Monday, June 29, 2009

There ought to be Freaks. THE SENTINEL (1977)

There's nothing like a neck injury to help you catch up with a backlog of unseen 1970s horror films... especially if you leave the remote painfully out of reach. Now you are paralyzed anyway so it may as well be with fear... Bring on... THE SENTINEL!

I don't know what kept me away so long from this 1977 gem, but I'll never leave again. It's got it all: an overly brassed-out score (by TV composer Gil Melle), super young Christopher Walken; a super young Jeff Goldblum; two PSYCHO co-stars (Martin Balsam and Sylvia Miles); several FREAKS stars sans the compassion of Todd Browning; Burgess 'the Penguin' Meredith as a mincing elderly gay stereotype with a haunted cat; Beverly D'Angelo as a freaky young lesbian stereotype... yeah, you heard me! She and her partner use inappropriate masturbation to creep out our already very creeped-out (straight) suicidal heroine (hot as hell brunette but smize-deprived model Cristina Raines), who's just visiting them like a good neighbor (no NYC-er ever goes to 'visit' neighbors. It's just not done --and we like it that way), a skeevy boyfriend played by Chris Sarandon, with one of those unforgivably waved hair and pencil thin 40s B-player mustache. The score

I can't reveal another detail, the neck pain's just too great, but let me just add some more classic old faces: Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine and Eli Wallach, and lastly I must mention scenes in which the lovely Cristina investigates strange noises while wearing a sexy negligee, armed only with flashlight and butcher knife (see bottom last pic) which she holds in the correct manner... but forget it. You don't even need all that, because there are real freaks.

Real freaks. Genius! And quietly appalling in a PC kind of way). When have we seen real freaks outside of 1932's FREAKS (above)? Here in THE SENTINEL, the bizarre parade (gooble-gobble!) of Browning's children comes to its long awaited final stop 45 years later. It's fitting, for THE SENTINEL reflects a time when homosexuality was akin to being a pinhead or a limbless and was all part of the exploitation of deformity and difference on which our circus sideshow culture was and is based. Here this tasteless shockmeistering gets a last, armless bow before the onslaught of liberal PC brainwashing "saves" the freaks by  putting them out of work... one more time.

 As I recall from my childhood street-corner conversations in those pre-AIDS days, when we figured gay people to be like pods from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS --the only way to prove you weren't gay was to talk tough and be derogatory towards gayness, to show how manly you were by accusing your weaker clique members of being 'faggots.' So as knee-jerk conservative as it is, THE SENTINEL is of it's time. The pro-gay flak thrown at the lurid depictions of William Friedkin's CRUISING (1980), for example, makes a nice contrast to the 'why in hell would we pay to see that vileness?' attitude of mainstream suburbia. THE SENTINEL just slides homophobic stereotyping in there amidst a cavalcade of gleefully un-PC shocks, so critics didn't even know where to begin when savaging this movie in their weeklies. But whatever -- we don't come to a ROSEMARY'S BABY-EXORCIST era napper (clearly from an imitative novel, in this case by Jeffrey Konvitz), like this for social uplift. So if it's not quite in the same league as its 1970s compatriots, like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH or BURNT OFFERINGS, well, what is? THE SENTINEL'll do until some other movie with Bevery D'Angelo as a creepy lesbian masturbating in a leotard comes along.

And as for the poor freaks, I am sure they appreciated the humanitarian concerns of not being exploited anymore, but they probably missed the money, and isn't it sad this great American institution is gone forever leaving only a bunch of insane but non-deformed humans hammering nails into their noses and swallowing swords down at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore?

THE SENTINEL is one of those great last gasps of 1970s split-level thinking: we're meant to recoil from the lesbians as if Robert Aldrich was directing, and to recoil from the freaks as if they're demons from hell, validating the patron's conservative "wholeness" in contrast to, say, a filmic celebration of the grotesque and abject ala Browning's 1933 film. In 1977, NYC was still where the family went to recoil in horror from X-rated film marquees, wobbly-heeled hookers and urine-stained winos until the theater started seating them for A CHORUS LINE, "I can do that / that I can do!" We wouldn't have dreamed it would all turn into Disney Stores and Nike flagships--and THE SENTINEL's not trying to impress you with its liberal bias, it's trying to scare you and creep you out, like a day trip to what NYC used to be--one giant sideshow up and down Times Square. See Ratzo Rizzo, half rat, half man! See Jackie Superstar! She thought she was James Dean for a day! Step right up! See the colored girls who have considered suicide go doo doo doo do doo.

There is a rationale for re-evaluating films like SENTINEL, for when used as a measuring stick these films reveal our current culture to be more progressive than we sometimes give it credit for. Being publicly skeeved out by the thought of gay sex is on its last gasp now, in most civilized states, but still a permissible reaction in the 1970s, up until movies like CRUISING (w/ Pacino, pictured above) pushed too far and caught gay rights flack. THE SENTINEL played on similar attitudes but it was in service of a hackneyed demonic documentary, but in the process they helped audiences grow acclimated. If familiarity breeds tolerance, it's repetition-compulsion disorder that breeds familiarity, and it's shock and horror that breeds repetition-compulsion disorder, therefore: shock = repulsion = repetition = eventual tolerance = problem solved once some new shock-repulsion comes along.

After all, even more skeevy than deformity and homosexuality back then was the most commonly used "free" horror effect: old age!  First introduced in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and the 'horror hag' subgenre, then finding a resurgence in ROSEMARY'S BABY, the idea that old age was inherently demonic--as in emaciated corpses with shambling gaits and nightmarish dentures--faded in the all-drenching teenage blood wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but man old folks used to scare the shit out of us! We recently saw David Lynch use old people for creepy effect in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but you have to be a certain age yourself to be afraid of the elderly, and now Lynch is. Just as Niagara Falls is lovely from a window, but terrifying if you're stuck in the current; it's a matter of proximity.

So what is left now that old age, homosexuality and deformity are all no longer allowed to be horrific in and of themselves? Instead of "one of us! one of us!" we have ghosts coming through the computer screen and no parties to go to that aren't flooded with blue lights and lamp-trashing tripping douche bags. Instead of horror we have horror signifiers strung together cheerlessly like gold dollar signs in a rap video. Add an an eye through a key-hole, water leaking in the basement, a girl with dark hair drawing, thunder, a chainsaw, a girl in a shower seen from outside the steamy stall door, Satanic graffiti, hands scribbling in a journal while monks run down stone staircases, partial nudity highlighted in thick felt markers, and golden-hued car commercial subtext, and all bathed in a sugar crust of flashy editing and served with nu-metal flatware, and then the credits: please exit quickly the next show's about to start there will be no refunds step right up and God damn the different! (and what else is damnation if not the sincerest form of repetition?)

Read Tenebrous Kate's valuable take on Cruising here
and the Costuminatrix on The Sentinel here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Last year at Marien...something something

"This shows how far we are incapable of looking at (I wont even say understanding) an incident without interpreting it and without our look added to the amalgam, a mixture which by nature belongs as much to the documentary image as it does to the fiction with which we envelop it." - Andre S. Labarthe (Cahiers du Cinema, Sept. 1961)
"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" - Chico
Everyone has their own take on the formally modern jigsaw puzzle that is Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), soon to be released on a beautiful DVD by Criterion. Is it the story of a repressed memory of possible sexual assault? Or is it just a collection of images that Resnais relies upon the viewer to make sense of? Or is it just...bad? As in the old "Le Bad Cinema" from SNL? Me, I've seen it a few times, but I never saw it the first time. I still need to see it for the first time. Does that make sense?

It shouldn't. It's a snapshot of hell: the audience plays its own part as stuck in a staid inferno of pretentious wankery; the characters are in a hell of art, located in the center of a pyramid bordered by Carnival of Souls (1962), the Shining (1980), and Jess Franco's Succubus (1968)--all three of which seem--at some level--influenced by Marienbad and for this writer at least, all three help situate the Marienbad experience. The hotel is located in a film screen, an architectural macro-micro fracture encumbered by the duty-free shop bourgeoisie claustrophobic jewels and gilded edges of Max Ophuls. If the final party scene in L'Aventura caught a slow motion flu and it took three years for the sun to come up, well, as long as there weren't any circus performers sulking through the still corridors like in Bergman's The Silence, what could it matter? Time and memory are mercifully ever in a state of mutual eclipse, and its this that Resnais seems after. He wants to make a film so boring that time itself stands still around it, forcing the elliptical orbit of the following year's orbit to collide with its predecessor like two clones of the same empty room. 

It's all so influential there are even a few unofficial horror sequels, like: Daughters of Darkness (1971, pictured above) features an older Delphine Seyrig as an ageless vampire Bathory, still wandering the halls of a decaying empty (off season?) old European-style resort, but this time being the one who pulls the "I've always known you" gaslight on the sweet young thing of a possessive scumbag; Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) offers similar editing schemes (such as the justly famous sex/dressing afterwards montage), a similarly desolate grand hotel and a similar "you were here before" gaslight, this time worked on the man (Donald Sutherland) by two batty psychic sisters. Both films operate on at least a few of Marienbad's ghostly frequencies--particularly the "living corpse" analogies and the possibly supernatural origins of the female protagonists' husband or "keeper." Don't Look Now, Succubus and The Shining actually only begin to get enjoyable with the second or third viewing. With Marienbad, Resnais makes sure to show us the film several times all at once, so we can get over that hurtle and really enjoy it, which is to perhaps come to the realization that we have never actually enjoyed it, or even seen it... again.

The first time through is fairly taxing, but by the second you've prepared counter-expectations. In modernist form ab abstractum tediorous, one longs for some circus freaks to parade by, ala Bergman or Fellini, just to liven things up, but this film is totally static and clownless. (wait, didn't I just say I was glad it was clownless?) It's instead the nucleus for all the aforementioned horror movies to rotate around, gaining meaning and resonance with every revolution, presumably. Ultimately it's about the impossibility of memory and perception, with every image reflected and refracted into oblivion, and Seyrig as the ultimate vampire queen at the center. The one person who provides the illusion of a soul, of depth behind the facile masks, is the one person who is, in fact, completely soulless, and why isn't she a blonde? That, at least, would make sense. 

It's the hell of the endless party out of time, where Candace Hilligoss (left), Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, and Janine Reynaud all end up; hell is not after all a land without enjoyment, but a land where enjoyment is never allowed to cease... as in the old Disney cartoon of Satan's helpers force-feeding naughty children on conveyor belts. Instead of sweets it's the over-cooked trappings of the bourgeoisie that are inescapable here, the way an American child who doesn't understand witty banter might feel being dragged to a French film without subtitles--the decaying crumbling land where perfume ads really do come true, and once inside you can never escape. As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais uses repetition of imbecilic phrases over and over to make some kind of post-hypnotic point and like Hiroshima Mon Amour it's damned irritating to anyone not easily enthralled by a strain of modern art that takes itself too seriously, that hasn't pre-empted hoots and hollers from the back row by having a stooge wandering through occasionally slipping on a banana peel. Godard's satiric edge and short attention span saves his films from the abyss where Resnais doesn't fear to plummet.

That the picture on the Criterion disc is so beautiful and pristine is probably not entirely positive as it leaves no room for improvement: One might look at an old crappy Koch Lorber disc and think, "Well, perhaps if the picture were better, it would be a kind of work of art," but with Criterion's beautiful disc, there's no longer room for doubt.

As Seyrig puts so eloquently, "I don't know that room, that silly bed, that fireplace with the mirror. There's no mirror over the fireplace. It's a painting."

 Oui, mademoiselle, at's a no painting, at's a spinach.

This movie is what might have happened, in other words, if there never were a Marx Brothers. They, at least, knew how to deal with these types of posturing pretentious dullards and dealt with them they did, as far back in 1930's Animal Crackers and their continued fuss over the missing Bogarde original oil painting, which is tossed around like an old table cloth. I kept wishing Groucho Marx would inhabit Seyrig's body and do his "strange interlude" impression from that film: "How happy I could be with either of these two... if both of them just went away." I kept hoping Chico would run up and ask someone to play bridge. But the Chico, he never a-comes: that's my nightmare, that's my hell, crawling across a straight razor. There's nothing wrong with that if it works.

What does Marienbad mean? Whatever it means, it's meaning it now.

The shattered glass effect is also one of the process of filmmaking itself, which involves watching the same scenes over and over, different takes, different edits, all shot out of sequence. Some of the jump edits here in Marienbad are sizzlingly witty (characters stare at each other across years and rooms and hair and time) but some are just headache inducing --the artsy version of a kid flicking the light switch on and off really fast to annoy his older sister. Alain Resnais, quit it this instant and go to your room!

The rationale here of course is that Resnais is just being French and focusing on French cinema and architecture rather than delving into American pop iconography with the kid in a candy store glee of the famous Godard. The modern salts in the Marienbath have no American counterweight. They are purely French in the way that makes Yankee tourists in Paris feel slighted; they have the pretentiousness without the naturally self-effacing wit which the French don't even realize lies inherent in the sing-song expression of their language. The completely self-serious bourgeois posturing in Marienbad is something we in America are only used to seeing from behind velvet ropes or through the jaundiced eyes of Billy Wilder, the stuff that makes the henpecked husband roll his eyes while his matronly wife applauds, politely, gloved and holding her opera glasses. It's a representation of a bourgeois snob stereotype we in America have been trained from our Max Sennett birth to deal with by either a) throwing pies; b) sending a Barrymore up to steal their jewels; or c) showing them the error of their ways through a moving speech on a roof, podium, or barstool.

Alas, left to their own devices, the ennui-ridden ghosts of Marienbad and their sordid modernist loops of romantic betrayal are un-signifiable. They are inherently obscurantist. They are for someone else to like, someone who actually reads Gertrude Stein instead of just carrying the book around Washington Square Park trying to seem deep. Marienbad cries to be adapted by a modernist multi-media troupe like NYC's Wooster Group, with three different video screens alongside a bawdy vaudeville show. I'd go. Twice, and be secretly bored each time, though twenty years later I'd boast about it. Did you know I saw the Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones--with the amazing Kate Valk in blackface drag and dressed as a samurai back in 1995? It's true, matey. And let me tell you one thing I learned from art school: just because a film is so boring it makes you get up, leave your seat and go to the bathroom and then go to have a cigarette outside and then not come back doesn't mean it was bad. It only means it's modern. Forget it Jake, it's Marienbad!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Get in My Arachnid Black Belly!

There's something doped up and jet lagged in the giallo tropes of La Tarantola dal ventre nero (1971), one of the many "commercially minded" animal-titled films to come out in the wake of Argento's big hit, The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970). Everything good La Tarantola has going for it seems borrowed from Plumage, including the use of a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score. Well, sometimes a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score is enough! Add some past and future Bond girls and... well, even if nobody goes home happy, nobody goes home more than mildly irritated.

Our cop lead (Giancarlo Giannini--"Inspector Mathis" in Casino Royale) gets the most screen time, with the hot starlets (Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Barbara Bach) barely registering as characters before they are set up and knocked down like puling bowling pins. Too bad, because while he's very expressive--with big doleful eyes--Giannini lacks his future self's gravitas. He's less a cop here and more a benzo junkie swimming through the tail end of an expired prescription. He lets prime suspects go if they sass or stall him; and, though he's clearly way out of his depth, never thinks to ask for a partner or back-up to helps solve this multiple homicide case. What kind of DA lets a case that gets new victims nightly get handled by a single doleful detective? Oh well, there must be a bottle of J&B somewhere around here amidst the Edgar Wallace gimmickry, the rote blackmailers, acupuncturist needles, drug smuggling herrings, red sports cars, musty offices,  plush love nests, stamps on envelopes in the jacket of the murder victims, nature films (the wasp paralyzes the tarantula then lays eggs in its big black belly! Yeesh!) and loads of tracking shots and pull foci through trees in the park and the hustle bustle of Rome's bustling, hustling streets. Yes, some J&B will help us turn a blind eye to the dated gay stereotypes, the suspiciously unsuspicious blind masseurs, the arty suspects running over sewer grates (shot from below) and up and down twisting outdoor staircases past little dingy gray polizia cars, well-performed but badly recorded English dubbing, and the... what was I ranting about, oh yeah, your drink is empty!

Anyway, the giallo goods are all there, but with neither a deranged genius like Argento behind or a riveting lead like Franco Nero in front, the camera can only point and shoot. The venom may paralyze us enough to not change the channel, but there's has no kicker to devour us from within.

Poor Giannini! He fits the bill in mustache but not in sexy glower. He needs have someone to play off of, a handsome bland photographer or obsessed musician--inexplicably linked to the killer as in the Argento blueprint--to play cat and mouse games with. But that kind of interplay is beyond the Belly's reach. Giannini can spar with naught but himself, which he does to a catatonic level of internal intensity that seems to gobble down miles of film, usually via his sitting in his car staring blankly out the side window, or buttoning his drab raincoat, or not responding to some prompt from his girlfriend. When he's not around, however, Tarantola is giallo right down to its kinky gold curtains, spiral staircases, and fetishistic toys and latex gloves... and mannequins, naturally. It's almost an Argento "animal" trilogy remix, only without any zip, energy or insight.

Thank god then, for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here. All crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car.

Considering the by-the-numbers direction of journeyman-hack Paolo Cavara (Mondo Cane) and the fact that Tarantolo's screenplay was written by woman (Lucille Laks) it's perhaps no surprise that a) the film is lacking the obsessive aspects of Catholic male guilt and sexual longing (1), and b) its strengths lie in its 'weaknesses,' in its swooning, feminine sexuality,  which feminist horror studies fans will note is almost completely free of voyeuristic "eye"-conography. The stripping nude of the female victims and the paralysis method seem to set the stage for kinky sexual torture, rape, etc., but censors or soft stomachs mercilessly (or--if you prefer--mercifully) make these scenes short, as if the killer, after going through all the trouble of getting victim set up for torture just stabs and runs --a result perhaps of the director perhaps realizing that once they stop screaming and act dead, the tension goes out and it just becomes mannequin-jabbing necrophile boredom which is why I'm sure the Edgar Wallace novel the idea was cribbed from was never actually read by the cribbers.

Dull as the film can be in stretches, the great disc from Blue Underground is so crisp and uniformly strong in color--the music so boldly reproduced--that a discerning trash film fan has little choice but to embrace it. I can imagine really hating The Black Belly of the Tarantula on a faded badly cropped and edited VHS, but seeing it on a good widescreen TV or projector is like being part of a glorious archeological excavation, digging a window back to a long gone world of macho mustaches, shoulder-length hair, drab grey raincoats over shiny shoes, relentless drizzle, bohemians, cocaine smuggled in tarantula aquariums, and Barbara Bach sporting some of the longest, straightest, shiniest hair in all of giallo land.

The most off-putting aspect of this film, if we're being honest, which makes the murders more a relief than a source of tension, is the sleepwalker idiocy of all the characters (not just our Ritalin-deprived sheriff, all of them). Most notably dumb is a woman who, after running into her apartment building while being chased through the streets by the killer, rushes inside her door, and stands panting right by the door while refusing to even turn the lock, and leaving the big heavy chain just hanging down as she stands panting by the door, dazed, perhaps struggling to remember her lines or to hear our shouts at the screen from the presumed audience of the future: "Lock the damn door!" All the victims of our maniac rush to or from their deaths like lemmings (note to giallo characters: if you want to rat out your friends to the cops, don't boldly announce your intentions to them while standing unarmed and alone in a darkened, deserted, cavernous health spa). Even the forensic scientist who shows Giannini the nature footage misidentifies the spider being devoured by the paralyzing tarantula-laying wasp. Even Cavaro is an idiot with no idea of how to generate identification or sympathy for the cop after he makes the scientist kill all the tarantulas ("don't waste my time," he tells the scientist) and then is mean to his girlfriend's cat.

With so little suspense or empathy generated by the killings, the big mystery becomes how a cop as foggy and strung-out as Giannini's Inspector Tellini ever made it to homicide in the first place. He should be handing out parking tickets, at best. When you see him, for example , step into an abandoned house, where the killer might be hiding, you know you have time to go to the bathroom and mix a round of cocktails for your guests and he'll still only have made it a few feet farther inside when you get back. No wonder all these sex killers ran so rampant in 1970s Italian cinema! Drunk cops soaked in ennui are no defense. Thank God he's handing in his resignation at the end of the case, or at least considering it: "I was unable to save a woman last night," he groans to his wife/girlfriend, who is too busy dealing furniture to pay attention Meanwhile the heavy sighs on the soundtrack begin to resonate less with feminine lust and more with resigned exacerbation. He was unable to save a woman? No shit. Well at least he kind of halfway tried. He told a suspect, loudly, she was his only lead to a killer after her, but then just leaving her to die.

From a surrealist standpoint the detective's confusion puts him in the rarefied realm of somnambulist shamuses, inhabited by the likes of Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart; Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense; Asia Argento in The Stendahl Syndrome; Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly--characters who may or may not be already dead, as if they awoke from a dream into the film and don't really remember a damn thing about investigative protocol. But at least in those films the target always turns out to be someone or something intrinsically tied up with the pursuer. In Belly, the final disconnect becomes more of a Dirty Harry sort of "this time it's personal!" punch out, which illuminates our hero's darkened path not a watt. Oh well, if you're so xanaxed out you don't even know where or who you are it helps to have some really weird Morricone to help you home. One psychedelically twisted note of discordant guitar and you know that you're safe in the beloved giallo genre, where druggy amnesia isn't only forgiven, it's practically essential.

1. Please don't take that as a dis, Lucille, and women. Laks wrote lots of stuff that's too heavy with misogynistic violence for me to see, such as The Savage Three - it has nothing to do with that, but rather like saying some straight male writer may not capture that passion inherent in, say, what drives a woman to mad distraction, I shudder to think.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Acidemic Film Journal #5 now online

It's up and it's EVIL,

with new contributors like Dr. Suzanne Verderber, esteemed west coast journalist Kim Morgan, film historian David Del Valle and up and coming scholar Deborah Michel plus abstract oil on canvas commentary by Audra Graziano.

This issue examines Godard's 1967 film ONE PLUS ONE, aka Sympathy for the Devil, and from there delves into the world of Satanic film and evil on cinema, covering THE HUNGER, BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, THE EXORCIST and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Click here or at box on upper right.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"There isn't any other song": Niagara (1954)

To celebrate Marilyn's special day (yesterday, June 1), I want to celebrate NIAGARA all over again!

NIAGARA is my favorite Marilyn Monroe movie (dramatic category), with her performance and form-fitted red dress so perfect against the misty location shoot backdrop that I play it constantly during my more stressed moments, both soothing (the water) and distracting (the curves). DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK and THE MISFITS feature more nuanced (as in vulnerable, batshit crazy) MM characters, but neither quite captures the cunning sexual potency the actress was capable of. In most of her best known films she's kinda dumb, gullible, led by sex as if a leash, but in the best like NIAGARA and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES that iconic allure is more a weapon she employs to her own ends. Unlike in SOME LIKE IT HOT, she doesn't wind up with the sticky end of the lollipop. Instead she is a femme fatale par excellence. The dysfunctional death drive underpinning her allure is elegantly tapped into via the iconography of the falls--the dangerous currents and harsh downward rock dash underneath the staggering beauty--realized brutally in the crushed soul of Joseph Cotten as her cuckolded older husband. He's a bit of a loser, and I can sure relate. My wounds from going over the dge still haven't healed.

Death drive or no, falling for Marilyn has always seemed to me like a bad idea, like Dracula in reverse: Dracula takes and takes, MM gives and gives until you just have to run and hide in a dark cool corner, which is almost worse. Most protagonists in MM films are tempted by her unyielding yielding but manage to escape before it's too late. Joseph Cotten's shell-shocked sheep rancher George Loomis isn't so lucky. He starts out this 'vacation' already worn to a shaky "In the Gloaming" rocking chair nub by her rapacious hungers. A kind of flyover state version of Emil Jannings in the Blue Angel, he's realized too late that his hot young trophy wife is a "tramp" on whom he's flitted away his ranch and life's savings to buy expensive gifts and dance club bar tabs to no avail other than staving off the inevitable. Their stay at the falls is supposed to heal their rift but she's actually luring him there to make him jealous and crazy in front of the other motel guests for purposes too shocking to reveal here. Suffice it to say, even though he's far from sympathetic, Loomis gets our sympathy, and when you sympathize with someone who gets to sleep with Monroe, you know something's wrong.

Some claim Cotten is "miscast" in the role of George Loomis. I think miscast is the whole point: Cotten represents any mortal male who gets sucked into the rushing deadly flow of Marilyn's hot voodoo and has no choice but go over the side and and plummet to the rocks below. He's every "human" male in the audience who longs for Monroe's quivering form but knows, deep down, if he got her in real life she would destroy him. She'd leave him broke and broken-hearted, much the worse for having ever gotten involved since now he could never enjoy "mere life" without her luminous allure in his private constellation.

And yet they all nonetheless also know that if she cast her eye their way, they'd still jump into that lethal current like a lemming, tossing savings and sanity to the wind in her wake.

Wouldn't you?

Contrasting this doomed tragicouple are a pair of clean-cut marrieds (Casey Adams and Jean Peters) on their belated honeymoon. While producer-writer Charles Brackett treats George Loomis like a tragic fall guy hero, Casey Adams' grinning all-American Madison Avenue square is lampooned ala a Frank Tashlin comedy. "We're the Cutlers!" he announces from his convertible driver's seat as they pull into the cabin grounds, as if he expects everyone to cheer and break out the sparklers. He brings his books to "catch up on his reading," to which the Canadian border patrolman--scoping out Peters' sexy body in the passenger seat-- shakes his head in sad disbelief. Sheer thickness of skull has apparently shielded Mr. Cutler from the monstrous sublimation of sex that constitutes his plastic fantastic Madison Avenue scene. For him, Monroe's hussy walk is alluring--"Get out the fire hose!" he says when she saunters by that evening--but he'd never dream of pursuing. He doesn't even pursue his wife, except to take cheesecake shots of her sunbathing. He's like a cardboard clone shaped by the average 50s TV commercial. Surely the production code never thought a guy like this would be the result of all their moral meddling. He's enough to make the Pope send for Mae West.

His wife Polly (Peters) is allowed to be much more restrained and human, meanwhile, and her big scene with Loomis in his petulantly trashed cabin offers a moment of genuine connection, probably the only one in the whole film. Unlike their American dream caricature mates, the more restrained Polly and George linger in shadow as a gloomy contrast: real characters, with sorrow and quietude in their natures (they're the Brando and Simmons to Monroe and Adam's Sinatra and Blaine), struggling with the shrill farce that passes for 'normal' in 50s America. But opposites attract, and though these muted key types might find some weird bond, they are chained to their respective "phonies" like life support.

Another reason I dig this film: the soothing quietude -- the rush of the falls-- is constant and reassuring. When George or his boss (Don Wilson, from the Jack Benny show) aren't bellowing and guffawing, it's totally serene. The score only bursts to life during key moments of danger or foreshadowing of danger. Otherwise there is only the ambient, soothing rush of the falls, both comforting and eerie, everything a film you watch over and over on DVD in an insomniac haze should be (it's a great white noise machine of a film). The quiet emptiness of the town in contrast to the mad rush of the falls creates a sense of contemplation (when I was there, with a Monroe-level gorgeous Italian-American girlfriend after graduation (I wasn't the Loomis yet, that came later, when we moved to Seattle together), it was similarly deserted, though everything was open --eerie and wonderful). You can imagine Siddhartha ending up working as a motel manager around there, attuned to the profound mystic frequencies, and perhaps he has, and is even there now... yet the environment functions also both as a classic "automotive tourist trap" and a perfect backdrop for Monroe's fatale américain scheming. The result is a movie as durable as a life preserver, the perfect film to keep you cool during the hot summer city months. You'll be as glad to have access to the beauty of Monroe and the falls as you are grateful in the end to be dry, home and in love with a nice safe mortal.

(a different form of this article originally appeared in Bright Lights After Dark 08)

Monday, June 01, 2009

"Zabriskie Point is Anywhere"

This month saw the DVD debut of Zabriskie Point (1970), which is a major event for Antonioni fans and lovers of the Woodstock fall-out cinematic era, i.e. anyone who ever stuck up for Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. But that's not me. I'm a big fan of the pristine, shimmering Criterion DVDs of Antonioni's L'Aventura and L'Eclisse but can imagine hating them just as much if not for drugs and Godard to prep me on their weird iconographical dysmorphia, and they weren't so beautifully restored-- anamorphic, shimmering like mirages. If they were on crappy "Genius Entertainment" like La Notte (pixelated picture with burned in subtitles!) or didn't have Monica Vitti, I'd not care for them. In other words, if they were Zabriskie Point. Luckily, that as Floyd

In its continental plate mashing contrast between meditative isolation and crowded canvas capitalist (and/or socialist) sound and fury, Point is practically a gender-reversed L'Eclisse - with Los Angeles instead of Rome and the emptiness of Death Valley instead of a corner near a rain barrel. The motif of Monica Vitti taking a moment to vibe on the wind rattling the flagpoles outside her friend's apartment complex in L'Eclisse finds Point parallel with the sullen kid playing the ruined piano strings at the desert commune; the stockmarket hullabaloo is replaced by Rod Taylor's pervy real estate dealings; explosions occur instead of eclipses; optimistic California hippies replace the 'too smart to be vapid like everyone else, but trying to fake it for lack of a better option' Rome jet setters.

But the center cannot hold. Without ennui and old European architecture to ground him, Antonioni just .... floats... away. The youth of America in 1969 are not the same youth as the ones in London 1966. Not even close.

There is some architecture, of course, and more to come, designed by Rod "Time Machine" Taylor, who presumes he's here in Antonioni's America to work, and so he does, in a very modernist office, and to roll in the hay with his cute hippie temp, played by cute but blank Daria Halperin. Soon she's driving off into the desert, to the middle of nowhere, there for notation and tryst. Rod's already out there, eyeing empty desert space for a real estate development deal. Meanwhile the young radical of her dreams is maybe killing a cop and stealing a pink plane.

If he can fly a plane, you'd think he could get a real job.

In an unusual touch, all the rock acts who contributed songs get star billing early in the credits, which roll over multiracial revolutionary arguments at the UCLA student union in a semi-documentary commune style reminiscent of Billy Jack but with a Godardian edge of disbelieving cynicism. The bands are all good: Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, Roscoe Holcomb singing "I wish I was a single girl again." I had this LP decades before seeing the film and the film doesn't do the album justice. Then again there is no justice in an Antonioni film, just us... and

Before meeting up with our young cop killer hero, Daria pulls over at an obscure town to locate hippie guru James Patterson (!), who has been turning a peaceable desert scrub wasteland into a David Koresh-meets-Hills Have Eyes playground of burnt out cars and unruly children. "He's gonna ruin a piece of American history," warns the grizzled cafe-owner. Kids throw rocks through the cafe windows, echoing our hero's own rock tossing and hinting Antonioni is more than a little worried his the free love generation his Blow-up helped define is just a pig's head on a stick away from Fliestown.

But that's just one sticky stop on the road out into the Southwestern US wasteland, and gradually all the harshness and industrial "Red Desert"-style offenses to the utopian ideal-- red cans, black trailers, malevolently inexpressive hick faces-- lead to her cop-killing new lover, and epiphany, freedom and "nothing's terrible anymore" ("far out") revelations which are then dissolved in the simple grace of a beautiful Jerry Garcia guitar solo and the sex/orgy scene to end all primordial desert sex/orgy scenes (they wish- there was a better one in the same year's Dunwich Horror), an ecstatic release after all that nerve-wracking industrial clatter. Daria's dress and costume changes in a quick montage and she ends up looking like the ghost of an old settler; the interchange of actors hips us to the mythic ego dissolve of groovy love. They are no longer merely themselves, but Man and Woman in the primal timeless sea of masks and derivations. A long shot of the orgy goes for mid-Elysian Bosch painting or what the final scene in the Beyond would look like if Fulci had the same budget, but it's very under-baked. It's Antonioni trying to be open-hearted even as he recognizes this new paradise is just the old inferno with a forced California smile masking a sense of weariness (the lovers all spread out on a skin-colored hill are barely visible, and probably sick to death from dehydration from the all-day shoot).

One thing that I'm reasonably sure is intentional on Antonioni's part is the hypocrisy at the core of Daria's "nothing's terrible" mantra. It's no sooner spoken than superseded by an elitist youthful cliquey vanity as she wrinkles her nose at some ugly tourists (we see their unconscious consumerist sense of entitlement). She also fails to show love to a cop who pulls up near her as she wanders alone in the desert, probably just to see if she's all right. She looks like she's been wandering for days and maybe he just wanted to offer her some water. The desert dehydrates you faster than you can imagine. She treats him like he's got the plague.

Nothing's terrible anymore... indeed. It's pretty clear there's at least one thing... 

For Antonioni then, it's really a matter of (r)evolution rather than the acceptance Daria preaches (but doesn't practice --in true poor little rich girl fashion); even the revolutionaries seem stuck on the hateful caterpillar trip. The butterflies awaken and are usually shot down by the sheriff within a few reels (this time one gets to literally soar in a stolen plane, painted in paisleys to drive the metaphor home) during which they may or may not love a lifetime's worth (how can they possibly know?).

Drugs too get a strange lens from Antonioni - though supposedly part of the emerging scene, the boy (Frechette) doesn't turn on, doesn't trip or smoke weed or nothing. In this and other things he begins to resemble a genuinely creepy antihero rather than just a charismatic outlaw. Just like his alter-ego Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, we're never sure which of any of his exploits are real or vividly imagined. Just as we can't know if his reticence to try psychedelic drugs is a result of fear (he's never tried), anger (he's never been offered), or experience (he had a bad trip once - and is now a pussy).

Sandwiched gloomily between the Woodstock idealism and the casual Romeo-Juliet murder sprees of the early 1970's, Zabriskie Point winds up with no other way to get attention than to blow up a bunch of books, filmed at a zillion different angles and speeds for the notorious climax. While crazy Pink Floyd music builds to a thunderous scream we see books, tons of them, blowing up like beautiful sea anemones and octopi and fireworks all made of pages of print.

It's an apocalyptic rejection of language, maybe, but Daria Halperin is just not in the same league as Monica Vitti and when she stares emptily off at this real or imagined spectacle we're not transfixed by her transfixion. The dew is off the lily. It's only later, with Sissy Spacek's glowing golden wheat field hair in Badlands (1973), that the transfixing spell of "hellion next door" beauty is restored and the modern artist as outlaw role play can sally forth. Malick knows better than to hold back tastefully on color saturation during a once-in-a-lifetime natural setting sunlight-halo / red hair combination. Halperin's hair isn't even considered as a means of reflection and natural beauty. She's almost more like Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, just a tan little brunette goblin loose in the world, judging everything she sees like she's all that.

If we too feel a little excluded from what little of there is of a party in Zabriskie Point its perhaps because Antonioni seems to be coming to terms with the realization he'll always be so excluded from this scene, always an exile, too old to fit in, yet too anarchic for his same-age peers. Stranded outside every cause, cursed, like Godard, to be too smart to succumb to a hoped-for idealism. Even as the guest of honor at the wake for the post-post-modernist cultural landscape he's helped destroy, Antonioni doesn't know what to say as far as small talk or adult conversation, only how to look at the items on the young people's book shelves, the unexploded titles, like an older guy apartment party wallflower. This new world is for the young and tripped-out and he has no clue how to sit around in paradise pretending he's having fun playing the same old games he's long ago mastered; all he can do is blow up the old world, then just keep the camera rolling on the embers while he whispers like a proud parent to the corpse by his side: "That's a-my daughter up there!" But still, he's not proud. He wishes he could prouder.

Nothing's terrible anymore.

But doesn't that mean, too, that everything is?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...