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 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Great article. This film has been on cable quite a bit recently and I've watched it a few times after years of not seeing it. It holds up pretty well, I thought. You're right on the money about all of the performances and yet it still manages to work. And Schumacher's over-production in the cinematography dept. -- all of that smoke and such that was so popular with 1980s commercial-based directors like him and Adrian Lyne -- actually creates a pretty cool atmospheric vibe.


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