Friday, July 31, 2009

Alice Part 2.2: The Looking Glass Dolls

(see also part 1, Why don't we Just Go Ask Alice?) The once innocent figure of Alice has grown warped by time's funhouse looking glass to become a token of phallic empowerment, coupled (wisely) to amnesia and embodied by the lovely Milla Jovovich in the RESIDENT EVIL series. Yeah, I said it. Regularly waking up in a strange shower and working her way past sterile booby traps down poisoned white Raccoon (City) holes, this Alice's wonderland is a video game version of Hell. All nonstop threats and very little love, the amnesia she's granted after each death proves her only balm. From a mythic standpoint, Milla's Alice trades coy Lewis Carroll innocence for guns and high kicks; she deals with undead monsters and corrupt post-apocalyptic governments and death not ends it. She is both fully mature and unborn, sexy but essentially genderless, a series of super-conscious pixels mired in the quicksand of shifting animus relations, doomed to spend the rest of her life wrestling with the sticky shreds of her cocoon. Hers is a dream from which one awakens only into yet another strange new level of the same endless first person shooter arcade game.

We can see the reverse of this personal stagnation in the mama's boy phenomenon, i.e. Norman Bates, unable to sever the hydra-like apron strings of a domineering mother, growth stunted in a loop of censorious homicide. While the girls with bad animus relations may simultaneously revere and fear their fathers (punching like a guy, as it were), the boys simultaneously resent and "represent" their mothers, in wig and apron string cleaver. In order to blast loose the Self from this repressive quagmire of unassimilated archetypal energies, some real force is required. Death--real or symbolic--is often not even a viable solution --especially if you're just one of a million clones.

But the egocide of acid works, baby: you don't have to die, just let go of your gun and submit to an alien frisking, with looove.

'Twas the psychedelic drug explosion of the late 1960s that first caused a drastic and much needed push in this direction. Women were shown a different way forward than just copying or condemning men, or buying into man's narrow view of what constituted ladylike behavior. When the scholars, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers got a hold of LSD, the whole pop culture burst at the seams, as did gender roles one way or the other, adding a revisionist slant towards like-minded artists of the past - the Marx brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Dali, and of course Lewis Carroll's Alice. The "Go Ask Alices" are indicative of this. Girls who would have aged into light blue/gray beehive hairdos and terrible dress sense became instead goddesses of eternal coolness and debauched vengeance, and/or dumped at the emergency room door by a panicky dealer who then sped off.

But even demonizing mind-expanding drugs at least opens up a discourse, just talking about altering one's mind has a tendency to alter it, so it makes sense that in the 21st century it's not even polite to talk about why you don't want to talk about it. It's the pink elephant in the room and once you dare to actually behold it, reality itself begins to loosen and slip away. Pretty soon the elephant is right there, bigger than life, getting more tangible by the second, and within minutes you don't even remember a time it wasn't always there. Reality bends and folds and now you remember the elephant from when you were four years old and it just came home from safari. Sounds messy and costly in the long run and yes, you do get stomped on, but hey... an elephant!

Psychedelic drugs have their own animistic shadow in the "gifts" that help the heroine on her mythic journey. Before acid, the mythic jewels bequeathed on an Alice by her hippy caterpillar animus were mere signifiers. LSD was the white rabbit-shaped booster rocket, a literal bite of 'some kind of mushroom' that made you feel big or small (in that suddenly your vision could micro and macroscope farther than before in both directions). Millions made the journey before the door was locked shut by police and bad karma. Now these opportunities are crippled by media-perpetuated fear, urban legends, and draconian drug laws. When taken they're taken at four AM just so people can stay up longer, and they aren't particular about set and setting. But for a stretch of time 40 years ago or so, for a nominal fee, anyone could buy a round trip into the recesses of their own forests, where boyfriends were revealed to be wolves and woodsmen rolled together, and fathers were revealed to be slack-jawed televisual zombies hung up on a martini lunch Madison Ave trip. Lit up in a brilliant flash, the lines dividing light and shadow, ego and anima, yin and yang vanished leaving only the Unified Self... even if that Self quickly dissolved again back into its polarities, that was OK. You'd seen the light -- you weren't just feeling around in the dark anymore; you 'saw' in that flash of light the contours of the room, and now knew in which direction lay the wall switch.

One of the places this sense of awakening and possibility really flourished was in the short-lived Czech new wave cinema of 1970 which brought such avant garde weirdness as DAISIES (which I despise) and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (which I love). This last is especially fascinating, a truly complex "adult" fairy tale, fragmented through the psycho-sexual looking glass of vampire imagery, straight out of a storybook you remember from childhood that may not have existed in this reality.

A young girl, Valerie, lives in a small Czech town that's being visited by a circus/carnival. While surveying the clowns and jugglers from her window above, Valerie spots a mysterious vampire figure--The "Weasel"--and from then on its a mad masquerade, as he menaces her and vampirizes her grandmother (her mom is--as is usual in fairy tales--absent) and later the Weasel turns out to be Valerie's father, maybe even her son. Meanwhile Valerie's grandmother regresses in age, and there's near-incest galore. Valerie is given a pair of magic earrings that cause her to teleport through time and space.  In one of the most beautiful and bizarre scenes, Valerie is implicated as the devil and fastened to a pole in the center of a bonfire by the roused rabble. Yet she merely smiles down at them in a warm, absolving way, and uses her earrings to vanish at the last possible second. The end finds her walking through what seems to be a post-production picnic orgy, that same enigmatic Mona Lisa smile on Valerie's face, grown now to bewitchingly mythic proportions. At one point she even looks right into the camera and smiles warmly. Anyone, male, female, straight, gay, old, young, is bound to be bewitched by this young actress's preternatural serenity and auburn beauty, causing a vast frisson of potentially impure thoughts mixed with the urge to protect and nurture her already impressive intelligence, just like her friendly 'Eagle' - a mix of familiar and friendly animus. We might flip back and forth from good to evil a dozen times as spectators all in that one moment, but she's already seen it happen with her own Weasel father. She's beyond it all; to paraphrase a metaphor from part one, she's already hugged her werewolf. It may not be quite a prince yet, but for the nonce she's just fine with having a dog.

Then there's LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL, which the always trenchant Michael Atkinson sums up in a Village Voice article:
Richard Blackburn's long-fabled Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (also 1972, obviously a key year) exists in a suffocating, ur-Southern Gothic nightscape all its own. Unashamedly shoestring, Blackburn's dream odyssey through pubertal agony drips with Freudian syrup, but it's also a fervidly physical film—the midnight back alleys of Old South ghost towns are not places you'll be longing to revisit. More so even than Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, this mysterious phantasm plays like a visit to the underworld.....
As is the case with fellow indie cult hits CARNIVAL OF SOULS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (both 1968), the poverty of the locations creates part of the creepy affect, the feeling one is adrift in a flea-bitten midnight zone between intentional Brechtian distancing for a post-modern aesthetic arrest and the cheap carny spookshow thrills of schlock. Like all good Alice tales, LEMORA involves a plucky young heroine, Lila (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith). leaving her kindly but clueless preacher guardian in the middle of the night to seek out the wild dangers of her "real" father, a presumed weasel (i.e. gangster werewolf).

The poverty row emptiness gives LEMORA the eerie two-dimensional frisson of a childhood nightmare. Lila's journey begins when she stows away in the car of a sleazy couple to get to "town," which turns out to be a few cardboard storefronts in a small, darkly lit, empty garage. Rather than making the film laughable, this "unashamedly shoestring" quality adds to the dreamy disconnect. All the extras and actors she encounters are grotesque parodies of sexual adults as seen through the eyes of a child, a drunken pair of brawling lovers, a creepy bus ticket cashier, slobbering leering animals, etc. The more cheapjack and surreal it gets, the creepier, the more uncanny, the more the feeling the entire world is indoors, or underwater, or asleep.

But the "Alice effect" in LEMORA actually comes not from the usual stock of menacing males, but from the coven-like peer pressure of the older women. Lemora herself is a succubus-type who gets Lila eating raw meat and drinking blood and possibly dabbling in lesbianism--and there's an old hag who sings an eerie nursery rhyme while walking slowly in circles around Lila while she's imprisoned in a shed. There wouldn't be another matriarchy this creepy until Neil La Bute's WICKER MAN remake! And here we realize why:  the Bruckheimer bottom dollar feeders of Hollywood have a frat boy's fear of castration so there's no powerful women like these in our modern Hollywood myths --only arm candy and maybe a syrupy old grandma for Peter Parker. And LEMORA has all the things big money boys are still struggling in their inner female's sticky webs to get away from. They'd rather not be reminded, like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO, that they're not ever going to escape their Midges.

But the truly sensitive non-hack artistes aren't afraid to fall, Johnny-Oh. They say the unconscious (anima) of every old male artist is a young girl, and vice versa (or maybe it's just me who says this), that all the ages and genders ultimately meet halfway in BENJAMIN BUTTON-style criss-crosses, as the psyche is slowly illuminated, the consciousness grows dark and the unconscious inherits the burning building. And when we grow weak and elderly our soul energy is so vibrant it's barely noticeable. Old interests return, part of the reason why children and old people get along so well (or why I'm finally eating candy every night for dinner like I always dreamed of). The key to discovery of self is the brave meeting with these inner figures of your past and present, light and shadow; the magnetism between genders and generations is sublimated into art and myth, not repressed or acted on in some trite sexual/literal way. That's why drugs like LSD and mushrooms should be regulated and dispensed gingerly, but never suppressed or demonized. With research and proper set and setting, they could change the world overnight for the better. The real dangers to our future, as LEMORA indicates, are the preachers, moralists and hysterics, the ironic distancers and the ego-blinded. The addictive nature of repression is the real dark power at work in our communities, censoring with violence what it can't control (i.e. handing out life sentences to minor first time drug offenders), never admitting to itself that without darkness, light itself becomes dark, to compensate, resulting in sudden RAIN-style grabby outbursts from once-chaste reverends. The outlawed darkness is forced to become light just to go in there and save the day.

Balance--not triumph--is key. That's why John Lennon knew he had to invite the defeated Blue Meanie to come hang out at the end of YELLOW SUBMARINE. Alice would have done the same for you. And you'd arrest her just for that?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why don't we Go ASK ALICE?

The reverberating mythic chord struck by Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are the grand signifier for the "girl you'll be a woman / soon"-style myth of sexual awakening and of course, dropping acid. Alice was a catch-all signifier, not just a woman or a girl but any and all cute blond chicks on acid. The "anonymously" published memoir "Go Ask Alice" became a bestseller in 1972, it's "true" story of a runaway who hooks up with angry drug dealers spawned a hit TV movie that my fellow children of the 1970's may dimly remember seeing either in or after school. All I remember is seeing it in 3rd or 4th grade and falling madly in love with the straight blond hair, the denim, the glazed eyes belying an intelligence and unconcern that could topple nations in its disregard for American cornball value systems. It was probably not the intended message of the screening, but I was hooked for life.

The story of the anonymous and supposedly true book--an alleged diary of a runaway girl who gets mixed up with the wrong kind of hippie boys--drew parallels to Carroll's Alice and was itself based on the Jefferson Airplane song from 1967 of the same name, with its memorable catch phrase "Remember / what the doormouse said / feed your head." Has there ever been a healthier moment of zeitgeist than that collective recognition of a universal myth in action?

The motif of a "little girl lost" winding her way--more or less sans parental guidance or protection--through a maze of ambiguous and sinister (usually male) creatures while under the effects of disorienting drugs (or even just the introduction of sex and alcohol) is one that reverberates the foundations of the human psyche, from Red Riding Hood to Clarice Starling to Lindsay Lohan. Alice is the perfect symbol of everything at once kind and cruel in feminine innocence, in a man she stirs a mix of protective urges and wolfish desire, generating enough internal conflict that you may be uncomfortable. The worst is, you sacrifice yourself to protect her, and she forgets your name two minutes later. She has no respect for patriarchal values and hierarchy. She might only wrinkle her nose in bemusement at watching a city fall or a man lose his head ("How curious!") but then the next minute cry over a dead rabbit in the fridge. No adult male can hope to compete with a cute bunny wunny. To a guy like me none of it made sense, but she made being obliterated by a single smile into something way cool. As W.C. Fields once said, "I was in a love with a beautiful blonde once dear, she drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for."

If the "mirror" to the (male) hero's journey into the underworld is the boy-to-man transition of the male psyche (and vice versa), the Alice iconography similarly is both a metaphor for the transition from child to adult and from accepted member of the social order to "outsider" and then back again, hopefully with some souvenir from the other world that will restore some much needed life to the stale society one left behind (i.e. we all seek the holy grail for our wounded fisher kings). But if no one wants to hear that "it's all about love, man! Stop the war, and just love each other" then one is left with a myth half-finished. Or they do like the message but end up commercializing the properties that exist through the looking glass. The Queen of Hearts is held for questioning, the Mad Hatter sent to Bellevue. The masses have been hypnotized by TV to not listen to wild-eyed blond girls when they rave about black holes and peace and universal love. Boys may trudge off to the woods and come back men with swords and gorgon heads in tow, but girls disappear into the void and sometimes--as in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (below)--are never seen again. Best to not encourage them.

The male heroes quest might involve bravado, swords and slaying of monsters, but the girl's journey requires more cunning and quietude. She must ensnare the male figures that wield swords to her will, not wield the sword herself. Thus she must beguile and entrap, the powers that she picks up along the way are often tied into accessorizing: jewelry, bags and shoes, such as the cursed Red Shoes, or the earrings in Valerie and her Week of Wonders (pictured at top). Her powers of allure are then displaced onto these fetish objects. Shoes in particular represent mobility, the phallus harnessed underfoot. She moves past you in a blur and suddenly you're empty. What did she take from your pockets in that split second? How come you are now so empty when all she did was smile wryly at you and continue on her way?

In the myths and folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and analyzed via a Jungian lens by writers such as Robert Bly, Maria Von Franz, and Joseph Campbell, the hero-boy on his long journey will often be met by princesses or maidens and given charms and curses: lockets, purity rings, tie-dyes, fruit, pills, magic armor, STDs, shrooms, money, keys, alcohol, friendship bracelets, sex, etc., that will protect and aid--or curse and bedevil--him on his quest. Seldom do these anima-based female characters proscribe a direct physical threat to our hero, the threat is in side-tracking their mission, an ensnarement from action into dolorous comfort. They reroute his phallic arc and castrate with their hot little dentatas. Odysseus wants to spend his Sunday practicing guitar and Circe coerces him into re-tiling the bathroom or taking her shopping. But the anima is always enigmatic, and in attempting to translate her strange edicts, the male hero will inevitably stumble. The woman's journey is much the same, except she doesn't have to ask "What do men want?" She knows. And as long as she can pretend not to want it as much as he does, or pretend to want it more than she does if she doesn't, she can drive him to any destination.

The girl hero actually faces a very different impediment from the shadowy male ego of her unconscious mind, the animus. This creature is violent, overtaking her in dreams like a sex-crazed wolf or a flying bat-like vampire. This incubus (ala PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE ENTITY) cannot be fought or conquered, it must be incorporated, harnessed, employed and/or drugged into a coma and ultimately, forgiven and incorporated into the self. If the girl learns to refrain from fear and react towards the beast with kindness and wary but benevolent affection, she will earn a prince. If she fails to incorporate this force, she can become a masochistic "perennial" victim, ala Deneuve in Repulsion (above), the type who sees predators around every corner and ends up alone, for life, except for her seven cats. And either way, if she's not careful, she'll grow up to be a woman who's certain she knows everything. Her animus will have learned to speak to her in her father's stern voice, and she will never let a real life man tell her any different.

Many girls are molested as children, which is horrifying, but of course there are also unresolved animus situations in many an unmolested girl's psyche, too. Girls who resist the terrifying advances of the shadowed animus--whether real or dreamt--can wind up in a state of perpetual siege --with or without any actual male yang besieging them. When the white rabbit crosses their trail, these girls adamantly refuse to follow it. To cover their fear and regret, they judge and decry: "Following White Rabbits down holes should be ILLEGAL!" The headlines rage: "I was made to eat mushrooms by giant caterpillars," raves hysterical looking glass survivor! But there's no shaming your own inner wolf-man, honey. He will not stop clawing through your skin disguises until you finally hug him, and love him even as he spiritually devours your little girl ego and leaves you blazing with crown chakra sunshine you never knew was always there, right below the black falcon enamel. You may wind up in the hospital from jumping off the roof thinking you can fly, or in jail for putting the baby in the microwave and the chicken in the crib while high acid but, in the end, it beats shopping for another pair of shoes you don't need. When the red queen's off her meds, do you really want to cling to logic and proportion? Go ask Alice if you want a woman's opinion. But do it quick. She'll be a woman soon, and then it won't be her opinion at all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Hell ish my Natural Habitat" - UNDER THE VOLCANO (Great Acid Movies #88)

 "Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!"

That's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of UNDER THE VOLCANO, John Huston's 1980 adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-8 pages into), about the last day in the life of a British consul named Geoffrey Firmin in the 30s Mexico. Slouching against a historical backdrop of jostling Nazi and British diplomats, our Firmin (Albert Finney) drinks heroically to metaphorically match the decay of the global politic, shot by shot (and if that analogy runs out he'll find another excuse). My friends and I loved this film in the same way; it validated our drinking the way the incumbent world war validated Geoffrey's. After a late night screening (and drinking 'heroically' along) of my old, blurry VHS version, we'd talk for days in Albert Finney's eloquent slur, digging that our mirth was rooted in violently escalating alcoholism, a black humor joke where we were all too aware of being the punch line, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Neither would Finney's Geoffrey, even after Jacquelyn Bisset as his gorgeous ex-wife Yvonne drifts suddenly back into his life. At first he thinks she's a mirage conjured from his wracked longing (like Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP); appearing as she does while he's contemplating the early dawn and an old woman with a chiggen (incluse me, "chicken"), he figures she's a contrasting DT hallucination, and so shrugs her off. Then he realizes maybe it is her, come back to him. But why didn't she write? No! She's just another hallucination --the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint. Now excuse him while he resumes his wide-eyed stare into the abyss.

No, he didn't get your letters, Yvonne. He's been busy as you can see.

While Yvonne's been away, brother Hugh has been taking care of Geoffrey, giving him strychnine to taper off with (the invention of benzodiazepine being, sadly, still decades away) and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates with detached indulgence, but he's also very creepy and laden with suspicious agendas ala Bruce Dern from THE TRIP (if Dern was after Strasberg instead of Fonda). There's no acid in the film (though surely that would be good to "shober up with" as well) but I assure you that being drunk for days on end will get you pretty much to the same psychedelic place (just sloppier) and this movie has the same ability to transcend the life/death dichotomy and point towards the terrifying ambiguity of the real.

Finney's slur is much more decipherable when heard under some sort of influence (I dimly remember), but there's little that can help with Huston's belabored attention to visual metaphor as he cuts from El Dia de la Muerte skeletons to Finney's "skull eye socket" sunglasses and white tuxedo over and over. Despite the incessant cutting, the comparison never quite gels--Finney's too plump--and the fact that his bloated face never looks enough like a skull seems to drive Huston crazy, but that's the problem--we associate the big dark glasses white linen Panama suit look with drug cartel kingpins and Nazi secret agents smuggling uranium in Buenos Aires --that slot is 'filled' in our iconography. Huston keeps trying though, and now, on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD, these allusions scream with subtlety. On the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded), by contrast, the tracking was bad and the image was so blurred that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be slowly dissolving into wormy, mismatched horizontal lines of Gerhard Richter-style abstraction, which mirrored the souvenir skulls mucho mejor- each a perfect symbol for our drunken viewer souls' unstoppable slow drip deterioration.

The Criterion DVD of course loses that blur, and reveals Huston's sense of period piece over-craftsmanship. Every scene is packed with prettiness now (no matter who's throwing up), lots of flowers in the Mexican sun and a romantic Alex North score that clearly doesn't get it either (one longs to hear what a master of abstract antithesis like Ennio Morricone might have done instead). Alas, now we see--in the clear pretty light of dawn--that even a fellow great white writer facing drunken death like John Huston can make the mistake of assuming that just by filling a drunkalog with (suspiciously well-polished) old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers in tuxedos, a story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." We all know Lowry's book is 'great literature' adapted from one Great White Drunk by another. But does the greatness transfer to historical evocation and white elephant sweep when Even George Stevens or William Wyler would have realized expressionism was being loudly and clearly called for!

The video cover (pictured lower left) tries to spin the film's plot around to a love triangle, playing up Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) as the trigger for some kind of cold blooded vengeance, rather than just the alleged wound for which booze is the cure (the vertical lines making it seem like he's some merciless killer watching them from outside their window at night in the rain). It's misleading but in a way might be the poster designed by Geoffrey himself, were he in denial and playing the blame game, turning the whole film into a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing. Considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course, it might make sense but it's certainly misleading from what the film is really about.

Still, I'm not complaining, because when things really get properly weird, they go all the way, as if Huston has been holding back the surrealism gates to make the entrance of a dwarf whoremaster--(Rene Ruiz) making lewd gestures towards these drunk British marks-all the more shocking, a kind of 'too late to turn back' signpost. I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST, which gives his raw vulgarity a traumatic association with hazy childhood (like if you saw Gilligan making lewd tongue gestures at Ginger in a bad dream). Seeing him arrive, and leap atop the bar, we know this dwarf pimp is the rat Don Birnim sees peeping out from the hole in the middle of his apartment wall but this is no hallucination, this is the real that makes his last 24 hours seem a final dream of placid river drifting before plunging over the falls.

The rest of the horror comes from Finney--his wild eyes, each floating in the liquid of his skull with no thought to the other one's direction of gaze; his skin flushing and growing pale as each new wild thought cascades down his spine; he is a formative titan, his groovy-strange monologue about halfway in: staring off into the abyss as Yvonne and Hugh try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help, says it all.

"Geoffrey, what possesses you?" Yvonne asks.
"Sobriety, I'm afraid," he answers. "I must drink desperately to regain my balance." And so he does. And so used to I. And my friends and I used that line constantly when toasting out ninth and tenth glasses of the hour.

I think in the same scene he also leans back and says, "Hell.... is my natural.... habitat!" A perfect battle cry for those of us for whom booze, drugs, and the inability or unwillingness to stop using them, had led to spiritual, mental, and cul-de-sacs.

Perhaps the novel really cries out for a more poetic or abstract approach, something they might do today with CGI to create ever so slightly shifting hallucinations or, failing that, to cast an actor we perhaps love more than we do Finney, someone like Richard Burton, who had to tell us he "was at the end of his rope" in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, but we never really believed it --or the way Dean Martin in RIO BRAVO or Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND never quite made their characters' drinking problem unsexy. These were actors who were real life notorious drinkers so they certainly knew what their characters were suffering through yet they never really seemed to sink deep into the depths, understanding implicitly that even in social message movies we don't like to be turned off. Most actors are far too vain to get too ugly. No matter how low their character sinks, they know we still want them to be charismatic stars --we have to look at them on big screens after all, for a long time. We can't look away and keep walking, stepping over them in a hurried manner. These actors wiseky figure we can use our imagination to carry their character the rest of the way into the pit --and they're right. We don't want to see them get all bloated and sweaty and wild-eyed -- we see enough of that just looking into the mirror.

That's the thing --with his weird wavy hair and puffy pink froggish face, Finney looks like a drunk--his face pale and pink, blushing and bloated on too many empty booze calories. No one had ever come this close to actually looking like a near-end drunk while playing a near-end drunk before. Finney gets the jerky St. Vitus movements and out-of-breath reality-break 'keep it togethergottakeepitogetherkeepitgetherrrr" wits' ended spastic hilarity of real alcoholism just right, maybe 'too' right.

In fact the only other actor of his caliber who would even come close, who would really open himself up like a can of prickly pears and dump his guts all over the floor, wouldn't even get the part for another 17 or so years. Of course I mean Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. By then, though, even I had mastered the St. Vitus, and now that I'm sober I can't watch either one without an AA Big Book around and a finger on the remote to flip past the grim, terrifying... I AM BLACKSTONE THE PIRATE DO YOU HE--BLACKSTONE!!! ranting. Pay no attention, madame...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Great Acid Movies: The TRIP (1967)

Boy meets boy meets pill meets Death!

The first boy in the above bizarre and inaccurate tag line is a disillusioned TV commercial director (Peter Fonda) in the midst of a divorce from a hot brunette in a pink coat (Susan Strasberg). The boy he meets, the "guide" for his first LSD trip, is played by Bruce Dern in full narc-creepy mode, arranges the meeting with pill. It's Fonda's first lysergic play date so it all has to be just right. First they swing by dealer Dennis Hopper's hippie pad to score ("Let's make it upstairs, man") and it's clear to any hep person just how weirdly un-hip (and all the more unhip for thinking how hip he is) and vaguely smarmy Bruce Dern is. After smoking a joint--passed along in a round robin format shot that's a clear inspiration for a similar shot in Hopper's Easy Rider--then split to Dern's place, high in the Hollywood hills, which has been 'proofed' and bedecked with odd gimcracks like oranges and a book of Allen Ginsberg poetry--so Fonda can drop and safely frolic. Soon enough, the eye mask comes on, the weird head trip music begins and Corman works his way up from long kaleidoscope sex light show grinding to a wordless mental excursion deep into Big Sur to wander in auld costumes from Corman Poe films, tangle with Angelo Rossitto in torture chamber clothes and face one's own immanent bad trip buried alive entombment - "just go ahead and die," Dern announces. I guess if you're a newbie that advice can sound pretty creepy, out of context in the movie trailer for example. But in this at least, he's right. Soon Dern is pulling him out of the swimming pool and seeming pretty nervous about letting Fonda loose outside, like he'll fall off the hill to his death (did people do that back then? Jeezus, how much were you kids taking??)

But Dern ends up hovering over him way too much, creeping Fonda --and us-- the fuck out. As Michael Weldon wrote "Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?" Silly Fonda turned down Salli Sachse as a partner (she asked to come along back at Hopper's pad because she thinks Fonda is beautiful, which he is, and that as far as first trips, she "really likes what happens to people, you know?"). Once home, Dern shows the capsules proudly - 250 micrograms apiece" as if he's an expert and not a narc? (No one, man. Not ever- would be that sure about the actual microgram count of an acid capsule - what does that even mean?)  On the other hand he--for some reason known only to him, has Thorazine lying around - this is just in case Fonda has a bad trip. Yeah right, way to bum everyone out, Bruce. Fonda is not the one getting all creepy with trust issues and touching and micro-managing like it's baby's first steps and all he can really offer are words cautiously rearranged from "Tomorrow Never Knows." Creeepy. I don't care how long Fonda's maybe known him, Dern smells like a narc super duper and/or one of those guys who doesn't know he's gay so thinks it's just normal dude behavior to be so inappropriately invasive, or maybe it's kind of the same thing- each a 'spy in the house of love' so to speak. You know Dern has never used any of these phrases before and he can only thinly mask a kind of conservative contempt (which was why he was so perfect perhaps in Coming Home), and when he's all trying to get Fonda to put the black mask on I can't help but think of his creepy-deepy character coming on to the Barker boy in Bloody Mama. But he was less creepy there, believe it or not, because you at least knew he wasn't a narc.

Fonda then hallucinates some more, winds up in a Big Sur cave, hangs out on a merry-go-round with the dwarf ("Bay of Pigs") and Dern in a priest robe ("There are some preliminaries first, man"), and later trips out on an orange ("The energy is dripping all over my hand, man!") while Dern tries to touch fingers with him, and make sure he doesn't jump or drown. Dig man, these early acid eaters were a really square bunch! We never tripped with a guide. Though when I was (briefly) dealing I'd occasionally get called over to somebody who took too much having a super bad time. We didn't have THORAZINE lying around, man. We had to hang in there, like warriors. I was expert at talking them down WITHOUT resorting to Dern creepiness or tired cliche, which is why I became known as "the doctor" or what I called "psychedelic surgery."

"Never saw this before... Never saw this before," says Fonda, early on. "Never never saw that before!" Jack Nicholson did the script, and ain't no doubt he did his research! Fonda and Hopper too of course. Only Dern man, only Dern....

Fonda eventually escapes Dern's creepy clutches and the film picks up the pace; his nocturnal wanderings as he makes his way onto the Sunset Strip include breaking into a neighbor's house to watch TV and chill with a young child (freaking out the parents, who don't 'get it') and later freaking out a Barbara Mouris at the laundromat; all while (he imagines?) the cops are after him. Maybe they are - that's the joy and terror of a strong trip - you never can tell Finally he makes it back to Hopper's pad, winds up at a topless go-go bar for some reason, and is rescued by Salli Sachse--who doesnt't "believe in police," then takes him back to her place for some early morning coitus, and he says goodbye to his marriage, and bye-bye to the old world, and in his mind, bye-bye to normalcy...  Tripping often accelerates these things. But he's still square - even telling her in the morning "Well, I love you," and she has to make sure he adds "and everybody else" - lest he miss the cosmic point and get all creepy.

Peter Fonda's bug-eyed, spot-on performance as the tripper has some great moments. My pal Lucy's dad, Michael Blodgett (Lance in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) appears during one of Fonda's guilty/jealous hallucinations, in bed with Susan Strasberg. Fonda watches them, horrified but ambivalent at the same time.

In his big LSD peak moment, Fonda hallucinates his way into a plastic fantastic merry-go-round set filled with the carnival props leftover from Corman's films CARNIVAL ROCK and X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (reviewed here); Hopper and the dwarf preside over things while Fonda sits in an electric chair, and they all watch clips from Fonda's advertising reel so he can realize he's guilty... guilty...of poisoning the well of myth with his bland TV imagery. "Guilty... guilty," Fonda keeps saying. "Yeah, but don't wallow in it," Hopper chides, "because it's weak and pathetic!"

Susan Strasberg is only around in little bits here and there as the wife Fonda's about to divorce, but she's a maze of kittenish yearning and aching feminine sincerity and she makes you feel guilty and sad that you prefer LSD and painted go-go dancers to her simple charms. Anyone who ever broke a heart will feel Fonda's pangs. LSD really does amp up that feeling of you can't go home again, and you want to reach out to her and pick up this wounded puppy who deserves so much better. You can feel the sexual yearning and pink vibrations of nurturing maternal warmth emanating in waves that turn your leg muscles to jelly. It's hard to believe this was made the year before PSYCH-OUT as she seems so much more mature here, like her father Lee, one of those actors who doesn't make a splash about how great they are because they are so perfectly embedded into their role, and it's only in close examination and hindsight where your mind is blown

And then there's all those hot, zonked-out love-vibing chicks, especially Sachse as the free-love far-out kitten who loves being around the energy of acid first-timers. "I don't believe in police!" Hey far out. Other Corman regulars aside from Mouris in the laundromat include Luana Anders as the waitress at the Go-Go bar and Katherine Walsh as Lu-Lu who makes out with Fonda at Hopper's later. "Hey, go easy, will ya, baby."

Katherine Walsh as sexy Lulu (love those streaks!)

 So it's free love central, but it's not free love in some grimy Ratzo Rizzo / Herschell Gordon Lewis way, man. It's free love in a cool pretty Fonda hipster next-stop EASY RIDER way, with serious acting, every one young and gorgeous and with a real sense of drugged interconnectivity (except with Dern). If you were tall, young, successful, good-looking and not a scrounging dirtbag, or skeevy guide like Dern is here, then you got laid on the Strip, that's the moral. With her iron-blonde hair and groovy white convertible whisking Fonda away to her swanky pad to cap off a perfect evening with some fading light-show sex, Sachse is beyond what most of us dare hope for. As Hopper says of a girl he knows who takes Roybal (STP?) all the time, "can you imagine where that chick's head is at?" So there was a future to look forward to as a grade school kid in the 70s that would be gone before we got anywhere close enough to get more than a passing taste.

Alas, this movie is far from perfect. Who wants to begin to crash after a wild night like that while forced to endure stock recording kazoo-driven dixieland jazz? Coming from the oddly named "American Music Band," some tracks sound like Corman fished them out of the trash at a high school pep rally, the sort of thing Otto Preminger might put in SKIDOO, the kind of stuff Kevin Spacey might play to torture prisoners in THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. I love Louis Armstrong and Memphis Jug Band as much as the next stoner, don't get me wrong, but not when the same style is generic and tone deaf to the moment. My guess is Corman grabbed it from a royalty-free sound library where it was used as the score for Harold Loyd silents that used to be on TV with 'BOinggg!'-style sound effects added. It was probably the last track on the record and he just forgot to turn it off.

There's also some  stretches of wordless SEVENTH SEAL-ish footage which Dennis Hopper apparently shot on weekends out at Big Sur that can get boring. Lots of Fonda walking a girl with a painted face on a horse along the coastline, leading to his ceremonial viking funeral and some wandering through old Poe sets, taking some potion from Rossitto, all leading to a panic moment realizing he doesn't want to die, man (the big karmic rebirth/baptism of accepting your own inevitable death, etc.) which would work if the music was interesting, like Pink Floyd or "Dark Star" or something... but the stuff being played... I mean it's 'psychedelic' but there's a thick, wavy line between a band that takes the ingredients and makes something truly awesome like Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" and dated garage primitivism like American Music Band's 'trippy' SF sound (i.e. their tepid guitar and organ rendition of "Que sera sera" which sounds like someone left a Ventures album on the wrong speed under water, not in a good way, and/or the schmaltzy calliope library cues at the merry-go-round.)

Of course 1967 was a strange year for music: it went in twangy surf music on the rock end, the still controversial (post-folk revival) electric Dylan on the folk end, and soul on the black end, and by the end of it all the ends were one within the weaves of Sgt. Pepper and Hendrix. My guess, Hendrix wasn't on the scene just yet, or THE TRIP soundtrack might be really different. (Just compare the music used in EASY RIDER the following year, man oh man music makes a lot of difference in these things.)

But the peak moment for me, in ALL FILM, is when the spooked Fonda hides in an all-night automated laundry and starts opening all the washing machines, as if he feels they need to breathe. Barbara Mouris, in curlers, the only one there on this Friday night, is reading a magazine and waiting for her load to finish. She's wary and alarmed at his odd behavior towards the machine, especially when, once he notices her watching him he starts nonchalantly closing the lids, like he's trying to hide the secrets inside from her prying eyes. Brilliant! Very Antonioni's RED DESERT! They start talking ("Let's, you know," he says, "really try and connect") but then Fonda sees a prettier girl trapped in the dryer and tries to free her, pulling out all Mouris' clothes. It's a lame ending--no one hallucinates spinning centerfolds. When tripping people just see what's already there, amplified into the infinite. God knows how great it could be with CGI or a budget... the whirling motion of her whites conjuring a trapped, screaming ghost woman... Instead it's just cheeky and the scene ends on the run again! Still the damage has been done and a classic trip moment for all time is born. It's the kind of stuff only the truly tripped would know maybe is so very true.

It's telling that Bruce Dern never actually took acid before or after this film, and in the talking head interviews that accompany THE TRIP on DVD today and yet, he alone, of the entire cast and crew seems like an acid casualty, i.e. kind of unfocused and cranky, as he badmouths psychedelics. One day, not far from now, cooler heads in medicine will discover just how important a good acid trip or twenty is for preventing Alzheimers and countless other maladies and problems but back then it was considered a big risk and Dern bowed out because he was marathon runner. Hah! Like it's going to weaken him! But considering the futility of living for longevity as opposed to the brief sprint to the flaming finish line of lysergic glory, especially in the show business, I would say he should have gone for it. Those who did are still going strong--coherence wise--all the other talking heads are still sharp as tacks and he's, quite frankly, a mess (at least in the documentary).

See, what the anti-drug ads don't tell you is that contempt prior to investigation is easy (with eyes closed - misunderstanding all you see, bra). It takes guts to say yes and open up to the unknown, despite all your friends and relatives urging you not to. No artist should abandon the pursuit of knowledge, the discovery of the depths of self, the furthering of craft, in favor of mere longevity and health. Anything is worth any risk. And if you believe that old lie about it mutating your genes, then you probably will die from chemo-nausea-induced malnutrition because you're afraid to smoke weed, and also you're reading the wrong blog. Punters and narcs get the real Peter's head freeze frame fake lens crack!! Us? Let's make it upstairs, man. Just don't bring creepy guide and don't call me later if the walls bleed on you again. In the words of Fonda, "my body's gone, man." Wait until Dern's getting the apple juice, then split. Sachse awaits! Sachse away....

See also my 2003 Popmatters review of the double feature with Psych-Out

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT

This 1968 AIP classic has awesome documentary footage of the Haight-Asbury scene while it was at its zenith, framed through the shocked gaze of squares rubbernecking in tour buses like they're driving through an African safari preserve. As for the characters on the street and in the coffee houses, they're pretty damn authentic, at least as (sometimes) written and clothed and (sometimes) acted, if my own memories of playing in psychedelic rock band are correct, which is doubtful. Your enjoyment will depend on age, drug experience vs. innocence ratio, and capacity to endure the kind of stoned "we're all one" philosophy that's so deep when you first hear it and say it, then is tiresome and then horrifyingly naive. Though my own experience in this kind of scene was in upstate NY in the late 80s, we played this kind of stuff as Mumblin' Jim, the band fronted by Jack Nicholson here, and worshipped the films and music of the Hashbury scene like it was our own bountiful bonkers Bethlehem (i.e. we were Deadheads). For me, more than anyone else in 'my tribe,' this movie captured our tribe's dynamics to a perfect tee, to the point it was almost scary.

There's the Dean Stockwell (top) pseudo-shaman, "beyond" being a good musician (that was totally me if you swap it out his humbler-than-thou sanctimony for gleeful early-stage alcoholism), carrying STP-laced fruit punch around like its just another drink and arguing with the band's lead singer-guitarist, Stony (Jack Nicholson --that's so totally Dave), while simultaneously play-stealing his girl, Susan Strasberg (that was totally Beth, though we were just close friends). Jeff the sculptor who lived in our attic is here played by Bruce Dern; Max by Adam Roarke. I could go down matching the cast but you probably would just skip over it. (Or go here), but! Ask yourself why the similarity, only one reason: acid makes you tarot-myth tribal! It assigns you a role in your group - the clown, the king, the shaman/wizard, princess, Morganna, Lancelot, Gawain... it's all there waiting to play out amongst your clique (set and setting, baby)! It's in your DNA... the man, the phony establishment can't burn that out of you. They try, but not even you can reach those alchemical depths without a little boost from our machine elf friends behind the curtain, so trip them well!

Point is: PSYCH-OUT strikes a rare and right note of genuine recently-opened sunshine people engaging in self-righteous communal idealism,, the psychedelic love bead and budding branch pull focus magic of Lazlo Kovacs through the shimmering beads and leaves making deaf mute tourist Susan Strasberg into a love child overnight, and we're contact high and beside her all the way. All we have to do is surrender our 21st century jaundice long enough (all those terrible long hair wigs) to let the dope do it's thing.

What I love most though is that after the wild magical love-connection night, the hallucinating weirdos and their Mirella Machu and Linday Gaye Scott flower children shaking their tambourines, the film also shows the dirty morning after, when one tin soldier rides away without doing his share of the dishes, and instead of trying to pick the lice off himself, just names them ("that's Manny.")

The sad part is: once post-Vietnam disillusionment got rid of patriotism, countercultural "freedom" became the ad hoc refuge of a scoundrel, and then the C.H.U.Ds came west to the Haight like locusts: all the scabby uneducated midwestern meth addicts started stealing people's shit, grabbing girls and dragging them into alleys and yelling "gimme some a dat free love!"--and the dream is over.

Lastly, the film is essential for truly nailing the psychedelic experience, which can be beautiful and creatively transformative the first time, and a skin-crawling nightmare the next (when you expect it to beautiful and transmformative it's often just tediously overwhelming)-- It's very rare and precious to have such an even-keeled look at the psychedelic age i.e. neither as blissful as Woodstock could be or as negative as Altamont but constantly bouncing back and forth between those two points. To me it sums itself up perfectly: the scene when a STP-addled Warren (Henry Jaglom) is found "freaking out in the gallery" and hallucinates all his friends are undead monsters with melting faces and wigs akimbo. They advance towards him, trying to get him to cool it and put down the power saw. And it's not long before he's trying to cut off his own hand--because for the first time, maybe ever, he sees it as it truly is: a decaying, half-blown away skeleton. Jaglom's terrific at capturing that existential soul-shredding terror and his paranoia at the slowly advancing friends is made quite palpable even sober as a judge.

It's funny because it's terrifying. It's terrifying because it's true.

Bruce Dern as the Seeker, i.e. the first person (since the great Saul Femm) to
realize flames are actually cold, like knives, and to wear two wigs at the same time.

In short, this film is the shit - a personal favorite. Alas, the MGM DVD seems to missing a reel, though maybe I was, you know, out of it, and just remember a reel that's not there. I would love to do a 'head's cut' one day and fix up some of the hallucinations, to add a giant close-up of that burning tin of Susan Strasberg's stuff as a child, which her evil mom threw in the furnace --and which led to her psychological deafness -- a condition which I would also imply is recovered from during STP-fueled breakthrough; Or to have her look in the mirror and see her face melting to reveal her taunting evil mother, that kind of shit - would have been awesome. One wonders if it was in the original script--why else would that lengthy scene of the Seeker talking to Stony about in the gallery be there? But what we got, it's still pretty fucking great.

And no squares anywhere in the film, man, aside from Garry Marshall as a sweaty narc.

(PS 5/29/17): NOTES ON THE OLIVE BLU-RAY (with missing footage restored)

In the new footage we see the guitarist tripping his face off in his wife's lap, with eyes closed and open hallucinating gyrating naked women in body paint merging with psychedelic wallpapers. Of course in the age of FCP we could do this much better --it's sexist but it IS the kind of thing one hallucinates, EXCEPT it's always tied into the breath, as all the chakras are going full bore so instead of sexuality being like a locked basement where one is either repressed OR having sex, one has their sex drive enveloped and incorporated into their whole self (nothing is repressed - just trying to leads to a bad trip, man). I've written copiously about those behind the eye gyrating body hallucinations, usually coming while you're trying to sleep... calling you. Since all their optical effects had to be done kind of haphazardly in the pre-digital era - overlap some images and print it, etc. - it's understandable if this doesn't come out exactly right --the idea is there so that if you've experienced it you know what it's trying for. Like I say, sexist as it is, it's the truth about the average closed-eye hallucination of a healthy heterosexual male in his early 20s dosing his face off.

 Of course on the other hand... the older I get, the more they ALL start to seem like squares. This last viewing I had, the hippie commune house they lived in seemed like a nightmare. I would HATE to spend even a minute in there - to remember the filth of my own old bandmate hippy house in Syracuse, the last one, rather than the first, glorious one on 515 Allen St. The philosophical discussions that sound so profound when you're high and between the ages of 16-21; the contact high of tripping, playful, gorgeous people all celebrating their getting 'experienced' and stepping out of the plastic fantastic Madison Avenue 9-5 trip into an open, loving, communal sphere of pretty and smart people with good teeth. I'm glad I got to experience it, but going back would be like having to put on wet dirty clothes after finally getting dry out of the rain. Dave, who used to be my avatar in the scene (my band had a weird parallel reflection in this film) now seems insufferable. And good lord the music is bad, and the cast is soooo white, except for always welcome MACK, Max Julien as the drummer. Max, if you're reading this, Quentin Tarantino has been looking for you for years! You need to call your agent!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MADE IN USA: Someone left a Maoist in the Rain

"We were in a political movie, which means Walt Disney with blood."

It's exciting times for Godard lovers as two of his 1966 films: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in the USA make their way to the few remaining stores next week. Set in "Year Zero" at some Alphaville-esque locale called "Atlantic City," (apparently Suburban France), Made in USA is a great little road marker connecting the dots of Godard's earlier and later pop cinematic narrative deconstructions like Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and First Name: Carmen (1983), the stuff before and after his anti-western dada/agitprop phase. It's adrift in primary colors, post-modern signage, surrealist wordplay, collage, satire, intellectual critique of the right/left dichotomy, a eulogy for countercultural idealism almost before it starts (May '68 was still a couple years off), and a last waltz for his crumbling marriage to the leading lady, the heavenly Anna Karina (she looks weary, as if she's been screaming at him between takes).

If you've ever basked in the primary pop glow of Pierrot Le Fou and wished Godard had made a whole slew of movies in widescreen color with Karina, guns and anti-American sloganeering, then Made in USA is your film. It delivers the goods while showing you just how much less good such goods are a second time. Made just one year after Fou, it seems as if it's the end of a twenty year run of sequels. Karina's femme fatale is still beautiful but less fresh, less gaminesque. There's no trickster male of Jean Paul Belmondo's manly charisma to balance her star wattage and sex appeal; Jean Pierre-Leaud tries hard to be manic, and maybe that's the problem.( The only time his performance hasn't sunk under the weight of forced childlike spontaneity was as an actual kid in 400 Blows). In this noirscape of bright primary colors, our antiheroine Paula Nelson (Karina) is all alone,  trying to find the one guy she liked from earlier films, a raving commie intellectual believed dead, named Richard P, by navigating a series of players. Though he's hard to find, we get to hear him ranting away in the form of shrill tape recordings (of Godard reading Maoist obtuse ideology with the terseness of Milenay and pomp of Renfraux). 

Paula is a possible spy for either side of the left/right divide but her true motives for wanting to find Richard P. remain unclear; we assume he's an on-again/off-again boyfriend and/or symbol for Godard's own lost idealism, a Maoist Rosebud. But did that reporter ever find the sled? No. As she hunts this invisible, presumed murdered Communist ex-boyfriend through Raoul Coutard's impressionistic landscape (at one point Karina name checks Monet while standing in the foreground of a backyard full of beautiful trees out of focus behind her -- was Impressionism a symptom of weak eyesight?) we get the notion that this is just one of those films that masters make when they're off their A game thanks to an unconscious aggression towards the studio or their star, like Marnie or Lady from Shanghai.

I don't mean to disrespect it, because many a master's B game is still fascinating and worship-worthy, maybe even more so than their A game (I like Made in USA much more than the dreary industrial landscaping of 2 or 3 Things, which most highbrow critics consider superior and I'm sure they're right), as long as they include deconstructions of B-movies and B-games into the films themselves, as in riding right along with audience expectations and observations, tweaking or thwarting them at every turn (without turning them off) and yet delivering what is promised in such a way that our own desire for it is called into question. Ideally, this anti-art leaves us at least with a pretty face to gaze at when nothing else happens. Hopefully the aggression hasn't led the auteur to sabotage even that, by making their starlets cut their hair short, or driving them so crazy with retakes they look hungover and embittered. Then, we got a problem. And isn't that why you think you did it? Even though any dime store Freud knows better? Godard at least gets around this qualm by filling the screen with other pretty faces, which an insecure diva who still had sway with her director might insist be replaced by plainer ones. 

B-movie conventions are alive and deconstructed, either way. The evolution of noir convention from The Big Sleep to Easy Rider, the death of a counterculture yet unborn, and the kind of in-the-moment spontaneity that makes his work seem like you're thinking it up as it goes along.  The exact second you realize that the hot blond waif sitting at a table in the background of the bar looks a bit like a really young Marianne Faithful (above), she suddenly starts singing "As Tears Go By" - not lip syncing, but singing right there, a capella, trilling her voice gently and feeling every word of the song, expressing some longing we have no idea about but the mood of wistful sadness overwhelms the film in a mod love tsunami before it's even begun. Like an ocean she pulls us in from the distance, washes over us and then recedes again; the film resumes its sand babbling even before she even finishes the song. Compared to this bit of subdued jaw-dropping emotionalism from a rising starlet of British rock royalty, the ensuing G. Marxist wordplay between Leaud and the bartender suddenly seems tired, yesterday's papers. There seems to be a new sincerity in town and it's cool to have feelings, or at any rate it's cool if you're up and coming Marianne Faithfull, the type of girl men fought dragons for, as Alan Delon once said.  as opposed to the mid-60s' new wave icon who may be too mature and well-read to recapture enough naivete to thrive in the Age of Aquarius. She's not about to pick up a stray flower and take off her shoes just because the other kids are doing it. So instead she just freezes from the knees down and looks at the floral arrangements like a penniless, starving lotus eater.

No wonder in the next scene Karina visits a health spa beauty parlor, where-- fittingly--any possibility for tranquility amidst the clients is destroyed by shrill announcements blaring over a crackly PA system. When Karina tells the resident doctor/agent interrogating her to stop "dicking around," you feel through her weary rage that she's indirectly talking to Godard, wishing he'd just write a script and stick to it so she could go home on time and put her feet up. She must have been full sick of his 'dicking around' by then, of waiting around on a hot set for his little whims, film after film. It shows. Only when she gets to be mean does she light up with the synthesis of truth and illusion.

And yet, thanks at least in some small part to her and her (soon-divorced) husband, the counterculture was beginning to catch fire in 1966. She has the burns and battle scars from getting the blaze going, part of the first wave. Faithfull by contrast looks like she was recently conjured out of a magic cloud of smoke, or pulled out of a junior high school gym class before she bruised her complexion in dodgeball. Godard and Karina were already burning out on decadence and freedom. Even if that's not true, it shows. This isn't complaint, just observation, an observation Godard clearly anticipates, tying this joint weariness into the film itself, the way for example, Tippi Hedren's bitchiness about working with an obsessive like Hitchcock may have led to the audience-alienating (but great!) outbursts of castrating rage in MARNIE.

What saves MADE from being just a taciturn misfire, Pierrot's hangover, is the way Godard accommodates his ingenue's hostility by linking it to the shocking effect of watching people get casually and suddenly shot--or seduced--without all the usual booming orchestral music that gives each romance or death such magnified resonance in Hollywood movies. MADE teaches us that, in real life, people don't have to brandish their gun and make speeches before firing- it can be so random and sudden that you never know what hit you until you wonder why you're suddenly feeling warm liquid run down your pants when it's not raining, then feel the bee sting, then fade to black. During a philosophical discussion with a suspect, for example, she asks, "Would you prefer a long slow old age death or a short exciting death in the moment?" and when he answers the latter, she shoots him on the spot. No fanfare, no warning. Crack! I think I cheered and stood up on my futon in that moment. God bless the USA.

In addition to the violence, there's some strange cultural intolerance: When Paula meets a guy who does an impersonation of a typical American--a lobotomized hick Jerry Lewis--Karina ups the ante by making slanty eyes to indicate it's "all Chinese to her." In addition to that kind of thing, the usual disruptions appear: random silences, the roar of passing planes or honking cars, and many stabs of Ludwig Van's 5th blaring in and out.. All this industrial strength ambience makes full grasp of the plot impossible. Oblique interview sequences are needed to correct the imbalance, as well as peculiar conversations overhead in front of comic book splashes, movie stills, streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht, and of course a pinball machine, though every bell and ping seems to hurt Karina's hangover. Ugh. Mine too. Enough with the pinball, Jean! 

More than most of the films that would follow in Godard's cannon, MADE actually struggles to maintain just enough plot to flirt with your attention span, luring you close enough to the amniotic wall between alienation and narrative immersion that you feel like your whole movie-going life is flashing before your eyes, as in the slim gap between watching a film and the act of reading its back cover synopsis. Godard's idea of a mystery film is to have a character read Dashiell Hammett aloud in front of a gas station while someone yells 'bang' every few seconds. Luckily, for MADE, though the characters do read aloud a bit, they at least still shoot each other. Bang! Bang! 

You may think I'm being callous applauding such violence, but as both Godard and I grew up on Monogram gangsters and Hollwood noirs, all castrated by our production code that insisted femme fatales must never go unpunished, even for just sleeping out of wedlock. Even after the code was lifted, Hollywood still insisted on this just out of habit up until the early 90s. Godard is way ahead of that. Our Made in USA antiheroine is a lethal combination of unpunished homicidal femme fatale, Dietrich-esque double agent and Chandleresque gumshoe, Her blase attitude towards being arrested and/or murdering people in cold blood is charming and alienating at the same time. Dario Argento could have diced her into three separate characters, but Godard is too political to divide a fractured psyche for the purpose of mere suspense. Here even the climactic showdowns are filtered through rhetoric and suffused with ennui, as when Paula--almost apologetic for the film's inertness--remarks:
We live in a part of the universe that's already old; nothing much happens, while elsewhere new galaxies are exploding into action.
A fatal mistake of many lesser filmmakers is the idea that mid-career crises (i.e. falling out of wunderkind status but still too wild to be an elder statesman) make good cinema. Anxious not to repeat yourself and unsure what to do next, they pile up the margins with past tricks and ideas from earlier films that never made the final script like an album of b-sides and unreleased tracks, wrapped up in a few alternate takes of greatest hits. Alas, to pull that off you need to keep the energy high, as in Scorsese's Casino, which moves too fast and vicious to let you realize it's got nothing whatever say (that wasn't said better in Goodfellas). Thankfully, Godard too has enough kinetic artistry to not let the acres of sadness between Karina and himself sink Made in USA's energy level. Instead he dials in his commie rage on Madison Avenue, which has dared, by then, to already recuperate its own critique. Godard wants Situationist cut-up techniques to be sole domain of the French Communist Party, but Madison Avenue wants to use Godard's methods so they can appear to enjoy his intellectual loathing. For example, if Godard says "Down with Kelloggs!" then Kelloggs' says "Godard is 'down with Kelloggs!'" to which Godard can only get redder in face and party, trying to end the game by saying "Death to advertising that tries to co-opt the tactics of Debord and detournement, to infinity squared!" 

To an intellectual post-modernist who loves co-opting quotations as much as Godard does, this is the ultimate defeat: your using of their own words used against you. You can't critique a power system that incorporates its own critique--Todd McGowan wrote about this in his Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment:
The insight into the functioning of power... has the effect of cementing power's hold over us rather than relaxing it. It does this by cutting off all lines of critique prior to their articulation. (54)
In the end, none of it matters as far the film's success, because we have Anna Karina. Tired though she looks and acts, she's still young and gorgeous and thanks to Criterion preserved for all time in vibrant, colorful dresses against the same color scheme of Pierrot Le Fou, which is probably the movie to see first if you're new to the game.

After Made in the USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (shot at the same time, with Godard originally wanting to show them in alternating reels), Godard would begin his descent into first into nihilistic ranting (Weekend) and then agitprop trust fund Marxism (La Chinoise, Tout Va Bien). Still witty, but sullen and sanctimonious as well, enraged that his rage hasn't made a discernible difference. When you get mad at contemporary culture for ignoring you when you shout, then you are a gardener yelling at a reticent flower bud All the sloganeering and tantrums in the world will not waken its bloom, oh foolish gardener. Only love, compromise, compost, water, and sun. And most of all, stop caring. A good teacher knows when to dial themselves back. If you get mad it mean the system has won. Go to the mountaintop and meditate. The flower blooms.

Luckily, old Godard got his Baudrillard-esque groove back as a mid-life crisis 80s reward for doing more or less just that. He found an untaped vein of poetry deep under absurdity's skin and he's been popping it ever since. And even now, 40 years later, Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull are both paragons of old lady cool, still appearing regularly on TV and in movies, acting and singing with their beautifully smoke-ravaged voices, brown teeth and gaunt faces glowing like tombstones against an obsidian night. In an era when our own president is harassed by the media for occasionally having a cigarette, these two ladies are reminders that you can all just take a fucking walk / and I guess that I just don't know / and I guess that you've come a long way... baby. 

Virginia Slims - made in... you know where. 

Shoot it! 
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