Psychedelic film criticism for the woefully unprepared

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION

One of the cool things about Europe as opposed to the states is that if they like a trend, they keep it, and so even as late as the 1980s there were still sexy, druggy, fucked-up movies coming out. America had switched over to conservative backlash fear mode, VHS profits swelling the scene full of cheap gore and bad hair, flat lighting and gross teens. A truly disturbing genuinely adult film like Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION (1981) was only released here, apparently, in a severely truncated, nearly incomprehensible edit, carved no doubt to resemble something along slasher/softcore lines to fit more closely the things we were used to. But while America was cowering at home in front of the VCR with the doors locked, Europeans were still dropping acid and going to the art house cinema... and they had much more reasons to be freaked out than we ever did. The mass murder and destruction of World War Two (for such horror, 40 years is not so long) and the subsequent Russian curtain dividing between sunny tranquil capitalist west and dour, psychotic grey unrestored communist east. Aside from Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we haven't had a lot of shit get blown up in the USA. Considering the trauma endured just from those two single day events, can you imagine watching your whole country more or less go through a giant Nazi thresher machine, while you're a child up in it?

It might make you a little twisted.

Polish director Andrzej Zulawski was born during just such a time and place: nightly bombing raids became like a lullaby for him (he says); part of the comforts of childhood, like a night-light or teddy bear. This weird amniotic death hybrid explains much of POSSESSION's full-spectrum insanity, or what it's like to be high on acid while having a miscarriage alone in a Paris Metro station after trying to sit through a European history lecture, and having to leave because you started frothing at the mouth. When you're gone on LSD, baby, none of the usual signifier chains apply; like Zulawski you are freed of labeling bombing raids as bad and no bombs as good. It's all good, until you gradually realize it's all bad, because it's gnawing on your leg... and working its way up fast. Whatever it is. Second chakra sacral wheels alight in twisted backfiring surges of desire and loathing, rust and dried blood flaking off the re-ground gears.

If you never experienced all that, man, you might not dig all of POSSESSION. But for some of us, those who can still hear colors and see sounds, the ancient, semi-ancient, and recent history of the human race is always clattering on the kitchen floor of our collective mind like a dropped casserole dish that grows Rob Bottin spider legs on contact with linoleum; European border tensions live in our sacral chakras, interlocking serpentine tentacles connect every groin, mouth, and fingertip in the whole of existence, which is not more infinite than a tomb, to our breathing. The flushing of the toilet sounds like the diving of Stuka followed by VE day revels. which in East Berlin were not celebrations but the screams of women being mauled by drunken Russian soldiers.  Even if  If your knowledge of post-war European social psychology and bad trip acid horror iconography is incomplete well, there's bound to be something in POSSESSION still able to suck you down with the cigarette butts into the tangy blood-flavored mud of 70s Euro-horror, which is the same really as just shrugging your shoulders and sashaying toward the exit while the huns are distracted.

Set in West Germany, in an apartment with windows that looks out over the Wall so you can see East German guards smoking and looking at you from far away up at the camera, feigning neighborly disinterest. But meanwhile everyone speaks English all the time, except when Adjani goes into French when torturing a girl in a ballet class in a super 8mm movie Neill's fellow cuckold, a sexually fluid and tantric fellow named Heinrich, sends over. My point? Sharp as an unmuddied lake, sir.

And when she moans up at the cross in a church with a piteous whine one senses Harvey Keitel stirring from his noon feeding, and making a mental note that would lay buried for 10 years until BAD LIEUTENANT.

Perhaps even if you're at all like me, laughing hysterically at the hijinx of that film, the type of crazy psychedelic surfer who used to watch the R. Bud Dwyer suicide tape over and over like a baby with their first peek-a-boo game (one split second Dwyer's in the room, and then BAM - he is completely gone - where'd he go?)--well, even then that prolonged miscarriage in the tunnel scene might be too much. Adjani's ryhthmic spazzing out in some kind of one woman show of interpretive dance encompassing the history of mental illness before the Age of Clozapine--is really mind-bogglingly fearless and fully committed in ways I just don't think it's possible for American actresses to ever be, nor would they want to, for certainly it won't win them an Oscar. Adjani could give a shit about your Oscars; she just goes for it with more gusto than most American actresses ever dare muster without an A for 'Art' burnished on their chest, not this isn't artsy. Has America women this crazy? The English have maniacs like Kate Winslet, Australia Judy Davis, who was originally attached to POSSESSION since Zulawski and his casting director loved MY BRILLIANT CAREER (which was why they cast Sam Neill) and maybe her wanting to do it is why she wound up in a similar legless monster sex scene in NAKED LUNCH ten years later? It all fits, doctor, since the whole creature / pregnancy angle--a kind of symbol-made-flesh ala 'psychoplasmics' in THE BROOD--was done by Cronenberg two years earlier, with super crazy (Brit) Samantha Egger. But whom do we have, you know, that don't out secretly Canadian or borne in a commune? No one --our actresses can afford good SSRI meds and the best clinical care Beverly Hills ha$ to offer.

Perhaps it's because the terrifying freedom of flying fast and loose atop the ever-inward spiral of the maelstrom is just not an American thing, not since Poe and Melville. In the former's "A Descent into the Maelstrom,  a sailor finds himself on a damned ghostly boat hovering ever on the edge of a vast never-ending whirlpool wave. Our hero eventually escapes and is rescued only to find his ship mates no longer recognize him: "My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now." Sometimes that change of countenance has to happen: you've seen too much; you've peered beyond the veil and the veil has left its gnarly mark. Or you've aged 100 years in a goddamn 13 year bender. Or just got old, suddenly, as it always is when you dare to take the voyage into the maelstrom or walk that yellow "brick" road. Some of us are called to the curtain and bid look beyond, and some do, and they get white hair, if not a diploma, either that or we get old. I've never seen a film before or since that made the color white such a violently post-modern wrenching force (not even in Kieślowski's WHITE or Argento's TENEBRE) except maybe in a humorous and romantic way, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, wherein white swallows up whole bookstores and kitchens of Jim Carey's memory of Kate Winslet.



In fact, the hair and split subject aspects of POSSESSION are there in SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and bi-polar mood swings reflected in Adjani's careening back and forth between the sterile apartment she shares with Neill and their son, Bob, and this decayed East Berlin apartment building, with its goop-covered floor and writhing tentacled lover like a decayed animal carcass swathed in glistening rainbow brown blood / oil paint palette runoff and being devoured by long large white worms. "He's very tired, he's been making love to me all night," Adjani says before bashing out a gay cop intruder's brains in with a jar of paint.

At such time, Adjani makes Klaus Kinski seem like Water Pidgeon.

By this time Neill has more or less detoxed and is playing the clean-cut parent, subject to fits only when Adjani comes careening back to put laundry away (in the fridge) and throw some cold cuts from the pantry into her suitcase and carve herself up with an electric knife while shouting and convulsing like she's receiving electro-shock therapy in the midst of a MACBETH monologue. Her character splits between two poles, one Adjani as nurturing elementary school teacher potential love interest vs. homicidal birther/fucker/painter of her own monster (ala Susan Hogan and Egger and in THE BROOD), blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors as if dissolving a painting in her womb to start again. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sick lover ever since - is it a metaphor for art, a masterpiece, the way a true artist is in a state of exalted frenzied madness when working on their project, giving themselves over completely, maybe never to return, except in the form of that immortal art?

Oh yeah, SAM... whom I never liked much in films like DEAD CALM or THE PIANO... though that's inevitably why he's often cast, there's just something about him that if you're a dog you'd want to bark at him. Often his characters need to be cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate sexually frustrated petulance has context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins surf and turf, when given a part that calls for truly insane and giddy grace he's suddenly big as all the ocean; he makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, or show you his new razor from your insides out. What makes him such a good secret agent (his last mission was something across the Wall where he'd been sizing up some scientist defector in pink socks or something) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence and eye for eye madness glint. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to match her, bob for bob. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, absorbing everything and everyone he sees. From his son's crashing toy airplanes to his rival's 'love of everything,' he's always reacting and seeing deep, riding the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.

Whoa, bro, now that I do the math I realize Neill hadn't even yet tried to compete with Zane or Keitel when this film was made. 1981, the same year he rocketed to the bottom as the adult Damien in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT -- at the request of co-star James Mason who loved him in MY BRILLIANT CAREER. Now we realize the inevitable truth, it's all James Mason's fault and it makes sense, since in acting style Neill could be like Mason's psychotic younger brother. His accent here and the way he can start refined and wind his way down slow spiral staircase into jealous madness by the end of the scene is reminiscent in many ways of Mason in LOLITA - a scene where he must be restrained by hospital orderlies after Lo flees, for example, has an amped up methamphetamine mirror in Neill's being piled on by the entire staff of 'Cafe Einstein' after chasing Isabelle Adjani out the door in a whirl of empty wooden chairs. His nose and face strangely cleft, he's got a bit of Timothy Spall floating around his features, as if the mirror halves of his face, the line down the middle from third eye to under the nose to chin is all starting to crack open like an egg hatching somme newfound man. Which considering Adjani is doubled here, it's only natural to assume the monster she's sleeping with is slowly turning into him. During his big initial meltdown he seems to be suffering from serious withdrawal of either heroin or alcohol --the latter I've experienced, and I handled it very similar to how he does, shaking and twitching, barely able to talk, trapped in isolation

Mason too is a guy who you can never quite trust no matter how refined and loquacious his character is onscreen. Well, maybe you do trust him for a few reels, but then he takes that cortisone again and he's at you with a knife.

Sometimes you can't get at the audience with a razor, so you have to use the only thing you can find that's even sharper, and sometimes that thing is named Sam Neill. POSSESSION stabs us with him until even the screaming sound of Stukas dive bombing his neighborhood to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby and the scorching beauty of Adjani like a freezing of the blood in the veins and on the floor.

It doesn't help, maybe, in our day and country, not to know exactly where to 'pinpoint' evil the way they could in 80s East Berlin, before the Wall fell, and America, before slashers went out of vogue. Cleft and splitting like Neil's face when riddled by bullets, before he's finally 'finished,' when the Wall comes down like his old corpse cocoon with a bloody thud, and the Coke Machine future comes clanging up the Elbe like a refunded pffenig, man will we be ready even here in the States, to admit it was maybe not after all, so simple.

7 comments:

  1. Adjani gives one of the most chilling/terrifying/beautiful/devastating performances I've ever seen in Possession.

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  2. Hi, the director of "Possession" is actually Andrzej Żuławski, not Andrzej Wajda. Cheers from Poland!

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  3. Thanks Joe, you're right, and you too Chris. That was my dyslexia at work, I've since become able to actually spell Andrzej Zulawski, even if I can't figure out that cool dot on top of the Z you put there.

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  4. I'm inclined to agree, this is top notch acid cinema. Last summer my friend and I tried watching this film while we were coming up on bad acid... needless to say, we experienced an amalgamation of intense discomfort, paranoia, disturbance, and confusion and had to shut it off! The film has a brilliant way of creating the most abrasively surreal atmosphere through overbearing acting without being kitschy. The only other film that comes close is Eraserhead. Another great acid terror film is Phase IV (1974), that mean-spirited psychedelic film melted my face off on acid (caused my roommate to run out of the room, bawling her eyes out!).

    -Ulveman

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  5. I like the movie but I dont understand it.what is that squid thing what did it come from.why was sam neil twisting in bed was he on drugs.someone please help me understand the movie completely

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  6. Saw this movie last night and it was extremely weird and disgusting. I couldn't sleep at night

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  7. Excellent review for one of my favourite movies.Can't wait to watch it on upcoming blu-ray from Second Sight this summer.

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