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.


  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 clich├ęs 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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