Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Totaled Recall: THE HANGOVER (2009) and WHO IS HARRY NILLSSON? (2010)

Full of triumph, tribulation, amusing comic turns, and a manageable portion of tiresome dick humor, THE HANGOVER is a fine way to end mid-life crisis month, i.e. November. It's all about memory and manliness and lack thereof, and if it took me awhile to see it, well, I confess I used to have problems with Bradley Cooper - the beady eyes, the cocky glassiness, the way he didn't deserve Jennifer Garner in ALIAS - but all is forgiven here. Now I love the nasal nonchalance with which he greets the next morning's calamities with a shrug and a swagger. Annoying Ed Helms (THE OFFICE), meanwhile, wakes up and starts instantly to fret about a missing tooth and that there's a tiger in the bathroom so he can't even get in there and check his gums. Cooper just chortles and rolls with it, like most people would. Dude, to me it was just like every morning/afternoon waking up on tour with my band! I was always trying to find my pants, like Zach Galifianakis does, but we'd never slip anyone Rohypinol unless they specifically requested.... which they did. My crew loved Rohypinol, we didn't waste them on girls, we didn't need to. We were men, y'all, men who loved to pop Mexican Quaaludes as they used to be known. Even if they made our parties turn into snoring Jonestowns, I'm sure we must have had fun before we crashed. Didn't we? No one had phone cameras in those days so we'll never know. But also, our crew had no Ed Helms whiner character, just various degrees of Galiafinakis, and all was bearded and chill with the worrlzzzz.

Erroneously called 'rufflin' or something in the film, by a dentist who should know better, Rohipynol is sooo much more than a date rape drug. Don't let the frat boys give it a bad name. May any man whose ever spiked a girl's drink with one drop dead instantly, by Crom!

Oh yeah, THE HANGOVER. Well written, well directed, well photographed, it solves nearly all the problems I usually have with dumb Nevada-set comedies, and in fact is better at depicting that special drug fueled blur than Terry Gilliam's much more pedigreed FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Frankly, despite Helms' histrionics (he's worse than Alan Arkin in THE IN-LAWS) there's a real sense you'd want to hang out with these guys, whereas Depp and Del Toro in LOATHING seemed way too pretentious and violent to want to actually have more than a quick shot with before excusing yourself, going to the bathroom, and running for the hills. To bond with the HANGOVER posse one need take only a sixth shot of Jaeger, whereas Hunter would need to wave a gun in your face and scare you off, so you wouldn't see how alone and twisted he was inside.

Yeah, when it comes to drug-fueled mayhem, Zach, Brad and their dorky friend are like a good band - the alpha, Bradley Cooper on lead guitar and vocals, getting them in trouble with daring reckless drive. On bass, the rooted crazy calm of Zach G, and the clatter of nervous Helms on drums. Hunter's band would never even learn two chords before they smashed their guitars... that wouldn't fool me. I saw the Replacements in '84! Matsbra!

But, for all that, THE HANGOVER ain't perfect. First of all, these guys are pussies, because when you wake up with a super hangover like that, the thing is to just keep drinking. Nothing cures a hangover like more alcohol. There's no earthly need to sober up, dear friends, til the wedding's over. The wedding photogs can always redden up your pale, sickly countenance in Photoshop. Not that they did for me, that's show biz.

But, I totally felt that anxiety Ed Helms feels due to their  staying in a designer hotel suite, where you're surrounded by luxury items that cost ridiculous amounts, so you're dying for a drink and there's booze all around, but if you take it they charge you like $45 for an airplane bottle, or $25 for a small tin of nuts. Dude, when I go to a hotel I don't want to feel like I'm sleeping in the lobby of an expensive department store, afraid to roll over in bed lest I occur some exorbitant charge by knocking over a pillow. I mean, are they charging me for every splurb of ginger-lemon-scented hand soap? The whole thing never fails to throw me off, so even if I get a comp bottle of designer mineral water I become afraid to open it, afraid to even go down the hall for ice cubes, lest the top flight party girls see and judge me, snickering over how plebeian I am for expecting an ice machine in such a posh spot - everyone knows room service brings it... and charges.

On the other hand, when you're with 'the guys' there's often a kind of vertical displacement of responsibility, as opposed to going to one of these places with your girlfriend and being expected to show her a great time even as it's plunging you into debt and she's rolling her eyes, blaming you for the rain, and making wearying demands for 'spontaneity.' Groups of guys are more fun because there's no need to constantly prove why you're a good boyfriend, to make sure she's having a good time like some overstressed cruise director, and the HANGOVER is brilliant at showing how four guys riffing and going off in random directions at the same time in the same place, concurrent yet counter-intuitive, can bewilder the world around them into a kind of on the spot detournement societal melt down, thus enabling said guys to get away with everything short of arson. My band and I, for example, could take over and completely change the vibe of, say, a sleepy all-night diner, or an understaffed bar. Special shout out to the girls of Old City Hall in Oswego, 1992. Favorite blurry memory of that tour: Five in the morning, skinny dipping in a freezing Lake Ontario while the snow drifted down! Alcohol rules!

Aside from the not drinking more to cure the hangover aspect, my only other issue with the film was the shameful portrayal of women, which I will only excuse because of the sacredness of the "what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas" male bond. Still, why does Heather Graham always get stuck playing gorgeous, sexually available doormats? And even if that girl waiting at the altar wasn't Megan Fox, she was mighty Megan Foxy, with a dash of Catherine Zeta-Jones. Awesome, but one-dimensional. And wait, is that Cheri Oteri as the mom? Run!

But again, this is Vegas, the city of bromance and legalized prostitution...SPOILER: the final photos of the lost night smack of all the things the aforementioned stone cold bitch is right to condemn... Those implants have families damn it. They were once beautiful breasts and now just embarrassing, shocking reminders of a world gone wrong. Still it is cool to see the enemies of the day-after suddenly as the friends of the night before, preserved in the fleeting amber of digital phone memory cards. Healing, you might say.

The HANG director also made OLD SCHOOL, which I haven't seen, but I remember seeing photos of Will Ferrell at the keg, and remembering that I once partied with him, or his Syracuse equivalent, Mike "Ellis" DeAngelo. Ellis! Boys need to be boys, and what goes on under the roofie stays under the roofie, unless it doesn't, in which case, everybody's goin' to jail this moan-NIN! Some of us never left. Some of us have been here the whole time, shoveling our buckets of coins into cold, dark slots while the sheriff stands watch and we hear Tom Jones sing work songs. There is no jackpot so sweet as the one we don't remember, Lord. Just look at Harry Nilsson! What, who is Harry Nilsson? Glad ya acksed. Pull up a chair... grab a cup. Oh. No more cups? There might be one in the sink you can rinse off.


In the pantheon of rock/pop there's always those artists whose albums you see everywhere and never buy, though there's always one or two people who are into them and try to tell you how great they are and you're just not having it... Procol Harum? Molly Hatchet? Todd Rundgren? Foghat? Whaat? I used to always put Nilsson in with them, some relic of a bygone age...That won't happen again now that I saw WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (AND WHY IS EVERYBODY TALKIN' 'BOUT HIM)? a documentary with a title that instantly places him as the singer of that song in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969, rated X).  Off to a good startbra.

Seeing the documentary helped unearth a lot of 'lost' childhood memories, such as being five and excited for the premiere of Nilsson's psychedelic 1971 TV cartoon, "The Point." Even then, at five or whatever, the cartoon made me annoyed with its YELLOW SUBMARINE psychedelic puns and Seuss-brand nonconformism. But I shouldn't blame Nilsson for being so proud of his ABC prime time slot-winning. Do we devalue Vince Guaraldi because that bridge in 'Linus and Lucy' is so overused in commercials? Nilsson was a partier, to the extreme! That is what we must struggle through the cold Las Vegas afternoon to 'remember'.

Throughout the documentary various musicians talk about losing huge stretches of time partying with Nilsson. Wives all across Laurel Canyon came to dread his husband-napping phone calls.  He'd pick up their men and they'd vanish into the 'Rufflin' haze... surfacing later drunk and belligerent, just to pick up their guitar and accidentally break a table before driving off again, with a merry laugh and tire screech.
Meanwhile Nilsson's record producers loved his incredible voice and gifts so much they seemed to just let him go too loose, recording every drunken sing-song blather that came into his head. They were all broken up still by his leaving them. (Apparently John Lennon was a negative influence). And leave them he would.

His younger Irish wife speaks as well as she can of our Harry in the documentary, and she still looks a pretty hot, and his gorgeous children remember a loving but mostly absentee dad. Though I wished there could be a Polaroid trail of his wild lost weekends, ala THE HANGOVER, it was enough of a change of heart for me that I ran to my emusic account and downloaded NILSSON SCHMILSSON and NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN. A long time Randy Newman fan (pre-TOY STORY only, playa), it's been my pleasure to hear Nilsson sing "We got to tell the people 'bout Utah / 'cuz nobody seems / to know," while walking to work down Brooklyn's scenic Vanderbilt Ave. every morn...nin'. 

But man, this country needs to remember more than Utah... we need to remember that remembering is for chumps and blackouts mean you must have had a blast, and hangover cures don't come better than a 50-50 mix of gin and grapefruit juice... chased with an overnight jail sentence, rehab, 90 AA meetings in 90 days, and... toast... it takes you an hour to eat one piece of toast you're so shaky and nauseous from alcohol withdrawal or poisoning, whichever comes first and sometimes both at once, to be so full of whiskey you can't stand up or talk, but still twitching from alcohol withdrawal.

But in the end, is having all that candle at both ends-style fun even worth it if you don't remember a damn thing? As someone who used to spend his week dreaming of Friday when I could grab a bottle like a reverse parachute and just plunge into the void, I can tell you flatly, "nobody seems / to know." Memory is not to be trusted, and the moment itself doesn't exist outside your own slicing of past and future like a dwindling cube of sopium in a room full of grubby jonesers. You're better off seeking Jesus, but churches smell like the elderly, and you can't smoke in the pews. Your best bet is this: download Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire" and listen to it walking down the street pretending to be a coked-up Henry Hill. That should answer all your questions, you black-out reincarnater. You jumped into the Lake Ontario fire a million times and don't remember... Hopefully someone, even now, is up in the ether, savoring and recording your every lost howl.

Monday, November 29, 2010

High Strangeness: LANA TURNER'S HOLY MOUNTAIN and Rose Hobart takes a trip

2012 note - Frost apparently remixed both films together to form Lana Turner overdive, which I herewith present, leaving the text as is.
A follow-up to Helsinki Productions' awesome LANA TURNER'S INLAND EMPIRE. This one was just posted a few days ago, and finds Lana continuing to lose her mind as she seems to connect with some cat spirit that may or may not be an old Egyptian star goddess... Just roll with it! Spot the connections to Dario!

These Lana epics remind me of one of my own psychedelic remixes, DRUNKARDS OF BORNEO. Ever see it? I'm supposed to do a poster for Ethan Spigland's class on the Situationists so I've been learning about 'detournement.' And honey, this is it:

When we think of 'reappropriation,' 'collage,' 'detournement,' don't we conjure a  handful of images, and a handful only? A urinal signed 'R. Mutt', a soup can, and a slice of film from 1933 called 'East of Borneo' that became the first remix, courtesy Joseph Cornell, called Rose Hobart?

I stumbled upon the original East of Borneo by happy accident at the Whitney Museum's Edward Hopper show back in the 90s. I never forgot it: Drugged leopards dropped onto screaming stunt men, a satisfyingly alcoholic Charles Bickford stirred to sluggish life when his non-white prince pal makes a play for his wife, come to fetch him like a dutiful, confused puppy. Imagine LOST WEEKEND if the girl in the leopard coat followed Ray Milland all the way to Borneo, where she got hit on by Bim and Ray had to disguise himself as a little turkey in a straw hat? Talk about codependence! Basically, her intrusion topples the whole kingdom. Women.

So in my version, the idea is of course, acidemic. The girl comes, takes a trip while never leaving the grounds, and is amused by a sacrifices both human and monkey. Through it all, a mystery man laughs and laughs! But bromance triumphs!! Bros before ho's, that's the moral. Even if I've never practiced it, personally. So.. let DRUNKARDS OF BORNEO create the space for post-modern healing, and god bless us as November 2010 crumbles into the rose-tinted abyss of memory. And if you want to get in on the weirdness... get on it. Rent THE BIG CUBE and deconstruct that tall drink of bitch!

PS - Right as I was writing this, the unimpeachable, Film Doctor was posting a bunch of great 'detournement' links. Debord is in the air! If only we could bottle it... for profit... and peace!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lyon in Winters: LOLITA and Immortal Porpoises

Where I come from, home for the holidays means dying lawns, cloudy suburban skies, foil-covered crock pots brought unwillingly from the car to the front door; chattering hellos from perfumed relatives; ceilings slick with condensation from ever-baking turkeys and boiling rutabagas; football and the voice of Sam Elliott extolling guts, glory, Ram, from the living room; a barrage of women nattering from the kitchen. It's a time to go to school reunions and movies just to get out of the house. Hometowns leave their mark, like a lash of sameness, slash of lameness you'll never paint over... but is it that bad? What if you come from a family rife with divorce, guilt, skeletons, incest? Pedophile freaks subverting the family dynamic? Lolita cousins coming onto you while aunts and uncles look at you harshly but you're too drunk to resist? Your honor, I was not even her first lover.

I had a fine podcast discussion with Jamey DuVall at Movie Geeks United for The Kubrick Series' -- and so I've been thinking of LOLITA all day. Let me share it with you as we close the holiday down:

Laws dealing with minors and corruption are tricky things. A kid (under 18) who rapes his cousin can get off with just a flick on the wrist, but a guy who sends one of his prostitutes home for Xmas on a train can go to jail, just for buying her a ticket that takes her across state lines. This all goes back to 1910 and a law meant to catch white slavers that was amended as the Mann Act in 1948 largely due to the newspaper headline case of Frank LaSalle, a an old pervert dragging a naive shoplifting minor named Florence Sally Horner, off on a two-year cross-country spree. The constant travel making it hard to discern the unkosher relationship kept in place by blackmail (he saw her steal a notebook from a five and dime and played copper). This was a vile case, a shot heard by journalists around the world, and the headlines have never been the same, for better and for worse. They made laws designed specifically to catch evil men like Frank (and Humbert). Good for them. I'm not kicking about it. I'm super skeeved by this topic. On the other hand, my own super skeeve response fascinates me. I know I'm not alone in it, I know its origin in the Freudian Totem and Taboo root cellar of the unconscious, but what is it, really?

Kubrick's film LOLITA, as well as Nabokov's original book, seems to take the Horner outrage and subsequent law as a challenge to depict the corruption of a minor in a non-hysterical manner, with trans state-line travel galore. I've seen the film and read the book numerous times, but never thought of that strange but valuable (if abusable) law... suddenly, this past viewing, it was all I thought about.

My dad has a terribly long and ornate joke dealing with this law, involving transporting immortal porpoises over staid lions, or something --which I heard him tell other adults at drunken dinners all through my childhood--and I never understood why it was even funny or what the hell they were talking abou. The point is, it's a law designed specifically to counteract the moves of people like Humbert, himself an evil user of pretend morality. Humbert's flabbergasted relationship with Quilty is an ultra-cool mirror of the guilt-wracked hypocrite censors challenging lysergic intellectual Kubrick to both adhere to and defy the "How could they ever make a movie of Lolita?" marketing catchphrase.

Over the passing decades this film's been many things to me, but this last viewing it seemed to be about art vs. censorship and the way the promoters of 'childhood wonderment' and the Peter Pan 'if you can dream' aesthetic--the Norman Rockwell fishing boy logo of Dreamworks and the mouth agape wonderment of E.T.-- are the both the exploiters of children and culprits who bring us the hyper-awareness of the dangers of pedophilia. The two are entwined, a double exposure of exposing, like a cobra with the head of a tail-eating mongoose. The more you pine for and prize a 'perfect family' the more pressure-cooker force you put on those latent incestuous, pedophile dark desires. Pedophilia is the ultimate evil, after all, the one crime even the other prisoners in jail will kill you for (in jail); it goes deeper than Oedipus, down into the murky swamp behind the Bates Motel, and it is embedded in the fabric of our modern trend towards the deification of children and their 'innocence.' Is it any accident that the two main architects of this hypocritical saintly children-izing in the early 1980s were Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg?

The difference in the pre-ET 70s was that no one wanted the Norman Rockwell 50s 'childhood wonderment' thing anymore, so there was less to repress, and what you don't repress you don't have to 'act' out in sexual transgression. The pedophiles and flashers were still around in the 70s--the rate of crime in this area has not risen--but parents' intense fear for their children's safety wasn't as ubiquitous. The Don Draper cultural rubric didn't include constant monitoring of playdates. The kids were left to roam the house, yard, or neighborhood while parents smoked, drank, swapped, played bridge, and carried on. We kids knew not to get into cars with strangers or take their candy, and above all we knew when to stay out of our parents' way and when was the right time to creep downstairs and steal from the cabdt dishes. We knew when the bridge games would devolve to the point that our presence would be greeted with welcome instead of stern reprimand; we knew the tartness of our parents' whiskey sours and Tom Collins' kisses; we learned to mix drinks with the powdered packets of whiskey sour mix and play bartender. Adulthood was a virile open-shirted marvel in the 70s... there was no clear line to cross. Sometimes, it just reached out and grabbed you. You felt safe around it, yet knew that it was, itself, unsafe. You know, like life?

The sad thing now for an old rager like me watching LOLITA is to see the inexorable passage from mom to daughter to daughter-mom in Sue Lyon, as it so preternaturally predicts the arc of America's cultural mores, from repressive 50s-early 60s, (Shelly Winters) to liberated late 1960s-70s (Sue Lyon) to repressive 80s (Lyon-in-Winters). Elaborating the transformation is Sellers as the liberal trickster elite and James Mason as the outflanked conservative imposter. Just as the most vocally anti-gay politician is inevitably found drunk in a gay nightclub, so does Humbert Humbert hide, like a scoundrel at his last refuge, behind the outrage of conservative wagon-circling.

The message was clear and simple to a generation for whom Freud was like Oprah: the more concerned you are over your child's well being the more suspect you are. I was more or less Lolita's age when I first saw LOLITA, and my perspective and identification with it has changed a bit now that I'm Humbert's age, or rather Quilty's. It's the Quilty character who dominates now, more, for me. The vantage point from which art--through its transparency and deliberate digging for dirty truth--looks down upon dull, corporeal expression of desire. To paint a nymphet, like Degas with his ballerinas; to film a nymphet like Rollin with his vampire women; to write of one, like Nabokov, is to effectively sublimate the desire to corrupt them in the real. The artist has 'already' tasted such forbidden fruit in this sense and found he much prefers using the desire and rapture as a inspiration, a springboard into art. rather than actual tawdry seduction --a dead end. Artists understand that sexual gratification means an end to the dance, a sudden return to shame and self-consciousness, a hasty, guilty retreat through the parking lot. Instead of making art, you made a 'situation', a guilt trip, a baby, or a messy crime scene.  Compared to the divine rapture of creation, which is eternal, it's just a negative chalk mark on your karmic blackboard. In other words, there's those who are inspired by the muses to create and those who just want to mount the muses in their trophy room. The last ones are the evil who may or may not know what they do oh lord.

Lolita in this instance if of course the muse, dragged down too soon into the tedious abyss of mortality (i.e. getting knocked up, moving to Alaska, where maybe she'll grow up to be Sarah Palin!), and Humbert the bourgeois authority that proclaims things art or pornography according to his own licentiousness (he makes things -- Lolita herself -- forbidden to the masses [not letting her in the play] so he may enjoy en toto under the pretense of protecting her morals) and Sellers is the artist, the Bugs Bunny who actually controls the stuff of 'real' art, for he knows what's really going on... and that is the primordial jazz of constant persona dissolution.

The moral to all this? Family ain't perfect, but you can trust its imperfection a lot better than you can trust the TV that tells you a true family is like the one they show. TV gets its messages from the Humbert elite and they don't have your best interests at heart, and never did. In the 1980s, before SSRIs were popular, some of us had to successfully kill ourselves just to convince our parents we needed therapy. In the 1990s it's reversed, but the same principle of fear and gray flannel blending applies. Therapy was once taboo, as in 'people would talk' - they'd think you were bad parents if your kid had to go to a therapist. Now that once 'moral' attitude that therapy is taboo is itself taboo. We've got to get the Lyons back out of the Winters and lift the immortal porpoises across staid lions if we're ever to wise up to the fact that our desire is inherently unfulfillable. Only then we can wise up to the double-edged sword of desire, and just hang it on the wall rather than wield it-- for we only ever cut our soul to ribbons. The only exorcism of desire that truly fulfills and heals that soul is art. Humbert can shoot up the Quilty art museum all he wants (in the beginning), but he's already lost the war... he's already given the surest sign he's a dirty old man: he's a prude.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Quixote Ugly: THE SWIMMER

"He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools."
-- The Swimmer, John Cheever

Of all the great white male midlife crisis epics, outside of TV's MAD MEN, what can beat the Burt Lancaster-starred adaptation of John Cheever's THE SWIMMER (1968)? What kind of 'meet' competition is there for challengers even to lap up against? The recent Time magazine cover lauding Jonathan Franzen as the literary canon's next Great White Hope sent a shock through the up-and-coming, young, brilliant and angry writing community at Pratt. Here was yet another middle-aged higher-educated white male of means writing about mid-life crises, college tenure boondogles, student affairs, eccentric characters spouting pithy one-liners, and car accidents that leave multi-generational ripples across sprawling summer cottage-owning families - just what the world needs now.

I'm guessing on all this, of course. Never read no Franzen, whatever it is he wrote. But the writing community at Pratt was nonplussed and that's enough for me. Sight unseen it was Time grasping at any last straw in the arsenal for keeping awake their dwindling upper middle class white male readership (1), attempting to fully lionize another Norman Mailer, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or John Cheever, Phillip Roth, or even John Irving. In this way, was it not unlike the drowning grasp of The Swimmer himself!

Wait, is that why I'm writing about it? Dude, I've made my peace with all that, I hope, the loss of the automatic advantages my dad's generation received. I vowed long ago to ever be caught sober in a country club again, unless it was for a memorial service, preferably mine own. (2) How's that for pith? (hic')

THE SWIMMER too is morbidly pithy, it was made the year after I was born but it already saw the writing on the wall for my life story. It's aware of the absurdity of great white drunk male lionization. It reaches into the floater's open chest wound for the heart of white male 'pride of ownership' and finds it all turned to ash except for rotting crotch. But what a crotch! So sad we lost it.

What happened?

According to one disgruntled neighbor of Lancaster's character, Mr. Merrill's: "You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that's what happened."

As an entitled sexist white male myself, born in 1967, I grew up hearing overhearing racist, sexist and Polish jokes, told by adults over cocktails on the couch. Sitting beside the feet of the adults in awe, rushing to refill their drinks on request, blending the whiskey sour mix in the blender, smelling the sweet sugar sweat of hungover adults on copping sips at all hours, the association of maturity with booze, cigarettes and unconscious prejudice is built deep into me. These proclivities forged this site, and though I know it's all wrong, I smoke nonetheless and have an attitude of class entitlement so inappropriate to my actual circumstances that I consider my maintaining it a form of Quixote-ugly heroism. So when I see Burt in THE SWIMMER gradually sink into the deep end of illusion, I weep, for us both. The scene of his humiliation at the hands of the filthy ethnic grocers at the public pool especially wrankles. This is the ultimate in both comeuppance and validation of the class system the film is watching die with the impassive eyes of a five year-old boy on the cusp of sociopathy watching the last gasp of a flopping fish.

The rules of this descent are especially telling, the class consciousness vivid without being judgmental. When the playing field is equal, says all great white epiphany, the lowest common denominator always rules. Once you let the poor people in, your pool is officially 'public' i.e. packed and full of kiddie urine, a slum. On the other hand, maybe it's you who was the slum the whole time: "Ya wanna know what your kids thought of ya, Mr. Merrill?" the grocer says. "They thought you were a big joke!" Exemplifying the nouveu riche (the type who have to tell you how much everything cost), they're like devouring birds who wolf down our Burt like one of Sebastian's baby turtles.

Standing forth from the nouveau riche-ethnic fray, in the film's most touching scene, is Joan Rivers, playing a weary (hungover) but genuinely present broad at the nouveau riche party, who sees--just for a minute--a chance at something new and exciting at the thought of driving him off with Burt on the spur of the moment. But before she can find her car keys, the moment passes. Still, what a moment. Everyone Burt Lancaster meets before her is either oblivious to his 'living-dead' ego or resentful of his past flaunting. Joan is just lonesome and radiating that special late afternoon ennui. Her sad but witty resilience creates a small oasis of realness in Burt's downward spiral, like if she wanted they could swipe a fifth of vodka from the bar cart on their way out of the party, hop in her BMW back down the river to her East 82nd street apartment, and shack up for the rest of the weekend in the AC, just drinking, screwing (as they called it then), watching old movies on the late late show --and he'd never have to get his well-deserved comeuppance. It's easy! I've done it myself, had a girl in Cherry Hill who I sometimes miss and her parents were fun and had a pool. She smoked menthol and blew her hair out and had that accent but she was thrice the lady my more cosmopolitan ladies were... Watching Joan you can feel the way sex and drinks in an air conditioned room cures a weary hungover sunshine-infused soul. Seeing her you can feel the chill sunburned skin gets from cold from being in pools and drying in the sun, the dusky chlorine and nicotine smell washing through the AC, like a cozy womb of air.

 Burt, forget about that little young blonde and go where the flavor is!

And that's my advice in a nutshell to all future Swimmers: Never go back to your wife, the kids, the house. Never get out of the goddamned pool. There's no such thing as ugly women, only sober men. So grab the first boat that comes along, as long as she's just hot enough you don't have to hide, but not enough that you get jealous. Never get out of that boat, Burt. Absolutely goddamned right.

THE SWIMMER doesn't get out of the boat, yet it still sails without him. The age of the great white sharky novel sinks down to the bottom as he pounds the iron doors of his golden playpen like its the locked steerage gate on the Titanic. His future is all drank up and pissed out into the rose bushes. His key don't fit that lock on his door. Another mule has long ago kicked down his stall.

Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER is like the last conservative helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards through the evacuees like a sperm whale who alone realizes there's a prophylactic net ahead. But there's no going back, oh Connecticut Paragon! Your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you. Just know there's lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed spring breaker, and for far too long you've coasted in a sea of spoon-fed chum. Are your teeth sharp? Is your skin hard? Is your mouth a little weak? Are you smart? Or would you rather be a duck? Then quack, Mr. Merill. Quack! 

1. My dad's subscribed to TIME all my life. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, I read it every week, especially Richard Corliss' film reviews, and carbonizing my prepubescent hormones via its pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Charlie's Angels - back in the days before I knew what sex was or that my arousal was 'dirty'. I hate it but it's a part of me, that's a fact. Nowadays I'm too leftist to tolerate its petit-bourgeois slantiness and Effexor has left me a happy eunuch! 
2. Postscript - it turned out to be my mom's - Kenmure CC, SC - 2/15 - RIP Nancy Kuersten xoxxox

Thursday, November 18, 2010

X is for Xanax: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963)

Bartender: Mister Birnim, this is the mornin'...
Don: That's when you need it most, in the morning. Haven't you learned that yet? At night this stuff's just a drink... but in the morning it's medicine! --Ray Milland - LOST WEEKEND (1945) 
Dr. X: "I'd give anything! Anything to have dark!"  -Ray Milland - X-THE MAN W/X-RAY EYES (1963)
Science has proven our senses capable of far more than the limited strata and spectra of processed information we know as collective reality. Like radios tuned to one station, our brains screen out the static and noise of whatever channel isn't immediately relevant for survival. After we have everything we need and want to feel safe and secure, 'set and setting' in place, we may want to slip the dial a smidge, drop a tab or chant some AUMs - see if we can pick up some other station, inside, outside, within / without the Known channel. We might find some beautiful music, sometimes by chance a heavenly voice of an angel (or a devil in disguise), but sooner or later we're deafened by the holy static, terrified by unearthly yowls, no volume knob can possibly reduce the infernal bells. Spinning the dial quickly back to the starting point, we hope we can find our safe channel again before we wake up the neighbors and wind up carted away gibbering in a straitjacket. If we can't, we wind up in the psych ward laughing at transmissions no one else can hear. If we do, we've just had a successful 'voyage' beyond the confines of collective 'reality.' We can try to transcribe what we heard, or paint it, but until we flip the dial again, we're back safe and sound, and back.

William Blake once wrote that if the doors of perception were cleansed the world would appear as it really is, infinite... but Lovecraft might add that--once the novelty or holy glow wears off--the infinite is a hard thing to live with day-after-day. We may after awhile finally remember, on some deep cosmic level, why the doors of perception aren't cleansed very often. Quickly we wish for a bucket of mud to splash upon them.  Unable to 'turn off' the infinite blazing through, we can only hope the 'finite' blinders come back quick. If they don't, we may find ourselves strapped to a gurney, trying to claw our eyes out, begging the nurse for a sweet, sweet Xanax and/or Ativan drip.

More than likely though, we'd just get rip-roaring drunk, and finally "get to see the world in real black and white," as Tiny Dr. Tim says in "W.C. Fields Forever." Eventually, the colors fade; Oz wears off back down to simple homespun sepia Kansas, and there we are, ready to don the yoke and slog forth into the world once more, a worker among workers.

Yeah, you need to be insane and/or holier than hell to live with those cleansed doors all the time, the X-ray eyes. And you need to know that I didn't even have to look up the above quote from LOST WEEKEND, also starring Ray Milland, because I know those lines by my drunken black X-ray heart, which makes me uniquely qualified to discuss X. For, like Don Birnim in LOST WEEKEND, and Dr. Xavier in X (also Ray Milland), I see too much, feel too deeply, and sometimes have the power to see right through my own eyelids, so that I see the same thing whether my eyes are closed or open. At those points, I grasp for anything to numb the mind, to shrink the aperture. But nothing works for long, leaving me eventually a twitching, hungover mess on fire with thirst and delirium tremens... welcome to the poison path!

It's hard to believe in hindsight that 1963's X (AKA- THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES) prefigures the psychedelic explosion of 1966-68 by a good four years, putting it way ahead of its time, as if Roger Corman could himself could see far into the future. It's still light years more 'true' to the psychedelic experience (especially the 'bad' trip) than nearly any other film trying to actually capture it, including Corman's own THE TRIP from 1967. While Corman's thrifty sets and leftover costumes and props give X-RAY an air of hackwork, that actually works for the overall effect, as if against such force of vision the world's clapboard paltriness is revealed, as if the full wave spectrum reveals, in addition to God's singular cyclops eye staring back at you, that the city you live in is just painted plywood fronts. This makes it hard to tell whether it's a nouvelle vague deconstruction (the French flag colored light bulb/balloons in the photo atop would fit right at home in MADE IN THE USA) or a brilliant inquiry into the 'gaze,' buffeted by waves of post-modern accidental Brechtian cheapness. Since we can't see the difference, we feel sure the difference is there. That's the kind of faith poor Mr. Birnim Wood Xavier doesn't have anymore -- he knows. 

Here's the plot: Dr, X-- grumpy as Don Birnam on Yom Kippur--feels skittish about the experimental eye drops he's invented and which he administers to himself as experimental subject. His colleagues tell him he mustn't! It's unethical! He kills one of them, because doctors who'd rather kill dozens of innocent animals than risk being their own guinea pigs are fucking chickenshit. Milland, who played an alcoholic so well in LOST WEEKEND he became one in real life, captures Xavier's sociopathic surliness in a way that spills outside the script until we're not sure if he's acting or the script was changed because that was easier than trying to change Milland's foul mood. The medical staff at X's hospital of course try to stop him, but it's too late. He sees it all: everything from under a women's skirts to inside their organs, to behind cards in poker and eventually to the chewy tootsie roll center of the universe. He goes from saying to hell with anyone who gets in his way in the pursuit of visual clarity to to hell with anything that gets in his way of driving headfirst into the desert on a quest for glorious opaqueness.

Then again, there's hot chicks scattered all over, so hey -- just dig that crazy looking girl in the photo below, with that awesome Cyd Charisse-meets-Vampira-style black cocktail dress. Note the swingin' way Milland has with a martini! Oh, Ray knows his way around a cocktail party.

Attractive Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van Der Vlis, below) is Xavier's love interest, though he doesn't pay her much attention. In fact he tries to hide from her once he's wanted for murder, but she follows him around like that girl with the leopard coat in LOST WEEKEND. I say give him a break, Nat. Poor Xavier is so busy seeing through things that he can't even sleep! You can't EVER sleep if you can see through your own eyelids! Have you ever woke up and not known whether it's six at night or six in the morning? That's the devil of it, Nat! Without a Valium or a bottle of Nyquil you're finished! And Nyquil hasn't even been invented in 1963! And for Valium you need a prescription. Why, Why Nat?!

Luckily for every wanted-by-the-cops freak like Dr. X there's a sleazy sideshow barker who'll hide him in a fortune teller tent and put him to work making medical diagnoses sans X-ray machine. As with past Corman carny films (remember CARNIVAL ROCK!?), there's very little attempt to convince that the interior threadbare sound stage sets are anything but sketches meant to support the thesis, but what a thesis! And Don Rickles--a regular of AIP's Beach Party films--is a natural impresario of see-through-itiveness, alternating compassion and hucksterism in a way that lets you loathe him and love him in alternating waves.

Diane and Xavier later have to split for the glitzy neon exteriors and the threadbare casino-set interior of Las Vegas, where his see-through card abilities parlay into a small fortune, but 'crowds' are attracted by his luck, leading to casino scrutiny, and Xavier's a surly sod who doesn't take his huge sunglasses off even in the dark of the casino, so ere long a police helicopter is chasing them through the desert after Xavier's car crashes because he can see through the road. So he runs around the desert while engaging in a staring contest with the eye in the center of the world and well...  I won't tell you who wins... I will say that the impressionistic free-form Les Baxter jazz score runs under everything like it's a drum-legged magnet pulling Milland by his giant dark glasses through the rattling sets.

Truth be told, like Milland's grumpy character, X is a hard film to love. Ray's just not the well-meaning basketcase he was as Don Birnam, but the film is still impressive and balls-out original in the way Corman just goes for it, and by it I mean the infinite trip -- pre-2001. I mean, there was no precedent in 1963 for this kind of way-out-there psychedelic trip. Corman was inventing yet another micro-genre in the exploitation universe.

Milland's career was off the rails anyway by the 1960s, meanwhile, due to his own penchant for mood-altering substances... he was taking whatever he could get, role-wise, even if it meant his head had to be sewn on the the ample frame of sensitive linebacker Rosie Greer (THE THING WITH TWO HEADS) just for a post-op recovery shot of Demerol. But even straining to appear less hungover than he was, Milland is never less than compelling and Dr. X as a character benefits from his peevishness. He makes us feel every ampere of his grouchy pain.

 The film's Richard Matheson-like script was penned by Ray Russell, whose credits are not otherwise impressive (MR. SARDONICUS? Yeeesh!) and Robert Dillon (FRENCH CONNECTION II). But it compares well with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in its gutsy exploration of the yawning abyss of the fourth dimensional existence, in its going beyond the illusory atomic structures of our familiar universe; and in its leaving sanity behind like a nagging wife, and--with a beatnik beanie in lieu of swim cap-- diving into the center of the known universe to prove its pasteboard flimsiness.

"I just do eyes!"
I'll share two personal anecdotes at this juncture:

1) In autumn of 2003 I was struck by a huge electro-magnetic freakstorm crown chakra third eye lightning bolt which enabled me--albeit briefly-- to see the same image with my eyes closed or open. The black-electric gray field of inner vision behind my eyelids had come into perfect alignment with the 'real' world around me. It was a moment both terrifying, exhilarating, liberating and mercifully brief.

2) I once was (circa 1987) talked into taking two tabs of blotter acid when a half would have been too much. I found myself walking down the middle of the street, clutching my hair and screaming and laughing at my own terror at the same time. If you can imagine being on a terrifying roller coaster plunging straight down, nonstop, for hour after hour, getting faster exponentially but never hitting bottom, maybe you can get an inkling. I was hoping a car would run me over and free my twisted soul from its melting shell. I saw through everything and I saw the skin cells flaking off all the bodies of the world; I felt the breathing of every living (and nonliving) thing; my breath was the murderous exhaust of cars and my thoughts the howling jackal-like yelps of playing children, buzzing engines cutting through the once sacred cake of my mind with their chainsaw mindless exuberance. With everyone's ape faces dissolving and aging in spiral movements I could barely even dare to look at my shoes. I walked on instinct towards the park, with my dog, who took one look into my eyes and moaned piteously, as if seeing the devil.

It took a long time, but in each example of my own experience -- the good and the terrifying-- I eventually got back to normal's soft gray field of blandness blanket. So I can feel Dr. X's pain at never being able to get back to that. It's the inability to turn it off that makes the schizophrenic seek the shelter of madness, and cigarettes. You can try to get drunk, but your senses are so heightened that even water tastes too strong for your senses. A shot of bourbon is so strong you can't get it to within six inches of your lips without gagging. And lord, I've tried. Such Roderick Usher-style morbid acuteness of the senses is not for lightweights. At the very least, you need a chaser.

I first saw X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES one afternoon on local TV in the early 1970s, with one of my first babysitters, 'Toots,' a blue jean-jacket and straight blonde hair 16-year old hippie runaway from the shelter where my mom volunteered. Ten minutes after mom left, Toots's boyfriend was over, the TV was on, and though they made out between commercials they snapped back for the film, and between the three of us, we talked of it avidly. In my first grade brain it lay as a cornerstone of mythic, intense older kid power. They explained what was going on in ways no other parent or babysitter ever could. It seemed strange, this film, savage, like an episode of BATMAN beamed in from a much more inhospitable, terrifying adult reality. Still, as with the above narrative about the two tabs, I was glad when mom came home, Toots left, and Ultra-Man came on. The soft gray blanket of banal space-time uniformity never feels so sweet as when it's returned after being momentarily ripped away.

So in short, X is a film that needs a sweet Xanax. It's the raw truth of God's eye staring you down through the center of all things. A Lacanian like Slavoj Zizek could have a field day with it. But it's over, it's gone. The magic and mystique of being able to 'crack it wide open' has been lost in our simulacratic age. No parent in their right mind would let a hippy runaway chick babysit their seven year-old today, or probably even allow them to watch a film like X in the first place. Now the TV eye has seen through us, not vice versa, and if anything it is the characters on the TV who will one day squirm in horror at the awful truth when their vision is no longer blocked by the fourth wall and they can finally peer out of their hole in the screen at us on our couches. Offended by our blank impassive eyes, they shall reach out from the screen to pluck them out! Our worst fear? We can still see!!

For further reading check out my 2005 opus, Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child from Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #3

Monday, November 15, 2010

Midlife Crisis Superstar: Humbert, Lo, and the Bait-Switch Cycle

I'll be a guest on Film Geeks tribute to Kubrick podcast this Dec. 5: here's an excerpt from my 2009 Bright Lights Film Journal article:

"All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives"  Stanley Kubrick's LOLITA:
It's hard to believe now in our jaded world but in the late 1960s/1970s, even first-class artist filmmakers such as Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) earned X ratings, making their movie posters reverberate in the deep recesses of my child mind, seeing their ads in the paper and getting a sharp chill in the base of my spine. Back then, an X could be artistic as well as dirty and/or ultra-violent, and thus these films still carry the potent whiff of genuine danger, whose loss Camille Paglia (and this essay) laments. The danger still exists, but we are disconnected from the accompanying desire. It is too late to feel things deeply, in the flesh. We check in with our bodies periodically, during a commercial break, or when it's time to pass the joystick. Only later, when the TV and iPods are all shut off, do the demons and traumas make themselves felt.

Like most of Kubrick's work, Lolita (1961) reflects this gradual rotation ever further into the simulacrum but from an earlier epoch, going from the refinements and closeted perversities of pre-war Europe to the prefab motels of post-modern America. These were the days when police could arrest you for transporting a minor over state lines, or--depending on the state-- kick you out of a hotel for having a woman in your hotel room who wasn't your wife (marriage licenses were like cohabitational authorization cards). So, to unravel this, let's clarify that there are three levels of time at work in our appreciation of Kubrick's film: 1) the span of time since Lolita was released (half a century ago); 2) the span of time of the actual movie (2 ½ hours) and 3) the time spanned in the movie's mise en scene ("i.e. 3 years later, etc."). Kubrick ingeniously unites all three, anticipating its future cult status in the century of evolving mores to come--ensuring it will never be outdated or 'campy. As it meanders from shrill bedroom farce to tense Freudian scenes of insane jealousy, the film itself becomes full of deep, sad shadows. This progression into madness is similar to another of Mason's roles, that of the cortisone-maniac dad in 1956's Bigger Than LifeThe monstrousness of Humberts actions becomes apparent only later, when he's struggling to keep his mask on in the face of all the subterfuge --the self-fulfilling prophecy of jealousy. Prior to this, of course, any man of reproductive age may well identify with his morality-melting attraction (Sue Lyon, initially fetishized for maximum impact, being older and more developed than, say, the girl described in Nabokov's book). But as he becomes more and more odious in his jealousy, we come to identify more with the shadowy libidinal freedom offered by Quilty' presence. In a meta parallel, we move as a world from the Mad Men permissiveness of the early 60s, to the giddy high of the late-60s genuine sexual revolution through to the launch of the AIDS miasma and into a simulacrum fog,  Kubrick's film being with us every step of the way, seeming to predict every step to the libidinal excess of the 70s and back down into 80s repression. Sex now involves so many layers of protection we're better off just imagining it --in your shadows of your own mind. Lolita beats us there too, for--to get the film past the censors--there's no sex, or even kissing, in it anywhere whatsoever. You need to understand the 'code' to infer as you will. 

In the pre-VHS 1970s we wished for the some weird new form of cassette, where we could compile our favorite movies around us as a fort, to not be enslaved to the TV Guide (I sometimes arose at dawn just to see some bizarre piece of crap like Zombies on Broadway). In the 2010s we are stuck, like James Woods in Videodrome, with our head halfway into the cathode ray mouth. Our Satanic wish has become fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams, in excess to the point of nightmare. Now that the entire world has access to all the movies ever made,  being surrounded by favorite movies carries no currency. As Baudrillard put it in The Conspiracy of Art: "It is useless to be dispassionate in a dispassionate world. Being carefree in a divested world has no meaning. This is how we become orphans."

We can see the bait-and-switch of the simulacrum in the commercials shown before movies in theaters now. I remember seeing two commercials back to back after not having seen any for a while (I gave up cable for a few years) and was flipped out of my gourd. The first ad was one of those anti-drug messages, aimed at teens: "Coke Kills." The next is a Coke (as in Coca-Cola) commercial, where a sad little boy takes a sip from his glistening black bottle and flowers and rainbows shoot out of his head: "Coke is life." These are cinema's options — the approved drink is named Coke (which originally had cocaine in it) but is pitched at having the exact effect of the one drug it does not contain, the forbidden drug from which it gets half its name --"the real real thing." This is a very devious switcheroo, regardless of whether it's for our own good. My shrink told me the other day that one of the strands of drugs I was on was scheduled by the FDA on the level of Valium, etc. And why? Because the rats liked it. They kept pressing the lever. No other noticeable problems to long-term use but the rats liked it. They just don't want us rats to have a good time, or is it that, like our concerned parents, they want us to stop watching old movies and go outside and get some fresh air?

I'm all for keeping irresponsible people away from drugs, but the switcheroo presented by these two coke/Coke commercials is a Pavlov equivalent of forcing the rat's hand on the lever while giving him nothing in return. If you're feeling high off drugs, why tell your doctor? Now he has to do something about it, the twin serpents on his profession's fraternal emblem obligate him to halt your ecstasy. The doctors hold the keys to the kingdom, dangling the precious pills above our heads like we're doggies. If we pant and beg, no treat; we have to seem utterly disinterested. Thus displays of enjoyment are rendered dangerous to actual enjoyment, unless the real desire is masked in in 'unconvincing' fakeness. A person craving a renewal on their Valium prescription must 'perform 'badly' that things are now all right, i.e. that they are only feigning the freedom from anxiety that Valium should bring. Baudrillard's dispassionate orphans see their dead parents alive in old videos, in the movies of the past, where enthusiasm, love, and desire can stay potent under the condition they are acted rather than real.

This cycle of bait and switch is the feature selling point of Lolita as it revolves gradually from the bourgeois end game hungover morning after (death) of Quitly's assassination, to bucolic innocence of Humbert's first visitation to the home of Lolita and her mom, to gradual dissolution and back again. Lo's glasses and pregnant belly (at the end of the film) prove her to be a less shrill but nonetheless archetypal blonde suburban mom a la her mother, whom Humbert visited with equal muted horror at the beginning of the flashback. A similar revolution on the meta level mirrors this: as the film grows less and less "contemporary," it grows less "obscene." Yesterday's pornography is today's literary canon, though a return to said literature being burned in the street in some Handmaid's Tale-style future seems still distantly possible. Canon as it my be, good luck finding Lolita in your high school library these days, especially in the South.

Wherever you stand on it, Lolita is an odd-film-out in the Kubrick oeuvre, particularly in that it's one of his few films that attempt to deal with sex, his Achilles heel. Always squeamish about consensual coupling, from Humbert's inability to perform husbandly duties with Lo's mom, to Sterling Hayden's mad general in Dr. Strangelove: "I don't deny myself the company of women, Mandrake. I just deny them my essence' to Tom Cruise's self cockblocking in Eyes Wide Shut, impotence is one Kubrick's main recurring themes, whereas 

To see how Kubrick's 1961 film is really the first 1970s movie, we have to look way back before that, to the late 1950s: repressive Cold War paranoia was giving way to the emerging strands of freethinking that would gradually weave into the rope of countercultural "free love." Sex, which had been safely encrypted in the pre-suburban "Our Town" style of living before WW II, came roaring up from the land of the repressed in cinema via films such as 1954's Baby Doll. The Kinsey Report had made "the sex life of suburbia" into a hot topic, igniting the suburban elite craze for Freud and psychoanalysis. Why not swap wives when we're all comfortably middle class and hip to the Oedipus complex, and drunk? Kinsey made it seem like everyone else was doing it, and we wouldn't want to be left out. 

Scandalous intellectuals-only satire, however, would only do for so long. Without the same amount of repression to work your lusting Wildean wit against, a book or movie like Lolita ceases to be subversive. Viewing the film in the 1990s, it was no longer risqué but a shrill bedroom farce in the style of Fox's early 90s sitcom, Married with Children (which also featured a hot, nubile daughter perched scandalously amidst a family of raving sex maniacs). What was once scandalous has become cartoonish.

Lolita sits at the tape mark on a Moebius strip of time dealing with our national obsession for nymphets: A huge backlash against the loosey-goosey sexuality of children (epitomized by Brooke Shields in the 70s) began in the early 1980s, with day-care molestation scandals and TV's America's Most Wanted. Parents went from letting kids run wild in the streets if they were old enough to walk ('70s), to freaking out if they're out of our sight for a second ('80s), to accompanying them to school and having to be forcibly prevented from sitting through their classes with them (today). Yet nowadays, in more depressed areas, like the mall, you see the 13- to 16-year-old Hannah Montana nymphets glorified in short shorts they never would have been able to wear outside the house even in the '70s, and a salon tan, and bottle-blond hair, Britneyed to the nines, wobbling around the mall on their high heels in the company of their obese moms who either don't seem to notice or enjoy the looks of hungry males by proxy. 

The idea of women teachers sleeping with young male students, meanwhile, has become top news and fodder, and multiplexes pack in single working women on Friday nights to see Notes on a Scandal, Sex and the City, Elizabeth, The Reader. Koo Koo ka Choo! Just keep it on the screen and out of the real. And let's not forget the dour, craftsmanship-suffocated Lolita remake by Adrian Lyne! As with everything they touch, the bourgeoisie keep the sex and scuttle the myth. They first demonize and then overvalue that which was better off without their meddling or even knowledge.

What's most altered our perception of Lolita's "sexuality" is the tumbling down of the enforced moral code, thanks to the "did they or didn't they" question on which it hung being flipped upside down through hipster hand magic. As a code-breaker in this sense, Lolita really has a lot in common with Baby Doll, i.e. the way Quilty and Lolita work together to exploit Humbert's insane jealousy, driving him to murder, just as in Baby Doll, Carroll Baker (below) and Eli Wallach deliberately provoke and tease the dirty-minded hick played by Karl Malden until he runs amok with a shotgun. The 'did they or didn't they' question on both of their minds is something neither they nor we ever learn the answer to.

Each self-diagnosed cuckold (including ourselves) wants to "know for sure" what the code can never explicitly say. The code itself becomes the meta-textual source of anxiety, a stand-in for the insanity of jealousy, itself a smokescreen for the universality (and therefore mundanity) of our hitherto most private sexual impulses--and thus the films' code-enforced sexual ambiguity serves as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," driving the Joseph Breens into lynch mob madness. No matter how successfully they censor, their own curiosity drives them insane. There's always one viewer who believes it's possible to 'know' what Lolita and Humbert did or didn't do that morning in the hotel room with the cot, or what happened during the nap with Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in the room with the crib in Baby Doll. 

That one lone dude in the theater is the censor.

(read full article here)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dino De Laurentiis: Warrior, Poet, Profit. (1919-2010) + ORCA

There was something so refreshing about the man, a kind of larger-than-life dreamer quality. As my friend Sean Kelly noted, a De Laurentiis movie was such an event and yet so tragic, as they always start out super grand and big budget, and all the $$ is on screen, and then, about an hour or 40 minutes in, the budget is all used up, and things get cheap... by the big climax you can practically see the repo men in the background, hauling away the icebergs and jungle canopies... and yet somehow the film just seems to get better as a result. Nominally a mere producer/backer, his stamp is felt with recurring sense of vastness and high style - it's not just lush or detailed, his worlds have a stylish grandeur that makes them great settings for Vogue spreads or Salvador Dali dream sequences. The temple of Set in CONAN, the throne rooms in FLASH GORDON and DUNE, the Matmos in BARBARELLA. 

Consider CONAN, FLASH and DUNE, each spaced two years apart, each enduring, one way or the other, as shoulders above their competition as far as stylish art design, not just in budget and talent but in vivid, earthy texture, in costume, and set design (making up for the occasional clumsy miniature work). Even today the kinky slickness Versace gaudiness of FLASH has an enduring madcap quality. Can we doubt then that the idea of using, say, rock bands like Queen and Toto to the scores of these films isn't Dino's? Seeing the name 'Toto' as composer in the DUNE credits creates a shock, a statement bold as Queen for FLASH. There's almost no other films of the era with single word rock band names as composer, and they one man in common, Dino de. 

A man who cared about movies first and foremost, and loved to spend money, and who radiated a larger-than-life warmth, a combination celebration and winking satire of the Italian film mogul - he shall be missed. And to celebrate, here's a link to a review I did--one that happens to perfectly embody the core values and lack thereof for which Acidemic's Mid-Life Crisis Month is best embodied-- for the DVD of ORCA (1977) on Popmatters 9/29/2004:

The Old Man and the Feminist and the Sea

Recent killer whale movies feature children (see: 1993's Free Willy). Orca, now on DVD, reminds us it wasn't always that way. In 1975, Jaws (sharks, not whales) did have incidental kids in it, and youngsters were surely part of its blockbuster audience. But Hollywood in its dumb literalistic way, apparently took kids' interest in sharks and whales to mean shark and whale movies needed to star kids. You can see the shift as early as Jaws 2 (1977), when the focus moves from adults on a boat to a crew of bland, disposable teens adrift on a catamaran. Still, not all Jaws knockoffs of the latter-1970s fell into this trap. Orca falls into traps all its own, but keeps the adults at the helm every step of the way.

The film opens on a pair of happily wed killer whales in Newfoundland, under a twangy Ennio Morricone score. Produced by Dino DeLaurentis, the movie offers not just these killer whales, but also a great white shark, a Christian allegory, a Sergio Leone-style showdown, and a relationship between whale and man à la Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. And, while Orca frequently annoys and bores, it also lingers in the mind long after the credits fade.

The primary reason is protagonist Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a proud Irish seaman who prowls around the Newfoundland coast in search of great white sharks to capture and sell to aquariums. He meets local killer whale expert Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) by accident, coming to her aid when she's threatened by a great white. In turn, she spends some quality expository time filling him in on how killer whales are mammals, not fish like sharks; they can communicate over great distances, and may in fact be many times more intelligent than people. He becomes determined to capture one to sell to the aquariums instead of a shark. Ill-equipped for any sort of serious whale-capturing endeavor, he soon has a bleeding female orca hanging off the mizzenmast, ejecting her unborn fetus onto the deck of his boat.

Though Nolan instantly regrets what his casual masculinity has wrought, the female whale is too entwined in rope to be loosed, so he shakily hoses the fetus off his deck and sails home, the anguished papa screaming off in the distance, vowing revenge. Orca thus bangs up Nolan's boat on the way back, so that the captain needs to dock for repairs. When he cuts loose the now basically dead female whale, her mate noses her body onto the shore, so all the locals can see the result of Nolan's callousness.

This makes the locals eager to fix up Nolan's boat as quickly as possible and have him be on his way, for they be sensin' a fight. Will Sampson (Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975]) plays the Native Newfoundlander Umilak, delivering turgid lines about the orca's fighting spirit. This whale also has special powers, apparently, as he can tell whenever someone is leaning out of Nolan's boat, and so jump right up and swallow him whole. It also knows about electric current and fire, blowing up half the town by strategically rupturing some local fuel lines, then knocking over a nearby cabin's lamp.

Nolan, meantime, remains determined. Though the days of Jaws' salty Quint (Robert Shaw) were more or less over by 1977, and stars like Burt Reynolds or Harrison Ford came with a glint of self-awareness in their eyes. Nolan has no such glint. He remains unable to confess, ask directions, or let a woman drive. Orca then is about masculinity in transition-- the white man recognizing his guilt for thousands of years of oppression of sea mammals, women, and Native Americans. Still, Nolan bears his guilt with Hemingway-esque stoicism.

Though Nolan plans to sail away on his boat in the dead of night to spare his crew, wanting to offer himself to the whale's mercy, instead, he's accompanied by (inexplicably) Umilak and Rachel. The climax leads them all up to the frozen waters of the Arctic, where everyone tries to act cold while sweating in front of fake-looking icebergs. Despite all of this artifice, the orca is never less than convincing, making one wonder if any killer whales were harmed during the making of this film. When the whale lifts its head out of the water to stare down Nolan, it's incredibly strange - man and whale in squared-off gunfight pose, surrounded by thick, fake, white ice.

Due to some fuzzy motivations, the phony icebergs, and the godawful end credits music, one doesn't come away from Orca feeling very positive. But, as a 1970s ecological disaster film mingled with Jaws knockoff, it does provide a provocative protagonist. Nolan is a Christ figure, at the crossroads between the tough old men of 1950s shark- and communist-infested seas and the girly men to come, the "sensitive" white males who don't drink or smoke in front of their children, arrange play dates, worry about political correctness, and run to Human Resources when they overhear sexual conversations in the neighboring office cubicle.

Nolan is like a 70s version of Captain Ahab forced by the New Bedford Whaling Corporation to take sensitivity training. The orca, meanwhile, rises from his peaceful place in the sea to become a sort of eco-Arnold Schwarzenegger, not interested in Nolan's feeble attempt at apologies, only in a fair showdown. Captain Nolan was one of a dying breed. The next movie generation of seagoing salts will be clean-shaven youths, driving Greenpeace vessels, and carrying tear-stained children at their sides. Me, I'll take the flawed male who has no choice but to aim his shotgun one last time at merciless chthonic nature. I guarantee you any kid alive would choose the same.

— 29 September 2004

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November is Mid-Life Crisis Month on Acidemic!

The sudden darkness and creeping cold makes November (my 'anniversary' month! 12 years! Keep coming back it works if you work it but if you stop working it, it's usually November) the perfect month to curl back up in your nest and prepare the stack of movies... about mid-life crises! I can tell you a thing or too about mid-life crises... in movies!! Mid-Life... crises! (Sing it like Hendrix "Midnight Lightnin'")

Okay, what is a midlife crises? Why, it's a manic high that overtakes you after you've let yourself slide into a low-grade depression for too long. Suddenly, something clicks inside your head, and you're FREE! You jump around and don't give a fuck. There's some classic examples - Kevin Spacey in AMERICAN BEAUTY (below). He's stuck in a rut with a nowhere job and a shrewish wife, but then a combination of good pot, a hot cheerleader, and sudden threat of job loss  come merging together to bust him loose. For Warren Beatty in BULWORTH (above left), it's political compromises and disillusionment that cause him to take a contract out on his own life, and the threat of death triggers the wake-up. Tom Wilkinson in MICHAEL CLAYTON (atop) suddenly shrugs off his evil lawyer ways and becomes a nudist champion of chemically deformed yokels. Dudes be trippin'! 

Coming up: THE SWIMMER!
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