Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: The Year of Apocalyptic Texas Cinema & The Death of the Fixed Narrative Perspective

Finally I saw NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN last night, after four frustrated attempts (where I got spooked by the disorganized pandemonium of the 14th St. Union Sq. theater). Even getting there 20 minutes early, my date and I had to sit in separate seats, luckily we grabbed the wheelchair-man-alone ones along the aisle, and passed our smuggled stuffs back and forth as if the aisle between us was some U.S.-Mexico drug border of the mind. I had some vague feeling of pleasure when I saw the outrage and dismay on the faces of those who came in after us when they saw all the empty seats covered, sometimes barely, with coats and hats. I saw them try to refrain from yelling--especially the long term couples--and hissing at each other to maybe just leave and duck into something else and/or see the manager, knowing full well there would be no manager, and no other films about Texas..with Texas and the Coen's million dollar mcguffin a fine but ignored metaphor for picking up the coats left as markers on the best seats and just hurling them into the front row.

This is the state of America: Apocalypse, Texas. Texas has become shorthand for a nice Road Warrior-sense of lawlessness, the "grab land from a Mexican and marry Liz Taylor"-style wildcatting of our most gas-conscious American fantasies. All big empty horizons and harmonicas in the wheezing mouths of skeletons, the Coen's are back on familiar ground, as I'm sure has already been written. They love big empty canvasses and then close-ups of cramped, mercilessly tacky interiors and hands with money and screwdrivers, and most of all they love circles... lots of circles. The thrill left for me this late in the game was in deconstructing the impression the film made on all my fellow audience members. By now we've been innundated with NO COUNTRY's critical praise. No man has escaped bearing witness to NO COUNTRY's late-inning sprint to greatness in the mediated collective consciousness. At any rate, I haven't. So seeing it now in the theater is not like you've latched onto a sleeper. But is NO COUNTRY even a real film? It seems more like a crossroads, a destination at which to wait for Godot, a diner filled with a unique cross-section of America, waiting for the birds or the mist, or the blob to come attack. Only in this case it's not a monster, but the apocalypse itself and there's no defence, no walls, no borders.

The weird ending of NO COUNTRY is like the hand of your soon-to-die or already-dead father or grandfather reaching out of your own heart and pulling you into the screen and letting you know you never really lost it to begin with. There's no place like home, even if home is a movie theater where not even a pretty hipster couple can find seats together in the same time zone. You'd run, but there's no place to run...a sniper's scope or a pop-up ad will find you. America, where you thought yourself so safe from things like buckshot and coat-seat-markers, has become a tomb; worse than being walled up with your decomposinng father or a yowling black cat, you're walled up with a Dodge Ram truck commercial on endless loop.

What makes NO COUNTRY great really, in the end, is that it paves the way for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. The wild west eulogies are open for business and uber alles looms Kubrick (another big circle lover), his SHINING blood will be flowing and mixing with Upton Sinclair's black-sperm vengeance. The way's been paved and it's a half-pipe, so your kids can snowboard you to Valhalla (or hella). Word. Woot. Happy New Year, you old savings and loan, Zodiac watch-wearing scythe swiper of time! The fixed-positioin viewer-narrator is dead, long live the CSI "omnarrator!" The very old and the very new have found each other. Your kids have cobbled together a grandfather out of bits of old microfiche and silent cinema boxes, and they've cut you out of the loop. Where you gonna look now, scarecrow?

Let 2007 stand as the year the Coens showed us how death really works, just as Tarantino showed us how being DEATH-PROOF no longer works, not even for old men who have nothing left to lose but their center aisle seats. Now raise a glass of the bio-diesel and let's ring in the new automorphic new year!

Chrissie Hynde Vs. Dracula

No cinematic version of Dracula has yet bothered to capture the real romance at the heart of Bram Stoker's novel: the platonic love affair between one girl and four admiring men: Van Helsing, Harker, that cowboy dude, and Mina. The affliction of having been victimized by the vampire --who is never portrayed as romantic or sympathetic in the book--has put Mina into a sort of twilit telepathic contact with the creature... she can go into a trance and feel all his sensory perception - the sound of the lapping waves and the smell of sea air for example, lets the hunting party know their vampire quarry is on the boat.

Similarly is the band the Pretenders: before they broke up and lost two of their members they released two great albums, Pretenders and Pretenders 2. All the critics agree the first album is clearly superior and I wont argue on whatever points they make, but I'll say that Pretenders 2 is my favorite. Yeah there's some songs where it's like who cares, like "Jealous Dogs" and "The Adultress" that seems like they're just out of ideas and somewhat cowed by the sudden success of their previous album. But on the songs they clearly took their time with, you got some real great heartbreak with the whole Ray Davies thing, them being in love, having a kid and the gut-wrenching song "Two Birds of Paradise." And then my personal favorite, "The English Roses." Why do I love it? The bass, man. That's a bass player's song. And yet I can't even remember the guy's name.

One of the things that make the band so great is the relation of these debauched fleeting mortal Brits to Ohio ex-pat Chrissie Hynde, who brings a sense of misguided nurturing, the sort of girlfriend that's not girly but plays as rough as the boys and yet is twice the vulnerable girl. The sense you get of them in a song is this girl getting onto her feet after some traumatic experience and still tough as nails, and her band of fellas backing her up with their wooden stakes at the ready and not a trace of fear in their hearts due to their sense of brotherhood and collective love for her. This was the sort of love the lads all felt for Queen Elizabeth or Guinevere in the days of Arthur. The Brits and Jack White and I understand, even if the dumbasses like Xander and Lancelot don't, Chrissie. Not all love is cock and bull; some transcends everything, even the duality of good and evil, of sex and no sex, of absence and presence-- this is the sort of love worth dying for, even if it is in a car crash... and even if that love is connected to the undead Satan himself.


Poppies won't ever blow away

NOTES from Chicago Sheraton, Xmas 2007

Everytime I leave New York I can't believe how "off" my rhythm with the rest of the country is. My image of it now is that you buy a TV and you bring it home and by the time you figure out how to access all the channels, all the channels are telling you need to buy a different TV and new channels. So you do. And when all your money is gone, your family's gone. and your room is so full of technology that all is left is the technology and you, then someone comes and removes you; then all that is left is a device that sees imitation sights about imitation food and hears outtake imitation sound and soon not even that.

The question is, where do they take you when you're trash? What's going on at the dump? That's where the action must be, even without Godfrey Parks.

I'm watching Wizard of Oz on TNT, and Ray Bolger would brave a whole boxful of matches to get some brains, and yet in America we're giving them away half price. We're letting the giant alien vacuum suck 'em on up out of us and peddle 'em off to any scarecrow with a wheelbarrow big enough to hold a ton... because that's the smallest increment we want to bother with.

Now they're already at the Tin Man, and he wants a heart, and what's a heart to these people? It's the half-baked attempt to cater to pro-lifers that is the "other opinion" on Britney's sister's baby on CNN --which I flip to during the commercial.

Let's not forget TNT itself which shows this film and has to constantly announce you're watching TNT and that SHREK is up next. SHREK hiply eschews the archetypal subtext of "original" myths like Wizard of Oz. It also reduces any worrisome "human" element.

Cartoon voices of course can be drained of human elements via their constant relying on satirical imitations of other voices. Jack Black is the best intimation of this. He moves from one "fake voice" to another and if he does get left without a handy option and is forced to assume his own, all that's left is this high register bitch of a whine.

Rachel Ray is a classic example of someone whose "personality" has caught on with a big enough demographic to warrant having it preserved as it is filtered through the dehumanizing machine all the actresses submit to. Most are compelled to strip their individuality away to a dull CGI-bearing make-up layered uniformity, but Rachel's is hurried through under a fire blanket and flanked by bodyguards in sunglasses.

Back to the Wizard. I've been down I'll admit, love troubles, man. But I perk up when I see Bert Lahr and his fey macho lion swagger. Doesn't everyone? Always? Then there's the drugs of the poppy fields, and of course the classic multi-exposure revolution of Dorothy's face when she gets knocked out in the tornado... the alter-dimensional re-imagining of the basic mythic wandering of the hero in the form of the heroine, this time in Dorothy form, Dorothy which is my 97 year-old grandmother's name, Dorothy, whom we're here to visit.

The modern updating of this coolest of all surviving American myths, what would they be needing to make them unique to our time? WILD AT HEART tried to reimagine the Wizard scenario as a run for your money road movie set to Barry Gifford dialogue; SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had Buffalo Bill sure to get a heart (in his fridge); and the scarecrow Lecter and the Jack Crawford the Wizard.

This is your last chance, these Disney classics are going back into the vault. "Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?"

The fake laughter of "how we laugh the day away in the merry old land of Oz" with its couple of tra-la-las. Capitalism's evil is apparent in the actions of the wizard: pay no attention to man behind the forests, powering up his fleet of tractor tin men. The lion's song is all about scoring the bling; he wants satin, not cotton or14th St. chintz. The sign in front of the witch's forest reads: I'd turn back if I were you. It might read that, but what it says is something different. It's designed to enhance your fear and thus give your overcoming it all the more value.

"All in good time, dearie... all in good time." Has anyone ever said that phrase only once? Repetition is also the key to authenticity. We are so saturated with this film that we live it and speak it and breathe it (and if your brain said "reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it"). If we don't incorporate the film's symbols into our personal dream mythology maybe it is only because we haven't the will to make these things real. We should have an "Initiation of the Dorothy" theme park ride, wherein you pay money for your daughter to get banged on the head and sent to the Oz finishing school of instant-enlightenment. Instead she has to shave her head, join a lesbian youth gang, pop pills and drink vodka, or otherwise seek her own pre-prince's kiss oblivion. (and by prince here I mean, prince of the self, of her own unconscious, you dime-store feminist surface scratcher!)

There's no place like home is Dorothy's mantra. "There's no place like home" "There's no place like Ommmm" - after the search through the capitalist layers of meaning - where bling and long rides with champagne are just ruby slippers and baskets of goodies for grandma what big ass you have... what do we get to take home to NYC?

The smell of pig shit permanently part of the Chi-town landscape and long, long horizons, my dearie. Kansas is the bog of the soul. If you can love the pig shit, you are as close to free as any of us dare. Ride the train on over from the plains to the slaughterhouse, and give your black and white day-to-day the ruby red slip.

(Cue Marlon Brando harmonica music)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Great Old Drunk Writers and their Great Big Black Death

Oh I get it, with the sunglasses and the white shirt and the black tie, he looksh like a skeleton himshelf.

I'm finally getting around to watching the Criterion DVD of UNDER THE VOLCANO. I was waiting for a crisis moment like this post-Christmas pre-New Years ennui. John Huston is clearly doing an ALL THAT JAZZ thing here, only instead of being more or less autobiographical, he taps into the "universal" self he shares with all the great drunken white male writers of America, such as: Malcolm Lowry, Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston made the similar "Night of the Iguana.") Every great writer has been led by the wicked bottle into a boxing ring too big and byzantine to ever emerge from triumphant... For what is it to be alcoholic and a writer, but to dance 100 proof rounds with middleweight champion Death? Immortality, that's the champion belt for the real artist, the real drunk artist, that is.

On the other hand, there's the pre-chewed immortality of post-70s cinema.. the Spielberg years and beyond. Uh oh, you think, here he goes again, about to get all pouncy on Richard Dreyfuss in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. But no, man. Spielberg has clearly seen the light of his wrongdoing, as the genetically re-masculated subtexts of WAR OF THE WORLDS and PRIVATE RYAN make semi-clear. Instead, I'm talking about Huston, and UNDER THE VOLCANO. And while we're on the subject, where the hell is Huston's FREUD (1961), starring Montgomery Clift? 

Where, indeed, is Freud, not just on DVD but anywhere? Once upon a time our screens were awash in Freudian symbolism and 'perversion.' And Williams was his prophet. Is he really someone we should just "outgrow" like we outgrew the mullet, poodle skirts and Bob Denver? Seeing Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER again recently, I thrilled to Freud's continued relevance in our 21st century nation of hunger artist Britney birds. But then, as if by contrast, I followed it with the Paul Newman/Liz Taylor version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and saw how the claws of that play were removed in a weird deal with some obscene church censor. Yea, lord, I bore witness to how the notions of Sigmund were made dogmatic and treacly through compromise. I saw Liz Taylor being allowed to ooze sex in a white nightgown in exchange for forgiveness and acceptance of "god's natural order." A baby by the pretty couple shall lead them! Goober's monsters to the cellar, mendacity is dead! I sneered in contempt as I'd already seen the 'real' version, which featured a daringly boozy defiance to the bitter end... the one done by Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones for Showtime in 1985. There, happiness is in the cards only if Brick relents and sleeps with Maggie in order to get the keys to the liquor cabinet. The stuff that dreams are made of.

As Bob Dylan once sang, and it's a hard / it's a hard... 

Geoffrey the conshulate (Finney) in UNDER THE VOLCANO takes a shower and shivers in the heat in a St. Vitus-honoring way I can assure from firsthand experience is harrowingly accurate; but the art direction is all so spiffy with every 30s car free of Mexican road dirt, and all the little mythic links are perhaps lost on the kids today. You got to maybe point out Geoffrey's blocky black sunglasses are to make him look like a Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton... and even then, you have to point out why. Even on the commentary track they seem oblivious to the meanings, they can only hint that meanings are there, dimly remembered documents deep in an attic too distant and dusty to bother looking for. Thus even on the Dia de los Muertos Finney's just another Merchant Ivory white elephant, staggering invisibly around America's dysfunctional living room, swollen with un-lanced Meaning.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

LAST TANGO IN PARIS: Brando, Butter, Stockholm Syndrome, and the Hot Ass of Death

"... not until you look death right in the face...go right up into the ass of death... till you find the womb of fear”

Damn, I read Pauline Kael's beyond-glowing, deeply transfixed gush of a review for 1972's LAST TANGO IN PARIS at least five years before I actually was old enough to see it (before VHS was readily available) and I admit I was a bit disappointed when it finally can out. But now, five or six big screen viewings later, I agree with her 100%. Well, maybe 75% but that's still pretty good. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone can have a legitimate opinion about this movie until they’ve seen it at least once in an altered state. Ideally, thrice in altered states, three different kinds.

People also say this about Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but in truth 2001 is boring even if you’re on enough Ativan to drop a rhino (unless you see it on a giant 70mm print on a huge curved Cinerama screen). TANGO, however, moves fast, looks beautiful and is sexy too. And no, I wasn’t on anything this time, I didn't need to be. I been up in fear's womb enough times already I can just check in with a phone call, like to my parole officer/sponsor.

The sex is what everyone seems to remember about TANGO, that and the brooding Brando improvisatory monologues (we can see from this film why Francis Ford Coppola would think that just putting Brando in the jungle as Kurz for APOCALYPSE NOW and letting him ramble about wombs and fear would be enough to create a psychedelic experience, but we can also see why it wouldn’t, ultimately, work.) It’s too bad that the majority of film critics fall under the sway of their readership and are ever simplifying cinema, dumbing it down for the rubes, so to speak, in ways Kael refused to. To these modern types, all beholden to reader-beholden advertiser-beholden editors, TANGO can’t be both sexy and serious (i.e. arty). It can’t have Brando asking a girl to stick her fingers in his ass while he rants about pigfucking and be taken seriously as a major work of art. And if we take it as a major work of art, it can't be funny and sexy and bawdy, both misogynistic and feminist, both self-indulgent and transcendental. Brando can’t be a disgusting old man wallowing in degradation and a sexy antihero at the same time. Pick one and don’t make the bourgeoisie angry; they find ambiguity threatening --it challenges their assumptions way too much. Just hearing Brando speak such good French makes them nervous enough. Is he French or isn't he? Has he forgotten were his bread is... Oleo-ed?

Known forever as a dirty sex film with a major star in it, TANGO's reputation is eaten away by the corrosive saliva of prurient tongues. Kael's praise shocked the elite, frightened the censors and helped usher in “adult” moviemaking (back when X-ratings were given to art films like CLOCKWORK ORANGE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY) but--once the smoke clears and the type has all been set--TANGO lacks the pedigree of Kubrick or the revulsion towards sex--gay or straight--exhibited in MIDNIGHT), because TANGO has dirty talk and rewarding no-frills BDSM sex it cannot be seriously reconsidered as a mythic archetypal exploration of fear, desire and death. Bertolucci’s THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS becomes reductively summed up as “that one where Brando uses butter to bugger young Parisian hottie.” It can not be more. At least, not until its officially canonized via a restored print and Q&A at Lincoln Center, replete with full page re-review in the Sunday Times Arts &Leisure section (excuse me while I go throw up -- in a gold-plated bucket).

The more film criticism I read and the more of these sorts of misunderstood movies I rediscover, the more I realize there are two types of filmgoers – the ones who have been "experienced" and the ones who are scared to try. If you go to see TANGO or SCIENCE OF SLEEP or FIGHT CLUB or I HEART HUCKABEES looking for a conventional narrative with happy endings and bad guys getting punished and everything reduced to comfy cliches, you are going to be frustrated, you might even get angry. At the very least, you "wont get it." If you expect bawdy comedy, guns and explosions, or steamy sex or anything you'll be disappointed too. If you expect lofty art or even edgy new wave street-eye Paris, that too... no.

The key to understanding films like TANGO lies in the concept of unfixed identity, of role-play. You must recapture the imagination you had as a child. You must know how to move from adult to child, from errant knight to punch-drunk boxer to nervous accountant as the game changes with your partner's mood. If you’re in an empty room with Maria Schneider for example, and she lifts her arms up and starts running around making buzzing sounds, you have two paths open to you: One is to assume the voice of an air traffic controller describing her flight pattern around the room: "She soars, she turns!" The other is to say, “Maria, what the hell are you doing?” and make her stop. If you’re more likely to pick the second option, then LAST TANGO is not for you. If you want Maria to just disrobe and have missionary position sex and then go make you dinner, then you're Karl Malden in BABY DOLL and we have no use for you. Orgasms are just the punchline to God's own little joke at your expense, Poppa. When you gonna wake up, turn off the TV, and smell the roses on your own grave? You better believe Brando has (smelled yours, I mean. Why won't you smell his?)

The late 1960s and early 1970s were--forgive the cliche--flash-burned by the psychedelic explosion that was the lotus crown to the bloody bottom chakra of Vietnam. People had “tuned in, dropped out” and were able to step outside their pre-scripted societal roles but didn't know yet how to step back into anything but the same ones they'd stepped out of. It's only natural. And the social order sighed with gratitude. They had a point. When you're too free, unless you're inherently 'good' and already an artist, and 'not an idiot', you're a hazard to yourself and others. When such people arrive too much at once with no destination, things happen: riots, accidents, theft and misplaced objects--why, whole governments can vanish (i.e. Paris in May 1968)--and diseases like AIDS can spread faster than wildfire. It's messy; people wind up in the booby hatch or dead for real. When adults play, they play rough and things get broken. They mix up being dead and playing dead (i.e. sacrificially, the straw dog vs. the wicker man). This is why parents will cite their children as “the reason” they can’t trip on the weekend, can't let go of their adult awareness and let it all hang out the way they used to. What they have effectively done is split themselves, like amoeba. Now they have a piece of them to whom they can say: you be the kid and I'll just worry about you hurting yourself, it's much safer than me not worrying about hurting myself, which takes real courage. Put all the psychedelic art in a museum and bring the kiddies... wait in line, buy the souvenir book and shelve it. We rocked, but now it's over.

It's never okay to rock, for these types. It's only to have rocked.

But real art resists the shelf, sneezes and fart when stuffed with grant money and old lady applause; it's messy yet unfurnished, like where Brando and Schneider get together for their trysts. In order to reach this place of fluidity and freedom the pair re-enact various archetypal roles from their childhoods, going deeper and younger as the film goes on, with Brando always bringing in pig shit and other base expletives... It’s kind of a turn off that he keeps doing that, actually; but I finally understand what he’s going for: he’s removing all conceptions of right and wrong and bringing everything back to the anal stage and then farther still, to the womb. It’s a regression back through to infantile development and further, until at the end, which finds Brando’s dead, coiled up in a womb-form, ready to be reborn, like Bowman the star child in 2001, only --we presume--having shit his pants (and put his chewing gum out under the railing like a schoolboy at church.)

The psychedelic experience--which spread from its customary roost in the world of artists and writers down to the general populace/theater audience during the 1960s-70s era--revolves around just this sort of “de-re-generation.” During various stages in the “trip” one might feel like they are dying, but if they’ve got a friend with the Tibetan Book of the Dead handy, urging them to “just flow with it, man,” if they face this death bravely, then they emerge out into a different consciousness, reborn, or as Brando says in the film: “It’s over and then it begins again.” Maybe they'll get to stand in the room of the self like Bowman in 2001, meeting their child self, their older self, their deathbed self, their embryonic self. This is the resurrection of Christ, the snake shedding its skin, the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. It is our psychic birthright to continually re-experience this symbolic transfiguration of the self, but the social order/ego is scared of it, scared of losing control. It lets us have the fun house mirror reflection, via roller coasters, horror films, skydiving, cage matches, meditation, etc., but it denies us the "real" experience provided by mystery rituals, peyote ceremonies, hazing, fighting (not watching it, doing it), overdosing on PCP and needing to be strapped down and given many Xanax. What society tells us to do instead of chasing this dragon, is to procreate and follow the herd, dig our heels in like a child who doesn’t want to go to his first days of school, tune in to CBS for 60 Minutes, to shut the door on our waiting coffin and hide it from our view, to turn the memento mori to the wall. We shouldn't "have" to die, society tells us. But in robbing us of the awareness of our immediate mortality, society, like the ego's distractive capabilities, makes daily life more bearable, but less interesting.

What we should be doing is having our funerals while we're still alive. As Tyler Durden once said: "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything."

But now I'm sermonizing. My point is, to "get" LAST TANGO in its full 3-D effect you don't need to drop acid or join a fight club, but you should try and take your blinders off and be willing to enter into that field of play which I just described. If you see the butter on the floor of your psychic sanctum, don't run out the room; take a deep breath and just go with whatever's gonna happen.

If you have your blinders off, you will see in that butter scene lies a genuine "lesson" that's being played out: Brando wants to try and show the innocent waif Schneider something about her own past – her father’s and by extension France's and by extension all the west’s--evil habit of colonization (accent on the colon). He is literally forcing her forced religion back upon her, making her regurgitate the dogma that is holding her back from full engagement in their womb-space-playpen.

When the blinders are off--when like Neo in the MATRIX you take the "red pill" in whatever form's around-- you realize that while you've been sleepwalking through life all these years, been pinned beneath Death like he's a wrestler kneeling on your arms in gym class, like little Billy Mahoney in FLATLINERS. Death is letting that venomous schoolyard spittle slowly drop down from his mouth down onto yours and there's nothing you can do about it.

When you wiggle free of your sleep mask and behold Death smiling down at you and smell his tombstone breath, you have two options: A) You can close your eyes and pretend you're asleep again, go back to Midge's apartment like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO and forget you're still hanging on the ledge, or B)You can look death in the eye, sip the spittle and go "hmmm-mmm good" and tap the mat signifying your concession to defeat. If you have the willingness and bravery to look up and acknowledge that old Death has you right where he wants you and hey, that spit don't taste so bad after all, then Death immediately jumps off and helps you stand up and you realize it was YOU, your death and you--facing each other but you're one!

And one of the things you see is that the whip and the carrot are the backbone of the social order you called life for all these years. The mature white “adulthood” you think of as holy and warm and safe is just the opposite, and this is what the butter scene is really about. Brando shows Maria that her reverence for her dead soldier father is nothing less than a Disneyfied version of Stockholm Syndrome, which is another word for nothing left to lose; it's not just for hostages anymore, it's built into human consciousness, a survival mechanism as innate as the ability to recognize mom’s face in a sea of nurses. Stockholm Syndrome, in case you forgot, is the ability to fall in love with your captors, to change sides as befits your situation. If you get over your pride and act like you like it, you can be a conquistador's wife at the banquet instead of a Native American warrior widow dying in a ravine. If you’re a straight male, you might never know this weird surrender once you hit puberty and no longer are forced to eat the spit of your elders; not until you're 40 or so and have had a doctor’s gloved finger up your ass to feel your Idaho potato-sized prostate and then after this brief flash of humiliating pain suddenly feel the urge to follow them around like now you're their bitch.

So what Brando is doing with his scatological obsession here is basically “rubbing” Maria’s nose in the colonialism under which her own false sense of “right” and “family” exists...once she takes a deep whiff of it, stops shrinking away in horror, stops judging its smell as horrible, she can move past her hang-ups and see the strawberry fields forever (which “ain’t gonna fertilize themselves”)

Pauline Kael, a great writer and genuine lover of cinema, was so excited about TANGO when she saw it at Cannes in 1972, she raved about it being the birth of a new cinema and caught flak aplenty. Poor Kael--and poor the rest of us film lovers who have learned through pain and hardship how to free ourselves--every time we get too excited about some new cinema discovery we make the frightened herd of mouth breathers all nervous and upset; they start firing up the crosses and witch-poles. Neither Hollywood nor the rest of America wants to open the view wider, to expand perception and thought, especially not in sexy flicks like TANGO. We can't validate Kael's enthusiasm any more than we can buy Lindsay Lohan CDs for our daughter now that we've seen Lindsay all coked up and half-naked in PEOPLE. To the masses, no thing can be both sacred and profane simultaneously (though most real art is exactly both these things) so rather than engage in the field of play of transcended duality, the masses go the other way, nail things down tighter and tighter, make the black blacker and the white whiter, airbrush and tweeze-out until there’s not a single surprise hair left in the world. Thus we pay homage to “literary adaptations” that flatter the intellect while giving us a little sex, powdered and wrapped in gauzy filters. Then we accidentally see the big, unkempt bush between Schneider’s legs and we recoil in horror: “Jee-whiz, and we’d just made ourselves so proud by coming out as pro-Jenna Jameson; now some uppity Parisian with bad teeth’s going to wave her untrimmed pubes at us?” Oh the humanity.

So, I hope I’m not being too rantish here. There's nothing I'm saying wasn't already said in QUILLS--but underneath the soap box grandstanding my heart is true. I want to help the non-“experienced” reader, the one who has yet to look old Death in the eye, yet to go up into the womb of fear, to read TANGO correctly. It's not a case of Emperor's New clothes in reverse, but a case of "if you turn the book upside down you'll be able to read the print better."

Instead of watching LAST TANGO IN PARIS as a narrative film like PRETTY WOMAN, try to see it as a weird painting in your bohemian friend's house, and to look for personal meaning in your own life. Watch it with your younger (or older) lover and play along, riff off what Brando and Schneider are doing and saying in the film... play as they play. If you do that, the film takes off. If you see the characters not as separate but all as aspects of one psyche (or two... male and female-yin and yang, black and white, whatever) then it coheres not into a "film" but into art in the broadest and most inclusive sense; the kind of art that flows out of the screen and envelopes you, like in THE BLOB! (Steve McQueen, man. He's always right where you need him. )

And you can look at all films this way, as autobiographical (telling the story of YOUR life) allegories of your approaching death and rebirth: from cradle to grave and back again. Keep doing this, and you will suddenly not be so worried if people will judge you for admitting you hated SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

Or as some tripping idiot at a Phish show might say: “it’s like you... and me... and the music, man, are one... it's beautiful, man... and so simple!"

But wait, maybe you shouldn't. You're not one of those kinky ass of death/womb of fear types. Are you?

Well... are you?

You look it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Great Dads of the 1970s #1: Jon Voight as Luke in COMING HOME

"Ah, the smugness, I can't stand it." -Jane

"I dont belive it will change, but you're beautiful when you're excited." - Jon

I was just a kid when COMING HOME came out but I remember its impact. Along with THE DEER HUNTER, released the same year, there was a whirlwind of controversy and outpourings of support, anger and raw feeling over a war that hadn't been over more than a few years. The media was aflame and Oscars fell like rain and now, thirty years later all we have left are the DVDs, while another war rages and the best we can get are polemics like LIONS FOR LAMBS. But what of 1978? In hindsight, The DEER HUNTER seems to have almost nothing to do with Vietnam, being instead an American Reifenstahl Alpenfilme, but it's still good and gets repackaged and made glossy and classic, but why not COMING HOME?

The red state stigmatization of Fonda and her strong character may have something to do with HOME's lack of corporate support as far as DVD re-marketing, but I would guess the answer really lies in the fact that its genuinely subversive, in a positive almost painfully human way. Leonard Maltin's guide gives it a mere three and a half stars to the DEER's four, citing the film's "lapses into melodrama" as the reason. Of course THE DEER HUNTER (like APOCALYPSE NOW which came out the following year) is really a "guy" movie. (Maltin says it "packs an emotional wallop"), COMING HOME is neither a man's nor a woman's picture. If I wasn't all obsessive and insane at the moment I would probably never use these sorts of words, but: it's a human picture. It's a picture for the non gender-specific lover archetype which we embody only when we are at our best. A lot of us can't stomach that sort of intimacy for long; we'd rather reach for the easy comfort of our threadbare genre straitjackets. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. I can barely watch COMING HOME even now. I'm watching the DVD as I write this and I have to pause every few minutes, for breaks that stretch into hours. I have to write like mad to deal with the pain.

And no, Voight's character, Luke, is not an actual parent--nor shall he ever be one, apparently, thanks to his waist-down paralysis--so his being considered a 1970's dad might seem a bit odd. But hey, man, there are people all over the world needing parenting, not the bossy, browbeating kind but the unconditional nurturing and sense of strong support kind. One need only grace, gravitas and guts, genuine non-gender specific love, and maybe a mustache and fine foxy beard to be the best of 70s dads; kids will come from all over, from all ages and groups.

Luke has those things and as he goes from soul-ruptured angry young paraplegic to nurturing activist/lover, you get to see deep into his wide-open soul--both the actor and his character--and his innate majesty shines out at you; he's the wounded fisher king accepting the fact no Parsifal is coming. As a knight you need to serve a king, and Voight fits my bill in COMING HOME. I watch and I want to help him do whatever it is he needs to do, because you know it's right and just, whatever it is. He becomes the sort of man that James Dean's character was on the road to becoming in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. He becomes a leader that inspires what is best in men.

Contrasting Voight in the film is Bruce Dern's character, a smarmy officer and Jane's husband. He embodies the Beatles' lyric heard in the film: "Living is easy with eyes closed..." and Bruce Dern is so good at portraying this type you fear for his soul. In short, he's odious. His character eventually loses out and goes for "the long swim" (if only he'd hung around awhile of course, he wouldn't have to worry--the Voights of the world lost to the banal conformity of the Derns after all). Too bad, because the pain he was feeling might have made him a better person if he just faced it rather than running. The Derns of the world don't ever face the mirror, they don't need to and so they don't, and then when they need to suddenly they can't - they'd rather off themselves than see how their unexamined life has left a shitty legacy.

Luke certainly has his work cut out for him in facing that mirror, learning to use the wheelchair, etc. all while being utterly reliant on others. There's a feeling of futility and angst surrounding his situation, and it reaches a head when he first crashes into Jane on her first day volunteering at the VA, sending his colostomy bag flying and humiliating him to the breaking point so that he goes on a furious tirade that would not be topped for sheer greatness until he himself topped it seven years later in RUNAWAY TRAIN. It's a rage that is so fierce it reaches alchemical-level heat and from its raging molten crucible comes a humility akin to divine grace.

Luke's humility in this film represents a path for men that was never overtly spelled out and so was lost in the shuffle when we went from subtle to sledgehammer in our cultural cum corporate aesthetic. If you look at old films--like Howard Hawks' in particular--they all depict an unspoken code of "good" behavior that men measure one another by; it's a code that operates free of gender and physical strength and asks only what was asked of Laertes in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true, and thus it follows as night follows day, thou cannot be false to any man." The path up to this heavenly ethical plateau is through things like therapy,  the 12 steps, meditation, volunteer work, helping others --all the shit we'd often rather die than deal with directly. But if we don't deal with it, it deals with us and we're back in the jungle or the desert faster than we can run. 

There's a great moment when Luke first gets asked to dinner by Jane and as she heads off-screen he slowly pulls himself up the hospital's wheelchair ramp, his newly muscled arms rippling as he pulls his wheelchair and bulk. Those muscles represent not just Voight's devotion to getting the details of his part right--and by association doing right by the paraplegics he studied for the role--they represent the triumph of love against the sort of rage and shame that he expressed earlier. Luke begins to grow like a flower in the sun of Jane Fonda; he will become a dad figure to Billy, the shell-shocked neurotic guitarist played by Robert Carradine; and he will become an inspiration even to a whole high school assembly at the film's climax.

What makes the final speech so moving and profound is not just his tears, but his acceptance of responsibility; he doesn't condemn Vietnam with the self-righteousness of a screaming protestor; he doesn't bemoan his loss. Instead he admits he "doesn't feel very good" about having killed people for "not enough reason, man." He doesn't blame the U.S., or the recruitment officer who spoke before him. He admits defeat and admits he made choices that he believes were wrong. In doing so, he begins the possibility for genuine social change. It's such a scary thought I believe the powers that be would just as soon this movie never existed, was forgotten, and overshadowed by the grim fatalism of The Deer Hunter.

Everyone celebrates and remembers Voight in that big final high school speech, so rather than discuss it further I'm going to delve a bit into their first date at Fonda's apartment: She's nervous and he orders her to sit down. He asks if this is "Bring a gimp over to dinner night," and rather than get indignant (a reaction which you see cross her face) she instead looks him directly in the eye and  slowly shakes her head no; the result is nothing short of a true human connection, and he connects back and admits, "I know you didn't."

In today's edit-happy world this scene would probably be cut down to a few seconds. Instead we're allowed to see each of them overcoming fears and prejudices, connecting as real people, and Ashby makes it possible for us to see this in a magnificent natural light that illuminates their eyes. He gives Voight and Fonda all the room they need to make these characters real. Even though we might squirm in embarrassment while it's happening, in the end we're in love with them as much as they are with each other; the kind of love that transcends sex and gender (literally since Luke is effectively sexless) the kind of love that spreads outwards to all who come in contact with it... except for the Bruce Derns, of course, living easy with their eyes closed.

Later in that same first date, Voight says to Fonda: "When people look at me they see something else, they don't see ... who I really am."  In real life, people still don't see Voight or Fonda as who they really are (I'm sure I'm not seeing Dern as he really is either). They see publicity and Angelina and Hanoi Jane and ANACONDA and whatever else. In 1978's COMING HOME we can feel the aperture of spirit close around us, feel our willingness to embrace the gossip rags rather than the unwritten riches, but first we get this wide open view of the human spirit at its most noble and compassionate... and yes, it can be painful to watch, especially for men. We're not comfortable seeing a man so dependent upon a woman (two words: wheelchair accessible) and COMING HOME lingers right on that sensitive spot, like a lover trying to tickle some embarrassing secret out of us while we're tied to the bed.

Is it any wonder then, that cinema fans in media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama." It asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game; to drown out that subtle, soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man.

And so Jon Voight in COMING HOME gets first place in the 1970s dad pantheon, without his character even having any kids... or even any legs...or the ability to ever walk or inseminate again. All he has are the guts to ask for help, and to love without limit, and to administer a cool beard... and he's beautiful. And I almost forgot: he's got such cunnilingual skills he gives Jane her first orgasm. As far as hostility towards this picture by mainstream society, that explains a hell of a lot.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Great Dads of the 70s #14: Roy Scheider in JAWS

Film historians cite JAWS as the film that changed the way movies were distributed and marketed, i.e. more broadly and dumbed down to catch the widest, most generic/international audience. But JAWS itself belongs to the old school 1970s, with character development coming not from a few uninteresting scenes of suburban breakfasts or camaraderie in the office, but from relaxed, improvisational set-ups where parents drink and smoke (gasp!) in front of their kids and relate to them as people in a direct, caring way, free of socialized, pre-approved, “let the lawyers read the script first”-style sanitation.

There’s a great scene that occurs at the Brody dinner table where Roy Schieder’s Sheriff Brody, having allowed the beach to stay open and a kid to die (and maybe also Tippin, the frisbee-catching dog) is lost in wine-soaked regret. His younger son, with cool 1970s haircut looks at him in a direct, wide-eyed way that nowadays would have been cut (it’s too vague), imitates all his dad's expressions and movements;  and Roy says “Give me a kiss,” The kid says “Why?” and Roy says, “because I need it.”

Spielberg’s camera is behind Scheider’s head and we see the boy run up to kiss his dad on the cheek, someone is at the door just then and Roy gives him a good-natured “Get outta here” and sends him running off.

As one of those rare, lucky kids who grew up with a present, loving, hard-drinking/smoking father in that decade, this scene always gets me because it captures the dichotomy of fear and love that a young boy has for his dad; fear and respect because the dad is a “man” - i.e. not hiding his smoking and drinking, not pandering to the kid by talking to him in a high voice like Barney the Dinosaur, etc. The kid is a little afraid of his father, not for any reason of violence or emotional absence but because he is a big, tall, man with mysterious powers. The kid is imitating his dad but his eyes are blank, he's not sure why he's imitating his dad's little facial expressions and movements -there's some unconscious archetypal tug that guides him. He aligns himself with what he perceives as a source of masculine power, and he's a bit afraid of it.

That sort of fear is an essential ingredient in the stew of emotions a boy should have for his dad, along with respect, admiration, and so forth. Without it, the kid feels exposed to the dangers of life outside the parental sphere and even INSIDE the parental sphere, since dad is a "weakling" who can't protect the family. If there were zombies out your window or sharks in the bay, would you want some sensitive guy like Greg Kinnear as a dad? Can't you just see Greg Kinnear as a child psychologist dad, trying to placate the shark with some warm homemade chum and sympathetic understanding?

Brody's kid obviously has some trepidation about his big tall sheriff father, and seeing him in this moment of melancholy weakness could damage his developing psyche... but it doesn't. Though Brody actually needs the validation and support his kid provides, he is able to ask for it in a gruff but loving and offhand manner. He needn't beg or pleas for love like Greg Kinnear in GODSEND, for example. Once he has the kiss, Brody returns to the figure of authority and orders the kid out of his sight, but with an almost mock-macho New York City panache. "Ged outta heah."

We can see how dads in the Spielberg films (which in turn would profoundly and irreversibly influence the way all nuclear families are portrayed in all cinema to come) would become more and more dependent on their son’s love, and the whole reversal of roles where the son has to be the father, which sends kids into rehab at such an early age these days.

No kid likes to see their parents in moments of weakness, least of all dependent on their own kids for psychic assurance and protection (it should be the other way around), this scene in JAWS shows how it can be done right - an acknowledgement of the way a kid proves his value in the family by providing a source of innocent vitality the father can tap into and use to center himself. Compare this scene with the ones in just a few short years in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, where Dreyfuss is a little weasel of a dad, bullying his kids into seeing PINOCCHIO when they want to go to the water slide instead (he's a bigger brat than they are), and getting hysterical over UFOs and running to the government like a scared ninny instead of being the tough paternal signifier his unit needs him to be.

Here, though, with the mighty Scheider in control, the scene is just another little bit of actorly business in a film made in a different time, wherein the family dynamic was just that, dynamic. And neediness never factored in - the love was there but without 'feels', or emotional cues, it was uncut, raw and fierce, and then it was go off and play. That was the 70s dad. Now geddoudda heah.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Great Dads of the 70's

They cursed, they drank, they smoked, they made out with their friend's wives, and they did it all in front of their children, and the children loved every minute of it. Who were they, whose behavior nowadays would likely warrant hushed calls to child services? 

They were the 1970's dads.

I'm sure there are plenty of good 70's-style dads out there who are keeping the faith here in the 00's, but man oh man, I hardly ever see them on the Park Slope Brooklyn streets. When I do, most of them are cool, upscale African-American dads, the types who wear immaculate dreads and walk like lions. Those are rare, though. Mostly it's a lot of Greg Kinnear-style namby pambying, expensive papooses and strollers and beta male schlub pale sober high-voiced wuss-assery, and it's gotta stop.

We need to look to the 70's dads to see what they did that dads today no longer do; what secret ingredient has been lost and needs to be reclaimed?

Now, to qualify for the honor of "great dad of the 1970s" you don't need to actually be a dad, like, say, Bill Bixby in "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." But you need to rule some roost, a band, a filmmaking enclave, a sports team, or a motorcycle gang, or a ward of psychos or war vets. You need to embody the spirit of the lion. Here's the first:


Cigars and cheap beer constantly in hand, Matthau is the sad sack loser from the minor leagues now reduced to coaching the worst of the worst, Little League juvenile delinquents and the otherwise uncoordinated dregs of the local draft picks.

If you were bad at sports as I was, this was your revenge movie. I hated all team sports, being always picked last for teams-- but I loved the movie. I remember seeing it down at the theater in Plymouth Meeting Mall with my parents and brother and we all walking out exhilarated. Matthau cursed, smoked, guzzled, passed out in the dugout and--when the chips were down--cheated by bringing in ringer Jackie Earle Haley and an estranged tomboy daughter (Tatum O'Neal).

And then, when the team was about to win the final victory, Matthau suddenly has an alcoholic moment of clarity: looking at his benchwarmers picking their noses as the game goes on, plus the irrational uptight rage of rival coach Vic Morrow who slaps his own pitcher son in a fit of rage; he decides to send 'em in. It's a beautiful moment and in classic 1970's style it doesn't come heralded by trumpets and hugs and close-ups of moist eyes. It just happens. Most of all we see a lot of great kid reaction shots to the adult's rage and 'anything to win' fever. And in the end, it's the attitude of letting them all play that counts, not the sickening corporate notion of "family" or the American one of "winning." Bottom line: The Bad News Bears and Matthau just don't know how to win, they only know how to lose with style. They'd rather have their shaggy aggression and angst then go be some golden poster boy chumps with corporate sponsorship and parental pressures. Fittingly, the sponsor name on their uniforms is "Chico's Bail Bonds" while Morrow's team is emblazoned with the golden Denny's logo. When the big game is inevitably lost, Matthau doesn't care - he brings out beers for all the kids and they celebrate telling off the rival team and pouring beer on each other's heads in addition to the cool kids like Tanner instantly popping theirs open and chugging it down. 

As kids we came out of the theater with a song in our heart, new curse words in our lexicons, and the immortal last words of the Bears still ringing in our heads (so we could repeat it back to our gathered schoolyard friends): "You can take that trophy and shove it up your ass!" The generations to come would not have this sort of linguistic freedom, their father figures would be soft and cuddly or be nothing more than "old teenagers" ala Adam Sandler and Will Ferell, or else abusive monsters. But we, damn it, we had Matthau in BEARS... a total fuck up most of the time, but able--in his befuddled grousing--to recognize his flaws and change at the last minute. He may be a grizzled loner loser, but goddamn it, as Dietrich said of Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL, he's "some kind of a man."

For other seventies dads of note:

Kim Morgan writes on Paul Newman in SLAPSHOT - here.

And I praise Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS over on Bright Lights After Dark, here.

More to come!
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