Friday, August 28, 2009

Acid's Greatest #15: ALTERED STATES (1980)

"There's really very little literature on this type of research. There's good people in the field: Tart, Ornstein, Dykeman, but most of it is radical hip stuff, drug culture. Obviously the first thing to do is to set up some kind of sensible methodology to see if we can't study these experiences in controlled laboratory conditions." - Dr. Jessup (William Hurt)
A fairly effective medley of sci-fi suspense rigamarole and ivy league psycho-pharmacological grandiosity, ALTERED STATES works best from the perspective of an outsider to the psychedelic experience--such as young children and squares. As the former, I had a mancrush on William Hurt and thought it was a real 'wild ride'. But now that I've done the psychedelic overload thing enough times to count as one of the "experienced" in-crowd by any stretch of the definition (not to brag), ALTERED STATES seems ludicrously over-the-top and self-important (even for someone as over-the-top and self-important as me).  Hurt plays a driven research psychologist /MIT professor, studying psychedelic states in shamanic cultures as a parallel to schizophrenia in the US. He has a pretty wild time at a shroom or ayahuasca ceremony in Central America, leading to come home to Boston with a take-out pint of magic mushroom / ayahuasca soup (it's left vague what it is). He then drinks a 'heroic measure' (as Terence McKenna would say) before entering an isolation tank. What an explorer! He's setting out to find the meaning of life--to go back to man's first thought! 

Hurt's intensely charismatic and wild-eyed performance is marred by overly literal interpretations that belittle more 'radical' researchers and writers on the subject (how dare they not namecheck the great academes in the field, like McKenna and Leary?! Are they afraid of us finding out just how commonplace psychedelically-enhanced isolation tank research was in the 60s-early 70s?). The effects are fun and the gonzo weirdo director Ken Russell loves his rapid-fire religious allegory/blasphemy psychedelic montages but--as with other films that try to concretize psychedelic hallucinations--the effect runs far astray from any actual result. The focus is less on trying to do a cinematic approximation of the visuals of a strong drug trip (i.e. trails, pareidolia, paisley overlays) and more a literalizing of it, i.e. what a child (or square) might imagine being on strong psychedelics was like after reading about it and taking all the third-eye visions literally. I quoted the above rant from Hurt's Dr. Jessup to illustrate the bizarre paradox of trying to use empirical scientific methodology to document and analyze psychedelically altered sensory experiences. 

In real life, clinical psychologists like Hurt's character, study these experiences but don't consider them 'real' except to the mind perceiving them. No matter how hard your dosing, we tend to know that feeling like you're returning to a prehuman state, remembering 'the first thought' doesn't turn you into a literal ape man; ye shall not grow hair where there wasn't hair before, even if it will "put hair on your chest," so to speak. It's not literal. You don't have to run amok and kill sheep to return to human form, your 'guide' or fellow traveller just has to say your name, or point out some weird rock formation resembles a face, and you're back to 'one'.

That's the difference between just reading about these things, and being 'experienced' in them, no matter how many late night zoo break-ins you find yourself on at four in the morning with a head full of mescaline, if you're not a schizophrenic or first-timer who took way way too much without knowing it (like a CIA spook dosed his highball at a cocktail party), you know it's probably not real and will pass. You might imagine some naive sober-virgin rube hearing that tequila puts "hair on your chest" and being afraid he'll have to wax if he tries it.... but only Ken Russell would literalize it to the point of latex FX hair extensions.

The story of psycho-research maven Dr. Jessup and his isolation tank was probably much more restrained and impressionistic in Chayefsky's source novel, but Ken turned it into a horror story along the realms of Cronenberg's THE FLY remake or James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, replete with mad scientist enthusiasm vs. caution-urging fellow scientists, dark laboratories, lightning cracks, dials going to red, and concerned wives and panicky research assistants. Unlike the usual isolation tanks wherein one kind of lays down in what looks like a roofed racing car bathtub, Dr. Jessup (William Hurt) goes into a vertical combination old fashioned diving bell and water heater, wearing special headgear and so forth, all moodily and mysteriously lit. He climbs out and proudly announces he was hallucinating "a lot of religious allegory, mostly out of Revelations." This kind of self-important raving should bring a knowing smirk to any seasoned tripper, but this young and fresh William Hurt is such a strong charismatic presence that you swoon along with Blair Brown at his every pupil dilation.

See, he's a psychologist researching schizophrenia, studying the "interior experience." He has sex thinking about "crucifixions... Jesus..." When he was a child he used to see visions. But hasn't since he was sixteen and his father died. Dad's very last word: "terrible." No wonder old Hurt's such a mess.  But what's everyone else's excuse?

With his insistence on literalizing hallucinatory transmutation on a physical level, Ken Russell is like a child or fundamentalist imagining the bible allegories as literal fact. If Ken was filming the story of Adam and Eve, he'd probably show Adam tearing out one of his own ribs and having a full grown woman morph out of the ensuing geyser of blood and latex. Similarly, our crazy Dr. Jessup, having tapped into primal animal instincts, transforms into a wiry little ape man running around with dogs, casting long nighttime shadows on his way to to the zoo, then later devolving still further, into a big half-blob, half-man! He's gone "too far" and is having crazy flashbacks! Whoa, man. Only Blair Brown's love (or a Valium, what kind of idiot clinical psychologist wouldn't have a stock at hand?) can save him now!

To the hardcore 'heads' in the house, this is what's known as 'showboating:' the panicky ego of one of your less-experienced trip contingent is getting in the way of everyone else's high, trying to make his experiences more important than yours, and holding up everyone's parade until the full measure of his self-perceived brilliance is acknowledged. You, the experienced tripper know that the inner experience is oceanic and beyond duality and ego but he or she, the rube, is still trying to bring his along, like a surfer having a tantrum because the big wave he wanted hasn't come, or already came and he wasn't ready and now he can't get it back - and no one else out in the waves with him understands or is willing to stop watching the ocean and pay attention.

Wavy Gravy (or I) could have talked Jessup back into a human surfer form in five minutes if that isolation tank lab had a chill out room. But that would imply this was all recreational. Snagging a grant and a course release to take drugs and lie around in body temperature saline solution like a lazy bum and then announce God doesn't exist doesn't make you pretentious or indolent as long as someone's monitoring your EEG, apparently. And if your synaptic disturbances manage to create interior lightning, bully for you, old Dr. Frankenstein Hyde, but PS - it's only new to you.

"This guy Jessup seems like a real lightweight"
Now, no matter how experienced we are, we've all had our 'moments.' We've all gone a little Hunter S. Thompson-style savage, and some of us may or may not have crawled into a zoo to kill a sheep or a ram once the drugs began to take hold. I'm not naming names... (Jason R). But none of us ever did it in such glossy Hollywood style, with ape make-up and sound effects. We just revel in the possibility, feel the latent fangs and claws within our aura, take the dogs for a long shirtless, leashless, shoeless midnight walk and notice our long shadows in the few passing headlights seem precambrian. We maybe howl at the moon or chase some girl around the party until we find a bottle big enough to pound ourselves into submission with.

The next day we have to get up and go to our catering jobs, or spend the day retracing our steps in search of our lost keys, shoes, (or me, twice) pants. All hearts, when dying's done, do beat again. No Big Realization stays earth-shattering; the notes you scrawled on bar napkins to explain the meaning of life seem elementary, idiotic, illegible, or naive. To the rest of the world it's no less eye-roll inducing than hearing some wild dream you had as a kid, irregardless of whether you're studying whether schizophrenia is an illness or just a channel of God and devils into your inner TV that you just can't turn off. When you're reading Carlos Castaneda for recreation, doing mushrooms on the weekends, and studying Buddhism and Jungian archetypal mythology in class, all at the same time, it seems like every little synaptic connection you make between all four areas is like landing on the moon. It isn't. You'll find out if you just keep studying and reading, instead of giving yourself a ticker tape parade over the feeling of small-step-for-man style import those connections give you. That ego, man. No sooner have you ridden one of those massive oceanic waves as its convincing you to stop surfing, so you can get that last wave your rode preserved in bronze. In fact, better make all future surfing illegal, so everyone will have to acknowledge your feat of riding is without equal.

But to me, if you want to literalize, concretize a mystic experience, you got to find the mythic undercurrent and be consistent with all of them, and then it doesn't matter which, the way Boorman did with EXCALIBUR and then didn't do with ZARDOZ. Otherwise it's just self-important schlock. William Hurt goes to the end of the universe on STP and then announces "there's nothing there" (his equivalent of his father's "terrible") and runs back to his wife like a little baby and wants us to nod and toast with the baron for an heir to the house of Frankenstein. But psychedelic visions are more vivid than reality to the one experiencing them --that's the lesson. That reality itself is an illusion, that Big Truths are as constantly in flux as a shore line at the end of an unstable coal black sea. whether you surf or don't surf, the waves are still 'rode'. Jessup can't let go of his ego enough to dissolve into the white light of the big truth, so therefore there is no 'big truth' at all, and that's the one thing that's not true, Jessup!

But if Jessup would just let himself get subsumed by his space amoeba blob self, would just surrender fully to the horror instead of running and hiding behind his woman's skirts, he might--he just might--had been able to see that beyond the terror of the space amoeba blob-level void are many other layers to cross, the void of complete ego death is just the front lobby. Once you get upstairs to Pleiadian star space-time continuum-granted conceptions that vibrate endlessly outwards and upwards to levels where being and nothingness ebb in flow in patterns of ones and zeros like a bountiful flowing nerd river and the third eye that sees it creates it as it sees--and then, too, is subsumed, and born again-- then you don't need Blair Brown anymore, and so can finally love her correctly, as a warrior and not a boy who runs home to mom as soon as he sees the Man Called Horse initiatory antlers.

Hurt's character may or may not be full of shit but Hurt the actor does the best tripped out expression in all acid cinema (above) and our hearts flutter during the sandwich-making seduction scene with him and Blair Brown. Hurt has no problem ranting in undertone stream of conscious scientific jargon and that makes him not only believable but fascinating. While his character loses points by being so contemptuous of the "drug culture" (an experienced guide could have helped him avoid all that property damage) one must admire his willingness to put his own sanity on the line, even if he can't admit it's really just for kicks, that he needs to cling to the notion some kind of physical manifestation or measurable evidence can result in order to feel his pursuits are valid. And it's cool the way Brown is set up as the pursuer, nervously asking about him at the faculty party before busting her moves. As a piece of man art, Hurt is without peer.

But then STATES saddles Hurt with an annoying doubtful Thomas played by Hill Street Blues' Charles Haid, whose always telling him, "Jessup, it's too dangerous!" Freaking out and grabbing vainly for the Oscar gold with his hamfisted hand-wringing ala Dr. McCoy on Star Trek. He makes you want to slap him and shout, Dude! Anxiety is contagious! Don't freak out your subject! Bad guide! Bad! He's an even worse guide than Bruce Dern in The Trip! There are a lot of people who wig out in isolation tanks without needing a nervous idiot fussing and yelling and bringing everybody down. This insistence on correct clinical procedure won't legitimize psychedelic drug insight to the American Medical-Industrial-Organized-Religion complex, which has been using the vague idea these drugs are dangerous to demonize anything that would get us closer to realizing our godliness -- privileging the information (Hurt doesn't, for example, offer his wife a hit of the ayahuasca he brought home from the Amazon) and then both glorifying and demonizing the actual experience, that whole "I already did it, and moved on, so now no one else can do it" wave bronzing scheme.

The amazing "Riverman" at Strange/True reports on the actual research, by John C. Lilly, that likely inspired Paddy Chayefsky's original novel
In the 1950s and 60s a series of pioneering isolation tank experiments were conducted by John C. Lilly at the National Institutes of Health. Chayefsky clearly based much of "Altered States" on Lilly's accounts of these experiments, which you can read online and in his book "Tanks for the Memories" (oh, what a title). Like the fictional Dr. Jessup, Lilly used a hallucinogen (LSD) during a "tank trip"; here's how he described it: "That's when I learned that fear can propel you in a rocketship to far out places. That first trip was a propulsion into domains and realities that I couldn't even recount when I came back. But I knew that I had expanded way beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and as I was squeezed back into the human frame, I cried." A common theme in many tank experiences seems to be this sense of leaving the body behind and entering a vast metaphysical space where inner landscapes long obscured by earthbound fog are at last made clear.

While Lilly never actually changed his physical form in a tank, he did recount the following anecdote about a colleague of his, Dr. Craig Enright: "While taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, [he] suddenly 'became' a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, 'Where the hell were you?' He said, 'I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.'

Notice however that Enright was just taking a trip "by" the isolation tank. What does that mean? He was just hanging out watching his friend inside the comfy tank, then got jealous, so started jumping up and down to scare a ghost leopard? Sounds like he was just trying to get attention. No reason to go yelling for your Rick Baker monkey skin!

Lastly, one of the most Sisyphean things to do when in that altered state is try to use language to describe your visions and experiences. You can use it afterwards - hell I been using language to talk about it for years but haven't 'revisited' that plane since the mid-90s. But when you are in that 'zone' - tripping balls, as the saying goes--language is just a sandbag holding you down. I've seen kids throw themselves into a panic trying to contextualize their experiences in the moment, as if language is one of those ropes between Arctic research buildings characters use in whiteout snowstorms; if they let go they may never find their way back to a building only ten feet away, i.e. wind up permanently insane, permanently 'lost' in the whiteout of madness. But the reverse is true: if you don't let go and drift with the wind--can't trust that as a fearless loving child of the Walrus King you needing only to roar into the avalanche to own all snow--then the snow will never vanish and be replaced by loving completeness and light. If you believe this to be so, what does it matter if it was true before or not? It's true now. Placebo effects are a universal, only ego can stop them.

But you're not going to get to the promised land if you're just narrating your visions from a microphone isolation tank. Language is like the mom who won't shut up on the Haunted House ride, asking you wether or not you're having fun every five seconds, and do you remember that character from the storybook, honey? Remember the storybook? Honey? Remember? With such a mom you can never lose yourself in the wonderment, so avidly doth she drop the breadcrumbs every foot forward. Let go of language, mom! Trust that it will be there when you get back. You're not missing anything.

In their egoic vanity, humans associate the gift of language with evolution. If evolution is real, they ask, how come giraffes never learned to talk? The answer is simple --talk is not an evolutionary trait, it's a virus. It's like asking why they don't get depressed, or smoke cigarettes.

Ever want to see yourself as a primate, the 'original self'? You can't get there with language, Jessup. I can help you get there, though, without it: You don't need to hike into some South American mountains and find "the first flower" (presumably mimosa hostilis). Just get some shrooms or acid and go to the mirror and stare deep and long at your dilated pupils. Don't re-focus your eyes to see the peripheral of your vision. Gradually let the bathroom melt away around you in soft focus; let the jungle in, let your slackened jaw grows fangs and hair in the peripheral blur. Again, don't re-focus, stay on the pupils, just let it go... Then you will propel into the void and 'you will see a spot, the spot will become a crack, this is the crack between the nothing, and out of this nothing will come your unborn soul," as the shaman puts it. But you don't need to turn into a monster on any earthly plane to validate it. You just have to realize that earthly plane is no more real than the visions. You just have to realize that when language's signifier-chains are transcended all the world is new and strange again, regardless of where you are. Language, that rope that keeps you from drifting into the void, is all that makes it stale. And with a single breath and staring into your own pupils all the while in the looking glass, you can dispel it. Let it go, and fall into the whiteout like it's the arms of the goddess.

And when you come back from the void, language is always there waiting, and it's sorry it got so staid and stale. It vows it will try harder. It gives you more creative freedom to examine the shapes of the letters and lose yourself in their myriad meanings, the way a child would, or a Cro-Magnon savage, freshly defrosted. He let go of the rope and drifted into the whiteout void during the last polar shift. Was it only a million years ago? Seemed like it was just a few minutes. Look, the rope is still there where you left it, the anthropologists are already devolving back to your buddies saying "how long were you out there, bro?"

"I needed to take a piss," you answer, "but my dick froze." And the word "piss" seems like the hiss of a cosmic serpent. You're home. "Terrible" is just another word for the horror, the horror, and then the horror is just another word for Blair Brown's waiting lizard arms. Just go in, ticket-buyer, and take your chance.

P.S. I ran "Der Hollentrip" through babelfish Dutch-to-English and the definition I got was "To run, sniffing." Amen, bruder!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Acid's Greatest Hits #8: NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

Oliver Stone is rare amongst that rare anomaly of craftsmanship-overkill directors who try to achieve the psychedelic effect via glossy bombast--ala Ken Russell or Terry Gilliam--in that he succeeds sometimes, through sheer reckless determination. A lot of it has to do with his macho choice of material: murderers, politicians, political murderers, combat troops, football sharks, Wall Street sharks, rock stars. But his ability to take a clear-eyed look at the threat of immanent death or financial destruction gives his film the thousand-yard stare of a true Vietnam vet, and shows a willingness to spin the moral compass. Desperate times, goes the Stone thesis, justify insanely over-the-top measures in order to crack reality's brittle shell wide open. Charlie Sheen may rat out his dark father Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) in WALL STREET but we don't particularly love him for it. We'd certainly would rather watch Gecko ranting to his monitors than biological dad Martin Sheen playing blue-collar saint. Tom Berenger's cobra-like killer in PLATOON turns out to be a better soldier than Willem Dafoe's sweetie pie sergeant because he sinks to match the madness of his time, as does James Woods in SALVADOR. But in NATURAL BORN KILLERS there isn't a Dafoe or Woods or Sheen left to make sense of it all, and that's part of the film's charm, and undoing. In re-creating the wild highways of America as a shattered glass simulacrum, void of 'good guys', Stone encourages our emotional divestment to the point of disinterest. The message seems to be that the nominal heroes, the representatives of law and order--Tom Sizemore as a star detective and Tommy Lee Jones as a warden--are just as bad, perhaps even more savage than Micky and Mallory.

What makes them more "bad" than these two serial killers in this sense then is that is that they have less charisma. They're too sweaty and full of craven sneers. Plus: they're not in love, or prone to hallucinations. They got no 'it' factor.

Stalin his orgasm... for her pleasure
It's the charisma and the love that counts and in the end disinterest is overcome through the two actors' determination to keep a sweet and loving humanity in their relationship: Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson each bring enough oomph to save the mess from toppling into "who cares?" country and even, now and again, to take some kind of goofball wing - especially when a truly odious monster like Rodney Dangerfield appears (in a sitcom flashback) as Mallory's incestuous dad. Trent Reznor's ingenious score, a mash-up of everything from Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nig**r" to Jane's Addiction, helps keep the ball rolling and we never even realize how much we've come to care until the loving couple are separated after their arrest. No matter how many times you see it, no matter how bludgeoned you are by the cartoon violence that's come before, their jailbreak reunion never fails to provide a tearful catharsis and a sense of romantic triumph.

Where Oliver Stone also rises above Gilliam and Russell bombast is there is no doubt this man has walked the walk, psychedelically speaking. He's quite open about it in interviews, and the thumbprint of the trickster is heavy on his brow, which is a very paradoxical weight for the trickster thumbprint. Yes, the overall Stone bombast can wear thin if you're in a peaceful mood, but it's great when you're wasted, and even better when you're really wasted, as in on the third night of a bender, or waking up out of a black-out and discovering it on the hotel room's HBO along with a still half-full bottle of vodka on the bureau, both are situations I can personally vouch for. And the scene where Micky and Mallory take mushrooms in the desert is so vivid I feel it in my pineal gland. They wind up, as high desert voyagers will, in the strange tepee of an ancient Native American, who reads "Too Much TV" on their shirts and realizes almost instantly he's already as good as dead. The presence of many rattlesnakes on the ground is another indication of the psychedelic effect, the feeling that dangerous critters are all around, and that being bitten by a venomous snake has, in some sense, already happened to you before you are even bit... if you even really are. Just thinking about it gives you the feeling of being bit. You jerk up your arm from the sting and then realize there's no bite.

Stone gets that. He knows and is able to capture how, in the realms of the psychedelic spore, all shadows take on serpentine dimensions, how the world breathes before you and around you, the dragon that Merlin talks of in EXCALIBUR. Seeing our sociopathic lovers stagger through an all-night drug mart is to remember perhaps doing the same thing yourself once, racing down twisting over-lit store aisles at 4:20 in the morning, your brain exploding with overpowering images of blood and carnage and thoughts you took too much of whatever you took--hopefully not datrura root--and are going to die, trying to find the gallon-size bottle of Nyquil to knock you unconscious before you start screaming and laughing at the same time and then can't stop, and then someone calls the cops who call your parents. Bummer! That's why you got to be cool, man, and keep it together.

There are lots of moments of great revenge along the way, from the beating up of Rodney Dangerfield through to the scene illustrated below. The idea here is that all of society has committed a heinous crime against our violent young lovers, either through inbred sexist piggery or accompanying tolerance of same. Stone's a deconstructing over-thinker like the Scotts Ridley and Tony, the Terry Gilliam, etc., but at least where they refuse to leave the safety of a corny core narrative, Stone plunges into the abyss of Godardian self-reflexive post-modernism --everything from French New Wave to McDonald's, even the sailor who does the soft shoe. Even if stretches bore you or seem trite it's never long before there's another memorable set piece or off-the-cuff cuff-offing. Just don't, if you end up going on a killing spree after watching it a hundred times, let your parents sue Oliver Stone, or me. If you play it backwards you'll get the real Satanic message of the film: All is Love... All is love. Kill your ego first, and the asses will follow, one by one, like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still a Tourist: FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.--Hunter S. Thompson
Poor Terry Gilliam. A high brother from across the pond (though born in the U. States, which just goes to show ya), TG's always made the mistake of going bigger when smaller would serve. Hunter S. Thompson has always been a difficult figure to capture either small or largely. The first try, starring Bill Murray, WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, was a small mess (at least it was small) but Gilliam tries to do better along the same trip with an elephant gun...

Long enshrined as the trustafarian's badboy, the party animal supremis for Bob Marley's LEGEND-owning frat guys who want to be "edgy" before they're swallowed up by dad's law firm, Hunter S. Thompson's become a symbol for bad trip pride. His insane prose shows undergrads how psychedelics and testosterone can be mixed, but it's an easy mixture to misinterpret, to abuse. And a figure who justifies excess can find himself drawing hateful misogynist dude crowds he'd rather kill himself than cater to. Kurt Cobain did just that. Gilliam's film is so busy being beautiful and full of time capsule relevance and hot color intensity that her forgets its primary job is to be a goddamned movie about a goddamned guy in Vegas screwed up on goddamned drugs. Glossing over every dingbat realization of our addled narrator until it shines with Hard Rock petrification, Gilliam seems so consumed by his ardor that this becomes what THE DOORS is to Oliver Stone. It's a film to be enjoyed by the kind of dopey kids who soak their car floor covers with ether and then crashing their car and the suing Thompson for making it cool.

The vultures know no better way than this; the tourists shall inherit the earth and bring back postcards with God's genuine imitation autograph. And that, I think, is the 'handle.' If you go to a high hill in Woodstock, NY or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you see that the beautiful wave never really broke and rolled away at all. It just learned to hide its foam from Hunter. As long as Hunter doesn't know there's still a thriving scene, the vultures don't either, and the wave can quietly roll on. Burning Man is safe from product placement and corporate synergy for another year... but for how long?

We see glimpses of how great LOATHING could be early on, as when his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, stealing the show) guides a flipping-on-way-too-much-acid Hunter through the casino bar: "We'll get you some peanuts, they're good for you, man," --capturing exactly the right way to talk to a person peaking on acid, like it's their birthday and wherever you're taking them is going to be safe and full of peanuts and all the demons and distorted elderly faces leering in hushed church hostility will be gone -- to which Hunter screams "Peanuts?" way too loudly, jumping like a coiled slinky as he tries to walk. It's true and funny and clearly Depp has 'been there' and the red checkered carpeting pulses just right in the hotel lobby. But considering the amount of digital effects at his disposal, Gilliam's visuals end up remarkably disengaged. After the carpet design breathing, there's nothing in the way of hallucinations for the rest of the film, other than light effects and puppetry. Why not have the whole room swim in overlaying imagery, elaborate twirls and swirls of movement traces? Gilliam's seen the same time-space melting hallucinations the rest of us have--that's clear enough--so why didn't he bring back some ruby slippers? Naturally it's because his tripping insights don't count, he's not the 'Hunt'.

Instead, some ungodly reason, Gilliam prefers to keep it 'realistic' --even while ole Raoul Duke is flipping out on adrenochrome in the hotel suite the best Gilliam can do is blaze some intense pink lighting. One longs to see some CGI artist who's "gone the distance" really add some trails and vortexes, the glimmers of alternate realities that create shadowed 'near' events overlaid over current ones. But after awhile it seems that no one involved in the production has 'gone the distance' as we used to say, too worried perhaps about mutating their DNA... maybe not even Thompson. Compare the scene where he asks "how much for the ape?" to scenes of James Fox trying to buy Mick's coffee table in PERFORMANCE and you realize Duke's a tourist! He's no boundary-busting free spirit at all, just a journalist with an expense account and a masochistic yen for bad acid and violence. I know because I've embodied that persona myself, a John Wayne framed in the closing door of THE SEARCHERS, deciding to stay behind as the kids all go back to the garden without you. But unlike Raoul Duke, the real Duke and I know the reason we chose to stay behind. It isn't heroism or sacrifice, it's so we can scream oaths into the wind along with the dying old guard rather than have to act like we dig garlicky vegan stir-fry and patchouli-soaked girls with hairy legs and no make-up. Is that shallow or just iconoclastic, the temerity to cling to your tattered culture even as the full measure of its futile destructive illusion is made plain.

I blame it on the budget, which is way too large. Never send a white elephant to do a termite job. There's an extra on disc two of the Criterion edition wherein we see Hunter in his dressing room, being led to the set where they're filming a hallucinatory courtroom scene and they end up sitting in the back row of a huge throng of seats on set, while far up ahead, barely visible, is this ridiculously lavish court set, all for this one small scene. You can hear the money just leaking in buckets down the drain. Like Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick, or Tim Burton, Gilliam has some deep-seated artistic insecurity wherein he has to keep tinkering with seemingly every scene until: a) his producers are brought to the brink of bankruptcy, b) it has his "personal" weird stamp on it and c) it's completely sapped of momentum and useless as a connection to the next scene and overall story arc.

Inevitably, this strategy means that the film begins to hang together more as a string of exotic, beautifully crafted but empty scenes rather than as a coherent narrative; one longs for the giddy, ballsy high wire flow of Thompson's prose to find a match in the images, but Gilliam's still setting up the high wire to reflect the green gel spotlight just right, no a little to the left... and by the time he's ready to shoot the sun is going down, the drugs are already wearing off and people are beginning to slip out the door... What makes LSD such a good experience (when it's good) is that it helps you escape the kind of situations Gilliam seems addicted to, the ones where you're expected to voluntarily sit in someone else's ego prison.

Now as an old 'head, I don't want to knock this film as bad as I already have; perhaps it will become more relevant with the passage of time. Then again, maybe not. A film like EASY RIDER or PSYCH-OUT makes you feel like the psychedelic lifestyle choice is within easy reach of anyone with guts enough to stick out their tongue for the sugar cube communion. FEAR AND LOATHING makes it seems like the best you can hope for is to touch the hem of Johnny Depp's loud Hawaiian shirt as it hangs over your booth at Planet Hollywood. The physical effects of dry mouth and nervous anticipation that accompanies the best acid cinema is replaced by mere idolatry. Instead of trying to ride the waves you just buy an autograph from some old junky surfer.

My anti-idolatry rant aside, FEAR does have great moments such as the orange in the tub scene; the mind-fuck with the hotel maid; the carpet swirls as mentioned, and all the scenes where Del Toro's character is presented as an unlikable but powerfully magnetic, lysergic monster, challenging our impetus to love him the way Bogart did as the violent screenwriter from IN A LONELY PLACE. Del Toro is the best part of the whole film because he alone magnificently captures the tortured feeling one can have riding in an elevator with some gorgeous tan creature like Cameron Diaz; how while peaking on acid one can seem to absorb a woman's beauty at such a deep, aching sensory level that the rest of your trip becomes tortured by her imprint; how your whole mission in life id compromised in a warm fuzzy second h and the deep animal longing that goes beyond sex--beyond even cannibalism--into the tortured realm of pure sensual feedback.

Depp is fine, as usual, though clearly treading on eggshells between wanting to be unhinged and yet also portray his friend Hunter in a favorable light. When he likens del Toro's Dr. Gonzo to the last of the buffalo--a unique one of a kind original--at the end of the film, you finally begin to understand the relevance of what you have just seen. From thence forth drugs will have to be done on the sly, indoors, at shows or other safe havens. The days of giant wild men carving their carnivorous hallucinations large into the flesh of the mainstream are over. The gonzo method, apparently, includes leaving no bridge unburned, only strings of draconian laws created make to ensure no one pulls the same shit you just got away with. They can read about  you doing it, of course, and see the movie of when you did it.

Only Hunter's angry, wistful, hilarious, savagely original book is left as a possible escape plan. Read it, of course, as many times as you can, but then use it as inspiration for your own mad dream, or else face the consequences: become just another spectator, just another dupe waiting in line at the corporate-owned 'High and Beautiful Wave' ride at Disneyland, buying a souvenir cigarette holder in the gift shop on the way out. One of Hunter's big catch phrases was "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." The tragedy of Gilliam's film is that he reverses it. He's a weird pro trying so hard to be weird he turns as bloated, corporate, tacky, and purposeless as Vegas itself.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Great Acid Movies #16: FLATLINERS (1990)

Seeing a movie with pre-set expectations is always iffy. Sometimes the best movie experiences are when you turn on the TV and don't even know what it is you are watching. If you're in the right frame of mind, you can think God is talking to you directly via the television. Let me tell you one such story:

Imagine an unemployed recently-graduated kid tripping his face off, watching his trusty VHS of John Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1933) and drinking a highball while alone in his parents house on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone else is gone for maybe a month and he's totally alone - used to dosing and drinking and watching movies and having a fine old blur of a time.

This time it's suddenly different. Pre-set expectations, again, man.

Suddenly he realizes the TV is telling him he's going to die. Hallucinating with feverish intensity and a rising panic there's no one around to quell, he feels the dull generalized pain in his left side that he instantly interprets as cirrhosis! It's all over. The TV is acting as a heavenly conduit, John Barrymore pretending to die, his cronies gathering around him, dimming the lights... prepping him. It's the celestial equivalent of a medical pamphlet. Oh man, the kid is tripping too hard. He'll never see his parents again he realizes. They'll come home to smell his corpse even out in the garage. His side is throbbing and he knows the gallons of whiskey he's drunk over the years have caught up with him. He falls to his knees weeping in front of his dad's old floor model TV; he fumbles to shut off the VCR before it sucks him in like he's that little girl in POLTERGEIST.

The VCR tape goes off and the TV channel underneath it shows a beautiful radiant old angel woman lying in her death bed in a hospital. Her big eyes moist with heavenly awareness and earthbound fear, her long old lady hair splayed about her like a heavenly halo. Julia Roberts is the young intern at her side, matching the older actress in depth of dewy gaze --one old angel dying and a young one being reborn at the same time. The old woman asks Julia Roberts if she believes in a life after this one. Sincerely, tenderly, Roberts says she does. The young unemployed grad kid, watching the TV on his knees, like he's praying to the screen for deliverance, starts to cry; he realizes that--alone in his parent's living room with no one to call or tell him he's just fucked up--he realizes and truly believes he is being instructed not to worry about his immanent death. He has found salvation right at the poetic point of no return.

Don't we always, usually?

It's all true. It happened to me, in 1991... and I cried all the way through the film; it left me a devastated weepy mess. I gradually realized--through the lysergic mist brought on by half a hit too many--I was watching FLATLINERS. I'd refused to see it before this moment, because I didn't like any of the "brat pack" stars in it. I hated Kevin Bacon's snub nose and self-righteous narcissism; I was displeased with Keifer's jowly attempts to sound resonant and grave; I abhored William Baldwin's smarmy seduction strategies; Platt's moral high-ground method showboating made me wince; Julia's glum sanctimony and dewey eyed-coltishness alone engaged me.

But in my addled state I was humbled enough to not judge the boys for what I knew were just faults I didn't want to recognize in myself.

And anyway, their tics fit for this bizarre and strangely ambitious film, where they're supposed to be egotistical douche bags; they are med students, playing with near death experiences like other kids play with acid, or whippets. Gradually, those who've tried it notice they are either having flashback hallucinations or death is leaking into their daily lives, confronting them with unresolved issued from their past. (In AA terminology, they have to do their 9th step, they have to make amends with those they've wronged, even if the wronged are already dead).

Subtle gradation's in lighting and what I perceived at the time as subliminal overlaps of skulls on faces, etc., made me think this was the trippiest film ever made, though when I saw it later, all the subliminal traces seemed to vanish (my hallucinating into the analog streaky quality of the cable image?); I stopped watching it, to not tarnish the profound memory of when God spoke to me through a film by Joel Schumacher (that's right, go ahead and laugh!).

As ingenious as the devices are through which the past comes to haunt our protagonists, and the clever and transformative use of color washes (images are all stained deep blue but glow brighter when wounds get healed), there is also much dull moral posturing and hand-wringing over the dangers and ethics involved with regular deep-sea near-death diving. Kiefer Sutherland gives it his all but lacks the manly gravitas he thinks he has, and Platt is way too pleased with his range as he treads the stunted moral high ground like Charles Haid before him (in the similar ALTERED STATES). Even worse is Kevin Bacon, smarming his way around as Roberts' creepy would-be love interest. I think he finally wins her over by just breaking into her house and climbing into her shower, like Geena Davis' sleazy ex in THE FLY (1983). It seems like Roberts gives into his incessant pawing mainly because she's just too tired to keep resisting. I've known guys like this and it skeeves me out to see Hollywood justify their creepy persistence.

Then there's Billy Mahoney (above).

Keifer Sutherland's return of the repressed is easily the scariest of all the others, a mysterious incarnation of a bully who used to torment him in grammar school. Dressed in Halloween hoodie and toy scythe, Billy beats the crap out of grown-up Sutherland with the force of a Scorsese bouncer. Later, Sutherland has grown used to the assaults and every night develops a new strategy to deal with it, like trying to get rid of the hiccups through sheer will power-- which sometimes works... with hiccups, not with Billy Mahoney. In a great scene we see Keif has become a kind of death junkie: he rocks back and forth, chanting, "Come on, Billy Mahoney! Come on Billy!" daring him, invoking him like a demon. Anyway, a chill enters the room, and his skin gets paler and skulls are superimposed everywhere, not in the cheap EXORCIST THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN way, but in the barely noticeable way... the way you can only detect if you're very sick or otherwise open to hallucinations (for what are hallucinations but the ability to see all of life as it really is, alive with dying?)

The climactic confrontation which I shall not reveal forges a link with the end of THE BEYOND, imagining the netherworld as a scorched landscape where size doesn't matter and everything is permitted.

Maybe you won't be drowning in spiritually absolving tears as I once was, but you're guaranteed to at least get a shiver up your spine... and a lifelong fear of spittle.

POSTSCRIPT - 8/15/13: 
I just saw this again on Blu-ray, for the first time since the aforementioned 'episode' back in 1991, so now I know for sure all those ghost skulls around Kiefer in that 'C'mon Billy' scene were just my lysergic reinterpretation of the streaks of analog TV. I wonder if that level of gonzo hallucination would even be possible with Blu-ray! Is that why Blu-ray is so sharp, to totally stop hallucinating into your TV? Also Billy Mahoney looked like a giant at least 20 feet tall in '91, now I see it's just a clever angle. And the scythe and black hood are just subliminal if anything, the scythe is actually Kevin Bacon's pickaxe --he's a rock climber, oooh ooh child - and he doesn't creep into Julia Roberts' shower, just takes advantage of her post-death weakness, but it's okay because I'm now too old to feel competitive towards him (I was born the same year Billy Mahoney was, according to his gravestone) and because the Blu-ray shows she's sending him subliminal signals she likes him, which I didn't notice the first time 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Acid Shorts #1: Betty Boop in SNOW WHITE (1933)

In true reefer-smoking, laudanum-quaffing Paramount pre-code glory, everything in the 1933 Betty Boop short SNOW WHITE is alive and wriggling and--best of all--swathed in the groovy music of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. If you've ever wanted to see Cab peel of his skin and dance around like a ghost, scatting and hi-de-hoing into all sorts of pretzel medallion shapes (as above), this is it.

Betty was always great to "come down to" after a lysergic night on the town. Utterly bizarre, yet warmly comforting, all the trappings of a Saturday morning cartoon childhood were there coupled to racy 1930s jazz and "adult" Dali-esque symbolism. Even so,  the old Boop tapes we could find skipped the wilder stuff like SNOW WHITE and we had to search high and low. Lucky for all of us, now the Boops are on youtube!

Regular musical guests in the land of Betty, Cab Calloway and his orchestra were perfect foils to the squiggly shapes and (literally and figuratively) loopy adventures of the saucily under-garbed Betty, her dog Bimbo and the frighteningly balloon-like Koko the clown, with Cab's wild vowel extensions "WhooooaaaooH" finding perfect expression in Fleischer's expanding and contracting shapes. Accompanied by swirling phantasm chorus in the hell/underground/uptown jazz joint, the Mystery Cave, wherein Cab sings "Saint James Infirmary," with plenty of that dynamite "Hi de Ho", his lanky white tuxedo-ed frame rotoscoped into the figure of a twirling dancing ghost with improbably long legs,

As we now know, Harlem in the 1930s was a very cool and artistically happening place, and the hipsters in the white downtown spots all knew it --the intellectuals, long-hairs, bohemians, musicologists, anyone with a pulse, Harlem was a sacredly profane initiation rite to these white cats, akin to mystery initiation rituals of ancient Greece, usually undertaken late at night after downtown joints closed and the courage was up--for here art and life was far more vivid, with a mix of frenzy and precision that eluded white culture (hence the constant co-opting). Orson Welles did his Voodoo Macbeth and the Cotton Club music was so hot it made the rest of the city's orchestras seems to be in slurry comas. The Fleischer brothers, two very hip Jewish cartoonists, made the pilgrimage regularly and their culture shock-amped awe comes through SNOW WHITE at the Mystery Cave. Here life and death mix together in a ghoulish romp, with Boop encased in ice as a temple sacrifice while Cab and his bone orchestra whoops and struts and xylophones their ribs. Capturing the sense of giddy 'safe' cultural danger into a cartoon, bringing Cab and co. down to their midtown animation studio and recording and rotoscoping Cab's indelible saunter, the Fleischer's SNOW WHITE becomes one far-out pinnacle in pre-code cartoon jazz surrealism, taking the 'danger' exotica element of the white experience in black Harlem, and swings it all the way around so that there's no black or white anymore at all, the skins are long gooooaaoone.

say boy, hand me up another shot of that boooo-ooooze

Seen today, it behooves one to keep these historical details in mind, for they add to the cartoon's mythic and historical resonance. However, none of that is ultimately needed to dig the craziness for what it is. All you need bring with you is the realization that Miss B's magical universe is the perfect code cover for transgressions made under the ruling elite's very noses. Kids could watch it and just dig the slapstick, squares might just think it a lot of imaginative kiddie nonsense, but the "awake" hep cats up on 110th Street or down in the Village could dig how far gone the Fleischers were, doing their thing and capturing like few others the way death's presence represented memento mori (to contrast frenzied life with), frozen beauties (all the better to contrast cozy warmth with), dancing ghosts (to contrast frozen living squares with), and 'race' artistry at its wildest and most infectious. Swirled together it all affirmed life in itself, beyond the sickly sentiment of 'sweet' music played in midtown or under Disney's west coast cutesy pie critters.

Working all day with pen and ink / to win you with a wink / aint she cute / boop boop be doop / then trucking up to the Cotton Club to scope out new bands for the cartoon soundtracks, not lily-white crooners (though sometimes there were those too) but the real jumpin' jive swing of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong... that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it? Wake up, sleepy cats its four o-clock in the morning and your pupils are still big as Cab's ghost mouth in full "Ooooooo"! Just check them in the mirror and see, but then get the pre-code Boops up on your box and all is going to be all nice. Forever. To the boooones! (Find it on youtube here)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Acid Cinema #0: Woodstock (1970)

You can say you were at Woodstock, and no one wont believe you, no matter what your age. Maybe you were there in a past life, or as a gleam in your father's eye, or as a swirling little mess of DNA and placenta, or a spirit drawn from another dimension by the flame-like heat of Hendrix's guitar, a spirit who didn't intend to stay for the encore but wound up caught in a wandering womb matrix. Somehow, in one way or another, a whole future generation was born there, in the crucible heated by the flickering counter-culture's brief, brief candle. The sudden, ecstatic group realization that no one was pushing, shoving, fighting or bitching even in these intolerably wet circumstances rippled through the crowd. If you've ever done something nice for some stranger, for no reason, then you understand. Or ever been at a party where you loved everyone, every single person in the huge mass, and there wasn't even one person who was preventing you from being totally free and yourself, so comfortable in your own skin you slip right out of it.  It was a fire of love, literally, and Joni Mitchell was right: we've been trying to get ourselves back to the garden ever since (Joni actually missed it, stuck in New York, afraid of the traffic and I don't blame her).

However, if Joni had gone to Woodstock, where I was this weekend, visiting my friend Abbe, she might have realized the garden is still alive and well, just cautiously off the radar. During my 24-hour stay, coincidence and cross-currents of fate led me to meeting original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang's wife, Tamara, and his co-planner Lee Blumer. All I could talk about with them was movies, of course, and they were busy actually living something better than movies, like being in them. Oh man! I wasn't familiar with the idea that alternate lifestyles not only had progressed since I was away, they'd surpassed me. I was like John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS. All I knew was the search and the struggle, and here they were, back in the garden the whole time, which was now tricked out with hummingbird feeders and heated salt water pools, children who practice their box-stitches without fear, and transcendental beauty everywhere. Even the oak leaves seemed evolved, with tips warped into permanent trail curly-cues.

Whether you're living green and free or beat in a fifth floor walk-up in the city, you can still feel the currents of change, love and empowerment every time you plug in your DVD player and watch WOODSTOCK (1970), a sprawling concert film that's recently been extended to, I believe, 145 hours in length.

Early in the film, we see the curly haired jester/concert promoter Michael Lang riding over the empty rolling green hills on his motorcycle, maybe just a speaker tower or two in the background. Appearing very pleased and unstressed, Lang can't know in these early scenes the extent of his impending success, that his baby would close the New York Thruway. His confidence seems a little weird, then, in the circumstances. People love to forget that the psychedelic drug culture was actually very sharp and high tech. Still, no one would really know just how rare and monumental this event was until they saw GIMME SHELTER and realized Woodstock was a one-time miracle, not the "way it was gonna be... from now on."

To watch a drunk in his cups is to see the arc of a generation daring to toss repression to the wind --they transcend and get accolades, get cocky, and then hungover and remorseful, self-righteous, sacrosanct, dogmatic. Wherever the visionaries, artists, musicians and beautiful people go, the eager-to-get-some free love/sex or in-exchange-for-coke skeezeballs, corporate profiteers, sycophants, home-wreckers, moochers, and knife-wielding loners follow. 

But Woodstock still lives. It turns out my visit coincided with the Woodstock Festival's 40th anniversary, replete with Ritchie Havens and tons of other stuff going on, which I missed, preferring to lie low in Abbe's garden. Apparently the big event planned at Yasgur's farm had fallen through, but the spirit raged on, somewhere in town, some outdoor stage now enriched with hyper-intelligent children in solar-powered geothermal strollers. Again, I was there by chance. But chance is not the same in Woodstock as it is other places. If you were ever once a true freak, you will find your soul's true parents thar.

The peak of the show for me is Joe Cocker, "A Little Help from Me Friends" -- It starts out low and gradually Cocker's burly thick voice builds to a furiously joyous crescendo: "All we gotta do is love now," the bass starts sliding away then comes back with a spine-tingling acceleration, piano, pounding drums, Cocker just roaring along like a big Welsh maniac on his first trip into total freedom, pure love awareness. The charge of "getting together with all my friends" was huge at Woodstock, the song had to measure up, and this one did. The sound quality is supernatural, an amazing moment in time when God is in the machinery, and love surges through every perfect second; the blinders are finally off, and things like private property, shame, anger and resentment all evaporate like water in the blast furnace of Cocker's diaphragm.

The perfect blend of high, help and friends surges through Cocker's soulful voice for this song, his body seems to barely keep up, it contorts in frenzied devotion as the "sound" belts forward, and one can't imagine a better one in a rock singer's life: a big crazy stage, loud, fans into infinity, the dawning of the age of Aquarius; everything was going to be okay. Cocker comes onstage with a little glass of beer or water or something, a little drunk maybe, tripping definitely, coasting through that open hole in the defenses of egoic self that enables open-hearted hugs to palpitate through one's every motion. How can that little paper beer cup ever serve to quench such an enormous thirst? Or is it the reverse of thirst he is projecting? His is a fury without anger, with mystical, massive beautiful side burns, a colorful t-shirt completely soaked, hair wet. He howls like a deep man-banshee and all it's in the name of love, an electric feedback squall of selfless but sexual, fraternal but carnal, chaste but ravenous, universal but familial, love baby. You realize how much 'benevolent ferocity' we've lost as men. Look at the picture up there, with his tie-dye exploding outwards like he just took a love bullet in the ribs, his wild English face is the mirror to the explosion on the shirt, from the depths of his diaphragm and soul, all chakras blazing, out through the diaphragm to Woodstock, to and through the people, the past, the future, and to and through the endless masks of God.

The performance would be nothing without the Beatles' influential Sgt. Pepper's, from which you know comes said song. Ringo's pleasant modesty in answering the spiritual questions: "Yes. I'm certain it happens all the time," was too much genuine open-hearted, non-gender specific communal love for the unprepared ego to handle, it flooded you over and sent you to the ground laughing and crying at the same time. You didn't have to lick the buttons on their tacky uniforms to get way high... it was in the wind, troop! A wind which had fanned a big flame that was now a raging Woodstock bonfire sea. The words are like Poe's Purloined Letter finally and inevitably arriving at its full expression, all that stuff we put out there, those bottled messages, all came pouring down on us all like rain. Just one simple message in that letter: Love Everyone, Right Now. It's okay. We all love you, I love you. It was a transcendental now as just once everyone got attuned to that blazing pink and red serpentine rhythm and release. That was all we needed, and in that one moment, Cocker was its elected voice, a howl of love that overwhelmed lyrics like "I can't tell you but I know it's mine," the way the incoming tide overwhelms a sandcastle. Whether it wiped out the sandcastles of Vietnam and unrest is irrelevant ultimately, despite the felt failure of the hippie protest system (it was protesting got these people together, so in a way, Vietnam created hippies). What counts is there was a wave. And if ever a concert movie captured that elusive power, it's WOODSTOCK. If there's ever another such wave again, we should name it Michael.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Oedipal Acid leaving on TRACK 29

Nicholas Roeg is a far-out dude, and TRACK 29 was so far out that few, apparently, were hearty enough to be able to get on board before the train left the station. For my hippie house, it was enough that it showed up at the end of a 6-hour tape that saw heavy trip come-down late-night rotation (after Fleischer cartoons, PERSONA) and we ended up watching it dozens more times than we normally would have, just because we were unable to change the channel or press "stop." Too high. Sheer coincidence? Not where TRACK 29 is concerned. Coincidence may be an illusion, but it's all we got, right?

The story follows an alcoholic pill head housewife played by the ever-sultry Theresa Russell (rocking a flat-Texas twang). Her husband (Christopher Lloyd) is a doctor having an affair with his nurse (Sandra Bernhard). He ignores her 'needs' and spends his few home hours obsessing over his sprawling electric train track.  It winds through the whole upstairs, screaming "metaphor!" Russell finds her own obsession when she meets 'craaazy' Gary Oldman (keeping his Brit accent) at a roadside dinner; he's her long lost son given up for adoption and for years he's been tracking her down.  Maybe. Only she never had, lost or gave up a son. Maybe she had an abortion, but she's damned bored, so what else she got to nurse, aside from delicious screwdrivers? Maybe he's a figure of her imagination... who really knows? Sigh, it's that kind of movie, 'artsy.' The train surely means Lloyd is "The industrialist" and Russell is the lonesome land, craving the more understanding hand of the Europeans who smartly stayed where they were instead of exploiting slaves and betraying Indian treaties. He's impotent, maybe! She's barren, maybe! Symbolism!

In lesser hands, it would be a mess of irritating Sundance quirks. Here it's a foggy indictment of the middle class, a meditation on the thin line between motherhood and cougardom, a tragic tale of incest and redemption, and/or just a big mess, or something else altogether, depending on the viewer and their frame of mind. The trick may be to get that frame seriously altered beforehand, and to pay only moderate attention, for Roeg's films demand you only half-watch them while falling asleep, fooling around with a cute but vapid hippie girl you met at the show, and/or throwing up on the wooden floor and praying for death.

But I endorse TRACK 29 as there's been so few post-1970s films with the guts to really, really take it on a limb -- not the quirky Diablo Cody kind of "faux-limb"-- I mean the fifth martini of the morning and the milkman disappeared into your carpet and you need to find your keys because you left something... burning... somewhere limb. The TV is giving you secret messages limb, the limb way high on the tree, too flexible to merely break off and fall. It's a limber limb forced to endure a life of constant waving in the breeze, with all the drugs you can get your hands on and a spouse having an affair with Sandra Bernhardt kind of limp, I mean limb, and Theresa Russell rides it like a hurricane. The TV really does talk to her, in that background subconscious kind of way only Roeg and Alex Cox have ever got just right.

To "get" this movie, qualified doctors recommend you take a bunch of acid the night before, when really freaked out, start drinking yourself back to normal. Keep drinking til Monday morning, then call in sick from work, then put this film on while you putter about the house with your tumbler of gin and juice and three cigarettes going in different rooms, robe splayed open, burns and bruises all over your body that you don't remember getting.

Then and only then... maybe.

The dosed goodness here really hinges Gary Oldman's ability to be both real and imaginary at the same time. His 'momma, you had me howl of primal John Lennon scream on the soundtrack therapy, David Cronenberg's THE BROOD psychoplasmic-alcoholic miasma of sexual frustration and resentment against her closed-off train fanatic doctor husband manifesting in a Satanic visitation kind of vibery performance embodies lots of contradicting stuff at once and still is sexually potent (capturing the same woozy sense of intimacy-enhanced altered reality he and Ryder pulled off in the otherwise mega-crappy Coppola's DRACULA). What a man! What an actor!

DISCLAIMER: Neither the author nor most qualified doctors actually recommend you take a bunch of acid then when really freaked out, start drinking yourself back to normal, keep drinking through to Monday and calling in sick from work, etc. Sic transit gloria, bitchez! You HAWD your CHAWNCE

Friday, August 07, 2009

Kansas City is Lost! INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933)

When Hollywood decides to dump cavalcades of stars into one comedy, the results can be over-baked and dreary but INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933) is half-baked, which is just right. I love it so much if I had only one film (that wasn't by Howard Hawks) to bring to a desert island, it would be this. It's my safety net, my life preserver, my drinking companion.... one of the kew few who've earn that admittedly dubious privilege. Alcohol saved my life, then damn near took it away.... but hey - I still have the movies- and watching WC Fields drink in this movie gets me drunk on pre-code Paramount. 

Just so just so... 

He was just a mug

This love story began when I was fourteen years old, it was the early days of VHS, I was hormonal and introverted--I could have sure used a drink then, but it never occurred to me, for I never really put two and two together and equated drinks or food or pills with mood or emotion (I only knew it made parents sloppy, irritating, repetitive and loud). The only guide to what might be worth taping off the then old movie-filled local TV stations, was Leonard Maltin's book. I spent endless hours cross-indexing it with the local TV listings in the old Courier News and NY Times Sunday TV Guide inserts.  As many a 'monster kid' from the era, I had a thing for the classics - 30s Universal, 50s giant bugs and 30s old dark houses. I hated most non-horror or sci-fi old movies, i.e. the musicals and adult dramas, but I was so desperate I went ahead and taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, mainly because Maltin gave it ***1/2, and it had my main monster man, Bela Lugosi, in the credits. I was desperate for something new, down to try anything since I had, in my alienated introverted never-go-outside-to-play isolation, exhausted my Marx Brothers, my Universal horror, my 50s big bugs, and was trying to enjoy lesser crap like YOU'LL FIND OUT, THE GORILLA and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY. I'd watched the good stuff so many times I couldn't concentrate on it, my brain just surging hormonally for some source of easy distraction. 

Even so, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE was a risk. It came on at three AM, my VHS timer was hit or miss. But a miracle happened. It actually worked. And I fell instantly in love with W.C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and the whole pre-code saucy comedy genre in one collective cupid arrow burst. 

The plot occurs over a a few days at the titular first-class hotel in Wu-Hu China, a kind of GRAND HOTEL satire with various musical numbers and comedy bits rotating like a revolving goldfish bowl around Dr. Wong's demonstration and selling of his 'Radioscope' (an early form of television), with envoys from all sorts of companies and countries in town to submit sealed bids to buy it. Wong keeps trying to get the "Six Day Bicycle Race" but he takes what he can get, everything from Cab Calloway doing "Reefer Man" replete with zombified bassman: "Why look at that cat, he looks like he done lost his mind," notes Cab. "He's high!" shouts the band. "What do you mean he's high?"/ "Full of weed!" they shout. "Full of weed!?" And there's Baby Rose Marie, a little girl belting the down and dirty blues with the voice of a 50-year old smoker on her fifth whiskey, and dancing in a dirty frock. Paired together in the mind of writer Nathaniel West, these bits are undoubtedly the inspiration for the memorable dancing moppet singing the "Reefer Song" in Day of the Locust!

A few years later, I brought it of it to college and my drummer and I watched it nightly while pounding bourbon and ginger ale. Decades later and we still have long conversations set to the vaudeville rhythm of Burns and Allen ("You had a raffle for poor old woman!?" And he won. / "You wouldn't say he has flew!" He has flu?) And of course there's W.C. Fields at his most insane; to drink along with him in this movie is to know a rare anarchic joy, and then to pass out.

Waking to a job well done

A lot of the early Fields pictures can get exasperating, even IT'S A GIFT, because of his weird need to play henpecked small-town husbands, but his marvelous Professor Quail in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is a a whole other breed -- an American bull in China, swaggering around without ever deigning to imagine he might be causing chaos. Perhaps due to not having to carry the film by himself, he's finally allowed to let go completely. A drunken autogyro pilot and reckless adventurer, Quail lands on the roof deck of the Wu Hu, China Grand hotel, sneaks into gold digger supreme Peggy Hopkins Joyce's boudoir, scrounges everyone's leftover floorshow bottles and trashes the front desk, all while swirling about him a veritable cape of American arrogance; gathered guests are bemused but hotel manager Franklin Pangborn throws a hissy fit ("I suggest you get back into that flying windmill of yours and depart!")

Bela Lugosi as the Soviet agent, in town to bid on the radioscope, suspects Professor Quail of being the American representative interested in Wong's invention and, since he's also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, feels its his right to try and kill Quail at every opportunity. The actual American rep is Tommy Nash (Stu Erwin), whose imagined measles puts the hotel under quarantine. Burns is the doctor; Allen his nurse. Yikes.

As per most pre-code 1930s movies, the illegal drugs are done on the DL (though we never see Cab's bassist actually take a puff, we do see Fields with an opium pipe), but there's plenty of drinking above board, with Professor Quail dropping his empty Muerto Blanco beer bottles onto people's heads as he flees his massive Mexican bar tab, and there's wry gay references, including a quick shot of a Chinese drag king. Throughout though, and this is why I mentioned all the stuff about the alienated teen yet to find the solace in alcohol finding it first here, Field's wild bravado is heartening: "Is this Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri?" When Pangborn tells him he's lost, Fields decrees: "Kansas City is lost. I am here!" This reminds me of what the Sufi mystic Bahauddin once wrote: "A candle has been lit inside me / for which the sun is a moth." It's small wonder that Firesign Theater dubbed their satire of the 1960s counterculture "W.C. Fields Forever."

Hell yeah the Firesign loved this movie!

Like the Paramount Marx Brothers movies, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is especially good for coming down off acid, since the behavior of every character is so "off", there's no one to bring you down with bad vibes or interminable squareness. There's even exotic fan dancers in faux-Ziegfield number, "The China Tea Cup and the American Mug," with Sterling Holloway as the mug, a US sailor bouncing around on a wire after Lona Andre in full exotica headdress. And there's simply nothing better to hallucinate onto than her shimmering exotica headdress, those skimpy pre-code spangles, and Holloway flying around on wires dressed as a sailor. Shiny = good.

This film then saved my life during two phases I need it to - that 14-16 year-old alienation phase, and the 18-24 booze/psychedelics phase. The reason why is I think that, in each case one is essentially shut out of many 'normal' forms of human interaction--such as registering for a hotel room, applying for a job, talking to your parents or a cop-- become absurd and even frightening. People's expectations have led them into boxes they can't see are all around them. Point out the box by acting free and they fear you, worry about, hate, or demonize you for being "outside the box." And if you manage to fake being 'inside' the box long enough, you may never get out again.

BUT the actions of free-spirit surrealists--such as boldly walking along the registration desk and kicking over the mail slots--are a breath of "normalcy" for the outside the boxers. It's the difference between seeing sleeping souls shambling through habitual rituals, the 9-5 slog through a work week,  vs. running loose with living, breathing, awake people. Such is the effect in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, which has just enough normal dull "Grand Hotel" style characters to keep the more dysfunctional ones looking even cooler (the same strategy employed with the Marx Bros at the same time). And casting Peggy Hopkins Joyce seals the deal: Margaret Dumont and Thelma Todd rolled into one, the Paris Hilton or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Charro of her day, decency prevents my showing her here.

One of my favorite moments: After getting kicked out of Joyce's bed, Fields winds up sleeping with Dr. Wong, who's mistaken him for the American representative. "I feel like the whole Chinese army's been marching across my tongue with muddy feet," Fields laments the following morn.

Wong's Chinese houseboy asks: "Shall I get you some water?"

"A little on the side," Fields replies. The boy brings a tray with a decanter of whiskey and a soda spritzer. Fields fills a highball glass up to the brim with whiskey, spritzes a light mist of soda atop it, then leaves with the glass, grabbing the decanter as an afterthought. Man, I used to wonder if I'd ever get to the level of my drinking where I'd need to do that in the morning. And I did. Lord help you though, if you don't have a house boy to bring you such a nice tray, if the decanter's empty from the night before and it's a Sunday early in the morning and even the bars are closed.

But that was much later, for both Fields and myself. INTERNATIONAL is from a happier time, in that it's a lifting out of bondage into special delight. I want to live inside it, with just a blast of soda in a gigantic highball of whiskey

And I did. Even as a fourteen year-old loner besotted with the whole fractured business, I knew my fate. Four years later I'd be introducing it as the perfect post-show come-down chillout drug to my bandmates -- one glance at the spoon lady, or that crazy autogyro, and burdensome morning would fade into cozy blackout. Ten years after that and I'd be watching it while convulsing with the DTs, That, as they say, is another story. And now, here we are - it's on DVD and so am I, sparkly and present and fit for any China tea cup! Woo-Hoo!

1. a precursor of sorts in structure--with Fields playing a similar character--would occur in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 though with lesser cumulative results it's still worth checking out.
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