Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Monday, July 16, 2018

Criterion's Dietrich Box's Masochist Supplement (Verboten!)


The arrival this month of Criterion's Dietrich-Von Sternberg Blu-ray boxed set (all six of their pre-code Paramount collaborations) answers an unspoken prayer I made a few years ago. I envisioned a different cover to the box, and some different extras, and MOROCCO looking slightly less faded, but only a Herbert Marshall-style ingrate squawks when prayers get answered. God--it seems--really is on speaking terms with everybody. BUT - what it really needed, or I would have loved to see, was an extra via Gaylyn Studlar. Let this humble post at least fire a salvo towards redressing that wrong.

THE MASOCHISTIC SPECTATOR / DEATH DRIVE:

The excellent liner notes and extras explore all sorts of great elements, both thematic and texural, except for a glaring omission. There is no exploration of the very obvious masochistic subtext running through these films like a hot river. The extras are guilty of shamefully ignoring the work of progressive film theorists like Steven Shaviro and--especially--Gaylyn Studlar. Her book In the Realm of Pleasure (left) deconstructs the Dietrich Sternberg films' kinky symbolism via a theory of the cinematic spectatorial gaze as inherently masochistic. This is a theory far different from, say, that of the sadistic gaze postulated by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey. It's Mulvey's theory that has been not only utilized but rigidly enforced in feminist film studies the last few years, to the point the masochistic gaze is almost heresy. In fact, feminist film theory has been under such brutal siege by the Mulveyan male gazers that--like ISIS in ancient Babylon--all the great old edifices are in danger of being torn down. Even Mulvey herself is like, whoa, chill, it's just a talking point, a theory, not some buzzkill holy writ. (I paraphrase).

Studlar's book, alas, is rare enough that even the more open-minded academics don't often know about it. But they should, for--read along with revisiting the Dietrich-Von Sternberg collection,  is like opening a magic window into these films that makes them glow and resonate far beyond the--admittedly true and enticing--consensus of the historians, critics and academes on hand in the chosen melange of extras. Was Criterion scared it was too academic, or too kinky? Or were they worried Camille Paglia wouldn't be roused from her blood slumber in time to rescue them from third wave feminist reactionary clawing?

As it is, I heard Studlar's name mentioned only once in the extras. Homay King's excellent extra accompanying Shanghai Express mentions her concept of the 'heterocosm' i.e. an enclosed dream world outside space and time in which the film exists (i.e. it's not the 'China' of reality, but a kind of dream repository centered around the mystique of the 'Other').

Rather than just try and sum up the deep points Studlar makes in The Realm of Pleasure, I'll suggest you watch the films first then I'll point you back towards some of my previous posts exploring cinematic masochism, the voyeur as masochist - subject to having no control of the events in his experience, and how that relates to infancy and fear of abandonment by the mother and the embrace of death as pleasure being the ultimate act of pure control, of conquering death and moving past the pain-pleasure rim of the wheel right to the center. Yeah, man!

50 SHADES OF GREY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, EXIT TO EDEN, SECRETARY + SHE DEMONS, Franco, Bunuel, Josef von Sternberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet (7/31/14)

According to Gaylyn Studlar (4), true masochism can only exist in dreams, conjured more out of a need to safely experience the abyss, to trick out the satisfactory endorphin rush that surges to accommodate sudden pain (as in the heroic measure of wasabi or hot sauce); it must be done in person or in the mind where we can imagine a transformational ecstasy that ordinary movie watching doesn't accommodate. The shocking Times Square marquee, coming attraction, or the film capsule review might enflame or awaken these latent desires, but the actual film will never measure up; it's the difference between remembering your own crazy, erotic dream and hearing about someone else's. It's the difference between seeing the covers for films like Kitten with a Whip or Naked Under Leather vs. the actual--inevitably disappointing--movies.

As per Studlar:
"The fatalism of Von Sternberg's films is not simply an acceptance of death as an externally imposed inevitability but the expression of the masochistic urge toward death as a self-willed liberation. In choosing death, an illusionary triumph is created: the illusion of choice... (48) 
"...masochism's obsession with death may be interpreted either as the expression of a universal instinctual urge or as the result of the masochistic wish for complete symbiosis with the mother and a return to nothingness,.... Eros is desexualized and resexualized; death becomes the ultimate fetish that fascinates with the promise of a mystical unity." (p. 123)
Only Bunuel and Von Sternberg ever seemed to grasp this concept, and it's interesting that both adapted the same masochistic text, Pierre Lou├┐s "La femme et le pantin." For Bunuel, two different actresses play the Dietrich character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire: the sweet girl who entices him and the cold calculator who continually manipulates him into bankrolling her mercenary mother (and then bailing). Presumably teasingly withholding sex, but always promising it, she instinctively understands he needs and appreciates this long-term unfulfilled longing (he's rich and respected, she may be the only objet petit a he has. He might have some sexual liasons with her but we don't see them and they're never long enough to make him feel 'satisfied.' Some lovers are 'done' as soon as they climax. Well, some characters never want to be 'done' - it spoils the game, turns a long elaborate twisted ritual into a disappointingly short-lived gratification followed by shame and emptiness (be that due to impotence, premature ejaculation, or other). Similar to the two-faces of Concha in Bunuel's film, Marlene's Concha wears two outfits for separate seductions - pure white to lull the guards into letting her see the prisoner; a black mourning outfit to sway the prefect.

Maybe the whole trick to getting what you want is to deliberately want to want it rather than to have it (and so want your old wanting back, which is a double negative). Most magic tricks are part sleight-of-hand and part misdirection, but in masochism, misdirection is the trick. The slighted hands of the clock are frozen at bedtime, right before mom comes in to kiss you goodnight and turn out the lights. If you never get the kiss, the lights stay on and the demons under the bed can't get you. (2014)


If you know Marlene’s history you know she liked to sleep with a lot of different people, and broke the hearts of adoring males (and females) all the time when they realized they would never “own” her totally had to learn to share (which her husband well knew, as he archived all her various love letters for her), and that’s where masochism and sublimation comes in. Imagine being JVS and you’re basically living at Marlene’s estate, painting a picture out on the lawn and here comes Gary Cooper’s car and you know that you wont be sleeping with Marlene all weekend, and will just have to wait til she gets bored of Cooper, who is taller and younger than you, etc. Do you throw your canvas to the ground and have a fit? Get a gun and run around the estate like the thuggish gamekeeper in Rules of the Game? Neither one will get you anywhere but in jail or laughed at. The artist Von Sternberg on the other hand lives for that moment, that flush of Oedipal rage and shame, harnessing its power, converting the emotional energy via artistic sublimation, Sternberg’s painting merely becomes darker and more twisted… better, in short. (full - 2009 - Bright Lights)

From: (Butterfly Moanin: DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)
(2015)

And so it is that these films show us a variation of sex we are, as single perspective organisms, forever denied in real life: we get to find out what our moms were like before we were born. It's something we'll just never know in real life, except through keyholes, screens (projections, paintings, pictures) dreams, and rebirth. In these films we finally understand, perhaps, why the patriarchy, the male gaze as per Mulvey, is so terrified of the female orgasm. I don't mean the little 'sneeze' girls get, or even the cherished involuntary vaginal contraction versions, but the one--eternal female orgasm--that comes later, and last forever, and increases and increases, feeding its own orgone energy flame until the alchemical awakening of the Kali destroyer / creator goddess, a withering force as devastating to the phallic tower as a great flood, is achieved, and even then... When this occurs, the male gaze is blinded in the flash, and not even Oedipus' stiff braille guide rope can help him find the door, let alone the keyhole. (More)

--
Related:

Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child: THE RING, SHERLOCK JR., VIDEODROME (2004)
Death Driving Ms. Henstridge: GHOST OF MARS, RIO BRAVO (2003)
Naomi Watts: Cinema’s Post-Modern Mother of Mirrors
ANGELS OF DEATH, the Series
ANGELS OF DEATH - I
ANGELS OF DEATH - II: Great Women of Horror
ANGELD OF DEATH III: Badass Brunette Edition
ANGELS OF DEATH IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition 
ANGELS OF DEATH V: Magic Slut Split/Subject Maenad Edition


NORDIC BLONDE MOTHERS
Hope vs. the Scandanivian Svengalis: THEY CALL HER ONE-EYE; I'LL TAKE SWEDEN

Friday, July 06, 2018

Wild Wild Wuxia: Amazon Prime Streams the Shaw Brothers



It's July --perfect time to cozy up in the AC with a seemingly limitless stream of cool Hong Kong fantasy cinema from the late 70s-early 80s streaming free on Amazon Prime. Thanks to the popularity of Star Wars and its HK vairants like Zu, Warriors of Magic Mountain, this period was rife with wild weird wuxia films dozens of steps more fantastic and unhinged than the usual kung fu plots and storylines (all those intergenerational wars between marital artists ever vying to be number one in the martial arts world). But these were a solid step away and/or above, with sweeping romance, monsters, myths, dangerous challenges, pursuits of ancient magical weapons and kung fu skills, etc. Way more fun. And above all - there are women in them. Not just accessories or damsels needing rescuing, fair princesses and dutiful moms, but warrior women - snake girls, expert in the handling and throwing of deadly serpents, or spiders, and even clans of martial arts nuns, the Er Mei, often led by a deadly ruthless leader with a strict 'no men' policy. These women are all granted respect, and the guys have no trouble fighting with them out of some misplaced chivalry.

from Bat Without Wings (Battle Wizard, top)
In general the classical wuxia output of this period, especially the work of director Chu Yuan, displays loads of atmosphere in vast ornate, gorgeous sets in which indoors and outdoors cease to be relative terms, as restaurants lead out to cliffs and small pond oases lie like ledges halfway down steep drop-offs. The films I mention here have a few things in common, recurring characters, directors, fight coordinators and above all atmosphere, strong female characters and roots in Chinese mythology. Chu Yuan's stress of atmospherics and focus on the novels of Gu Long, thus the Jungian resonance and horror atmospherics, the approach of Bava level-lighting on ornate mist-enshrouded sets to the point it's like Black Sabbath spilled over onto a Chinatown train set. Since the Shaws clearly reused, expanding and adjusting, their beautiful sets ceaselessly, each film is able to generate ornate vast sets of perfect beauty and just wiz through them as characters pursue clues and each other all around mystical landscapes.

To my eyes it makes a huge difference. In largely outdoor photography of many productions (as in King Hu film like Dragon Inn) the imagery often comes across as washed out and drab on DVD while the indoor studio bound world of the Shaws gives the impression of a vast perfectly modulated miniature world full of lush waterfalls, cliffs, mist, cherry and plum blossoms, and ever-setting suns, where huge beautiful restaurants stand ever ready to become scenes of crazy group fighting, or secret passages lead to huge beautiful caves filled with glistening skulls, coffins and spiderwebs and where the forests at night are dappled with cornflake snow amidst the cherry and plum blossoms. The effect is like an alternate reality dreamscape - a vast roofed ancient China-themed miniature golf course-style paradise. In other words, my kinda escape from summer heat. So blast the AC and move your chair so the vent is blowing right on your face, and get ready for weirdness, Hong Kong-style.


Special Note: People watching Prime through Sony Blu-ray players--at least the older models--won't be able to access closed captions on these for the English subtitles (they're in Cantonese); it's just a discordant note between Prime and Sony still unresolved. However, you should just invest in Apple TV or a stick or something, as it's worth the upgrade. I know I'm glad I did, especially since we moved to Crown Heights where the cable doesn't get El Rey - which is the great channel that used to show all these. A thousand curses on the inferior and out-of-touch Optimum! 

1. BAT WITHOUT WINGS 
(1980) Dir. Chu Yuan
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Even if they have no familiarity with the wuxia genre, Fans of the colorful atmosphere-drenched 60s horror of Mario Bava, those classic horror fans like me who swoon over the beautiful the colors of his Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill, should seek out Bat Without Wings, for the patience and creativity with colored gel spots to create rich atmosphere is very similar, with vast caverns of cobwebs and (terrible) statues made by a crackpot mad artist--a former mad rapist-murderer--who's allegedly being held on a remote island full of elaborate traps after being apprehended or supposedly killed years ago by a barrage of martial arts masters in a wild, confusing prologue. If you don't mind occasionally losing the threads of the elaborate tapestry plot as it zips around from place to place, you can just soak up the atmosphere and bizarre horror touches like the ghost of one of the Bat's victims appearing at the gate of her homestead, all bathed in green and holding her severed head. Not only that, but the titular bad guy (Feng Ku), made up like an Asian Gene Simmons, storms in and out of ladies' chambers with the heavy lightness of a roadshow barnstorming evil villain come for his rent. He's delightful! A round little maniac who flies around slaughtering whole parties of trained security guards just because a girl in their party looks like another girl. Mwahahah. With Chen Shan as the leader of the easily slain Hell Gang. The inescapable Derek Yee is the master swordsman endlessly tested for skill and sent on wild missions to find out what the hell is going on -- is the Bat really dead or what? There's something far more complex and sinister, naturally involving a missing 'Bat' blade that can render its user ultra-powerful. Some want it found and destroyed, others have secret agendas for power. Mwah hahha!

 I kept trying to take some decent screenshots to show how gorgeous this all looks on the right size HD TV, but it doesn't translate as well to small screen snapshots - still you can get the idea.

 Special note for sensitive viewers: there's talk about the Bat being a serial rapist-murderer, but we never see him actually rape anyone. We do find his early victim sent home in parts and as a mysterious green ghost, but that's just wuxia, and the limbs look so fake you can all but see the mannequin serial numbers. The actual plot turns out to have a whole mess of Scooby Doo-style turns and tricks and all ends in a giant, beautifully-lit cavern, full of magic and the clanging of swords, no subjugation and misogyny. It's way cooler than that. In fact, in the right mood, in the right environment (like home in the AC during a sweltering heat wave) sheer gonzo heaven, just don't worry if the plot gets away from you. In a Chu Yuan production you can always just trip out on the swirling mist and gorgeous landscapes, eerie caverns and ghostly green figures in the distance...

2. THE BLACK LIZARD
(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

It's pretty to look at, with some funny and strange characters and complex machinations so over-the-top they're like every old dark house mystery from the 30s pureed together with Wilkie Collins frosting, but the greens glow valiantly and Bava fans should rejoice - once again director Chu Yuan keeps the fog machines and colored gel lights on, enriching nearly every frame with mood, as a man in a dark red cloak and lizard skin keeps carting a coffin around with a talking wooden effigy of swordman Lung Fei's fiancee inside. The indefatigable Derek Yee is a detective swordsman swept up in an intergenerational mystery having to do with an ancient curse by a black lizard demon living in a misty lake -- has he emerged and possessed a young son (in a flashback he looks like a giant black lizard with green eyes but--- well, anything is possible). There's also another mysterious woman, this one all dressed in white, who disappears and appears with dire pronouncements. The lizard zips around, women become wooden statues and back and forth; people are buried alive in wooden effigies of themselves by a madman. A man wearing lipstick, sheathed in fog, warns our hero his fiancee is going to die; there are secret panels and an array of disguises and intrigue, and--jeeze--don't even worry about the byzantine inter-family paranoia that evidently underwrites the weirdness. Just do like Kim Newman tells you in his Mark of the Vampire DVD commentary, just soak in the ample atmosphere and savor the horror elements and don't let the Scooby Doo denouement sour it with a lot of twists and reveals. It may not all add up, but does it need to? If you said yes then I'd suggest an hour of deep meditation on the transience of all things. Even the web, in its full entirety, shall pass in time.... I think. 

3. FULL MOON SCIMITAR
(1979) Dir. Chu Yuan 
***  / Amazon Image - A

The love between a fox spirit and a martial artist, carrying a parallel to one gone on in the previous generation without either of their knowledge - the scenes taking place in the spectral world are so gorgeous and ethereal that you'll want to find your way there more than you would Shangri La (I love that it's always night and the ornate soundstage indoor/outdoor magic of it all. And the spooky comeuppance against earth's rival - this just makes it all the more heartbreaking when our hero becomes a dick obsessed with fame, but such is the way of men). Derek Yee stars as Ding Peng who gets hoodwinked on his way to a big duel for mastery of martial arts when his rival's wife seduces him and steals his martial arts manual in the middle of the night -thus informing the treacherous Ruo Song (Wong Yung) of how to counter the chumps' moves, and to imply then that the martial arts manual was his etc. It all sets poor egotistical Ding into a suicidal despair but--as so often in these things--he's prevented at the last minute by ghostly intervention, in this case, a green-lit fox spirit (in the Chu Yuan universe, the realms of the dead are always bathed in a haunting green light) named Qing Qing (Lisa Wong). She takes him to her mysterious land between the living and the dead, a kind of secret Shangri La paradise all shot on those marvelous expansive soundstage landscapes of cherry blossom and lantern lit night -- who would ever want to leave? Well, once he starts practicing with Qing Qing's magical scimitar, Ding Peng does wants to leave - he convinces his now-wife to come with him and help arrange revenge on Ruo Song, and for some reason she takes the upper hand, posing as her own treacherous sister (?) and betraying Song with supernatural trickery that ensures an easy victory. But naturally old Ding isn't satisfied. He wants to keep going and be the best in the martial arts world, little knowing how much damage he's doing to his home life in the pursuit of wealth and fame and just how truly treacherous Ruo Song really is. Naturally it all ends in a big grievance-airing international duel.

Love that setting sun spotlight
And though that's kind of inevitable for a Shaw Brothers movie, once again it's the mist-enshrouded magical ancient landscapes, like gorgeous life-size dioramas, that haunt the mind and make these so worth seeing on a big HD screen with deep blacks. On my 60" Sony Bravia they're impeccably haunting. And his dick moves to Qing Qing (he even remarries claiming he can't be with a fox forever) carry a rough sting but you know it will end happily. Alas, like all the Shaw Brothers films, the ending is--for my money--way too abrupt. They should have a groovy party afterwards, but Shaw Brothers movies tend to end within seconds of the final bad guy dying. Such is the way of the Tao.

A girl and her snakes

4. THE BATTLE WIZARD
(1977) Dir. Hsueh Li Pao
*** Amazon Image: A

It's so insane it has to be based on some old legend - Dan Lee plays a young scholar son of a respected general runs away to avoid learning kung fu (he'd rather read books). On the road, naive and even a trifle thick-headed, he meets a pretty young girl named Lin (Chen Che Lin) who uses snakes as weapons/couriers, and after some antagonistic bickering they team up, and then promptly run afoul of 'the poison gang.' There's much back and forth of poisonous attacks (she launches a venomous sneak into the leader's body) the scholar must find her ninja sister (Ni Tien) to rescue her and then well, he winds up gaining super powers through drinking the blood of a giant red snake while hiding out on one of those mysterious hidden cliffside oases. You got to respect a guy who--when a girl tells him to drink the blood of a giant red snake that's trying to suffocate him in the middle of a pond, he promptly bites down on its neck like a vampire, and then, later, when he tells him to swallow a  poisonous toad whole--he does too! No questions asked! Dude, drinking snake blood is one thing, shooting a live, venomous (glowing) toad like it it's a cold oyster, that's crazy courage. Other foes include a gorilla (a hilarious ape-costumed dude in a pit), the titular battlesome wizard (friends of Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China will recognize he's got a lot of the same skills, including fire breathing), a crazy rapist bald green fanged monster with a detachable claw arm who can outrun horses, and a complicated tale of brothers and sisters across two family dynasties that--through some uncool philandering 20 years earlier--led to the original confrontation and all the bad blood that must out in the children, etc. Based on a fantasy novel by Jin Yong.

5. BUDDHA'S PALM
(1982) Dir Taylor Wong
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

With a great 80s synth score, lots of animated fire and magic effects, this is a fine companion piece to THE BATTLE WIZARD. Like that film, our callow lead-Lung (Tung Shing Yee) starts out a churlish heartbroken brat but the dopey dragon that rescues him from a plunge off the cliff looks like a kind of mix of a parade Chinese dragon and a muppet, and on a mysterious outcropping halfway down a cliff (Asia must be full of these little magic oases you can only access by jumping off a cliff) he meets the fallen hero Flaming Cloud Devil (Alex Man) who wants to teach him the unbeatable Buddha's Palm precisely because he doesn't want to learn it (churlish brat that he is). Here's a film that's clearly got some Star Wars influence to it, but Lucas would never have so many strong female characters, nor an evil henchmen kid with a huge acid pus-spraying facial tumor, or a villain with a super extendable giant killer foot, of course I mean Heavenly Foot of the 10,000 Swords Clan (Shih Kien)! Other foes are named: Flying Bells (Chen Szu-chia), Flying Loops (Yum Yum Shaw), and The Thunderbolt Devil (as he uses sound wave combat). Now that he knows the Palm, and has partially restored Flaming Cloud Devil's sight (via a magic dragon egg), he must help bring them all down in spectacular laser, sound wave, and spinning kick-filled brawls.


Special shout out to the great Lieh Lo -- a joy as the mysterious, ever-clowning (but never obnoxious) martial artist who tends to arrive at just the right time, proclaiming "Bi Gu of East Island is here!" as in now the party can start. Far too much crazy stuff happens to tell, and there's even the old all-girl Er Mei school again, but a standout is the sight of Heavenly Foot using his percussion set up to drive his daughter crazy (turns out he controls her via a poisonous internal centipede). Just watching him in sped up motion playing with his foot and hands, dopey grin on his face, is a priceless privilege. He's so evil! And that crazy foot! Flaming Cloud Devil ends up converting a few of her cast-out girl students (they help Lung after he helps them steal a relic for their master to fix her acne). And eventually they all even patch up their differences without fighting - and have a big celebration - but there's still trouble a Foot!
---

6. HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD
(1983) Dir. Chin-Ku Lu
*** / Amazon Image - A-

American critics of HK fantasy films often note that they seem to be on fast forward, and to make that argument here's exhibit A, a film that zips along like it's running a well-practiced relay race, making us all wonder what kind of coffee they serve at the Shaw Studios. (My viewing strategy: just presume your first guess on what's going on is correct--it usually is). At any rate, even those who can handle the dizzying narrative progression of Battle Wizard and Buddha's Palm might be in trouble for Holy Flame of the Martial World but if you catch it in just the right frame of mind it's a pretty wild time. The flame of the title is a weird looking weapon with a gem in the center so better believe it's got magical powers; naturally the hero is a pretty young orphan whose parents died protecting the secret of the flame's hiding place from a wittily-subtitled gang of greedy kung fu clan leaders. The secret is hidden somewhere in the mind of skin or something of the boy guarded by a hilarious old master named the Phantom (Phillip Kwok) with his devastating sound wave attack 'ghost laughter' - the sight of him making weird gestures and rolling around on his lotus position legs roaring with 'ghost laughter' is pretty edifying, right up there in hilarious oddness with Heavenly Foot's magic percussion attacks in Buddha's Palm. One of the nicest of all kung fu teachers, nothing fazes or annoys the Phantom. He never has a single negative thing to say, and his good-natured laughter is infectious.


Best of all, one of the main villains is a white-haired woman Tsing Yin (Leanne Lau), the master of the Er Mei school -- as seen in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre --they're an all-woman kung fu school whose first rule is no congress with men. (Naturally that law gets broken a bit). One of the Er Mei students is helped out of a jam by our hero and soon it's clear she's being trained for a very special purpose; there's a similar student (Siu Chung Mok) with the other villain, a golden haired lion man  Monster Yu (Jaso Pal Piao). The big climactic battle is full of dizzying spins, lasers (by then the girl rescued from the Blood Sucking Clan has aquired a magic laser-shooting finger thanks to touching a magic snake bladder.) as young yin/yang brother sister duo square off against the pair of sorcerers who killed their parents, a kind of negative shadow parent set - Monster Yu and Tsing Yin, each using their magic yin/yang skills in an effort to destroy each other. There's nothing remotely like it in the US, except maybe the sorcerer duel in Corman's The Raven, but that was old man walking around the park feeding pigeon stuff next to this wild wild madness. Same goes for, well, almost everything. Western filmmakers, find out what kind of tea these cats were drinking and bring it to your feeble sets! Praise be to merciful Buddha, The Shaw Brothers may have been as ethical as some would like, but they've left us some beautiful, and truly weird, things just waiting for more of the wicked west to discover, for free on Prime. So long as they can read, and don't watch it through a Sony Blu-ray

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Horse is the White of the Eyes" - TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN: Meaninglessness as Higher Meaning


Lynch's recent Trump comments outraged many, then outraged the others when he specified, but I dig it, it's all right there in TWIN PEAKS THE RETURN, an understanding that we can't just impeach our dark Cronus devouring fathers into the void... for long. They invariably return... again and again. It's better we keep them underground and restrained, but sometimes we have to let them out into the exercise yard - to embody them in ritual performance and ceremonial dance. For Lynch, this ceremonial dance is done at a speed and dimension outside our own, by sooty desert wanderers who--having been caught in an atomic bomb test--now patrol the wasteland asking for lights. Someone give that wandering poet a light!

 At any rate, it all provides an excellent excuse to delve back in to what is either a big meaningless (but beautifully soundscaped, Lynch's best work in the series) atmospheric exercise in frustration, or a masterpiece with maybe one too many close-ups of aging, craggy faces. Who am I, craggy faced surrealist of the sweltering Brooklyn attic, to judge? Nonetheless, I can't look at people who remind me that age has stolen nearly every liter of hotness from the world, with only the wonder of the screen here to preserve it all?

I don't know man.... I admire the soundscaping, and the nonchalance with which nearly a whole episode goes off into the experimental avant garde deep end, but it seemed like Lynch had no meaning or there there, and so was turning the whole thing into, well Inland Empire, which I still haven't been able to finish, and using Showtime money to indulge in his infantile fantasies from the 1950s, watching American Bandstand on the floor in front of the TV, and gazing up close at his babysitters bobby socks in agog rapture

The second time I knew what to expect, and I started backwards.
Watching the episodes 'on demand' in reverse order proved the right move
for one does not face their enemy, but the wind is with him.

Speaking of,t rying to write about this - I accidentally published this a few days or weeks ago, funny, it's still dead linking around the web  - as I accidentally published too early Twin Peaks rant years back in this blog - and since one never quite 'un'-publishes it, one is tempted to--as Lynch would do--think outside the box, go for the deep fish.

Is that the reason?

Hey, did you read this last thing I did on the original season for: The Primal Scenesters

One wonders - no one knows - that by benefit of being a true artist--and even his moderate detractors won't argue Lynch is--we trust Lynch thinks 'but what does it mean?" even less than we do.  For in doing so he would taint the result with preconceptions. True art like Lynch's continually evolves as its beholder does - each decade it means something different, maybe even antithetical to its last meaning.

The only reason this is possible is that--in its druggy Ativan slowness--it's meaninglessness forms the higher meaning.

Which means it means nothing.

Which is good, because knowing the meaning is to roll one's eyes, not necessarily over Lynch himself, but his gushing fans always willing to interpret everything as genius:
"When you get there, you’ll already be there.” One of the most haunting lines of television, ever - Aliza Ma - Film Comment
Or--also rightly--sexist, the last of the old school sexist unabashed genius straight what male surrealists, he gets away with a kind of old man surrounding himself with young girls offering him pens, cigarettes, cocktails, donuts, and--'ahem'-- coffee as needed. I kept hoping the young FBI agent Tammy (Lynch's recording ingenue Chrysta Bell--this decade's Julee Cruse  or Rebeka del Rio if you will) would occasionally say something other than perfunctory dialogue of the sort a personal assistant might cover. Instead her job seems mainly to be looking kind of amazed at the level of weirdness involved in a 'Blue Rose case' but hot, walking with a delicious wiggle, and keeping her neck giraffe model long.

The bad girls are beaten up or murdered.

Naturally a few feminist critics have mentioned this, with some sadness. For example, Ally Hirschlag points out that "even when they’re not being murdered or abused, the ladies of Twin Peaks: The Return are thinly written." Indeed, the series does a great disservice to its female characters, placing them more or less as either alternating exasperated wife / adoring sex partner (Naomi Watts as Dougie's wife) or insane victims of past molestations or explosions (such as Audrey - who does a pretty good job of being bi-polar or even slightly schizophrenic (a result of the explosion at the end of season 2?): Only a few scattered souls like the Log Lady and Nadine seem beyond it all.


On the other hand, by virtue of them all being original cast members, Lynch has probably more middle-aged broads in this cast than in all the other shows on Showtime combined. Even if most are all deranged harridans, some are starry-eyed saints, like the log lady (even the ones who were middle-aged in the original). Bechdel-ishly speaking, it's a genuinely odd thing to see so many middle-aged women in one show - and ones that have not had work done --their eye bag miracle saggy eye remover giving them all the feeling certain details of their faces have been conspicuously erased.. This is the problem with '25 years later' with the same actors is not everyone ages like fine wine - like Cary Grant or Clark Gable - some look like moldy time-ravaged goblins, their craggy faces no longer able to support the uniform sea of curly black toupees the cast wore in the first seasons. It's just odd that there's so many, so sudden. We forget, there's a reason actors are pretty people --looking at age--remembering the beauty of these broads just 25 years earlier--is dispiriting. Even murder couldn't save Laura Palmer from time's merciless savagery.

Then there's Grace Zabriskie as Laura's mom, now turned alcoholic and deranged (hurrah! She's my favorite!)

PORTRAIT OF MRS. PALMER (by EK)
ADDICTION IS THE COLOR OF STATIC

That's what really lingers, or my takeaway, is the drugs - I could really relate to the totally batshit insane alcoholism of Grace Zabriskie, now spending most of her time drinkign. At a bar we see her bite the throat out of a giant malignant trucker, much to all our delight, except for the bargain basement video effects as she peels off her mask to expose-- what? TV static and a giant forked tongue? The rest of the time she freaks out liquor stores because of moved-around Slim Jims, or knocks 'em back at home in front of the TV - some of my favorite, most eerie scenes. There's not nearly enough TVs on in most movies and shows, making home life always seem barren and too quiet. But Lynch knows TVs are a part of the landscape and that--as only a few do too--Nicholas Roeg, Alex Cox--he makes weird TV shows to run weird counterpoint to the action.

Not to say they're not done as randomly as possible - to divulge new meanings where none or different or the same may have been before. If the meaning is 'on the nose' it's trite. There can be no meaning, no objective. Only in meaningless does the truth unfold as it isn't.

Any objective = merely evitcejbo in a mirror. Through the looking glass--in dreams--you'll find him there, the devouring Cronus father, the 'owner' of all the women, He who must be killed through unanimous son decision.

The horror of the Oedipus complex becomes as some holy deliverance when compared to the paralysis, the deep primordial dread, represented by Cronus, the devouring monster father, eating the gods and the world like a Babeless Bunyan eating rats in a sinking ship lost at sea that ran out of food and drink weeks ago. Next the sails, the mast, finally his boot, the foot that was in the boot... finally his own hideous cannibal mouth - tooth by tooth, 'til all that's left is a void within the void.
---
Just one smile, Coop? Even a cold one?
Lynch is at that age and level when there is no one who can really 'edit' his work for him -- it's too weird, and he doesn't explain it, which is all very well BUT if there's no 'there' there, how would he know? We're taking a lot on faith, such as the 'Frank / Bob/ whatever' of Bob-possessed Cooper being menacing. Consider the scene at left, with the girl who he just learned betrayed him (through yet another magical shortcut). I mean look deep at that face, it's got kind of a half-melted oven-bronzed female Buddha neutered quality to it (not helped by that wig of pulled back long black hair like he lifted the wig out of an old western prop box and merely clipped off the sewed-on tribal headband), whatever weird work giving him an effeminate edge. That babe in his arms is dynamite, all leggy and pale and, now, well, hey-- I've met Kyle McLachlan in person and he's a little fella - one of those stars that seems to come from some alternate reality of wee folk. And that girl with him is colossal, she could trounce him if she put in half a mind, and she has a gun - she could shoot him when he walks in. Instead it's like Red Riding Hood getting eaten by Grandma - and not even the grandma with the wolf in her, just plain old grandma- though of course that's what we're supposed to believe. That there's a wolf therein.

I don't know. I don't blame poor McLachlan, it's not his fault he got old - it's just we spend a great many hours with this dislikable cipher, and an equal amount with a bafflingly out-of-touch 'other Cooper' - a double named Dougie - who though he spends only 25 years in 'the Lodge' is still even more clueless in surreal Vegas than the real Coop was originally. It's exacerbating being with either one, for the same reason - there is no 'there' there - and BEING THERE at least had a guy THERE who could form a sentence. This is more BEING NOT THERE. Evil Cooper never smiles or laughs or enjoys himself, which would have made his character so much more menacing. Compare to the unhinged wild man randiness of Ray Wise in the original - and shudder!

In other words, there's not much there, to either 'part' of Cooper - nor any of that wild giggling mania we saw at the S2 cliffhanger, or the way there was in the deep tissue insanity conjured up by the great--and who I feel was the stealth gravitational center of the first one and a half seasons--Ray Wise. Bob doesn't even get amped when he beats a girl's head in with his fists, or nothin! When Leland Palmer killed Laura and then her cousin he howled in a mix of sadistic glee and fatherly anguish, all swirled together in a fifth dimensional reptilian Tequila shot. Whooo!

The big tease of the show is that we spend the whole season hoping to see these halves unite - for the evil Bob to go back as he promised, or was promised, but he keeps bouncing back with the help of his homeless old derelict poet contingents or assassins who neglect to put a ring on his finger. We figure we'll get real Cooper back but we don't - aside from maybe 20 minutes towards the end, for he goes to bed screwing with Diane, waking up as someone else - a slightly more cold, dead Cooper - one who finally is just a little bit terrifying. The there we were led to hope for is--it seems--long gone. Does a sadist run this universe?
Twin Peaks: The Return is set in the time of waiting. (...) As has become Lynch’s trademark over the intervening years, long takes and pregnant silence, really all manner of visual and aural static, escalate to near-unbearable intensity on account of a viewer’s excessive interestedness. Nothing becomes something before one’s eyes, and ears, only to recede once more into the doubtful terrain of moot detailing. (....) we endure a feeling of emptiness in repletion, or the opposite: detail signifying lack. Silence doesn’t exist except in relation to stimulation, and Lynch befuddles typically exclusive regimes of formal austerity and sensuous aestheticism by a kind of catalytic juxtaposition that is not, it seems important to insist, not dialectical. (Metaphysical Detectives - Sonder Manchester)
"....despite its many surface departures from the original Twin Peaks, is actually, if you think about it, a perfectly seamless continuation of the deeper themes Lynch was originally exploring. Compulsion. Obsession. Existential dread. Nostalgia. The ever-thwarted desire for things to work out and the ineffability of good and evil, which can be entirely human, or perhaps something trans-human and totally un-killable. For me, the most harrowing moment wasn’t the Return to Sparkwood and 21, or the shrieking Laura in a drug-addled date with death—it was the moment in the final segment of “Part XVII” where Can-Do, Super-Positive Cooper’s face faltered for just a minute as though he’d seen into an abyss of infinite sorrow and realized no one was going to save anyone, and that image of his face was superimposed over the rest of the scene as it unfolded. " -Amy Glynn, Paste
I could insert some cryptic tie in with some looming national dystopia, of what happens when the tiny little thread tugged by Monica L. in the early 90s at last undoes the sweater of patriarchal authority and the incestuous ogre below the power tie facade comes tumbling out like the guts of a rotted pumpkin, and yet the pumpkin still holds office. But why?

Let me not answer.

Let at least one older white guy refrain (and it ain't easy) from 'validating' the movement through his paternal approval (let me be seen, oh lord, to be on the 'winning' side) or vainly trying to stem the tide with some warning of overreach (let the tide stop, oh lord, before it reaches my house). It's not my fight anymore. From the center of a shooting range target crossfire, as lambs and lunatics spread votes and denial like rose petals before the Big White Straight Dude as he splashes and raves against the constricting collar as his pen is shortened to make all the other pens the same size as his, maybe Lynch alone understands and hopes you will too, that we cannot escape, so we must assume our role with the good humor of bad guy wrestlers.

But his demon fathers go way darker than just the showmen; his films always have some dark venomous monster at their center, a malignant low gravity that is too deep to ever be fully conscious...  in most of us. In dreams you'll find him there, and sometimes you'll find him in positions of unassailable public trust.

Let us pray Lynch isn't one of them.

I don't think he is, because, like Shaw's Mr. Underschaft, the external debauched demon often glows with a secret sweet soul, so naturally the incalculable evil in Lynch's world reflects a well-exorcised spirit. (his demons are on film; their steam pressure vented).

====


Is this perhaps the core of the American nightmare? The more you try to rise above it, the deeper and darker it becomes as it slithers below like a reptilian overlord of lower chakra desire and menace -- we need never even ask ourselves if we're capable of his crimes, or able to stop him.. for long; we can't edit our dreams or submit our nightmares to the feminist censorial scissor.
+++


The farther I get in years the more I'm drawn to writing about the highs and lows of the drug and alcohol experience, especially during this alleged epidemic of opiate addiction and withdrawal opening up hitherto untormented swaths to the agonies of hell in a time-stopped sludge of horror. As I move forward in life it's this hell, more than the giddy rush of first timers and the profound spiritual tour book of psychedelia, that intrigues me. And seeing 'The Return' as a portrait of this kind of drug psychosis, it clicks into place real nice.

For one who captures the extremities of the drug experience -- from giddy highs to terrifying hell-like lows -- it's fascinating that Lynch points out those same experiences can be attained naturally (through deep mediation):
"When your consciousness stars expanding, those experiences are there. All those things can be seen. It's just a matter of expanding that ball of consciousness. And the ball of consciousness can expand to be infinite and unbounded. It's totality. You can have totality. So all those experiences are there for you, without the side effects of drugs.”

For example, more than anything is the chain of manipulation for money for the day's fix that occurs inevitably. To be close friends with a junky is inevitably to be borrowed or stolen from, to be romantically attached to one is to watch one's finances drain to debt. The scenes at the Diner seem there basically there to purely show Shelly (Madchen Amick's) daughter (Amanda Seyfried) begging money from her (which she in turn begs from Peggy Lipton's Nadine) to give to her angry dope addict husband (a totally unhinged episode-stealing Caleb Landry Jones). Scenes of him going more or less crazy at home, flying around their trailer in a vicious rage (the same trailer park, incidentally, operated by Harry Dean Stanton from Fire Walk with Me) or with his other girlfriend out in the woods (before, presumably, shooting himself) end the whole thread ends with a shrug but before then--the ferociously 'present' actor Landry gives us one of the more harrowing pictures of drug withdrawal I've seen in years --anyone addicted to opiates or benzos whose run out and been forced to cold turkey it to the point of homicidal desperation, will relate, but the idea that his habit is being paid for by the three sweet-souled women at the diner is infuriating. At the same time, Lynch gives Seyfried's character the chance to see and feel the glories of life while super high - her dilated eyes wide and astounded grin as she looks up at the sky from her man's convertible. The highs and lows of 'the life' all come apparent. In junkie-dom the middle ground between heaven and hell is all stripped away.

I mention that because -- as readers of this blog know -- I use drug analogies for almost everything, but that's just shorthand, based on my own distant past experiences, for unusual states of mind that are both recreated and analyzed in various films I delve into. The thing with Lynch's experiences is they are so unique to himself, and maybe a few other 'naturally high' surrealists like Lynch and Bunuel. I too can access them now via meditation and also from memory, because I've been up there. So when I see David Patrick Kelly screaming in the middle of the woods because his foot is talking to him, I know that by his Guatemalan Burning Man-sun faded attire, he's probably on a lot of shrooms or acid  (I'd say mescaline, he seems like the type -- but no one does mescaline anymore, do they? Even I only did it once.)


I can relate, but gone is the tang in my saliva I used to get watching The Trip or any of the other psychedelic classics I've delved into over the years on this site. I no longer pine for the local fame of my Syracuse acid rock band, nor do I crave the giddy euphoria that used to be all I could remember. Now I remember the mornings after, the feeling of adult-sized hangovers and the kind of depression that used to overtake me after a wild upstate weekend of drugs, sex, and rock, coming home to my parent's house in NJ, and another week of my crappy temp job. more I think and write about it, so it's from a different place, one where memory of the past becomes garbled in a kind of idealized melancholy. Seeing a pretty girl on the street doesn't drive me insane with irrational possessive insecurity, but just a fleeting longing, like remembering the girl in the white dress on the ferry ala Bernstein in Citizen Kane. I could be projecting or Lynch is in the same pleasant boat, thus the third season lacks that same eye for gorgeous youth - the young girls now tend towards the damaged, so while Sky Fierra shows up in a few scenes for some pointless dialogue, the emphasis is on her scabby meth-addict teeth and skin, the telltale signs of a lift on the street that are hard to get just right but which Lynch always manages (ala the briefly seen streetwalker in Mulholland Drive)



But a bit of magic occurred when in episode 8 the now legendary stretch of space between the A-bomb detonation and the arrival of Laura Palmer's soul on the TV screen earth, when what we were watching was nothing less than avant garde video art expressionism, the kind of thing we'd otherwise find only in college art history film classes or underground film festivals (and now can be seen on Filmstruck! - look also for the Fire Walk with Me extra - a whole separate film of deleted scenes that Lynch edited as a parallel movie - a must!)

The Origin of Starbucks - the End of age-appropriate carnal relations

CHANCE AS MEANING GENERATOR:

For meaning is the ultimate form of meaninglessness.
or was that vice versa-  yes.

The more obvious the connection, the less 'pure' the surrealist goal.

I've long since wanted to build a random meaning machine - not unlike the I Ching - wherein any two items might be entered with any one theme and a meaning gleaned within three steps- one was to be a film that is continually playing - 500 various unrelated scenes, and glimpses of

Some might call that a ruthless attack on meaning - but it's not necessarily so.

as any gambler will tell you, don't do Mistress Random Chance the discourtesy of presuming there's no method to her madness (gamblers are often deliberately unlucky in love just to be lucky at cards - the only times I was ever lucky at cards was when I was heartbroken etc.)

PARANOIA:

Check out this thread, guaranteed to remind you of all the paranoid narcissist neurotics in your life, as real people try to glean numerological messages from flickers of light in the end tag of Lynch-Frost productions, or in flickering airplane windows!

I enjoy this kind of insanity as it's not contagious the way some of the Monarch 7  / Satanic panic is - which as I've written Twin Peaks compares to with the idea that, like the atomic bomb that opens the portal between the lodges and our plane of reality (?), so too does catastrophic damage wrought on the developing female psyche by incest and other Satanic abuses, which create a  kind of demonic force, ripping open the space-time continuum via a kind of mirror reverse gaze splitting of the subject (splitting the psyche along the personal and collective level, in other words, just as the Manhattan Project splits the atom, the incest of Laura Palmer, her murder, split the collective psyche, opening  a gateway between reality and dreams. And it's for this purpose, in fact, that such horrors are generally performed! The demon, wanting to manifest on this plane, seduces a susceptible human into welcoming it in through traumatic violence, the demon grants power in exchange for a human sacrifice - corrupt the virtues of your own child, and thou shalt be master of the universe- but really it's so the trauma creates a rupture in 3-D space time -- it makes a slight hole in the wall between the worlds (which is why hauntings occur around the scenes of murders and atrocities).

Torture a person long enough, they'll 'remember' the witches sabbaths they attended, they will name onto you the persons there and who did or didn't you know what the arse of Lucifer. Hypnotize a kid and go deep enough they'll either remember some kind of occult basement ritual involving all sorts of sexually depraved initiations, sex with parents and neighbors and demonic chanting robes; hynotize an adult, they'll remember going aboard a space craft and being probed by aliens. The question arises: is it all the same - does prolonged intensity, trigger either FMS (False Memory Syndrome) or does it kick loose the barriers put there around our minds, the way a sandcastle hems in a piece of the ocean suddenly kicked open by a bored child as the tide rolls over it.

Hold that "thought" for a moment dear listener... but you can't. It's already gone, until lifetimes from now someone tortures or hypnotizes it out of you.

Whether you had nightmare about being tortured in the bathroom by the long bony fingers of a giant mental patient in a gurney with tubes trailing out of his wrists and neck (as I did) as a scared shitless six year-old, or like me as a 23 year-old, were drunk and horrified by the 'cop-out' answer to who killed Laura Palmer in seasons 2 (more on that later), you know now that Bob exists. He is in us - he is here he is now and he is not a nice person, yet apparently he doesn't betray his friends - only does he kill his many betrayers - for he cannot apparently die.

Trauma creates black-outs so in undergoing trauma people lose memory and in this act can people be programmed to kill. I had a blackout just listening to the horror of frat guys talking at a dry rush. I came to running up to see my friend Amy to cry on her bed. What was said was so misogynistic and vile I blocked it out. Could this not be a tool? But also might that not be what trauma is as far as initiation ceremony? The initiates of ancient tribes had to undergo terrifying purification rituals, was this torture not a kind of black out mind control, or boot camp 'hazing' or even just a hard slap when you're in hysterics? We so demonize abuse and violence it never occurs to us (maybe to Lynch, Polanski and to Kubrick) the extent to which it structures our entire consciousness.

Fitting that in our century of collage and retro-revival, 25 years later season is being assembled, the capitalist ogres are in power again, the revolution goes underground and all the mistakes our Nazi grandparents made standing idly by while maniacs ran amok, and so now we're condemned to repeat all the same shiite, remakes and retreads,
and all the while the tiny little thread tugged by Monica L. in the early 90s has slowly
unknit the sweater of patriarchal authority and now
the incestuous ogre below the power tie facade comes tumbling out
like the guts of a rotted pumpkin. David Lynch saw it all coming
by the signposts of the past.
Not history, but fairy tales --Jungian and neurotics
But we didn't listen, or rather couldn't remember for the primal dad is so deep in our collective consciousness we never even know he's there,
no matter how often Lynch depicts him. He's too deep to see, and thank god, for what if there's nothing there but nostalgia and benign sexism?
Would we know, or just block it out?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Brecht and the Single Girl: PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT (1973)


If you're confused about why Italy continually undoes the soundness of the Euro, Elio Petri's PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT, a nihilistic anti-capitalist Brechtian satire from 1973, can surely clarify for you toute suite. Short answer: too many commies. They got a funny idea about money.

The plot hinges on the concept of identity theft as having the power to crash whole neural networks, as a neurotic bank teller Total (Flavio Bucci - the blind pianist in Suspiria) who becomes obsessed with stealing the signifiers of a rich, corrupt butcher's (Ugo Tognazzi) ID -his hat, knife, car, even mistress-- Total steals it all. Launching himself on an absurdist Harpo-cum-Karl Marxist freak-out, Total starts by quitting his bank teller job by daring to burn a lire note in his boss's office ("that's sacrilege!" the boss exclaims). Total justifies his crazy crime spree by not stealing any cash: "I'm a Mandrakian Marxist," he says "I only steal what I need." Daria Nicolodi is Anita, the butcher's mistress, who at first welcomes Total as a sexually intriguing diversion, then pins hope as a possible escape aid, but she's too smart to believe there's anywhere to run that wouldn't just be here. Salvo Randone plays Total's shell-shocked dad, who's in total denial of his son's proclivities (by refusing to believe his son's a thief, he's able to enjoy the caviar guilt-free).

Rome: Open City - where a cop on duty outside the store laments
he's in uniform, so can't loot any bread for himself - he  has ethics
The title is a satiric riff on old anarchist slogan, a common enough refrain in European genre movies of the late 60s, when commie ideology was snuck into movie dialogue by leftist filmmakers like Fernando di Leo and Giuliu Questi.

But why!? Why let Marx muddle their post-war reconstruction and keep them a wealth-redistribution obsessed economy nigh these 70 years? Stealing in time of necessity has long been a no-brainer to the Italians (i.e. the 'bread riots' of the 1940s - as seen in Rome: Open City for example - left ) and not feel a twinge of guilt. Italian and French pop culture long celebrates master thieves like Diabolik and crime--if done on an upward angle (rob from the richer)--was depicted as a kind financial vigilanteism (while even today if you visit to Rome people will tell you to keep your money and passport in a concealed money belt at all times). ). You might call that kind of behavior a lot of things: a kind of laissez-faire communism, for example --but it makes sense to not starve while rich people stuff themselves on sweets the other side of the shop window - the kind of thing one finds in Dickens and Griffith one doesn't find in Rome. Eventually, even the noble father in Bicycle Thief does it, after frittering away his remaining money on a meal (after passing up numerous free ones), and the wife spends the rest on a psychic to find out how long they'll be poor. Thus looting the bakery is both immoral and the highest kind of sanity for a people so locked into provincial pride and thinking due to Catholic guilt trips they can't see tomorrow for the nose on their face (i.e. the bakery won't open tomorrow or any day as they can't afford more flour due to not having any $$).

Property is No Longer a Theft is a child of that mindset, in more ways than one. It's on Blu-ray from Arrow, and looks and sounds great, but--if you don't believe in money and have a Prime subscription, you can pretend your stealing it as its streaming free. Just don't wonder if Arrow suddenly doesn't have any money for new restorations. It's your fault.


What drew me to it initially (aside from being enthralled by Petri's earlier masterpiece A Quiet Place in the Country) was a recommendation from horror film historian Tim Lucas who pointed out its near-giallo greatness, and indeed he's right - there may not be a crazed killer on the loose, but Total does threaten people with a knife; Ennio Morricone delivers one of his most surreal scores; Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveller twists the frame with portentous shadows and expressionist angles (lots of doors within doors), and longtime Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi (1) looms tall and ungainly sexy as Anita, the mistress --when she lets loose a deep throaty laugh during one of her Brechtian fourth wall addresses, you might get an instant chill as you recognize its masculine depths from so many Argento classics (it's the same laugh from Phenomena, when daring Jennifer Connelly to call her insects, or the mocking, snarling demoness at the climax of Suspiria). Since Bucci looks more than a little like Dario Argento himself (with a Dog-eared dash of a young Pacino) it would be easy to see this as a kind of deranged reflection of the Argento-Nicolodi collaborative canon (1), with the Butcher representing typical 'red telephone' Italian filmmaking at the time, and Argento like the mad genius who steers Daria free.

This all helps keep its odd mix of police corruption satire (the insurance-cops-rich-thief ring or wealth transference) from getting too mired in either didactic dissertation (In standard Brechtian practice, characters break the narrative flow to speak directly to the camera / audience) or Polanski-style young man-older-man-woman triangle power trip. Weird characters pop up to keep you guessing: the droop-eyed chief of detective (Orazio Orlando) who seems like he's either fishing for a bribe or trying to trap the butcher into a confession with a sense of conspiratorial camaraderie ("If you're not afraid of having it stolen," he notes, during the insurance tally, "you can't enjoy your wealth"); a cross-dressing master thief Albertone (Mario Scaccia) teaches Total the trade (and Total only taxes his weak, albeit big-as-all-outdoors queer heart with his irrational Ledger Joker-x-Harpo Marxist nonsense) and there's a dyke-ish fence played in a kind Lotte Lenya's Contessa Magda in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-style resonant post-glam played by Cecillia Pollizi.

Not to mention Diabolik in a blink-and-miss cameo:

Diabolik dies in a posion gas-filled car at a security expo in Property is No Longer a Theft
A real unhappy even if trenchant thread in the film is the dissatisfaction of Anita, and her feeling of being a sexual object. It's a rather sad in a reflection of the same animosity towards sex we see in a lot of neorealist and nouvelle vague works of the time, notably Godard and Antonioni (i.e. make sure her legs are crossed just so and her breasts heaving while she makes her plea to be treated as something other than a butcher shop display). When Anita starts naming her various parts while addressing the camera, Petri might be referencing the first part of Godard's Contempt (the scene --added on by producer Levine's insistence that the film include some Bardot nudity), or --the theme that clouded the mind of Nero's artist in A Quiet Place in the Country, one of the classic devil's bargains of European film in the 50s-70s, the relationship of the sex-hungry producer to the idealistic auteur.



By 1973, though, it's a bit didactic to go into such well-churned territory, but this darkened zone--where a girl can feel objectified but still enjoy the sex and get enough of her rocks off--does leave space for Nicolodi to--as Nero and Redgrave did for Quiet Place in the Country--quietly fill up her character with traits and moments that divulge themselves--Farber termite-style--subtly, on repeat viewing. Watcg her face for example after the butcher instructs her to cry over the 'stolen' items from Total's first robbery, when Pierelli is there helping calculate the total for the insurance (he actually stole way more than Total did, and hid the booty in a suitcase in the basement). Facing close to the camera in close-up we see her crying increase and decrease based on Pirelli's proximity; when it starts to grate on the butcher's nerves, she stops abruptly and cuts into a vague smile, barely able to reign in her delight at the thought of getting more expensive and useless stuff.


We know in the asides she's neither happy nor totally miserable in the life of basically a contracted--albeit relatively well-treated--sex-worker: she doesn't have to play second fiddle to some harridan wife - the pair live together without any tinge of Catholic guilt, with a housekeeper; she has a nice job as the cashier at the butcher shop, showing he trusts her, and he buys her expensive things like nice, presumably real, pearls. She can put up with his macho abuse, aware that, in her own words to the audience, if she wasn't here she'd be somewhere else. She doesn't consider the rest of us, addressed directly, there in some imagined air-conditioned little Italian cinema, to be any less trapped. At least she's free to enjoy her trap as best she can, rather than just banging her head against the bars in a futile attempt to impress some far-away feminist studies professor.

The chamelonic sexual personae of Daria: with long black hair as passive mistress (PROPERTY 1973); as can-do, sexually assertive reporter (DEEP RED 1975)
Bearing the meta-textuality still further, we find the butcher and Anita going to the adult movie show where he threatens to "send her back to work at the bar" if she doesn't obediently go down on him. He also hits her when frustrated, which doesn't seem to foster any resentment beyond a fleeting feeling of shock. On the other hand, he does go down on her --which we know is a rarity for macho Italian shitheads -pozzo nero de bambini. It's something one very rarely sees in any movie. Taken in whole, his slapping around and her whining to the camera almost seem like last minute efforts to taint what is essentially the only coherent romantic relationship we see in the film. Everyone else is stunted - the world of backwards men, Total and his father, the crazy cop, the drag queen gang of fur thieves, etc. Say what you want about Anita and the butcher - they work. They're flawed, but they're functional,  in one scene, while she counts out the day's receipts in a drowsy, enraptured voice, and the pair seem to share a certain post-coital simpatico that captures the way long-term casual sexual relationships sometimes are. When she abruptly stops the action by announcing she's hungry and wants a steak; he agrees and gets up and there's a moment they share of simpatico alignment, the way the trappings of love and family are avoided in favor of a long term desire entrainment, the languid way two lovers disengage and prepare to go get something to eat, not really looking at each other but totally aligned. free of all other worries, since pleasure and convenience are the focus, and not a

When you see these names in the credits, pounce! 
It may not add up to much, but what really makes this a keeper--and this is so true of so many otherwise merely mediocre Italian films--is the touch of gold that is an Ennio Morricone score. Why more composers don't endeavor to follow his lead--the use of antithetical counterpoint and surreal minimalism--is one of cinema's great tragedies. Most composers try to show off all the stuff they learned in music school with a lot of mickey mousing orchestral pomp when one jew's harp and a lady whispering urgently but incoherently over discordant guitar stings would work so much better. Has Ennio ever done a bad score? Certainly this is one of his weirdest and most memorable (and it's on Spotify!) especially during the strange opening credits, which play over an overlapped densely brilliant colored pencils sketch of all the principle players on paper that resembles marble (but with lire notes for veins) while heavy breathing repetitions of "I.... have" ("avere! av-ere!") pulse over whooshing rumbles of timpani ocean undercurrent.  Elsewhere little two-note jabs highlight ominous electric bass lines, stabby little mountain king strings and cycling piano riffs foreshadow similar pulsing passages in the Oscar-winning Morricone score for Tarantino's recent Oscar-winning Hateful Eight! (Hey, we all steal from ourselves - and it suits the subject matter)

Ultimately, the main problem with Theft is a not uncommon one for anti-establishment movies of the period, which get so busy critiquing the current system, and rebelling against it, that they run out of room to find an alternative meaning. Do communist intellectuals seriously think they'll ever weed the Stalin reality out of their Trotskyist idealism by attacking capitalism's status quo?

Sellers takes aim at bourgeois values - The Magic Christian (1969)
MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL PRINTED-GREEN PAPER

An example of this same problem can be found in 1969's The Magic Christian (above)--a satire of consumer culture not unlike Property-- which finds bored millionaire Peter Sellers and his nephew Ringo learning about the world through staging of some very elaborate (and presumably overpriced) 'freak outs' of standard bowler-and-brolly London-suburb train commuters. You can all but trace the thought lines of these little gags back to a time when access to free high-quality LSD woke artists up to the handrails and structure of society, so the sudden awareness of the absurdity of money and other social mores as aesthetic things in and of themselves are made absurd. When you're tripping the whole idea of money starts to become too abstract to handle: it's no longer 'invisible' as a symbol for goods and services but a pocketful of green portraits of old men in weird wigs. These strange knotty faces seem to be smiling and winking at you, struggling to move; en verso, the eye in the pyramid follows you around the room, pulling you in towards it like a tractor beam. The fact that 'normal' people don't notice these things is even funnier. "Living is easy with eyes closed" - so the tripper becomes interested in opening people's eyes to the world's absurdity, even if only for a few flash moments, like one of Jerry Garcia's onstage backflips: pranksters like Ken Kesey and his magic bus pulling over on some random small town main street to run amok for five minutes, then disappear - leaving the sleepy town to wonder if they were just a mass hallucination.

BUT all that stuff had a bad ending in the States - it spun out of control too fast - too many idiots taking too much too often, then clogging up the ER the minute they think they're dying (i.e. the 'only fools rush in' preliminary bad trip bardos); the logistics of the endless stream of runaway kids turning Golden Gate Park into a giant toilet. It was a revolution with nowhere to go.

Take that, my little corrupt Italian capitalist system!

But in Europe, there was a movement of intellectuals ready to absorb the psychedelic culture shocks with deadpan bemusement of the time: Antonioni, whose earlier work like Red Desert explored, in a much more abstract, intellectual way, the collapse of structuralism (in other words, even sober they were hip to the abstract aesthetic absurdity of bank notes) connected with the turned-on generation in such a way as to help form it (via Blow-up), leading to the idea that by keeping your behavior totally random and embracing a kind of abstract chaos magic approach to life you can shimmy loose from the symbolic structure of society and become 'free' without having to run naked, screaming, down fifth avenue with Ginsberg poetry written all over your body in Day-Glo paint.

Even so, some symbols - like 'stop' signs are better left heeded for their symbolic message rather than regarded purely as red octagons posing abstract contrast with the muddy crossroad behind them. you can topple the entire financial system if you're not careful; you can drift so far off the grid you can't get back. It's fine if you want to live your life that way, but you screw with the welfare of criminals and at your own risk, and you better take that risk seriously. Vanessa Redgrave isn't playing around.

(see also: Through a Dark Symbol).

Pull the string!
That's the core of what's missing in Petri's Theft - which shows the all-importance of having a good star at the center of a work like this: the closest thing we have to a person to root for is either Albertone, the beloved cross-dressing leader of a queer gang of jewel robbers who-- their identity as maligned subculture perhaps leading them towards a group loyalty--are truly grieved by his passing. (though he only shows up in the last third). This being a time when queerness was portrayed in giallos as a sign of freaky transgression - the conflicted self, expressed literally in a common enough drag sight back in the day--the half-man/half-woman literal split (below)--this reserving of our bulk sympathy for the drag performer shows that beyond its gawker habit, Petri's film has a genuine heart and respect for humanity and artistic perception. If you can admit your confusion, you earn a pass.

But the price of true post-structuralist realization--of stepping free of the bullshit-- is complete paralysis. Hemmings with the ghost tennis ball in his hand like a punter. Without real money, and real balls - the void stretches past even new life and new civilizations - it boldly goes where no man has gone before... but leaves you standing there, just a focal point for nada.

One happy little family, pre-Total
You know where I'm going with this: America got around this issue with a show called Star Trek where private property and money didn't exist and a perfect utopia was formed - albeit in the future. America couldn't afford to be nihilistic about money for now. Things were bad enough now to worry about anything beyond the next paycheck: we had used up all our nihilism cards on our all-consuming hobby, Vietnam. But the Cold War helped externalize the red menace so we didn't have to fight it in the mirror, unlike some people. ahem.

We also had our own problems: especially in early 70s. New York City was almost as bad as Rome - maybe worse (less pick-pocketing, more murders). Funny, but hardly surprising, that we took the opposite approach of Italy, who tended to idolize the crooks. For us, it was the reverse, we decided to invoke our second amendment rights and make a stand. So... Diabolik, Total, whatever your dumb names are, you and your commie prevert friends may run riot in Italy, but if you try to pull any of that shit in NYC, well, we gotta guy comin' knows just how to deal with punks like you.

See you soon, pally!
(Charles Bronson Death Wish - 1974)
FURTHER READING:

1. See 'Woman is the Father of Horror' - which I argue that a lot of the success of the great horror auteurs comes from their female writing/producing partners - i.e. Debra Hill, Daria Nicolodi, Gale Ann Hurd.
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