Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten of the Decade - 2000-2010

I had a good time this decade! Sin and sensation abounded and alternated with austere sanctimoniousness. My old boss escaped from prison in Brazil, I got divorced, had scandalous affairs, became enlightened, disillusioned, dizzy, co-starred in AA THE MUSICAL, found true love and the glory of chemical psychiatry, heard a crane fall onto my friend's bar, my dog was born, job I worked, ocean I slept and then took a nap in between, and seen pictures.

The films here mesh beauty and ugly, truth and illusion, and generally have actors I like or love or sometimes generally can't stand! Most of these entries come with a quote from an older blog, unless I never wrote about it before, and a lot of times if I really, really dig a film, I don't write about it, as if afraid I'd dim the magic of it for myself or perhaps just realized I was or am simply not up to the task. Truly great movies make commentary seem almost superfluous, don't they, Paul Bettany?

Directed by Lars Von Trier

"A condemnation of the hypocrisy of the New Testament by way of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. One needs a certain amount of pop culture history to understand this chthonic purging, as if no cinema after D.W. Griffith exists. Lillian Gish turned out to be Jesus in disguise, and after all her frenzied prayers didn't save her virgin honor, she decided to burn the world down. It's Frances Farmer having her revenge on Seattle, as Kurt Cobain once prayed for. Nicole Kidman here represents all the vengeful icons ever idolized to the point where their unwashed fans ripped their clothes. I left the theater feeling like a century's worth of crud had been laser-surgically removed from my eyes." (Popmatters, 03)

Directed by David Lynch

If it's too weird, just remember: it's all the same soul, ever-dividing and re-aligning itself. If the cowboy looks at you twice, you're done and whatever contract you take out on someone is really always on yourself, bro. Lynch actually illustrates the impossible-to-illustrate process of multiple life/death Buddhist reincarnation. We eventually become the recipient of all our kindness or cruelty, the way the Moebius strip connects two sides into one endless road, and that whatever we do, it's already happened.  Just as we can see the future, the future can see us. Somewhere far ahead on the timeline, we're watching it all happen as ghost shadows on the wall.

Directed by Lucretia Martel

In THE HEADLESS WOMAN, the (possible) amnesiac is Veronica (Maria Onetto), a dentist in a small Argentine town. Wherever she goes people know just who she is, or seem to, and someone seems to be cleaning up her past behind her as she goes. Her amnesia begins when she hits her head on the roof of her car after running over... something, either a dog or a small boy - she can't trust herself to remember, and as the film goes on, we don't know what her game is --is she playing dumb, in a fugue state, pretending she's got amnesia in case anyone's watching. What first looks like a cop digging up bodies on the side of the road turns out to be a plumber digging up a clogged pipe; the droning dissonance of pop songs on the radio seem halfway to being haunting ghost voices in her head, they almost seem to accuse her. In one of the greatest scenes she hides out in a bathroom in the hospital and neither she nor we quite realize the nurses barging in are not after her at all. The only thing we do know: director-writer Lucretia Martel is a friggin' genius. (more)

Directed by Michel Gondry
"When the shattering of the mirrors comes, at first it feels glorious and freeing. Later we come home damaged by defeat, or torn by obsessive fall-out from petty triumphs. What is this ego shattering moment for you? What is it that splinters your sense of self and time so that for the rest of your life you long to gaze into those shattered shards just one more time? Maybe it’s the moment you finally got a chance to tell the one you truly love how you feel and she wasn’t into you. Or maybe you realize that the girl you thought you were in love with years ago, you really weren’t. It was just that she was so gorgeous, and so damaged, and looked like she would fade so fast. " (Acidemic, 2006)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

 "Men who have grown soft with unearned privilege will probably not like Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and are probably the reason Brolin's not even nominated. The return of the true king is never welcomed by the pretender to the throne. The haters thought this sort of moustached hombre long vanished. Now he's back, covered in the dirt used to bury him, but his eyes are burning through the dust with the fire of a thousand Bronsons!" (BLAD, 2/08)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth,  what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle). (3/7/10 - more here)

Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Until mon Amer there's always been a weird dissonance, a grinding disagreement, between the iconography of experimental film and narrative film, even in Europe, where art doesn't have to be framed and velvet roped the way it does here. A mirror to this twin dissonance might be found between the Jungian anima and the Mulveyan male gaze, between Jess Franco's 1967 Succubus, let's say, and Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman. But Amer brings to this twin dissonance (experimental vs. narrative / male fantasies about what girls dream vs. female artist's impressions of girls dreaming about men) a twin serpent DNA lover's frequency that harmonizes all those dissonant tones, and the resulting unified field harmony expands wider and wider until it envelops and entrains other dissonances, widening its wave until even the most ideal sympathetic response to the film is swamped and carried off ever outward into space until the floor rises up to meet you like a hugging tree.

Directed by Jody Hill

"Naturally the critics at large are split down the middle (RT gives it a 51%) but for my money, OBSERVE AND REPORT should be praised as a black comic masterpiece, a satire of the American masculine character, the DR. STRANGELOVE to THE WRESTLER's FAIL-SAFE. The reason it wont be compared that way is because most critics let marketing, set and setting, sway them: THE WRESTLER came out with big Oscar buzz: the Micky Rourke comeback story; OBSERVE AND REPORT comes out with PAUL BLART: MALL COP still in theaters, and all the baggage of the momentarily overexposed Rogen-Apatow hit machine clogging the carousel, so people expect a grungy gross-out comedy with a heart of gold. What they get is a heart of darkness, the APOCALYPSE NOW for the war in Iraq. It's characters like Ronnie whom our big dumb war is meant for. Their raging violent streak needs an outlet, and its better to just give them guns and send them far far away. War gets them out of their parent's house... war belongs to them, was made to serve that American muttonheaded drive to chew bubble gum and kick ass, the devil take the consequences and civilian casualties." - A Travis for our Times

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

"The pinks and blues and whites and deep black silhouettes are all the sort of stuff many directors use to hide the flimsy material within, but in PUNCH-DRUNK's case, it is the material, the style shapes and frames and focuses and blurs until we recognize that pure art is the way to shift attention from the banal blinders-on crawl of drab social reality into the liquid present, where life is a continually moving, breathing changing force expressing itself constantly within the very substance of the clouds, the stars and the sea and every random song select or spin of the roulette wheel. So when you see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE even stone cold sober you can follow Anderson's breadcrumb trail right into that same candy colored universe of egoless nonjudgmental acceptance of all life as it is right here right now. In short, watching this movie gets you totally toasted on art, love, and a dizzying array of overlapping dialogue by the seven sisters, who make the witches of MACBETH seem like Girls Gone Wild." (9/09)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

"Tarantino earns his stripes upsetting the enthroned patriarchal “liberal”– how dare some film geek expose our lack of familiarity with the origins and meanings of the medium which we profess to be experts on!?!?! The only competition Tarantino has in his use of silent movie psychology, pre-pre-code old testament vengeance and amniotic incestuousness, is Guy Maddin and Lars Von Trier, so it’s interesting the ANTICHRIST is so linked with BASTERDS as far as knee-jerk hatred in the current press zeitgeist. The old guard critics are too busy manning the canon to realize their complicity in the banality of cinema as it exists today, how they are responsible for the the way “art” films bend and kowtow to the limited range of the bourgeoisie, banning all mentions of emperors and new clothes. Knowing as they do almost nothing about early cinema (silent movies are BORING, yo!) the average critic of today seems to have forgotten that the social mores they take as a given were fobbed onto them by a raving anti-semite named Joe Breen in 1934. When Tarantino or Von Trier come at them with ideas from the old testament of cinema, those on the new testament throne get indignant. Ultimately BASTERDS is the best film about Old Testament vengeance since DOGVILLE. If you don’t like to see Jews with guns, don’t go to the movies, or Israel for that matter, where hot chicks in fatigues and machine guns aboundeth!" (Bright Lights - "What is it about this sign that disturbs you, Marnie?" (Tarantino Vs. J. Rosenbaum)

And what about Wes Anderson's underrated DARJEELING LIMITED? Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION and Jody Hill's OBSERVE AND REPORT? SCIENCE OF SLEEP, THE HOLY GIRL, BIRTH...

But my best-of decade films had to reflect not just a freedom from bourgeois morality and unconscious status quo obedience, not just a sense of love and spiritual awakening, but deep and perfect artistry and a sublime mix of style and substance. What films leave you shaking with awakened sense of love and purpose, or of healing -- without being dull or didactic, or 'family ensemble'-driven? Of having some long unresolved inner issue suddenly solved and healed over by the power of cinema? These films showed us things we needed to see, and they rock, They've made the '10s a safer place to be unsafe in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Acid Sight/Sound Symphonies: FANTASIA (1940 - rereleased in 1969), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

T to B: Fantasia, 2001
Walt Disney was determined to not just blow minds and thrill art lovers with his 1940 epic animated classical music film FANTASIA, but to bring what critic James Agee referred to as "middlebrow highbrow" culture to an America on the edge of war. It didn't... but yet, when re-released in 1969, it caught on with a new kind of American at the edge of war, the stoned draft dodger. As Wikipedia notes:
Fantasia did not make a profit until its 1969 re-release. By then, Fantasia had become immensely popular among teenagers and college students, some of whom would reportedly take drugs such as marijuana and LSD to "better experience" the film.[4] Disney promoted the film using a psychedelic-styled poster. The re-release was a major success, especially with the psychedelic young adult crowd, many of whom would come lie down in the front row of the theater and experience the film from there.
You know how Disney used to do with their best titles... and still does with their DVDs: letting them go in and out circulation, then re-releasing them (with "timeless" hype of the "now more than ever" variety). Acid similarly comes and goes from the American popular imagination, and in 1969 it was still "cool" the way cocaine was in the late 1970's, or ecstasy in the early 1990s, something even "normal" people want to try (they read about in Newsweek or heard about it at their Wednesday bridge game). Naturally Disney and acid came together --seeing a good Disney film with "mind expanded" was to truly appreciate its abstract beauty, so the bridge partners said (1). The idea of acid cinema had reached a nice peak with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and YELLOW SUBMARINE the year before. Whether any of these films were intended for drug use or not, all three were ideal for a cinematic trip. Seeing 2001 now on a small screen it might seem rather slow but we should remember it was filmed in "Cinerama" and meant to be seen on a huge screen, where the vastness of space and the effects could wow us and the lack of flashy editing and jump cuts would save us from nausea and whiplash. We can still see some of the shot retain the Cinerama curviness (the fisheye look from within the pod when the two astronauts discuss HAL's breakdown), and they can help us imagine the truly overwhelming experience seeing it on a Cinerama screen while tripping your face off on acid would generate.

Imagine that you're used to seeing television on a small black and white TV in a room crowded with cigarette smoke-- you've been watching TV like that for 20 years nonstop--never been to a movie theater--and now you're in a New York multiplex with 3-D surround digital sound. Everything about the experience of viewing is now a complete sensory overload--your inner blinders quickly scurry to adjust their levels but until they do you're suddenly in a wild and wondrous place. This what a big psychedelic trip can bring to your experience of a movie. The sheer miracle of a moving picture, the miracle of the people around you, is enough to delight you beyond all endurance. You gush with gratitude at being able to process all this information in a setting where you feel safe without feeling lonely, where it's dark enough to be free and don't have to talk to people or make eye contact while you endeavor to catalog your newfound wealth of sensory information.

Your natural tendency to be hypnotized by a glowing screen keeps your loosened mind from wandering (usually) into bad trip panic attack territory, which is important, since your mind is so open and unguarded, one nasty image can get right inside your head and warp your soul forever. Of course, it's good in that sense to avoid films with lots of guns and violence and negativity or a heavy emotional plot that your unprovoked laughter will disrupt. So what you needed in the acid heyday of 1967-70 were long, slow panoramas filled with soothing, positive music and flowery images, expressions of love or else total blankness. Living is easy with eyes closed! But when your eyes are suddenly open, you need a break from all the lonely people, their beady, needy eyes imploring you, their hungry ghost carny people hands darting in and out of food-stained sleeves. Flowers and sunshine, space, the Beatles, surfing, were like the balm to that illness.

Fitting the bill perfectly for supplying the positives without the negatives, right at the start of the acid spike in 1966 was a surfer movie called THE ENDLESS SUMMER (above). As Laker34 notes on the IMDB user comments "See this film because it is not violent." The waves, man, it was about the waves.

Then came YELLOW SUBMARINE and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968. With these films, the cinema was now safe for heads (as they were known at the time). The posters for 2001 even came right out and labeled it as "the ultimate trip." While YELLOW SUBMARINE said it all, a psychedelic journey with Beatles and the safety of a little hideaway beneath the waves. It even had a total selfless love ending, when John asks the defeated Blue Meanies to join the celebration. Was this not the lesson we as people most needed and could most easily grasp when high out of our gourds, That to reject or fail to love even one person, no matter how bad they smelled or how hard they cracked our skull with their baton, was to join the Meanies' side rather than vice versa? That's the lesson we didn't learn though, only Lennon and Gandhi and King learned it, and look what it got them! That kind of selfless love is a bullet magnet, speeding you up to God like you'd speed a candle out of a gas-filled kitchen. We, the gas, learned to reign in our smell, to hide in pockets behind the stove and wait for our chance.

In short, though we still wanted to love everybody, we shut up about it.

Kubrick's formalist dehumanizing motifs reflect that "shutting up about it" and once that's taken into account it's all suddenly revealed to be just the cynical armor of an existential humanist, one unafraid to stand in the bathroom mirror and watch the stranger through the glass age into newborn baby, but afraid perhaps of genuine human warmth (preferring bland birthday pleasantries delivered through pay phone SKYPE). While 2001 sent many a conventional sci-fi narrative lover out the door in boredom, many of them had read about the way to 'experience' the film and they knew it was their fault--too straight, square or thick--if they didn't 'get it'. The truly high and hip fell into the movie like it was a black pool and the sober people would see them float up out of their chairs and vanish into the screen. Here was a movie man's killer instincts were depicted as entwined with alien genetic manipulation, and the concept of outer and inner space were colliding, and withered old age turning embryonic, and these straights were dozing in the aisles just because absolutely nothing was happening for whole minutes at a time. Both things happening at once, in the same universal mind. Truth or illusion! How could a movie that was boring the first time be riveting the second?

It was all stuff only the heads could totally grasp and the idea of classical music piping through space kept the whole thing at enough of a measured pace that no dosed human watching it was likely to get a panic attack, until the whole heavy breathing out in space rescuing Dr. Poole part at least, and even there it seemed Kubrick had slowed down the action deliberately so the heads could sneak out for a smoke. Heads may have been distracted, but they knew that it all meant something, had something to do with birthdays. And circles. It wasn't a story of dudes in space but the story of human evolution carried from start to finish - not a circle but a straight line up from the caves and into the eighth dimension, and the way he who finds the obelisk first, and works up the nerve to lick it, shall gain power over his enemies, be they a rival tribe of ape-men, or Russian satellite calibrators. And the obsidian obelisk is like a great big tab, man!

Kubrick's use of classical music connects the abstract imagery to the equally sleep-inducing FANTASIA, re-released the following year. Here too, those straight folk trapped by expectations of conventional narrative were flummoxed into submission while the enlightened presumably blossomed out their crown chakras.

As we've seen in our film thus far, the idea of the theater as a place of reflection and spectacle (rather than narrative absorption) was big in the late 1960s as a result of the newfound "midnight movie" crowd --those going in with altered consciousness or just looking to see if they could catch a contact high. It was in the papers, so even if you'd never done a single drug, for example, you knew that 2001's big ending was "trippy" and you consoled yourself that maybe if you were high you'd get it. If you weren't high, and didn't get it, both FANTASIA and 2001 could be as intense and moving as a trip through a crowded art museum with relatives who have to spend several minutes before every picture, and your feet hurt. "Yeah yeah, pretty, but can we go?" Andrew Sarris famously issued two reviews of 2001: The first review--sober and full of high expectations--is grouchy and disbelieving. Sarris' second viewing came after he'd "ingested a substance" resulting in a complete conversion. At least he was critic enough to admit it and write the second one. And both together really illuminate the power of set and setting.

Now, later, on DVD, it's easy to forward through the draggy stretches of Kubrick's film, or pluck the good segments of FANTASIA (Night on Bald Mountain, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Rite of Spring) out and fold them in with pre-code Betty Boop and wartime Bugs for a night of weird but blissfully centaur-free animation.

So why is FANTASIA so dull to the sober? We must inevitably look at the Disney juggernaut itself. Was Walt a humanist or propaganda merchant? Nazi collaborator or Hero of California? Either way that Wonderful World of Walt Disney TV show--that ran all through the 70s on Sunday nights on ABC--was excruciating. It was boring and brown with faded outdoor photography color, but it was all that was on and we kids slogged through it just to make the night before going back to school last longer. Sometimes Walt would show some nature documentaries (ala Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom), but mostly it was apple-cheeked youngsters learning drab conformist lessons from folksy trackers. Occasionally the youngster would run up against a bear, snake or wolf, and sometimes I'd stay up just to see if he got eaten--the attack played up in the commercials and kept to the last minute just to keep us antsy JAWS fans in front of the endless commercials. That ultra-square sense of what constitutes family entertainment suffuses FANTASIA. However, in the right mood it can be as brilliant and riveting as watching a snail... crawl along the edge... of a straight... razor... and surviving... to the stern Teutonic strings of a little fellow named Richard Wagner... So just make sure you're in the 'right' headspace, glad to be in the dark with nowhere to go, no chance to embarass yourself or let 'them' see you're 'gone'. Narrative and plot would be indecipherable anyway at this moment - music and color, ever changing and evolving in an endless dance. And I do mean endless.  We start with a soft timpani roll; Mr. Stokowski, if you please...

1. And I concur, for I've seen LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN during the initial runs in the theater while riding on magical mushrooms. And one, at least, was pretty intense - all that sensual Ariel breathing, and when she says "why, Erich" to the statue, I felt her talking to me, reading my thoughts!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Great Acid Movies #11: NAKED LUNCH (1991)

The summer of 1991 was a tragic time one to be a recently graduated (with an English lit degree), unemployed alcoholic writer getting over the fact he was no longer in a local but popular band in a college town where every hippie knew his name, and was now back to being just a nobody like everyone else in goddamned central NJ. It was an economic recession, political turmoil, cops being dicks thanks to MADD and the War on Drugs, and CAMP (California Against Marijuana Production) at its height, robbing Northern California of its income and making all stoner Americans miserably straight for the entire summer. There was much irritability and fury. At least we had fascist action movies to soothe our irritated bloodstreams, and the beat lit staple Naked Lunch being adapted into a movie... Wait, what?

How in the hell could a non-X film version of that twisted gay strangulation junk nightmare be anything but an embarrassment, even with David Cronenberg as the director? Imagining endless shots of hangings, the victims with naked erections ejaculating as the noose knot snaps their necks, my brain still reeling from our lead guitarist's mid-semester death via autoerotic asphyxiation, I wasn't particularly anxious to see it.

But then we learned in the trades that even Burroughs approved of the final script. And so, as Nirvana prepared to descend from Seattle and lovingly fog our panes, and CAMP failed (as evil always does) and the flow of weed resumed, our LUNCH--a mescaline salad of disturbing hallucinatory creatures, sublimely beat disaffection and a Burroughs biography--was served. Replete with creepy, slightly "wrong" (probably intentionally so) paranoiac's depictions of Kerouac and Ginsberg, the memoir aspect didn't succumb to gushy bourgeois period piece hero worship like so many druggy cult figure bios/memoirs of the past and future (THE DOORS, FACTORY GIRL, etc) and biography wasn't the core of the film anyway. So what was?

It turned out to be about the way, when you're super high, deranged old barflies start to look and speak like intra-dimensional monsters, dealing bug powder to kill typewriters that turn, as one breathes in and out the serpentine air, into insects. Happens all the time, man.
"It's a literary high. It's a Kafka high."
What was, what wasn't... the point... is that Cronenberg had made a good adaptation of a very weird and purposely disturbing non-narrative book, one originally (apparently) aimed at the ever-dwindling demographic of gay autoerotic asphyxiation devotees - meant no doubt to sell copies by being banned in 20 countries (my old paperback even included the obscenity court trial transcript). But, even clearing out all the post-hanging orgasms for the movie, there's still enough in LUNCH to, if not quite go around the too-straight room to blow our minds or at least penetrate our quivering frontal lobes. If it doesn't quite have us doubled over in laughter at least it's wryly aware of just what hipster cool is really all about, the whistling-in-the-dark surfer on the swamp tsunami of madness, the deadpan facade that all true 'heroic dosage' psychedelic explorers need to not wind up in the bughouse when they find themselves suddenly out on the street without their shoes and no direction home (though their front door might be right behind them it may as well be in China and it's hardly even recognizable as one's own) and all the people passing by seem to be melting and turning into centipedes.

Even in a weed drought, man, there's still shrooms.

When Americans and Brits try to adapt druggy literature they tend to literalize and cartoonify too much, and the result is a lot like Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS or BASKETBALL DIARIES, over-enunciating the grotesqueries so literally they become merely little showy bits of art direction rather than fluid breathing 'true hallucinations' that trigger nothing in the ways of shivery flashbacks. The hallucinations become examples of what myth is probably like compared to reality, which is to say, a mystic gets really high and sees people in double and triple vision, outside time, so that each movement lingers in the eye longer than usual and superimposes on the  next- so that their movements have 'trails' and he tries to describe / draw the effect. A hundred years later, Hindu gods have six arms; Ezekiel's angels have sixteen heads, and so forth.

Canadian Cronenberg--obviously no stranger to the pharmacy-- understates, understands the nature of hallucination, and stays loose without being flippant; the trippy lines come out like a bare hipster whisper out of the corner of his actors' mouths. You pass him the ticket in a handshake and follow him through the Moroccan marketplace to a quiet tent; your anxious ears tuned to the the hiss and crackle of black centipede meat as you whisk past the vendors' twirling spits; dusky pungencies in the air electrify your salivary glands; you feel a buzzing above the space behind and between your eyes, like your pineal gland is getting the back of its neck shaved with an electric razor. Whatever your guide gives you to eat, quick, you eat it before the smell has time to gag you. In 20 minutes or so, you'll see what lurks behind this incense-choked charade. The monsters may come and may go, but if you don't freak out that your food is trying to escape your fork as you chew, no one will know... that you know. They won't cart you away, or find you twitching on the floor laughing hysterically.

Casting is everything in such an endeavor, and Cronenberg's great deadpan style would still add up to little more than half a film if not for Judy Davis as Sally Bowles (and Bill's wife in the NYC scenes). She has such incredibly dry, cool hipster rapport with Peter Weller's bug-eyed Bill that Hollywood matched them up again in a film called THE NEW AGE shortly thereafter. Davis blazed along in many great films of that year. She was the indie artistic wild-eyed but mature muse of 1991-92, everywhere something weird was afoot: a nurse /succubus/ enabler to a Faulkneresque drunk screenwriter in BARTON FINK ('91); a droll and saucy George Sand chasing Chopin for IMPROMPTU (1991); as the jaundiced object of Liam Neeson's unwanted affection in HUSBANDS AND WIVES ('92), and so on. She was the older, more gravitas-engorged Parker Posey of her day. For a brief while she shone in enough nervy, sexy, intelligent roles to cause many a prematurely disillusioned young writing student such as myself to fall in love with her. She alone seemed to nail the ideal antithetical mix of sexuality and brains, insanity and maternity, canny courage and vulnerable confusion, that we found in our coolest psychedelic surfer female tribe members. When we first meet her in LUNCH she's shooting bug powder into her breast. Her face is pale, eyes pained with ennui mixed with lusty anticipation of the forthcoming Kafka high. We all loved her from that moment on.

Then there was one of those weird coincidences of cinema: BARTON FINK (above) and NAKED LUNCH came out both in 1991 both period pieces about writers and how the writing process warps the writer's reality. Davis plays a writer romantically connected to an older, more successful, male writer and desired by a younger rival writer in both films. Both feature hallucinations and fearsome black insectoid typewriters on desks in hotel rooms in foreign lands (Isn't Hollywood America's InterZone?). Each has interesting use of beaches, surreal expressionist digressions, Kafka-esque elipses, mysterious figures, etc. Some might call it kismet or zeitgeist or reading each others' paper at the test--I don't know, it's just interesting, sort of like PSYCHO and HORROR HOTEL in 1960.

from Top: Lunch, Lunch, Fink
 Back to Peter Weller: before LUNCH he was the lead in BUCKAROO BANZAI and his ADVENTURES ACROSS THE EIGHT DIMENSION (1984). There's only one scene from that film everyone remembers: Buckaroo is in a hip nightclub, jamming with his band and Ellen Barkin is crying at a table in the darkened back of the room but he stops the music because he can tell someone out there is sad, and he says his famous line to console her: "You know, no matter where you go... there you are." The quote stuck in all our brains, though a lot of us felt the film was a little too sure of its future cult status to make us want to embrace it with cultish arms, the way we embraced REPO MAN. But that wasn't Weller's fault --he played it perfectly. You could barely tell he was even acting, and that was why that moment landed.

If that ambiguous "there you are" was a quantum entanglement butterfly wing, NAKED LUNCH would be the tsunami that roared ashore seven years later. They knew he was perfect because he was handsome and relaxed yet possessed of the thousand yard stare of the war vet or martial artist, and that thousand yard stare is what you need in the InterZone. Davis has it too. And then there's the queer agents, played with mincing elegance by Julian Sands, and the wide-eyed contact Hans (Robert A. Silverman, above left), one of the stealth great deliverers of Burrough's twisted mix of hallucination and spycraft, his mouth widening and falling showing the rows of possibly false teeth, his eyes alight but speaking in a slow syrupy style so that the words practically drop to the floor.

His familiarity could be a put-on, Bill. Are you actually a real agent of some strange company, getting your orders through the bug typewriter, or just hallucinating, seeing the pattern painted on the auras of everyone at the cafe? Shit can get intense if you're high or in withdrawal on an unfamiliar street (and every street is unfamiliar on psychedelics); you need to be level-headed and deadpan even as the passing people are revealed as fluctuating creatures so comically obscene you can hardly stop from pissing your pants with deranged laughter. But stop you must, Bill. Cool must be maintained or else mounting panic amplifies like feedback and that's the whole idea behind the title, taken from something Kerouac said to you about how when you're dosed on mescaline and trying to eat dinner and your food is squirming on the fork as if alive, and you can't freak out. You must smile and say nothing and eat as if all is well, trusting that the thing squirming on end of your fork isn't really a tiny tentacled monster clinging for dear life to the tines. Some say the title was supposed to be NAKED LUST and Ginsberg typed it wrong from Bill's illegible notes but I like to think it's the squirmy fork meaning, having experienced it several times in 1991, living at home after all, and unemployed, taking quarter hits of my blotter to keep the edge as I wrote my own twisted novel, for example. The worst: arriving home at the wrong time from scoring my first and only double purple barrel mescaline hit-- the girl who gave it to me insisting I take it on the spot, just starting to really get off when I walked through the front door (hoping to make it to my room undetected) right in time for dinner with my parents.

It was then I knew that the true hallucination is not that people are monstrous, but that they aren't. Drugs having stripped, temporarily, all the filters from my eyes, I finally saw the world as it really is: filled with intrigue, paranoia, ghosts, and strange spectral figures tattooed in the auras of my family, all gradually and inevitably manifesting in one way or another in common reality, named and quantified, packaged and finally reduced to a commercial for car insurance. The lunch is exposed as the still twitching evidence of animal and/or plant slaughter, trails of life and energy still clinging to the (barely) inanimate matter. We are just energy devouring energy for more energy, and the energy even at its most vibrant is always encased in dying, slowly rotting, bug-covered matter (we just usually can't see the tiny things crawling all over and within us without a microscope--on psychedelics we can.)

And the weirder things get, the cooler one plays it, for one doesn't want to be shipped off to the nuthouse or to make a public spectacle or otherwise end up pinned to the ground and frisked just because one is foaming at the mouth and raving at everyone on the street (or in the theater) to hide their drugs because cops are coming out of the cracks in the sidewalk.

Depicting hallucinations has always been a tricky issue in cinema. It's not that typewriters turn into actual insects on drugs, it's just that they almost do, their true insect nature is revealed. And when you're alone and hoping the acid you took will lead you to write some brilliant poetry and the letters start squiggling and trying to escape the page as soon as you type them, the typewriter seems more and more alive and shiny with arthropodical imperviousness. Fictionalization naturally ensues. On good hallucinogens one is allowed to see all the nuts and bolts of vision and how we're still hard-wired to identify insects camouflaged in trees that might sting our hands or perhaps provide food. I could go on and on about how if we learned to eat insects all our problems would be solved, that it's a jive corporate mind fuck that makes eating slaughtered mammals acceptable but bugs disgusting. If aliens saw what we eat they'd think we were cannibals! Why bother eating your own kingdom when rival larval arthropods are so much more deserving. That's why when people have the DTs or are twitching on cheap meth they see bugs everywhere. We're hardwired to be seeing bugs everywhere because we're hardwired for outdoor, forest living. Bugs are meant to be everywhere. So while our symbolic stencil kit tells us the thing we see on our desk is a typewriter, if acid dissolves that stencil symbol kit, just what is that thing?

Then there's the gay aspect. NAKED LUNCH scores extra eerie frisson if you're a sexually frustrated straight male in 1991, a time when queerness wasn't yet PC police-protected and thus allowed to carry a creepy closeted charge, even to the extent of casting the uncanny Mr. Julian Sands as the first character to use the word 'queer' and get it out in the open. You remember when he was Elisabeth Shue's deranged Russian pimp in LEAVING LAS VEGAS? In 1991, being gay was still much more controversial than it is now, and the brave thing about LUNCH is how it gradually "outs" its protagonist, from flinching at Ginsberg's suggestion that he and Bill "join" Jack and Judy Davis in an orgy (like he's ashamed he's in the same sexual set as this Rick Moranis-ish poet) to conveying vague unease over the advances of Julian Sands, to waking up quietly contented and happy next to Kiki, a pretty Moroccan boy hustler. Without trumpets and a big fuss, through this gradual process, LUNCH brings queerness into the acid cinema canon without raising a single hackle. The way it does this is first by shocking the audience--with the gay come-ons which are creepy and rejected--then retreating back to heterosexuality (with Judy Davis), and then, once we're completely confused, setting Bill up with lil' Kiki. By that point in the film you're too dislocated to be able to muster any knee-jerk homophobic horror. You're just glad Bill's finally found a friend.

Lastly, there's the late, great Roy Scheider as Dr. Benway. When near the end he rips off his disguise and shouts "Benway!" with a roar of delight, you know you're seeing a fuckin' great movie, it may have taken the whole film to get there, but there's no denying it now.

In structure, NAKED LUNCH bears similarity to the sacred ritual myths of initiation and creative evolution. In that sense Scheider is like Prospero in THE TEMPEST or Sarastro THE MAGIC FLUTE, or even the little girl hologram in RESIDENT EVIL, letting you know you're ready for the next level, the higher initiation; and every time the serpent takes another swallow of its own tail, the circle gets just that much smaller, i.e. wider.

Bill's very nature reflects the inextricable union of life and death: he works as an exterminator, but gets high on his own bug powder. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are unafraid to look death in the eye and see it as merely temporary (like life), the tunnel portion of an endlessly looped carnival ride. The topography is changed just a little after each journey into the Stygian darkness, but memories of past events warp to accommodate new information. And then Benway appears with a trial prescription like Glenda the Good Witch, with a new pair of rubier slippers to celebrate your completing the first level of Oz. But each pair has a price: like Moira Shearer you can't stop easing on down the yellow bricks. For every bridge deeper into the Oz Interzone another universe of possibility dies behind you. What Buckaroo Banzai didn't realize about the 8th dimension is that you don't need a fast car driving into a rock to get there, you just need a taste of Dr. Benway's patented black centipede syrup, and a deadpan facade. Wherever you go, there you are, but then, also there you aren't... so best look like you intended to be wherever it is you are from the beginning. That's what you call 'turning pro' and that's where this movie fades the competition like a shifty boardwalk trickster.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mad Mannish Boy: THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964)

While Mad Men is out of season, get your hot angry period piece businessman fix with Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of the Harold Robbins' bodice-ripper, THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964). Age has been kind to this loose and potent reconfiguring of the Howard Hughes mythos. It keeps all the juicy bedroom camp alive in long, well-structured scenes that should have been studied by Scorsese and DiCaprio before they made the far less virile AVIATOR. Instead they made Hughes into a saint too fine, broken and dreamy for this world, easily dominated by Cate Blanchett's Hepburn, lost to he himself, as Leonard Cohen would say, while the fictionalized Jonas Cord (George Peppard) is a misogynistic chick magnet; he dominates women, and they love it. His marriage to the Winthrop heiress is scrapped when he finds out she's a clingy conventional hausfrau. His true love is his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) who was his lover until his richer dad stole her away and married her, thus indicating the kind of womanizing waggery role model he grew up with. And oh, Jonas and mom are as amoral and manipulative a pair of hot-to-trot relatives as you're likely to find this side of the 80s. They're like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both") if they already had sex, so it wasn't, you know, weird.

Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith (the cowboy outlaw turned millionaire kid's bodyguard/pal, ala William Demarest in THE LADY EVE or Rock Hudson in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, or Viggo in EASTERN PROMISES), and Leif Erikson rants nicely as Joanas Sr., who yells at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!" Yeah, right.

As I mentioned in an old postTHE CARPETBAGGERS makes a great unofficial sequel to GIANT, with Jett Rink changing into Jonas Cord, and Carroll Baker playing the same girl, now married to Rink but also grown up and gone to Hollywood to pursue her dream in pictures. And oh that Baker. If GIANT has a fault it's that she's not onscreen enough but that's cuz George Stevens is a fool. Director Edward Dmytryk is no fool: he knows Baker's method hotness is his trashy piece of soap's best asset, and so gives her room to breathe and lounge. Meanwhile, Monica, the clingy Winthrop heiress (Elizabeth Ashley) sounds exactly like Kate Jackson, and through it all George Peppard is a real pleasant surprise as a taciturn, ruthless hedonist businessman workaholic with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred. His voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover, or has a cold, or all three, like I used to have when seeing him in Breakfast at Tiffany's screenings Sunday afternoons in Tribecca circa 1997. 

I was too much of a boy to watch Dallas and Dynasty and all that back in the 1970s-80s, but  now I love the CARPETBAGGERS, and to me, the nymphomaniac stepmom is clearly the good guy. Actually sex itself is the good guy. Those who wield sex wantonly gain the world and lose the soul they never even had, a more than reasonable exchange when your life doesn't extend past the credits.

And yeah, it has that 60s Mad Men panache as well. What was once misogynistic becomes quaint and inspiring in our post-modern age for it reminds us we are not like that now. Even the most sordid sexual expression can become socially acceptable through the prophylactic rose-tinted windshield screen of time. As CARPETBAGGERS is itself set thirty years before it was made (in the swingin' 30s), our windshield here is double-tinted. Baker's boozy harridan becomes less a sex object through all this filtration and more of a third-wave martyr. Oh the things she could have done with a guest spot on the O.C.!

Of course it all ends happily, and I shan't reveal any more. But know that the DVD is in splendidly refurbished colors and it all glows with nice dark red wallpaper and tastefully dusky furniture and none of the usual suffocating bouquets and endless white marble that chokes so many other rich folk films. So when you have that yen for martinis, suits, gowns and a complete absence of political correctness, pick up CARPETBAGGERS the way you'd pick up a Kantian dissertation on 60s soap operas for the beach. Raunchier than Sirk, not neutered like Tashlin, not smothered in chintz and expensive perfume. It's about ballsy men, and deep oak and mahogany surfaces, and women who are allowed to make the kind of prolonged, sexually aggressive eye contact that would send a 21st century boy or 19th century girl blushing from the coffee bar. Edward Cullen would probably explode into CGI dust if Baker so much as batted an eyelash his way. Here's wishing there were a dozen more as good... or as bad... as Baker.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Idiot's Delight (1939)

Who are the idiots?
There must be some word.
I want them all.
I want all the idiots."
--Riffs' leader if "idiots" was substituted for "warriors" (THE WARRIORS, 1979)

And that's just what MGM does here. "Warrior's Delight" would be a much better title, because all the local soldiers at this Alpine border want to do is bomb some stuff, and stranded traveler Burgess Meredith gets all self-righteous about it: "Ten thousand tons of flaming death and none of you want to stop dancing!" Why doesn't someone shut that pacifist up, you ask, mootly, at the screen? Gable and Shearer are trying to play screwball and the soldiers are trying to dance with Gable's devoted les blondes, and the pacifist wants to rain on the parade. Live for today, tomorrow we die of boredom listening to spittle-flecked lectures on the brotherhood of man, the exact same nonsense that allowed Hitler to build up his armies unchecked in the first place. But this is all based on Robert Sherwood's anti-pacifist tract, with the Nazi influence toned down to the typically vague fascism of the Hollywood era.

The best thing about this play/movie is how transparently it reveals anti-war modernist tracts to be self-defeating. Now that an annoying sanctimonious tub-thumper like Burgess' pacifist has expressed all these humanist sentiments, humanist sentiments are suddenly very uncool. Once you hate the haters, you just switched sides. If only our modern agonized bleeding hearts could savvy this complex message. Sherwood fought in the trenches, so it's not like he was an armchair general like our red staters. He saw Hitler and he just knew the writing was on ze wall.

Two big MGM stars were Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. Both having been MGM top talent since the silent age, Garbo was basically retired by 1939 (though she came back the same year in NINOTCHKA), but Shearer was only slightly the less for wear, a little paunchy maybe, but bravely, brazenly--for endless pages of campy but gleefully nihilistic dialogue--willing to alternately satirize, celebrate and lovingly impersonate Garbo, at times coming off like a drag queen with shrill monotone satire, other times like a legit and loving sociopath who "vonts to be alone" and loves to imagine beautiful Englishmen being dragged underneath tanks. And then, when you're just about ready to press stop, Clark Gable busts loose in his big number, mocking both Fred Astaire and the whole concept of song and dance men in his hilarious "Puttin' on the Ritz." It's worth watching just for his facial expressions, which are pure Groucho Marx impersonating Maurice Chevalier in MONKEY BUSINESS.

Edward Arnold is pretty ballsy as the ruthless arms magnate (Shearer's his arm candy). He explodes in a big burst of anger when she's cynical about his genius at sewing death. "If someone's going to be so petty as to take up arms they deserve to die! I help humanity by getting rid of them!" Or something like that. No argument from me, brother, population control advocate that I am. Probably not from MGM either, with scrappy little Burgess Meredith's hysterical outbursts all but meant to be mocked. The self-appointed "prophet" spreading brotherly love and peace, he's the lynch pin by which to measure and hang the rest of the cast. Gable and Shearer's doomed couple ultimately transcend it all since they're not too terribly afraid of death. That's what true love is, after all, a kind of painful form of living death, in and of itself, like enlightenment, and death is just another station on the endless spinning dial. I guess that's chivalry. I been there. It's just that love makes you feel invulnerable, it's the one thing that transcends fear.

In short, there's far worse examples of that Barton Fink feeling than this adaption of Sherwood's typical-for-the-time anti-pacifist play. Simmering with cross purposes, it fairly begs to get a post-modern de-adaptation by the Wooster Group. I can see Kate Valk acing the Garbo by way of Shearer MGM elocution accent, and Willem Da Foe a psychotically chipper Gable, acting out love scenes in front of a screening of some confiscated Third Reich Alpine nature documentary footage and psychedelic bomber shadow explosion light shows. And the conscience represented by Burgess Meredith in the film could be one of Godard's deadpan commie sermons playing on an old reel-to-reel, before it's finally replaced by the smooth no worries shine of Compakt Disk.

The Cold Blue Lysergic Evening: THE DAWN PATROL (1938)

Say a prayer for the dead already / and salute those next to die!" -- Lucy Westerna, reciting an old airman's drinking song (DRACULA, 1931)
A bad LSD trip can leave you traumatized for weeks--though it seems longer; surely the trauma of dying lasts but a second by comparison. Cut off from a general populace who cannot see beyond their collective fog of assured continuity to understand why you're so pallid, the blinders that obscure the constant threat of death for them are, for you, broken. The rays of the black void shine into your soul; even if you close your eyes and look away, it shines right through your eyelids, through any polarized goggles, or veil of drugged sleep. All the while, those poor fools around you it's business as usual, guffawing and chawing, glazed-eyed consumers on their endless rotation from breakfast to cubicle to couch to dinner to bed. But you sit outside it all, screaming inside, clawing softly at the fleshy disguise you call a face, as if it's a prison you might escape though, forsooth, you are too smart to realize blinding yourself will shut it out (the reality is too horrible even for the end of X- The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1).

But lo! THE DAWN PATROL (1938) is waiting! In the black and white skies, each gun barrel eking out a gentle sentence period solace.

The doomed airmen await their time to die up in the air, safe over the shadowed, filthy trenches of WWI, far above the smells, they understand your existential anguish! Are they not, in their way, the living dead? Look at the way the pilot's goggled face up up top resembles a skull right out of a Joe Kubert WEIRD WAR TALES cover. You can feel both the beating of modernism's horrified, hideous heart and smell the dread of the next war, already in progress, which by 1938 America was eyeballing with the mixed remorse of a redacted breadline father. 

Though helmed by "ladies' choice" director Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL, DARK VICTORY), DAWN PATROL is all men and--manlier still--a remake of an early sound Howard Hawks film. I've no qualm with this version as Goulding is just fine at capturing camaraderie of either gender, and always had a great fatalistic streak -- you can feel death and despair being ever pushed back, every gesture of his actors like drowning souls struggling through the La Brea tar pits of mortal terror. Like Hawks he keeps shots at a medium level to allow us to feel part of the action, part of the brotherhood of airmen, who treat their captured German pilots with respect, giving them drinks and food before the MPs take them away. And of course our airmen agonize over all the fresh young recruits, most of whom are shot down during their first soiree. What's most important in a film like this, since it's almost all male actors, is that the veteran pilots, be first-rate, and with Basil Rathbone as the C.O., bravely taking the heat from righteous pilot Errol Flynn and drunken wingman David Niven, you got a deck stacked for easy grifting.

"Keep your eye on the ball"
And drinking, man is there a lot of well-deserved drinking, which of course again brings it back to the bad trip sympathy, for if you don't have a drink or something to put your lights out after a bad trip you're going to be hallucinating ghost fingers ripping your soul apart all night, through the morning, afternoon, and even until the following evening sometimes, and even after that... sometimes. But you do have drinks around, if you're a civilized airman. And they're apparently free, since the bar is where you get your orders for the day. The office of Basil Rathbone as their CO (the brunt of their collective rage since he's sending young men to their deaths before they even learn to barrel roll) is adjacent to the bar, and the barracks are upstairs. In short it's much like my band's old communal house in Syracuse in the mid-80s, only we didn't have to fly and try to kill Germans and avoid being killed by them (2), we just had to contend with the fear that if we were ever picked up by the cops or searched, we'd be doing 10-20 years for a first time offense/victimless crime.

DAWN PATROL puts you in that same zone as the paranoid acid dealer in the intolerant Nancy Reagan 80s, giving us hope to sally forth, in a band and/or believing in a cause - where we too belong to something cooler than yourself and the bar is never closed, always "open" - but that unstudied for final always waits around the weekend with its scythe-swipe teeth. Will our name be next on the sortie list?

And so with such Icarus wax plugging the holes in their wings, the big existential question for these pilots isn't how or why, but when. And worse, if your little brother is going to show up, or you come home and he's all into the Dead and smoking weed and filled with that inane sense of invulnerability little brothers have where if they see their older brother jumping off a bridge they do it too and wind up dead...that's the DAWN plotline, as Scotty's imbecile little brother shows up as new enlistee, forcing us to feel the horror of being an older brother, watching as the younger imitates all the wrong things about you, never listening to what you say, only wanting the cool you have and figuring following you into the canon maw will win it sans all the training.

Ram Dass writes of working with death row inmates and how they would have big breakthroughs when death was looming, turning to the glory of the eternal now like instant enlightenment was in the air for free. But then if, say, the convict got off the short list due to their conversion, and were put back in the general population, they'd get cocky and forget the eternal now, becoming hungry ghosts bartering for smokes once more. Dass would have to start all over.

Having been in the war, Hawks and Hemingway understood this (as did PATROL writer John Monk Saunders, even if he only trained pilots for the first war, and always wanted to fight but was never allowed - so I'm sure he related to Rathbone's sense of hopeless guilt): they knew they had to be cozied up to death to write worth a damn or to suspend fear long enough to do the job, be it flying or driving the ambulance as shells drop all around. Like it or not, having survived the horrors of a bad acid trip, you're now in that same league as Hemingway and Hawks surviving the horrors of war, though in a much more facile, delusional, infantile way. As Errol Flynn's quotes, "man is a savage animal who periodically, to relieve nervous tension, tries to destroy himself." That's as good an analogy for a bad acid trip as I've heard.

But that's where the solace comes in. Knocking back a few with THE DAWN PATROL can be like starving for days as a stowaway in a filthy crate on a boat only to learn you've got a pre-paid royal suite with a fully-stocked bar. You wouldn't appreciate the glory of the bar and golden private bath without first enduring the fear and filth. Icarus needs his wings melted before he can be of any mythic use, before then he's just a daredevil hothead. You just don't get to find that out until your wings burn, and you know Rathbone's not to blame if you never got a chance to practice your roll. Saunders tried to teach you -- but you were just too intoxicated.

1. the last line beyond the fade to black of X-The Man with X-Ray Eyes, "I can still see!!" was so unnerving it was removed, but even so --even removed, we can still hear it! 
2.I did have an old Salvation Army officer's jacket and Wermacht infantry coat which did nothing to keep one warm in Syracuse's miserable biting winters, all so--as my power animal explained to me one lysergic night--that I might dimly remember my past life freezing to death on the Russian front).

Monday, November 30, 2009


Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS represents not just a triumph of a great European director over the cop film formula, but a triumph of drugs and the human spirit over the forces who've been playing them against each other for the last 70 years. With PORT OF CALL, Herzog raises the victory sign and lets the freaks know they can lay down their crack pipes and go home. In the face of maniacal Nicolas Cage, no locked-in-concrete reality stands a chance, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans.

When all the world is underwater, fishmen shall reign.

Herzog's great victory here is over his own Germanic fear of unheimliche abject dirt and devouring nature, a burden welded to an explorer's soul that hitherto has led him all over the world, his anxiety never more than a few paces behind. Herzog seems to have been born without a nesting instinct, or thick skin, and the combination signals the same amount of pain Cage's bad lieutenant endures from his injury and withdrawal symptoms; the same manic highs of crack are nice mirrors to the highs of art. It's a perfect synthesis of fearless maniac actor, the right material, and a maverick auteur who has done more than most to erase the line between fiction and documentary.

With its weird non-sequitur scenes and throwaway framing (plenty of smokestacks and gutted pier backgrounds) it could just be random quirkiness but it works because in the case of both Abel Ferrara's original and Herzog's 'sequel' we have fearless men making movies about fearlessness, the holy grail of masculinity. It takes guts to go off the rails at will, and not edit out the embarrassment later. These are films that keep their noses close to the pavement, like a bloodhound or drunk slowly waking up on a hot Sunday afternoon to the sound of concerned passers-by, or waking up on your own floor, instantly sniffing the carpet for that one lost chunk of coke from the night before.

A lot's been written about the reptiles in this film, particularly the alligator's eye view along the highway, low and mean, mirroring our own as viewers, sunk deeply into our cinematic darkness. You imagine that gators feel not much pain, but plenty of joy, like a kid allowed to crawl in the mud all day in the rain, biting anything he wants, the murky, wet freedom. Then again, that gator is perhaps mourning its mate, leg still twitching with its guts hanging out on an off ramp after colliding with a car. For Cage's cop, the world of New Orleans is a seething swamp and, like that mournful gator, he carries pain that makes his mud-crawling joy sorely earned. It helps of course that his badge gives him power over nearly every situation, a power he abuses copiously, but we're never really meant to feel sorry for those he oppresses, especially rock-smoking yuppies and his call girl girlfriend Eva Mendez's dopey johns. Her sleazy exploitation would be played up with lurid, evil music and leering close-ups in less capable hands. But like Abel Ferrara, Herzog is way beyond such petty morality. In both their worlds, the deep-end net between mere sick druggie sex stuff and actual murder is the only one our sympathies aren't meant to swim cross

The way our hero earns promotions via planting evidence, and makes cash blackmailing football players shows that while America still wrestles with its emotional dependence on big brother and its unrealistic appreciation for nature as some warm, cuddly benevolent force that needs our help to survive one more day in its little hutch, Herzog and Cage have beat the rap and found contentment in the dog-eat-dog world of corrupt nature. Herzog previously --in his documentaries at least--recoiled from that corruption as much as he embraced it. Anyone can find a cute bunny rabbit cuddly, but that's not nature. If you can find an alligator eating a rabbit to be cuddly, then come hang with Herzog... but not too close, because you're a sick person.

If you're familiar with Cage's oeuvre you will undoubtedly realize this role is something of a mid-career capstone. He even finds his way home to the nasal whine he adopted in his uncle Francis's time travel romance, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986). Lots of us back then who were in awe from him from BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and MOONSTRUCK (1987) thought to ourselves where the hell he picked up this ridiculous nasal vocal style? Shit was so good it became ridiculous in PEGGY, it was too much. Now we know how he got it, from all the crack he be smokin' in the future!

Lastly is the brilliant way the film brings in sobriety as an option. Going off to AA and leaving your druggie mate behind to drink alone is hazardous to any relationship, an instant point of cataclysm usually seen from the sober person view (28 DAYS, CLEAN AND SOBER), but Herzog would never dream of following the sober person and leaving the crazy druggie behind. When everyone else is slinking away as the abusive crackhead rants and froths at the mouth, Herzog walks boldly in with his camera and asks said crackhead about his dreams. Herzog would be a great "guide" on an acid trip. You can see him getting all up in a cop's face over his charge's right to eat the flowers in Central Park or to bite the heads off slow-footed squirrels. And that's how it should be, maybe, in a perfect world.

The only possible bid for moral high ground with a philosophy that Nietzschean is selflessness, the root of Cage's addiction (he hurt his back diving into a flooded prison to save a convict) but Herzog dispenses with showing us the moment of the actual injury or Cage's early days of dependence, i.e. his first week of, perhaps, trying to stick to his prescription regimen and be a good lieutenant. Did he do drugs ever before he got his back problem? Or is Herzog agreeing with the conservative notion that a prescription for Vicodin leads to heroin and crack like rain leads to mud? It don't matter, because we want Cage to be messed up, and there's a refreshing lack of cliche to the New Orleans aspect: no Hoodoo doctor, no fortune teller woman who gets killed by her own cat moments after revealing some arcane clue to Mickey Rourke. In fact, the grandma in PORT OF CALL gets a magnum pointed at her head for being "part of the problem!" In other words, Herzog is well aware that with medicine prolonging life until its far worn out its welcome they're bankrupting pensions funds and Social Security. It's not really hear fault, this old bat, but I do agree with him, even though I know it's morally wrong to think so. But that's the gist of the freedom at stake here. With no moral high ground to its name, Herzog's story is left to fend for itself. It takes a long way to get not very far, but it's a got a great serpent's tail-eating-style plot -- once the events sort themselves out, the whole thing disappears.

Lastly, Jesus Christ will they throw away that market research report that said ticket buyers respond strongest to recognizable faces brooding in the foreground on movie posters? Look at the one on the left and you see a poster inescapably similar to 80% of the movie posters out there. One face in front, second face to the right, possibly a third even smaller one to the left, shrouded in ominous  darkness, with a crime scene in HO scale at the bottom, like something you'd see at Blockbuster and not rent. Now go look at the gloriously pulpy poster Russia gets up top, and weep! Weep for the chickenshit nature of our America's cinematic marketers.

Here's my idea, take any script and roll a set of dice for each character to determine who should be male or female, which would then determine if they were gay or straight. So in any film any character's gender could switch. Why not let Fairuza Balk play the Bad Lieutenant next time? She could even have played Cage's part and even kept Eva Mendez as her girlfriend! Que caliente! The only film in which I've seen Balk really rip the roof off with a fully formed lead role was in 1996's under-appreciated THE CRAFT! Shit, son, that was almost 15 years ago! She's still hot enough to melt rocks without an oven or lucky lighter. Give this girl a seat at the table and chop her up some lines of cred! Que Guapa ella!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Acid Cinema #1: DAZED & CONFUSED (1993)

Yeah so what if they don't do acid in it? It's still great acid cinema, as in a good trip, since a joyous awareness of living suffuses it and, like any good trip, it starts in the late morning and ends at dawn of the following day, leaving our heroes driving into the sunrise cranking "Slow Ride / Take it Easy" on their drive to a nearby city to score concert tickets. Oh yeah, when you're young, sexy, high as hell, and surrounded by the cool, confident tribe of your choice, the world is a ball. It's hard to capture on film though, without coming off cocky or snide. Can Linklater really duplicate that rare ecstatic bliss of the moment onto film?

There's no comparing DAZED & CONFUSED to other nostalgic "day in the life" teen nostalgia-thons. It belongs in its own section, as far away from THE BREAKFAST CLUB as the original WOODSTOCK is from WOODSTOCK '98. I was a newly-laid teenager taking my first girlfriend to see BREAKFAST in the local cinema, and while it resonated it also skeeved me out. There was no place for me amidst these stock types - I was too cool to be a geek (I thought), to uncoordinated to be a jock, too sober to be a burnout. I needed rescuing, by the right tribe. It would be another year or two but it happened.

DAZED would have rescued me. For one thing it would have taught me that in order to be confident, drunk, coordinated and cooler, I needed to understand it was cool to embrace pot and understand its rightful place in the culture of these United States. It's the substance that exposes the fascism that passes for high school football and class separations between jocks, stoners and geeks. Anyone who gets high is suddenly cool: less violent, less self-righteously scared (stoner paranoia is quite different from all other paranoia). A better if lazier person all around. Linklater's film gets that, yet it also understands the positive aspects of apparently brutal ordeals like hazing as far as creating important rites of passage in a mythic sense. The transition of boys to men, girls to women, the ceremonial effect of physical trauma, and the way the entire senior class works harmoniously as one giant good cop/bad cop machine, the bullies creating a trauma which the nicer seniors then step into heal, and to extend the olive branch invite into the cool kid clique, relative to the stoicism with which the beating is endured. There's a sense of interconnected belonging in DAZED that you don't find much outside of Howard Hawks. If Howard Hawks was a teenage pothead in the 1970s, this is the film he'd have made, or wanted to make.

So casual it's almost unnoticed is the ingenious way that Linklater moves gradually from a larger school cast of characters in the opening scenes to just a couple kids by the end, the ones who got transformed, who made the change, who stayed up all night: the taunted junior league (incumbent HS freshman) pitcher who takes a licking from Ben Affleck and winds up in his first make-out session; the antsy Adam Goldberg who gets his first bruises, admiring them on the way home in the rear-view mirror; the stoner quarterback who decides to not sign his sobriety pledge even though it means missing all the senior year football glory. Each finds and endures their initiation into the unknown.

The coaches who enforce this pledge are brutish caricatures (ala Cloris Leachman's hubby in LAST PICTURE SHOW) but the rest of the adults are all seen as complexly benevolent, just pretending to be enemies of the teenager universe, understanding the need for these bizarre initiations, playing their parts as parents: the dad who stays home and scares away the stoners coming to the door expecting a party, like its reverse trick-or-treat; he lumbers out after them in his big Texan get-up like the new sheriff in town, only to let out a sly grin when they're out of sight; an irate local shoots at the kids for smashing his mailbox, but you know he won't call the cops on them. He doesn't even aim to hit - it's all a rite. These adults dig that it's their job to throw up many obstacles as they can in these kids' way, but to not make them too insurmountable, and to not get mad when every last one is hurtled or ignored on that last ditch blaze out of Dodge. Without the obstacles, there's nothing gained. It's a difficult thing to even notice in one's growing up (this is all based on true Linklater adventures).

While some coming-of-age films unconsciously advocate the status quo (John Hughes) and others outright challenge it (Jody Hill, Werner Herzog) there's also in-between pictures like DAZED, which do both and neither, thus actually offering a unique hybrid wherein high school stoner cliques become like indigenous tribes of old, with all the violent initiation rites of piercing, burying alive, scarring, masked dances, etc. having been transformed into wooden paddles and threats over loudspeakers, chases and inflictions of pain, all followed by welcoming and sympathy ("Heard you got it, pretty bad," a hot girl consoles the pitcher. "In my day it was much worse," says an older mentor type). The noble endurance of pain/trauma initiates a positive response in the community, triggering sympathy and connection, and a mounting loathing for the odious Affleck.

Men tried to recapture this in the 1980s by going out in the woods to bang on drums and whatnot via the "Men's Movement," but the pain of initiation was forgotten. It's neo-pagans with their tattooings, fight clubs and acts of defiance that are closest to true bonding. The pain of a tattoo or a fight (or the terrors of an acid trip) has permanence. It creates an event from which, in neurological terms, creates all sorts of new pathways and possibilities for change. People get tattoos at certain times to mark occasions. The paddling and grilling of football creates this same mark, so does overcoming the anxiety associated with your "first time" getting high, or making out, or riding with the big kids, or standing up to a shitheel even if it means you're going to lose.

The only film that matches it is OVER THE EDGE. If you've ever been "cool" or been giddily excited to be sitting in the back seat of some badass car getting high for the first time, in quiet awe of the older longhairs in the front seat, blasting hard rock and the feeling something dangerous could happen at any moment, and yet feeling oddly safe and secure, that's the vibe Linklater captures in DAZED. While OVER THE EDGE found our kid's dogged by the aptly named Sgt. Doberman, these kids don't fear cops so much as boredom, the future, emptiness. What they don't realize is that they've created a perfect social network, right there, a community in the strict sense of indigenous populations, of cultures centuries older than our own, who understood it was dancing, drugs and cool friends that made one whole, not expensive cars and financial prosperity.

I had trouble picking a number one for this list. If it was pure hallucinatory weirdness I was going to have Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. OR EASY RIDER for the more straight-up influential counterculture, or 2001 for the arthouse. But ultimately none of those are really about us, man. Kubrick looks at man as just another form of intelligence on an endless journey of evolution discovering itself; EASY RIDER is ultimately more about condemnation than solution and Jodorowsky's endless penis/vagina humor and freaks-for-the-sake-of-freakiness gets wearisome after awhile, even when stoned out of your mind.

But DAZED leaves you on a full-blown contact high, full of that drunken giddy sense of possibility that comes from being newly free from parental curfews, open to the possibilities of the universe. We come away as happy as Mitch Kramer when he plops down into bed and puts on his big headphones to rock himself to sleep. Compare that to the up-against-the-wall headphone desperation of Carl in OVER THE EDGE and you can feel the healing. While most cool teen films spend their time pointing fingers and selling soap, DAZED AND CONFUSED whispers in your ear to meet you outside in five minutes, then drives you off to a place where you can be, as John Sebastian put it at Woodstock, "walking around this big beautiful green place, and not being afraid." When all the bullshit's cleared away through memory's uncloggable filter, that's what remains, that sense of "not being afraid" and being connected to everyone around you the way your chest is connected to your limbs, or as J. Sebastian later noted "You couldn't get one page of a book between me and that crowd" 

That's why we're here, to shrink the distance until it's less than one page between you and the crowd, and Linklater's the only one who's truly been able to capture it. DAZED & CONFUSED is the rare case of lightning actually staying in the bottle. Every time you watch it you get as high as the first. No other drug in the world can make that claim, nor group of friends, nor band, nor film. Just thinking about that awesome opening,  the orange 1970 GTO rolling slow into the school parking lot as "Sweet Emotion" pumps though the soundtrack--makes my mouth dry up, my spine tingle and my heart flutter with pre-trip-ticipation. It's our Valhalla. It's our Motorcycle Boy. It's our one shining moment.

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