Saturday, September 26, 2009

Great Acid Movies #25: PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

A mad meditation on color, love, music and maturity, sandwiched between auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson's better received epics MAGNOLIA and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE was perhaps meant to unite Sandler's ticket-huffing demographic with cineaste hipsters; it was maybe a wrong move as both groups stayed away in droves, snuffing the film's chances for box office recognition. But here me now: PUNCH is no boondoggle! It's a gem and all it takes to see the luster is to get over yourself for hating HAPPY GILMORE. I have. And so are you.

Ostensibly exploring the agony of having seven nagging older sisters, the ecstasy of first love in Hawaii, anger management, and coming clean about porn addiction, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is really about sound and color and if you can key into it as a purely sensory experience (ala FANTASIA or 2001) then the brilliance, the love and the redemption flow unstoppably all over your pants. Even if you saw it once and didn't like it, I'd say toss your rolled-up expectations in the trash and just sit in it, without expectations, one more time. For though it seems that Anderson is following the same Lynchian framework of ERASERHEAD -- the isolated everyman in a strange landscape of alienating industrial sounds and soul crushing neighbors and bullying relatives --it's more a fable or a light show, or a concert in words. If casual Anderson fans tend to skip over this film in their worshipful canonizing, they miss the heart and soul of the Anderson auteur persona. Unlike his mentor Robert Altman--who can get bogged down in his actors' improv thesping--Anderson is a track-shot formalist at heart and in LOVE the cast may be small but this isn't a HARD EIGHT-style Sundancing chamber piece. It's a candy colored dazzler of lyrsergic intensity and late 1960s optimism still simmering in the deep recesses of even the most repressed dork's heart of hearts.

Anderson guides you, via Barry's shocking blue suit, to experience the movie as pure cinematic color. He even advises in the DVD gatefold:
Get Barry’s suit blue, blue blue. Don’t be shy. Get Barry’s shirt white. Don’t be afraid to let it bloom a bit. Turn up the contrast! Make sure your blacks are black and listen to it loud.
Yeah... he loves long beautifully-constructed tracking shots, and here they take on a poetic abstraction, sometimes quite literally dissolving into the brilliant color morphing video art work of Jeremy Blake. That kind of pure cinematic abstract art is often misunderstood by mallrat American audiences trained by lackluster public school art programs to look balefully on attempts to infuse abstract poetry and surrealism into mainstream movies. Adam Sandler and art are--to the great majority of filmgoers in this country-- at opposite ends of the symbolic day, never to meet. Art is what bores you at afternoon museums while you count the minutes to cocktail hour; Sandler is what you watch way, way after cocktail hour, after dinner, after the parents have gone to bed and your townie friends show up with a case of beer... and probably fucking Slim Jims. 

If they bring some tabs of acid too, though, you'll want PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE to split the difference... Suddenly Adam Sandler sulking through the abstract parts of FANTASIA and it all begins to make perfect... whoa, is that... a... why does he have a harmonium on his desk, man? Far out. 

This is Anderson's tale of Kafka-Lynch 'the normal, cranked' insanity, but it carries the low-key sense of redemption and manly arc circumventing that is Anderson's stock and trade. Like Val Lewton, Anderson has an ability to be patient with his self-centered characters, leading them with unrelenting compassion and firmness unto awakening and transformation. A comparison for the visual style would have to be the Coen Brothers, but the Coens' love is much harsher and deriding. Anderson's love on the other hand is that of an older brother: if there's some need to poke fun and be cruel, it's always with an inevitable beatific and benevolent purpose (forcing the younger sibling to stand up for himself, for example). In that good brother way, he's protective without fighting the little brother's battles. To put it very broadly, Anderson's movies are older brother mentorships, inspiring awareness of love and self-reliance no matter how harsh the brutality, ala Nicholas Ray or Altman, while the Coen Brothers' movies are witty formalist meditations that inspire awareness of existential mortality and the inevitable crunch-crunch of death's jaws, ala Aldrich or Kubrick. Huge difference? You tell me...

That sort of tough love of an older brother for a younger sister or brother is felt especially deeply in PUNCH-DRUNK, which chronicles the "coming out" of one of L.A's more deeply hidden sweet souls. As friendly to this cause as that arc is, it's nonetheless the visual landscape of the film that merits the lysergic connection. The pinks and blues and whites and deep black silhouettes are all the sort of stuff many directors use to hide the flimsy material but in PUNCH-DRUNK's case it is the material; the style shapes and frames and focuses and blurs until we recognize that pure art is the way to shift attention from the banal blinders-on crawl of drab social reality into the liquid present where life is a continually moving, breathing changing force, expressing itself constantly through the air, the stars and the sea and every random song select or spin of the roulette wheel adding you forward into ever more complex and radiant equations. So when you see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, even stone-cold sober, you can follow Anderson's breadcrumb trail right into that same candy colored universe of egoless nonjudgmental acceptance. In short, watching this movie gets you toasted on art, love, and a dizzying array of overlapping dialogue by the seven sisters, who make the witches of MACBETH seem like Girls Gone Wild.

The sisters are just one facet of this film which hold massive hidden depth within its seemingly "quirky indie" surface. They all talk simultaneously while saying different relevant things, like a maddening Greek chorus with everyone on the wrong page of the script. There's parts in this film that go by so fast they're easy to miss the first time around: the sparkling modern kitchen and nanny with baby in the house of the conniving sex chat blackmailer "Georgia" is something I want to see again, for example. Her contented, housewife status attests to the success of previous scams she's pulled with the mystically named "Mattress Man" (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) husband. As said the dark father/older brother figure, Hoffman is also worth seeing several times to get all the great, blustery David Mamet-ish expletive/repetitive venom. He's the evil version of Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS or Tom Cruise from MAGNOLIA, grown old and portly. From a lysergi-mythic vantage point, Mattress Man is seen not as a dark father per se, but the one whom appoints himself the villain that must be faced/stood up to in order to "earn" the passage into manhood and marriage. Brevity prevents me from gushing in length about the always revealing Emily Watson, perfectly cast as the patient love interest, eyes sparkling with undisguised love and fascination with violence.

Lastly, what can you say about Sandler in this film, other than he finally finds a role that uses his Nicholas Ray-little-boy-lost rage for good rather than the evil? I'll confess I'm way too highbrow to have seen even a single Sandler movie other than this one (I went to high school with too many boys like him), but after seeing LOVE a second time, I'm seriously considering throwing HAPPY GILMORE or something onto my cue.

You, o snobby reader mine, needn't get that drastic. Just open your heart and forgive Sandler his schnooky SNL trespasses and dig on a big triumph that may have slipped by you one way or another. More importantly, if you've seen it once, you haven't really seen it. Anderson redeemed Mark Wahlberg (BOOGIE NIGHTS) and Tom Cruise (MAGNOLIA), and you're only a hold-out in the waiting room of ignorance if you can't finally come in and admit he's done the same for Sandler. So ignore the "misfire" tags of those critics too hung up on expectations to dig a low-key candy-colored Valentine's Day essential floating through their midst. It's a movie that you can't help but connect to your own life; it helps you remember that you too are capable of true love and redemption. I mean yeah, it's a tripper movie about a total square, man. But dig, he's got cajones. El hombre has the love in his life; he's a man at last; he's encountered the eternal maturation flower of the third eye opening. He's let his spirit fly and crunch at will. It ain't got drugs, but the movie itself is one giant candy tab... just turn up the contrast to savor that blue suit, crank up the volume and Anderson'll take you there... to the Loveland, where redemption comes in bright colored sheets, preferably displayed at eye level in the center aisle... The colors sound electric and the music is so good you need it loud to have really seen it

Read my very special Andrew Sarris blogathon overview on Paul Thomas Anderson here

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hell's Angels Vs. The Flower Child Dead: GIMME SHELTER (1970)

In the wake of Woodstock it was apparent to even the hardliners in political office that "relating" to the youth movement had become intrinsic to long-term survival. Where the rock stars went, young potential voters followed in legions, a city's worth of population literally on the move. If they stopped getting high long enough to realize the power they had, these kids could overrun the capital without firing a single shot. In true American fashion, these youths were an organized political force and a swarm of ravenous locusts: eating, drinking, and smoking everything in sight and leaving only cigarette butts, empty beer cans, broken tents, and excremental mud in their wake. When the big rock acts came to town they were like a band of bespangled reverse pied pipers; it was up to the village elders to make sure they led all the rats to the swamps way outside of town, instead of letting them camp on Main Street.

Today we roll our eyes in outrage that FBI had files on rock stars like John Lennon but Altamont shows the feds weren't all wrong in seeing him and his peacenik ilk as a threat to national security. No one at the time could have known how ably pills, pot, and potent potables could derail a protest movement. If they had, the powers that be would have been.... dispensing it.... importing... it. Oh my god! Conspiracy! LSD, tool of the CIA in keeping the kid nation pinned to the couch. Hey, they were just saying give peace a chance (i.e., if peace knocked on the door, Lennon would hear it out, like the pitch of a nervous  vacuum salesman). The kids would try to stop the war with a clap their hands, or stage sit-ins, but there was a reason they were sitting --they couldn't stand up. Vertigo, man.

The kids, it turned out, were no threat, unless they didn't get their drugs, their music, and their isolated acres.

So, as the Stones hadn't been at Woodstock, and were naturally jealous of those who had, Mick and Keith decided to stage Woodstock West, so to speak, out in San Francisco. The politicians and state leaders didn't try to talk any sense into them, or shut them down, or run them out of town on a rail, but instead rushed to accommodate with starstruck obsequiousness, as captured in Maysles' stunning documentary film. Legal superstar Mel Belli acts as the Stones' obstacle-remover, making sure local land owners and city sealers don't stand in their way. When he tells the contrarian owner of Altamont Speedway on speaker phone that "the Stones will be there tomorrow morning," it's with granite certainty. A platoon of cops would be as outnumbered as a skeleton UN peacekeeper force in the middle of a full scale Rwandan genocide.

If you don't know what happened, man, if you haven't seen the doc, I can sum up that the Stones didn't want a bunch of cops on their stage bumming folks out and they didn't want the stage too high up, as that implied inaccessibility or something (there hadn't been many security guards at Woodstock, but the stage was built so high they didn't need them). The compromise: the Stones got the Hell's Angels to do security and as there was no room for the Angels to lean on their bikes and drink their beer between the crushing rush of fans and the stage, dozens of people got bopped a little bit upon their sconces with traditional Angels accoutrements like chains, pool cues, and in one case, a knife.

I've seen this film dozens of times since the mid-1980s, when my punk rocker friends and I would watch it every day after school, to my hippy years in college and after, so it's managed to transcend several Erich phases. I've had lots of time to study the footage and see what went wrong and my sense of blame has shifted 380 degrees over the decades. As a punk teenager I was all terrified of the Angels and what I thought was random violence. Now I see the film in the context of the plethora of zombie films choking horrordom, and I think Altamont would make a great addition to Romero's series: Hell's Angels vs. the Flower Child Dead. 

I'm sure that it's what it felt like to the Angels, who were misled into thinking it would be a cakewalk of getting loaded and just keeping peaceful loving flower children from tripping over the stage, and were thus unprepared for a job that entailed controlling a crowd of hundreds of thousands of bad acid-guzzling, late-to-the-lovefest poseurs, lightweights, stalkers, jonesers, wallies, murfs, amateurs, perverts, and raging dillweeds -- all suddenly remembering they know Mick Jagger personally and Mick invited them onstage and... oh wow, man this shit is kicking in and... it's all cool so let me just bite... a chunk... off the band's shoulder and climb into Charlie's bass drum and sleep the glowing paisley handcuffs off.

The Angels were outnumbered and high as kites. Who can blame them for going a little Street Fightin' Man on the glazed-eyed, needy throngs trying to climb over them, treating their beloved bikes like stepladders. Maybe those people were unable to not trip over the bikes from people behind them frantically pushing as they were getting pushed, or maybe they were just idiots with no respect. I can't imagine getting to the front of that mess without being either some kind of pushy asshole with no regard for others or camped out in advance for so long you were practically dead, so I'm on the fence.  The whole Manson thing had, by then, occurred, so we knew west coast hippies weren't all folkie peacenik like the east coast, yeah I said it!

I mention this not to belittle the tragic events, but to illuminate how powerful and well-done the film is that, for all the times I've seen it, I never remember much of anything consistent, like RASHOMON, the "what happened" that's captured on film changes with every viewing. Mick's attempt to stay cool and happy onstage during the decent into a new level of violence emblematic of the fall of the movement as a whole. He can't see or tell what's going on with the lights in his eyes, but he knows something bad is happening, and the confidence and sense of artistic freedom leaks so fast out of his voice you can hear the whole world's optimism going with it.

"People always seems to get in some kind of a scuffle every time we start to play that number," he says. His sexy rockstar cocksuredness becoming a "let's all remain calm, children" kind of principal at the school assembly. "People, Cool out! Sisters! Brothers and Sisters! We don't want to fight, do we?" But he asked another rhetorical question just a few scenes/nights earlier: "You don't want my trousers to fall off, do you?" And in both cases the answer is the same inchoate howl from the keyed-up mob.

Rock stars asking for restraint? Hilarious and chilling to a faux-jaded teenager for whom it's all just yesterday's papers. But as I age into it, becoming the Stones' age in the film while being in a band in and after college, then dealing with the aftermath, the years of anguished pining for the lost sense of cool camaraderie and the afterglow from dancing, drugs, and fulfilled desire, watching movies like SHELTER, HEAD, YELLOW SUBMARINE, and MONTEREY POP over and over, like a heartbroken old maid reading and rereading love letters from a long-gone beau, now, the hurt is gone, a kind of jaded caustic stealth optimism remains, and seeing the film now is to look at people younger than myself, kids, their pandemonium and moments of quiet beauty, terror and despair all too real and too true to be merely glorified, worshipped, missed or condemned.

In the end, for all their peacenik lip service, GIMME SHELTER is the Stones as Circe's sirens bidding through their beguiling song the hippies swim through the crowd sea to be trampled under waves of biker jackboots, their brains dashed against the rocks on waves of Angel chains. Still coming, ceaselessly, the flower child dead horde ever trying to take a bite of Mick. How naive to think it would be anything else. The Stones weren't Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club but her Satanic Majesty's Request; they were never about peace and love in the cornball "this is called prana yoga, everybody. It gets you really high, okay?" way of (the restored footage of) WOODSTOCK, nor were they the working class yobbos like the Who. The Stones were dandies, art school and economics students, more concerned with their Carnaby Street clothes and chicks (or 'birds') and not going to jail for their Redlands scandal than protesting for peace.

As for the Angels --they had done good security for the Grateful Dead in the past, but nobody wants to rush the stage at a Dead show. Ain't no one pretty enough in that band for even the hungriest zombie to want to maim, much as Bob Weir liked to think otherwise. The Stones, however, were all very tasty. But they had already used a British chapter of the Angels at their Hyde Park Brian Jones memorial concert the previous July, but as Gadfly's David Dalton notes:
As security (for the Hyde Park performance) the (Stones) used Hell's Angels. Well, er, English Hell's Angels—the Stepney chapter. East End yobs playing at being in a motorcycle club. The Stones liked to flirt with pantomime violence—always fun and decorative, isn't it? And hadn't these rough lads given the show just that bit of Clockwork Orange frisson that the afternoon needed?
The Angel's methods may have been too brutal for the Altamont scene, but that was their common resort - it was expected that, when things get out of hand, they'd shut it down. There just wasn't good enough security otherwise all down in front of the stage and without the Angels, Mick and company would have been overrun, and possibly ripped to shreds like the very Mick-like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer . (I bet Sebastian would have been glad to see the Angels rumble to his rescue, instead of Liz Taylor's hippie pacifist virgin, just standing by the wayside, wringing her lily white hands!!)

I remember a bouncer saving me once in a similar situation at a show in Trenton's City Gardens for the LA punk rock group X around 1984. Some guys were trying to turn the front of the stage into a mosh pit back when the days it was still called "slam-dancing" but was fast becoming far too violent for non-skinheads (thrash was ensuring bloody noses for all) and this big security guard--probably about seven feet tall--yanked me out of the way of a drunken fist flying right at my head through the melee while I stood there, lightheaded and dumbstruck. He pulled me behind him with one hand and held his own fist out and smashed it into the onrushing face of the guy who was coming right at me, halting his frame and forcing his fist to pull up inches from my face as if he'd run into a concrete wall. I got blood all over my shirt and if not for that one awesome bouncer, I'd have been knocked the fuck out and likely trampled! It was the coolest moment of my life up to then and when I looked up on stage, covered in nose blood (not mine) Exene Cervenka was smiling down at me like I'd just been baptized.

My point in recalling this anecdote is that violence is not always bad. It's just that, like the cops at the Democratic convention the previous year, the Angels do not practice "restrained" violence, especially in a situation where there's no "out" door to escort rowdy stage crashers through onto the street where they won't have to deal with the same stage crashing culprits just showing up again two minutes later. You can only try and move them back a bit, but there's no "EXIT" to dump them out to (we can follow the movements of most of the people down in front if we pick one head and keep an eye on it) and when the hippies are swarming all over you, it definitely is like Dawn of the freakin' Dead. I know. I've played block parties while tripping. Or tried to escape sold out Dead shows while tripping. Or been to the mall while tripping. Or the zoo.

The sight in GIMME SHELTER of all the crazies thinking if they stagger drunkenly enough they can just force their way to the front of the stage makes for a chilling comment on when the wrong people do drugs without observing the proper rules of set and setting. And man, Woodstock or Monterey may have been cool, but Altamont was no place to be dosing your face off, naked and insane, crawling over the tops of people. If you've seen the film you should right now be thinking of that big naked chick who shows up zonked out of her mind "down the front," near the end and just starts rubbing herself on anyone in her way, like Harpo Marx in the stateroom scene, zonked and oblivious to how much discomfort she's causing, acting like the humanity before her is just so much warm loving ocean to swim through; she's a monstrous Titanic dreaming it's still afloat as the ice and waves try to shake her down off them. There's no defense; punch her and she won't even feel it, and try lifting her up and out of the crowd and see where it gets you.

And PS - there is no 'out' of the crowd, no ground on which to dump her

 You didn't see people crowding the stage in a mad rush over Ravi Shankar at Monterey! People were sitting in fucking chairs! There were big empty aisles... you could Exit easily... and that was only two years before Altamont. What happened?

The uncool masses, who shouldn't be given drugs, got some, is what happened. And they overdid it. Drugs aren't all good like Woodstock made it seem, nor all bad, like the sizzling eggs in the pan TV spots, but powerful, dangerous tools. Drugs might bring you enlightenment but you can't stay there in it forever, and that's a bum trip, so if you're an idiot, you try and take more and stay high, which never works. You end up trying to cut off your own hand at the gallery like Warren in PSYCH-OUT (1968).

One of the most beautiful love vibe sleepover parties I ever was at happened in a cabin in the mountains in Vermont in 1991 in the autumn: brotherly love, pure liquid LSD from Berkeley, dancing and discovery, everything became new and beautiful, the steam out of the next morning coffee cups like smoke signals from a far off mountain. It was so good, we bonded so completely, the host had a second party with all the same people, later that winter, and this time all the same "right" ingredients added up to something that was so depressing that the acid just amplified the unbearable feeling of cut-offedness. No way to claw my way out of the saran wrap of depression, short of literally clawing my way out of my own skin. Awful realization. That's GIMME SHELTER. Woodstock had been trying to be a normal concert, so enough expectations were in place that the communal vibe had the element of surprise. When you expect it to all just miraculously work, you're headed for a fall. When you expect it to be a disaster... who knows? Dionysus loves a lost cause and hates a sure thing.

As a rager tried and true, I hate to say this, but it's all about balance. You can try to redress a longstanding imbalance with drugs, but you can't "outwit" balance. All good times have a bad times bill at the end, and vice versa. No pain / no gain goes both ways. The marathon runner, the loyal worker and devoted soldier all demonstrate an intrinsic understanding of balance. In pursuing pain and avoiding lazy pleasure they find true bliss. The post-rave depression girl who pops one more hit because she just can't stand the pain, she's not helping redress the balance, just piling on the debt. You don't get a pendulum to stop swinging by pushing it harder. You have to wait.... shhhhhh. Calm down. That's what rehabs are for.... shhhh.... Fuck rehab... but... where were we? Oh yeah, when they messed with the Angels' bikes, man, they started it.

I wish I'd had a chance in this post to talk about how much I love seeing the Stones looking all hungover and adrift in the dirty south on their 1968 tour. The scene at Muscle Shoals listening to "Wild Horses," which Kim Morgan writes brilliantly about here, or the emotion-cracked voice of Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who becomes kind of the de facto soul of the band via his seat at Maysles' moviola framing device. It's all brilliant, and like all the best concert documentaries--and like the movement itself--over much too quickly. But thank the devil for the Maysles, who make sure what we do have is fuckin' awesome. GIMME SHELTER reminds us of how the biggest highs crash hardest, while giving us priceless fly on the wall glimpses of the Stones at the pinnacle of their greatness. Best of all, it captures the peak moment when the great Satanic majesty himself, Mick Jagger, realized he'd accidentally stirred up some elder god of chaos and destruction beyond his control, a juggernaut of self-absorbed drug-guzzling pain that time would dub "the Seventies." Not even Nixon could stop that all-consuming wave... what could he do but go on LAUGH-IN and say "sock it to me"?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sounds as you Here: MONTEREY POP (1968)

"What's happen' brother we gotta a little thing called Foxy Lady... my fingers will move as you see but you won't you hear no sounds as you hear, but dig this..."--Jimi Hendrix (onstage at Montery Pop Festival, 1967)
"We called the purple acid tabs pressed specially to be given away at the Monterey Pop Festival: “Monterey Purple”. Jimi did seem to enjoy it- he jammed all night long in the long shed after I was able to organize a guitar and restrung it for him… I cannot speak of acid today, but in our time, acid of this quality is not the kind of thing which would attract the term ‘haze’. To call it that would have been misleading." --- Owsley Stanley (on "Purple Haze" being named after Owsley's acid which was given out free at Monterey)
Before the whole idea of rock concert festivals really took off with Woodstock, there was the amazing mind-blowing success of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and it was documented freakily by D.A. Pennebaker. An outgrowth of the Monterey Jazz and Folk festivals, which were very intellectual, beatnik-approved enterprises, the pop festival was a kind of spearhead for a new form of cross-genre free-form sound; the jazz and folk stamp of 'intellectual art' approval was finally given to "pop," an art form to be considered equivalent to any other--from opera to cubism--as culturally relevant, profound and, like, deep, baby. Prior to Monterey Pop, rock/pop was largely the province of screaming kids and mop top haircuts; the intellectual hipsters of 1965 even booed Dylan when he went electric at Newport Folk Festival. But two years or so had passed since then and America was finally 'ready' to see rock, jazz and folk all merge together in a big paisley shawl. Oh and did I mention that the best acid in the world was being handed out at the entrances, in little purple dots scooped in handfuls out of big buckets, like penny candy to an endless parade of trick or treaters? Mmmmmm, purple.

And to prove acid made you groovy, the whole event went off with poetic grace and perfection and is all captured beautifully on the D.A. Pennebaker documentary, MONTEREY POP, so even if you weren't there, you can always go visit, like, back through time....  There's none of the bad tripping and face clawing or Hells Angels bashing that would make Altamont such a disillusioning disaster; no hairy nudists doing yoga or rambling stage announcements like at Woodstock, just Owsley's purple hazeless purity and enough chairs for everyone to sit down and zone out rather than having to stand all freakin' day. The vibes were so good at Monterey that the musicians themselves transformed their performances to reflect each other's in the moment; you can hear the effect of hearing the band that came before on the sound of the next; the vibe becomes to strong it shatters the walls between all nations, times, styles, and dimensions. We start out with folk festival tambourines and harmonies and it comes out Hendrix  - and we never look back.

If you're watching the film now, decades later, on acid, you can still feel the immediacy, the openness, and if you get lost, the constant cutting to enraptured beautiful female faces in the crowd will bring you back and glue you to your chair with warm sexual-maternal epoxy. The fuzzy feedback drenching of Hendrix comes in later and wipes all the blood away and leaves just a neck and a cigarette where your head has been. And then... then... now... Ravi Shankar starts.

At first it's just Indian raga music playing as a roving camera tracks its way down the aisles of the festival seating area. Everyone seems a big hung over and bleary-eyed from the past two days; some are half-asleep in each others' arms, buried blankets, smoking off into space. Only gradually over the 18 minute-long excerpt of Shankar's four hour set do we begin to even realize someone's onstage and we're not just hearing some background score to the images. By the time we see him-- his beautiful, vaguely Satanic-looking brown face enraptured in quiet flowing ecstasy--we're hooked. The music slowly re-ignites our burnt-out prana for one last roll; and then the flame lights up the chakras of the whole crowd for one final collective flash of evolutionary light. No one would have been surprised if aliens came down at the end to welcome the crowd into the galactic brotherhood. And after them a still wider radius, God's own Gods, endless circles in and back around.

Shankar himself must have seemed pretty alien, for this was long before yoga's popularity (outside of SF) or the popularizing of the 'New Age' in the west. Seeing Shankar's massive and formidable-looking sitar for the first time, on acid, must have felt like seeing a giant black centipede make love to the fingers of an ageless wizard. After three days of dorky guys in flower face paint standing around wonking out old folk standards on boxy electric guitars, suddenly vision itself dissolved into the nether regions, the great beyond, the Burroughs-ian interzone of NAKED LUNCH. 

The eerie droning, spine-tingling sound of the sitar is somewhere between a flanger-pedaled electric guitar and a barber's electric razor buzzing on the back of your neck, and that's when you're straight! On acid the sitar's otherworldly tones are no less accessible or strange than anything else that's come before in the more melodic tradition in the festival, from the sonic feedback textures of Hendrix to the gentle entwined harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel. Acid makes the normal completely strange and the strange... whoa... normal. At the climax of Shankar's raga the audience is suddenly caught completely up in this onstage frenzy: precision ecstasy so mind-boggling that the close-ups of Shankar's finger-picking hand just show a hummingbird blur.

Of course there are musical high (way high) points other than Shankar: Janis Joplin's career-making poetic passion and mytho-bluesetic fury in "Ball and Chain" being one of my all-time favorite concert moments; and low points like Canned Heat, and Country Joe's "psychedelic" instrumental. But the lows aren't very low and the highs are so mind-bogglingly high that you may as well forget trying to top them. The songs all fit together with the imagery both on and offstage thanks to seamless, lyserigically inspired editing and groovy lightshow projections creating hall of mirror linkage. There are so many beautiful crazily-dressed people just grooving and being themselves here that the film never gets boring no matter how many times you see it. A continual wellspring of love vibes, a freeze frame fountain of eternal youth (several of the top players would soon be dead but they're not dead yet), this crowd is far from the shambling bugged-out zombies they would--a couple short years later--become once Owsley wasn't there to ensure an LSD gold standard.

Pennebaker shot the film by using synced sound with numerous roving 16mm color cameras. The result allows him to cut amongst a wide range of material and have it all fit, so it takes a lit mind to perhaps divulge just what his hang-ups are, since it flows so well, it's just about love, baby! That's why it can't fail, why it can't be anything but terrific. The love Pennebaker has for the material is achingly clear. He's not afraid to cut from the middle of one song to the middle of another by a completely different artist if it works, or linger on Janis' feet during half her song, and the result makes perfect sense in a kind of drugged chronology of memory way. This is what recollections of a concert are like if you were there: faces, fur hats (the 1950s fake fur Daniel Boone hat craze had undoubtedly ensured the Haight-Ashbury vintage stores were well-stocked), psychedelic art for sale outside along the fence, light shows, colorful plumage, Brian Jones. 

Speaking of Papa John, he was one of the founders of the festival and you can tell by his eyes when his band, the Mamas and the Papas, are playing that he's having a blast. Re-watching this recently with someone I totally dig (and who digs the Mamas and the Papas), I saw them in a whole new light: Over the years I had come to consider their songs mere filler, but with a cute Mamas and the Papas fan by my side I let go of worldly cynicism and found myself swooning for their passionate but sweetly laid-back harmonies. All it took was to let go of the way I'd learned to tune out "Monday Monday - Bah Bah" on FM radio all my life, and to allow myself to hear them again as if for the first time. Isn't that what it's all about, anyway?

One thing we've kind of forgotten in our age of mercurial one hit rock stars is that before 1967 folk acts like Peter, Paul and Mary used to be on every cool person's LP player. In other words, real cool is totally sweet and open, not guarded and brooding. When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sing "Homeward Bound" you can hear their love for the music, the crowd, and each other in the minute mellow of their combined voices; every syllable is completely in the moment. These artists love singing together. They do it well and they know the songs, both lyrically and as pure music. Their faces light up with the joy of harmonizing, the joy of being good at something that you enjoy doing, live and in public.

Love is in the fabric of this event. Of the four main singers in the Mamas and the Papas, Mama Cass is the only heavy mama and yet the band all wear floor-length mu-mus for what I can only assume is a gesture of solidarity; they love her so much they widen themselves just so she never thinks she doesn't belong. Even when they sing "The Joke's on You," a combination critique of liberal naiveté and a breakup speech, it overflows with free-spirited love; by comparison, gushing love songs sound gloomy and dispirited. Which way would you rather have it? Wouldn't it be great if Owlsey brought his purples to a Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes show? Damn, man. That music would sure change. Here, in this one film of this one event, we see music in the midst of changing that radically; under the healing rippling eyes of Owsley, music and love and electricity intwine to a heated poetic crucible. It may not have lasted, but the movie is evidence it did, and that we may still be worth saving.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sparagmos a-Go-Go: SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959)

Them that think their Salvia trip was like being slowly rendered apart by wild animals or ravenous cannibal percussionists clearly never saw the face of God on the Encantadas during the sea turtle hatchings when the sky is black with carnivorous birds. Sure, the bad trip equivalent, when your whole soul becomes the beach and the world rips you to shreds with its transient blood bag banality, may be close, and may take just as long, but it's not the same. You only feel it until you can drink enough whiskey to dull the world's blades back to velvet cudgels. 

"Say something funny" says Katherine Hepburn, playing Violet Venable, one of the most coolly dangerous of all Tennessee Williams' predatory mothers. "Make me stop wanting to cry."

She's talking with a young psychiatric surgeon, Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) mourning the death of her (gay aesthete poet) son Sebastian in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1958). Drinking her dailly daiquiri to undo the cringe of seeing her poor relations (Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond)
pick through her late aesthete son's clothes like late-to-the-party no-neck seagulls, honking shrilly while nosing through his empty turtle shell for remaining scraps. God already took his soul, the beggar boys took his flesh and now Violet wants Cukrowicz to scrape the memory of his last moments from the brain of the scene's one witness, voluptuous Catherine Holly (Liz Taylor). Now the poor relations are her to grab the remaining cuff links and shirts. 

Though we never see a photo or painting of him (how can we picture anyone but Hurd Hatfield from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) or Helmut Berger circa 1969's The Damned?), Sebastian's spirit, his memory, hangs over the film like the angel of sexy death (that poses behind Katherine in that memorable final shot of Dr. Cukrowicz's first visit to Sebastian's weird prehistoric garden). Violet wants his poetry preserved but his homosexual promiscuity excised from the mind of its main witness, Katherine. Hence, she's locked up in a convent until the doctor can lobotomize the 'truth' out of her. 

For you see, Violet knows the kind of existential horror her son was into. The highlight of the film is Hepburn's monologue detailing her unforgettable summer with Sebastian the previous year, at Encantada island in the Galapagos, wherein we learn Sebastian saw the face of God in a beach full of baby turtle-devouring birds --an all too real annual event that traumatized many of us who first saw it as kids on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom back in the 70s and--like me--never forgot, trembling in the sudden unveiling of some evil undercurrent, some sadistic devouring other, aspect of existence.At least Violet Venable, Sebastian's mom and the caretaker of his poems, his life story--for his life was his poems and his poems were his life, doctor--is hip to that cosmic Lovecraftian truth, as evinced by the prehistoric garden they walk through, replete with an Angel of Death statue. - One of my favorite scenes in all movies. 

She's not well, or she'd know how creepy it must be to others to hear her boasting about her tight nigh-incestuous relationship with her late son. Yet determined to hide his gayness. 

Of course, PSYCHO was still two years away --there wasn't a template for recognizing when a mom's apron strings are choking her child in his 22 year-old cradle--at least one wasn't allowed to be visible in film unless based on esteemed literature (the big loophole to censorship was the bourgeois reverence for classic novels). With Sebastian gone, her need to dominate and invade moves over to Katherine, her screaming hysterical niece, she must be drilled dumb, so the fantasy poet can remain intact.

Despite all that, I love her. Violet may be monstrous, but she knows the queasy dread that draws sensitive poets to the rocks, that push me-pull you lure of the abyss. She draws short of sparagmos cannibalism, but otherwise is down to stare into the void. In that way she and her niece become poets, perhaps made so by osmosis, by connection to Sebastian. These two women provide nearly every monologue in the movie; they even sound similar--the syntax, the rhythm. We can only presume--having never heard him speak--that they are somehow imitating Sebastian's style, the way the absence of someone we love or admire causes us to adapt some of their traits, our unconscious attempt to fill the void they left. 

Through Sebastian, these two ladies have felt the caustic touch of god, the endless ever-amplifying agonies of drug (or sex addiction) withdrawal, the sense of disaster ever-looming, only a lack of funds or availability away. The horrible pain of being ripped apart by wild animals stretched infinitely. Withdrawal is the check for the meal so large and expensive we don't dare finish it. We linger at the bar, the needle, the bathhouse, hoping that blank page will somehow write itself.

But sooner or later we run out of salve for our cigarette-burnt hand and we've no choice left but to twist and hyperventilate in our bed (or on the street or park bench) for hours on end. Every minute of consciousness stretches out like a long strip of beach slowly being rent to shreds, every last twisting living reptile cell devoured and clawed; our whole being just a sacrifice to some pagan bloodthirsty god.

Tennessee Williams knows the feeling. You can tell in the way he blurs that sadomasochistic line between fear and desire, between the psyche and its surroundings. Williams' demons precede the debauched white-faced, black leather-clad monsters of HELLRAISER by thirty years. The rape in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the shattering final shot of ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE, the (if the censors hadn't changed it to a broken nose in the film version) castration of Paul Newman at the end of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the sexy price of another drink at the end of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (changed in the film version for a happy ending with Brick finally straightening out and loving Liz Taylor the movie), they're all concessions to the realistic level that come with an intense price tag.

 Sometimes they constitute crimes but in Williams' world there's no such thing as a bad sensation Sebastian wasn't the type to complain to the management, as Katherine explains during the climactic, drugged, hypnotized recollection of his final hours. With peaks of crucifixion-level agony at the climactic end of the spectrum and drunken 'snap!' stillness on the other--what else is true heaven but hell escaped from at a suitable velocity, like a rocket that needs pillars of fire scorching the ground to rise past the clouds? The only truly bad sensation in Williams' work is the despair that comes from the numbness of isolation and drifting; the fear of winding down to the speed of a boat becalmed, when not even the gulls want to peck at you. It's that despair Williams truly fears, a fear that makes the violent attentions of cannibal rent boys a luxury by contrast.

And even then, there's one thing worse even than isolation: being locked in with the no-neck monsters, trapped in 'the Drum' and its insane gibberers, or the smug naysaying nuns who refuse to let their patients so much as scream in despair or finish one cigarette. They're all of a piece with the banalities and shrill over-acting of Katherine's white trash mom and her dumb-as-shit cufflink-scavenging goober of a brother, George. How Sebastian ever put up with any of them long enough to pull Katherine from their grubby mitts into his rarefied realm is anyone's guess. "Aren't they awful?!" Violet comments to Cukrowicz  after they finally leave Sebastian's studio (where we see a male black nude and are left to draw our own conclusions).

Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz from Williams' original one-act play, brilliantly adapted with Gore Vidal, Suddenly Last Summer is the kind of thing that would freak people out even today, unless it was shot by George Romero or Dario Argento and all the cannibalism was actually shown, hence giving it a drive-in / grindhouse context. Then, somehow, it would be okay. The bourgeois snobs would know to stay away and it would all be laughable or cathartic.  As it is, the film's artsy pedigree ensures that even the most squeamish of bourgeoisie have to see--or rather hear-- it all the way through, forced--almost like Katharine Hepburn's insane matriarch--to accept the vicious incestuous, homosexual, Dionysian cannibal truth. They must hear that which cannot be shown. A mix of metonym and metaphor (hands, legs, instruments, birds), Katherine's recollection plays like a Hitchcock or Bergman dream sequence during a long therapy session more than a traumatic reality or more to the point, it shows there is no difference.

The terrible fate of Sebastian mirrors several mythic archetypal sacrificial moments from classic Greek literature (namely Euripides' Bacchae) involving crows, youths, blood sacrifice, implied homosexuality, and ritualistic initiation and of course, maenad rending - the 'ultimate' sensation (as Frank notes right before the Cenobites spring the hooks). Violet tries to make the "real" event in Williams' story seem a dead myth, a torture-porn fiction invented by a hysterical nymphomaniac suffering from "dementia precox" (which Dr. Cukrowicz assures her is a meaningless phrase) rather than a living truth. Just because it hides so damned archaically deep in the collective subconscious--doesn't mean it didn't happen. In a way it's the blueprint for paranoid conspiracy theories to come - are the dark secrets of aliens and secret societies so horrible we can't admit they're real, so make up paranoia--a meaningless phrase by which we deny dark truths? Why are alien abductions almost exactly like sleep paralysis? Which one is the illusion, or are both real, or some deeper truth than either/or?) 

We know the truth here because we know someone has read the coroner's report, but that doesn't change the poetic abstraction - as if shocking violence opens up a direct mainline between modern life and Greek myth. In flashbacks of hypnotized washed-out poetry, our senses are blasted open by Liz Taylor gradually releasing her gorgeous black hair out from under a tacky bathing cap, her voluptuous body squirming in the surf in a revealing white one piece bathing suit and inciting us into a horny cannibal frenzy (that image below was the selling point of the film).

What a flashback! The young bucks of the town that clamor against the private beach fence as they ogle her --creating a freakish, unnatural class divide / mirror / screen dichotomy - as if these boys could be the audience around us in the theater, or rather we become them, joining the slavering nameless throng climbing over each other to get a better view. And what a view! Me --YOW!  A thousand horny hands rip the screen to shreds and devour it, hoping to capture some of the hot light upon it. But the image still just hangs there, now on the wall behind the screen, and in the haze of sweat and blood rising up from the front of the trashed cinema. Pan! Pan! Not just bread but the god of satyriasis (a condition Williams self-diagnosed). 

But this is a talking cure movie and, as I say, the main horrors are spoken of--not seen, nor is the above image, we never see her hair flowing so freely (she has her neutering bathing cap on in the movie)  First, Violet describes the spectacle of turtle hatching day to Monty Clift's venerable shrink in the prehistoric garden. She's already a goddess (descending from her elevator chariot), made so by erudite wit and money so is--in a sense--under permanent hypnosis. If she had a hidden unconscious she'd perhaps be less eager to point out the totality of her incestuous bond with her son. Second, under hypnosis, Liz Taylor describes Sebastian's last hours to Clift at the film's climax. This Violet would rather not hear; it's as if her remove from the beach at the Encantadas, the safety of the ship, the fact it was turtles and not her own young, made it just an enthralling and weird story. But when it's your own flesh and blood being rended and gobbled up, she cannot--in a sense--look away from it OR see it. 

Monty's job as analyst then becomes acting as witness to these two women discussing the horrors of the unvarnished extreme end of the real, the obscene existential mouth which devours itself via a tongue of a million frenzied lashing conqueror worms; a churning, massive, oceanic ouroboros at the base pit of existence. Both Catherine and Violet wind up lambs in a kind of dual sacrificial ceremony, performing the horror of watching and relating a sacrifice for a (presumably 'civilized') audience. The band-aid is off and the audience forced to look, not at the scenes of carnage too grisly to show in 1959, but into the horrified eyes of someone who has looked (which is profound without being sickening). The natural reaction is horror of the type one may have when turning over a large rock and finding a whole ecosystem of squirming worms, centipedes, and snakes living below it, but then Clift doesn't let us recoil before taking each insect out in turn, and naming it, putting it to sleep under ether; and freeing us of our disgust. It's real Freudian return of the repressed abject menstruation shit. He's paying the tab, redressing the sins of our hear-no-feminine-napkin-application-procedure evil forefathers. The patriarchal rep of a new kind of medicine (Clift) hears the truth (sparagmos) of the hysterical symptom (Violet's denial / impending lobotomy) and thus the scene itself--sex--is cured as well as Katherine, as well as the nation under Kinsey. No wonder 1950s America loved Freud! He gave both genders an out: he mediated the mounting bedroom cold war by just keeping everybody talking. A war can't be waged if both sides admit they're afraid to fight. Their must be something more productive they can do with their excess energy.

Williams' own real life sexual interests followed the Greek ideal, aiding no doubt in his profound grasp of Greek tragedy and its ability to explain the cosmos in terms of Apollonian beach boys. Sebastian's unseen ghost hovers over the action like Poe's Lenore or the dominating spirit of REBECCA. Never seen, he's outside of space and time, at once something of a past and future century. He's anywhere but here. Even the title carries a time-travel vibe, like Phillip K. Dick's sci fi book NOW WAIT TIL LAST YEAR and indicates the exact kind of transcendence of space and time.

The whole structure of "Big Chill" kind of dramas, where the action centers around someone recently or long-since dead and therefore unseen is a big thing with Williams: Blanche natters incessantly about her long-dead lover who couldn't get it up cuz he was queer and thus shot himself in STREETCAR; Anna Magnani worships the memory of her late stud husband in THE ROSE TATTOO; Fred's dead at the start of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and who could forget old Skipper in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF? But none of them can hold a candle to the evil and eloquently damned Sebastian, who for total dominance over the living is as spectral as a Poe heroine, or Rebecca de Winter or the first half of LAURA.


His mother, Violet, then is both Sebastian's symbolic killer and the force that kept him from harm on all the other vacations, and the force that keeps his name on everyone's lips... even in death. She's like a vampire protecting her prey from other hustlers. When Sebastian dies because it's because Violet's not around to save him and he forgot all the things he never learned while being under her wing when other boys were negotiating narrow streets on foot, and otherwise avoiding the painful fate of the cannibal crockpot.

Perhaps because of their own outsider statuses via homosexuality and alcoholism, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal could both really stare wide-eyed into the hellish morass that represents the ultimate end-game of rich jet set debauchery, the "okay let's take off the kid gloves" kind of thing involved in the real rough leather trade and all the other stuff Camille Paglia writes about. Here's an excerpt of Paglia talking about the greatness of Tennessee Williams in that regard:
If we are ever to see a revival of artistry, young film-makers must study and absorb the great movie past. To build on the small, weak, one-dimensional films of the 1980s and '90s is a dead end. The same thing with writing: if young people simply draw on the shallow, cynical, jargon-clotted postmodernism of the 1980s and '90s, they'll produce nothing that will last.

This is why I exalt Tennessee Williams as a supreme role model: he was openly gay (daring at the time) but never ghettoized himself. He lived in the real world and thought and felt in passionate, universal terms — which is why he created titanic characters who have had worldwide impact and who are still stunningly alive.
(Bright Lights Film Journal, #54, 2006)

Liz Taylor--a titanic, stunningly alive character with worldwide impact herself--seems to have been a kind of protean cine-muse to Williams, and one much more magnetic than Magnani, and much more opinionated and loud about it than most of the screen goddesses in her league. Totally unafraid to get in there and shake it in all senses of the word, from root to crown chakra (with a long pause at the hips), Liz's characters clash with patriarchy and then withdraw to fight again, like Sung Tzu says to do in ART OF WAR! Take GIANT, for example, where she maneuvers around the end zones at her newfound homeland Texas' narrow-minded patriarchal ways, and everyone of the old guard just has to put up with it. None of their usual patronizing crap works, even when she's way out of line they can't rope her in. She lets them win a hand or two, but never stops wearing them down, until they surrender like aggressive dogs to Cesar Milan in the Dog Whisperer. Like said dogs, these Texans realize they love her for her ability to be assertive without being aggressive, and she becomes the social mother conscience for all of Rich Oil Texas. She creates a new respect and admiration for the voice of dissent. It's okay to walk away having lost a fight with Liz Taylor. She'll let you win the next one.

SUMMER's Catherine isn't allowed to know this kind of power. When she parades around in negligees or bathing suits, it's both a mythic Venus on the half-shell moment and a scream for help; she wants you to see how desperately out of place she feels, but you can only notice how perfectly in place every part of her actually is. She needs a Rock Hudson around who she can bounce off of and claw at and know he'll stick around regardless. She needs a man to see the limitless compassion and love behind all the compulsive attention-seeking. Monty Clift fits this role beautifully, paralyzed face or no. One of my favorite moments is when she kisses him impulsively during their therapy and he neither rejects nor accepts to go any further, or back for that matter, saying "why not? It was a friendly kiss." He lets it affect him only mildly, but later when she grabs him and they kiss we never quite see how he responds. So many similar scenes in films blow this opportunity to dissolve phony social dualities between authority figure and lover, social order/propriety and chthonic carnal desire, the desire of the higher self and the desire of the man, as if any response other than rejection is considered amoral. Catherine's 'nymphomania' could be unknowingly encouraged to devolve into degeneracy by the nuns strictly-enforced codes of shame and negative reinforcement coupled to fast profits ala BUTTERFIELD 8, so when Monty responds in this way the chain is short-circuited and she's free. Who wouldn't go crazy if they took away your smoking privileges?

Any subliminal resemblance between Violet's hat and a Venus flytrap upper palate is purely intentional
Yes, this film makes you proud to be a smoker. It's cigarettes ultimately that bond Catherine with Monty's doctor and drive the mean nun from the room. And like cigarettes, it only gets better with repeat viewings, wherein you smoke along with the action, addicted and decaying... until all the cigarettes are taken out digitally and replaced with delicious chocolate candies!

A unique film, SUMMER's only competition in whatever genre it invented is Bergman's PERSONA (1966), which similarly deconstructs the nature of truth vs. recollection, image vs. verbal description, and the way image becomes truth via personally recounted testimonies of unfettered lust under blazing afternoon suns. Stories told verbally (but not seen) of unchained desire prove more arousing and dangerous than mere soft core footage shot through gauze, as it turns out, unless you're on acid maybe, but even on acid you just like it for the rhythmic breathing and colors; the image is inherently obscene to you by then anyway, it seems always about to overflow, eventually ripping open the screen. But whereas PERSONA delves into abstract meditation and whereas something like the DEAD trilogy shows the horror of the animal and vegetable decay but skips the post-modern ripped screen artsiness, SUMMER trumps all by showing the rip AND the screen and then showing Liz Taylor describe it under a heat lamp.

The result is as devastating and cathartic as a dozen art and/or horror films combined. A new image every viewing comes to mind, with echoes of Matt Shepherd and all the horrifying gay hate crimes on the one hand, and the meta refraction of Liz's real life bosom friendship with the homosexual Clift and his crippling car accident during the shooting of RAINTREE COUNTY, the year before, one that took this beautiful god of a man and left him looking far older, partially paralyzed, with Liz right there every step of the way, procuring and protecting. SUDDENLY finds the connecting ground between the horrors of old Greco-Roman myth and the reality around them, the more outre it gets the more real, the more specific the more meta, the more universal, its clear-eyed unflinching grasp for the truth is so pure-- even if it takes a little demerol to get there--it goes beyond truth, or myth, or even art, to become a reflection of all the loving joy to be found once the horrors of God's cruelty are finally grasped in full, and accepted. Color then is thine.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Acid Cinema Special Edition: The VIETNAM Experience

The topic of critical backlash against INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is still hot two weeks after the film opened, and seems aimed primarily at the "light" portrayal of the plight of the Jewish people under Nazism, and the Jewish-American commando squad's glorified brutality-- the "fire with double-fire" approach. These issues point me to a dilemma that afflicts many Americans, the refusal to see beyond the bogus facade of "civilized morals"--even when their own lives hang in the balance.

When Wes Craven or Charles Bronson turn the other cheek back around and start blasting and hacking, we're supposed to go "oh how quickly civilized behavior falls away to reveal the savage!" and supposedly go home and feel bad about how quickly civilized behavior falls away to reveal the savage and worse, how much we enjoyed seeing it happen. But to me, I just feel bad that it's not quick enough, that the sucker vacationers in American horror and revenge movies don't start reverting to savagery until needless damage has been done to the RV, and when they do, there's little celebration of their return to the true wilderness of the chthonic. Once you realize you're in a horror or war film and no rescuer is going to hear your screaming and whining, you can begin to fight back, to find self-reliance, the true warrior spirit. It's like when a kid sent to his room until he learns to behave, he kicks and cries and gets it out of his system, he never stops crying or kicking but then after awhile realizes he's stopped, is calmer, and goes downstairs all at peace, realizing instinctively he's able to rejoin his parents, and they're going to not even bring up his tantrums but just accept the newfound man.

Hollywood's forgotten or doesn't want to remember this parenting strategy because it still thinks mom will come if it just cries and screams long enough. Maybe I was lucky to have parents who let me figure it out for myself, who were trained by whatever 70s child psychology Jaycees speaker wandered their way to resist their instinctive urge to soothe my fits of tears and rage. So maybe its this parental weakness across the board that has led to the change of a nation of adults to a nation of infants expecting, as Camille Paglia says, the law to behave like nurturant mother. Now when the final girl finally kills the slasher, she no longer bellows her victory cry but instead reverts back to being a frazzled whiner...

And it all leads me to ask why and realize that my Acid Movie thread must now address Vietnam. Before I begin, please keep in mind this DISCLAIMER, that I'm always only really talking about movies, not "reality." I have no idea what being a soldier is actually like, and I thank god I missed the draft, but I'm a big WW2 history enthusiast, played war nonstop up until the age I started smoking weed instead, but I am fascinated by the whole process, again, as seen in films and documentaries. And taking acid is a little like losing yourself to a primal savagery that can move beyond civilized empathy as needed. As a man you are far less likely to let a girlfriend manipulate her with tears and sniffling.

The story of acid in the America of the 1960s is a story of a nation in conflict between a renewed lust for life and an enhanced drive towards death, between the Rebels and the Republic, the old guard Don Draper types clinging by their fingernails to the 1950s American dream as it dissolved around them and the crazy peaceniks mocking and deriding everything that dream stood for. While dad swilled a cold beer and cheered the bombers on the news, his kids were out in Central Park, dropping tabs and flashing peace signs. Seldom before or since in American history has the line between old and young, life and death, love and hate, conformity and free-thinking, been so sharply and clearly drawn. And, in the field of combat, the same line existed between delusional top brass notions of "heart and minds" and the real blood-and-ambiguity-drenched quagmire of the killing field.

LSD erased all those well as all other artificial social constructs. It could make you very peaceful with yourself as you committed horrific violence against yourself or others, merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream of disconnect... On acid, you realize that even killing can be an expression of love... just ask the Manson family! Or the babysitter nuking the kid in the microwave and putting the TV dinner to bed (as the old wives' take went), or Native Americans apologizing to the buffalo as they kill it, understanding that they're killing themselves for all is connected. All murder is just projected suicide. The Native American's knew we always only ever eat ourselves. On acid, we knew it too. We tasted it. And it tasted like majestic purple mountains.

Taking acid certainly could prove a boost to your perception, heightening and sharpening your senses enabling the user to transcend their usual social more-laced strait-jacket. Whether over in the war or at home, what seemed like unshakable bedrocks only hours before--marriage, church, state, government, patriarchy, tradition--became suddenly clownish, yesterday's papers, tools of hypnosis to keep the cattle placid. Acid made killing 'real' to non-combatants because it shuckered them loose from the grip of the patriarchy, helped them think like the enemy, or how they imagined the enemy thought; slinking through the jungle, hard-wired and alive to every flapping beetle wing and blowing leaf, and best of all, free of all the moral inhibitions about killing that would mean almost certain death if left unchecked back in boot camp. Mashing open an innocent Vietnamese farmer's face with the butt of your rifle (as in PLATOON) would be intolerable sober, but is just another freaky thing to trip out once you surrender to the fact that you're living in a world... of... shit, as Private Pyle puts it in FULL METAL JACKET (1987). They didn't give acid out in the boot camp though, but beatings. Same result.

An integral -- though demonized by the liberal press-- part of boot camp is hazing, the beating of lagging cadets with soaps wrapped in towels, to toughen them up, give them a face-to-face taste with unendurable pain, the kind that transforms and darkens you, makes you less afraid since you know it can't get any worse. Anything less than that level of prolonged and traumatic beating up is just business as usual from then on; the volume is turned way down. This tradition is nothing new, and corresponds to Native American rituals that involve hanging by pierced shoulder muscles until you see your white buffalo vision and know you are a man. Women have the agony of childbirth; men have to find their own.

Or, you could just try taking too much acid, a sort of self-induced hazing. Either way, you have to do something to free yourself from living life in a state of fear-based wussiness... it takes a jolt to your whole body-mind-spirit in order to shake the civilized cowardice out of a man, to obliterate all breadcrumb trails back to mommy. You can't wait to turn savage after you're savagely killed, by then it's too late. You have to be already on fire to fight fire with fire. A shrink might call it trauma-induced sociopathy but then again, that in itself would hardly disqualify you from the draft.

In Private Pyle's case, the hazing works all too well, but he doesn't even wait to get to the jungle before he has to start blasting. There's always that one dopey kid in your circle who makes the mistake of letting the newly freed inner demon take over completely. Rather than just harnessing its energy. This dopey Pyle-type always has to do something stupid like mess with the cops or pull out his stash in public, or try and rape an elderly lady in the middle of the park, or play one last round of Russian roulette.

But if you do it right and stay open to change, just allow the demon to have a share in the company and not full ownership, then you're in business. You can let the demon out when you need to be cold and merciless, such as when breaking up with a long-time lover; breaking a dog's neck to put it out of its misery after you accidentally run it over; pulling the plug on comatose grandma's breathing apparatus, and so on. With the demon at the reins, hearing someone plead for their life doesn't break your heart anymore. Don't they see that death is no different than life? That they're just scared of the unknown, of change? That they're behaving like a kid trying to talk his mom out of making him leave for the first day of school? Death is just the kindergarten of the next level education system. Really it's their ego that's scared, for it knows it will be truly dead, for the ego does not endure, and once the ego is dissolved, all fear goes with it. When your brain is exploding with the eternity of existence, you no longer whine to yourself about whether your friends are giving you enough credit for its luminosity. And so, what is war but an amusement park, a roller coaster on which you give your war shout and wave your hands (because if you don't you'll probably scream like a buried-alive Poe character?

In Oliver Stone's PLATOON (1986) the life/death line is drawn between the "cool" soldiers who smoke pot and dance and sing like a bunch of ANIMAL HOUSE-meets-MASH regulars, headed by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) vs. the bourbon-swilling homicidal conservatives, represented by Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). You may be too young to remember, but PLATOON really hit a national nerve when it came out in 1986. Vietnam vets would see it and cry afterward, right in the theater, I know because I saw one, finally recognizing and then releasing some of the horror they had been holding in for so long. I was a sophomore in college and our homework in America in the 1960s class was to get out to the off-campus theater and see it, and so my gang of hippies and we figured, why not eat mushrooms beforehand? We called a cab, piled in, and the cool driver takes one look at our tie-dyes and said "go ahead and smoke a joint if you want."

We knew this homework assignment had become something akin to a living myth.

For me, the film and shrooms kicked in at once to result in a quick descent into a palpable madness of paranoia and nihilism. In the surround-sound theater, I could sense every bug buzz, every snap of a twig, in the jungles all around me, knowing the buzzing gnats slowly moving around might turn any moment into VC twig snaps, that every possible rustle of leaves might mean death. The experience was so vivid, my friend Jason had to leave during the Mai Lai massacre segment, but I was really into it... It was that feeling of "why not just kill 'em all?" that comes from being pushed past your limits, the realization that insanity has a purpose, a grisly kind of freedom. I was 19, the perfect draft age. The mushrooms in conjunction with the movie had shown me the ambivalent killer I could have been with just the flick of a switch.

This "death-embracing" aspect of LSD is something America never has been able to reconcile with its more peaceful half, just throwing baby and bathwater alike into prison and barring the door on any further conversation, at least in the US. In England the late-inning demonizing was taken with a grain of salt, and the Nietzschean rebirth from civilized wanker into super-warrior via psychedelics thing appears in British films to this day. Leo DiCaprio taps into it for his psychedelic interlude during a stretch of THE BEACH (2000) and Cillian Murphy finds his inner psycho for the climax of 28 DAYS LATER (2002). Shauna Macdonald (above) experiences a similar death/rebirth when falling into a pit of menstrual blood signifier slime in THE DESCENT (2005). It's the last straw of horror that snaps her free into CARRIE-style warrior woman.

The Japanese have always been fans of this conversion and the slew of samurai films such as SWORD OF DOOM (1966) illustrate a cosmic understanding of the difference between sympathy and true compassion. The antihero main character played by Tatsuya Nakadai, for example, kills a weary old man he meets on a hill, just because he seems to be a burden to his granddaughter. In sword battle contests he only cares about perfection of technique, barely noticing the corpses he leaves in his wake. Perhaps the Japanese, British, and Germans for that matter, are just a little better at "going there." May I venture to guess it comes from being bombed (more than once)?

We Americans can't abide freedom from resolve-weakening liberal head games without a little help from our lysergic friends. We need far more of a push to shed our civilized moral paralysis, as we see in our terror of issues like euthanasia, castration and abortion. Comatose, paralyzed, dying patients are kept alive for years, and convicted sex offenders begging to be castrated are turned down flat due to minor health risks. Every hospital should have a man like Willard/Kurz in APOCALYPSE NOW or SWORD OF DOOM's Tatsuya Nakadai (above) to walk through the wards and dispassionately off the incurably sick or comatose, castrating and severing and doing whatever needs to be done. But it's shocking just to think of it. We are too scared to face death square in the eye! Won't someone think of the children!!?!?!

But we do have Vietnam, a shorthand signifier of the 'state of mind' where American hypocrisy collapses on itself and leaves you standing there in the bush with a gun in your hand, clinically insane from lack of sleep, and with a head full of contradictory orders.

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is the ultimate trip for Vietnam, the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of war films, updating the original acid story, Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS to accommodate a broad spectrum of black comic situations. Brando's ambiguity as Kurz in the last section is always a bit of a let-down to what came before (maybe Brando wasn't 'experienced' anymore by then?). But before he bogs it up, the peaks happen often, most notably in the big bridge scene that's preceded by Lance mentioning to Chef (Frederic Forrest) as they're cruising up to the final checkpoint, beyond which is Cambodia: "You know that last tab of acid I had? I dropped it." Forrest replies, as if barely listening, "Far out."

Willard (Martin Sheen) gets off the boat at the bridge, bringing Lance with him like a magic protection symbol, like the white cloth pinned to the nurse's jacket in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Everyone fighting at this bridge seems lost and abandoned ("Who's in charge here?" / "Ain't you?") until they find a taciturn spectral presence named Roach (the Duane Jones zombie figure equivalent from IWAZ) who they bring out of his pot-smoke-and-Hendrix-filled cubby hole so he can take out a crazed VC sniper in the black night distance. "He's close man... real... close", says the Roach, his eyes glazed over with the 1000 yard stare. He loads his grenade launcher and just fires it straight up into the air without even looking, BAM, all is quiet, no more sniper. Roach's face barely changes except to snarl a bit as he whispers, "motherfucker" and pops out his grenade shell

"Soldier," an impressed, spooked Willard asks him. "Do you know who's in charge here?"

"Yeah" says Roach before disappearing back into the blackness. Who does the Roach mean? the devil? Or something even more bizarre, past duality, the Kali energy loosed upon the world? Roach is the end point of the Lance and Bunny mystical surrender/conversion... the ultimate acid soldier. His very name is synonymous with adaptation and survival: Roach will inherit the earth and in his stoned, gone expression is the true spirit of the Vietnam War -- at least as understood by the hippie layman.

Willard's question is, to Roach, Jimi Hendrix's same question in that song, "Are you experienced?" i.e. have you taken acid and 'passed' the test it dropped on your desk? The answer to both is the same: "yeah." (Roach looks a lot like Hendrix might in the war). No doubt that Roach is "experienced."

Earlier in the film we see the crew panic and machine gun a boat full of Vietnamese, but it's they who then label Willard the cold blooded killer when he shoots the sole wounded survivor. Willard notes that the American approach to Vietnam was "to shoot you full of holes and then give you a band-aid." and that the brass wanting to take down Kurz for killing a few suspected spies is "like passing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." We can't really blame the crew, just kids who know--as we do--any false move on the part of a seemingly innocent boat family might result in a suicide bomb or pulling a machine gun from a bag of rice.

According to the documentary, HEART OF DARKNESS, Coppola, cast and crew did lots of acid on set in the Philippines and you can feel it in the film's pulsing dissolves and apocalyptic imagery. Similarly, for PLATOON, Oliver Stone was actually there as a foot soldier in Vietnam and is admittedly very much "experienced." In each case you can feel the understanding of the killer instinct and the refusal to condemn it in the hypocritical "give 'em a band-aid" way of the American social structures.

THE DEER HUNTER focuses on the moment of facing this fear of death, but it never gets past it. Walken's addiction to Russian roulette indicates a kind of suicidal ideation autopilot. But the moods of APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON move beyond fear of death and into deep archetypal breakdown like true acid poetry. Cimino can't get beyond his own limited leftist jaundice.

In the end, you need to overcome your fear of death in order to become a true warrior. For some reason the bulk of cowardly Middle America thinks of tripping as somehow treason against humanity, and yet it would make for better soldiers, less afraid of dying. Almost all the people who want psychedelics to stay illegal have never tried them, just as people who want guns illegal don't own them. People are against the death penalty because their loved ones were never murdered. It's all part of the same hypocrisy.

Who's in charge here? Anyone with the balls to let go of fear and stick out their tongue for the real eucharist. As Brando advises in APOCALYPSE NOW, "you must make a friend... of horror." It's the only true thing he says, even if he already said it in LAST TANGO IN PARIS. 

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