Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Prison of a Thousand Dimensions: GRAVITY, BUBBLE BOY, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

"P-P-Please Mr. Kennedy
I don't wanna go (please don't shoot me into outer space)
I sweat when they stuff me in the pressure suits
Bubble helmet, Flash Gordon boots
Nowhere up there in gravity zero (
I need to breathe, don't need to be a hero ( -- "Please Mr. Kennedy" (Inside Llewyn Davis
"Without going out of my door,
I can know the ways of heaven.
Without looking out of my window
I can know all things on Earth.
The farther one travels
the less one knows" -- "The Inner Light" (George Harrison - via Lao Tzu)
"Never get out of the boat.
Absolutely goddamn right." - Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) - Apocalypse Now 
Vinny Barbarino in the original
We used to call Syracuse the city with the concrete sky; you'd leave your parent's house in NJ to drive back up on a bright sunny day and then, cruising up Highway 81, lovely trees on all sides, clear blue sky for miles, but then a mass of twisting dark clouds begins to loom off in the distance, up a giant hill. The rest of the sky is still clear as a bell, but Syracuse looms ahead like a black shroud. That was college in winter: the snow never melted, merely accrued like sedimentary layers of salt and frozen slush; any joy we could muster was a pale blue fire that we continually banked with all the drugs and booze fuel we could afford or handle; surrounded by plastic sheeting on the windows for insulation, layers and layers, the protective bubble of plastic coverings and mass quantities of bourbon, and blankets --an elaborate drug and scarf Jenga --before that I had written often of the depressive yellow film that surrounded me like a plastic bubble, a feeling of isolation all the more painful in a crowd but a thousand times worse alone. Poems and poems I'd written about that yellow film.

Those poems are long gone. My mom threw them out, of course. But their exact existential ennui is all over Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis (both 2013), which in turn resembles Bubble Boy (2001). The three might just as well be remakes of one another: the same overall message reigns--we're all of us trapped in the 3-D space-and-time-suit that is the human body, the egoic gridlock that is the mind, and the whims of an Old Testament warden that is the soul, all three components relentlessly dragged back into our orbit of desk, car, couch, and bed no matter how high we fly outside the bubble.

It is the penitentiary of our unrealistic hopes preventing us from reaching through the brass bars of expectations towards the gold ring. After all, we know that ring is an illusion.

Better we learn to love illusion directly.
"You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut? So, the cosmonaut, He's the first man ever to go into space. Right? The Russians beat the Americans. So he goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it's very small. So the cosmonaut's in there, and he's got this portal window, and he's looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. I mean, the first man to ever look at the planet he's from. And he's lost in that moment. And all of a sudden this strange ticking... Begins coming out of the dashboard. Rips out the control panel, right? Takes out his tools. Trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can't find it. He can't stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound... will break him. He'll lose his mind. What's he gonna do? He's up in space, alone, in a space closet. He's got 25 days left to go... with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides... the only way to save his sanity... is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes... and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn't hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the sailing through space in total bliss... and peace." -- Rhoda (Britt Marling) - Another Earth

The ticking, man, Brit Marling, you must hear that all the time, by which I mean the clamor of your geekboy devotees: those of us in love with your heavenly hair but confused by your weird mix of self-serious grad school high conceptual sci fi and skeeved by the wussy hipsters you stock your films with. So much potential so unsatisfying, so ultimately anemic. Those shaggy dork boys need some sunshine, Britt! They're pale. They make the hipster boys in Ti West movies seem robust. They'd break like glass goblins with the gentlest of knuckle taps. I'd fight them for you, Britt Marling. You remind me of a girl I used to know in college. She's older now though.

Save us all from the beauty-remover that is age, Britt Marling!

But if you bear her ticking quote about old Yuri up in space in mind with the upper deck Llewyn Davis ditty atop, recorded in the same approx. early 60s time zone as Britt's Another Earth anecdote WOULD have taken place, you realize there's more going on here than either film quite grasps --there's a very real trepidation about being next in line to be shot into space for both these films, and for Gravity the trepidation is in staying there. Britt only wants to go up in space to escape the shame of having killed a kid in a drunk driving accident; Sandra Bullock goes in space to escape the pain of having a daughter killed in a drunk driving accident. Meanwhile I'd spoil the plot to explain whose drunk driving and who or what they hit in Llewyn, but either waywithout shame or grief to propel them there seems no real reason for these characters to ever escape other than such trite Screenwriting 101-style motivation

But the Coens can't imagine what else folk singers were for if not to express trepidation about having to die for their country. And in 1961 folk craze there's still no Vietnam to name Llewyn's generation. Vietnam,  the war that made Milwaukee famous, that made Walter crazy with PSD-by-proxy, that gave Dylan's protests songs resonance for a young male populace pinioned by American flag pitchforks at the border between Canada and Cambodia. Without a war to name them the 1961 West Village scenesters of Inside Llewyn Davis can only float in the misty white smoke over the dark green corduroy; the color scheme and lighting like what it must feel like walking through an unlit folk museum in the middle of the day while slowly going color blind. Aurally, there's way too much quiet and too much resonance - old Llewyn can hike his guitar all over creation, whip it out and boom it's perfectly tuned and the sound resonates like you're listening to yourself in earphones with a good condenser mic, ne'er does he have to play over clinking cups or drunkards. Like Mad Men before it, and after it, this is a land where you can actually whisper at a bar and be heard from across the table.

But symbolically, it's the best film about elliptical orbits since The Werkmeister Harmonies!

Gravity has orbits too, and since there's nothing to slow you once you start moving, just bumping into someone can send you rolling along in an infinite terrifying somersault, until you're sure you're going to just hyperventilate up your remaining oxygen and die still somersaulting endlessly out into deep space, endlessly endlessly oxygen draining from your panicked huffing --until George Clooney comes to your rescue, time and again, and harrowing near death escapes and space station leap-frogging and immanent metaphysical evaporation come and go but your suits and pods always be pressurized. Sandra Bullock's incredible module hopping routine here has no correlation in any other film except, I think, The Swimmer, but it's just another orbit of cramped coffins--the average American's stations of the cross: bed, car, cubicle, car, couch, bed are interlocked space modules which she swims through in various space suits and in her underwear! But most of all she finds orbits --everything that goes past her is coming back around maybe twice as fast.

Such interlocking elliptical orbits are the Coens stock and trade, as folk musician Llewyn Davis says after "Hang Me Hang Me," the number that opens and closes the film and we have to wonder if it's the same night a, "it was never new and it never gets old." In Gravity, Ryan seeks a space ship or vehicle to escape her orbit, but Davis is the space ship, old and new and never getting old and it's a folk song around and around, just like any musician playing the same song night after night until he needs to suss out new ways to divert himself within it.  He can't escape an orbit he doesn't admit exists, because it would mean acknowledging the ceaseless ticking of Britt Marling's spaceship's funeral clock. He's learned to sing over it.

"there's no success like failure,
and failure's no success at all" - Robert Zimmerman
He'd rather quit than make any artistic compromise that might jeopardize his folk failure; the basement clubs he plays in resemble (no doubt intentionally) medieval dungeons, spotlights coming in from above and the side like stray rays of sunshine down into Poe's pendulum swingin' pit -- and Corman's adaptation made in 1961, the year this is all set -- no doubt the Coens are champing at the bit for the days of Roderick Usher. I kept expecting Llewyn to catch a screening. Maintaining that allusion would have been nice, but instead the Coens cram in unlikable anachronisms like the dago red cafe owner, to rob the folk scene of every last ounce of solidarity, as if the Coens don't know the difference between a coffee house and a strip club.

But the Coens have never been even close to Altmanesque. People rarely talk in their films and dialogue certainly doesn't overlap like, so we must deal with the subject in isolation, ala Kubrick, forcing us to wonder: are they making movies about alienation BECAUSE they hate crowded ensemble cast naturalism, or the other way around. They make Llewyn into Susan Alexander Kane, driven by an inner Orson, seeking the operatic reputation even into the canon of indifference. There is, after all, only one Oscar Levant. So as Don Draper would say, what is the benefit?

But there are oases --the kindness of the Bohemian 'Lovahs'-style Columbia professor academics is timeless, so is the existential aura of the Coen Bros-brand Old Testament god-playing, which this time around is rather merciful. They are still finding ways to insert quotes and themes from O Brother Where Art Thou's source text, Homer's Odyssey into Sullivan's Travels-style deconstructions of the rich kid reverence for the poor working negro sick and sniffling at three AM dawn or whatever. Homer's gods note that men create for themselves "grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns”-- they also throw their proxy life lines and opportunities so he might throw them each in turn away, such as missing the chance for credit and royalties, cashing in on the cowardly claustrophobia of the above-quoted song for nothing more than a few hundred bucks which he quickly tosses away. For Llewyn, the fear of being stuck up above the planet, utterly dependent on a pressurized suit to survive, i.e. famous, is very real because the sun never shines in his current world and he's terrified to find what not being enshrouded by dark clouds might feel like.

Hold on my brother, Paxil is coming!

Bubble Boy (2001) is a round planet onto himself, attracting satellites wherever he bounces. Why is he so much better with people than poor Llewyn? Innocence, man, the naïveté of sheltered bubble child Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes an 'honorable' goal of breaking up an impending marriage between his beloved neighbor Chloe (Marley Shelton) and some sleazy rocker. It's a wish that brings him on his own Candide-like innocent abroad incredible journey -- his pleasant manner is a rarity to begin with in comedy (it wouldn't be as cool if he was, say, Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider). It works because he's a gorgeous, sweet young fellow --the eyes, Manolo, they never lie. So the bubble is just the shell thrown up by any artistic extrovert who can't quite believe he could ever get a hot girl, regardless of how good he might look to himself in the mirror.

The mirror, Manolo, it a always lie.

In his sweet naïveté, Jimmy is really more like the Justin Timberlake character in Inside Llewyn Davis, the happy alive, gentle, kind fellow, open to the universe's giving because he is giving by nature, so earns the instant karma. Jimmy's plucky charm awes everyone he meets -- and though sheathed forever--apparently--in his yellow plastic film, he liberates souls wherever he goes, excepting a few, like Zach Galifianakis at the ticket window, who remains all alone, trapped in his own bubble of a middle-of-nowhere bus terminal.

The cat Ulysses meanwhile is the true astronaut of Davis, because he's a Russian cosmonaut version, he's learned to love the ticking -- haven't all domestic animals, and bubble boys? Without the burden of expectation or experience, every tick is a banquet, every tock a day at the farm.
“A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” ― Homer, (The Odyssey)
"How his naked ears were tortured
by the sirens sweetly singing" - "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Creem)
I have some problems with Alfonso Cuarón, as underneath his gift for sci fi lurks idealized reverence for a madre's love for her nina that makes John Ford seem cold as Kubrick. I had some deep fundamental problems with the santa-de-madre core of Cuarón's Children of Men. Suicide kits made sense in Soylent Green (see my praise of same here) but if there's no more kids there shouldn't be any more overpopulation, just drunken parties and censorship free TV. The same Cuarón-brand sentimental mierda de caballo comes through Gravity in the form of Sandra Bullock's haunted past, which enables her to have a few scenes of big emotional crisis and acceptance, but it's tacked on, baby, like a poster of Rita Hayworth in reverse.

Salvation deferred (from top): Rita Hayworth (Bicycle Thieves),
Carey Mulligan (Llewyn), Marley Shelton (Bubble Boy)
Bicycle Thieves (AKA 'The Bicycle Thief') is not what most people think it is, where the dad makes so many bad decisions (like not keeping an eye on his bike) his first day putting up Rita Hayworth posters that he snaps at any hand that tries to feed him. The patina of sentimental pathos-drenched Italian neorealism is created unfairly: in the minds of those who've never seen it (such as myself up until a few years ago) it's a sentimental sob story, the kind of thing enjoyed only by the bourgeois who feel seeing and making movies about poverty is an expression of benevolent social largesse (much of the Coens work seems a warped satire of this largesse -- Llewyn is playing at being depressed and poor - because it's 'in' - if he was really hungry he wouldn't hesitate to follow any suggestions that come his way).

What Bicycle Thieves has in spades is a deadpan analysis of the poor person sense of entitlement, oh woe is me, to the point the dad refuses the gifts and advice offered because it conflicts with his idea of himself as a martyr, for example brushing aside the offered ticket for a free spaghetti dinner only to then spend his last few coins on a far less nice-a meal for him and his son. It makes the rich feel better in a way, perhaps, seeing this poor financial planning as evidence of a will to fail --these peasants can't walk away from their conception of themselves as poor and so throw away their chances at wealth (such as the mother paying her last lira on a fortune teller to see if they ever are going to have any money). The Coens stack the deck, Vittorio De Sica fashion, and allow for lots of scenes of scruffy Llewyn hitchiking and trudging across the barren landscapes to Chicago to hit up a hotshot owner of the Cape of Horn, a big dusky club bedecked, like the Lamplight, with posters and memoranda. There's a lot of that memoranda here, amping up the sense that the winsome wand of folk history shall not upon poor Llewyn's shoulder tap, with good reason. He's a a glum tempo pony, destined for the two for a dollar bin underneath the good stuff at Princeton Record Exchange. So there's no emotion, only perfectly-modulated voice and guitar, rich with the idea he's impressing his listeners with the ability to fake 'realness.'

Brave Ulysses. aboard spaceship Glum Folkie 
The Coens have always been the Stanley Kubricks of the contemporary lit film, by 'lit film' I mean Carver-esque observational minor key rhythmic detail, dotted with quirky symbolism, all as critical in both illuminating the inner and outer life of the character, and so, us all. Nothing much happens in the film, except alienation and possible redemption, told in moments and observational imagery. Like a character in  James Joyce's Dubliners, Llewyn looks around outside his restrictive bubble nowhereland, but never escapes it, never trusts the oxygen will be there when he takes off his pressurized helmet. That said, he knows how to forgive an enemy with a kind of papal benedictory wave. Adios, Llewyn: Vietnam, rock, and LSD soon will wash your incumbent gloom clear away, the youth and academes will realize the easiest route to outer space is within - one needn't lug one's earth-dependent body along with them to see the universe. Unzip the yellow film shell and step out of they egoic self into the loving void of universe!

It's the body, in the end, that is the prison: its incessant whining for oxygen, its overreaction to desired stimuli in a self-sabotage loop; all the illusions of permanence it creates-- one magnificent gesture, unzipping the bubble to kiss the Chloe in BB; going over the cliff hand and hand rather than surrendering to the law, sticking your tongue out to receive that holiest of tab communions in HAIR, or throwing caution to the wind to rescue a cat, or even just preparing for your immanent death alone in an airless capsule, surrendering one's corporeality to get that last minute mirage of freedom--that's the one decision that actually makes a difference.

Egoic fear keeps us locked into our breathing patterns on instinct, huffing that oxygen shit down like it's water. Shit will fuck you up, man, get you addicted to the tree of woe like a masochist Conan. Become an oxygen junky and become a coward when death beckons. Why can't we all be like Jake Gideon and just float into the warm body bag embrace of Jessica Lange? Instead we're slaves to our lungs. We're descended via evolution from those who feared death, not the good dying young. We are the spawn of cowards who survived and procreated as a last ditch effort to stave off the reaper, and who reincarnate as soon as they can to try it again and again. Our genes themselves are afraid of floating in that clear black ether, rejoining into the seamless endless lotus blossoming of the crown chakra like a cliff diver.

As I write this a rerun of SNL is playing on the TV behind me, it's Cee-Lo singing "Forget You." And suddenly the inescapable loop of karma clicks back in place like the revolution of the planet finally caught itself up back on the tape loop; any musician lucky enough to have a big hit (such as Cee-Lo's) is compelled then for the rest of his life to play that same song, the same way, stuck in amber, frozen in time to the one breakthrough moment, to let its original potency be distilled, pasteurized, for mass consumption. Let's Spend Some Time Together Now!

From there it's all downhill to the eventual burying and VH1 resurrection--this is the brilliance of the digital tape. Even now we should be able to find Llewyn Davis' entire early oeuvre with a few key words typed into Spotify. We can recapture the feeling of those coffee houses through the countless live-in-the-West-Village recordings of the era, all remastered onto digital, a perfect auditory capsule for a time when people could smoke indoors and were trusted to make their own decisions. But in doing so we see that Llewyn's world--where everyone waits in hushed reverence for him to finish his mundane songs--is an ever shrinking and expanding bubble, a prison of a thousand dimensions is still a prison, the gravity that paralyzes even Sandra Bullock's astronaut in a holding pattern rotation, like a stationary needle on an LP on a record player in the back of a speeding van. Her life is but the first track; her death but the second.

Reflections of / the way life used us.
Astronaut Ryan (Bullock) has more of the karmic awakening than either Llewyn or Jimmy because Davis' latent seed of empathy has barely cracked the soil by the end, and Jimmy has his true love energy which is almost like cheating, the 'freebie' awakening and bravery love brings. But Ryan's journey actually reminded me a lot of the last few times I did serious meditation, which was far scarier than the days of taking too many hits or grams of this or that. For one thing, in order to really touch the holy white light of spiritual awakening there's a terrifying valley of lonesome shadow you have to pass through, 'the long dark night of the soul' - an initiation of sorts, to allow, with love, your entire egoic self construct to be ripped from you, shredded up, in the mandibles of clockwork reptile guardians. It is terrifying. It took me several attempts, but I got on the clockwork page - because when you transcend space and time at last the inside mechanisms behind the ticking hands and face is illuminated, revealed as interlocked turning wheels within wheels, and stasis is itself revealed as the illusion. You are not hallucinating when you feel these reptilian guardian mandibles clicking their sprocket teeth down on holes, running your soul like film through a projector -- you WERE hallucinating when you didn't see them devouring you. Now that you're awake you can feel Earth turning below you, as it really is doing. You're on a giant surfboard rock, hanging on by the treads of your feet as it spins in a slow motion tailspin rolling madly around the sun by an axis that always seems about to tilt the wrong way. The fear is so intense you actually have to go through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, to get to the white light pulsing amniotic godhead, the orb, the giant egg of vibrational energy that is the sum total of all that is and has been and will be.

Through your own reflection, the way out
If you could look behind and ahead at the same time, you'd see that where you floated from is where you're going to; dissolve into space via your reflected eye pupils in the mirror. Stare into them, as close as your nose touching the surface, stare and let your eyes relax and then just wait, like a stereogram; it's not travel as we understand it in a 3-D space time context. You're moving into a different orbit now--a shorter one--the next track in on the holy mandala spinning LP wheel of life. That's all there is to it, same video game cartridge, different level. Either way the game isn't over and the cartridge stays in the player, the song that's you is over and the song that's not you begins, but you hear it, and become what it is, because you are the entirety of the album, and all music, and the stereo and the van. But it's not like you ever changed albums, you just got conned into believing the first track was all there was to you, conned by the scaredy cat social order and the scary cat ego that is its reflection (rather than your true one). It's not like we die and go somewhere and come back, it's all the same, life-death-repeat, because all this time you've just been sitting there in a lotus position, on a mattress or chair in your room, breathing and humming and that's all; you're just a vibration, a wave matrix. Chant long enough, resonate deep enough and you can untangle yourself completely back into the infinite AUMMMMmmm.

The ultimate journey for Sandra Bullock's frightened astronaut is ultimately this. It doesn't involve having to be nice to external people; even George Clooney's fellow astronaut eventually seems to morph into the fabric of her psyche, animus as final gatekeeper to the divine; Bullock's real journey is the spiritual one, out in space no one can hear you whine, panic, argue, bargain, hyperventilate, or cast blame. There's no higher mom to cry to; the great thing about Bullock's master class performance here is that her gradual five stages process is so palpable we can almost feel the moments she begins to let go not just of her attachment to life but to her morbid attachment to death as well.

“History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.” ― James Joyce, (Ulysses)

There's only two beings who really wake up from history in this strange world, those in love or on drugs, and meditation-doers-tryers -- or even better, all three at once. Such a trio is a great armor -- Jimmy in Bubble Boy, a weird holy power is given as the ego's fear response is short circuited and it dissolves in a rush of pleasure and obsession and giddiness and loss of appetite that transcends all the concrete skies and yellow depressive bubbles that separate our senses from the fullness of the world. As the Coens seem more concerned with torturing their heroes it's up to us to instill the hope, to reach into the screen with our compassion in ways we don't have to with the holy Cuarón, or in the bouncing Bubble Boy. The difference is all within, baby --it's your perceptions alone... or in the words of T.S. Eliot:
"We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison" 

The goal isn't to just not think of a key (almost impossible if you're told not to), but for us to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the prison walls, the warden, the bars, the cot. You can still be yourself, but you are also your neighbor. You are also the world. Buenos Aires is your right foot. Your urine stream is as Niagara Falls. Every coffee or wine cup a holy grail; every shower a baptism. That is letting go. That is what we mean: the obliteration of the phony separations... this is true peace.

So think not of the key and the thousand dimension prison dissolves behind you like a dizzy snore you have to take on your girlfriend's word is something you should see a doctor for; the astronaut comic books must be lifted from their protective mylar prisons and read... whether you rise or not when you pick your sandbag feet off the floor, or just sink below because you were really upside down the whole time and didn't know it, this matters little: the comic book will lose its pristine mint status, the bloom on this incarnation's flesh will fade, but the helmet must come off, the fresh air must be breathed. It's as inevitable as falling.

And we will fall.


  1. Jeez Erich! You worked The Swimmer in there! I was just writing about Mad Men Primers, and I listed, Seconds, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Rosemary's Baby, and The Swimmer. That is a movie - and short story - that just don't get enough notice. Great write up. I haven't seen Bubble Boy, but now I want to. I have friends that bought the soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis, "It's so beautiful! He is so talented! He is his own worst enemy! " And I'm just, he is handsome and can sing other peoples' songs with his eyes closed... That doesn't entitle him to anything. I just read TS Eliot for the first time, Ash Wednesday, and I thought of Bob Dylan in a new light. I thought I had seen Bob Dylan in every light of the spectrum, at least of my spectrum, now I see him as part of the cycle. LD was not a part of the cycle at all. I agree about Sandy Bullock's daughter being a hole in the script. It made me care for her less than if she had no backstory at all. Great write up. My favorite site.

  2. YES YES YES! this felt wonderfully necessary. thank you, that was enlightening as always