Thursday, May 27, 2010



I considered myself a sleaze merchant know-it-all prior to entering AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, but still had to see it if only for my idol, Kim Morgan's presence (below) as a talking head. Turns out it's pretty cool and I learned new stuff. In addition to the "sinsational" Ms. Morgan there's: "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller, John "In-Joke" Landis, drive-in guru Jack Hill, and Joe PIRHANA-Dante, not to mention people I was sure I'd be annoyed by but turned out to love, like Herschell Gordon Lewis, of whom Landis says, "I don't particularly like his films, but I love his posters!" Hey, that's a compliment in exploitation land, and you can tell Landis means every word of it. Despite the crushing despair I experienced covering the SW double feature of Lewis' JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT/BLAST-OFF GIRLS (for the now defunct DVD Angle), I must admit Lewis seems like a helluva nice, smart, relaxed guy - and even a squeamish feminist like myself has to doff his hat to the man who made 2,000 MANIACS - in the words of Michael Weldon: "YEE-HAW!".

Producer/director/editor Elijah Drenner keeps it all humming along at a nice clip through the decades, starting around the dawn of cinema and ending with recent tributes like Tarantino and Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE. There's elements I would have put in (the rise of the VCR and subsequent Disneyfication of Times Square) and others I would have left out (THE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT, though it does make a great metaphor for America's geopolitic) but you'll never squeeze the whole history into a single film, and Drenner keeps it all from being too flashy or too slow, too normal or too head-spinningly weird --and does not spare the adult content: bare breasts, sexual assault and horrific gore are all here, with many of the most disturbing clips from the most disturbing films: ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS and the works of HG Lewis (pictured below), such as BLOOD FEAST, for example. And the clips all look really, really good. It's very strange that this stuff was once so shocking you could only see it as a legal adult in a sleazy theater at the stroke of midnight, and now it's nostalgia, and yet - the times are if anything more conservative and morally regressive than ever. I've even argued the two are linked - we're conservative because we're jaded.

HGL and some of his 2,000 Maniacs
The best praise I could give for something like this is that it reminded me of when I was a kid in the 70s and actually scared of the TV commercials and newspaper ads for a lot of these movies. I could also see a portion of a drive-in screen, far in the distance, from my bedroom window, if I used my kid telescope - I watched pieces of THE MANITOU that way! At least I think it was. I still haven't seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (from fear of post-trauma more than anything else) but if I could be assured the actual DVD transfers of these films looked as good as they cleaned-up clips here, I'd be all over it. Plus, Drenner leavens unease by showing lots of outtakes: LAST HOUSE seems less foreboding now that I've seen David Hess shooting the breeze with his onscreen victims between shots.

It must have been a difficult choice to leave out the European imports that had a huge effect on grindhouse distribution patterns (I asked Drenner about that: "We had to make a clear line down the middle and decide what to cover and what to leave out.") On the other hand, who needs a complete picture? That's what Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Cinema Guide The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film is for! What we have here in AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a nice little summary of 100% American output, a carny's insider view of Yankee hooplah and pitchman ballyhoo, with art and culture pushed way to the side until it's off the table -- and lands with a lowbrow splat.

There's stuff here I didn't know about, which shocked me. I had no idea the film THE CORPSE GRINDERS was a huge hit for Ted V. Mikels. The grinding of corpses carries no appeal for me, personally, but I always kind of subconsciously associated it with the term grindhouse (or the shredding of old film in a cheap projector, grinding the sprockets). When I learned the name's taken from "Bump and grind" as a mark of when the country's once plentiful burlesque houses were turned into theaters to show films of girls stripping (cheaper that way), you coulda knocked me over with a feather from a rhinestone pastie. Imagine if it was called 'bumphouse' instead? Why just grind, man? 

The whole stripper genre was a bit of a blind spot in my sleaze-education prior to this film but apparently there were an awful (in both senses) lot of them. Ed Wood fans still recovering from trying to stay awake through ORGY OF THE DEAD might be glad to know it's not anyone's fault that they failed. LSD fans who tried and failed to watch more than ten minutes of MANTIS IN LACE can also relax for the same reason. Apparently there was a time when looooong dull stationary camera striptease scenes (as with burlesque queen, Blaze Starr, atop with drum) were considered the height of decadence. Fascinating, yet tame and tedious in our age of readily ubiquitous nudity and XXX-rated websites.
I've got minor quibbles with AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE as a whole, of course: we'd be so much better off with more of the witty Kim Morgan, though when she's put on the spot for saying women like to see other women naked ("They do!" she exclaims in reaction to Drenner's apparent offscreen incredulity) it seems a bit of a weird inclusion; if you're going to leave it in the film, don't doubt the woman! She's trying to help Travis Bickle get Cybil Shepherd to go with him to see SOMETIMES SWEET SUSAN (see way below).  I always thought Travis was being rather passive aggressive, the pressure to be charming and get Cybil into bed leading him to this massive act of self-sabotage. But Kim says different. I believe her.

On that note, no review of a movie on a topic like this would be complete without the word misogyny, so there it is. Surprisingly, the most feminist-friendly guy on the show seems to be HG Lewis! There's ample time devoted to his feminist-fave, SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, but where's Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, that Hemingway sister joint, LIPSTICK, and the whole rape-revenge cycle? For that matter, where's the Satanic possession and the EXORCIST / ROSEMARY'S BABY knockoffs? Where's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? ERASERHEAD? Bette Davis' BABY JANE microgenre, and 70s telekinesis? BLACULA? And ballyhoo meister David Friedman's classic quote about how his movies were "all sizzle and no steak," and pornography gave people the steak, so the sizzle was out, and that's how grindhouse essentially died and became pornography?

Not to kvetch of course, just to flaunt my own expansive knowledge and hide my terror. Because not only am I afraid to see LAST HOUSE, I'm afraid to see PASSION OF THE CHRIST (above), which Landis astutely points out is "the last real grindhouse film!"

Speaking of passion, I've got a soft spot for New York accents, so I got a real kick out of sleaze director Don Edmonds alternately justifying, apologizing for, and boasting of, the excesses of his ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS, a film I rented back in 1990 in Seattle (from Scarecrow Video!) and which made me see red, literally, when I closed my eyes during sex for the next three years!  But one must admire the relative care that went into ILSA, vs., say, most other Nazisploitation (called "Nazi Exploitation" here, for some reason) with their use of Lewis' patented nail-the-camera-to-the floor, yell-action-and-sneak-off-for-a-nap style framing. But what about the other period sleaze auteurs that aren't mentioned (unless they were mentioned whilst I was in the bathroom, or mixing drinks, or smoking crack, or rolling johns in the men's room), shouldn't there be a sequel? Eurosleazeonomicon, or something cool like that?

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE never reaches much of a conclusion beyond confirming that Americans will always make films with both eyes on the ticket window and just a toe brushing up against the edge of art, and thus our baser instincts will always be catered to. It's a comforting but disturbing thought about the value of prurience and the way always getting exactly what you want to see can make you a perverse mess just like the anti-porn crusaders have always harangued it would. But at a brisk under-90 minute running time (it would be a perfect part of any exploitation double feature), AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE moves fast enough there's nary a dull moment. For casual fans you can really get an idea of what avenues you may want to explore. Just be prepared to be shocked, amazed, and... most of all, flabbergasted! Grind yourself deep into your seat as you enjoy a splice-ridden slice of film history, one bedecked with sound, fury, and sizzle. In the words of Pam Grier in COFFY (below) when her cop boyfriend tells her she can't just go around just killing everyone: "Why not?"

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Voluptuous Crucifixion: My Long Day's Journey into NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964)

There's movies about drunks made by sober folks for sober folks (i.e. Days of Wine and Roses) and then there's movies about drunks made by drunks for drunks, such as NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. It's directed by John "drunk in Mexico" Huston, written by Tennessee "alcoholic beachboy junky" Williams, and stars Richard "King Drunkus" Burton. Whether snoring through high-steppin' crap like EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC or THE MEDUSA TOUCH, chewing scenery indiscriminately between woozy waves of hungover nausea in DR. FAUSTUS and BOOM! or--in very rare moments of clarity--brilliantly acting, Burton was always one drink ahead of his slur, a surfer sliding and grinning wild-eyed and mirthlessly down the tube as lightweights collapse in his wake. If he didn't always land gracefully, we could blame the floor or the script, not the man, usually.

But he had his weaknesses. He had appetites. And he fed his appetites. And when a great writer knew him and too knew appetites, of the sorts condemned by moral matrons blind to their own butch yearnings, then a mighty force was in the works. Only a great shaper of drunken, mighty forces like these could harness such a booming noise into a manly tune, only a towering friend to the drunken titan, like John Huston could craft from this crazy madness something truly mythic and even transcendent in scope. The result of this great meeting of three minds, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, has been called indulgent male narcissist male gazing by bitch-ass punks and people who never knew the awful terror of depression, loneliness and fear that coalesce when a day of youthful waggery, public adoration, groupies, endless free drinks, and velvet ropes parting before you like an admiring red-faced sea suddenly gives way to hostile, indifferent nights, alone - shivering, unemployed, fired, bested devastation - paying full price for even a plain diet coke as you clutch your sweat-stained AA pamphlets like the last rope out of the jaws of the long swim crashing surf Medusa. 

I don't like to regale you with tales of my own grandiose drunkenness (hah!) when writing about my favorite drunkard films, except in ways that illuminate the impossibility of being objective about a film when it hits close to home. So let me tell you a story that mirrors Rev. Shannon's own, a story that takes me back twenty years - to good old summer 1990.

I'd graduated college in Syracuse in '89, where I'd been played bass in a very popular (on the college scene) acid rock cover band, I quit them on good terms thinking my stardom would illuminate wherever I next alighted. I moved to Seattle with my hot girlfriend; I did the Noel in a Hendrix Experience cover band until the Hendrix guy got arrested and I wouldn't co-sign his bond and put up my car as collateral, whatever. No one came to see us anyway, except our progressively less-impressed girlfriends. Being just 22, bloated and wild-eyed with progressing alcoholism, and naive as all hell, I was genuinely surprised how hard it was translating my Syracuse local rock god glory to a town that, as anyone who's tried to move there knows, is very insular, and depressing. I became a hopeless drunk with few friends (all from California). I hung out at the Blue Moon tavern a lot, trying to score weed while various people tried to pick up my hot girlfriend and I let them (actually, as anyone in that situation knows, there's not much you can really do about it without coming off swinish) on the off chance they had weed. At home I read Hate and Eightball comics and listened to records of old blues and/or old radio shows while guzzling whiskey highballs and eating peanut butter on crackers; I watched endless WC Fields and Jack Hill movies (fell in love with Spider Baby for the first time), and drank more and more while the endless rains fell on our U-district one bedroom apartment's flat-top roof. A great way to sink into a cold depression, and loving every sick minute of it, at least in hindsight.

My too-hot girlfriend became disenchanted. She had too many good offers from affluent non-screwed up hippie bros. We broke up while shrooming at the aquarium, the sadness of a tank of black fish polluted her viaducts with melancholy. I left her there in our apartment and hit the road for home, shrooming all the way across the country via route 90. I hit Syracuse along the way, right in time for the hardcore psychedelic revels that mark the end of the semester every spring (or did), especially on Earth Day, at which used to be held an annual block party on the huge strip of lawn between the roads on fraternity row. Crashing with myriad yet-to-graduate friends and bandmates, I was out of the band but still invited onstage to jam and do funnels. I may have been nothing but a cut-rate Noel Redding imitator in Seattle, but in Syracuse I was still a lizard king-ish icon. Free at last, girls literally standing in line to welcome me back after the show as I sat there on my bass amp throne, each forcing each other out of the way, clamoring for my ear; my head full of cocky entitlement and psilocybin (a great combination), it was the happiest two weeks of my life. Unfortunately, looking back, I overdid it. I became a notorious slut, figuring out the best plan to deal with two housemates on Victoria Pl. both hitting on me was to sleep with them on successive nights, thus earning both their lifelong ire. They weren't even my only lovers during that two week stretch. I also got so high and drunk I actually accelerated out of my depression for the first time since 1987.

But May ended, the last of the straggling students left, and finally, the last person I knew still dawdling had left for home. I had nowhere else to crash, so--. still glowing from two weeks of validation, sex, drugs, rock and roll--I finally drove home--fanfare trumpets in my Lou Reed and Stones-soaked ears--to New Jersey and the Kuersten family tract. I was three grand in debt and a week late. I walked in expecting to just say hey and make a drink. 

My mom was there, furious, waiting. 

She started right in lecturing and a man had been waiting there, in the kitchen, to give me a urine test for life insurance. She hadn't even told me. This being the time of "Just say no," when you could go to jail for decades just having a joint in your car, I knew what would happen if I complied. So I went from living the "lush life" as king of the world to making hurried, vague excuses why I couldn't give a urine sample to my mom. Enduring her scathing silences and near-tears looks, the beige walls and the hostile yet disinterested depressive silence of that empty-but-for-disappointed-parent's house hit me like a tidal wave. I had no friends in town, nowhere to go, no one even to call.

That night I lay in my crappy little twin bed in my old room, as miserable as I'd ever been. I finally missed my hot Seattle girlfriend; it ached. I missed the girls I'd rebounded with in Syracuse - though by then they were all mad at me as they'd found out about each other. I was reaping the shit I'd been sowing for six years, all at once. My pillow wet with tears, I was too young (23) to understand the anguish of validation withdrawal, going from a life of constant drunk, stoned, tripping, collective love, to one of silently hostile maternal indifference and crushing solitude. I felt the full weight or all the great shit I'd thrown away in the name of what I called at the time "the sacrifice of love for love's sake," of walking away from the band and the girl while the memories were still sublime - not riding it into the ground. That sense of sacrifice made it all so sweet at the time. But now.... there was only  pain.

Men weren't allowed to cry back then. We were supposed to man up, tie our ties and take temp agency typing tests every day until we died or got a real job. Man, that Seattle girl was so hot, bro. Shit. Now that I wasn't rebounding right and left, I really missed her. The things I disliked about her faded into trifles while her beauty glowed every more painfully from the 3,000 mile vantage point  and I was yet too young to understand why that was. Now I'd be unable to smoke pot for at least a week (when the urine taker returned), needing to wash my system out with daily jugs of water and refraining from all "dry goods" in a state of uneasy paranoia. There was no recourse, no outlet for my longing.

I was so sad that night, I couldn't sleep. I'd never been too sad to sleep before. I never had a pillow soaked with literal hot tears before. Never. It was hell and it went on forever, hour after hour as I lay there until I could finally hear the snores of both my parents in the next room.... like an 'all clear' alarm.

I crept downstairs to see if I could perhaps find solace in TV and the parental liquor cabinet.

My ginger touch in removing dad's booze ever-so-quietly from the shelf was still in effect. I could negotiate the creaky stairs in pitch blackness without making so much as a creak. I could make myself a large "heroic" tumbler of rum with a dash of pineapple juice without rattling a single ice cube. Thus armed, I began the torturous cycle through cable channels that was two AM TV in the pre-internet early 1990s, and all so quietly no creature would stir around me.

Suddenly out of the fog of paid programming whom should appear? Richard Burton, in color on TNT (Ted Turner was colorizing everything it could get its hands on), fending off Sue Lyon's irresistible advances down in Mexico and basically giving voice to all my miserable woe right there on the spot and the rum hit me like a warm hug right as I saw Burton's magnificent drunk face and recognized the girl as the same hottie from "Lolita."

I was going to be all right... the warm flush of rum hit me as I realized the whole movie was about what I was going through, the kind of night that's tough to get through, but saved by frank and honest discussions of, for some reason, Hannah Jelke's bizarre sexual experience in a gondola. Deborah Kerr's performance is, I realized only later now that I'm older (and many years sober, thanks to AA and the grace of etc.), the other major source of power in this movie, as her own descriptions of getting through long nights ("any light looks good after being so long in a dark tunnel that you thought was never ending") rattling any emotionally vulnerable soul to tears of catharsis.

In short, Night of the Iguana "makes it easier to get through nights that are hard for us to get through," Miss Hannah Jelkes says of her poppy seed tea. Watching it that night, after my hours of tear-stained despair, I realized a part of me was enjoying being at the end of my rope "on a green carpet hilltop instead of Golgotha, the Place of the Skulls," i..e. my parent's tract home in Bridgewater, NJ, bathed in the forgiving glow of rum and orange juice. "Isn't that a comfortable, almost voluptuous crucifixion, Mr. Shannon?"

I rushed to tape it, missed about the first 45 minutes, realized it was playing again the following night so I could tape the whole thing. Thank you, God! Thank you, rum! There was still some left! And Richard Burton, his thick black eyeliner-lined eyes wild with hungover desperation so palpable I knew I was not alone in ways I wouldn't know until AA ten years later. Thank you, John Huston! Thank you, you old savior and lonesome Tennessee Williams! They all 'got it'  And of course, thank you, Sue Lyon and all the other irresistible, cool, unique or awful women that Burton deals with in the film: thank you, tangle of closeted lesbian cock-blockers, nymphs, sexually active widows and middle-aged virgin quick-sketch artists with your tins of opium poppy seed tea.

I'd avoided the film prior to this moment because of childhood resentments against the misleading use of "Iguana" in the title. What monster-loving child expecting giant iguana attacks wants to see an "alcoholic priest dealing with various women in Mexico" (as per Lennie). Other people don't like this film for other reasons than its lack of rampaging giant iguanas. They see Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon as too passive, letting himself by fought over, pursued and pushed this way and that by various ladies, including Lolita's butch guardian, Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall). To these critics he's little more than a rag doll, flopping in one pair of jaws after another, barely able to choose or fight back, unwilling to sober up and escape. They said he was pathetic with self-pity, trying to swim out to his death the minute he doesn't get his own way. They were right, but can I suggest that if you hate him because of that, well, maybe you wish some girls would fight over you while you laid back in a similar rag doll fashion?

Take it from me, and Burton, Huston and Williams - you're better off wishing for it than getting it, because as Liz Phair would sing a few years later, if you do get it "and you're still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you." And worse, as hollow a pleasure as it is, you get addicted to it pretty fast, and then, the minute it stops, the agony of not having it kicks in, like opiate withdrawal (which if you don't like this movie, it's clear you never experienced). You see the results of this 'admiration withdrawal' all the time in Hollywood, the aging starlets turning themselves into duck-like gargoyles to vainly try and get their 'fix' back. In short, it's the male version of Charlene's 1982 hit "I've Never Been to Me" - no faint praise.

But before you find the solace of 12-Step Groups (or death) you--in desperation--grab at any straw with all the desperation of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver. When a ride shows up you nearly always say yes, wherever it's going. And that's never good because they want you for reasons not your own. The only way out of one dysfunctional lover's claws is when some other chick bothers to scoop you up and steal you away for another. Whatever the new temptation is, you take it. The alternative is an ever-tightening noose of co-dependence as your last temptation slowly ages into a death trap, or what AA calls "taking a hostage" or worse, dying alone - over and over, through every minute of every night. Eventually all the girls you messed around with behind each other's back are going to get together and compare notes. Girls might get branded slutty in high school but they're always absolved (it's the men's fault), but men get branded later by secret female cabals and it's forever. They never look at you the same way again.

You know the score, dear reader, everyone has had their May 1990, that shining moment when more than one person is fighting to take you home to their place and you just soak it all up and let them fight it out, and then, in the end, you can only go home with one of them. You can't decide which to pick, and anyway, the party is in full swing, so you stay, drink more, and then around dawn, you realize you are alone, your options are expired; the person you've been talking to for the last hour is long since asleep. You laugh at your own absurdity but even that doesn't help allay the sense of isolation and anguish. You wake up the next evening and it's already dark and its sadder than if nothing ever happened because something did... and you blew it. And hearing dear Hannah sat "Drink was never your problem, Mr. Shannon" is quite a comfort, as is the withered old poet lost in a grapple with his verse which will only ever be heard by whomever happens to be around when it's finished, but he doesn't care. As long as it's good. Now in the age of the internet we can all imagine all our work read and treasured by anonymous strangers, as opposed to existing only in a few Kinko copies, read only at open mikes by yourself, literary journal editorial offices by rejection slip-mailing interns, or no one, and all chance for notice dying as soon as your parents moved and threw all your old boxes away. Where could you find the strength to be a writer in that hellish environment of complete isolation and Father Mackenzie writing his sermons that no one will hear / with no betrayal of despair?

You could be one day as lucky as the old gentlemen - it doesn't matter who hears it, as long as it's finished, and as long as it's good. Since in the end we're just looking for a reason to keep writing, some assurance we're not speaking only to ourselves (not even noticed enough to be forgotten), or that it doesn't matter even if we are, there's a goal now. Get so good that when someone does read your work in the future, it cracks their mind apart. Like yours is right now! Bro! 

"endurance is something blue devils respect"

There are critics who also dismiss Iguana as being talky and grandiose, but you have to understand the mindset: if you're a talky, grandiose drunk grappling with the realization that you've already had your glory days, that you're like Sebastian Venable if he was smart enough to take a cab out of that godforsaken beachside bar in Cabeza de Lobo and so survivied, aging to become the oldest 'working' poet, still galavanting around with a female 'procurer'; and if you keep photos of ex-girlfriends in secret drawers, to pore over longingly in between your serial monogamous string of relationships, and if you reread your illegible notebooks of slurred poetry and tear-stained letters from the only girls you ever loved, all while vainly drinking your way out of a pre-internet suburbia NJ hell, then Night of the Iguana is your movie.

Few things are more boring than a sane artist. And of course, academia and the bourgeois are flooded with them. Not to rationalize, but in my opinion if you're an 'artist' and not down there in the sludgy flooded basement of your inner mansion, digging for monsters and jellyfish and risking being dragged under by monsters from the Id, then where are ya? In the living room having tea? A spot o' tea, guvna? Then you're not an artist - you're a 'craftsman' and/or a tenure track hack.

Just try to lead one of these sane artists down the stairs and see how they fight to get back up, screaming in litigious terror.

Then there are the ones with completely clean basements, they have nothing left to dig for and so their writing moves from "fiction" or "non-fiction" into "spirituality" or "Self-help."

All of which is preface to saying Night of the Iguana comes from a messy basement, a star, director and writer all with messy basements that they are deep down in the muck of, pulling up all sorts of deep archetypal mythic relics, as ancient as Cronus' broken rusty chains. It's there in the shy, ashamed way Shannon can't even drink in front of the ladies, he has to take a bottle of the cart and sheepishly slink off to his room like Popeye ashamed to let Olive see how shaky he is with the spinach can opener. I've also endured the hissing vibes in the eyes of women my own age as I walk down the street with hot babes half theirs... I've been victim of rumors, and shakes, and blue devils. I've been saved, as well, by beautiful angels who fed me when my hands shook to much to lift a fork. Hannah Jelkes calls these moments examples of "broken barriers between people." It's when you're so vulnerable and sensitive you see the beauty and kindness of those women who stick around and comfort you as truly angelic --glowing and absolving. You have no wall to hide behind and they are drawn to that nakedness of soul like a holy flame. "What is important," notes Hannah, "is that one is never alone." Yeah, booze, man, and Central, NJ, and being a barely published young writer in the age before internet, with intense social anxiety.  She gets it.

"Did someone call for a recitation?"
Yet, in getting it, she can undo it. Her love for a humble man turns him cocky, and then needy when she's not into him anymore (due to his cockiness) - thus hard-won self-knowledge seems to be swallowed up by women, who leave the man having to start all over again shedding his post-cocky neediness. Similarly, recognition and fame makes mundane formalist status quo keepers out of once visionary artists. Like a woman's love for a humble man, the public's love for writers and artists turns them cocky, then needy when their cockiness (as seen in the infamous 'sophomore effort' curse) shifts to neediness  Rather than prizing process all else, famous artists fall prey to to the addictive (naturally this process applies to all addictions) craving of attention. While self-aggrandizing is a necessary thing for some artists to overcome blocks, eventually old Ego chokes all the pipes and the bullshit starts to rise, coprophiliac sycophants may gather like hyenas in some mad night club nature show; the first line you cross is free but the costs rise until suddenly the limelight isn't over your head anymore, it's below your feet and all you're left with is a stamp on the back of your hand, now slowly washing away in the early morning rain like Roy Batty's tears. When you wake, mom wants a urine sample, and there's Bim maybe, letting your mom know a bed has opened up in the Bellevue alcoholic's ward.

A summary of Iguana's own plot is a great example of the has-beenophobic male as well: right at the beginning Lawrence T. Shannon is derided by his pinch-faced congregation,  for "praying" with one of his more attractive young (female) parishioners. We never see this girl but when we next find Shannon, he's acting as a Mexican tour guide, showing old church ladies around, trying to stay awake or semi-sober as best he can in the heat. Complicating matters is Charlotte (Sue Lyon) a wanton nymph under the care of Ms. Fellowes, a lady so misandric she could go toe-to-toe with Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar.

"oh, courage..."
Charlotte is madly in love with Shannon, promising him a job at her father's church and completely deluded and swept away in a girlish infatuation tide generated by boredom on the one hand, and the girlish sense of safety created by his being a 'born and bred' clergyman on the other. For his part, Shannon's conscience is so strict about messing around with an underage girl that he has no choice but to drink said conscience clean into oblivion. The line is sanity, honey, and he crosses it. Fellowes catches them one too many times in a clinch and threatens to have him fired from Blake's Tours. Shannon strands the tour bus near his old drinking grounds, tries to keep Fellowes' call to Corpus Christi, TX, from happening, way off in a suite of bungalows up in the hills above the beach, run by yet another female (played lustily by Ava Gardner) with an eye for defrocked Welsh priests. Brother, the heat is on! Literally as the hill is super steep and the sun hot enough to fry the minds and shaky lower intestines of some of the older ladies in the congregation.

Shit, man... and to see it all in color the first time was really nice. The TNT folks did a fine job. You could practically smell the coco de oro in the air (especially with what I was drinking at the time, 50/50 rum and orange juice). I managed to tape the entirety of a second showing and to see it a dozen times or more before finally seeing the b&w original. And now it just doesn't feel like the same movie. Still, now I'm sober so the tales of Hannah's few sexual experiences --one in the Nantucket movie theater, the hand job or whatever it was ("he was arrested, for molesting a minor / I told the police it was a Garbo picture.") and Shannon's mix of hostility during his panic attack and flashes of compassion and wisdom --has all lost a little of the magic I felt deep in my rapturous veins watching it on that colorized TNT print back in 1990.

And it's easy to see why Williams wanted his go-to muse, Anna Magnani to play Maxine (like she did on Broadway). He wrote the role expressly for her, and--as she showed in her other William's-written vehicles The Rose Tattoo (1955) and The Fugitive Kind (1960)--Magnini's slightly-dowdy sexually super-needy persona might be manna for gay boys (Brando in Kind) and grinning idiots (ala Lancaster in Tattoo), but is terrifying for any straight men who's grown up and moved out of his parent's house. Magnani' brash 'to the rafters' powerhouse dowdiness is terrifying, while Gardner's beauty is apparent no matter how down she dresses. It's fine by me, of course, that Gardner is in Magnani's role. I feel suffocated by even a few minutes of her in The Rose Tattoo and that a gorgeous man like Brando would choose her over Joanne Woodward at her sexiest in Kind is, frankly, as unconscionable as the idea that shacking up with Gardner would in anyway be a consolation prize instead of sexless Deborah Kerr (while it it was Magnani, it would make sense. No offense to that actress meant, of course. But Gardner is a raspy doll that any man would love to shack up with on a hilltop overlooking the sea, the cradle of life (and death, for brave poets to sail off into), no matter how much make-up she lost and weight she added and hair she mussed. On the other hand, shacking up with Magnani is daunting. She's legit larger than life and it's only with her in mind the part makes sense. She's the kind of woman a man needs to drink into focus, otherwise she's a blur of resonant movement. That's sometimes the best feature about forces of wild nature like her (i.e. my favorite adage (that I made up for my folklore final), "there's no such thing as ugly women, only sober men"). And Nadine's has a fully stocked bar (if Shannon doesn't drink up all the profits), so why he wouldn't be leaning that way from the get-go is the one false note. 

Since Gardner plays her though, it's hard to imagine why he seems to think twice about it. She's a lifeline tossed to Shannon the way this movie was a lifeline tossed to me in my hour of woe. I took it, as did he. Drunks may be a lot of things, but they're no fools, and they're in no position to refuse hospitality, be it Nadine's rum cocoas or Ted Turner's colorized cradle of life. Save us once, in our hour of woe, and we're loyal to you forever. Even now my relationship to this film is strong, unbreakable I quote it so often in this blog I don't even notice it anymore. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It was himmmmm! The Warrrrior did it!: Links and Celebration via He Shot Cyrus

Walter Hill's fabulous THE WARRIORS. It's leaked into my writing style so much I never even try to quote it, there must be some word. I want them. I want all... the "Warriors"! I want them alive if possible, if not wasted! Spread the word." Sorry 'bout that boppers! El Gringo shares this passion over at the HE SHOT CYRUS site and is celebrating our common heritage and blog excellence from May 21-23.  I want all the blogs he's mentioning as a lot of great writers seem to have wondrous blogs and I've not been informed... til now! If not, wasted! And Gringo's is good too!

I'd like to give shout-outs to a few ladies who may not already be shout-outted:

Tenebrous Kate - Lovetrain for the Tenebrous Empire. First of all, with that name, I'm gonna think of TENEBRAE, and then shudder in ecstasy, horror and ennui-ridden despair for never being her level of dangerous. Second of all is her grasp of how to make writing about some horrible film no one in their right mind would want to see and making it suddenly poetry. You may not want to see the film, but what you'll end up doing is just reading her review 18 more times, savoring its mastery of brevity vs. informationally packedness and letting her "take the bullet" for your poor overworked eyes.

One of the very first writers on Acidemic, the Film Journal was Karina Longworth, who blew me away with her amazing piece on Jane Campion's IN THE CUT. Since then she's become a superstar on the rise at the Village Voice, and her site Cinematical. Unlike so many who get lifted up into the spotlight, she's still edgy. She helped me get a job as a slashfood blogger which I foolishly let go of back in the phat years. I was like the anti-food blogger. The readers all but threw cabbages... marinated no doubt in a sumptuous red parfait-jeus.

Movieman at The Sun's Not Yellow (it's Chicken) formerly The Dancing Image, is a writer always on point, sharp and whetted. I'm a fan!

There's so many, but everyone knows Ed Howard and my fellow Bright Lights After Dark writers Joseph Aisenberg, C. Jerry Kutner and Gary Morris. Under-sung champions would be Out 1, Filmbo's Chick Magnet, and the Blue Vial, where Drew has been watching all of Godard's movies back to back, a self-imposed torture I wouldn't wish on anyone, including Godard himself, but the writing is keen, so jump on in!

Of course I'd mention Kim Morgan, Stacie Ponder and The Self-Styled Siren, but they've already ascended to the throne of coolness.. And I've already found two new (for me) bloggers today that I love, Calum Reed at the Ultimate Addict and Shaun Anderson at The Celluloid Highway.

Nathaniel R's The Film Experience, Neil Fulwood's Agitation of the Mind, Hans A's Quiet Cool and Bryce Wilson's Things That Don't Suck! Each ubiquitous and essential...and getting better all the time. You write a blog long enough, you write better! We're evolving, we're evolving through the ground / that you put down.... that's from HAIR, my psychedelic urchin!

Honeymoons of Terror! EDEN LAKE (2008) and A PERFECT GETAWAY (2009)

Who loves movies about rich douchebags in love? Not us! But what if said bags take their trusting, materialistic new wives or girlfriends off to the woods or some remote beach to get away from it all, and then maybe pop the question or have a honeymoon? Nope. But what if they get chased, murdered, tortured and eaten and deprived of cellular phone service once at said remote area? Everybody loves that! Eat 'em up!

See, the thing is, these hidden woodsy places ain't like our  protagonists remembered from their privileged youths; times are always getting tougher, and poor people settle into the fissures and dead ends and gutted Wal-Marts the rich leave in their wake as they chomp chomp up the world. Soon abandoned for bigger spaces, these Wal-Marts, gnarly woods, nuclear fall-out zones, and isolated beaches (forgotten or not yet chomped) become infested with inbred, torture-lovin', meth-smokin' animals.

In other words, in their misguided bid for 'a little adventure' the protagonist couple--douchebag and trophy, if you will--find more than they bargained for, something not covered in an aisle of Home Depot or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Whether they fight back or cower all the way to the grave will depend on the script God gave them, but in the meantime, man, break that champagne bottle, for a jagged champagne bottle edge is a fine weapon! And damn but I got a slow-burn smitten on the Eve Mendez-meets-Ava Gardner hottie on the left (Kiele Sanchez), who gives Milla a literal run for the money in A PERFECT GETAWAY (2009).

Timothy Olyphant and Steve Zahn co-star as the boyfriends, and there's more screwy twists and turns for both than the Union Square subway station but it's filmed in Hawaii and the scenery looks good and om--om-shakti--you can vibe on rainbows and lush vegetation instead of the heated rush hour throngs outside the Exit sign of your own New York.

Movies are more than an escape, they are an escape without consequences; no cannibal or street thug can follow you home through the screen, so they're a safe alternative to physical travel. They give you a round tour of the paradise you might want to see... sometime, and leave you knowing you're better off where you are, close to the dream screen and with lots of locks on the doors. What was it Carol Clover said? Something about the land being raped by the gov'ment so the land rapes back via its dirt-poor rednecks? I'm glad both these films forego that kind of rough sexual assault stuff and stick to straight up killin' and maimin', as the good lord intended. Frankly, I loved PERFECT GETAWAY, but my expectations were rock bottom as I think I was confusing it with reviews I'd read of TURISTAS. So if you've never seen it, presume it lame and let it take you on its almost too "perfect" thrill-away... a horror film where characters actually make smart decisions!


Nothing could have prepared me, then, for the genius of EDEN LAKE (2008) an Australian shocker that aims high, clear above the usual WRONG TURN elements, and into STRAW DOGS territory, keeping a smattering of the old ultra-torture porn, with the heroes having a substantial hand in the evening's violent escalations and yet nothing getting as full-blown traumatizing as WOLF CREEK, thanks to, again, no sexual violence. Yes, the shock ending is downbeat, but not depressing, if you're worried about that sort of thing, and I was. If something's too ugly it can take me months to recover. So don't worry, it's all about family and the kids being all right, and a little burning and barbed wire as it creeps quietly out of the muck of exploitation and into the realm of social commentary so stealthily it's at your throat before you know it. And don't act like you don't got it comin', eh?

On the other hand. I love WRONG TURN too! And HILLS HAVE EYES and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW remake for that matter. I mean, why not? If you're going to order a steak dinner, don't enjoy your meal and then act shocked when you learn what people had to "do" to certain living creatures for the flesh to reach you. If I ran the world, you'd need a special "killer club" card to eat meat, and the dues would entail two days of slaughterhouse work a year... just enough for everyone to be a little less hypocritical when they weep for the beautiful soulful eyes of a sheep, then go into a magic dinnertime black-out until the bones are off the table. You'll know what I mean..  in the words of the great Bertolt Brecht: "For once you must try to face the facts / mankind is kept alive by bestial acts."

And hotties.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lindsay Lohan will Have her Revenge on Seattle

The public in its infinite judgmental prurience loves to symbolically burn witches at the stake via their tabloids, and if you don't count bimbos like Nicole or Paris or Britney as being really "in the game" as far as stretching the boundaries of public eye debauchery to crucifixion-ready levels (and you shouldn't) then that leaves just one knife-wielding bi-sexual hot mess incarnate to drool fire over, Lindsay Lohan. She's a lot of things, but nobody's bimbo... now.

I don't need to regale you with what she's been up to. How can you not know? It's all over the place, it infects and informs our entire tele-cine-visual-trasho-wunderland! So then, what's the deal? Is she gonna go to jail? Or is it all just a fantastic wonderful show? Even if it's real, what is reality, anyway? Beautiful starlets like Frances Farmer (above) getting the rough treatment from a brutally repressive patriarchy that punishes beautiful, brilliant women when they get out of line, that's sure real enough. But can even that be made into kind of a show, like pro-wrestling?

Consider Andy Kaufman and the way he would stage big battles, say against the wrestler Bill Blassie, and make it seem like they couldn't get through a talk show without trying to kill each other. Consider Andy's alter ego, the bullying lounge singer Tony Clifton (left). Was it just an act. for shock value, or something more artistic and genuinely subversive? To call attention to the way media hypnotizes us into believing and feeling things and having opinions on issues where we don't even know 90% of the story, this is to show us the way to freedom. Is this not the appeal of professional wrestling? We love to remember fake fighting as a child, the cathartic freedom and love that develops when you "pretend" to be mad, to fight, or to otherwise expose negativity as a fraud. Unlike the brutish mugs on wrestlers and thug mechanics, we believe the person with the cutest face and most pleading voice, unaware they could be the killer the whole time --as if noir taught us nothing. But just from our cliche'd expectations, we'd be willing to attack a giant dude in red spandex tights and a black mask if we saw him chasing her in the forest, when in fact he's just a one-trick Mickey and we're unaware she's setting us up for MURDER!

If you go back in time even earlier you have the famous feud between Fred Allen and Jack Benny, or WC Fields and Charlie McCarthy -- fights that basically provided writers with material and made great press and headlines, and no one ever thought they really were going to kill each other or anything. Then Take Mr. Fields' drinking. Since he was old and a man it became a source of much comical merriment his booze problem found a home in the cultural canon. Lindsay's drunkenness has no place in that context, because why? She was once a Disney girl? Oh come on! 

Before you judge, try hanging out with those kids sober, see how long you hold out.  Have we become even more repressive a society than we were in the 1930's, when Mae West was banned from radio for daring to play Eve in a saucy Adam and Eve sketch? The man who wrote the sketch, Arch Obler, wasn't banned, he was later praised for his show Light's Out, and even then was one of the first to regularly get on air credit for his work.

But instead of Mae or Fields we have LL, and her downward spiral. Well, I've downward spiraled many times and I can tell you this: she'll either die or she won't, but unless you're a traffic cop and she's swerving down the road, or you're a relative--or a producer who's already paid her an advance on an upcoming role and the insurance company is making 'glug glug' gestures behind her back--then it's really none of your frickin' business if she wants to drink herself into an early grave, sneak off to Cannes and promote a film barely in the preliminary stages of casting instead of going to out-patient rehab, or blow holes in her own car with a shotgun like Nina Simone, or set herself on fire like Richard Pryor. It has nothing to do with you directly, or your appreciation or lack thereof for her music and movies - unless the flames of fires she starts singe your hem or your property or otherwise effect your actual physical space directly. If your only connection to her is via screen or print then your reactions are due to a director or journalist pushing your buttons to get you to 'hooked.' If it takes getting you into a self-righteously indignant "burn the witch!" tizzy to keep you reading, then you should look at your own self in the mirror and realize that all you need is a pitchfork, a tri-cornered hat, and a lit torch and you could go chase the monsters and virgins around with the rest of the frightened peasants.

What's the difference between a middle-aged mom of five getting all schadenfreude excited over reading Lindsay might serve jail time vs. say, Ken Starr making Monica Lewinsky describe every hand motion she makes during fellatio or the hysteria of Salem and the early 1980s that led to my great x 8 aunt Mary Easty being hung as a witch? Is this not just a macro-version of the bratty sister who can't wait to tell mom how you got in trouble at school? Are we a nation of tattle-tales?

My friends, why not stop projecting your inner worm squirm guilt and fear and desire onto brave little Lindsay and just grab that vodka bottle out of your husband's or parents' cabinet and down a huge shot and then start hitting golf balls off the roof, or flicking cigarettes out the window at the passers-by beneath your second floor West Village apartment (like Courtney Love was recently observed to be doing)? Be the sibling who helps the in-trouble brother deal with the parents; be the Barney Frank who patiently talks the Lewinsky affair into a non-issue; be the breath of sanity in an insane world; see the light at the end of the tunnel and stop--as they say in AA--confusing your insides with other people's outsides.

It's a nice zeitgeist coincidence that the Stone's kickass classic, Exile on Main Street, gets re-released this week. When the Stones nod off and light themselves on fire it's art - when someone like Lindsay goes for it--gives the social order the finger and goes careening through life with a cigarette and Jack Daniels bottle it's not art, it's a shame. Burn the witch! You want to destroy the person who's free in order to reinforce your decision to stay cowering in your cubicle, to show Lindsay that cowering in the cubicle is the only way to avoid being burned! I'm right to cower, see, LL! Taste the fire!!

The thing is, when you live vicariously through, say, the excesses of Tony Montana then you revere him as a genuine badass even after he's shotgunned in the back by that bald guy in sunglasses. But since LL is a cute waif-type, you want to throw stones and bedeck her in a burka. It's not entirely your fault- her kind of cuteness taps into a protective instinct, so we want to follow her around picking up her messes, paying her bar tabs, and scaring off tattooed suitors and shady dealers. She makes it damn hard for us to take our villainous mustache finger away and shout bravely "I'll pay the rent!"

 There's a saying in AA about when you're a down and out drunk there's only three outcomes: Locked up, sobered up or covered up, i.e. with a sheet in the morgue. Like any true drunk, LL is taking her time to decide which of the three her roulette ball will her rest upon. She's been spinning that wheel for awhile but the mind has great ways of hiding the harsher truths from itself. Whatever path she takes, we will lose a great rager and we will miss these days of crazy headlines and shocking paparazzi booze pics. While she's alive we should celebrate her every self-destructive moment as if she had been dead 20 years and become a James Dean-Monroe-Presley-style dorm poster icon, a rebel at a disease and despair-infused time that compares only to the 1950s as far as hysteria-driven moral conformity.

For Lindsay is more than another ditzy sheep in fake tanning oil and peroxide, moving from one dumb boy to another, she's way cooler than Britney or Paris. Lindsay is a titan of self-destruction, like Keith "Just one drink / and I fall down drunk" Richards.  Lindsay is a queen of drunken coke-whoring righteousness; she's Courtney Love with a better singing voice, and she's cuter too, and doesn't have a Frances Bean around to create any real concern about the safety of a minor; I say rock on, little Lindsay! Rock on! And when you want to come in from the cold, call me and I'll show you the best beginner's AA meetings in NYC and hold your hand during the serenity prayer!! As Long John Silver said to young Jim Hawkins: Certain we will!

Meanwhile, for the haters out there, I wouldn't worry too much about the social order toppling under her wobbly heel. The constrictive force of our quasi-repressive society wont weaken from a single millionaire wretch peeing on it. But... if the rest of us can rise up and follow in her wake... if we can show the same casual disrespect of our national system of constraints and punishments she has, what dirty victories we might achieve! The 1970s shall return at that time, and instead of WC Fields, the kids will have Lindsay Lohan up on their walls, not for her music or acting, but because she's the hot thin female Richard Burton / Keith Richards of a new era. She's Queen Jippo! Top of the world, Ma! KABOOOOM!! God bless the button-cute hammerhead, while we can.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Cinema and gambling go together.  Even those not betting at drag races or Reno craps tables have no problem cathartically sharing in lucky streaks of others; we get lost in the thick of the action, our mood rising and falling with the stacks of chips at our hero's side. And filmmakers are nothing if not gamblers themselves: moving fast and loose with huge wads of other people's cash, tangling with the odds, and making choices moment-by-moment that can make or break the bank. One huge hit and they're flush, one bomb and they're on the skids.

Most films today we see are simple escapism--we always need a thrill ride away from the humdrum; some are 'artsy' and drag us closer to "messages" we'd rather not address, like mom guilting us to church; others subtextually congratulate us for being bourgeois enough to relate to first world problems like lost love and backstage opera dramatics. A few, truly great films bring us away from the phony profundity of congratulatory bourgeois grandeur, away from social or political sermonizing, and even away from pure escapism, and closer to something like real purity of essence (P.O.E). We can see ourselves--as escapists, i.e. moviegoers-- in these rare films the way parents see themselves in their children. Well, I see my brother Fred in the lug wrench work involved with being a drag race mechanic in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971), a mythopoetic saga of masculinity that reverberates to my core, and shit. So how come both BLACKTOP and Altman's gambling drama CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) are so underseen? 

Doesn't anybody ever roll the dice no more?

I saw Nicholas Ray's LUSTY MEN (1952)--a story about the manly world or rodeo riding-and BLACKTOP-director Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER (1974)--about the manly world of cockfighting--a couple years back, on the same day, and wrote that I thought neither was on DVD in any reputable form due to their edgy titles (put together they read like a gay porn marquee). The problems besetting BLACKTOP and SPLIT are similar, but more of a legal rather than promotional nature, specifically: song rights. Apparently just having a Doors tune playing from a radio in the distance at a drag strip, even if only for a minute, can spin your film into limbo for generations to come. Alongside the hard-to-find Cockfighter, and the rarely known westerns The Shootist and Ride the Whirlwind, Hellman seems a brand name slipped from its rightful place on the outsider American tongue. He's the director we thought Dennis Hopper would be after Easy Rider. Dennis turned out to be too addled and inconsistent --and he took too long over the coke-dusted editing bay. Hellman is more disciplined, the samurai to Hopper's sloppy magistrate, the Olivier to his Welles.

TWO-LANE eventually resolved its music issues and is now on an awesome Criterion two-disc set, decades after failing to get theatrically released in time to ride the slipstream of EASY RIDER or its predecessor THE WILD ANGELS or to overcome the hipster suspicion raised by the April 1971 Esquire cover (left), which proclaimed TWO-LANE their Movie of the Year before it was even released. Nothing turns off the countercultural cineaste like some petit-bourgeois, Rolex-hawking, semi-pornographic rag like Esquire announcing which film will define your generation before you've even heard about it. 

Then, as if bringing down a mighty curse, the new head of TWO-LANE's parent studio hated the film. He didn't "get it." He probably would have loved it had it been in French with English subtitles--which every bourgeois philistine considers a signifier of a certain kind of artiness. But without them--and with its hip taciturn veneer and minimalist vibe running counter to the AIP-drive-in idea of a facile good time--this head refused to pay for any publicity. So no one but the critics saw it, and some of them didn't even get it. Later on, it hard time on video due to copyright issues associated with that damned diegetic Doors song. Oh brother. What a bad luck streak! 

BLACKTOP uses music so sparingly anyway it's almost funny that this royalty thing hung it up so often over the years. The '55 Chevy has no radio, so all music is either heard in Oates' GTO or else playing out of speakers at the various drag spots. When the music does appear, your ears devour it. The songs seem extra nurturing after the enigmatic silences and roar of exhaust pipes and V-9201 triple D hydro-colonic quad engines... but are they worth the limbo? Course not - screw the Doors anyway, Hellman should have just slid in an alternate track, like Altman did for our next film...

Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) is similarly about the world of male bonding via "putting up or shutting up," and "laying it all on the table." There's no point digging for homoerotic subtext in a movie where the subtexts have been stripped down and exposed and nobody cares because once a subtext gets exposed. and if it doesn't lay down on the table it's because there's another game already starting. As with much of Altman and Hellman's output, we're given richly-layered characters immersed in a niche culture with its own insular overlapping dialogue complexity--in this case the semi-seedy smoke-filled back room poker games, racetracks and rundown casinos of LA and non-Vegas, Nevada. We watch the flashing of dollars in people's waving hands and hear the overlapping numbers. ("Three to one on Egyptian Femme in the ninth by eight points,") from a distance, like a little brother tagging along, craning his neck over crowded shoulders to see the table. Thrown in, jostled about, awash in sound--it's chaos to the untrained eye--dozens of bets going on at the same time in the same space--but in that chaos eventually we discern grace, aliveness. These characters love gambling. The quickness with which they willingly hand over huge piles of cash to each other --without receipts or invoices--is life-affirming. Honor and adherence to the codes and systems of betting and bookmaking is paramount. No one welshes or kibbitzes or moans in outrage or tries to cheat (i.e. "I never said fifty, I said five!")-- no matter how much bread is on the line. The chips are what count; the cash they represent is just an abstraction.  What's most important is the camaraderie, the thrill, the flurry of activity and flutter of passed-around paper, the glimmers of patterns within the randomness of luck makes them feel alive. And within that din, the Hawksian patter of George Segal and Elliot Gould functions like an earrly Tom Waits song interpreted by Lenny Bruce and Sal Paradise.

One of the more artsily respectable ('cuzza subtitles) of these "flurry of activity" subtext-melting precedents for all this is the Rome stock exchange in L'ECLISSE (1962, above and so below). You can argue Antonioni is criticizing capitalist greed in these scenes, and you'd be right, but that's a pretty simplistic analysis. He's really in awe, marveling at the way idle humans can find something to get passionate about, their spirits rising and falling over literally nothing--for no one passes any actual money around in these stock market scenes (as opposed to LANE and SPLIT). They just shout numbers: "20,000 Finsider at 20!" and write things down on pads. The effect is something anyone who's been in a foreign country and not known the language can understand and perhaps that's why subtitles make crass French movies "seem" artsy while the same film in English "seems" trashy, no matter how existentially acute it is. When either contradicts our expectations, we rear back like spooked horses. A common currency breeds resentment, but a special private language shared only by your fellow degenerates creates a special nook. There's no race, age, class or gender distinctions, only who's got the cash to back up their hunches. And paying up on your losing bets without bitterness helps ensure you win next time, because karma isn't abstract in these worlds. Lucky streaks are recognized as they cohere within the time-space continuum -- and gamblers shape their lives like ascetic monks in total service to the Goddess of Chance.

BLACKTOP stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and the idea of having two non-actor musicians as the stars may seem odd at first, but then you realize it's genius, just like the rest of the choices, because these guys might not know from acting, but man do they know the road, oh yeah. Whether struggling or successful, musicians spend half their lives (or more) on tour, city to city, bumfuck stadium to bumfuck ampitheater to bumfuck hole in the wall. Each gig is a roll of the dice: it could be sold out with adoring girls, or empty except for one drunk waiter screaming "Freebird!" between every song. Let me tell you, most of being a musician is a lot like this film: you drive for four hours, pull up to some gas station for a refill  and while one person takes care of the pump, the other people in your party pile out of the van, use the bathroom, steal some candy, buy some soda (for chaser, presuming they had the foresight to bring a flask), and wander around the grassy shoulders of the off-ramp, peeing in the bushes (if there's no bathroom), stretch, stare vacantly out into the spaces, noting under their breath how glad they are not to live in this freakin' nowhere town. Then you round everyone back up, and hit the road again. 

When you finally get to your venue, the drunken anxiety of the gambler really kicks in: you set up your amp and do your soundcheck and then have to wait around until 11 PM when the show starts, sitting in a big empty bar, wondering if anyone will come. The place is still empty by nine so you start to panic and you have to stay reasonably sober until at least second set, which is very hard when you're so rattled, and just sitting around backstage at a goddamned bar for hours with nothing to do, smelling the faint but nagging mix of stale beer, urine, puke and cigarettes of the night before. Finally you do your show and it is awesome, but the girls dancing in front that were giving you lusty looks all night vanish by the time your second set is over, and the ones still there are way too drunk and obnoxious to deal with.  Then you sleep on some cool dude's floor or in some girl's bed if you're lucky, or just stay up and drink until suddenly it's morning. Then you hit the road again. And if you've got the guts to coast that way, you can do it forever.... you're essentially homeless, or rather your home coheres around you at around, well, 65 mph or higher. Stillness in motion -- a home in that rock - your fate, the crowd you draw in each venue, seemingly open to chance. 

The dynamic of the relationship between Wilson's mechanic and Taylor's driver in BLACKTOP mirrors the drummer and guitarist 'types' in a band: on the road they're eerily calm as befits they who have learned to spend these long two-lane stretches between races listening to the engine for the slightest sign of disrepair, every mile like a period of zen detachment and pure focus--just as every beat, every bass note, needs to be in its perfect place. They talk about what needs tuning or tightening, what went wrong or right the night before. If they're in a band they listen to the soundboard tape to last night's show, played in the car all day long, i.e. you're forced to listen to every little bass guitar fuck-up you made because you were too drunk, again, Erich! You didn't wait til second set, did you? No, sorry Dave. You (the bassist) begin to feel less like Bill Wyman and more like Brian Jones..All the time there are three or four better bassists salivating in the wings, eager to take your spot. 

But Taylor and Wilson don't really drink. It would slow them down and they got to keep moving. Even the girl they hook up with can't seem to find a way to get them to notice her. And again, if you're in or were ever in even a moderately successful band you know this feeling, because you and your bandmates need a certain open channel ESP onstage to be any good. When that's obtained you become closer than a family, a true band of brothers. The only thing similar I've seen is in Sam Fuller war movies, the way the men fall all over each other, tap each other's helmet in the third eye area like an on-the-prod benediction.

By comparison, Warren Oates' GTO-driver is hopelessly insecure, alone with no purpose or destination, other than living his dream of owning and driving a GTO and never looking back (this being the day when gas was under $1 a gallon). He alone listens to music. His challenging Wilson and Taylor in a race is apparently for friendship rather than monetary interests, but of course neither team can admit that. Oates' idea of taking "the girl" and driving somewhere like "Chicago or New York" is the plan by which all his dreams will come true. He's old enough to know that, if he ever went there, he wouldn't know except leave again. It's the "We're retired in Florida now, Mister" dream of EASY RIDER, but she's not buying it, just as Captain America didn't--and neither, once the dust of his bullshit settles, is Oates himself. He cycles through outmoded braggart personae like a man searching his pockets in progressive desperation at the toll booth.

Existence on the road is all these people seem to have - their house exists only at 55+ mph on the blacktop ribbons tying America together like a giant wondrous gift; they have no address, no home other than their car, or-- in the girl's case--someone else's car. Momentum, stillness in motion, soothes their nervous longing. Stretched out along Route 66, they're sleeping in shifts or just hanging out in some no-horse town at the best time to be hanging out in such towns, dawn. GTO's patter indicates he's aware of this perpetually displaced vagrancy while fundamentally unable to "accept it" and stop the idle chatter. He tells his disinterested hitchhiker passengers that these boys he's racing with "get hysterical... They run right over ya if they get the chance; but they can't stand up to the 455 no way." As if anyone even knows what that is, as if even he knows.

Some movies can portend to be about everything cosmic and cool, but are really about the director's narcissistic insecurity, like Woody Allen's. Monte Hellman's are the reverse: they're about the masculine psyche finding a way to calibrate itself (once all the illusion escape plans are exhausted) via some spiritual discipline -- Zen and the Art of the Chevrolet, and at their core these boys reveal a transcendental quietude worthy of Ozu or Bresson. And much as I love EASY RIDER, you can see the difference as clear as night and day between the judgmental redneck bashing of Hopper's film and the way Wilson quietly changes his license plate when driving through the Deep South because he doesn't feel "safe," letting you infer deep suspicion towards out-of-staters, but sparing us any actual redneck violence, sleazy sheriffs or other cliches.

Instead this focus on the art of driving is a spiritual thing that the truly enlightened, deranged, or anyone experiencing a mid-life crisis or lysergic epiphany can understand: the thing in itself doesn't matter so much as the right-minded doing - in this case the fast-talk distraction that comes from winning money, watching races and fights and admiring each other's vehicle or stack of poker chips. Losing with detached grace (rather than welshing or crying foul) is as important as winning. In that frame of mind anything can become poetry: the roosters fighting in slow motion in Hellman's COCKFIGHTER, or the white line dash blur of the blacktop. The beauty of the road is the way constant motion can breed deep inner stillness. Time and responsibility can be escaped through some motorized loophole.  Who wins the race or fight hardly matters to Hellman. Destinations are for chumps.

Foreign film subtitles create this same disconnect--which is why 'abstract' or signifier-disrupted films tend to be more appreciated outside their native country. Hellman gets that the intensely insular language of "carspeak" or "cockspeak" is like that (Altman is a bit different - he leaves us on the outside of it more literally). Students go abroad to be plunged into foreign situations, they handle it better than adults, absorbing the strangeness with no learning curve or means of judging it as either good or bad. Make it too unfamiliar to ever breed contempt, and it's lasting art. Once thoroughly solved, well, fade-to-burn, baby, and don't roll no post-singe credits, when the film's final image burns in the projector, don't wonder if the film broke or it's some arty flourish - just quietly pack up the car and hit whatever road leads farthest away from whatever 'here' happens to be lying around. Once that speedometer crests 55, you know you're home at last.

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