Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Long Day's Journey into NIGHT OF THE IGUANA

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 laughing down the tube as lightweights collapsed in his wake. If he didn't always land gracefully, well, blame the floor or the script, not the man. Never the man.

I don't like to regale you with tales of my own grandiose drunkenness 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 1991.

I'd graduated college in Syracuse, where I'd been played bass in a locally popular acid rock cover band; 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 girlfriends. Being just 22 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 on the off chance they had weed (but really--how could I stop them?) 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 love every sick minute of it.

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 marked the end of the semester/earth day, an annual block party. 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 and confess their crushes and compassion for my loss of a girlfriend, my head full of cocky entitlement and psilocybe (a great combination), it was the happiest two weeks of my life. 

But summer began again, the students left, and finally, the last person I knew still dawdling had left for home. Still glowing, I finally returned to New Jersey and the Kuersten family tract; in debt and alone and a week late. My mom started right in lecturing and a man had been waiting there, in the kitchen, to give me a urine test for life insurance - he'd been waiting for days! No one had even told me! So I went from living the "lush life" as king of the world, to making pathetic, vague excuses why I couldn't give a urine sample to my mom -- all in a matter of four hours drive-time.

That night I lay in my crappy little twin bed in my old room, alone. Pillow wet with tears, I was too young to understand that going from a life of constant drunk, stoned, tripping, sexual and emotional adulation to one of hostile indifference all in one day would dampen near anyone's spirits. I didn't understand and suddenly I felt the full weight of my Seattle failure, the shame of being a 'boomerang child' and in those days it was still not cool for dudes to cry and mope. We were supposed to man up, tie our ties and take temp agency typing tests every day until we died, in Jersey.

I was so sad that night, I couldn't sleep. I'd never been too sad to sleep before. I had a pillow soaked with 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.... and so 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 made myself a large "heroic" tumbler of rum with a dash of pineapple juice and began the torturous cycle through cable channels that was TV in the pre-internet early 1990s.

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 "Lolita."

I was going to be all right... the whole movie was about what I was going through. "It makes it easier to get through nights that are hard for us to get through," Miss Hannah Jelkes says of her poppy seed tea. Clearly I 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 some left! And Richard Burton! Thank you, John Huston! Thank you, you old savior and lonesome Tennessee Williams! 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 "Iguana" in the title. What monster-loving child expecting giant iguana attacks wants to see "alcoholic priests dealing with various women in Mexico" Some 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?

I'd been that rag doll up in Syracuse, two or three girls cockblocking each other to get me. It's flattering, if aggravating, but very addictive. The minute it stops, the agony of being so alone kicks in. And so when a ride shows up you nearly always say yes, wherever it's going. The only way out of one bad relationship 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"

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! Who wants to go home at all? 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 just a just house plant. You laugh at your own absurdity but even that doesn't help allay the sense of isolation and anguish. You wake up the next afternoon 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 don't care. As long as it's good.

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, or day, and if you keep photos of ex girlfriends in secret drawers, and reread your illegible notebooks of slurred poetry and tear-stained letters from the only girls you ever loved, all while trapped in 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 to me, if you're 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 what are ya? In the living room having tea? A spot o' tea, guvna?

The sane artists are willfully ignorant of said basement; they prefer to convince the bourgeois grant-giving foundations to vote no on funding basement art -- 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, steeped in strange liquors. 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 can opener. I've been there. And the hissing vibes in the eyes of women your own age as you walk down the street with hot babes half your age, or so...  victim of rumors, and shakes, and demons, but when you really need them, beautiful angels help help you on the first crazy night of your post-intervention sobriety, even feeding you when your hands shake too much to lift a fork to your lips. You have at that vulnerable juncture achieved what Hannah Jelkes calls "broken barriers between people," you're so vulnerable and sensitive you see their beauty and kindness as truly angelic --glowing and absolving. You have no wall to hide behind. "What is important," notes Hannah, "is that one is never alone." Yeah, but booze, man, and Central, NJ, and being a writer.

endurance is something blue devils respect

Fame is the main thing, then, that makes mundane formalist status quo keepers out of once visionary artists. Rather than prizing process all else, these newly famous artists fall prey to to the addictive craving of attention, success, making it big, and letting it go to their head. While self-aggrandizing is a necessary thing for some artists to overcome blocks, eventually old Ego--a "too much thing" according to that old devil Manson song--chokes all the pipes and the bullshit starts to rise and rise. Coprophiliac sycophants 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.

"Did someone call for a recitation?"
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.

Charlotte is madly in love with Shannon, promising him a job at her father's church and completely deluded and swept away on a girlish infatuation born of boredom and of the girlish sense of safety created by his being a 'born and bred' clergyman. 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, 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 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 can practically smell the coco de oro in the air. I'd seen it 100 times or more before finally seeing the black and white original. And now it's the black and white that just doesn't feel the same. Still, now I'm sober - hearing the tales of Hannah's sad loneliness 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.

My relationship to this film is strong in other ways. it became a common quote well for my crew -- my guitarist's South African mom has an accent like Deborah Kerr's, and she has the same 'beyond judgment' attitude that's startlingly progressive for those of us unprepared, and many a night I spent regaling her with stories I'd never even tell my own mother. She, not my parents, taught me how to tie a tie! We still talk in the rhythms of the world's oldest living poet, "did they cross your palm with gold or silver, Hannah?!"

"there are worse things than chastity, Mr. Shannon"

There's great anecdotes about the film, such as from Ava Gardner's autobiography (she remembers that Huston and Burton insisted there be a bar at both the bottom and top of the hill during shooting). Sue Lyon's remembrance that she would get dizzy from the fumes oozing out of Burton's pores during their intimate scenes together. Maybe that's what interests me now that I'm sober. In black and white the film seems too polished and "classic" though on the other hand, so am I. Maybe it needs colorization; maybe it needs you, dear reader, to plunge into the cold water of direct experience before trundling back to pass out on the shore in the hot yellow sands below Ava's hillside retreat, before passing judgment on a man at the end of his rope who let himself be seduced by a girl under 20. Exhausted and worn out, and ready for the nurturing succor of genius rationalizations, poetry on the edge of death, and Sue Lyon dancing in those short, hip-huggin' white shorts. Honey, have a heart!

She does, Larry, she does. And Iguana, when I was low you lifted me. You always get me back up. You are proof that--be they depraved reckless libertines or just sad derelicts--God still loves drunks.


  1. Anonymous26 May, 2010

    Jesus Christ Sue Lyon was freaking hot.

  2. Anonymous31 May, 2010

    I quibble with the use of misandric for Ms Fellows. If you were stuck in sweltering hot Mexico, stricken with dysentery, had a drunken tour guide and 16 year old bent on drinking and seducing everything in pants (for whom you are responsible) I think I'd be rather annoyed myself. Miss Hall's performance is more nuanced and was the only cast member nominated for an Academy Award for her efforts.

  3. Anonymous, you have a good point, but there's no denying the light of nagging, harpy-like righteous fury that creeps into her tone when verbally chastising our Mr. Shannon. I don't blame her for being concerned, but there's no excuse for being a bully. That's nothing against Hall's performance, a fine variation of which appears (the sleazier bizarro version) in SATAN IN HIGH HEELS!

  4. Anonymous04 June, 2010

    Oh I see Erich you are sufficiently Grayson Hall aware; (smile).


  5. Anyone know where I can get the colorized version on DVD. I had it on tape from a TV broadcast but it was lost.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. “The Night of Iguana” by John Huston (1964) is describing what today, in a time of growing joblessness, pauperization and desperate need for any kind of work can be seen less and less – when a person searching for the meaning of life is able, for the sake of internal truth, to lose job, career and a stable future as soon as having all this contradicts his/her moral ideal and/or essential understanding. Reverend Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton who knows how to be emotionally intense in an intelligent way) found himself in this very situation and was punished for “deviating” from the prescribed “faith” when he tried to explain to his parishioners that their egoistic and indifferent belief of philistines dreaming of personal salvation regardless of what is going on around them, is not a proper way to believe.
    Losing job and a stable future opened for Shannon a whole new perspective of following his spiritual transformation not in a traditional sense, like changing one denomination or religion for another, but changing religion for spirituality of living. In spite of dangerous moments appearing when a person having thrown away the old identity and values is trying to find new meaning of living, Larry, with the spiritual help of two amazing people he meets by chance, is able to go through his ordeals.
    We, viewers, follow Shannon shifting his life from the pomposity of the churches and cathedrals, domes and steeples to a barely bearable existence on a miserable salary, to a world of beauty and tranquility of nature and, finally, to a world where meaning is the other side of living. Huston’s film is a call for worldly spirituality.
    Debra Kerr, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton are at their best considering the not easy conditions of acting in Hollywood films (today the situation is even more difficult) when actors need to act “charismatically”, irradiate the perfume of appeal to the public, worry about not being understood by viewers with passive/lazy perception, and try in a talented/unique way to imitate the clichés of emotional self-expression.
    Victor Enyutin

  8. Erich, do you still have the tape of the Colorized Version? If so, is there any way you could make me a DVD of it? Let me know.

  9. Jessica, I used to -I'll have to look

  10. I have been searching for the colorized version for years! Help!


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