Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Praise of Dangerous Men: George C. Scott as PATTON (1970)

"The very idea of losing is hateful to Americans."
- Patton (1970)

Now that Kathryn Bigelow has made it safe for us to recklessly court macho annihilation again, let's examine one of the more respected and controversial military leaders of our time-- General George Patton, and the 1970 film that bears his name, starring George C. Scott, which I recently had the pleasure of acquiring on an excellent blu-ray disc, and which is highly recommended to fans of THE HURT LOCKER (2009), THE DEER HUNTER (1977) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and anyone whose ever had a heart, who wouldn't turn around and expose its flank to daily howitzer bombardments... or who is interested in this new Tom Hanks-produced mini-series, THE PACIFIC (though Patton wasn't in the Pacific, it's still the same God-damned wonderful war!)

From the famous opening (quoted above) -- Patton's clinically insane and perhaps wrong but nonetheless inspiring opening speech in front of a giant American flag -- onwards, we know we're in for some heavy stuff, as Scott has no plans to pull punches, glorify the American dream or lament the unfairness of war. Indeed, as the esteemed general of the magnificent Third Army, Scott's ranting makes you realize, as a man, that part of cowardice involves forgetting there's no real reward to being alive in the first place, as a coward.  Unless you risk it all, it's all wasted.

It makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script, since the man knows a thing or too about the seductive lure of megalomania and the high of facing death on a daily basis. Coppola was kicked off the PATTON production but later found fictional editions of that kind of military mindset in characters like Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW, and brilliantly captured the way an ordinary man might find himself manifesting the cold reptilian killer via Michael Corleone's transformation from idealistic young lover of Diane Keaton to cold-as-ice Don in THE GODFATHER. And of course, there's the inspired use of Sicily, a deeply-rooted trans-historical lyricism seems to emanate from the very soil of that island, and Coppola knew it and let it infuse GODFATHER 2. But first, it's where Patton raced Montgomery to Messina in 1943.

In order to rouse his newly assigned group of men from their first defeat in North Africa (he's replacing an ineffectual general who let the boys get slaughtered at Kassarine Pass), Patton appears a maniac for discipline and army regulation, making his men fear and hate him, but making them better soldiers as a result of both, and when they finally measure up, his admiration becomes enough of a reward that they're ready to die for him. As Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Milan would say, he is an excellent pack leader, radiating calm, assertive energy and understanding that all affection must be earned for it to have value. Or as Tura Satana said in FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL: "You don't have to believe it, just act it." Patton doesn't mind that your hands shake so long as you're trying to keep them steady. It's only when you stop trying that he boots you into the deep end like a sadistic but wise pool instructor (my own most hated-feared childhood figure).

I don't dare presume I wouldn't be ten times shakier and shell-shocked than the man Patton slaps, or even Jeremy Davies in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). One can't know from a besotted armchair field position, but there are other ways to prove your courage, such as smuggling drugs out of Istanbul, or trying to score with the hottest chick in the room without any wingman or back-up, or bluffing your way past the velvet ropes at a hot nightclub (1), or even just not drinking, one day at a time. True adult courage is important to bear in mind as the alienating effect of technology quietly mutates us back into children via unsupervised lengths of time in complete privacy, allowing the illusion of a mommy bound to serve us instead of the opposite (in both gender and service direction). If God had given us wings he'd expect us to fly, even demand it so, in the age of internet, why not go all the way and abandon your body? If God hadn't meant us to leave our bodies he wouldn't have given us the internet.

Needless to say, that kind of alone time is deprived our common foot soldier or tank brigadier. You can get almost anything in the army except privacy. A soldier is booted into manhood and has to stay there until he likes it, and that could take years. By the time he figures it out, the war is over.

Patton's discipline is intended to create that condition of initiation, Stockholm syndrome in the service of country - there's still going to be the odd soldier who resists the comfort of berserker madness and thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his childhood persona will preserve rather than destroy him. In the end all the military drilling and exhaustion is to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets--against all self-preservational logic. But as long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. Hence a little bitch-slap, which he performs in a sense as performance for the other men. Watching this with my dad as a child I used to think Patton was being a bully for slapping the soldier. Later, as a hippie, I thought he was existentialist and square. Now I'm all into his heart of darkness. Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequences that may stem from disrespecting boundaries, for the best defense is a good offense and therefore disrespecting boundaries is the mark of a good general. Eisenhower also shows himself a good general too in the way he masterfully plays up the slapping event up to deflect Nazi attention from D-Day (he had Patton scoping locations in Turkey, tricking the Germans sure into thinking he would invade there, and that the slap incident was a flimsy smokescreen - double reverse psych!).  A slap from a general may be humiliating, but in a way it did more for the war than getting blown up by a stray shell from Rommel's Panzer corps.

A word should be paid in tribute to the blu-ray version of this film: Dazzling! Originally shot on 70mm the picture is deep, and that has made all the difference in the 1080 transfer, enabling a dazzling clarity that lets you look up the nose of a man in a tank 5,000 yards away. The many long range desert battles seem to be in 3-D. The horizon line of the desert (this movie is always very horizon line conscious) warps the sides of the frame (Todd AO fisheye Cinerama 360 lenses) into a sloped elongated triangle, so it's like looking into a sloping Victorian house attic with North African desert wallpaper. If ever there was a reason to get blu-ray, this or Polanski's REPULSION would be it for me. I tried looking at the GODFATHER blu-ray, but got freaked out that you could finally see Bonasara the Undertaker's yellowed teeth clattering in the shadows as he talked of "vengeance for my daughter!"

Scott's nose is amazing on blu-ray, too: we can see three layers of veins in.  But his aim sucks. When shooting at German dive bombers, you have to lead them, not shoot behind them! He should have shot straight over his head - you got to "lead" em (1)!

Consider the line from the hippest movie ever made, PERFORMANCE:  "The only performance that truly makes it is one that achieves madness." When George C. Scott looks out at the carnage along the River Elbe, and says of war, "I love it. God help me I do love it so," one's aware that this right here is a performance that "truly makes it."

I've seen this movie all through my life and my reaction to that line varies with age. As a child watching it with my dad on TV I thought it was pretentious. Later, it seemed existentially gutsy; still later, callous. Now I see it as a coping mechanism, the very nature of heroism is perhaps this coping mechanism, an alchemical transubstantiation that enables one to derive perverse, counter-intuitive satisfaction from horror, the "you must make friend of horror" aspect, a looking down under the pretty flowers and below the serpents under them, to the deep roots wherein one endures the unendurable through a cultivated detachment, the stripping away of illusion's bodice, to reveal the grinning skull and scythe below. The tripper and the warrior both must kiss this skull and call it love.

To survive this awful surrender the hipster has his rueful irony, the court its jester, the American G.I. his endless complaining and satiric reading of army sloganeering.  The Germans never got that sense of humor -- they considered it our weakness.  They didn't realize that irony can be a kind of casual loyalty that works better than attack dog allegiance because--and this turned out to be a crucial advantage--the GI could improvise and think on his feet while the German was trained only to follow direct orders. As long as we can gripe and crack wise about it we can endure anything, that was what made us the winners: freedom to gripe about being losers!

One of my favorite war stories is how, during the Battle of the Bulge, the US tanks' top machine guns froze solid and couldn't be fired at the closely advancing enemy. Here it is, Germans breathing down their necks, bullets all around; it's freezing out, guns jammed and what do the machine gunners do? Urinate on them for a quick defrost! See, a German soldier would never think to do that. One needs a certain level of free-flying insanity to win a war, and that's what Patton had, and inspired in his men. To paraphrase Cesar Milan again: Insanity + Discipline, then affection.

Perhaps in war there simply is no rational response other than hoorror and heartbreak, neither of which wins wars. Therefore an irrational response is required: surrender completely to the "I love it, I do love it so," like a mantra, a relishing of the insane response. Do not the true prophets teach even that? To love your enemy like a brother even as you blow him to pieces? The movie ends with Scott intoning Patton's description of the triumphant Roman processionals of loot and conquered slaves before him: "And behind him, stood a slave with a golden crown, holding it over the conqueror's head while whispering in his ear, 'all glory is fleeting.'" But the film holds an even more shattering truth: life fleets even faster and death is not the end. Ladies and gentlemen, as he was in ancient Rome so shall he be in this future life. General Patton will be back!

1. None of which I've done.
(1) from the pages of the DC comic Sgt. Rock (c. 1980) - "You got to lead 'em! Lead 'em" when shooting at passing Messerschmidts. My friend Al and I quoted that a lot.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Bleating of the Wallies

A leading scientific journal in Pakistan, The Journal of Management & Social Science,* recently published a paper titled "A New Role for the Military: Preventing Enemies from Arising-Reviving an Ancient Approach to Peace," indicating that the military application of the Transcendental Meditation technique has merit. The paper discusses how militaries worldwide could use the Transcendental Meditation® and TM-Sidhi® program, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, as a non-religious and scientifically verified way to prevent war and terrorism. When used in a military context, these meditation practices are known as Invincible Defense Technology (IDT). (Medical News Today, 3/23/10)
I saw The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) last night, then read the above article this morning. Coincidence? No such thing, my man, but then why do I have the urge to read Catcher in the Rye and go into a black-op black-out with a mission to excise all traces of Ewan McGregor's annoying narrator from the film? Seriously, was TRAINSPOTTING a total fluke? Either way, I'm glad the above article shows that meditation/druggie/hippie mind tactics in the military is not necessarily just the whimsical semi-truth of a trembling yellow (as in cowardly) journalist afraid of a little LSD-spiked water. Ewan's character in the film is the kind of guy I wrote about a few years ago [Kill All Jonesers 11/10/08] in regards to needy biographers and journalists who try to absorb by proxy the glory of their subjects after said subjects are dead or disappeared, even though said subjects have or would have scoffed at them while they were alive. In my day we had many names for them: Jonesers, Wallies, nerds, and Murphs.

Sad that his wife leaves him at the film's start (and who could blame her?), our smug self-pitying freelance journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) heads off to Iraq to prove himself a man and teach her a lesson like a sulky boy holding his breath 'til his face turns blue to get out of eating his broccoli. Not on any assignment or associated with any publication, and terribly out of place, he locks himself to the ankle of mysterious maybe-spy Lyn (George Clooney) and spends the rest of the movie being a cranky nag as Lyn tries to complete a strange shadowy mission. Bob is a real drag to ride with, whining about every little thing, refusing to believe or go along with anything Lyn says and then presuming--after the adventures are done--that he's now some kind of super op himself. Realizing at least some of what Lyn said might be true after all, Bob finally switches from neurotic to sanctimonious, determined to make sure the story is told even it shakes the government to its foundations. And um, what? Bob ranks right up there with Leo Di Caprio's little shithead in THE BEACH and MacGregor's 'poet' in MOULIN ROUGE as one of the most entitled little pishers we were ever expected to root for at the movies.

I know, I know, you wanted to love this film. So did I. Well, if you think that Ewan McGregor stating he knows nothing about Star Wars or what a "Jedi" is makes for in-joke hilarity, then yes, you'll love it. (If you don't know that McGregor played a Jedi in the last three Star Wars films that makes you extra cool in my book) In fact, that tired in-joke goes by about five times; the director wants to make sure everyone gets it, right down to grandma in the last row.

For another painful example of this movie's level of wit, when Clooney confesses he feels bad about the time he killed a goat with his mind, McGregor blurts out: "The silence of the goats!?" as if he just decided on his entry for a New Yorker cartoon caption contest. And this guy is supposed to be a journalist? Who does he write for, Highlights? Ranger Rick? Dynamite? (left)

The goats themselves are awesome, but once again the movie shows no grasp on reality. The goats are kept in a big, dark, empty shed on the military base, labeled "top secret." Now, if you know anything about animals, anything at all, you know a few dozen goats aren't going to just stand around in a dark shed for years at a time in a stifling hot desert, waiting to be discovered by a snoopy journalist. Though they've been 'de-bleated' (yikes) so don't make noise, you would still smell them a mile away, and hear them trying to kick their way out, and then they'd all die of heatstroke or the fumes of their own piled up feces, or starve to death, within days. Goats need care, yo. Meanwhile goats wander in shepherded all over the desert. Why not just buy one from a passing herdsman as needed?

It's details like this which make MEN WHO STARE similar to one of those "earthy" romantic comedies about 'ordinary' people that were clearly made by rich Hollywood kids who've never flown coach or taken a bus and had to sit back by the toilet, or gazed into the pores of the homeless while waiting in line at a bank machine.

Thank god for Jeff Bridges, then, as the film lights up whenever he's there, onscreen, abiding. Maybe he's never had a 'real' job either, but he's The Dude, and that makes all the difference. In one of his military pep talks (he's head of this experimental psi-ops division), he says that his recruits will learn to "see and hear everything" and to "stop talking in cliches" and live in the moment. Did you hear that last part about cliches, Ewan? You remembered it enough for a flashback but --via one of the most tired cliches of all -you remembered it scored 60s protest rock-scored montage. Better stop, children, what's that sound? It's 60s rock cliche! Barefoot servants too! Something was happening here, and what it was, Ewan is sure we'll agree, aint exactly clear. Such a brave, piercing journalistic acumen!

So, if you come to this film hoping, as I did, for a psychedelic ride into the mind of the military, man will you be disappointed. GOATS seems to side more with the annoying journalist than the psi-ops kooks, making the end result a bit like APOCALYPSE NOW if Cathy (from the comic strip) played the Captain Willard role ("Day four - the river has too many bugs, and how come the army doesn't serve cake? Wauggh!")

Most journalists are way too cool to whine every step of the way as they tag along for a story. They keep quiet or ask questions and if they do ask they don't sneer at the answers if they get them. But the times have a-changed and young men these days are, apparently, well, if not all mice, perhaps unaware of their non-mice options due to a dearth of assertive father figures. Compare the bleating of McGregor's hideous wally, for example, with James Stewart in REAR WINDOW, trying to explain life in a combat zone to Grace Kelly. She might be all fashionista but she's ten times the man McGregor is... cuter too.

One plus about the film is the way it cleverly oscillates between believing in the stories of these psychedelic warriors and realizing most of it is perhaps bullshit. Any good shaman knows that all  rituals are 50% smoke and mirrors. That's not to hide the fact it's all "just" bullshit--it's not just, Clarice--but to make room in the imaginations of those present for true weirdness to manifest. 

But in the end it's okay if it's bullshit, because it's all bullshit, which is to say, there is no no exit from any of the bullshit, and no is, and no no, and therefore all is yes, which mean all is love, so love is nothing and nothing is everything.

All of this helps rope off a cordon of disbelief that allows visualization to occur. i.e. the way a child can use a dude with a sheet over his head going "Boo" as a screen on which to project real ghosts from his or her imagination, as opposed to the smartass brat who says "that's just a man with a sheet on his head." Who is more the fool, the one who thinks he's a sucker to imagine the ghost, and so has no fun, or the one who can see what may not be there, can project his ideal ghost on the sheet, and get willingly scared accordingly?

What's the point of doubting and dismissal as a lifestyle choice? And where does our projection of fantasy end and 'reality' begin? Who gets to decide where that border lies?

The flimflam aspect of psychic power creates a split which allows real supernatural events to exist--and if they exist for the subject then they exist in the universe --that's what quantum mechanics proves, o dour devotee of wallie normality, clinging terrified to the sterilized feet of dogmatic science! Rise now and embrace the pseudo-shaman... Within you and without you are the same you!

What I meant, man, is that you should see this movie, but just once, for Clooney and Bridges. They are two acting tricksters who "get" the cosmic truths behind the quackery and who each bump the film up a star.

But to reiterate, McGregor's 'Bob' is what we back in the semi-psychedelic 1980s used to call a "Wally," the sort of schmuck who clings onto your crew as you run with dilated pupils naked to the cosmic sea (or graveyard behind the dorms) like immortal lemmings, laughing and skipping. He shows up late, whining about being left behind, with normal-size pupils. And he goes "hey guys, wait up! Where are you going? Shouldn't you wait for Dan [another wally] to come back from class? Hey, wait up!" and then once there, in the cosmic sea graveyard with you, he refuses to join in the oceanic dissolving of egoic consciousness, and yet thinks he should still be able to hang all night and drag everybody down. Every time he frowns, crosses his arms and announces he doesn't need drugs to have a good time you can hear the whole universe groan and roll its eyes.

And eventually we all hide with the lights out and don't answer the door when he comes around. Then, one day, someone slips him a dose without his knowing it and, as J. Hoberman writes, "he loses a smidge of his smirk." (Village Voice, 11.3/09) and then thinks he's Gandhi times ten. He's King of humble without getting the irony. He becomes a mad prophet and then winds up insane, violent, arrested and --next time you see him, years later--he's become a drug counsellor, lecturing to you about how bad it is, what you're doing to yourself.

That's a wally my friend. Sound familiar? The oceanic realm has a beach crowded with them, all fretting along the lip of the void, pointing at watches, flipping out, and ranting about chromosome damage

Sigh, let's get some ice cream.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Luxury of Desperate Gamblers: Andrzej Zulawski's "L'Amour Braque" (1985)

Niche film fans of all nations and genres can rejoice with the release of three borderline hysterical (in all senses of the word) Andrzej Zulawksi films onto DVD, via the amazing Mondo Vision. The first of them I've seen is 1985's L'AMOUR BRAQUE, an insane, coked-up little miracle which prefigures the anarchic Joker scenes in LE CHEVALIER NOIR (below), including the maniacal burning of mass amounts of money and gleefully lysergic/anarchic assaults on the conventions of the bourgeoisie and capitalism! Did Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger see this movie? Or are they and Braque's director Andrzej Zulawski birds of a feather? Or is Zulawski way beyond even BATMAN? I'd normally never mention Batman and Zulawski in the same sentence, but times have changes. Post-modernism has erase the borders of high and low, regardless of what the petit-bourgeois may think. Also, the Ledger Joker is, like Hannibal Lecter before him, something new -- almost legitimately dangerous, threatening to grab us and pull us into the screen at any moment. Being European, an ex-pat Parisian out of Poland (?), Zulawski seems a slavering psychedelic/crystal meth poet, known for either hypnotizing (or maybe drugging?) his actors and driving them to and beyond the brink of madness for their performances. L'AMOR BRAQUE is kind of an 'if an ensemble of meth-addled actors from Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty crashed into a Luc Besson French crime film, thinking they were still doing Artaud's adaptation of Dostoevsky's THE IDIOT and that the crime film mise-en-scene around them must be 'the drugs talking'. 

Or  to put it another way, is Zulawski's yen for heedless kineticism, surfeit de style and spastic physicality rooted in something, or did someone just dump LSD into the Parisian water supply?

Any way you slice him, what a real treat to find such a worthy yet under-explored canon, all presented so lushly we can go excavating in air conditioned style. A whole catalog of Zulawski's awesome films-- few of which (other than POSSESSION) have been seen at all here in the US-- are coming our way on beautiful DVDs. MondoVision plans on releasing nine in all! Jokers, start your burning!

Though L'AMOUR BRAQUE carries a 1985 French action movie glossy punk style (ala the violent late-80s/early-90s nocturnal neon decor of films you might know like SUBWAY or LA FEMME NIKITA) it's actually an art film, or a drug film, Brechtian... of course, with great gobs of classical Russian literature references that, I don't mind saying, were partially over my head. Tcheky Karyo stars, or co-stars! SUBWAY! It may look on the surface enough like a normal 80s French action movie movie, but it would probably weird out a whole room of relatively un-intoxicated bros if they were expecting Luc Besson-ish linearity in addition to the Luc Besson-ish glamor, especially with the subtitles off. And action fans who wondered--as I did--if Karyo was just a dud actor with his stone-faced performance in NIKITA can now know for sure, as his character in BRAQUE is wayyy out there. Not even the same guy, if I can paraphrase William Demarest in THE LADY EVE. 

I glean what I can get, and figure I'll finish the Karamazovs when I can. Until then, those cheesy 80s synth stabs and and Mondo Vision's lovely transfer and well-written subtitles all fuel the rush of Zulawski's poetic post-structuralist approach in a way that echoes the accidental poetry of old HK movies, the old kind of fractured English subtitles and plots so rapid and crazy that to even think about what's going on for a half a second means to be lost for the next two minutes, but if trust your instincts, stop reading the subtitles and 'hear' the dialogue (using the subtitles in tandem with the language) and let go of the rails, you just may experience a giddy and unique cine-high. See, Zulawski has a weird way of feeding you his movie plots subliminally. Somehow or other, you're pulled along by the scruff of your neck. With no time to get your bearings, you realize that, if you don't think about it too much (as with the aforementioned HK films), you know what's happening on an unconscious level if not a conscious one. This is especially true if you had to read Dostoevsky's The Idiot once. Or even did intentionally. 

Francis Huster is the hero, a down-for-whatever Czech refugee named Leon, who finds himself spontaneously adopted by the drunken (coked up?) Mickey (Karyo) and his gang of laughing, joking, Nietzsche-quoting Arab terrorists on the run after robbing a bank dressed in Disney masks. Huster and Karyo bond on the train, but then beautiful Sophie Marceau shows up as Mickey's--and soon Leon's--obsession, ensuring neither man can ever leave the other alone for a minute for the rest of the film, lest he gain ground in the race to her bed. 

A perennial 'lost soul" rich girl using Micky and his terrorist friends as dupes; acting coy and lost and doomed so they practically kill each other jostling to be the one to wipe out her enemies; cockblocking and seducing right and left; the two men chase, and are chased by, and adore each other as Marceau proves more and more sociopathic and manipulative. 

And then there's Leon's only slightly-less-hot-than-Marceau (who isn't) cousin Aglae (Christiane Jean, below) who competes for Leon's attention while performing in a version of Chekhov's "The Seagull".

Zulawski loves the Russians, even if they indirectly ruined two years of work on his would-a-been masterpiece On the Silver Globe. 

Meanwhile, a strange cop follows the gang around, and in one sun-dappled grilling scene, notes that Mickey and company carry on with the "luxury of desperate gamblers", a telling phrase I bothered to write down and thought a most clever title, because it describes most of the film--indeed most of Zulawski's blade-running / hot tin roof-dancing output. There's very little stopping to regroup or fortify positions here. If you've ever been on a manic high for any length of time--basking in a spiritual awakening, blessed with an almost supernatural level of good fortune--you know implicitly that if you to go to sleep or nurture negative thinking, your luck will change; your whole holy mindset will crash into nothingness and despair (and hangover). So you drinking, gambling and laughing like a maniac, desperate to keep the the wave alive enough to surf upon, even after it breaks and recedes along the shore. Until there you are, standing on your surfboard on the beach while kids make sandcastles around you and the tide goes out. Finally you've no choice but to pay the kids to dig you a hole, then crawl inside and sleep the rest of the day, until the evening tide comes in and mercifully drowns you.

If things get rough with this film, may I suggest good way to get through the weirdness of the onscreen action (if you're not going to 'roll' along on the last of your Pervatin stash) is to ground it in other movies you may be more familiar with, like bizarro world remakes in a vein of post-modern ultra-violent satire we Americans have hardly seen except for Kathryn Bigelow.  When you see the robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of POINT BREAK, but when you see them horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, they're like a dozen Harpo Marxes on a blood bender or the Groucho-guerrillas in the films of Emir Kusturica. But these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework, because otherwise, goddamn it, this stuff is so fucked-up in its deconstructed avant garde madness, so far ahead of the Luc Besson curve, even your bourgeois art film expectation of a night of modernist subversion may be frustrated. Just where do you situate Zulawski and his panic-attack-meets-ecstasy-overdose clenched jaw freak-out in the canon of 80s filmmaking?

Also, it's very long: two hours of nearly nonstop shouting, kicking over vases, affronting the mores of capitalism and frothing at the succulently lipsticked mouth. You'd think it would grate on one's nerves, but Zulawski is such a master of pace and rhythm that he never gets you too worn out or cranky. And what works too is that, though these guys are all insane--and maybe this is just the French way--all the passers-by and authority figures go along with their gags, like it would be rude not to, the way the bourgeoisie in Bunuel movies look upon their children's destructive savagery with bemused tolerance. Etiquette dictates that when a crazy Marxist sticks a gun to your temple after crashing your dinner party, it's considered declasse' to panic or plead. One must do the right thing and smile and pat the man's hand in encouragement and calmly ask if he would like some wine. When sudden gunfights erupt, cars get smashed and people run around throwing smoke bombs and breaking windows, all it gets from the gendarmes is that famous Parisian shrug. They crowd surf into total candy-coated confusion; they roll around on tables laden with food and the waiters don't bat an eyelash; they spazz out and sing at the top of their lungs while being chased by cops in riot gear; and it would all just be posturing if Zulawski didn't capture a realistic sense of Parisian hustle and bustle like he's a freakin' Oscar-hungry auteur riche. When you're wading deep into a well-crafted, lit, Parisian street corner, man, you're into some fucked up architecture. If you're seeing it on a good HD screen, you can see right up into the cobwebbed corners between the gargoyles. 

One of my biggest regrets as an actor/filmmaker was in QUEEN OF DISKS (2007), when a Clare Horgan as the Queen of Disks stuck a knife to my throat as I was drinking coffee I missed a chance to do a spit take! My innate decency and worry about spilling coffee on my ratty jeans stopped me from doing one and/or dropping the coffee cup, just letting it spill all over me and crash to the floor and break. You know how impossible those things can be to do intentionally? Like when someone pays you to pee in your pants, and you just can't do it, no matter how hard you try?

These guys in this film? They don't have that problem.

It all makes you realize that while someone like Godard's a great one for deconstructing genre, he's a bad one at capturing the momentum of genre itself-- poor Jean Pierre Leaud or Belmondo, for example, always seemed to carry an inherent decency that stops them from peeing on people's trousers or throwing grenades into dining rooms or dropping coffee cups full of coffee on themselves and letting the cup shatter on the linoleum floor. If they did, it was often just to a picture of a comic book "Bang!" or riot footage that exploded. Not in this film, baby. That's action like Van Damme! Zoot alors!  A+

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To dream some impossible tree sloth: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

For a lot of the new kids, 1950s science fiction is stilted, and dull, and perhaps those words could describe FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) if you were expecting constant laser tag and monster attacks, but a hundred viewings later, for all its 50's patriarchal solemnity, PLANET still kicks ass. It just gets better every time, every year: its subtextual critique of its own patriarchal solemnity grows clearer, its solemnity undermined by its underplayed deadpan cheek. Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film is uninhibitedly Freudian in a way few science fiction films of the time dared to be. The name itself holds all sorts of clues:

Forbidden! Planet!

And who is doing the forbidding? Merely one of the driest and most patronizing of all patriarchy's authoritative voices. Walter Pigeon, as the elusive Dr. Morbius. In elaborate dialogue that runs counter to most natural speaking patterns, Morbius lectures paternally, patiently, like the dull film shown before entering some Disney attraction. He emphatically maintains that he "cannot be responsible for the well-being" of Commander Leslie Nielsen (POLICE SQUAD!) and his party if they insist on landing at his most forbidden planet.

Inquiring after a colony set up by the 'Bolerofon Expedition' years before, Nielsen and his crew have come out to see how the settlers are faring.  It's rare to have a movie start out in deep space, odder still to have earthlings piloting a flying saucer instead of the usual phallic rocket. Odder even still that a 1950s film bears a cold suspicion that private organizations will be colonizing and privatizing outer space, shades of Haliburton! Shades of ALIEN... and more ALIEN shades to come!

For Morbius, it seems, has found a groovy stash of ancient alien technology and doesn't want to share, like the Area 51 crashed saucer-hiders hoarded by MAJ-12, like an acid dealer during a bad trip who decides "you aint ready" for this shit." With his artificially expanded intellect, Morbius, he's ready," notes Commander Nielsen, sarcastically.

Lucifer Sam / Zion cat! 

Blind to his own amok tenure'd prof-style egotism, Morbius agrees that yes, he is ready: he took the Krell "brain boost" and survived the shock, but was then in a coma for "a day and a night." Having survived, he's in charge (in his boosted mind) and notes, "such portions of the Krell science that I deem suitable and safe, I shall dispense to Earth."

Language like "portions" and "dispensing" perks up the ears of any dozing pharmaceutical enthusiast. How many grams in a portion and when will you please dispense it and should I wait an hour after eating and drink plenty of orange juice? The Krell "brain booster" seems not too far from, say, an upstate ayahuasca weekend (the death in this latter case being of the ego - just as exhilarating and terrifying as any physical death). 

Still, both the captain and his own doctor want to try it: "One of us must take that brain boost!" they tell each other. But it's the measurability-fetish size comparison obsessiveness of it that indicates this intelligence-enhancement is all cock-centric left-brained denial, the butterfly pinned to the wall by science and expected to still be ephemeral. We know this because when the ship's doc sneaks off and takes it while Leslie and lovely Nordic hybrid alien Anne Francis are making out and arguing over whether to drag Morbius off by force. Now a super--dying--genius, the best the doc can come up with by way of description is "you oughta see my new mind, it's up there in lights." Is he speaking in the vernacular for the sake of his captain, or is this Bowery Boys-ish metonym an example of his new Krell-heightened eloquence? The boos seems contagious for soon Leslie too is talking down to Morbius like an interplanetary shrink, "your unconscious mind, the inner savage, was made strong enough!" 

The brain boost for the doc (his mind is "bigger than his (Morbius's) now") shows up Morbius's loyalty to his dry Wonderful World of Disney-style of speech as a sign he's still struggling with patriarchally antiquated egotistical insecurity. I.e. Morbius "ain't" as enlightened as he thinks. The ship's doc is free of trying to sound intellectual; he's gained confidence enough to sound stupid. Morbius may have "beheld the face of the gorgon and lived," but he's still a squaresville "philologist" who never lets you forget it. No grasp of the cosmic joke. That boost was wasted on him--he's still hung up on measuring IQ power, which all we know has turned out to be an unreliable, race-and-class-based logocentric yardstick.

And yet, there is also in Morbius something of the Lacanian non du pere, with its implied understanding of the dualistic nature of prohibition and enjoyment. For in the end, Morbius is all talk when it comes to prohibition, a kind of male version of Mrs. Hemoglobin in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK: he forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go near the spaceship and flirt with all the crew, but neither listens. (After all we're not very near, " Alta says when visiting their ship, and earlier "you said not to join you for lunch, you said nothing about coming for coffee.") On the other hand, Morbius listens to her. He listens to his daughter swoon about these wondrous creatures called officers. He listens attentively and withholds his opinion, even as his daughter rants against the captain's prudery, hardly the actions of a typical 50s dad. And yet, almost to put on a show, his questioning and addressing her in the men's presence becomes patronizing ("Then my little girl never feels lonely or confined?") It's almost like he's posing as the stern forbidding father (masking incestuous subconscious intent - as in the arm he puts around her waist when waving goodbye after the first visit) when he's actually the wise sage and is just testing our hero's wooing mettle... like Sarastro in The Magic Flute! Or, of course, the more obvious Prospero in Shakespeare's Tempest.

Coyly innocent, yet hilariously knowing, Anne Francis leavens Morbius' dullness with her lovely legs and sexual openness. If you've seen her in the Honey West TV shows (and you should) then you she could make that other broad with the surname West look bashful, so it's great to see her here kind of knowingly send up the role of an innocent 1950s MGM virgin as she teases the nervous, sexually frustrated and rather prudish Leslie Nielsen with her symbolic nudity in an outdoor swimming scene, or asks him "Why don't you kiss me like everybody else does?"

Yet another key element in FORBIDDEN's hard-to- immediately-appreciate weirdness is the soundtrack: the electronic tonalities of Louis and Bebe Barron offer no familiar orchestral swells or suspenseful string sections to guide our emotional responses. When the invisible id monster approaches, the tonalities merely swell up slowly and strangely to evoke moans and our monster footprints, or to merge with the sound of laser fire. When the danger sign is off, and Robby and Alta are frolicking, the music burbles like a fountain through a flanger, merging with monkey chatter and fractured Hawaiian guitar twangs. This atonal bizarro blend of 'tonalities' both enhances and diffuses all tension, as there's no  cliche-entrained expectations. The result is perhaps tranquilizing at first, even boring, but-- once our first viewing is over and we know what to expect--the slowing down of expectations allows for an incredibly lyrical, relaxed quality in successive viewings. Crazy modern art sculptures and modular furniture conjure the familiar feeling of being over at a cool great uncle's bungalow for drinks and gradually sliding from creeped out by all the 50s metal wall sculpture (on our first visit as children) to enchanted as the whiskey takes effect (as adults).

Acidemic in the way it illuminates the fundamental problem of western thinking in both mainstream science and analytic academia, PLANET reveals the complete "blind side" to one's own inner demon in the Freudian composite of the mind, how all dry and respectable positions on issues are usually really only vain attempts to hide our warped desires from ourselves ("what's wrong with theory?" Alta asks before Leslie finally breaks down and plays his first game of what Uncle Bill in the very similar Neve Give a Sucker an Even break called Squigilum (funny too that a tiger growls during their kiss here, mirroring the great dane barking and ape howling in Fields' 1941 film) 

These recurring motifs illuminate the blind spots that always run synonymous with our inability to own up to them. The eye fills in gaps in sight and the brain covers its weak spots with camouflage and patriarchal bullying. Arguing with Morbius then becomes like trying to convince a Marxist professor... of anything.

Adding to the spa-like fun is the leisurely goodwill and Bette Davis-ish sauce of Robby the Robot -- as he is voiced by a man who sounds just like, and is, one of the guys who do the voices for Rocky and Bullwinkle -- but is not Paul Frees! His deep manly voice is both familiar, reassuring and completely cool, yet the drunken cook has to ask "Is it a male or a female" and we're supposed to infer that this cook is horny enough--and deaf, dumb and blind enough-- to turn a blind ear as well as eye.

"Smooth, too!" 

In the end--even better--the cook and Robby become drinking buddies, with Robby jovially making our visiting astro-lush a whole mountain of "Rocket Bourbon" pints (he's "the most understanding soul" the cook's ever met).  Robby also makes dresses for Alta. When she asks for a new dress Robbie all but rolls his eyes, "Again?" She says it must be a long dress to please the prudish captain, Robbie asks "Thick and heavy?" as if he's a wizened old Shakespearean housemaid dryly teasing his beloved charge about fair Romeo. Both Ariel and Caliban in one Michelin-esque frame, Robbie is the ultimate in Shakespearian fifth business. 

There's another coded gay character in Oscar Madison (ala his momma's boy in THE LONG HOT SUMMER three years later) as the brown-nosing chief spark-plugger-inner. The camera makes a point of showing his complete lack of interest in Anne Francis' devastating hemline, while his puppy-like eagerness to impress the captain, informing the captain that "I borrowed some solanite from our gyro stabilizers." Spock, who cares? There's a chick here! He doesn't even try to fake it the way, say, Sal in MAD MEN used to!

Last bit of weird 'impossible tree sloth' quality I need to mention is the film's odd pedigree: MGM is known for delivering heavy bourgeois morality as well as fine Freed musicals, but here the studio seems to have tapped into some alternate universe of cool, sexually liberated science fiction, like the subject allows for some of that repressed desire to leak out in a way the churches won't notice (though the 'lord sure makes some beautiful worlds,' and 'after all we are not God' lines seem inserted to win their favor). In the midst of the early 50s landscape of giant bugs and military investigations (with the one woman in the cast always a professional working scientific expert, desexed in her status as 'one of the new women' unless she gets a bathing scene) FORBIDDEN PLANET appears suddenly out of nowhere, as if it traveled back in time from 1967, with lovely Star Trek-pastel sets of red leaf plants, alien handwriting and long triangular doors; laser beams that make no sound and shoot little dashes of light that seem ridiculously, comically/ineffectually phallic as they dissolve tigers into wavy Disney lines (and offer no 'kick' - i.e. they dribble). Altogether, it's the driest anti-authoritarian / openly Freudian sci-fi parable we've got, and maybe still the sexiest, despite all the paternal lectures and tours. 

I'll leave you with these kinky words from 'philologist' Morbius: "Young man my daughter is planning a very foolish action and she'll be terribly punished for it." O words, where are thy talons?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prepare the amphibious squadron!

A heady compendium of fanboy history and Weird Tales cover tunes, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004) seems retro-actively retro-futuristic again after the art deco zeppelin action of Pixar's UP divided by AVATAR's use of CGI live action combo plattering. Kudos galore should be paid to SKY's writer-director Kevin Konran--a CGI art director by trade who got to make this feature after wowing the brass with a 12 minute short version.  He's a great collage maker, is what it boils down to, but he's no Brad Bird or Joss Whedon. In fact, he's more a Tim Burton with less box office mojo.

For SKY CAPTAIN, Konran melds lots of post-modern image collages into his rather non-existent story, about a crazy Nazi scientist who's plotting to blow up the earth, or something, and has armies of giant robots that fly and stuff, to get 'er done. This would all be well and good, except then in comes our hero, Sky Captain (Jude Law) to save the (yester)day. This bloke's a sort of David Manners pretending he's Clark Gable in TOO HOT TO HANDLE and smarmy. Law can do smarmy without being too offensive, you don't send a gigolo robot (in AI, below) to do a man's job, unless you forgot what a 1930s ubermensch is all about.

Now, I admire Jude Law as an actor, not cuz he's pretty and dates (dated?) Sienna Miller, but because he's fearless in the face of his acknowledged limitations--he's trapped in a room full of mirrors. Annette Bening is the same way, for example, and it doesn't make her a bad actress, because she too can be aware enough of it to bring some existential reflection as to her inability to existentially reflect into the mix. And like Bening going full harridan in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Law's not afraid to dig deep into his inner creep (he was the best thing in Mendes' BEAUTY-follow-up, ROAD TO PERDITION, below).  Thus we'd believe him as the villain (or as an ambiguous nebula of audience alienation/identification, as in ALFIE and CLOSER), but when Law wearily informs his bitchy reporter girlfriend Polly (Gwenyth Paltrow): "I spent six months in a Manchurian labor camp thanks to you!" we don't believe him, because his nails are too perfect.  This is not a Captain Midnight-esque hero whose flown against robots and almost died a thousand times; this is a man speaking to a blue screen.  His voice is too silky and full of breathing exercise-nuance to have the forceful "I could give a shit"-ativeness that comes with tru gravitas (check out the way Clive Owen outguns him in their dueling douchebag dialogue in CLOSER). For starters, this guy should be smoking a cigar at all times.

I blame Law's miscasting for the film's lagging stretches, since he just doesn't have that John Wayne / Bogart quality where you feel kind of in the thrall of their competence. If he had it, then maybe his leading lady wouldn't have grown so obnoxious and curt (Paltrow was pregnant during filming which may explain that as well) in his presence. Before Law shows up (about 15 minutes in) she's doing all right. Although a scene where she's running down Broadway chased by giant robots is soooo unconvincing. There's a cutaway shot to Paltrow ripping her skirt so she can run that seems spliced in from a different movie, but before that she intones lines from Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast like she's listened to that broadcast as many times as I have, which is a lot, and so she's a "hell of an actor." She and Michael Gambon (her paternal newspaper editor) get off some shadowy underplaying before the fireworks begin.

And then proving the movie could work with some gravitas, you have Angelina Jolie show up halfway through or so as "Freddie", a one-eyed hottie version of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. A small part perhaps, but imdb.com informs us that "In preparation for her role, Angelina Jolie met with and interviewed dozens of British WWII veterans and pilots in order to adapt the proper mannerisms of her character. She also tweaked the script by adding bits of slang that were used during the era."

Hey Jude, why didn't you do that!? Jolie knows it's the little things mean a lot, Sky Captain. When she delivers a line like "Prepare the amphibious squadron!" you know what's up. You want to go prepare the amphibious squadron just for her, on your knees!

The music score is a bombastic piece of ripoffery, of course, and the sound effects and layered imagery are so over the top that at times it feels like there's an almost Brechtian disconnect, with nothing ever matching up. Still, the fractured nature of it all works to make us unable to focus on the actual story, which depending on the environment in which you see the film (it would be perfect at Radio City Music Hall or some Art Deco facsimile) can give it a meta-textual sense of breathing room. The result is like some Brechtian playwright being forced to write pulp fiction, or Godard reading smutty spy novels over the (non) action in SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. Heavy use of words onscreen, oceans come with esoteric compasses layered above the waves, everything crashing around like a "Why We Fight" entry replete with Churchill-esque radio broadcasts about how only Sky Captain can get to the bottom of this "series of events."

The heavy (cost-effective?) use of black and blurry edge recalls the pages of Heavy Metal and the old Marvel rip-off of that title, Epic! Not that I didn't love both. Epic was a kind of tweener version, the last stop before the unapologetic R Rating of Heavy Metal. But it lacks the minimalist angst of the Frank Miller SIN CITY adaptation, or the comic book boisterousness of Peter Jackson's KING KONG remake.

But it's got the light and dark thing down pat. If you keep your expectations low it can be like reading Weird Tales while hiding from your parents in a dank basement, with two once-cool friends who are now a couple and just bicker all the time and think they're being amusing though you just want to give them both a bitch-slap. But then Angelina Jolie comes along and you forgive stuff, like how it all reminds you of having an interesting movie interrupted by a daft date going "Who? What? What remote island? What? Why" as you're trying to get lost in the narrative.  But it's a great movie to watch while your doing other things and though Konran is not quite as hilarious as Bruce McCall (below) when it comes to seeing through the cracks of rose-tinted nostalgia to the big emptiness of the Adobe photoshop real, I'd rather watch this again anytime than return to the smug wordiness of Pynchon's Against the Day. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stung by the Belle: FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

No one "beats" the Japanese when it comes to sadomasochism in cinema: They whip each other right out in public; they rape everyone in sight while grunting and frothing at the mouth; they engage in uninhibited gang violence, glue-sniffing and arson. In American exploitation film we seem to be at a loss to "ahem" measure up, perhaps due to our (relative) lack of repression. Even our recent torture porn phase is really offshot/borrowed from 'J' (and 'K') in style and substance. We can do sleazy (the OLGAs and ILSAs) and we can do titillating (the Tweeds and Mundaes) and we can do violent, but but the Japanese know to turn over the apple cart and start humping it like a dog. Their films transcend words like 'transfigur-titiliation,' 'pop-arterial' and 'hypno-dermal,' and FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION series remains a stellar example. It leaves you dazed, disturbed, clammy, depressed and worn out, even strangely exhilarated. Its sexual fever cruelty opens up your cranial shell, and then the pop art color patterns come in and blow out the previous contents until all that's left are nerve endings. And yet, the Japanese are often terrified of body hair. Hilarious!

With their over-the-top butoh style acting ever diffusing any sense of adult sexual reality, Japan's Scorpion series becomes strangely cathartic, and undeniably artsy. The suffering of post-war prostitutes in 1950s Suzuki films merges with the Sergio Leone western's sense of surreal absurdism and subtextual anti-authority, with Scorpion's ability to "take it"--her capacity for suffering without ever 'breaking'--so astounding in its deadpan feminist disaffect that it becomes its own form of dishing it out.

I've always been in awe of Japan's Sadean way to wrap prurient transgression in candy-coated shells of guilt, feminism, deadpan drollery, and existential despair. When the French do S/M, you can tell they're clutching onto their copies of Bataille as defense against Catholic-school guilt, and as a result a creeping bourgeois airlessness sometimes suffocates the sleeping beast of voyeuristic-Gallic masochism in its cradle, but the Japanese crank the Masoch-volume down to minus-eleven and get you laughing in delight at the sheer absurdity of all human expression, from grimaces of ecstasy to grimaces of agony, showing that our deepest most profane desires, fears and unendurable pains all look the same from far away, and are as ridiculous as anything else when exposed to light--even fake pink cinema light-- and so the Japanese find their way to Bataille almost by accident, and that has made all the difference.

Nowhere in my experience is this more balls-out perfect than in FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41 (1972). It takes the cake because its candy crazy colors suggest that intense prolonged pain and incarceration--indeed that being a female unwilling to bow her head to the rutting Japanese male's petty tyranny--might lead to pop art candy color satori. As the title arachnid, Meiko Kaji has such a firm nail on her world-weary but mercilessly resolved "Girl with No Voice" type of avenging dark angel, even in a role that's mostly nonspeaking and barely moving, that we feel her menace. Just standing there, waiting to strike, we're wary and--if feminst by temperament--also hopeful that this perennial victim of double crosses, sexual harassment and unjust incarceration will get some balls in her treasure sack and crimson on her hatchet, as no saying goes. No matter how much humiliation and brutality she endures, her Scorpion never flinches or weeps, and her hair is perfect. Freshly washed and combed, it blows from her own private offscreen fan.

Kaji also sings the theme song in that great bluesy lounge pop style of the movie's moment and there's some great surreal interludes, including a  Japanese kind of "Biwa" (the ancient Japanese folk ballad tradition) version of "Cell Block Tango (He Had it Comin')" from Fosse's Chicago. The musical score itself is a constant Greek chorus-style counter-response of swelling, trombone-heavy crime jazz; Jew's harp "boing boing" western leitfmotifs, bassoon and reed sustains over close-up staring contests, all suggesting the Sino-Morricone-Leone connection courses throughout... or did Leone borrow the bold comic book style from the era's films or both from manga?

Thankfully, though it's certainly traumatic to watch, the sexual violence is highly symbolized, even abstracted. There's no doubt these Japanese filmmakers are on the feminist side as they so keenly convey the level of sexual enslavement most American males deny exists. They help it go down smoother with a huge dose of self-conscious satire, a complete capitulation of all sympathy and dignity on the parts of all males and most females-- both cops and prisoners--everyone in fact, but our protagonist antihero. She keeps her dignity to the bitter end. The roaches will have inherited the earth and the stone Buddhas will crumble before her stony glance softens to a bearable g/cm3.

If you've ever been an alienated self-conscious new kid in school you know what it's like to suffer. Humiliated and horrified as you try and find your home room; no one notices or cares about you and yet you feel them judging you anyway. At lunch they resemble pigs at the trough and simian brutes in gym class. Well, if you still perceive your fellow man that way then Japanese pinku films are your revenge. Just as "the final girl" survives the horrors of slasher-filled cabins and lakefronts by her rejection of sex and gender differentiation, so we are encouraged to take a final girl approach to the entirety of Japanese patriarchal society and regard human contact itself as inherently corrupting. We're better off without sex, alone in our little trichophobic apartments. We had no idea, going into these films, that--as intentionally turning away from patriarchal social mores to become fledgling hikikomori--we were doing something noble. Isn't this what cult movies do, after all, validate our not going out to play with others and commune with nature?

Thus, we see and participate in a kind of Technicolor ritual where sexual violence--revealed to be a tool for subjugating and demoralizing women in order to strengthen patriarchal rule--is itself subjugated. The more violence is done to her and her fellow women the more karma weaves its spell and Matsu waits like the patient spider-scorpion for the karma wheel to slowly turn her way. Sooner or later she'll get a chance to strike. She won't miss.

There is only one pair of eyes whose gaze she seems to profit from: ours. She never addresses the camera directly, as, say, her 2009 British male counterpart, Bronson (from the 2009 film of the same name) does, but the effect is the same. As purely cinematic subjects, they each represent a distilled essence of masochistic cinema viewing. Without our gaze, their suffering would become unendurable. It's as if she senses our eyes and is trying to illustrate how she feels about school, work, and family in a ritualized distinctly-Japanese feminist performance art.

It's good sometimes to remember "it's only a movie," and this comic over-doing it also does much to undercut any potential over-identification with either side, so we can realize that at the core of these films lurks a deep revulsion for one's secret shame/desire; a need to pull out at the last minute from over-identification; the shame and guilt contorting their bodies even as the crime is being committed. Only in the later Scorpion films is the violence highly sexualized in a less academically applaudable state, as if the initial shock of seeing your most debased primal fantasies played out has worn down to a hollow numbness, requiring ever more dangerous dissolving of the boundary between the masochistic (ala Steven Shaviro) and sadistic (ala Laura Mulvey).

One's opinion is bound to be personal, but to me, Jailhouse 41 isn't misogynist but misandric, and overall just pure masochistic fantasy. If soap opera martyr movie emotions had their own pornography, this would be it, a protracted defiance of death, Antigone caught in a Fujicolor prism. The western Gallic-influenced torture porn of SAW and company tends more towards the fearful anticipation of pain/gore and self-conducted limb amputations, but the frisson in the Scorpion films comes more from existential weariness as garishly violent beatings--replete with amplified, echoed whacking noises--stretch into abstraction, and we begin to re-imagine our whole earthly existence as one long stretch of watching someone get fake whipped on TV (i.e Videodrome). The Scorpion films project this as the ultimate reflection of a bad acid trip, where every event, color, action, word, gesture, even act of shifting weather patterns, seems geared to illustrate that modern life is a smokescreen for eternal hell, a boot camp of agony designed to either break our spirits or turn us into cold-blooded scorpions.

The only deciding factor is our ego -- the more we cling to ego the more the pain hurts, but if we release ego and surrender to our higher self, we can endure the suffering and wreak a vengeance made all the sweeter by the cauterizing flames that have cored us like an apple or the insides of a junky taking an opiate receptor blocker to hasten (and hopefully shorten) the inevitable stretch of agonizing withdrawal, the 'crucifixion cruise' all alcoholics and junkies inevitably suffer, either intentionally or not.

In a scene filmed atop and around a recently-erupted volcano, Matsu and her fellow escaped female convicts run and creep around the ashy slopes, dressed in gray cape/shawls, all while bassoon and Jew's harp twang and moan, making us expect Macbeth and Banquo to come riding past, or a dinosaur to come roaring down from the sky. It's important to realize this innate sense of connection with primal, tribal forces is much more pervasive in the Japanese mindset than in, say, USA's melting pot blood-splatter. With their insane eyes and gnashing teeth, the other women convicts are representations of a pure, undistilled feminine animism. Presocialized erotic apparitions pummeled by Apollonian logic into barely recognizable caricatures of longing and fear, they are personifications of the chthonic stain that endures no matter how much carbolic acid and electroshock bleach beatings are poured onto it. The volcano itself is a perfect metaphor for this Dionysian primordial archetyping and while the female prisoners seem perfectly part of the landscape, the cops and dogs are out of their element, both menacing alien others and buffoons, easily stuck in the ash or falling victim to Matsu's booby traps. These figures of law and order seem to sense that they've been led to a place where patriarchal law has no jurisdiction, and that their whole purpose in the film is to be swallowed up by the unconquerable feminine force that Matsu embodies.

At any rate, SCORPION suffers from a very limited emotional palette including passages of death throe squeak-speak and screaming contests that drag on for minutes. I envy those who can watch these films on a regular basis and not become warped and misanthropic, or at least not get a headache. The color coordinated trash dump scenes are pretty awesome, at any rate, and when she slashes at the bad guys, she tears the celluloid itself in half... it's artsy like that!

If there was a line between life and death, it's where Matsu, Sgt. James (HURT LOCKER) and Bronson all dwell. For some warriors, it's bleached Iraqi deserts; for others, dank prisons and heaps of volcanic ash and garbage; for an unhappy few, even their own household has become a battleground. The question is, when will they stop cringing in fear rise up as fearless, unfazeable warriors beyond the illusions of life/death duality? Or as they die, die, die, die, when will they scream, in slow mo pitch shift squeakspeak, instead: MATSUUUUUUUUUO!?!?!?!?!

(Thanks Aria at Muse's Garden, from whom I ripped some of the above beauteous screenshots - read her insightful and much more expositional review here)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I got a home in that 'Raq (Hallelujah): THE HURT LOCKER

Similar to the possible future prison showdown between Manson and Polanski, it will be interesting tonight to see whether the Oscars go Cameron or his ex, Kathryn Bigelow.  Now I'll confess up front, I haven't seen AVATAR. I just can't work up any enthusiasm for it, but THE HURT LOCKER (2009) gives us a remake of something I do have enthusiasm for - the tough guy "group" movie of Howard Hawks, where brave lads face death daily without flinching or preaching or engaging in expository dialogue.

William James (Jeremy Renner) stars as a fearless bomb diffuser, and his fearlessness makes him a warrior out of his own time, like Patton in World War Two. His nonchalant courage would be right at home in Patton's third army, storming through occupied France or repelling wave after wave of Japanese banzai charges on Okinawa. But Iraq is a different beast-- more like an occupation force, ala the British in India or the British in Palestine, or the Israelis in Palestine, or the French in Algeria. In short, the bad guys, or at least we're compelled to realize how thin the line is between colonialism and the best intentions of queens and walruses. But while his comrades worry and wait, James goes right for the fuses, as focused and relentless as Mel Gibson in a world of Glovers.

While none of this is made didactic in the film, a soldier's anxiety about being killed is seen as more of a detriment than an asset to a soldier's sanity and skill development. I've never even been close to a war zone (aside from 9/11) but I've seen a lot of war documentaries, and I can tell you: those marines and GIs? They were badasses. In Bataan or Iwo Jima or Okinawa, the marines would lose 40,000 men on a single island and bend but not break. In that light, our Staff Sgt. William James would fit right in. But this Iraq war he finds himself in is so screwed up that soldiers can get all whiny about losing only a handful of men, say a dozen--in a bombing, as if it's not fair that wars should involve killing and maiming. It's like why Patton was so tough on his men - give them dirt to eat every day and eventually they get stomachs like iron, they can't even taste cake. Let them eat cake every day and they all whine like babies when it's time to eat even a spoonful of good old dirt.

Man, we have a saying in AA: If you go to a barbershop, sooner or later you come out with a haircut. Or the shock of realizing you have cancer after a lifetime of smoking... mmmm, but so worth it, you thought... at the time, or do you worry so much about staying alive you lose all joy of living? The most vehement "playing it safe" proponent, Sgt. Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) freaks out constantly as James tries to focus on his bombs, yet later Sanborne admits he's got nothing to live for... it's just fear for the sake of fear, a true indication of how consumerism has warped our concept of tribal loyalty.

Kathryn Bigelow winning might mean more stylized semi-deconstructed violence in cinema than ever before, which would be awesome. Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth,  what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle).

The key to living the charge of THE HURT LOCKER is to embrace the chaos and the way all the Arab faces in the street vibe possible suspects one second and merely local citizens checking things out from their windows the next, possibly on cell phones, possibly with guns... oh wait, a paint roller. Firefights take place sometimes miles away (the sort of thing a movie like BODY OF LIES tried to achieve while also adhering to outmoded rules of dramatic cohesion and liberal equality) and the natural leadership of our James makes you realize that what The Dog Whisperer says is so: the leader is the one who is most relaxed under fire. Renner strides boldly forward where Leos fear to tread. Hurt Locker, I'll be praying for you to win... Thanks Renner for looking a lot like my gun nut brother Fred and helping me understand him more, and to see that shrapnel-burn can look a lot like acne and have that be okay, to have a square nose like Reid, the World's Toughest Milkman and have that be okay, and to have a clean shaven guy show up all these wispy characters floating around the ABC sitcom promos with their exquisitely disheveled casual wear and perfectly mussed 11-o-clock shadow.

I am imagining Kathryn Bigelow (above) as the Evelyn Mulray to Howard Hawks' Noah Cross and I mean that in the best possible way because I revere Hawks uber alles and this would be perhaps a non-incestuous version, one with more fishing and hunting and target practice. I'm sure Hawks would have called HURT LOCKER "a damn good picture" and Bigelow "a damnned good-looking girl."

Dear Kathryn, let Oscar be the wings that lift you into the A-list auteur roster next to Paul Thomas Anderson and John Ford and make us all re-evaluate STRANGE DAYS or at the very least, struggle to fathom your age-defying hotness. Praise the Lord and pass the hollow point BLUE STEEL ammunition.
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