's rich physician dad went golfing while he was at a very important medical conference in L.A. and wound up in a double foursome with.. Jack Nicholson! And they had a beer afterwards and talked about life. And in some ways they really touched each other's lives that afternoon. And there should be a movie about that, but dad can't decide on a title: Golfing with Nicholson, Par with Jack, or Jack and Me: a Golfing Memoir. What do you think? He gets misty just talking about it.

Sounds crazy but a suspicious number of this year's Oscar nominations: Midnight in Paris, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, The Artist, are name-drop pictures. They all sterilize icon-hood through the lens of memory, and adulation (in Incredibly Loud the martyred father suits (since he's played by the icon of bourgeois fantasy about a decent, grateful mercantile, Tom Hanks) the same purpose, and in War Horse, the horse and indirectly the original play's puppeteers); they worship the artist as icon, and then can weep with joy that they were able to help said icon along on their artsy journey via a donation. Hell even the title My Week With Marilyn sounds like James Lipton name dropping at an uptown brunch. "In that poor lonely girl's life I, though I was just a simple golf caddy, may have been the only one who truly..." 

The 2012 Oscars. 

I'm risking the unofficial bourgeois blacklist for writing this, but someone has to, because the crop of best picture candidates are so uniformly safe and self-congratulatory ("We make-a your dreams look true!" - "It's a movie about the love we all share for the movies!" - "It's a valentine to the dreamworkers!") that the trend is suddenly glaringly obvious.  I want to clarify up front that this rant has nothing to do with the quality of the films nominated. Some are amazing and I think you know which ones. And it's not a comment on their emotional effectiveness, the quality of the acting or writing or their clever choreography. In their way they may all deserve mention, but look at the way so many of them kowtow to the parameters of the name-drop film:

The Artist: I had to look hard to find critics who disliked this film...Here's a name I trust to call it like it he sees it, Glen Kenny:
…the fact that this movie is being proclaimed the Best Film of 2011 by various critics’ groups is literally—there’s no other word for it—insane. One could make a snide remark or two about the various members of said groups perhaps strongly identifying with the film’s title character’s entitled indignance at his imposed obsolescence, but that would just be mean. However, I will say that any expectation that these proclamations will effect some kind of populist wellspringing on the film’s behalf is even more insane.
 And this from Jeffrey Overstreet:
Nevertheless, Oscar forecasters see a Best Picture statue in The Artist’s future. Of course they do. The Academy Awards are the biggest annual party that Hollywood throws for itself, and The Artist is a movie that worships Hollywood — its vanity, its values, its people-pleasing, its superficiality. Looks like a done deal.


Hugo - A favorite trope of the bourgeois is the down-and-out old genius artist rescued from oblivion and redeemed by some Tiny Tim-type who believes in and dusts off his musty vision. A whimsical roundabout version of the Salieri shades, here as 3-D glasses and with Georges Méliès as the Mozart. All you need to tell you it's bourgeois is that line from the commercial: "Ziss is where your dreams are born." -
Hugo is revealed to be a movie about the birth and history of movies themselves, and particularly the work of Georges Méliès, the silent film pioneer. Unfortunately Scorsese – so caught up in his adoration of Méliès – wades far too deep into romanticism. Time and time again characters speak about the magic and wonder of going to the movies, to the point that the effect becomes diminishing – self sabotaging even.  (Tom Clift- Cult Movies)
Midnight in Paris - Instead of a hot sound era actress (Garbo?) or lost boy rehabilitating an old artistic genius, here we have unhappily honeymooning Owen Wilson going back in  time to post-WW1 Paris, when true artistic geniuses were still able to smoke in bars and wear tuxedoes. If director Woody Allen actually could visit the Paris of the 1920s I bet you he'd be terrified by Ezra Pound, nauseated by the unchecked smells, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald would hate him for his endless albeit droll nitpicking/lecturing on their excessive drinking, and his refusal to either join them or leave. 
...from a director who is aged 75 now, wouldn’t it be nice to feel some age and regret, to say nothing of this being the last time he’ll see Paris with the euro stronger than a two-day old croissant? The film makes pleasant, easy-going fun out of the idea of revisiting a starry past—the 1920s!—but, in truth, the movie’s Americans in Paris (at the Bristol) are so loaded, so smug, and so Woodyish that they’re locked in the emotional clichés of the 1920s already.  (David Thomson, The New Republic)

The Descendents - Here's a different bourgeoisie trick, the 'poor little rich boy' saga. Clooney's voice, even on the TV commercial, comes roaring at you in dry indignation: how dare you think that just because he's rich and lives on the beach in Hawaii he doesn't have the same problems as you! Dude! Mr. George Clooney, sir, we weren't even talking about you before your commercial came on. But because you had the guts to stick up for yourself, I'll give you a tip: we in the audience care about the rich ditzes in classic screwball because they don't expect our sympathy and that makes us, in the audience, no longer 'guilty' over their welfare. If you demand compassion, however, you will earn only my cautious indifference!
The Descendants features as its lead a man with a horribly challenging decision to make: how is he going to dispose of his family's 35,000 acres of virgin Hawai'ian real estate. I am not going to go all class warfare on the movie or anything, but it takes quite a lot to put over the personal tragedy of a man of unimaginable luck and privilege, and it doesn't help that the movie seems wholly unaware that this might even be a difficulty.(Agony and the Ecstasy)
The Help - Here the revered icon is the abused African American maid in a roundabout redemption through white guilt. It's like Scrooged in February. Every Xmas eve he needs his ghosts to shoot him full of anew compassion, so bravely Scrooge Mc-Munschausen runs to cure Tiny Tim of the tuberculosis he himself has indirectly caused via not paying Cratchet enough to afford central heating. That said, the picture is beautifully played and Viola Davis should win.
It’s enough to make you wish that stories about the hidden lives of household help didn’t have to be so painstakingly told through the eyes of someone who’s not living them. (Margot Harrison, Seven Days)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Once again here's a little boy being led on a magical mystery tour by a dead father ala Hugo: Tom Hanks plays 'a jeweler' (a watchmaker like Hugo's dead dad!) who dies in 9/11, and his son follows mystical clues left around the city. Sure, no one else but an old white man or wizened black housekeeper could teach him that you should follow your dreamzzzz and live every day like it's white boy day.
There's a scene in which Oskar's mother tearfully shouts, "Not everything makes sense, Oskar. I don't know why a man flew a plane into a building!" And that's it. Any further context is cut off. Daldry's interest is all in generating maximum pathos and cuteness from the situation... That's pretty atrocious in itself. Nearly all the reviewers have said so, artfully adapting the format of the title to make their point. Yet the Academy has put this film up for Best Picture next weekend. That tells us something about them, not about this movie. (David Sexton - London Evening Standard)
War Horse -  Like Tom Hanks, the horse is a noble, simple creature and the illusion of simplicity is key to the white elephant emotional sweep the bourgeoisie consider the height of 'importance.'
"Spielberg, ever the talented technician, manages another commercial film guaranteed to be a box office hit by making this superbly crafted but creatively jejune Disney-like young-adult film seem artistic, even if its calculating and shallow storytelling transpire into the artifice of a harmless horse opera. The unsubtle John Williams score tells you the exact moments it expects you to be aroused, in case one needs further prodding of when to get with the program and feel the horse's pain. " - (Dennis Schwartz)
Moneyball - N/A (insufficiently bourgeois)

Tree of Life -  Terence Malick is the most shameless of Speilbrick wannabes, but he's got guts, in a way.  If the Academy voters still took mushrooms before going to the movies it would win, but they don't and it won't. Read my deep analysis from that more enlightened perspective here. 
----
The bourgeois prestige picture wins Oscar about 3/5 of the time. Generally, for calculating betting odds, the order is: 2 on, 2 off / 1 on / 1 off / 2 on, 1 off. Here's a list of bourgeois Oscar winners starting with the most recent, along with my personal ratings:

Bourgeois!
2012 - The Artist - **1/2
2011 - The King's Speech - ****
2008 - Slumdog Millionaire -**
2004 - Million Dollar Baby - **
2002 - Chicago - *
2001 - A Beautiful Mind - *1/2
1998 - Shakespeare in Love - **1/2
1996 - The English Patient - *1/2
1994 - Forrest Gump - **
1990 - Dances with Wolves - ***1/2
1989 - Driving Mrs. Daisy - **

Here's a look at the non-bourgeois years of Oscars:

2009 - The Hurt Locker- ****
2007 - No Country for Old Men - ****
2006 - The Departed - ***1/2
2003 - Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - ***
2000 - Gladiator - ***
1999 - American Beauty - ****
1997 - Titanic - ***1/2
1992 - Unforgiven - ****
1991 - Silence of the Lambs - ****

See the difference? Whatever your opinion on this second list, these are films that took chances, that subverted bourgeois expectations, that muddied genre divides, that saw deep enough into the madness at the core of our collective soul to take a potshot at breaking a new wall rather than just polishing the old's patina. In one way or another they took risks with popular art, dared to smash the moral compass, to deliver some kind of truth or vision that made you a little insane while watching, found you rooting against your own side. It's what Manny Farber called White Elephant art vs. Termite art. Think of this sentence defining the white elephant while pondering the first list of Oscar winners:
Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece.
Well, I've ranted enough. Don't be mad if you're reading this and you too are a bourgeoisie or love some of the nominated films. I really love a lot of bourgeois films too!  But when we bourgeois reach a certain age, or are insane enough, we come to resent the Oscar ceremony-style swank which consumes so many films (and UES AA meetings). Once a punk rock poseur, I recoil from the disillusioning respectability kiss of death that finally planted itself on my teenage idol, Lou Reed, as evinced by his BAM work (The Raven, especially) and appearance on the cover of Syracuse Alumni Magazine.


Did you know Lou Reed and I have the same birthday, March 2nd, and we both went to Syracuse!? And I sang the "Sweet Jane" and the "Rock and Roll" with my old Syracuse band and sounded just like him? And we both were English majors? I didn't know any of that until I came to Syracuse and declared my major, either. Coincidence? I should make a movie, Lou Reed and Me: Parallel Wild Sides. And of course I can hobnob with the bourgeoisie like the best of them, they're a good 90% of my friends. But the height of bourgeois culture is to decry it, to become anti-bourgeois, an inescapable fact that nearly destroyed Lars Von Trier, as he tried to claw his way through their thick skin prison he found only more detourned layers. But, better to have your captors enjoy your violent escape attempts than subject you to their deafening indifference. In the words of Lady Macbeth, "'tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy."

That I can quote Macbeth like that lets you know I'm bourgeois. So believe me when I declare that if Oscar had any real vision and chutzpah we'd see Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Melancholia in the list of best picture nominees, and since they are not on there I say humanity deserves the fate it receives in both those films! Hail, Ape Caesar!


(PS for more, read my open letter to Billy Joel the Piano Man at Letters to the Preditor)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Decadence Lost: DISHONORED, SONG OF SONGS

From Top: Dishonored, Song of Songs
TCM has finally stepped on the D-train in a big way with their new pre-code Marlene Dietrich: Directed by Josef Von Sternberg DVD set, at last completing the R1 DVD representation for the Von Sternberg - Dietrich pre-code Paramount series by presenting the long unavailable Dishonored (1932) and Shanghai Express (1933). They are my two favorites! They're here, and the fine quality of DVD serves Von Sternberg's chiaroscuo lighting quite well. Blu-ray next for the whole seven? Black... market. Peeparounzacorna


Whilst ordering it off the TCM site I grabbed their pre-code set of Song of Songs (1933) and This is the Night (1932,  reviewed here). And fine as these films are they are not half as sophisticated as the JVS. The Night's a fine example of pre-code Paramount fluffery: Cary Grant's in a minor role as a studly javelin thrower 'competing' (if that is the word) for Thelma Todd against Roland Young, who's brought Lili Damita along as a beard.  But Song of Songs, Paramount's first attempt to ween Dietrich away from JVS, is a bit old-fashioned, with Dietrich's naive country virgin conveniently enamored by Solomon's poem "Song of Songs" which she recites under her breath like a mantra. Dig the kinky S/M aspects of this verse (he's basically saying he wants to make gold bit and bridle and ride his love around the room)

I have compared thee, o my love
to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets, thy neck with beads
We will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver.

In charge of making the circlets for this doll-faced horsey is a smug stud sculptor (Brian Aherne) who falls in love with her as she poses for him, embarrassed in his lofty garrett. We never even learn if she's getting paid for all this nude shivering or is just expected to die of pneumonia for him while he teases her about being cold, like a rude shit. Whatever she may be earning it's certainly not enough for putting up with his Pygmalion-like impudence. Aherne berates her like a child, as does a conniving alcoholic aunt (Alison Skipworth) who pimps her out for sacks of Jamaican rum to Aherne's lecherous sponsor (Lionel Atwill). With all this Dickensian exploitation you'd think Dietrich's first starring role was Heidi instead of the Blue Angel. Bitch! Dietrich will do her own exploiting, danke!


Songs could have been a true pre-coder if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the bucolic / provincial morality play silent film era (as per above), with Vaseline trees and day-for-night skies, and virgins in white puffy dresses cavorting daintily amid the willows. A predictable mix of Trilby, Pygmalion, and Camille-style moral conventions, the film even goes so far as to make Lionel Atwill look like Erich Von Stroheim circa Foolish Wives (1922).

Atwill is as you may infer a rich baron / patron of the pornographic arts who commissions most of the nude woman sculptures by our solipsistic artist Aherne. Atwill swoons over "Song of Songs," his already-commissioned nude art deco sculpture of Marlene, and wants to own the 'real' thing. Cue mustache twirling and lip smacking!

You can guess the rest: Atwill convinces Aherne to abandon Marlene after first deflowering her, so Atwill can step in, marry her despite her fallen status and teach her to be a baroness. Meanwhile the statue of Song of Songs is left in the garret; it's erect nipples jut accusingly through the sack cloth dust cover. It doesn't matter anymore, for Atwill has spirited home the real thing, and begins the usual post-wedding 'preparation,' even smiling while she cries helplessly in the other room. Later she 'adjusts' to life at the chateau. She learns to speak French, play the piano, and sing! She falls! She rises! She almost dies in a fire. She's almost shot by Atwill in a fit of jealous pique over her half-pint riding instructor. And on and on, galloping hither and tither in ways D.W. Griffith invented in the 1910s and then abandoned as too trite and old-fashioned... in the 20s


But surprise, Dietrich does some of her best singing: there's a genuinely touching and  tranquil version of "Heideroslein" and later a smoky "Johnny." In her final act comes a really good cathartic cry, wherein you can feel all her skeeved trauma from working with Von Sternberg come pouring out at last. Atwill is, meta-mirror-wise, the stand-in for JVS in the scheme of the film (the Aherne would probably be Gary Cooper, or Mercedes de Acosta). Here are sides of her, at last, you just don't find elsewhere. In between her reinvention as a brassy saloon girl in westerns and her earlier majesty, there are some weird but intriguing feints towards other personae and this in Songs we have something rather unique, a woman who doesn't just end up with the right guy at the end of all her travails, she actually seems to mature.


But while Mamoulian's conception of debauchery seems much more compassionate than Von Sternberg's it's also more superficial and exploitative. Provincial morality is, per JVS, the last refuge of hypocrite snivelers, but at the same time he's not exploitative. Mamoulian may evince real compassion--as in the heartrending pleas of Hopkins' prostitute for protection from Hyde in his quintessential 1933 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dietrich's meltdown in Song--but he's still winking and leering and making a huge deal of Marlene disrobing. On the plus side of Mamoulian's obsessive sexual wariness is the way the romance of Chevalier and MacDonald in  Love Me Tonight fades to the dreamy remembrances of the morning, or the gender-bent stay at the inn in Queen Christina, which despite Garbo being a girl, still seemed like the very first gay romance on the big screen.


I can imagine if Von Sternberg directed Queen Christina (1933, above) that Garbo would stay in drag while making out with Gilbert, right in front of the innkeeper, just for shock value, the camera taking in his discomfort with a wry smile. For JVS, if there is love it's always a renouncement, a sacrifice, done more for the dramatic spectacle of masochistic suffering than the actual object of affection. Dietrich never even gets a single coded night of bliss--not one!-- with Gary Cooper in Morocco! The pair keep getting interrupted by interlopers or their own refusal to admit their feelings. She barely knows him, yet she kicks off her shoes and follows him into the Sahara anyway, and then chooses a similar fate in Dishonored and all for a no-good Russian spy and played by Victor McLagen.

As  Dietrich famously said "in Europe sex is a fact. In America, an obsession." For real Germans like Von Sternberg and Dietrich sex is just an extension of taking off a glove or blowing a noisemaker. Along with this 'fact' is the realization that desire exists primarily as an absence, a dream that can't come true by its own definition. Sex with Mamoulian isn't so ephemeral and abstract, but a real trauma--instead of a delicious absence it's a suffocating presence. Just compare the gang-imploding whim of lust that gets everyone killed in Mamoulian's City Streets or Song's big scenes of renouncement and horror vs. the cool of Sternberg lines like "it took more than one man... to change my name to Shanghai... Lily."  


Sternberg's sex-death equation is most clearly displayed in his ubiquitous cabal of lounging courtesan extras. Sooner or later, Dietrich's ingenues always share a dressing room with them, or run into a few by the bar. For Mamoulian, a Russian, these fallen women are to be pitied and rescued, victims of a corrupt system (though they still lounge impressively in their one scene, below). Which view is the most 'compassionate'? I would argue Von Sternberg's since he gives the ladies credit and allows them to revel in their persona of mystery and allure. Mamoulian would drag them out to the street and admonish them like Annie dragging the 'trying to pass' Sarah Jane out of the club in Imitation of Life.


Worlds away from Mamoulian's sexophobic compassion, Von Sternberg cheerfully ignores the bucolic in Dishonored, preferring to focus all his style and shadow on decadent gambling dens and brothels. His exteriors are inevitably fogged-in or rain-soaked, snow-covered or bomb-blasted. His style is truly decadent as opposed to bowing towards any trite and tedious 'moral center.' JVS hates moral centers! His contempt for Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus makes that otherwise fleet footed film limp lopsided, but when examined next to the critique of the Way Down East- type silent era morality play it becomes more understandable. One might even say that without films like Song of Songs the Blonde Venuses seem rather cold and negative. But with the bucolic small- town morality plays to look good against, the JVS cynicism sparkles.


And better still, when there is no moral center at all, JVS really shines, and Dishonored is one of his best in that regard, with one of the best endings in all cinema. It's on Godard's ten favorite American film list... and that's of all time! And a big part of that appeal is probably the end, a harsh but poetic scene that plays out like Kubrick's Paths of Glory trench diggers accidentally tunneled into a high class Austrian brothel.


A loose re-telling of the popular Mata Hari tale (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor) In Dishonored we have Dietrich as a weary Austrian war widow living at a Viennese brothel, whose unflappable cool and loyalty leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27. First she uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths.'

The role of female James Bond fits Marlene well.  She and her Russian op counterpart Victor McLagen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLagen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, Mclagen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape should either fall into the others' clutches, like Adam West's Batman and Julie Newmar's Catwoman!



And that's partly the problem for Dishonored detractors, of which I used to be one: we were appalled that this sensitive seductress would deliberately sabotage her own sworn duty by letting someone as leering and one-dimensional as Mclagen's Russkie escape and not even deign to answer the charges of collaboration against her during the military tribunal. The best she can do is say "I've lead an inglorious life, it might be my good fortune to have a glorious death." She should have added "death scene," for she is acting even within her roles within roles, and through acting she devours the firing squad with the ambivalent curiosity of a cat playing with a box of regimented mice. Her Dishonored death becomes the equivalent of the walk into the sand at the end of Morocco, another chance to die gloriously for love and send the patriarchy into masochistic fits. It's a chance and she takes it, regardless of the worthiness of the beloved.

Dietrich's true love, it seems, is always death, which is why she makes such a very good spy. In using the system's rigid laws to arrange an ideal ending for yourself --one that your own survival instincts and the rigid expectations of society usually deny you --you've really made the grade and filled the holes of  Albert Hall. Even in the walk to the firing squad area her only thoughts are making sure her hair looks good and her lipstick is on straight.

This makes sense, as the very first scene of the film is a woman being taken out of Dietrich's brothel on a stretcher, a victim of self-inflicted gas poisoning, an all-too-common occurrence for that lonesome profession, it's implied. Dietrich watches the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist prom limo. But her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for.


The big thing censors and Mamoulian never understood about Dietrich and other Paramount stars is that movies need not reflect real life. Dietrich in the JVS movies knows she has only 90 minutes in which to exist so she may as well go out impaled-butterfly-pin high than preserve herself in some uncertain happy ever-after of old age make-up and bucolic leaf-eating caterpillar drudgery. Song of Songs-brand Marlene cries and grows up and ends the film smashing her likeness--the statue Aherne made of her--undoing all those shivering hours of nude posing in order to breathe free as a real emotional woman, but is that really as satisfying? Becoming an adult instead of dying as a wild child is less cinematic. It's like the actresses who step away from their career in its height to have a flock of children and expect our applause and adoration anyway, cuz she's a mom now. Aww. Bitch, please! That child took you away from us! That child robbed us of our sprite, our elvin anima, and turned her into...just another mom. When these actresses return they are, let's face it, changed. The spark is gone from their eyes, transferred to their child. In Dishonored Dietrich is savvy enough to sidestep all that --she just plays waltzes on an imported-by-last-request piano right up until the moment she's called to the her demise. And if she has to grow up, at least Marlene's Mamoulian-made sister has her Song of Songs:

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, 
let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; 
for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely. 
'Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards; 
for our vineyards are in blossom.' 

Until the day breathes, and the shadows flee away, 
turn, my beloved, 
and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart 
upon the mountains of spices.(more)

Comely countenances have nothing to do with it, dovey. When one makes the clefts and coverts into moral lessons they are as the blight that spoils the vineyards. Let the foxes take what grapes they may no matter how high on the vine. Give Bette Davis a box on which to jump that she may the grapes devour. Let the image breathe like a nitrate fire, freed from moral weight to bleed the wine of massive proof. In the senseless spilling / the cup remains full / the nitrate deep and lasting in its transient grace, not burning at all / except in focused flickering / on the wall. Take your maidens and your Vaseline lens and exeunt; I'll stay here in the dark and foxy box the shadow of your scornful wince.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Unconscious Contact: COMMUNION (1989)


The great Taoist Lao Tzu said "Without looking out of my window I can know the ways of heaven." What if the reverse is also true, that without leaving heaven, aliens can look through our window and know all things on earth? Surely it's quid pro quo, and perhaps no coincidence that our final year of 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Communion, Whitley Streiber's groundbreaking true story novel about his own experiences as an alien abductee.

I read this book as soon as it came out in paperback, as a sophomore in college, and it changed my life forever, so to speak. Before Communion there were no aliens or internet as far as we in suburbia knew. He brought the dialogue into the popular consciousness and best of all, since he is a fiction writer first and an abductee second, he brought real acumen to the 'fictional' or cover memory aspect of the experience that few have been able to bring since. He made the madness of cover memories and nightmare glimmers of the real so tangible it felt like a Stephen King story was leaking out of the book all over your pants. Was it all really true? That was the wrong question, what is true has to change, to smarten up, to extract itself from the delusional pool filter of earth's generic orbit.

While some abductees say that the greys are living breathing beings, Streiber has  always felt they were more robotic, insectoid puppets usually controlled by some taller single being. In the 1989 adaptation ('highly' recommended) these aliens appear as toys, goblins, balloons, masks within masks. And who could capture the way the nearly insane genius writer struts and jives his hour upon the stage in order to not fall off into Bellevue other than Christopher Walken? A very odd but inspired choice to play Streiber for the film, he masterfully makes Streiber into a man who doesn't believe his own eyes half the time, even as his unconscious starts jerking him around like a puppet. The highlight is his triumphant face to face meeting with the alien intelligence, who chooses to appear to him as both a grey, an alien lizard behind the grey, and Walken himself (in black eye liner and tux, so we can tell them apart), a decision on the part of the aliens that eerily foreshadows the appearance of Jodie Foster's dead father in Carl Sagan's Contact (right) but which I don't recall ever being in the book.

 If the aliens can appears as people either known by the subject or the subject himself, as the film seems to suggest, can we even see the aliens as they truly are with our puny earth-made eyes? Communion and Contact think no, so they give us replicas and masks to help us cope, the way we might give a dog a narcotized chew toy rather than let him hunt real rabbits that might be rabid. These beings may represent a truth so far out humanity's ken it can only be gazed it indirectly, like Medusa in a foggy pocket mirror. And that's perhaps why there is no tangible 'evidence' for direct non-classified perusal --the aliens don't want us to see them, and it's as easy to avoid leaving evidence behind after their visitations as it is for us to clean up our trash leaving a picnic ground. They take only sanity, leave only cover memories.

Below is a slice of the climactic dialog between Streiber and the alien intelligence, which elaborates on this:
Alien / Walken (to Whitley / Walken ): I'd like to say a few things. First I'd like to season's greetings. Then I'd like to say keep your hands on the table at all times. Heh? Boo!...Boo. I wanna go home. I'd like to go home. You've broken my mind! I'm gonna kill you. Can we talk this over? I can't wake up. I am the dreamer. You are the dream. Look. The only thing that really matters here is what I am about to show you.
(The gray alien's face cracks open; it turns out to be a mask with a reptilian face underneath.)
Streiber: (staring at the face) "That's... not it. I didn't come all this way... for you to tell me that's that what it is. Is there something under that, because I don't believe that one... It's like a box, a Chinese box... You open it, there's another one inside and another one inside and another one inside...(pause, realization) You're not gonna let me see you, are you?"
Alien: It is just like a Chinese box and you're not going to be allowed to see. Okay? Just to make that clear.

Streiber: You are not gonna let us see you... That's a good idea.

The thing about the dialogue I'm quoting above is that, on one level, Walken is talking to himself inside a spaceship near his upstate NY vacation home, but the other self is a version wearing eye-liner who presumably is an alien intelligence talking to him in the form of yet another mask, mimicking or repeating all the real Whitley is saying or has said previously or would like to say in the moment ("you've broken my mind!"). It becomes difficult to tell which version of him is really the dreamer and which the dreamed and I think that's no accident of bad editing, but rather a point about aliens that is impossible to make in any 'clearer' way. 


The first clear message seems to be that "season's greetings" part, Walken's kinetic hustler delivery bringing out the surrealist edges in all their warped definition. I remember not really liking the film too much when I rented it, drunk, a decade or so ago, but it works much better a second time after I've done a lot more research because it reads as a meditation on the trickster nature of the UFO abduction phenomenon rather than a straight horror story like The Fourth Kind (see my 2010 article "Take us to Your Benzos") or Fire in the Sky.


In this way, Communion's use of obvious masks, phoniness and Bugs Bunnyism is spookily admirable and correct. Instead of a gleaming white light round room, for example, the abductions occur in what looks like an abandoned psych ward hydrotherapy room equipped with that old flood light and fog machine and why not, if that's what the budget and unconscious of the abductee masking over deeper layers will allow? I also think of the opening scene of Kubrick's Lolita, with Sellers as Quilty trying to spin the situation with murderous Mason into something more cartoonish and hip, and slowly giving in to dread as the previous night's liquor wears off and his evasion tactics fail one after the other. In Communion's case though, which Walken is Quilty, and which is Humbert?

Exactly right.


So the thing is, then, where is the line between hallucination / cover memory and the 'real'? How much of the Whitley Streiber story is "true" in a concrete sense vs. the bleeding of dream reality into the real via, say, a hyperactive pineal gland? Again that's like asking what's more real, the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean? You've never been to either, so what the hell do you know about it? We confuse our TV nature shows with direct experience so why not the reverse? Perhaps our dream lives are the real reality, the only one any self-respecting alien wants to log into. Do sharks dream of being on dry land? Might not aliens look at our waking life like we look at the shark's ocean floor? A nice place to scuba dive, but if we want to do some serious marine biology investigation we have to hoist them onto the boat, as briefly as possible, then tag their dorsal fin and put them back in the water.... which as far as the shark is concerned is like being pulled by aliens into a dream, but that doesn't make us aliens... or does it?

This shark keeps dreaming about small alien bipeds.
The real life Streiber had already written a book made into a movie starring Albert Finney, Wolfen, before being conscious of his alien visitations. And that begs the question: did he write horror because his unconscious knew things his consciousness didn't? As I write this I can feel an alien intelligence looming over my shoulder, but my unconscious could easily be just fucking around and pretending to be an alien intelligence looming over my shoulder. So is the drive to write a way to create a 'cover memory' even as our unconscious-- knowing the whole terrifying truth --only spoon feeds us little tastes of what is really out there/inside us? What if our entire time-space imprisoned notion of three-dimensional truth is just a cover memory for the far ghastlier truth of our multiverse's terrible 'eternal now' omnipresence? Is the alien abduction somehow less an intrusion into our reality than a removal of illusion? Do aliens manipulate time as well as space? If so they may abduct a human for years all while he's sleeping or meditating for only a few minutes in our time. And what's the difference between, say, an alien probe scar on the back of one's neck, and the sudden manifestation of the stigmata, or the way people die for real when they die in The Matrix?


Can the alien abduction phenomena be separated from that unconscious, and why would we assume an alien would think our conscious mind was the 'real' mind to visit? Why wouldn't an alien prefer to make unconscious contact rather than the conscious variety. My unconscious is far more literate and witty than my conscious one - I'm sure it's a lot better company. How else could it blow my mind every night with crazy dreams? When I try to get involved with my unconscious mind's creative process, my tongue ties almost instantly. I'm the editor, trying to translate its rantings, clipping the more negative tirades, but I can't control the actual ideas and flow (and the negative tirades are all conscious ego in disguise). Surely that unconscious connection is even more true of Walken, who has a rare gift wherein every line he speaks sounds like it's coming straight from his unconscious rather than a script, and that's true even when he is clearly reading from cue cards (as on his many SNL appearances).


So while his hipster affectations may bug 'serious' UFO scholars, I think Walken is ideally cast, for no one else could so gamely tread the edge of a straight razor, like a dosed Marx Brother, to convey the realization, via hypnosis, that all the things that happened in his childhood didn't 'happen' but are still happening, now, right in the hypnotist's office, that the African figures on the mantle (below) are simultaneously the greys standing in the distance watching him do the herky jerky in the grungy space ship. (Look close in the right quadrant of the bottom picture).


Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but in my own astral travels I've experienced the 'synchronized' reality effect wherein an alien, if it wishes to appear in your room while you're sleeping, would first sneak into your subconscious and influence you to buy a bunch of primitive statues for your nightstand, so they could, in a sense, materialize through your midnight hallucination so you see that statue as 'moving'. You have to ask yourself - why do we want statues of human figures, figurines, representatives of bipedal life forms, scattered around our homes and yards? Why does GB want that spooky one-eyed alien mascot all over their Olympic games? What better way to launch an invasion than for all the images of that figure to loom i\out of 4-D and into 3-D existence at the psychological moment?


While there has been mention in alien abduction lore about cover memories, outside the surrealist movement or David Lynch I can't think of a single 'fact-based' film other than Communion that actually dares to address the line between dreams and reality so head on: the intentionally bizarre creatures, masks, show biz parodies, and roll reversal instances are where Communion really comes alive. If you can imagine Christopher Walken playing all the non-dwarf roles in a sequel to Phantasm directed by Dario Argento, Communion is your nightmare. One crazy moment finds Walken investigating strange noises at night, looking in a closet and finding this bug-eyed teddy bear.


It's never spelled out, but there's something not quite right about what that bug eyed bear is doing there, or if it would still be there in the morning or would paralyze him with a nerve wand if he tried to touch it. That's pretty Argento-Phantasm-level stuff.

Arguments against the validity of alien abduction hinge a lot on the nature of hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and vivid dreaming, but neither the skeptic nor the believer sees the whole picture, the way it's perceived by actual abductees or string theory physicists, or those of us who have truly hallucinated or understood the full terrifying breadth of Jung's collective unconsciousness. The truth is this: both arguments--mere mirage/illusion and 'more real' than reality-- are terrifyingly correct. Dreams are as real as anything else and our five senses are just feelers into the physical realm. We have a whole other feeler, the third eye, which we've been conditioned to belittle by mainstream science, but which also 'hears' and 'feels' and 'sees' in a whole separate way from the external senses, even more vividly.... at times.


This third eye is actually the projected energy of the pineal gland, located in the center of the brain, and it can be felt burning a hole in the middle of your forehead if for example, you drink too much Robitussin or have activated your Kundalini through deep chakra work (or like me, both at the same time). The pineal gland is where the soul allegedly enters the body on the 22nd day after conception.... and it's where I would enter if I was an alien on the outside looking in. Who cares if another soul is already in there? You're just passing through. Your unconscious is probably much more welcoming of these spirits than you 'consciously' know.


Let this idea in and feel the terror of the awful realization of alien immediacy-- its presence beyond real or illusion; its presence in all aspects of our lives; our past, present, future--feel how it brings with it a boon, enlightenment, the understanding that everything is connected to everything else on every level--so you can visit the other side of your hand on Mars in 1937 and find your watch inside a Chinese box found on the bottom of the ocean unopened since the Ming Dynasty, and find your grandfather alive in the microscopic villages along the ear hair of your grandson. And the sun is just a reflection of your iris. And without looking out of your door you can know all things on earth and even if you never look farther than your own backyard maybe one day you'll notice that the very farthest reaches of outer space are right at your fingertips and the vacation you will take this summer is being remembered right now in the bathroom you just walked out of three months ago. And the cares of tomorrow / must wait / til this day is done.


 But how do you define a day when you have no earth to spin?