Friday, December 04, 2009

TOne Fell Swoop: THE DAWN PATROL (1938)

Raise a cup for the dead already / and salute those next to die!" -- Lucy Westerna, reciting an old airman's drinking song (DRACULA, 1931)
A bad LSD trip can leave you in a state of anxious suffering hell for years--or so it seems over the course of a 6-8 hour trip. Surely the trauma of dying lasts but a second by comparison. Sometimes psychedelics free you from concern about it, a kind of WWI airman's cheer like the song above) but sometimes it makes it feel unbearably close. The drugs cut you off from a general populace who cannot see beyond their collective fog of assured continuity. The blinds that blot out awareness of death for them have, for you, fallen off, so that the blazing darkness streaks through, chilling you beyond the echo of your bones. Even if you close your eyes and look away, it shines right through your eyelids, through any polarized goggles, or veil of drugged sleep. All the while, those poor straight fools around you it's business as usual, guffawing and chawing, glazed-eyed consumers on their endless rotation from breakfast to cubicle to couch to dinner to bed. But you sit outside it all, screaming inside, clawing softly at the fleshy disguise you call a face, as if it's an electrified prison with no exit doors. Hopefully you are too smart to realize blinding yourself will shut it out (a shattering thought, too horrible even for the end of X- The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1).

But lo! THE DAWN PATROL (1938) is waiting! In the black and white skies, each gun barrel eking out a gentle sentence period solace. With these guys buying the drinks and taking the hits, you at least are not alone. They get it--they may be ghosts of silver screen projection, echoes of actors long dead, but hey, so are you, maybe. At the very least the part of your brain giving you so much grief can't tell the difference. The anxiety finds its outlet because--for these gallant drunken pilots--the blinds are off too, and they don't even gravity on their side.  

Bravely they await their time to die up in the air, safe in the clean air, the shadowed, filthy trenches of WWI far below: they understand your existential anguish. Are they not, in their way, the living dead? Look at the way the pilot's goggled face up up top resembles a skull right out of a Joe Kubert WEIRD WAR TALES cover. You can feel both the beating of modernism's horrified, hideous heart and smell the dread of the next war, already in progress, which by 1938 America was, like an abusive drunk making promises to behave, loudly announcing it would stay neutral and have no part in the European nonsense. 

Though helmed by "ladies' choice" director Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL, DARK VICTORY), DAWN PATROL is all men, not even the usual saloon singer/prostitute or the combat nurse. Though  remake of an early sound Howard Hawks film, which I revere, I've no qualm with this version as Goulding is just fine at capturing camaraderie and always had a great fatalistic streak -- you can feel death and despair being ever pushed back, every gesture of his actors like drowning souls struggling through the La Brea tar pits of mortality. Like Hawks he keeps shots at a medium 'eye' level to allow us to feel part of the action, the POV of a fellow pilot at the bar, part of the brotherhood of airmen, who treat their captured German pilots with respect, giving them drinks, cigarettes and food before the MPs take them away. And of course our airmen agonize over all the fresh young recruits, most of whom are shot down before they even have a chance to unpack. What's most important in a film like this, since it's almost all male actors, is that the veteran pilots, be first-rate, and with Basil Rathbone as the C.O., bravely taking the heat from righteous pilot Errol Flynn and drunken wingman David Niven, you got a deck stacked for easy grifting.

"Keep your eye on the ball"

And drinking, man is there a lot of well-deserved drinking, which of course again brings it back to the bad trip sympathy, for if you don't have a drink or something to put your lights out after a bad trip, man, you're going to be hallucinating ghost fingers ripping your soul apart all the night, through the morning, afternoon, and even until the following evening sometimes, and even after that... sometimes. But you do have drinks around, if you're a civilized airman, or have access to a valid ID. And they're apparently free, since the bar is where you get your orders for the day. At any rate, they can't demand you settle a tab if you're dead. The office of Basil Rathbone as their CO (the brunt of their collective rage since he's sending young men to their deaths before they even learn to barrel roll) is adjacent to the bar, and the barracks are upstairs. In short it's much like my band's old communal house in Syracuse in the mid-80s, only we didn't have to fly and try to kill Germans and avoid being killed by them (2), we just had to contend with the pre-show jitters (it was horrible trying to stay sober while hanging out a bar for hours waiting until I'm about to go onstage before slamming a few shots). We also feared, rightly, that if we were ever picked up by the cops or searched, we'd be doing 10-20 years for a first time offense/victimless crime. (This being during the 'Just say No" Reagan/Bush witch hunt). Can staying cool in a dogfight be any worse than trying to act nonchalant while walking past a cop with enough schedule IV drugs in your pocket guarantee a 20 year sentence, all while you are tripping your face off and a part of you urges you to just hand over your drugs to the cop and be done with it, while another part urges you to run, and instead you just give him a friendly half-nod greeting and don't even change the speed of your stride? Talk about nerves of steel! 

DAWN PATROL puts you in that same zone as that paranoid acid dealer (i.e. me in the late-80s),l giving you an older brother shoulder blueprint on how to triangulate enough moxy to sally forth, whether in a band and/or believing in a cause, and to hope for a place where we, too, belong to something cooler than ourselves and the bar is always "open" (those damned NY 'blue laws' made every Sunday morning walk of shame a nightmare with no escape until noon--an eternity away) and life made all the more precious and sweet with the knowledge that each tomorrow carries the threat of immanent death, i.e. that final we still need to study for, looming like the shadow of a scythe...

And so with such Icarus wax plugging the holes in their wings, the big existential question for these pilots isn't how or why, but when. And worse, if your little brother is going to show up, or you come home and he's all into the Dead and smoking weed and filled with that inane sense of invulnerability little brothers have where if they see their older brother jumping off a bridge they do it too and wind up dead and mom thinks it's your fault. In a nutshell, that's the DAWN plotline, as Scotty's imbecile little brother shows up as new enlistee, forcing us to feel the horror of being an older brother, watching as the younger imitates all the wrong things about you, never listening to what you say, only wanting the cool you have and figuring following you into the canon maw will win it in one fell swoop.

Ram Dass writes of working with death row inmates and how they would have big breakthroughs when death was looming, turning to the glory of the eternal now like instant enlightenment was in the air for free. But then if, say, the convict got off the short list due to their conversion, and were put back in the general population, they'd get cocky and forget the eternal now, becoming hungry ghosts bartering for smokes once more. Dass would have to start all over.

Having been in the war, Hawks and Hemingway understood this (as did PATROL writer John Monk Saunders, even if he only trained pilots for the first war, and always wanted to fight but was never allowed - so I'm sure he related to Rathbone's sense of hopeless guilt): they knew they had to be cozied up to death to write worth a damn or to suspend fear long enough to do the job, be it flying or driving the ambulance as shells drop all around. Like it or not, having survived the horrors of a bad acid trip, you're now in that same league as Hemingway and Hawks surviving the horrors of war, though in a much more facile, delusional, infantile way. As Errol Flynn's quotes, "man is a savage animal who periodically, to relieve nervous tension, tries to destroy himself." That's as good an analogy for a bad acid trip as I've heard.

But that's where the solace comes in. Knocking back a few with THE DAWN PATROL can be like starving for days as a stowaway in a filthy crate on a boat only to learn you've got a pre-paid royal suite with a fully-stocked bar. You wouldn't appreciate the glory of the bar and golden private bath without first enduring the fear and filth. Icarus needs his wings melted before he can be of any mythic use, before then he's just a daredevil hothead. You just don't get to find that out until your wings burn, and you know Rathbone's not to blame if you never got a chance to practice your roll. Saunders tried to teach you -- but you were just too intoxicated.

1. the last line beyond the fade to black of X-The Man with X-Ray Eyes, "I can still see!!" was so unnerving it was removed, but even so --even removed, we can still hear it! 
2.I did have an old Salvation Army officer's jacket and Wermacht infantry coat which did nothing to keep one warm in Syracuse's miserable biting winters, all so--as my power animal explained to me one lysergic night--that I might dimly remember my past life freezing to death on the Russian front).

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