Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, July 31, 2009

Alice Part 2.2: The Looking Glass Dolls


The once innocent figure of Alice has grown warped by time's funhouse looking glass to become a token of phallic empowerment, coupled (wisely) to amnesia and embodied by the lovely Milla Jovovich in the RESIDENT EVIL series. Yeah, I said it. Regularly waking up in a strange shower and working her way past sterile booby traps down poisoned white Raccoon (City) holes, this Alice's wonderland is a video game version of Hell, it's nonstop threats and very little love, the amnesia she's granted like her only balm. From a mythic standpoint, Milla's Alice trades coy innocence for guns and high kicks. She deals with undead monsters and a corrupt post-apocalyptic government and death not ends it. She is both fully mature and unborn, sexy but essentially genderless, a series of super-conscious pixels mired in the quicksand of shifting animus relations, doomed to spend the rest of her life wrestling with the sticky shreds of her cocoon, a dream from which one awakens only into another level of the same endless first person shooter arcade game.

We can see the reverse of this stagnation in the mama's boy phenomenon, the PSYCHO Norman Bates unable to sever the hydra-like apron strings of a domineering mother. While the girls with bad animus relations may simultaneously revere and fear their fathers, punching like a guy, as it were, the boys simultaneously resent and "represent" their mothers, in wig and apron string cleaver. In order to blast loose the Self from this repressive quagmire of unassimilated archetypal energies, some real force is required. Death--real or symbolic--is often not even a viable solution, especially if you're just one of a million clones.

But the egocide of acid works, baby: you don't have to die, just let go of your gun and submit to an alien frisking, with looove.

'Twas the psychedelic drug explosion of the late 1960s that first caused a drastic and much needed push in this direction. Women were shown a different way forward than just copying or condemning men, or buying into man's narrow view of what constituted ladylike behavior. When the scholars, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers got a hold of LSD, the whole pop culture burst at the seams, as did gender roles one way or the other, adding a revisionist slant towards like-minded artists of the past - the Marx brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Dali, and of course Lewis Carroll's Alice. The "Go Ask Alices" are indicative of this. Girls who would have aged into light blue/gray beehive hairdos and terrible dress sense became instead goddesses of eternal coolness and debauched vengeance, and/or dumped at the emergency room door by a panicky dealer who then sped off.

But even demonizing mind-expanding drugs at least opens up a discourse, just talking about altering one's mind has a tendency to alter it, so it makes sense that in the 21st century it's not even polite to talk about why you don't want to talk about it. It's the pink elephant in the room and once you dare to actually behold it, reality itself begins to loosen and slip away. Pretty soon the elephant is right there, bigger than life, getting more tangible by the second, and within minutes you don't even remember a time it wasn't always there. Reality bends and folds and now you remember the elephant from when you were four years old and it just came home from safari. Sounds messy and costly in the long run and yes, you do get stomped on, but hey... an elephant!

Psychedelic drugs have their own animistic shadow in the "gifts" that help the heroine on her mythic journey. Before acid, the mythic jewels bequeathed on an Alice by her hippy caterpillar animus were mere signifiers. LSD was the white rabbit-shaped booster rocket, a literal bite of 'some kind of mushroom' that made you feel big or small (in that suddenly your vision could micro and macroscope farther than before in both directions). Millions made the journey before the door was locked shut by police and bad karma. Now these opportunities are crippled by media-perpetuated fear, urban legends, and draconian drug laws. When taken they're taken at four AM just so people can stay up longer, and they aren't particular about set and setting. But for a stretch of time 40 years ago or so, for a nominal fee, anyone could buy a round trip into the recesses of their own forests, where boyfriends were revealed to be wolves and woodsmen rolled together, and fathers were revealed to be slack-jawed televisual zombies hung up on a martini lunch Madison Ave trip. Lit up in a brilliant flash, the lines dividing light and shadow, ego and anima, yin and yang vanished leaving only the Unified Self... even if that Self quickly dissolved again back into its polarities, that was OK. You'd seen the light -- you weren't just feeling around in the dark anymore; you 'saw' in that flash of light the contours of the room, and now knew in which direction lay the wall switch.

One of the places this sense of awakening and possibility really flourished was in the short-lived Czech new wave cinema of 1970 which brought such avant garde weirdness as DAISIES (which I despise) and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (which I love). This last is especially fascinating, a truly complex "adult" fairy tale, fragmented through the psycho-sexual looking glass of vampire imagery, straight out of a storybook you remember from childhood that may not have existed in this reality.

A young girl, Valerie, lives in a small Czech town that's being visited by a circus/carnival. While surveying the clowns and jugglers from her window above, Valerie spots a mysterious vampire figure--The "Weasel"--and from then on its a mad masquerade, as he menaces her and vampirizes her grandmother (her mom is--as is usual in fairy tales--absent) and later the Weasel turns out to be Valerie's father, maybe even her son. Meanwhile Valerie's grandmother regresses in age, and there's near-incest galore. Valerie is given a pair of magic earrings that cause her to teleport through time and space.  In one of the most beautiful and bizarre scenes, Valerie is implicated as the devil and fastened to a pole in the center of a bonfire by the roused rabble. Yet she merely smiles down at them in a warm, absolving way, and uses her earrings to vanish at the last possible second. The end finds her walking through what seems to be a post-production picnic orgy, that same enigmatic Mona Lisa smile on Valerie's face, grown now to bewitchingly mythic proportions. At one point she even looks right into the camera and smiles warmly. Anyone, male, female, straight, gay, old, young, is bound to be bewitched by this young actress's preternatural serenity and auburn beauty, causing a vast frisson of potentially impure thoughts mixed with the urge to protect and nurture her already impressive intelligence, just like her friendly 'Eagle' - a mix of familiar and friendly animus. We might flip back and forth from good to evil a dozen times as spectators all in that one moment, but she's already seen it happen with her own Weasel father. She's beyond it all; to paraphrase a metaphor from part one, she's already hugged her werewolf. It may not be quite a prince yet, but for the nonce she's just fine with having a dog.

Then there's LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL, which the always trenchant Michael Atkinson sums up in a Village Voice article:
Richard Blackburn's long-fabled Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (also 1972, obviously a key year) exists in a suffocating, ur-Southern Gothic nightscape all its own. Unashamedly shoestring, Blackburn's dream odyssey through pubertal agony drips with Freudian syrup, but it's also a fervidly physical film—the midnight back alleys of Old South ghost towns are not places you'll be longing to revisit. More so even than Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, this mysterious phantasm plays like a visit to the underworld.....
As is the case with fellow indie cult hits CARNIVAL OF SOULS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (both 1968), the poverty of the locations creates part of the creepy affect, the feeling one is adrift in a flea-bitten midnight zone between intentional Brechtian distancing for a post-modern aesthetic arrest and the cheap carny spookshow thrills of schlock. Like all good Alice tales, LEMORA involves a plucky young heroine, Lila (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith). leaving her kindly but clueless preacher guardian in the middle of the night to seek out the wild dangers of her "real" father, a presumed weasel (i.e. gangster werewolf).

The poverty row emptiness gives LEMORA the eerie two-dimensional frisson of a childhood nightmare. Lila's journey begins when she stows away in the car of a sleazy couple to get to "town," which turns out to be a few cardboard storefronts in a small, darkly lit, empty garage. Rather than making the film laughable, this "unashamedly shoestring" quality adds to the dreamy disconnect. All the extras and actors she encounters are grotesque parodies of sexual adults as seen through the eyes of a child, a drunken pair of brawling lovers, a creepy bus ticket cashier, slobbering leering animals, etc. The more cheapjack and surreal it gets, the creepier, the more uncanny, the more the feeling the entire world is indoors, or underwater, or asleep.

But the "Alice effect" in LEMORA actually comes not from the usual stock of menacing males, but from the coven-like peer pressure of the older women. Lemora herself is a succubus-type who gets Lila eating raw meat and drinking blood and possibly dabbling in lesbianism--and there's an old hag who sings an eerie nursery rhyme while walking slowly in circles around Lila while she's imprisoned in a shed. There wouldn't be another matriarchy this creepy until Neil La Bute's WICKER MAN remake! And here we realize why:  the Bruckheimer bottom dollar feeders of Hollywood have a frat boy's fear of castration so there's no powerful women like these in our modern Hollywood myths --only arm candy and maybe a syrupy old grandma for Peter Parker. And LEMORA has all the things big money boys are still struggling in their inner female's sticky webs to get away from. They'd rather not be reminded, like Jimmy Stewart in VERTIGO, that they're not ever going to escape their Midges.

But the truly sensitive non-hack artistes aren't afraid to fall, Scotto. They say the soul of every old male artist is a young girl, and vice versa (or maybe it's just me who says this), that all the ages and genders ultimately meet halfway in BENJAMIN BUTTON-style criss-crosses, as the psyche is slowly illuminated. And when we grow weak and elderly our soul energy is so vibrant it's barely noticeable. Old interests return, part of the reason why children and old people get along so well (or why I'm finally eating candy every night for dinner like I always dreamed of). The key to discovery of self then is the brave meeting with these inner figures of your past and present, light and shadow; the magnetism between genders and generations is sublimated into art and myth, not repressed, banned or condemned, or acted on in some trite sexual/literal way. That's why drugs like LSD and mushrooms should be regulated and dispensed gingerly, but never suppressed or demonized. With research and proper set and setting, they could change the world overnight for the better. The real dangers to our future, as LEMORA indicates, are the preachers, moralists and hysterics, the ironic distancers and the ego-blinded. The addictive nature of repression is the real dark power at work in our communities, censoring with violence what it can't control (i.e. handing out life sentences to minor first time drug offenders), never admitting to itself that without darkness, light itself becomes dark, to compensate. The outlawed darkness is forced to become light just to go in there and save the day. Balance--not triumph--is key. That's why John Lennon knew he had to invite the defeated Blue Meanie to come hang out at the end of YELLOW SUBMARINE. Alice would have done the same for you. And you'd arrest her just for that?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why don't we Go ASK ALICE?

The reverberating mythic chord struck by Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are the grand signifier for the "girl you'll be a woman / soon"-style myth of sexual awakening and of course, dropping acid. Alice was a catch-all signifier, not just a woman or a girl but any and all cute blond chicks on acid. The "anonymously" published memoir "Go Ask Alice" became a bestseller in 1972, it's "true" story of a runaway who hooks up with angry drug dealers spawned a hit TV movie that my fellow children of the 1970's may dimly remember seeing either in or after school. All I remember is seeing it in 3rd or 4th grade and falling madly in love with the straight blond hair, the denim, the glazed eyes belying an intelligence and unconcern that could topple nations in its disregard for American cornball value systems. It was probably not the intended message of the screening, but I was hooked for life.

The story of the anonymous and supposedly true book--an alleged diary of a runaway girl who gets mixed up with the wrong kind of hippie boys--drew parallels to Carroll's Alice and was itself based on the Jefferson Airplane song from 1967 of the same name, with its memorable catch phrase "Remember / what the doormouse said / feed your head." Has there ever been a healthier moment of zeitgeist than that collective recognition of a universal myth in action?

The motif of a "little girl lost" winding her way--more or less sans parental guidance or protection--through a maze of ambiguous and sinister (usually male) creatures while under the effects of disorienting drugs (or even just the introduction of sex and alcohol) is one that reverberates the foundations of the human psyche, from Red Riding Hood to Clarice Starling to Lindsay Lohan. Alice is the perfect symbol of everything at once kind and cruel in feminine innocence, in a man she stirs a mix of protective urges and wolfish desire, generating enough internal conflict that you may be uncomfortable. The worst is, you sacrifice yourself to protect her, and she forgets your name two minutes later. She has no respect for patriarchal values and hierarchy. She might only wrinkle her nose in bemusement at watching a city fall or a man lose his head ("How curious!") but then the next minute cry over a dead rabbit in the fridge. No adult male can hope to compete with a cute bunny wunny. To a guy like me none of it made sense, but she made being obliterated by a single smile into something way cool. As W.C. Fields once said, "I was in a love with a beautiful blonde once dear, she drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for."

If the "mirror" to the (male) hero's journey into the underworld is the boy-to-man transition of the male psyche (and vice versa), the Alice iconography similarly is both a metaphor for the transition from child to adult and from accepted member of the social order to "outsider" and then back again, hopefully with some souvenir from the other world that will restore some much needed life to the stale society one left behind (i.e. we all seek the holy grail for our wounded fisher kings). But if no one wants to hear that "it's all about love, man! Stop the war, and just love each other" then one is left with a myth half-finished. Or they do like the message but end up commercializing the properties that exist through the looking glass. The Queen of Hearts is held for questioning, the Mad Hatter sent to Bellevue. The masses have been hypnotized by TV to not listen to wild-eyed blond girls when they rave about black holes and peace and universal love. Boys may trudge off to the woods and come back men with swords and gorgon heads in tow, but girls disappear into the void and sometimes--as in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (below)--are never seen again. Best to not encourage them.

The male heroes quest might involve bravado, swords and slaying of monsters, but the girl's journey requires more cunning and quietude. She must ensnare the male figures that wield swords to her will, not wield the sword herself. Thus she must beguile and entrap, the powers that she picks up along the way are often tied into accessorizing: jewelry, bags and shoes, such as the cursed Red Shoes, or the earrings in Valerie and her Week of Wonders (pictured at top). Her powers of allure are then displaced onto these fetish objects. Shoes in particular represent mobility, the phallus harnessed underfoot. She moves past you in a blur and suddenly you're empty. What did she take from your pockets in that split second? How come you are now so empty when all she did was smile wryly at you and continue on her way?

In the myths and folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and analyzed via a Jungian lens by writers such as Robert Bly, Maria Von Franz, and Joseph Campbell, the hero-boy on his long journey will often be met by princesses or maidens and given charms and curses: lockets, purity rings, tie-dyes, fruit, pills, magic armor, STDs, shrooms, money, keys, alcohol, friendship bracelets, sex, etc., that will protect and aid--or curse and bedevil--him on his quest. Seldom do these anima-based female characters proscribe a direct physical threat to our hero, the threat is in side-tracking their mission, an ensnarement from action into dolorous comfort. They reroute his phallic arc and castrate with their hot little dentatas. Odysseus wants to spend his Sunday practicing guitar and Circe coerces him into re-tiling the bathroom or taking her shopping. But the anima is always enigmatic, and in attempting to translate her strange edicts, the male hero will inevitably stumble. The woman's journey is much the same, except she doesn't have to ask "What do men want?" She knows, and if they get what they want, they'll never want it again.

The girl hero actually faces a very different impediment from the shadowy male ego of her unconscious mind, the animus. This creature is violent, overtaking her in dreams like a sex-crazed wolf or a flying bat-like vampire. This incubus (ala PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE ENTITY) cannot be fought or conquered, it must be incorporated, harnessed, employed and/or drugged into a coma and ultimately, forgiven and incorporated into the self. If the girl learns to refrain from fear and react towards the beast with kindness and wary but benevolent affection, she will earn a prince. If she fails to incorporate this force, she can become a masochistic "perennial" victim, ala Deneuve in Repulsion (above), the type who sees predators around every corner and ends up alone, for life, except for her seven cats.

Many girls are actually real life molested, which is horrifying, but of course there are also unresolved animus situations in many an unmolested girl's psyche, too. Girls who resist the terrifying advances of the shadowed animus can wind up in a state of perpetual siege without any actual male yang besieging them. When the white rabbit crosses their trail, these girls adamantly refuse to follow it. To cover their fear and regret, they judge and decry loudly from their Oprah pulpit "Following White Rabbits down holes should be ILLEGAL!" The headlines rage: I was made to eat mushrooms by giant caterpillars," raves hysterical looking glass survivor! But there's no shaming your own inner wolf-man, honey. He will not stop clawing until you finally hug him, and love him even as he spiritually devours your little girl ego and leaves you blazing with crown chakra sunshine you never knew was always there, right below the black enamel of the falcon. You may wind up in the hospital from jumping off the roof thinking you can fly, or in jail for putting the baby in the microwave, but in the end, it beats shopping for another pair of shoes you don't need. When the red queen's off her meds, do you really want to cling to logic and proportion? Go ask Alice if you want a woman's opinion. She'll be a woman soon, and then it won't be her own opinion at all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Hell ish my Natural Habitat" - UNDER THE VOLCANO (Great Acid Movies #88)


 "Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!"

That's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of John Huston's adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-8 pages into) about the last day in the life of a British consul named Geoffrey Firmin in the 30s Mexico. Watching as the Nazis and England vie for political influence, Goeffrey can only drink heroically to metaphorically match the decay of the global politic, shot by shot (and if that runs out he'll find another excuse). After a late night screening (and drinking 'heroically' along) of my old, blurry VHS version, we'd talk for days in Albert Finney's eloquent slur, digging that our mirth was rooted in violently escalating alcoholism, a black humor joke where we too were the punch line. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Neither would Finney, even after Jacquelyn Bisset as Geoffrey's gorgeous ex-wife Yvonne drifts suddenly back into his life. At first he thinks she's a mirage conjured from his wracked longing (like Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP)--appearing as he does while he's contemplating the early dawn and an old woman with a chiggen (incluse me, "chicken") in the all-night cafe's dawn---he figures she's there for contrast, and then shrugs her off. Then he realizes maybe it is her, come back to him, why didn't she write? No, she's just another hallucination, the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint. Now excuse him while he resumes his wide-eyed stare into the abyss. No, he didn't get your letters, Yvonne. He's been busy as you can see.

While Yvonne's been away, brother Hugh has been taking care of Geoffrey, giving him strychnine to taper off with (good grief!) and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates with detached indulgence, but he's also very creepy and laden with suspicious agendas ala Bruce Dern from THE TRIP (if Dern was after Strasberg instead of Fonda). There's no acid in the film (though surely that would be good to "shober up with" as well) but I assure you that being drunk for days on end will get you pretty much to the same psychedelic place (just sloppier) and this movie has the same ability to transcend the life/death dichotomy and point towards the terrifying ambiguity of the real.

Finney's slur is much more decipherable when heard under some sort of influence (I dimly remember), but there's little that can help with Huston's constant visual metaphor as he cuts from El Dia de la Muerte skeletons to Finney's "skull eye socket" sunglasses and white tuxedo. The comparison never quite gels--Finney's too plump--and it seems to drive Huston crazy, but that's the problem--we associate the big dark glasses white linen suit look with drug cartel kingpins and Nazi secret agents, that slot is 'filled' in our iconography. He keeps trying though, and on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD these allusions scream with subtlety. On the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded) the tracking was bad and the image was so blurred that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be always dissolving into wormy, mismatched horizontal lines of Gerhard Richter-style abstraction, which mirrored the souvenir skulls mucho mejor- each a perfect symbol for our drunken viewer souls' unstoppable slow drip deterioration.

The Criterion DVD of course loses that blur, and reveals Huston's sense of period piece over-craftsmanship. Every scene is packed with prettiness now (no matter who's throwing up), an indication that even the great John Huston can make the mistake of assuming that just by filling a drunkalog with (suspiciously well-polished) old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers in tuxedos, the story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." After all --it's 'great literature' adapted from one Great White Drunk by another. The video cover (pictured lower left) hints that Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) is triggering some kind of cold blooded vengeance, rather than just the alleged wound for which booze is the cure. It's not even remotely true, but really the whole film is a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing, which makes sense considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course. Now that boy could take a drink or two!

Still, I'm not complaining, because when things really get properly weird, they go all the way, like the entrance of a dwarf whoremaster (Rene Ruiz). I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST, which gives his obscene gestures a traumatic association with hazy childhood (like if you saw Gilligan making lewd tongue gestures at Ginger in a bad dream). And Finney has a groovy-strange monologue about halfway in: staring off into the abyss as Bisset and Hugh try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help.

"Geoffrey, what possesses you?" Bisset asks.
"Sobriety, I'm afraid," he answers. "I must drink desperately to regain my balance."

Hell yeah! I drank like that all the time! And my friends and I used that line constantly when toasting out ninth and tenth glasses of the hour.

I think in the same scene he also leans back and says, "Hell.... is my natural.... habitat!" A perfect battle cry for those of us for whom booze, drugs, and the inability or unwillingness to stop using them, had led to spiritual, mental, and cul-de-sacs. Perhaps the story cries out for a more poetic or abstract approach, something they might do today with CGI to create ever so slightly shifting hallucinations or, failing that, to cast an actor we perhaps love more than we do Finney, like say Richard Burton, who had to tell us he "was at the end of his rope" in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, but we never really believed it (vs. when he seems like he really is at the end of it, as in EXORCIST II), or the way Dean Martin in RIO BRAVO or Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND --all actors who were real life notorious drinkers so they certainly knew the rough issues they depicted--never really seemed to sink deep into the depths they depicted. Most actors are far too vain for that. No matter how low their character gets, these other actors know we really want to see them still be charismatic stars. They figure we can use our imagination to carry their character the rest of the way --and they're right. We don't want to see them get all bloated and sweaty and wild-eyed -- we see enough of that just looking into the mirror.

With his weird wavy hair and puffy pink froggish face, Finney looks like a drunk--his face pale and pink, blushing and bloated on too many empty booze calories. No one had ever come this close to actually looking like a near-end drunk, getting all the jerky St. Vitus movements and out-of-breath reality-break 'keep it togethergottakeepitogetherkeepitgetherrrr" wits' ended spastic hilarity of real alcoholism. In fact the only other actor of his caliber who ever even came close, who really opened himself up like a can of prickly pears and dumped his guts all over the floor, wouldn't even get the part for another 17 or so years. Of course I mean Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. By then, though, even I had the shakes and now that I'm sober I can't watch either one without an AA Big Book around and a finger on the remote to flip past the grim, terrifying... I AM BLACKSTONE THE PIRATE DO YOU HE--BLACKSTONE!!! ranting. Pay no attention, madame...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Great Acid Movies #4: The TRIP (1967)


Boy meets boy meets pill meets Death!

The first boy in the above bizarre and inaccurate tag line is a disillusioned TV commercial director (Peter Fonda) in the midst of a divorce from a hot girl in a pink coat (Susan Strasberg). The boy he meets, the "guide" played by Bruce Dern in full narc-creepy mode, arranges the meeting with pill, for Fonda's first lysergic play date, bringing him to dealer Dennis Hopper's hippie pad to score ("Let's make it upstairs, man") and then up to Dern's place high in the Hollywood hills, which has been 'proofed' and bedecked with odd gimcracks, and a book ofAllen Ginsberg poetry, so Fonda can drop and safely frolic. But Dern ends up hovering over him, creeping him the fuck out. As Michael Weldon wrote "Would you trust Bruce Dern as a guide?" He turns down Salli Sachse as a partner, preferring to go home with Dern, which is super creepy... and who says "250 micrograms apiece" as if he's an expert and not a narc? No one, man. Not ever. On the other hand, he for some reason has Thorazine lying around in case Fonda has a bad trip and gets all creepy with trust issues and touching and micro-managing like it's baby's first steps and all he can really offer are words cautiously rearranged from "Tomorrow Never Knows." Creeepy. I don't care how long Fonda's maybe known him, Dern smells like a narc super duper --you know he's never used any of these phrases before and he can only thinly mask a kind of conservative contempt (why he was so perfect perhaps in Coming Home), and when he's all trying to get Fonda to put the black mask on I can't help but think of his creepy deepy character coming on to the Barker boy in Bloody Mama.

Fonda then hallucinates a couple making love under a blanket of patterned light, 'dies' symbolically in a Big Sur cave stocked with leftover props from Corman's Poe films (and a costumed dwarf, of course), trips out on an orange ("The energy is dripping all over my hand, man!") while Dern tries to touch fingers with him, and make sure he doesn't jump or drown. Dig man, these early acid eaters were a really square bunch! We never tripped with a guide. Though when I was (briefly) dealing I'd occasionally get called over to somebody who took too much having a super bad time. We didn't have THORAZINE lying around, man. We had to hang in there. I was expert at talking them down WITHOUT resorting to Dern creepiness or tired cliche, which is why I became known as "the doctor."

"Never saw this before... Never saw this before," says Fonda, early on. "Never never saw that before!" Jack Nicholson did the script, and ain't no doubt he did his research! Fonda and Hopper too of course. Only Dern man, only Dern....

Fonda eventually escapes Dern's creepy clutches and the film picks up the pace; his nocturnal wanderings as he makes his way onto the Sunset Strip include breaking into a neighbor's house to watch TV and chill with a young child and freaking out a Barbara Mouris at the laundromat; all while (he imagines?) the cops are after him. Finally he makes it back to Hopper's pad and Salli Sachse (who came onto him earlier at Dern's) rescues him, takes him back to her pad, and he says goodbye to his marriage, in his mind, as tripping often accelerates these things.

Peter Fonda's bug-eyed, spot-on performance as the tripper has some great moments. My pal Lucy's dad, Michael Blodgett (Lance in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) appears during one of Fonda's guilty/jealous hallucinations, in bed with Susan Strasberg. Fonda watches them, horrified but ambivalent at the same time.


In his big LSD peak moment, Fonda hallucinates his way into a plastic fantastic merry-go-round set filled with the carnival props leftover from Corman's films CARNIVAL ROCK and X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (reviewed here); Hopper and the dwarf preside over things and they all watch clips from Fonda's advertising reel so he can realize he's guilty... guilty...of poisoning the well of myth with his bland imagery. "Guilty... guilty," Fonda keeps saying. "Yeah, but don't wallow in it," Hopper chides, "because it's weak and pathetic!"



Susan Strasberg is only around in little bits here and there as the wife Fonda's about to divorce, but she's a maze of kittenish yearning and aching feminine sincerity and she makes you feel guilty and sad that you prefer LSD and painted go-go dancers to her simple charms. Anyone who ever broke a heart will feel Fonda's pangs. LSD really does amp up that feeling of you can't go home again, and you want to reach out to her --you can feel the sexual yearning and pink vibrations of nurturing maternal warmth emanating in waves that turn your leg muscles to jelly.


And then there's all those hot, zonked-out love-vibing chicks, especially Salli Sachse as Glenn, a free-love far-out kitten who loves being around the energy of acid first-timers. She finds Fonda at a topless painted lady go-go bar and when he mentions the police are looking for him she dismisses it, "I don't believe in police!" Hey far out.


 So it's free love central, but it's not free love in some grimy Ratzo Rizzo / Herschell Gordon Lewis way, man. It's free love in a cool pretty Fonda hipster next-stop EASY RIDER way, with serious acting, every one young and gorgeous and a real sense of drugged interconnectivity (except with Dern). If you were tall, young, successful, good-looking and not a scrounging dirtbag, or skeevy guide like Dern is here, then you got laid on the Strip, is the moral. With her iron-blonde hair and groovy white convertible whisking Fonda away to her swanky pad to cap off a perfect evening with some fading light-show sex, Sachse is beyond what most of us dare hope for. As Hopper says of a girl he knows who takes Roybal (STP?) all the time, "can you imagine where that chick's head is at?"

Alas, who wants to begin to crash while forced to endure stock recording kazoo-driven dixieland. Coming from the oddly named "American Music Band," some tracks sound like Corman fished them out of the trash at a high school pep rally, the sort of thing Otto Preminger might put in SKIDOO, the kind of stuff Kevin Spacey might play to torture prisoners in THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. I love Dixieland jazz, don't get me wrong, but not when it's so generic and bouncy-free. My guess is Corman grabbed it from a royalty-free sound library where it was used as the score for Harold Loyd silents that used to be on TV with 'BOinggg!'-style sound effects added.

There's also some  stretches of wordless SEVENTH SEAL-ish footage which Dennis Hopper apparently shot on weekends out at Big Sur. Lots of Fonda walking a girl with a painted face on a horse along the coastline, leading to his ceremonial viking funeral and some wandering through old Poe sets, taking some potion from the ubiquitous Angelo Rossitto, all leading to a panic moment realizing he doesn't want to die, man (the big karmic rebirth/baptism of accepting your own inevitable death, etc.) which would work if the music was interesting, like Pink Floyd or "Dark Star" or something... but the stuff being played... I mean it's 'psychedelic' but there's a thick, wavy line between a band that takes the ingredients and makes something truly awesome like Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" and dated garage primitivism like American Music Band's 'trippy' SF sound (i.e. their tepid guitar and organ rendition of "Que sera sera" which sounds like someone left a Ventures album on the wrong speed under water, not in a good way, and/or the schmaltzy calliope library cues at the merry-go-round.

Of course 1967 was a strange year for music, it went in with kazoos and post-electric Dylan country blues progressions, and went out with Sgt. Pepper and Hendrix. My guess, Hendrix wasn't around yet, or THE TRIP soundtrack might be really different. (Just compare the music used in EASY RIDER the following year, man oh man music makes a lot of difference in these things.)

But the peak moment for me, in ALL FILM, is when the spooked Fonda hides in an all-night automated laundry and starts opening all the washing machines, as if he feels they need to breathe. Barbara Mouris, in curlers, the only one there on this weekend night, is reading a magazine and waiting for her load to finish. She's wary and alarmed at his odd behavior towards the machine, especially when, once he notices her watching him he starts nonchalantly closing the lids in fear, like he's trying to hide the secrets inside from her prying eyes. Brilliant! They start talking ("Let's, you know," he says, "really try and connect") but then Fonda sees a prettier girl trapped in her dryer and tries to free her, pulling out all tho clothes. It's a lame ending--no one hallucinates spinning centerfolds, they just see what's already there, amplified into paranoia. God knows how great it could be with CGI... the whirling motion of her whites conjuring a trapped, screaming ghost woman... Instead it's just cheeky and the scene ends in shame, on the run again! Still the damage has been done and a classic trip moment for all time is born. It's the kind of stuff only the truly tripped would know.

It's telling that Bruce Dern never actually took acid before or after this film, and in the talking head interviews that accompany THE TRIP on DVD he alone, of the entire cast and Corman, seems really out of it, kind of unfocused and cranky, as he badmouths psychedelics. One day, not far from now, cooler heads in medicine will discover just how important a good acid trip or twenty is for preventing Alzheimers and countless other maladies and problems but back then it was considered a big risk and Dern bowed out because he was marathon runner. Hah! Like it's going to weaken him! But considering the futility of living for longevity as opposed to the brief sprint to the flaming finish line of lysergic glory, especially in the show business, I would say he should have gone for it. Those who did are still going strong--coherence wise--all the other talking heads are still sharp as tacks and he's, quite frankly, a mess (at least in the documentary).

See, what the anti-drug ads don't tell you is that contempt prior to investigation is easy (with eyes closed). It takes guts to say yes and open up to the unknown, despite all your friends and relatives urging you not to. In the end no artist should abandon the pursuit of knowledge, the discovery of the depths of self, the furthering of craft, in favor of mere longevity and health. Anything is worth any risk. And if you believe that old lie about it mutating your genes, then you probably will die from chemo malnutrition because you're afraid to smoke weed, and also you're reading the wrong blog. Straight Edge dullards be that-a-way-baby. Those folk get the real Peter's head freeze frame fake lens crack!! Us? Let's make it upstairs, man. Just don't bring creepy 'worst guide ever' super creepy Dern (even if he does have a groovy indoor/outdoor balcony pool), and don't call me later if the walls bleed on you again. In the words of Fonda, "my body's gone, man." Wait until Dern's getting the apple juice, then split. Sachse awaits! Sachse away....

See also my 2003 Popmatters review of the double feature with Psych-Out

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT


This 1968 AIP classic has awesome documentary footage of the Haight-Asbury scene while it was at its zenith, framed through the shocked gaze of squares rubbernecking in tour buses like they're driving through an African safari preserve. As for the characters on the street and in the coffee houses, they're pretty damn authentic, at least as (sometimes) written and clothed and (sometimes) acted, if my own memories of playing in psychedelic rock band are correct, which is doubtful. Though we jammed in the late 80s, we played this kind of stuff, and worshipped the films and music of the Hashbury scene like it was our own bountiful bonkers Bethlehem (i.e. we were Deadheads). For me, more than anyone else in 'my tribe,' this movie captured our tribe's dynamics to a perfect tee, to the point it was almost scary.

There's the Dean Stockwell (top) pseudo-shaman, "beyond" being a good musician (that was totally me), carrying STP-laced fruit punch around like its just another drink and arguing with the band's smarmy lead singer-guitarist, Stony (Jack Nicholson --that's so totally Dave, right down to the smarmy grin), while simultaneously play-stealing his girl, Susan Strasberg (that was totally Beth); and her and I becoming partners in crime, talking about how annoying Dave could be while rummaging his drawers in search of secret stashes. Hippy Jeff the sculptor who lived in our attic is here played by Bruce Dern; Max by Adam Roarke. I could go down matching the cast but you probably would just skip over it. (Or go here), but! Ask yourself why the similarity, only one reason: acid makes you tarot-myth tribal! It assigns you a role in your group - the clown, the king, the shaman/wizard, princess, Morganna, Lancelot, Gawain... it's all there waiting to play out amongst your friends! It's in your DNA... the man, the phony establishment can't burn that out of you. They try, but not even you can reach those alchemical depths without a little boost from our machine elf friends behind the curtain, so trip them well!

Point is: PSYCH-OUT strikes a rare and right note of genuine people engaging in cautious lysergic idealism, like HAIR: the psychedelic love bead and budding branch pull focus magic of Lazlo Kovacs making deaf mute tourist Susan Strasberg into a love child overnight, and we're contact high and beside her all the way.

But then the film also shows the dirty morning after, when one tin soldier rides away without doing his share of the dishes, and instead of trying to pick the lice off himself, just names them ("that's Manny.")


The sad part is: once post-Vietnam disillusionment got rid of patriotism, countercultural "freedom" became the ad hoc refuge of a scoundrel, and then the C.H.U.Ds came west to the Haight like locusts: all the scabby uneducated midwestern meth addicts started stealing people's shit, grabbing girls and dragging them into alleys and yelling "gimme some a dat free love I done reeded about!"--and then you may as well move to Los Angeles. The dream is over.

At the end, when Stockwell is dying he says "I hope this next trip is a good one!" It was, man it was WOODSTOCK! And it wasn't man, it was GIMME SHELTER, and yet we rode on, man. We rode... on to EASY RIDER and up into the sky with the Byrds... to wait until the times started a-changing back. Now take him away for re-grooving!


Lastly, the film is essential for truly nailing the psychedelic experience, which can be beautiful and creativity-fueling one day, and a skin-crawling nightmare the next. And that's just one of PSYCH-OUT's keen observances. It's very rare and precious to have such an even-keeled look at the psychedelic age i.e. neither as blissful as Woodstock could be or as negative as Altamont wind up but constantly bouncing back and forth between those two points. To me it sums itself up perfectly: the scene when a STP-addled Warren is found "freaking out in the gallery" and hallucinates all his friends are undead Vietnam vets. They advance towards him, trying to get him to cool it and put down the power saw. And it's not long before he's trying to cut off his own hand--because for the first time, maybe ever, he sees it as it truly is: a decaying, half-blown away skeleton.



It's funny because it's terrifying. It's terrifying because it's true.

Bruce Dern as the Seeker, i.e. the first person (since the great Saul Femm) to
realize flames are actually cold, like knives.

In short, this film is the shit - a personal favorite. Alas, the MGM DVD seems to missing a reel, though maybe I was, you know, out of it, and just remember a reel that's not there. I would love to do a 'head's cut' one day and fix up some of the hallucinations, to add a giant close-up of that burning tin of Susan Strasberg's stuff as a child, which her evil mom threw in the furnace --and which led to her psychological deafness -- a condition which it's also implied is cured by her STP-fueled breakthrough, that she can now hear again after this mind-shredding return to the ground zero of her individuating trauma. Or to have her look in the mirror and see her face melting to reveal her taunting evil mother, that kind of shit - would have been awesome. But what we got, it's still pretty fucking great.

And no squares anywhere in the film, man, at least not outside the bus.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MADE IN USA: Someone left a Maoist in the Rain


"We were in a political movie, which means Walt Disney with blood."

It's exciting times for Godard lovers as two of his 1966 films: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in the USA make their way to the few remaining stores next week. Set in "Year Zero" at some Alphaville-esque locale called "Atlantic City," (apparently Suburban France), Made in USA is a great little road marker connecting the dots of Godard's earlier and later pop cinematic narrative deconstructions like Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and First Name: Carmen (1983), the stuff before and after his anti-entertainment unionist phase, providing surrealist wordplay, collage, satire, intellectual critique of the right/left dichotomy, a eulogy for countercultural idealism almost before it starts (May '68 was still a couple years off), and a last waltz for his crumbling marriage to the leading lady, the heavenly Anna Karina (she looks weary, as if she's been screaming at him between takes).

If you've ever basked in the primary pop glow of Pierrot Le Fou and wished Godard had made a whole slew of movies in widescreen color with Karina, guns and anti-American sloganeering, then Made in USA is your film. It delivers the goods while showing you just how much less good such goods are a second time. Made just one year after Fou, it seems as if it's the end of a twenty year run of sequels. Karina's femme fatale is still beautiful but less fresh, less gaminesque. There's no trickster male of Jean Paul Belmondo's manly charisma to balance her star wattage and sex appeal (Jean Pierre-Leaud tries hard to be manic, and maybe that's the problem) and so she has only the mirror to work with. In this noirscape of bright primary colors Paula Nelson (Karina) is all alone with a sea of bit players, trying to find the one guy she liked from earlier films, a raving commie intellectual believed dead, named Richard P. Though hard to find, we get to hear him ranting away in the form of shrill tape recordings (of Godard reading Maoist obtuse ideology with the terseness of Milenay and pomp of Renfraux).

Paula is a possible spy for either side of the left/right divide but her true motives for wanting to find Richard P. remain unclear; we assume he's an on-again/off-again boyfriend and/or symbol for Godard's own lost idealism, a Maoist Rosebud. As she hunts this invisible, presumed murdered Communist through Raoul Coutard's impressionistic landscape (at one point Karina name checks Monet while standing in the foreground of a backyard full of beautiful trees out of focus behind her -- was Impressionism a symptom of weak eyesight?) we get the notion that this is just one of those films that masters make when they're off their A game, like Dial M for Murder or Testament of Orpheus.

I don't mean to disrespect it, because many a master's B game is still fascinating and worship-worthy, maybe even more so than their A game (I like Made in USA much more than the dreary industrial landscaping of 2 or 3 Things, which most critics consider superior and I'm sure they're right) so long as they include deconstructions of B game into the B-film construct itself, as in riding right along with audience expectations and observations, tweaking or thwarting them at every turn (without turning them off) and yet delivering what is promised in such a way that our own desire for it is called into question. Ideally with a pretty face to watch when nothing else happens, rather than the grimly pocked reptilian mug of Lemmy Caution.


What Godard is chronicling here, then, perhaps, maybe, probably not, is the evolution of noir convention from The Big Sleep to Easy Rider. The exact second you realize that the hot blond waif sitting in the background at the bar looks a bit like a really young Marianne Faithful (above), she suddenly starts singing "As Tears Go By" - not lip syncing, but singing right there, a capella, trilling her voice gently and feeling every word of the song, expressing some longing we have no idea about but the mood of wistful sadness overwhelms the film in a mod love tsunami, before it's even begun, only to resume its dry sand babbling even before she finishes the song. Compared to this bit of subdued emotionalism from a rising starlet of British rock royalty, the ensuing G. Marxist wordplay between Leaud and the bartender suddenly seems tired, yesterday's model. There's a new sincerity in town and it's cool to have feelings, or at any rate it's cool if you're Marianne Faithfull, the type of girl men fought dragons for, as Alan Delon once said. Karina, on the other hand, is trying on the outfit of a bitchy too-cool-for-pop modernism diva (the host instead of the contestant on Europe's Next Top Model) for size. She's not about to pick up a flower and take off her shoes just because the other kids are doing it. So instead she just freezes from the knees down and looks at the floral arrangements like a penniless, starving lotus eater.

No wonder in the next scene Karina visits a health spa beauty parlor, where-- fittingly--any possibility for tranquility amidst the clients is destroyed by shrill announcements over a crackly PA system. When she tells the resident doctor Ludwig during her interrogation to stop "dicking around," you feel through her weary rage that she's indirectly talking to Godard, wishing he'd just write a script and stick to it so she could go home on time and put her feet up. She must have been full sick of his 'dicking around' by then, of waiting around on a hot set for his little direction notes, film after film. It shows. Only when she gets to be mean does she light up with the synthesis of truth and illusion.

The counterculture was beginning to catch fire in 1966, and Faithfull still looks like she was recently conjured out of a magic cloud of smoke, or pulled out of a junior high school gym class before she bruised her complexion in dodgeball, but Godard and Karina were already burning out on decadence and freedom. Even if that's not true, it shows. This isn't complaint, just observation, since Godard naturally ties in this weariness to the film itself, the way for example, Tippi Hedren's bitchiness about working with an obsessive like Hitchcock two films in a row may have led to the audience-alienating (but great!) outbursts of castrating rage in MARNIE.

What saves MADE from being just a misfire, in the end, is the way Godard accommodates his ingenue's hostility by linking it to the shocking effect of watching people get casually and suddenly shot--or seduced--without all the usual booming orchestral music of Hollywood that gives each romance or death such magnified resonance. MADE teaches us that in real life people don't have to brandish their gun and make speeches before firing- it can be so random and sudden that you never know what hit you. During a philosophical discussion with a suspect, for example, she asks, "Would you prefer a long slow old age death or a short exciting death in the moment?" and when he answers the latter, she shoots him on the spot. No fanfare, no warning. Crack!

In addition to the violence, there's some welcome cultural intolerance: When Paula meets a guy who does an impersonation of a typical American--a lobotomized hick Jerry Lewis--Karina ups the ante by making slanty eyes to indicate it's "all Chinese to her." In addition to that kind of thing, the usual disruptions appear: random silences, the roar of passing planes or honking cars, and many stabs of Ludwig Van's 5th, making full grasp of the plot impossible, though oblique interview sequences help, as do peculiar conversations overhead in front of comic book splashes, movie stills and mentions of streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht, and of course a pinball machine, though every bell and ping seems to hurt Karina's hangover. Mine too.

More than most of the films that would follow in Godard's cannon, MADE actually struggles to maintain just enough plot to flirt with your attention span, luring you close enough to the amniotic wall between alienation and narrative immersion that you feel like your whole movie-going life is flashing before your eyes, as in the slim gap between watching a film and reading its back cover synopsis at the video store. Godard's idea of a mystery film is to have a character read Dashiell Hammett aloud in front of a gas station, but for MADE, though the characters may read a bit, they at least still shoot each other.

The shooting is key, since it fits the anti-American ruthless amorality on display (i.e. our production code wherein femme fatales must never go unpunished). Paula is a lethal combination of unpunished femme fatale and Chandleresque gumshoe. Her blase attitude towards being arrested and/or murdering people in cold blood is charming and alienating at the same time. Dario Argento could have diced her into three separate characters, but Godard is too political to divide a fractured psyche for the purpose of mere suspense; even the climactic showdowns are filtered through rhetoric and suffused with ennui, as when Paula--almost apologetic for the film's inertness--remarks:
We live in a part of the universe that's already old, nothing much happens, while elsewhere new galaxies are exploding into action.
A fatal mistake of many lesser filmmakers is the idea that mid-career crises make good cinema. You just tie a film up with past tricks and successful ideas like a greatest hits collection, knowing deep deep down it wont work on either front, unless you keep the energy high (as in Scorsese's Casino, which moves too fast and vicious to let you realize it's got nothing to say). Godard is too frenetic and hip to let the acres of sadness between Karina and himself sink the movie's energy level, so he focuses his rage on Madison Avenue, which has dared to co-opt Brechtian "full disclosure" (recuperation!) and metatextual self-mockery. Godard wants Brechtian cut-up techniques to be sole domain of the French Communist Party, but Madison Avenue wants to use Godard's methods so they can appear to enjoy his intellectual self-loathing. For example, if Godard says "Down with Kelloggs!" then Kelloggs' says "Godard says 'down with delicious Kelloggs!'" to which Godard can only get redder in face and party, trying to end the game by saying "Down with advertising that co-opts the tactics of Debord and detournement, to infinity squared!"


To a Brechtian post-modernist who loves quotations as much as Godard does, this is the ultimate defeat: you can't critique a power system that incorporates its own critique--Todd McGowan wrote about this in his Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment:
The insight into the functioning of power... has the effect of cementing power's hold over us rather than relaxing it. It does this by cutting off all lines of critique prior to their articulation. (54)
In the end, none of it matters, because we have Anna Karina. Young and gorgeous, she's preserved for all time in vibrant, colorful dresses against the same color scheme of Pierrot Le Fou, which is probably the movie to see first if you're new to the game. After Made in the USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (shot at the same time, with Godard originally wanting to show them in alternating reels), Godard would begin his descent into nihilistic ranting (Weekend) and post-modern trust fund Marxist pedagogy (La Chinoise, Tout Va Bien). Still witty, but sullen and sanctimonious as well, enraged that his rage hasn't made a discernible difference. His became for awhile a fate that I've watched subsume many a Cultural Studies professor who gets mad at contemporary culture for ignoring his madness, the way a control freak gardener might get mad at a reticent flower.

Luckily, old Godard got his Baudrillard-esque groove back as a mid-life crisis 80s reward, finding a vein of poetry deep under absurdity's skin and he's been popping it ever since. And even now, 40 years later, Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull are paragons of cool, still appearing regularly on TV and in movies, acting and singing with their beautifully smoke-ravaged voices and faces. In an era when our own president is harassed by the media for occasionally having a cigarette, these two ladies are reminders that you can all just take a fucking walk / and I guess that I just don't know / and I guess that you've come a long way... baby.

Friday, July 10, 2009

So close to Heaven: MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952)

Spider women, Poverty Row little person mainstay Angelo Rossitto, Ed Wood regular Dolores Fuller, Jackie 'Uncle Fester' Coogan: add them together with random disregard for audience sanity and whadda you got? The Mesa of Lost Women! A film by the amazing Ron and Mrs. Ormond, whose tentacles, the Astounding B-Monster notes: "tap into everything from 'adult' sex-dramas, like Please Don't Touch Me, to a string of Lash LaRue westerns released by PRC in the late forties," I've seen Mesa millions of times and don't remember a single thing about it, except that it rocks, like the flat-topped tower of stone from which it gets its name. I forget the writer, but someone wrote of the Rolling Stones' 1972 album, Exile on Main Street: "It kicks ass though it can barely stand." Mesa of the Lost Women is like that: it can't walk, though it has eight legs; it's got no bite, yet oozes tasty venom. It's up there with the greats. I could--and have--watched it over and over (on a 6-hour VHS tape I made that ran as follows: Brain that Wouldn't Die, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Spider Baby, Mesa of Lost Women, Robot Monster - and I edited the kid and his dream out of Robot Monster out so it just goes from Ro-Man's leader destroying the earth to a big 'The End.' - Boom and then the tape ends, rewind - hit it again, laddie, and open another bottle of bourbon.

The Image DVD I have is apparently sourced from the film's only surviving print, one laden with aesthetically pleasing emulsion damage, jarring scotch tape splices, jumps and scratches at a level of near-Brakhage abstraction. Am I giving too much credit to a film with a score consisting of the same few seconds of Spanish guitar and dissonant piano mashes looped over and over? Senior, could the Ormonds not even try to find some royalty-free library music ala say Night of the Living Dead? 

No. And fuck you for even asking.

You see, amigo... there's a frisson in its repetitions. It's artsy enough make even John Cage cry "ça suffit!" The "music" is in fact so pervasive, so repetitive, and so grating, it got the attention of Ed Wood, who revived it for his opus Jail Bait (1954).

It's just  one example of how we needn't ask if Mesa is bad-brilliant or just bad. Mesa of Lost Women needs no justification! Idiote!
C'est un chef-d'œuvre parfumé del maldorous!

So the story... a dehydrated couple found wandering in the scorching El Muerte desert while the piano mashes and flamenco stings accrue. A "we don't need no stinkin' badges"-style Mexican stereotype brings them into police headquarters where they relate a tragic saga that begins, oddly enough, with the arrival of someone they hadn't even met yet, a Dr. Leland (Hammon Stevens) at the mesa of the mysterious Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan). Now right there you're in heaven--not just because Coogan was in The Addams Family--because he was the "H" dealer in High School Confidential. And there's something familiar too about the omnipresent narration. Yesh, it's Lyle Talbot, the nervous gangster in all those WB 30s films, gone to rust but still able to deliver when it comes to narration.

Years or days later, Dr. Leland escapes the Mexican insane asylum he's been residing at, somehow and gets a very clean drink at a local cantina where a spider woman named Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) does the "Tarantella" for agog patrons. Leland shoots her, however, interrupting what was already the best part of the film and leaving the audience onscreen aghast --though no one makes a move to help her, and she dies lonely and forlorn while actors stand around and the director presumably sways drunkenly in a corner, trying to remember if it's a rehearsal or they're really shooting. It doesn't matter, either way, as long as someone's shooting someone or something...

We still don't know why it is Leland hostile to black-haired beauties with gigantic finger nails. Was he mad that the film, for a few brief minutes, was actually genuinely fascinating, thanks to Aranya's undulations? Michael Weldon calls him "a lobotomized scientist doing a weird Elmer Fudd impersonation." It's not really a Fudd impersonation, but having read and re-read the review many times as a kid before actually seeing the film, it's tough to think of Leland any other way.

Fudd/Leland also becomes the dispassionate existential core of the film, enunciating his words in such a bizarre way the dancing dwarf in Twin Peaks would probably take one look at him and shrug like a Parisian waiter endeavoring to understand your half-assed attempt at ordering cuisses de grenouilles. One mis-accentuated Leland quote which always pops into my head at odd moments: "Now we will all fly!" This being of course when he hijacks Allan Nixon's plane, which comes replete with bored millionaire, trophy wife, stoic Asian houseboy, and sanitarium worker George (George Barrows), who runs around making sure no one tries to take the gun from "dangerous maniac" even though they have plenty of easy opportunities.

While in the air, Leland's eerily vacant grin never waivers as he looks at the clouds and notes "So beautiful... so close to heav... en." Once crash landed on the mesa, the gang all have a stiff drink (which when you're drinking alone while watching at five AM is a great cheery moment), then they wait around by the fire, exploring strange screams in the darkness, going out to investigate one at a time, so they can get killed off by mismatched cutaway shots of leering little people, a giant leaping tarantula, and blank-eyed beauties culled from the dustiest of Burbank casting offices. Every time someone else dies the survivors return to the fire and drink some more. Each time it is a great cheery moment to drink along with.  The dwindling survivors wish they had some food, and Leland seems to think he's still at the hospital with a tray of dinner due to arrive any time soon: "George will bring it," Leland says with existential weariness. "He always does."



One of the finger-nailed beauties on the mesa is allegedly Ed Wood girl Dolores Fuller though I can never find her, and I've seen this film at least a hundred times. George Barrows is played by the same heroic guy who trudged all over Bronson canyon in a weighty gorilla suit and diving helmet for Robot Monster, made the same year and next on my old tape! Lyle Talbot is even on hand as the doctor who tends the surviving couple and narrates. I mentioned that already? Thing imdrunkdoyageorge? Mesa is the best movie never made: See it at least four times in one evening for proper effect.

See also my NIGHT OF THE GHOULS piece on Bright Lights
and the Cinema Styles Ed Wood roster here
Post Script 3/11/16 - Just discovered Doug Bonner's great piece, w/ full movie streaming here)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

"The Half-Lit Night of the Insane" DEMENTIA: DAUGHTER OF HORROR


It's not by Ed Wood, but John Parker's 1955 surrealist grade Z nightmare, DEMENTIA (AKA DAUGHTER OF HORROR), is full of poverty row trimmings, with Wood's same weird love for all the seedier elements of late 1950s Hollywood. In fact if Ed was a closeted lesbian schizophrenic beatnik prostitute, this would be his GLEN OR GLENDA (presuming too the whole film was that weird devil dream sequence). If Roman Polanski was a crackhead and making REPULSION for the Finlays in a dingy basement with a young Mercedes McCambridge instead of Catherine Deneuve, well... it's better.

John Parker's only film. His parents owned a few theaters in Oregon, and mom gave him most of the money (I'm sure she was thrilled by the result). If it had made it to Cannes or Greenwich Village, who knows? It might have been a hit. It surely sent linear-narrative-expecting 1955 audiences on some into fits of yawning and/or disgruntled popcorn hurling. Clearly made by someone for whom the grotesque poverty row-style fantasma on display is genuinely "their cup of tea" and not just what jaded producers think will sell drive-in tickets, it has that same outsider art glean only genuine eccentricity can deliver.

The lack of dialogue might be a reason it seems to move backwards and slow time to a crawl. Not a word is spoken as we follow a woman known only as 'The Gamin' (Adrienne Barrett) on her midnight switchblade-strapped sojourn through a desolate urban landscape... to do what? Turn tricks? Seek kicks? Cop a fix? Along her route she encounters: a drunk being beaten to a pulp by a sadistic cop; a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who sells her a paper (as Rossitto did in real life--he was a Hollywood Boulevard fixture); a masked figure leads who her to where her dead parents are boozing it up in a graveyard; and in between she is led around to various seedy bars by a rich fat guy with a cigar (Bruno Ve Sota).

The original version was stopped in its tracks via two years of censor battles and was barely released. Later it was picked up by Exploitation Pictures and given a voice-over and a new name, DAUGHTER OF HORROR. Purists rant, but the narrated version is plenty awesome, with heavy breathing lines (supposedly by Ed McMahon) like: "Come with me to the haunted, half-lit night of the insane... for this is a place where there is no love, or hope and the pulsing, throbbing world of the insane mind, where only nightmares are real... nightmares of the daughter of horror!" Hey, he's only saying what we're all thinking.

If it is Ed McMahon, it sounds nothing like him (to my ear) but who cares? Whomever he is, he enunciates every word as if he's getting off on his first hit of reefer and trying not to exhale while he's having his toes cut off. It's with the narrated version that the artsy backwards momentum ennui halts and the true Ed Woodiness comes roaring out. Dig this Criswell-esque number (I had to write it down): "Yes! I am here.. the demon who possesses your soul. Wait a bit... I'm coming for you. I have so much to show you, so much that you are afraid to see." You keep wanting him to add: "He eats little boys!" Each word is emphasized and elongated like the film itself, struggling to stretch a short film into a feature length and only getting as far as around 57 minutes before wheezing to a halt.

Anyway, it's perfect for an all-night horror film fest, such as the one visited by the unwitting denizens of Anytown USA in the BLOB in 1958, where it shows up onscreen (replete with narration) while the kids make out oblivious to the genius before them.

Connecting the film with Roger Corman is the presence of his stock heavy Bruno ve Sota luring our gamin up to his penthouse, where a bartender has been waiting. The Gamin looks at Ve Sota, quizzically. What is she expecting? Certainly not for him to jump on the piano and start banging out some classical jazz. He's certainly not expecting her to, heheh throb her insane mind... but wait, I mustn't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the usual "innocent girl down the rabbit hole" stuff (males leering and groping, getting drunk and slapping taunting bitches in furs, etc.) is countermanded by the gamin's own sadism. When a cop ruthlessly beats that drunk who was harassing her, she just stands there and laughs! How refreshing, to say the least. She'd be right at home running with the Grande boys in TOUCH OF EVIL.

The score is great too: George Antheil's weird orchestral booziness and the wordless eerie whooping of a theremin welded to Marni Nixon's soaring vocals. When our lesbian gamin outlaw hides out from the cops in a dingy basement jazz club, she ends up literally throwing on a cocktail dress and singing with gone-daddy jazz combo Shorty Rogers and His Giants, until her paranoia gets too deep. It's pure Ed Woodsy heaven to watch her open her mouth and then quickly close it while on stage, trying to lip sync to Marni Nixon's wordless and missing the cues, somehow her amateur actress shrugging it off to keep bopping around, maybe blushing just a tad, only makes the whole thing that much weirder. I mean, singers feeling out improvisations do that all the time, so why not the Gamin? And it helps soften her butch beatnik thug vibe just a smidgeon. She's still plenty creepy though, which helps. Meanwhile sleazy dudes grope drunken party girls and lonely old guys with five o clock shadow drink up and look sad and repulsive for the camera. Shorty Rogers and his Giants take up half the basement-- I mean dig, man, it's a real basement; the drummer bugs his eyes and makes goofy faces; the cops shove a dead man's head through the basement window bars, so he can dig the sounds. Everybody's happy and a creepy classic is born... or is it? Do you fear the demon with... the daughter of horror?

And the best part is, you can see it in its entirety, for free, on the web right now: Just click here Or are you afraid.... hmmm? Don't worry. John Parker is here... And he has so much to show you!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Patron Saint of UHF

(Part of the Ed Wood Blogathon). Like many of the older Ed Wood fans out there, I first came to him via those weird circular UHF antennae that existed long before cable and VHS. Back then you had to tune in the UHF channels -- local channels that showed the news, the local TV shows, and lots and lots of great old black and white horror movies -- like you would a radio station. Sometimes the picture was bad, sometimes it was worse, and standing there twisting tin foil around to connect the antennae to the your leg for example, was not uncommon, especially during bad weather.

Many of the horror films they showed regularly were really boring, especially if you were too young to understand 90% of the plot. Many directors for poverty row were drunks and lazy asses, like William "One Shot" Beaudine, so most of the time they just had a newspaper reporter smirking while they tried to keep him in focus. If you were lucky, maybe there'd be a gorilla suit or a guy in a mask towards the end. There was a film they always showed called The Invisible Ghost. The trick title's no lie: ain't no ghost, just Bela waiting until people fall asleep and then killing them by waving his coat over their heads. It's torturous to see that sort of thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon when you should be out playing. Before you learn there's no ghost you have long commercial breaks to wait through and you hold on thinking a monster's got to show up eventually, but one never does... and then dad comes home and flips it to golf.

Ed Wood wasn't like that. He was the bright shining light amidst all that sadness, the patron saint of UHF, cramming enough monsters in every film to rocket any five year-old straight into monster heaven. That was the 1970's, though... and once Wood made it to digital, and we grew up, then what?

In the forgiving fuzziness of bad receptions, the strings holding the UFOs in Plan Nine are invisible; you can't see the folds in the black cloth that constitutes the graveyard turf. In the clarity of DVD, however, Wood's threadbare aesthetic enters a whole new realm of sadness, beyond the bleak heartache of The Invisble Ghost and into some shit so Brechtian even Brecht would cry to see it. When you can see every brush stroke on the painted rocks walling Lugosi's laboratory in Bride of the Monster, then you have seen too much, not unlike the witnesses at the real-life Plan Nine of Roswell 1947. It's the bad movie lover equivalent of going into a black hole.

It didn't matter that it looked fake. When you're a kid in the 1970s, and CGI is still a few decades off, you don't care that things aren't realistic, you don't even know what real is, unless you mean the bugs you're looking for in the dirt under the porch. If you can have hours of fun with a few army men and a rubber alligator in your backyard, you don't care if the saucers on TV are hubcaps. What you care about is that you have Dracula, zombies, a hot chick vampire AND flying saucers and aliens all in one movie. With Bela and Tor Johnson together, for example, you didn't even need a giant octopus, that's why Ed Wood was so awesome -- you got one anyway. PRC and Monogram sure as hell weren't about to sneak into some other studio's prop department and steal an octopus, not when they felt they could get away with Lugosi and an overcoat.

Like all the other horror films in UHF rotation, Plan Nine and Bride of the Monster were shown usually on early weekend mornings, while you were still supposed to be in bed. Nothing was better than getting up before everyone else on a 70's Saturday morning and finding Plan Nine from Outer Space waiting for you, hours before the cartoons began. With the combined fuzziness of the picture and your still half-asleep mind, it was literally a weird kid's dream come true.

In fourth grade, I remember running home to get a baseball glove on a sunny, lovely fall afternoon and noticing BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was on. One look at those crazy tentacles and suddenly I had to stop and stay, ignoring my friend's angry calls and the pull of the sunshine. In that key moment, the dark path towards this blog was begun. When I saw Nightmare of Ecstasy on the shelves randomly at a bookstore in New Hope, PA, around 1991, I thought I had died and gone to sweet velvet curtained hell. No one was really celebrating him much at the time. Tim Burton must have felt the same way, because that book became the basis for the movie. I remember clenching my flask on a dim routine Saturday matinee of Ed Wood, and when the crowd cheered as Bela tossed the bottle and jumped boldly atop the lifeless rubber octopus, the whole audience broke into applause. I cried. My basement hero had made it to the top of the tower. Say what you will about his later years penchant for alcoholism and pornography, Ed Wood was a king among men, his strange stories real and true. He stuck to his weird guns and now he's immortal. And don't even doubt that he's an American hero. Landing at D-Day is one thing, but doing it in ladies underwear, now that's guts! Sometimes guts is enough. And liquor.

(Read my Christmas 2008 celebration of Plan Nine here)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...