Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Black and white old dark house films are the perfect balm for miserable rainy days like this, or the advent of spring (pollen/allergies) contesting grey winter's turgid encore as the sky clears. Cobwebs, shadows, candelabras, sudden black-outs, howling winds, shifty-eyed conspirators, pouring rain, sheet metal thunder, suits of armor that fall at odd times, cats, clocks striking midnight, readings of the will punctuated by lightning strikes, daggers in backs, spooky seances, fog-enshrouded stalking, spying through keyholes, secret passages, hidden laboratories, gorilla suits, disembodied death masks floating in the darkness - it's all manna. If you grew up at all in the 60s-70s then you remember too the ghosting of the UHF antenna signal (highly susceptible to cloud cover) when these movies showed on local TV Saturday afternoons; how a spooky old film was almost always, somewhere to be found out in the white noise wilderness, deep in those films that were deep in the white noise wilderness, Bela Lugosi waited like a UHF Kurtz, hamming it up in whatever role he got, be it a brooding vampire or just another enigmatic butler.

Back in the 70s, before the advent of VCR, one's ability to see old movies was tied to the whims of TV programmers and the the cloud systems of a fickle God. With only a circular antennae and rabbit ears to move around in vain, atop the set, every second of one of these films that was visible became a sacred text written on the snapchat wind. At any moment a cloud might pass and wipe out the signal, which had bounced in off a storm cloud from Wilmington Philadelphia or wherever, and leave you stranded, so you basked in the hoary atmosphere while you could, read your Famous Monsters of Filmland like a holy writ, imagining that, one day, you'd be able to watch the movies those photos were from right there on the page of the magazine, as if a screen could one day be as flat and light and book-sized.

Those days are a memory of course - thanks to iPads, that dark birthday wish come true ( I spent a recent jury duty in the waiting room watching Invisible Ghost, The Ghoul and The Black Raven on my Kindle) and when it's too pollen-saturated or soaking wet and freezing to go outside without sneezing like a machine gun, what can you do now but watch thy old dark house collection from the sanctity of your germ-free bubble, and remember how precious every signal-reception moment used to feel when it was all so ephemeral.

If you don't know what I mean by all that, yet you still love old dark house movies, then you know their narcotizing effect transcends mere pre-sci-fi nostalgia. Nothing makes you gladder to live in a small apartment than the thought of being expected to stay the night in a huge, mysterious, dark house that could be hiding a whole army of killers with ease. Nothing makes you feel dryer than a raging storm onscreen. Nothing makes you happier to be honest and poor than the sight of the murdered rich and evil. And if you're a Lugosi fan, then you know why.

*** / Amaon Prime Image - B

A long-unavailable old dark house swirl of a thriller melding in some pre-slasher movie signatures, the Bela Lugosi-starring NIGHT OF TERROR is violent pre-code melodrama that more than lives up to its lively reputation. Highlighted by an unusually lurid string of murders by a knife-wielding madman, who grins impishly from the bushes in and around a rolling, fog-enshrouded estate, then creeps in on his unsuspecting victims, stabbing them, then leaving his calling card - a headline of one of his killings - pinned to the back of each new body. From the opening scene of him crawling into a lover's lane convertible to stab a pair of necking lovers (top) it's clear this ain't your average 30s old dark house film, more like a 70s-80s slasher movie. Inside, a dotty scientist (George Meeker) plans to test his new 'suspended animation' death-duplicating drug by burying himself alive for two days--mixing Houdini and medical science together under the watchful eye of an eminently murderable board of directors. His fiancee (Sally Blaine) is too 'animus-dominated' to argue with her gullible dad (Tully Marshall) who encourages the marriage and bankrolls the experiments. She's so passive about it, she even tolerates social climbing reporter Wallace Ford's pushy come-ons. She'd probably get into a car with the killer too, if he had a bag of candy. She might even vote Republican.

The dad is, thankfully, murdered. Heirs gather for the reading of the will; the killer offs them by the dozen; Ford and the cops need to figure out if he's working for one of them (the will's split between heirs, so the fewer the inheritors the more $$) or if it's just a mad killer 'coincidence.' A no-good brother and his cash-hungry wife arrive out of nowhere and try to push everyone else out. The mysterious Hindu servant Degar (Lugosi) and his spirit medium-housekeeper wife (Mary Frey) are also in for a share, though the scheming brother and wife don't think belong in the will and plan to contest it - better hurry up, schemers!

Playing the very first of his long line of red herring butlers, Lugosi's role is pretty central to the action (he's more than just a comic relief macabre sidebar) and--considering what a lean year 1933 was for him (in the doghouse at Universal for refusing to do Frankenstein)--he seems glad to be working and manages some real malevolent around-the-corner stares through doorway cracks. Meanwhile the mad killer's body count rises and the black chauffeur (Oscar Smith) alone is smart enough to want to skedaddle. Naturally there's a mysterious climactic seance (always turn out all the lights in a big first floor open window and ajar door-filled room when a maniac who's already killed four people that night is still at large in the house) and a final act escape down a secret panel to a scary basement.

This rare Columbia B-movie gem was one I'd been looking for since forever - so when it recently surfaced online (I think it's on youtube) and on Prime after never being on VHS, DVD or shown on TV. That I'm actually not disappointed after all that expectation (35+ years of waiting) says a lot. What sets this apart from so many other old dark houses is the wild pace and the abundance of little macabre touches. Man, that lunatic really racks 'em up. I think he even makes it to double digits. I love the blackly comic way no one seems able to alter their schedules, beef up security, turn on some lights, or lock their doors even knowing the killer is right in the same block radius - it's the sort of suicidal eloi passivity--that immunity bubble--that causes so many car fatalities due to people's inability to stop texting.

In a very strange cool ending the killer threatens the audience with death upon divulging the trick ending. It's weird how often that must have happened at the time - because we see that same thing at the end of The Bat Whispers, and so many others. SPOILERS - believe it or not, underneath that weird make-up, the killer is gravel-voiced Edwin Maxwell (Dr. Emile Egelhoffer in His Girl Friday). 
(1933) Dir. Edward Marin
*** / Amazon Image: D

My favorite early 30s Sherlock Holmes (pre-Rathbone) films, this has a lot going for it, including Anna May Wong and plenty of Limehouse fog. Some purists decry Reginald Owen's Holmes as too bulky and slow (he played Watson opposite Collin Clive the year before)-- but he's more forceful and less dotty than, say, Arthur Wotner who played him--rather too self-satisfied and cozily in British films from the same period. Even Rathbone tended to play up Holmes' nervous coke-head feyness, gamboling down the London streets, Watson lagging along behind; here the energy is a bit reversed: Watson is bouncing off the terrarium walls while Holmes sits motionless like a gecko perched above a watchful cricket, and then--- zap! the cricket has disappeared in a slight blur of pink tongue. He's cool rather than fey.  This is Holmes with more than just a keen mind, he has gravitas. 

When, for example, his study of a crime scene leads him from the murdered man's desk out to the front yard, Watson and Lestrade stand there watching him on the sidelines as the scene plays out - they both seem resigned, reverent even - they're not doing the usual dimwitted jumping to conclusions, they aren't about to break his concentration.I like that he doesn't bother to explain all his 'elementary' observations to Watson like the first-grade show-off. When for example, Watson points out the resemblance of Thaddeus Merrydew's shoe size and cigar brand to those of the murderer they're hunting, Holmes just looks at him like a patient teacher guiding a student towards an already established insight: "Is that all you observed?" Holmes points out there were a hundred more details Watson missed, but then doesn't go into them. Still waters run deep with this Holmes and we come to appreciate the carefulness with which Owen keeps the water clear enough to see all the way into his character's purple depths but doesn't reveal the depths until it's time to strike. These give those gecko tongue movements that extra snap, like when he counters Merrydew's feigning of ignorance over the withholding of a widow's trust, with a simple smile: "it won't do" that chills the blood.

Another highlight is a local tavern out in the country, wherein a nice old Col. Blimp-style officer strolls in, buys a bottle, and beguiles the local carriage driver with tons of whiskey before hiring him for a trip out to a for-sale mansion. Owen is so thoroughly buried in his role that we're not quite sure which of the two men is Holmes or if either man is at all, we just enjoy the idea of being kind of hard up and having a friendly stranger come and bring over a whole bottle. We watch in awe as Holmes deftly avoids drinking his share while plying the driver, and how expertly he soon starts searching all over the mansion, locating secret panels, sending the maid out of the room after feigning a heart attack, and so forth. It's genius.

As in all the best Rathbone Holmes' (The Scarlet Claw in particular) there's a rich foggy night atmosphere especially in and outside the gang's Limehouse hideout, where many a chase, spy, shot and a skulking suspicious walk occurs. The always worthwhile Anna May Wong has a small but memorable part one of the inheritors of the bloody tontine (based on some sequestered jointly stolen jewels); secret passages, and some good tough talk showdowns make up the rest.  Holmes, Lestrade and a gang of detectives show up at the same county pub for a quick one to bolster the blood before trundling off through the moors for the big climax. Hail Britannia! We wouldn't see a 'quick stop at the local before the showdown' scene again until Straw Dogs! 

Alan Mowbray is Lestrade; Alan Dinehart the odious Merrydew; Warburton Gamble a stalwart Watson. It was filmed at Tiffany Studios, one of those forgotten independent outfits. Clearly a labor of love for Owen, he produced and co-wrote the script with Robert Florey. It doesn't have anything to do with original Conan Doyle novel of the same name, but that's because Owen had optioned the title only, not the actual story! To be honest, you'd never know it as he did a bang-up job whipping something together that feels proper and correct in its Holmes-ishness and as I say, and Owen makes (in my opinion at least) a vital, grounded Holmes and that British atmosphere is so thick you may be forgiven for presuming it came from Gaumont rather than a long-lost poverty row indie. 

(1932) Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone 
*** / Alpha Image - **

This 'campy mystery' was the first film ever broadcast over TV airwaves, back in 1933 (as per imbd). This is when it was still in theaters and there were only about six TVs in all of Los Angeles, but there it was - and that's a great way to imagine seeing it, since it's public domain and you're likely seeing it on Youtube or via some Alpha DVD (like the one I got). It's okay, these sorts of films play better when the terrible picture and staginess combine to almost give you a sense you're somehow not meant to see it at all- that the atmospheric conditions were good enough you picked up a strange channel from Illuminati-style crime organization from far away.  It's short but well-crafted, crammed with more passageways, undercover sneaking, skeletons, red herring, trap doors, backyard crypts, and enigmatic stares than old dark house films twice its length or age. Even the comic relief isn't as bad as usual (I'll take James Gleeson's "oh a wise guy, eh?" traffic cop grimacing over Wallace Ford's pushy blarney any day).

The story centers around 'Melody Manner', a great creepy split-level haunted-ish mansion squatted in by a rogues gallery of kooks, squatters, mysterious violin sounds (gh-gh-gh-ghosts!), and killers hang out amidst its labyrinth of secret passageways, spooky attics, and backyard graveyards with coffin chutes down to basement trap doors. There are some genius touches of the sort I haven't seen until the more recent Good Time (like a burglar forcing the homeowner he's holding at gunpoint to change clothes with him, before the cops arrive) and at its evil center, an occult society of masked criminals who  draw cards to see who does each murder "in a manner already prescribed" in a way reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Suicide Club," (1)  Consisting of several men and one woman, they meet wearing black hoods to conceal their identities from each other, and end each meeting with a secret chant, "the traitors to the knife and the knife to the hilt!" H. Bruce Humberstone, the man behind all the best Charlie Chan movies, directed it, which may explain why it pops so effectively.

The Secret Circle don't show up much once the ball is in play (or do they?), we spend a lot of time with their opposing numbers, 'the Crime Club' a band of amateur criminologists who tackle complex crimes for sport. (Never mind the class barrier reinforcement inherent in that arrangement, good sir). Irene Purcell--those bare alabaster Norma Shearer-esque arms as lovely as ever--is the heroine. The eminently forgettable Ben Lyon is her nominal fiancee. Stealing the movie with some elegant 'against-type' aplomb is C. Henry Gordon in a rare good guy turn, sporting a turban as the enigmatic foreign detective Yoganda; as a drinky crow-esque crime clubber, Roscoe Karns nibbles on whatever comedy relief isn't chewed down to the nub by mugging Zasu Pitts as a terrified gal Friday and James Gleeson's rattled traffic cop; Robert Frazer, Christian Rub, and Spencer Charters are various spooky eccentric flittering in and out of frame to menace Purceli. Before you know it, the Crooked Circle are being unmasked and getting set for the final escape, but hey - do what I do and just press 'play from beginning' at the first sign of credits, because I guarantee you didn't remember a goddamned wonderful word of it!

(1929) Dir. Todd Browning
**1/4 / (TCM image - ***)

Often remade, to no real effect, this is one of those bunco squad seance exposes, that was first--as with so many old dark house vehicles-- a barnstorming stage melodrama. A medium hired for a party amongst British diplomats and swanky ex-pats in India, Madame LaGrange (with her spirit familiar, "Laughing Eyes") demonstrates the secrets all sorts of bizarre seance tricks, like spirit raps and table raising, demystifying the art and bumming everyone out in the service of finding out who killed a friend at a party the previous year. Summoned on the anniversary of the friend's death, Margaret Wycherly cranks up her slow-talking sentimental schtick to the hilt (she played Sgt. York's mom, if the name doesn't ring a bell) while making a half-hearted attempt to access real magic for the climax, making MGM seems less to blame for their veto on fantasy (i.e. the end of Mark of the Vampire - the silent era's fear the public won't 'buy' supernatural explanations) and putting the blame squarely on hardened carnies like director Todd Browning, whose eagerness to expose the seamy underbelly of the seance racket seems mean-spirited (maybe he did it to impress Houdini -dead only three years at the time - or was he?). Until Dracula two years later, Browning shied away from straight-up fantasy thinking the public preferred his sentimental Chaney 'deformed sideshow contortionist loves circus waif' masochism vehicles. So in this case, the old dark moody billing is a cheat as the medium's calling on her fake familiar for real help seems quite absurd and eventually her dated sentimental schtick plus the elaborate disclaimers combine to kind of swamp the picture.

Ah well, you can always fall in love with Leila Hyams in her seductively diaphanous art nouveau Adrian gown, the jagged ruffles of her flapper-y skirt alone are as unforgettable in their way as the windows on the abandoned house in Deep Red. You don't blame mopey Conrad Nagel for mooning over her (though eventually you will want to slap him). The Calcutta setting lets art director Cedric Gibbons enhance the tony parlors with luxurious exotica trimmings and Bela Lugosi is great as the local Indian police inspector, masterfully using his aristocratic bearing to boss around the snotty British, and the big surprise climax is not without its spooky charm.

Nonetheless... as with other mysteries from the period that get too hung up on their big 'twists' (like Secret of the Blue Room), once you know the ending it all seems so hopelessly contrived, and oh man does Wycherly's schtick stick in the craw. It's clear Browning is as taken with her as Hitchcock was with Lila Kedrove in Torn Curtain, or Anderson with Peter Ustinov in Logan's Run. Browning should know: you can't just let old character actors run away with a scene, because they will, and it will be all viewers remember, and we'll never want see it again, anymore than we want to go to the old lady's home and visit granny. She's a swell old girl, but... just the thought kind of gives us a claustrophobic, buried-alive feeling.

On the other hand, twenty years later Wycherly would turn her saintly homespun mom schtick on its head as Cagney's terrifying mother in White Heat, and don't say 1929 mysteries don't age well, because there's one old dark house movie from 1929 with all the same ingredients as this, and it rocks, and it's up next on the hit parade:
(1929) Dir. Lionel Barrymore
**** / unavailable 

This MGM old dark house thriller gets a bad rap for being--like most early sound films--awash in crackles, hisses, stiff acting, and literal and figurative static. That's all actually plusses for an old dark house fan, for it gives the impression the air of the early sound era was something we could hear and see, like a special alternate form of liquid perfect for late night/early morning dipping. And The Unholy Night may offer the coziest example: everything seems to be taking place underwater seen through some magical submarine window of--in this case--thick London fog.  Under its protective anonymity a killer is strangling unwary ex-British military officers. They're dropping like flies in a wild opening montage. Lord Montague (Roland Young) is nearly strangled too, but he manages to get rescued and at Scotland Yard proceeds to start pouring the whiskey and sodas to steady his nerves, and doesn't stop 'til the whole mystery's wrapped up (announcing each new glass is "my first, today"). Turns out he and the dead men all served together in the Great War in the same regiment so Scotland Yard suggests they round them up at Montague's mansion and thus protect them and get to the bottom of things. What with all the drinking and WWI existentialist undercurrents you can bet it was written by Ben Hecht, and should have been directed by Howard Hawks, but Lionel Barrymore (for some reason) does a decent job at the helm, and there are so many creepy seances, ghosts, mass murder tableaux, walking corpses, and army buddies singing drinking songs that it becomes the perfect film to watch as the sun comes up after a wild night of revels.

The cast is rich with strange faces: Montague's sister (Natalie Moorhead) keeps a coterie of revelers and goes in for seances in a big way, and seems a harmless enough pastime to her doctor fiancee (Ernest Torrance) but is it? Hardworking character actor George Cooper is Montague's loyal servant from the war - he's sure happy to see the regiment back together for a weekend, and knows just what drinks to serve and when to bring another round (immediately); Boris Karloff is a foreign lawyer with shady motives; Polly Moran is kept on a short leash as the maid (she can really ham it up... if... if encouraged); a disgraced (and disfigured) Major from their old regiment (they drummed the bounder out for cheating at chards) is the main suspect, til he turns up dead in the parlor. Someone give Lord Montague a whiskey and soda (his first today!)!

Things really shift into high gear with the dramatic arrival of Lady Eftra (Dorothy Sebastian -above, center). She might be in town with an agenda against the regiment for the usual racial prejudice biases, or it has something to do with the late major's will or the prejudices facing children of mixed-race British officer marriages, even those of noble caste/estate, driving them to all sorts of byzantine revenge plots (their British side rebelling against the treatment of their eastern side - ala Thirteen Women, another personal favorite). Either way, she may be insane but she sure is lovely.

Yeah, I love this movie to death. I've only seen it a few dozen times but always late at night, drunk, or sick, all the better to not sully the next experience. (It is key, really, to enjoying these old murder mysteries over and over again- make sure you forget who the killer is as soon as it's over). I do recall that the men are all stepping over themselves to be the last man mooning over her at her bedroom door, which considering her possible yen for killing them doesn't seem at all wise. And I remember  Karloff's weird mix of abashed lovelorn discomfort and silken sinister motives but not exactly where he fits in to anything. My favorite moment--the one I remember most--occurs earlier, when Lord Montague, leading Scotland Yard into his mansion, opens the parlor door to see if his sister home, and finds the lights out and his sister and a gang of folks mid-seance. It's total darkness while the disembodied head of SĂ´jin Kamiyama whirls around the room, chanting in a hideous deep voice! Oops! Montague closes the door - as if he caught her in a compromising position. As a viewer it's such a great WTF moment it stays in the unconscious like an eclipse stays on the retina. Well, detective. Montague is apparently occupied at the moment. Let's to the study and have another round, gentlemen, and another regimental drinking song if you please. Our first today!

PS - Good luck finding it!  TCM occasionally shows it - usually very late at night. Demand they make a DVD, maybe part of a pre-code old dark house 5 movie DVR set? Suggest they add Murder by the ClockNight of Terror, Supernatural, and a decent print of Crooked Circle!

See also:

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Flower People Screaming: DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)

Richard Burton's semi-forgotten directorial debut (and swan song), DOCTOR FAUSTUS came out in swingin' 1967 and it's too bad it didn't know there was a whole summer of love going on around it, because, thanks to all its Satanic, illuminati, 'interiority-hallucination' and horror film iconography, it's plenty psychedelic. An adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan play, made by Burton to raise funds for his alma mater, the Oxford Dramatic Society (and cast with pretty boys from thar), it's got issues with trying to be respectful Art in its retelling of the classic devil's bargain myth, but like a bunch of twitchy-legged hippy undergrads waiting for class to end, it's got a sensationalist, existential, trippy drug fantasia waiting for it down at the pub. Oh but the trepidation of taking one's first big lysergic weekend step into the Summer of Love. Mods and rockers giving way to Carnaby dandies, Blow-Out winning hearts and minds. Shit was in the wind, troop! And like Roger Corman in the US, Burton the director was realizing how how easily the already-available props and sets from the recent glut of Gothic horror films could carry over as hallucinational markers through the Jungian birth/rebirth Hell-initiation / the 'relax and float downstream to nirvana, or the thousand rending talons of self-centered fear will shred your psyche to ribbons' cornfields of the mind.

Though shot in Italy and England using creative crews from both, bringing deep colored gel flavors of Mario Bava and slinky psychedelic and horror scores of the giallo (thanks to Mario Nascimbene), it nonetheless as a very strong AIP Corman Poe flavor, and would make a great double feature with Corman's very California The Trip (from the same year, 1967 - above) and Corman's earlier, yet still highly-psychedelic horror films Masque of the Red Death (1964) and X-The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963). Which since I've written about all three as part of the justly-celebrated Acid's Greatest series, you know that means Doctor Faustus has things to say about the steep price paid for following the 'poison path' to enlightenment, disregarding the warning label on Medusa's chintzy veil. Be it the black arts or forbidden scientific experimentation in the form of eye drops or pills, the result in the Corman canon--and so here with Burton's Faustus--are approximately the same -power, kaleidoscopic images of painted women writhing in delight, lenses smeared on all sides by vaseline for trippy distortions, time lapse dissolves, crypts, dungeons, caves, cobwebbed skulls, sudden strange juxtapositional overlap dissolves, and copious occult symbolism.

The Trip
In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, comes the terrible price of enlightenment, one way or another. Even in the case of The Trip there are the disclaimer in the beginning and 'cracked glass' ending, both forced on the film by the nervous producers who wanted to make sure the psychedelic experience was portrayed, ultimately, as causing calamitous long-term brain damage lest the film be seen as green light to a curious nation. In Faustus, however it's more bleak and final - the voyage to Hell being one of eternal DTs, represented by an evil Liz Taylor in green body paint, her hair a bed of snakes, laughing evilly.

"Heyyy, Swamp! Hey Swampyyy!"
It's ironic that--as the star/director and the director's wife/muse and the muse of Faustus in the film, Burton and Taylor--then married and still tabloid gold-are the weakest parts of the film. Like many towering drunk titans of the stage and screen, each could rely on a bag of tricks to mask their various hangover and bloated periods. Burton, especially, as he'd later prove in nearly every role he took, uses tortured booming depth of voice and harrowed stare of beady eye into the ether just past the camera to masking his doleful hangover and likely existential longing for four PM cocktail hour (1).

Burton was coming off his two best films with Taylor, both of which endure today as classics of battle-of-the-sexes fury--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Taming of the Shrew--when he took on Faustus. And it's clear right away what the problem is. Burton needs a playmate of equal stature or he loses his energetic madness X-factor. He needs to plays off Liz's energy, making full use of their Pisces-Scorpio dynamic. BUT, as her character in Doctor Faustus never speaks, or appears as anything but a Ligeia/Rebecca-style anima (with an initially haunting but eventually tiresome Yma Sumac-ish leitmotif following her around like a herald), she is simply not right for the part. She is too tremendous. She overflows the boundaries of a mute object role/phantom role. It's like casting Jimmy Stewart as Edward Cullen in Twilight  or Meryl Streep as Syl in Species. When Faustus beholds her beauty and asks "is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" you feel like he can't help but know the answer. The ships are launched long ago. If you loved the brawling Liz in Shrew and Woolf, and were hoping for more of the same, you too might be inevitably weirded out to see that same sexy old broad posited as the ultimate silent object-d'art beauty, especially when standing before an array of young, sexy British models, all bravely clad in nothing but the glow from hellfire. Is Liz poised and glamorous and stunning? yes, but she's not the girl who launched a thousand ships any more, and she's not any straight man's libidinal fantasy, not the way, say, this tableaux is (below).

Every hetero male in the world knows this scene - the odalisques lounging at the intersection of fantasy and nightmare. They're always there, judging all we see and do with scathing insolence - their silence speaks volumes to our frenzied bloodstream.  Liz's silence speaks only to our vague 'put Tracy Lords on a pedestal' sense of post-madonna worship.

Another particular problem: the mythic-reference-choked language of the text, recited by Burton with great oratory declarations unto heaven that in the end resonate far less cosmically than, for example smaller gestures made in Shrew and Woof. Director Nichols and Zeffirelli, know that true mythic grandeur comes from small gestures not big ones. When Burton shouts or pleads to the heavens in Faustus we're left bored, not enthralled. It's one of the great ironies of poetry and theater: when Burton is playing a drunken middle aged history professor verbally sparring with his bullying wife, he's as large as the cosmos; when he's playing someone large as the cosmos, he's as dry as a middle-aged history professor. When he kisses her as Helen and talks about her kiss sending his soul flying around the room, it's hard not to roll your eyes and think of that old adage of acting class, "you're telling not showing us; you need to make us believe it." He should have used method, and pretended he was saying that to a bottle of Scotch and an ice bucket. We'd be able to feel that passion in our toe tips! At least I know I would. Burton comes alive!

"the fruits of lunacy"
By contrast, consider how how both Welles in his self-directed Macbeth and Olivier in his self-directed Hamlet (both 1948) give you the impression they love every minute of their character's tortured guilt and suffering. No matter what dour calamity their characters wallow in, they revel in the poetry and mythic undertones, capturing the essence of art in small perfect little gestures. When Burton can't even revel during Faustus' moments of revelry, one must wonder if the demands of directing and marriage and paparazzi-ducking--and staying sober long enough each day to do most of each before the day's shooting stopped-- tanked his energy, and so he let his brown-nosing reverence for 'the classics' undo his natural crazy Wagnerian oomph. A 'mustn't spook the dean of letters' kind of respectfulness takes over, whereas confident, vibrant auteurs like Welles would heedlessly go for a more reckless 'give the dean a heart attack' approach that, paradoxically, would be more faithful to the material at hand. If you're going to have a respectful staid depiction of a prankster thumbing his nose at staid respectful depictions, then you become the very thing you're against, and that kind of feedback squall is so exhausting it may takes years of painless deconstructive art history to recover any semblance of wit therefrom.

Any similarity to packing a massive gravity is presumably unintentional
As a result, the play's dense intertextually-lined language unpacks rather flatly, especially since there is --essentially-- so little at stake. This is after all the tale of an old (too old to have just graduated), seemingly rich unemployed college kid doing tons of drugs up in his study / man cave and getting periodic visits only from his drug dealer or his students looking to get high. Alone in his room, getting lost in phantom anima dream imagery when he takes too much, or suffering insane tortures when he takes too little, we may relate, but we never understand why he's so keen to worship Lucifer and denounce god, or why we should sympathize with his bratty deal welshing and second guess antipathy. If you've 'been there' you can relate when his occasional visitors find him on the floor, staring at some unseen phantom, or writhing in the grip of some frothy madness, clothes and brain in a state of disarray, barely aware his friends are here. But as Bill Lee says to his visiting buddies in similar circumstances (Naked Lunch) "the Zone takes care of its own."

Lucky for us then that, though Burton the actor seems to be suffering from boozy stress, Burton the director is able to use that same boozy stress as a subtext for a richly familiar and welcome streak of Gothic horror and illuminati in-jokes, showing he learned some important things from his drinking buddy Tennessee Williams and has a secret love of horror. The popping rich tapestry of colors--lots of dusky deep ochres, blues, purples, cherry reds- glow as if Mario Bava himself were doing the gel lighting, giving many scenes, such as the graveyard a highly evocative atmospheric quality reminiscent of Black Sabbath, or what one might see on an Aurora monster model box, horror board game, or Key comic book.  (Presumably standing) anachronistic/period sets and costumes evokes various surrealistic historical tableaux (the Garden of Earthly Delights, the Vatican, a king's reception hall, a crypt) as well as the various movies and genres they evoke, creating a sense of stripping away of time's linearity, allowing a stage-like but very psychedelic scene changing (there's similar bits of Gothic horror call-back in Head, and Psych-Out as well as The Trip). Copious tripped-out occult magic (nice use of made of a haunted mirror), cobwebs, skeletons, candles, alchemical test tubes and conjuring crucibles, volumes of forgotten lore, and astral charts-bedeck the torture chamber-cum-Illuminati arcane alchemist sanctuary that will be home base for Faustus' solitary drug experiments. Boldly then treads our Faustus, going where one might hallucinate yearning naked women inside the flames of a candle or the eye of a skull, or fall victim to the kaleidoscope effects and blurred edges, time laps flowers and occult symbolism, to see the effects of time and age upon desire's ripe fruit. 

Like its contemporaries in the Elizabethan dream theater era, Faustus gambols freely amidst the arcane iconography of spirits and demons that would previously (or concurrently in Spain) be charge enough for heresy. As it is, thanks to the rise of sane Protestantism, even making fun of the pope is not frowned upon, so long as the knave who dares winds up trapped in the arms of burning hell by drama's close. Thus Burton's Faustus makes fart noises behind the rows of bishops, and pelts the pope with a fancy cake, finally flogging a bunch of empty robes in a moment that seems straight out of Jodorowsky, while the psychedelic college kid experimentation aspect continues with the slow downward slide from seeking truths past the known to just getting lit. The ultimate in devil's bargains: staying drunk enough that you forget the terror that awaits you at the end of this decade-spanning spree - the terror of the cold turkey addict tied to a bed table in a hospital, screaming his guts out like Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Top: Hopper schools in TRIP; FAUSTUS
In the beginning of Faustus we find Burton as an aging scholar in round owlish glasses and long gray hair -freshly graduated, advised by one of his druggie friends to "sound the depths of that they would profess."- In other words, don't just say no to drugs, try them first! Condemnation prior to experimentation is not wisdom, but its own sort of vice.

Faustus, Valdez Cornelius freakin' over a full decanter of the good shit - shhhh - don't let the RA hear
Later, alone in his study, not quite sure which field to expend his academic energies next, Faustus is buffeted by ego and curiosity up against the fences of the known.  "To live and die in Aristotle," seems wise and--to him--oddly sexy, or to study medicine but--as he notes, "the end of physic our body's health." From what new field shall his alchemist's brain next turn? Why not to the occult, with his friends Valdez (Ram Chopra) and Cornelius (Robert Carawadine) as sketchy a pair of Satanic drug dealers as one is likely to find, but alas--his closest things to contemporaries. They regale him with tales of all that my be granted a man who summons demons, via footage reflected from mirrors and soon the three trundle off with their summoning gear to the graveyard to raise hanged sinners and summon devils.

But to explore the black arts is blasphemy, Faustus! Turn to the church and repent. This finding parallel in the case of The Trip with all the disclaimers forced on the film by the nervous producers who wanted to make sure the psychedelic experience was portrayed, ultimately, as causing calamitous long-term brain damage. In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, comes the terrible price of enlightenment, one way or another. (And as anyone 'called' to try these things, even your hardcore hippy friends may warn you off, 'you'll damage your chromosomes, Faustus!") In Faustus, however it's more bleak and final - while in bad trip country it only 'feels' that way and one--if they're smart--knows eventually after timeless aeons of distress, everything will wear off. On some level, as many a scholar has noted, the only difference between a schizophrenic and an LSD user is that the latter knows he's just 'visiting' the mystical realms beyond space/time via medication and he's actually safely rooted in linear reality, while the schizophrenic knows he is just 'visiting' reality via medication and is actually in the void, like a phantom signal forever caught between neighboring TV channels. But whither Faustus? Which reality will be his final resting place?

But it all starts innocent, if sin can be so called. The three head to the graveyard like a trio of errant hippie sophomore knaves shrooming behind Sadler in Syracuse University, circa 1986, finding all sorts of universal truths and froth-at-the-mouth delights there (big rolling graveyards being the perfect place in which to trip, both emblematic of the experience you're on as far as death/rebirth awareness, and the way egoic fear keeps the lightweights away). These pleasures, indeed, are the first reward of daring, to buffet manly against the current and enjoy the rarefied air above the superstitious public's boorish din.

No sooner has Faustus found his spot for conjuring though, then he bids his friends depart him so he may work alone. They're never seen again and indeed one wonders about his social skills, for here is a man not literally cut off from the society around him the way, say, Prospero is in The Tempest, and yet he prefers only the company of his own unconscious projections, vis-a-vis the devil, and his anima.

Would, in hindsight, Valdez and Cornelius return, for Burton came to life in their presence; he played well against their relish in demonic control and would have perhaps ably benefitted from their energy (like the bulk of the cast, they're students and teachers from the Dramatic Society and Burton often flickers to life in their company- too often to turn dour again when sidelined through lengthy solo dark rants that we know in but a second he will deny having said. He chides Mephistpholis' sadness over his failing soul, urging him to take a lesson from his resolute bravery and "scorn those joys thou never shalt possess." While a dissolve later he's letting a statue of St. Sebastian urge him turn to God, then to let a skull on the desk encourage him back to Lucifer. All he needs is a hard push one way or the other and he not just hesitates but thoroughly changes his mind. He's wishy-washy!

it's hard to get involved in the plight of a man so unmotivated in his flight to Lucifer that its very reason defies credibility. He's a dude burning out his brain for pure onanistic thrill-seeking"magic" and only realizing it's not some dumb heavy metal pastime when it's too late to back down. He assures Valdez and Cornelius he won't back out, he says, "magic enravishes me!" but we're never really sure what his end game is beyond pleasure and sport, to revel in the folly of others. The presence of these two enablers might have made it clearer (peer pressure) but without them, it's hard to fathom why he sticks to it. Whatever he once sought to know, being known, he'd rather forget fast, so turns to drink - which makes days flow faster especially with a devilish enabler servant at your side to make sure you never wake up without a stiff drink at your bedside.

"Glad tidings from great Lucifer"
Drunk writers and artists who sequester themselves for long periods of micro-tripping in service of their art can--with proper blocking--drift into just the drinking part quite seamlessly, as Faustus does here. But as he's not a writer or artist why we should care? Beyond the realization that all pleasure is fleeting and he shouldn't have signed the contract, there's not much he learns.

Reveling by proxy too proves a challenge. Whether flatly chanting along with the bell, book-and-candle monks who try to exorcise his spirit or belligerently chanting "he wants his money!" to an aggrieved bartender, we're not amused or thrilled (like we were in Woolf or Shrew) but rather embarrassed by this base schadenfreude and tone deaf infantile prankishness. Here is a man who freely takes more than would befit a man, then tries to weasel out of paying - drinking vainly against the passing of time (his ever-present hourglass) ticking down to his Hell journey. He's a 'bad' drunk!


In his groovy man cave, doth Faustus have the alchemical tools to astral travel the world over and have his heart's desire granted time and again, the only caveat being it brings him no real joy, since there's no strife or earning of the goal, there's none but the shadow of gratification. And as anyone who suffers from depression knows, getting all you want in life might make you more miserable than just wanting, which at least gives you the hope you will be happy once said desire is attained. To attain it and still be unhappy is to be faced with the reality of a no-escape misery, a room without an exit. The gorgeous women you coveted as a geek in high school clamor all over you now that you're in a band, but their affection creeps you out, as it's so counter to what you expected in a girlfriend, this skeevy slutty availability compiling upon you, and the terror of sexual merging with someone who you barely know. For Faustus, his wish for 'a wife' is ridiculed by the devil with an open flower of beautiful women who turn into men or aged crones on contact. This is the Sidpa bardo in Buddhism at play (ala the woman in room 237). Women never stay lovely, and so outside of space/time, beyond the illusion of permanence, sexual allure beckons like a sticky web of flame that evaporates on contact but leaves you just as stuck. Beauty and youth fade faster than the speed of light, leaving us only with withered crones where once were massive babes.

It's in this aspect, the terrors of the DTs, where Burton brings his alcoholic and priapic issues into the subtext: the realization that, when given a chance to be endlessly indulged, the ego flattery resultant from sexual magnetism--being irresistible to women--is an addiction as destructive as alcohol or cocaine and brings with it no joy. And the desire to possess beauty is one of foolish vanity --that not even the most gorgeous of souls possess beauty for long - it's power is in its ephemeral nature. You can argue that movie stars are the exception - Marilyn still looks alluring in Niagara, but imagine you wished you could share a bed with her, and then wake up trapped in her coffin with her rotting corpse for all eternity!

That's what the DTs are like, vs. watching the movie over and over in a state of benumbed boozy grace. You don't get to actually sleep with Marilyn, but isn't watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for a hundred straight times (even with Elliot Reid in it) better than even a single night with the actual Marilyn in her actual current underground boudoir? Movies and distractions then are to the ego what the ego is to the soul, the distraction from the terror of eternity. The lungs, understanding at last their slavery to the body, the awful duty they have, almost collapse from the weary shock. Luckily, the quickly forget again. If they stayed aware, they wouldn't last a single week. No drunk can imagine never drinking again, it's too awful to contemplate. But one day at a time, we can not drink just for
today. Sure, it's a trick to make the abstinence endurable, but is booze's trick any less devious?

Supposedly immortal in itself, a soul is paradoxically threatened when the ephemeral nature of all things is revealed. The space-time order allows the comfort of the ephemeral, allows us to dwell under the protective illusion of permanence. That all things die, that life is rounded with a sleep, wounds heal, flowers wither, traumas are buried in the repressed unconscious, seasons change, nights and days alternate ---these are comforts that deliver us from the terror of continuity. Hell, then, as realized by Marlowe's Faustus, is the waking up from this illusion of impermanence so that the terrifying eternity of existence is revealed and is inescapable. This is trial of the cave crypt hallucination in The Trip, ("I don't want to die, man"), the 'bad trip' every tripper sooner or later must endure, the wave that suck us under for an eternal night, the giant eye at the center of the universe gazing pitilessly through our X-Ray Eyes. This is Hell as inescapable awareness of, as Mephistophilis puts it, "all that isn't heaven", the great flaming void that is left "when all else dissolves."

"The depths of all that thy would profess" i.e. all therein that may be explored
As Faustus will soon learn, the double-edged gift of heaven is the gift of illusion and forgetfulness. It's a mechanism easily frozen into place when we avoid danger for too long. Our way our brain is hard-wired to veil the ever-looming specter of our inevitable death, but to function in its correct aperture (as a veil rather than a window), this veil needs death near enough to cover successfully. If we death moves too far away from our vision, the veil covers everything and anything it can. Soon we can't appreciate life due to this veil creating a thin filmy wall between us and the world. As writers and artists this results in a block and we need to regularly descend to the limits of sanity and traverse beyond, just to feel the appreciation for life's impermanence, for the veil to find something its actually supposed to cover, freeing us to see around its corners at last.

The further paradox is that Hell is a level beyond, the eternity of just the veil, the terror of eternity that makes us long for the illusion of impermanence. When faced with extinction, life at last becomes unbearably precious -- so that each miserable second is clung to like one clutches a piece of floating bed frame in the midst of a tidal flood current. Yet, as he clings, Faust has no love of the life he's led, only fear for what is to come. Not knowing that his fear of eternity is already hell, he indulges full force. These are the types of lightweights you need to avoid when culling a 'set and setting' for your 'voyages' - as they're invariably the ones who can't shake their ego's sticky grip, and foolishly believe all the fear mongering it spreads to keep itself in power. Knowing how to ignore ego's panicky horse-in-the-stall bucking is one of they key skills for successful inter-astral navigation. When God is your co-pilot, you don't need yourself even in the plane.


Early in their meeting, Faustus asks Mephistophilis where Hell is and why he's not there. "Why, this is Hell," notes Mephistophilis. "Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven am not tormented with ten thousand Hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?" 

Such a junky thing to say, bro. If you're living as--or have ever lived--as a drug addict or alcoholic, or known the bliss of a 'perfect' peak ecstasy experience, you may have tried unsuccessfully to recapture that high for years, eventually realizing you can never return to it. That is its own kind of Hell. The only thing that saved me from it was Lacan, and then SSRI meds. Since my relapse last Feb, I now get that same magnetic tug from the sight of all the IPA beers, the various small batch brews in the grocery store, none of which existed in 1998, when I stopped. It was worth it to relapse just to sample those delicious brands. Except now when I pass them on display my heart breaks, my mouth waters, and the yearning increases exponentially the longer I linger. 

If any of that sounds familiar, maybe you too might find a special love for Burton's Faustus or if not love, at least unnerved understanding. For to be in the throes of a serious addiction is to know the joys of hell and heaven are as a coin ever flipping, and one may become the other just through the other's absence, and so sooner or later heaven always flips back to hell. Hell is the constant. It's a question of numbers, of days, of time. For every day the horrible shakes/convulsions/DTs of detox are staved off, the worse they will be when it finally gets to that key moment of waking up completely out of alcohol, and unable to get to the store or bar to get some more, due to being totally messed up from the night before. But until then, there's that moment in the morning (if you don't have to go to work) where you decide to try and wait until 4 PM cocktail hour, and after about a half hour your hands are shaking and your vision is getting weak and your heart feels as if will explode. Hell gradually comes into focus. You relent and crack open that first delicious IPA, and within minutes, Heaven appears instead. The only place, it seems, you can't exist, is anywhere between those two extremes. Mephisto's version of hell ("everywhere that isn't heaven") is almost identical with the advanced stage alcoholic or addict, whose heaven is mere absence of Hell (withdrawal), i.e. just not being in the agony of hell is heaven.

By contrast what delight then, to up the ante still further, for heaven may yet become euphoric than just not-hell, with the one caveat that any new plateau of ecstasy may become the new baseline, so that anything less than that same euphoria becomes the next Hell. Eventually Hell is anywhere that isn't euphoria and euphoria is just breaking even.

The irony of Faustus's deal with the devil--which holds true to for any addict's postponement of withdrawal--is that the decades of decadence he gets (24 years, as in hours of the day) are all elapsed by the end of the film-- they flit by. If there is any enjoying to be had, we don't really get the impression Burton's Faustus has done so, for his heaven is in this case wasted worrying about Hell. That's the terrible bargain, the sacrifice of memory: most of a drunk's happy time is either not remembered due to black-outs or slept through. A drunk can tell if he had fun the night before only by how messed up his apartment is the next time he wakes up. It could take hours for him to figure out how long he's been asleep, what day it is, or what AM or PM on the clock means. Time is 'missing' in the good parts and slows to eternity in the bad. Sandwiched between black-outs, benders, waking up in strange positions on strange floors, and suffering all the tortures of being departed from on-highness.

For a would-be escapee into booze's warm clutches, how unappealing Faustus' tavern-carousing, ugly life suddenly looks. Burton, an actual drunk, seems just mean and juvenile rather than the monstrous wit he was in Woolf. Burton the director spares us nothing of the scene's wild guffawing Breugel-esque peasant squalor --yet it's strangely beautiful too, as in the way the walls are painted to resemble both cracks, dirt and trees. Isn't that what it's all about, man, finding the trees in the bar wall filth rather than the other way around?

"Sweet pleasure conquers deep despair," counsels the demonic voices that guide Faustus towards his decades on a spree. Ah but the fine print, Faustus: the longer thy just measure of despair stays conquered by sweet pleasure, the deeper the accrual of its depth, the compounding interest on the loan against future joy, and the weaker the sweetness. Finally, the sweetness has grown too stale to conquer anything. The despair's is now so deep that water line has risen to the ceiling. Thou art thus asphyxiated by woe, Faustus, swallowed up into Hell eternal, all for postponing your deep despair, whose fair judgement and scathing portion - felt in full at the time of payment, might have done more for your artistic vision than all the demonic libations in all of 1967 Berkley.

The Adulation of Future Masses:

Sooner or later if we keep drinking, we die; sooner or later if we keep writing we live forever. The caveat: we're not there to enjoy whatever benefits that immortality may bring. We make a deal with the fates -we get to keep our souls by agreeing to labor in obscurity now, for the promise that 20 years after our death we'll be revered as geniuses. We won't feel the lionizing because we'll be dead, but the idea it's coming is enough to keep us working. Lost in the process of creation, our whole life flits by in a painless brush.

Drinking on the other hand, brings us the adulation of the future masses in advance - hence it's a kind of reverse direction time line of reward from writing, tapping into an ego gratification time machine. Whatever Akashic record crystal teraflop transfiguring time/space device they're accessing to read your work in the future and send payment of their love back through the past, it's as tactile and sweet in our third eye's ear as god's own indulgent applause.

One thinks too of this time travel authorship with writer Jack Torrance saying "I'd sell my soul for a drink," and thus summoning Lloyd. And while he lives forever via his life's work, it's not that repetitive work about being a dull boy, but the real life murder of a black cook and an epic fail of the mission to kill his wife and child - so there you go.

The devil's bargain - Jack would sell his soul for a drink, as if that wasn't the price to begin with, it's like going to the cashier of the liquor store with a $20 bottle of bourbon and announcing "I'd pay twenty dollars for this!"

And beyond all that is the feeling of control that only surrendering control can bring. To have the ability to postpone the anguish of hell and prolong the joy of heaven available to you is surely worth any price even if that price is that sooner or later, you use up your heaven and can no longer avoid hell's ever-increasing tab. It is due.

"Hell hath no limits"

A special high point is saved for that final act: Faustus' time running out and being swallowed up by Hell is done very very well - with the trap door opening and hands pulling him below to the depths; the whole production, set backdrops, actors and all, kind of wheel backwards and outwards, as if hell was there the whole time, flames flickering at the clapboard walls, the whole decadent spree of Burton's just an elaborate stage show, now the real erupting from reality's cracks the way the void does on intense DMT or Salvia highs. Burton's Faustus--surrounded by red/orange glowing embers and a fully green demonic Taylor--is sort of twirled in a bad ballet slow mo spin deep inside a kinky Rube Goldberg-meets-Brueghel on the Corman Poe set Hell. Faustus yelling and pleading, demonic figures writing in overlapping images, reds and oranges contrast and finally, Liz Taylor as Medusa, in greed demonic body paint, comes alive - her mouth frozen in a Norma Desmond grimace -- at last her stoic silent treatment and obedient kissing and many guises makes sense. She finally roars to life with a macabre flaring of the eyes that's thrilling for all its absence hithero. Here is the green absinthe fairy showing her true size and shape. The beguiling voice that--for example, lured me last year around this time into buying a 15 pack of 'All Day IPA' at the grocery store (how it would whisper to me on my walk home from work, "what a great thing it would be to have that around, have one or two once in awhile") and the way that same voice laughed and sneered a month later when I was shaking and convulsing on the floor from alcohol withdrawal.

In her fathomless patience and malevolence, that demonic anima gets us all, sooner or later. And Taylor who seemed so frozen in this burlesque of statuesque refinement in her earlier Helenic incarnations now, finally, really lets loose. Look at her eyes in the above hell shot! Now that's amore! In her eyes I see shades of Madeline Usher or Morella, or those other ghostly/mad women in Corman's Poe films, who go out, laughing and throttling her husband while flames consume them.

In the end, it's Burton the actor perhaps who must hamstrings Burton the director for here, for I can't help but wonder how much more energetic this would all be with a less wearily portentous Faustus, someone who could inject some camp vitality, like Vincent Price, as Burton the director has  welcomely camp macabre eye, with an admirable sense of pacing and with his ability to tap into the then-burgeoning psychedelic drug 1967 culture in a way that's mythic more than flashy.  If Burton the director/star couldn't quite make something on the level of Welles or Olivier, that doesn't detract from the rich Halloween horror festival vibe; on a poetic dream theater level he almost captures the same fairy tale energy of another actor's one-off sojourn, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter.  And if their acting isn't all there this time around, we'll always have Liz and Dick in Padua and "New Carthage" and sometimes we'll even watch them in Big Sur and Heathrow and if we're also the same persons who love Bava's Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill and AIP psychedelic 1967 freak scenes like The Trip, and Maqsue of the Red Death then anything that six-degrees them, problematic and stilted or not, is going to get us right in the Jeffrey Cordovas.

Have I gone off the deep end with my alcoholism metaphor and Trip comparisons again, Hannah? Sure I have. But so what? I'm no more repetitive, belligerent and self-indulgent in my fancy than Marlowe here and in a way I relate to Burton's pained hangover more than most- and I appreciate the way he and tried to alchemically transubstantiate it into the context of the central myth. I've given him a hard time tonight for his energy levels but I'm probably projecting. His eyes may betray insoluble weariness but he still has that beguiling mellifluent booming voice, Marlowe's velvet language rolls trippingly off his tongue, and the lighting and spooky accoutrements alone are worth the price of admission. We may not feel much pity for his 'last second desperation' as hell's gorgon arms drag him down into the flames, because hey, we've been there, and found out eternity is only as long as you think. Faust'll get out, if he just lets go. The great rule of eternity is that only nothing is forever.  Except thirst. So drinks, now... let each vicious circle be a signature on our natural habitat's cocktail napkin contract. Whatever the cost, it's already worth it. Valdez and Cornelius, man, they'll hook you up. 

1. That last part seems quite sexist today, presuming a kind of condoned satyriasis is packed kit and caboodle over the hump of spiritual awakening - not no more!
1. I'm guessing, based on my own experience doing the same thing - I may be projecting but, on the other hand, as they say in AA, you can't shit a shitter - not one of AA's best phrases, I'll grant you. 
5. Technically the Hell might not 'be' eternal in the space-time sense, but in Hell, space/time ceases to exist. One comes out the other side of a cold turkey detox--which may seem to have taken less than a weekend to those around you and to the calendar--as if one had been away for centuries of endless torment. Yet you barely remember it, for the brain which records such things was so badly burned. All you remember is that it was an eternity, and eternity is over. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ride the Snake: Boris Karloff's HEART OF DARKNESS (1957)

Recently discovered hiding deep in the Amazon Prime--an interior so vast and tangled one never knows what serpent jewel is coiled below the most innocent flower thumbnail cover: a 1958 TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS starring Boris Karloff as Kurtz. For a fan of both the actor and the tale, it's quite a find: Archetypal, potent, pungent, primitive in every definition of the word (picture quality as savage as the setting), acted in a kind of beatnik cafe dream poetry shorthand, following streams far indeed from Conrad's estuary, it nonetheless sings the masculine psyche electric, turning the journey of Marlow upriver to Kurtz into a kind gone-rogue Boy's Life anti-colonialist/pro-incest version of Alice in Wonderland as performed by the residents of some remote mental institution. Some might consider it unwatchable due to terrible image quality and stagy overacting, but for those of us "in the know," one look into Boris Karloff's wild eyes as he dances  shirtless in a jungle leaf crown while a circle of cannibals thump on drums, shake skull rattles, stab goats, and wiggle long feather or vine skirts that look up close in the unshaded video quality like fire (or radar-jamming window), and we know we're home. Add a shirtless wild-eyed Roddy McDowell as Marlow, demanding the whip and being branded with a hot "K", feeding off Karloff's crazy energy, matching his performance art hysteria beat-for-beat, like if Page and Plant dueling high notes in "Dazed and Confused" was mixed with a family trying to be heard on the tarmac of a busy airport. "I celebrate my cruelty!," they shout. "I celebrate my hatred!"

Been there, bro. I hereby claim this HEART as wild and true. "I celebrate my lust!"

I celebrate the generosity of Amazon Prime and this great deal they seem to have made with 'Sprockets,' a vast library of long-neglected (unrestored) exploitation movies from the 50s-70s, many of them too damaged to even be on a Something Weird compilation. I celebrate the genius of mixing the potted plant jungle lurid sadism and miscegenation fantasy of Kongo, and White Woman with O'Neill's folk play existentialism (Emperor Jones), undergraduate avant garde theatricality (ala the old Pratt Institutionalized Theater, here) and Greek-myth analyst-couch bird-swarm beach-boy maenad rending ala Tennessee Williams / Hitchcock. I celebrate this Heart's mix of Shavian satire, Kafka-esque double talk, Maugham 'Victorian morality dissolving in the jungle heat'-ism, and expressionist dream poem segues. This isn't the Congo of Conrad--with its firsthand observed landscape and anthropological detail--anymore, but an inner Oz/Wonderland for sexually repressed British sailors desperately praying away their incestuous desires. And no matter how intense things get, the magic coins in Marlow's pocket can whisk him home as fast as ruby slipper Thorazine.

I'll confess, growing up watching Shelly Duvall's Fairy Tale Theater with my parents, then studying Jung in college, (and finding my own magic doorways to weird worlds, if you know what I mean), have perhaps left predisposed me to love something as woebegone as this old Heart. It's similar to the way I love The Love Witch or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, or Lemorra: A child's Tale of the Supernatural. as much for the flaws and seams as their sense of wonder. I love the Disney fairy tales too, but they're so well done we don't get the ceremonial magick element, the Brechtian disconnect that lets you think, hmm next solstice maybe I'll get asked to play the Wicked Son, or white witch, or the God of spring harvest. In their staginess comes the surreal element of dreamsm which often appear slightly 'off' as if your unconscious couldn't afford the ambition of its art director.

Unlike those feminine-based myths, reflecting anxiety about marriage and sex, this is the repressed hammy male version, reflecting going off to college and having your first acid trip and orgiastic sex experience in the same night and feeling like you just opened up from a black and white shell to a prismatic butterfly of awakened transdimensional sanity. That said, this stays black and white, down in the basement mythic landscape of the 1933 Paramount live action Alice (see: Reeling and Writhing) rather than the Technicolor Disney. It's about going off on safari and expecting to find the good father (maybe even dead), and finding instead the primal father, the jungle devolving him along a mythic reverse axis, from Zeus back to Cronus, from color to black and white, from HD to fuzzy primordial analog signal, bounced across to dupes of time like a leaden skipping stone.

Subtle, pretty color shit wouldn't work in this jungle --dreams are often in black and white anyway, and of poor quality image-wise, as your third eye antenna can't always get a good picture. I can handle poor quality black and white much better than poor quality color, which tends to be washed out and depressing. In this case the rough signal works: there's an Everclear-smudge stained charcoal sketch madness at play, brought out by the ancient tape artifacts (the grayscale has become... unsound). The weird distortions and deep black outlining give it all a ghostly inked-in appearance as if from some spy camera left in a cavern on the moon crossed with a smudgy courtroom sketch witnessed by a drunk suffering the DTs being wheeled into the psych ward down the hall in the other direction. The result: neither TV as we know it today nor off Broadway theater nor beatnik theater troupe improv, but a mix of all three as if witnessed by another planet who don't quite get that we're only 'pretending' and really aren't this savage. Maybe far-away aliens are viewing this from sixty odd light years away (it was broadcast in 1958 as part of Playhouse 90). Their enthralled anthropologists will wonder whether this is some ritualistic indigenous ceremony, a filmed inauguration, live, like an Olympics ceremony, re-enacting of ancient rites, on ancient video equipment, as valuable a relic as cave drawings or Sumerian tablets, or just crappy TV. That initiation rites from boy to man are such a key part of all indigenous tribe mythologies and so absent from our own (outside of the military), surely says something when dealing with our national crisis of arrested male development. We don't televise wild initiations into the terrors of the unconscious self, but we should. After all, like any other televised event, it's all a show. We only get to find that out, if we put on the masks and do the dance.

As in the Off-Off Broadway dream poetry tradition, scenes in this Heart of Darkness are connected by childhood nursery rhymes ("Bobby Shafto's / gone to sea"), further making this all seem like a long LSD trip back in the day when it was legal and done on a psychiatrist's couch surrounded by giant potted African fronds. Maybe the sound of children playing outside the shrink's window became like tribal chanting reflecting the ebb and flow of inner psychosis, the old neuroses dissolving off the patient's soul like a serpent's old skin. It the skin isn't shed, a very bad trip can result, as it does for Marlow, for quite a spell. McDowell's repressed and unhinged character, in refusing to open himself to his (adopted!) sister's carnal desire, becomes a hurricane eye around which scenes revolve in ever tighter loops of madness. Each new encounter is with a stranger weirder than the last, all the while Marlow slowly peeling his 'false Buddhist' monk robe skin off until all that's left is wild overacting, shirtless, bug-eyed, and cracking a whip to keep time.

Starting with a ship's hold wherein he's forced to crush a rat in his bare hands (like salty shipmates always be making faux-Buddhists do), through to his returning home alive and reborn to his lady love/sister Maria (Inga Swenson), McDowell's acting is either terrible or brilliant or both, holding the whole thing together with a kind of magical foot-to-the-gas madness, reminding me how deft, charismatic and hilarious he was as Tuesday Weld's manager in Lord Love a Duck (there, as here, never stealing a scene but rather using and reflecting the energy of the actors around him, then mirroring it back and raising it again, forming a slow burn duel of ham mania).

Inga Swenson's Nordic alien DNA captured via early TV signal
being non-receptive to the alien cover signal (as seen in THEY LIVE)
Indeed in addition to the Conrad text (we do get some of the original dialogue, including "the horror, the horror") there's almost a greatest hits of dissolving theatrical sanity going on. For example, when we first meet Maria, she's running drunk and barefoot through the snow trying to join a throng of passing holiday carolers, conjuring an array of booze and/or loneliness-wracked Tennessee Williams heroines ranging from the Glass Menagerie all the way up to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone ("I have to keep reminding myself you're my brother," she purrs after a long welcome home kiss on Marlow's neck). Though he's clearly into it, he feels compelled to run off and find Kurtz (her dad / his guardian) before he winds up in bed with his own adopted sister. She gives him some coins for the bus home, and they become his magical talisman, the breadcrumb trail, ruby slipper. It seems rather forced but it does reflect the realization pulsing through the production that this is mythic freestyle, not a faithful adaptation of the text. There's a parallel in the coins too with the 'parachute' of the psychedelic trip, i.e. a handy Thorazine or--failing that--a Xanax, or--failing that--lots of alcohol or Nyquil. "Pull the string!" The rip cord, the umbilical deep sea diver oxygen line.

The rest of the film is a progression of weird archetypal energies: a 'Before the Law'-esque wife of a disappeared trading company envoy; a blind 'crone' (Cathleen Nesbitt - left) in Queen Victoria /Virgin Mary headdress, signs Marlow up while loudly encouraging him to also join "The Society for the Repression of Savage Custom"; the company doctor (Oscar Homolka - below) measures Marlow's skull against those of previous trading company representatives for comparison (he thinks head size changes after "you go out there to that frenzy, that solitude, that swamp of obscene temptation where there's no policeman, where no voice of a kind neighbor can whisper a public opinion, (ala "don't touch the B in room 237").

The transitions are telling in capturing the beatnik theatricality at the heart of darkness and psychedelic transfiguration: the doctor pushes Marlow through a door into what seems like a storage closet but is actually the jungle, so that he and the old woman seem to be looking down at Marlow from the safety of a small window in a tree, like parents dumping their freshman son out of a passing car onto the campus lawn at the start of fall semester, then speeding off.

Now, in the jungle, things devolve quick: cannibals almost eat him alive before he's saved by the estimable Mr. Robertson (Richard Haydn), the Trading Company 'accountant.' The complete opposite of repressed Marlow, and without a shred of the humanity left, Robertson has embraced the moral twilight and encourages Marlow to do the same: "I don't judge anything, so I don't suffer." He offers Marlow a chance to get out his aggression with a proffered whip, and notes that he'll have to whip the native slaves all the way back inland to Kurtz's compound anyway, that he should give into the madness of the place, but Marlow--his resolve ever weakening--cannot, refusing even a Pim's cup with homegrown cucumber. We can feel the ghost of W.S. Burroughs stir sluggishly like an opium ghost in our bloodstream with the appearance of this Benway-esque character: "No drinking, no violence - you're really quite an example of something or other aren't you?" he says. Assuring Marlow, he has nothing but admiration for Kurtz's methods in dealing with his cannibal slaves ("he sends them off all fat and saucy with a meal of two-legged pig, which I think is a charming way of describing what they eat. [1]"), Robertson is our first example of a man who's kept his British detachment by surrendering fully to the madness of the place. Marlow cannot, he'd rather hang the chain on himself and beg to be whipped like an anguished penitent.  He's combusting from the inside out, being devoured by the Congo, while Robertson isn't even bothered by flies. 

Eartha Kitt (left) shows up as Kurtz's silken feline queen, Maria, as (we learn) all Kurtz's women are named, reflecting his own incestuous obsession, she's ordered to get the coins from him, as if a holy grail relic that might free him from Kurtz's trap. Give me those slippers!

Of course in this surrealism-on-the sleeve riffing, it's not necessary to glean whether or not there's actual incest or desire between Kurtz and his daughter --this is pure psychosexual dream theater, laying its surrealistic tells far more bluntly than Conrad (in the jungle there's no time for subtlety). Writer Stewart Stern clearly uses the source text as diving board rather than a podium, he's interested in accessing certain deep Medea / devouring mothers, diving for coins tossed in by long ago Phoenician sailors, swallowed by the depths of the Kali-tentacled maternal behemoth. It's Conrad the way Coltrane's "Favorite Things" is Rogers and Hammerstein.

As we get closer and closer upriver to Kurtz the mythic resonance gets more and more abstract, the acting hammier, the jungle--blurred and outlined by the primitive video--more and more stage-like. When we finally do get to Karloff's Kurtz, his eyes are wild - sticking through the sludge of the image, fitting perfectly the madness of his character. His features are hideously distorted and blurred, like the final freeze frame of James Caan victorious and subhuman in Rollerball, or a Francis Bacon portrait that's been left out in the rain. The lines between his teeth as defined and black as if he's been brushing with charcoal, eyes bugging, flanked by leopard skin doubling as shotgun holes through copper plates, he's a scarier children's book monster than Maurice Sendak could e'er imagine.

Putting other Kurtz's to shame (Welles' radio show version included, Brando of course being the worst), Karloff seizes the chance to really ham it to the rafters and thank god he did, for anything less would have been lost in the splotchy Bacon/rain smudginess of the distorted video image. As it is, both his and Roddy's eyes--seemingly outlined in black magic marker--really pop out, like mad scientists in the peak of a DOM trip, that bold 13-hour mouth at the froth from which no traveler returns sanely without a jingling secret pocket Xanax ("welcome to Annexia") silver bullet for the Emperor Jones' William Tell routine.

It's worth comparing this adaptation alongside two other mythopoetically dense Stern screenplays: Rebel without a Cause (for Nicholas Ray) and The Last Movie (for Ray's friend Dennis Hopper) there's the fascination in all three scripts with: ceremonial rites (Rebel's chickee run off the cliff; the way the locals in Movie actually hurting each other in literalized imitation of the stuntmen in their village); and the terror conjured by a sexually voracious female on the male psyche (Natalie Wood's daddy issues; Julia Adams in Last Movie). That last theme is turned into a fairy tale magic talisman for both Kurtz in Marlow, both the impetus for their escape to the Congo and the magic key for their return. The yearning of voracious, unbalanced Maria reaches out to both men at all times, holding them in a loose orbit around her via symbolic totems: the coins for Marlow, her portrait medallion on the bare chest of Kurtz (like a pagan charm -her image becomes the yin in the center of all this frantic performance art yang). They are both driven to flee home to escape her, only to find representatives with her same name (the queen). Their pronouncement "I celebrate my lust!"-- in conjunction with the talk of 'cutting loose' in a land far from the prying eyes of puritanical neighbors--serves as a reminder that the 'repression of savage instincts abroad' (as in the Puritans, Rev. Davison in Rain) always devolves into sex tourism: "Behold my surrender! Behold my marriage with abomination!" Marlow snaps the whip and Kurtz leads the chant, the drums pound, the flames heating the "K" brand and the wiggling feather/taffeta skirts and headdresses all overlap and become one blurry rain of braided energy. The way the natives clatter their homemade percussion instruments and wave their crude knives evokes Suddenly Last Summer (released the same year), the rending beaks and claws of The Birds rending the children as per Mrs. Brenner's unconscious bidding, just as the beach boys render Sebastian as per Violet Venable's (rather than let him enjoy one summer out from under her wing). Kurtz represents the male equivalent of this Madea/ devouring mother, he's the primal father writ large- mirroring our modern cult leaders like David Koresh or Jim Jones, preferring to wipe out his flock rather than be taken back to civilization, ruling with violence and keeping all the women to himself, like a lion.

I should note that as with the source text, there's a rampant racism at work here: all the African natives--except the Queen--are depicted as savage childlike cannibals, who respect only brute force (the whip). But we should remember that this jungle is in the mind of a repressed virgin who's never been there and so projected his id onto it. Well, isn't that what racism is, you say? True, it's evil, I retort, but it's even a theme of the play that only by expressing this evil, owning it, can we exorcise it. It's in celebrating his evil and his lust that Marlow frees himself from its toxic grip, at least enough to breathe, and to give himself a hug (above), his dilated pupils looking up towards the finally revealed heaven. In owning it, it's repressive force is spent, like a Nerf ball held under water by the feet while idling in the pool - let go and it shoots up to the top, but then it's just there, a mere floatation device. The last thing that would suit Marlow's character is to get all preachy and self-righteously racial activist. What can white authors know of blackness? To try and Stanley Kramer it up would kill the larger-than-life messiness of myth. Myth needs to be neither believable nor logical, true or safe, (nor -as here - even in focus or frame), PC or un-PC, what it needs to do is resonate below the line of consciousness, become truer than truth can reach, provide a kind of trap door access to the basement of the mind, to open up the vents and allow for temperature equilibrium across all the floors of the house. Just as the African tribe surrounding Kurtz use ceremonial masks to reflect their demons rather than hide them, this primitive TV broadcast of Heart of Darkness spews forth an admission of evil and in the process exorcises it.

That's why it helps in a way too that this is so poor and overwrought --the totemic demon mask need not seem real, but almost something to laugh at, a cathartic confession rather than denial, the head of Medusa reflected in the Perseus shield of satire. So let us celebrate our evil and above all celebrate the ability to cherish weird-ass shit like Playhouse 60's Heart of Darkness, celebrate a humanity that could allow this dark plumming of its darkest depths, the bravery in going--as my friends and I used to say--"for distance" rather than polish, decorum and linear clarity, for riding the snake rather than scorching it in terror or catching it for a terrarium. Now our live TV events are tepid musical remakes of movies, as toothless as a long-caged rheumy lion. We won't see the like of rough unhinged dream theater 'interpretations' like this Heart again, outside perhaps of "Le Bad Theater" on SNL reruns (2) and we will continue to suffer for its absence, just as the lack of male initiation trauma (3) it depicts inevitably outs in everything from school shootings, alt-right trolling, and all the other sad last ditch gasps of boys who never found their hideous dark father's compound and so never saw the sad end game of their own dark hypocrisy, or tasted the ecstasy of being shred to bits by a thousand little beaks.

"even the jungle wanted him dead"
It's also on youtube!

1. "two-legged pig" also known as "long pig" =  human flesh. 
2.  though there was a TV movie version in 1993 with John Malkovich and Tim Roth,  it was too sunny and realistic, faithful to the text to the point of sterility.
3. Initiation rites do exist in some organizations but outside of, say, the Navy Seals, they lack sufficient trauma for true change - as the agony of child birth makes a mother of a woman, the agony of the initiation rite 'second' birth makes a boy a man. No pain, no gain is no gym mantra but, sadly, at the core of all human maturity. Not that I want to go there, anymore than I already have.
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