Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hail Hail Heather Graham

I just go back from Heather Graham's 41st birthday bash (1) and what better time to celebrate her unnerving sexuality? She's 41!? You'd never guess it.

I remember well Graham's big crash into A-list films in the late-90's: firstly as the sweet girl who saves future IRON MAN-director Jon Favreau from chickless despair in SWINGERS (1996)--her presence a reminder that even the most self-defeating hep cats were occasionally rewarded with a nice, cool. up-front, doesn't-know-she's-hot kind of gal; secondly, as the shockingly uninhibited porn star Rollergirl in BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997); thirdly, as the lass who beats out Natasha Gregson Wagner for the dubious prize of Robert Downey Jr. in TWO GIRLS AND A GUY (1997). By the time she staggered into AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999), as a spy who climbs into bed Mike Meyers' disgusting chicken grease-over-latex fat-suited Scotsman badguy, 'Fat Bastard.', Graham's warm-hearted, 'sexually uninhibited like she lived in Europe for a year' kind of nerd fantasy girl persona was locked in to every chakra of every red-blooded blue-haired white dude the world over. It was like doesn't this poor nymphomaniac persona ever get to--like--shag someone other than nerds, dsisgustoing doofuses? (Doofi?), and future-IRON MAN directors then playing a type best described as 'angry proto-Seth Rogan.

 I saw SHAGGED in the theater during the hot summer of 1999, when my AC was out, and my gratitude for the coolness of the 86th and 3rd Loew's was offset by the disturbing sight of Graham's gorgeous body in bed with Meyers' Bastard, his fat fingers and bloated hair prosthetic chest greasy from chowing on a whole roast chicken while she cuddled up to him in a slim silk negligee. Some things you never forget, and the sight of sweet doe-eyed hottie Graham going to such lengths for her job made me shudder in sympathy for young actresses everywhere. Since then she's been a sex worker of one gold-hearted sort or another in everything from THE GURU (2002) to HBO's CALIFORNICATION.

From her golden late-90s A-list crash she got a gig hosting SNL, where she played--what else?-- a sexually free-and-easy babysitter who becomes uncomfortably sidelined in a bitter post-menage a trois argument with the parents --which made it seem like all Chris Parnell wanted to do was imply he'd slept with Heather Graham, so no matter how emasculating the conversation with the wife, he at least had that. It's gross but I don't blame him --the Heather impact by then was undeniable: those wide eyes, that horrifically voluptuous body, that golden hair; she was almost too sexy in her ability to be unconscious of being too sexy for us to handle. Other sketches all hinted at thwarted or desired Rollergirl-iesqu menages, the kind of thing the geek male writers could think up when the girl guest was too hot for them to not fall apart over. It was if the guileless voluptuousness of Marilyn Monroe was wedded to a smart, concerned, awake, lonesome heart-of-gold sex therapist.

Hers is the kind of allure that perfectly embodies Lacan's objet petit a: men fantasize about her kind of 'availability' only to run from it when it suddenly makes itself so immediately, alarmingly tangible. I can imagine her (2) coming onto me at a party and me stammering some lame excuse and running away... watching in shame as she goes home with some other guy more foul-mouthed and aggressive, who doesn't stammer when she consents but dives right in (i.e. is on coke). She proves 95% of men are all bark.

Pornography is probably the most clear example of the kind of image-based delusion her sexiness destroys: in it, all the enjoyment is enacted onscreen for the viewer, who presumably fantasizes themselves into the action, but does he (or she) really? Heather Graham reminds us that the reason we turn to this vicarious pleasure is more than our shyness, laziness, ugliness, reticence, cheapness, all keeping us from living life like an orgy; our whole identity is split between the imaginary and the real -- we fantasize via the screen and when our fantasy comes true, sans screen, we run back to the shelter of the image. As we age she moves from fantasy babysitter to fantasy conquest to fantasy mistress to fantasy daughter/kid sister/ward. They don't necessarily overlap or anything, usually, and violate no laws or conventions --something about those eyes, both blank and open, make her someone to lust after and want to protect from lust at the same time. If we follow her into the orgy, we'll emerge damaged and disillusioned --she'll be the same sweet innocent girl who went in. So we don't want to go in with her -- we'll keep our versions fantasy/real, objectification/identification, lust/protective all separate.

With Heather Graham, we better run fast, as she moves like a serpent zipper.

Lacan writes about the impossibility of desire, and Heather Graham is its fullest expression. She makes us weep with longing and trepidation, with paternal worry and sullen virgin teen resentment. Her career needs to continue long time to flourish now that she's in her 40s! Take that sexuality and finesse it, Heather Graham! You are the sunshine of '69's one stray ray stretching this far to the future. Free love still blazes in your saucer eyes. More's the pity for the world, not you, if all they can do is run from the golden blessings you bestow, or worse just soil themselves like frightened puppies.

(more cool photos and celebration at Neil Fulwood's Agitation of the Mind here)

(1): I never said she was there... or even knew about it.
(2): meaning her 'persona'--the cumulative 'role' she plays, not necessarily the actress herself
(3): Our whole persona longs to be off the chain sinking our fangs into some throat or other, we bark and howl and moan, but off of it we suddenly have to put up or shut up, lunge for the kill or whimper and run away. Now instead of just wishing we were off the chain, certain the damage we could do, we never thought we might lose the fight and wind up bled and torn, chewed up, the equivalent of her suddenly busting out the 'I have a boyfriend' card and running back to her girlfriends to snicker about your pathetic seduction attempt. In that missed connection, that failure to make the kill, we can feel the bleeding and rip, the blush of shame like blood, the pale dizzy despair coming on us like an inescapable wave. But if we're on the chain (she's just an image onsceen) we're free. She can't step off the screen and say put up or shut up. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I'll always stick up for TWILIGHT (the films at any rate) because I love the death drive, and what other series is the lead girl allowed to have an unrepentant disdain for life? That's so ninja! What other teen series is it not only sanctioned but wholly recommended to die for love? That's pre-code woman's picture Hollywood, as old and venerated as Lilian Gish and D.W. Griffith. In refusing to be embraced by the positive life energies of the social order that pines for her, Bella becomes an Antigone-by-way-of-Camille tragi-diva. She may be a virgin, but she's not afraid to give it all up for the idea of love.

It's important for hand-wringing moralists to remember that most everyone in the world knows the difference between fiction and reality, so these kinds of death drives are meant for films -- films are their outlet. They are death on a stick, 50 cents a seat. In a dream, does it really matter if you live beyond the credits? Doesn't Oscar prefer a gloriously overwrought death scene over a happily-ever-after fade to nothing?  Don't we love to pretend to die as children? To achieve true immortality the ideal lover must become only a memory, a twinkle in Gloria Stuart's eye, rather than one who ages into her sofa and squintes at the crosswords through dirty bifocals.

TITANIC (1997)
What could be more functionally Goth than the frozen Arctic ending of this film? I was deeply surprised the frosty hair, pale skin, chattering teeth and purple lip look didn't sweep the world as a fashion trend after this film came out. Sometimes in cultural hypothermia a lag effect doth dwell. A decade or so later, TWILIGHT sped the lag to a close.

I saw this in the theater the same weekend as INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, and was hungover and repentant both times and cried at each. For the purposes of this post, however, WOMEN trumps VAMPIRE. Why? Here's why: a) Brad Pitt's ethical guilt tripping over biting folks in VAMPIRE gets soooo tiresome, and b) Tom Cruise as Lestat? Who cares if he was actually good at it? It's just wrong, no matter how sexy is the Antonio Banderas.

LITTLE WOMEN, meanwhile, has super young Christian Bale, Kristen Dunst (not quite as good as she was in VAMPIRE but who cares), Clare Danes (I cried a thousand drunken times over My So-Called Life reruns on MTV) and Winona Ryder! And even today, the film has a weird charm, like you're staying over at the spooky-cozy mansion house of a group of very, very cool girls in long nightshirts and candles, and that sense of 'belonging' to a cool group of beautiful people is really what TWILIGHT hinges on. Also, Ryder's combination of brainy, brunette and no bullshit-taking becomes a steampunk version of Jo that's a clear forerunner to the whole Kristen Stewart-Bella Goth thing, which Ryder basically invented anyway, six years earlier in BEETLEJUICE.

Here's a love story where the guy is a legendary romantic hundreds of years old and only true love will set him free from sailing on into the horizons for centuries, eternally alone. He's willing to give up his chance at salvation when he meets Pandora, though. She's a free spirit who all the boys kill themselves, and each other, over. As the girl a macho toreador, a dry British sportsman motorist, and the wise older archaeologist who narrates the tale all pine for, Ava Gardner lolls under the painterly camera eye of Jack Cardiff. And the parallels with TWILIGHT are, like, super obvious; her giving up her life to be with him, he giving up the chance for her to give it up because her life means so much to him, and even with all the rivals fighting over her, she chooses the immortal, to become mythic, this earthly plane be damned... 

Death is played by Frederic March, who poses as a count and meets a far-away-eyed debutante (Evelyn Venable). She's death-obsessed enough to make Bella seem like Mary Poppins and her Edward ain't some deer-blood drinking Puritan but the Grim One himself. Love + Death = Modernism is a cry-in-your-whiskey highball tradition. This isn't available on DVD, except as an extra on the two-disc Meet Joe Black (Ultimate Edition), which since you can pick it up for under nine dollars, is worth getting just for Venable's haunted performance if nothing else (avoid JOE BLACK itself, and I say this as a man who deeply adores Claire Forlani).

MOROCCO (1931)
Marlene Dietrich's cabaret chanteuse courts androgyny and shuns rich Adolphe Menjou (the Jacob), knowing he'll eat it up. She's defined more by what she's not than what she is, and that's why she falls for 'tall drink of water' Cooper, a shadow in the Foreign Legion who, like her, is bored with the opposite sex throwing themselves all over him. They're each surprised by their deep yen for one another, but both are so used to being pursued they barely remember how to actually do the pursuing. Not to worry, since neither one gives a damn about life or death and Dietrich's final renouncement is as valiant and Goth as anything in the back of Bella's death-drivin' mind.

THE WIND (1929)
Silent (or sound) films have seldom spun along with such crazy spirit as in THE WIND: Lillian Gish is the poor virginal girl who gets way less than she bargained for when she moves in with her deep dish dust bowl dirt-dwellin' mail order husband. His homestead is so windy she spends the bulk of the day sweeping sand out of the shack, and repelling her husband's would-be rapist friends. The whole thing works well as a metaphor for virginity and the loss thereof, the endless sacrifice and loss in exchange for nothing but maybe love. In a way, it's the most sexually and emotionally 'mature' film of the lot. It's the REPULSION of the silent era! Don't miss it, and don't front if you have to read intertitles, or you may never understand DOGVILLE. You been warned! Smarten up! 

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Moon, Cat Women, and Thou

One of the 'Golden Turkey' classics (Medved wrote of it in awe), CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953) begs little but indulgence. It doesn't ask for respect, forgiveness or love, it's crankier about its own existence even than you are. "This is a space expedition," rants leader Sonny Tufts once we're out of Earth orbit, "not some stunt!" While in actuality the trip to the moon could brook no moonlighters here we've got a moony kid, a hypnotized babe, a mercenary capitalist scammer who seems to conflict of interest be spec-working deals right and left with moon oil companies, and as their leady Sunny Tufts, who's like the cranky mean dick boss who tries to cover up his own hangover by treating everyone else like they're shiftless vagrants if they don't seem as miserable and confused as he is. He's the main reason I don't love this film like I do the more uptempo giddy numbers by, say, Ed Wood or Ron Ormond. But it's still great. It's like a terrible play put on by your children, but they cast your dick neighbor and he thought he was going to star in a major production not your kid's basement spookshow, and he was promised a fifth of Old Turkey, and still hasn't gotten it. "We came over this far because we did it by the book," Windsor tells Jory. Like oh yeah, the manual for being the first people on the moon? The great thing about, say, PLAN NINE, was that Ed Wood really believed in his bullshit - he never missed a chance to convey his adoration of angora, but this, oh man....

 Shot in 3-D in the middle of the night on cheap sets by the most depth-perception-challenged director in history (Arthur Hilton), CWOTM features cat dancing; spacesuit donning and doffing; a giant spider; mystic trances; plotting; hypnosis; and lots of sleeping. Take it or leave it.

I'll take it, because there is no 'late' sleeping on the dark side of the moon. There is no sunshine day for your mom to complain you're wasting. There are just stars, and those B-list actors starring the Z-list square in the face with stout discombobulation. See how they doze on lounge chairs in their aluminum siding-walled space ship! See how they doze amidst the columns and splendor of the secret cat lair! Shhhh! They waken and overhear a conversation. Shhhh... The two alpha human males fight over Helen... if you can call it fighting. Shhh! I just saw something new - this zillionth viewing - the giant spider has a huge horn on its head!! You can see numerous eyes too. It's things like that. Things like Marie Windsor's screaming and the complete breakdown on the fronts with two dudes trying to get with Helen and the whole company falling apart as a result! That's why semen and women don't mix sir. A woman on ship's bad luck. But we needed a shit classic like CWOTM to show us the way.

Helen, wakes up screaming!
"Helen what's the matter!?" Tufts screams.
"Nothing," Helen says. "I just opened my eyes and missed you!"

It ain't Gene Krupa, but the greedhead is the same actor who played the wiseass crime reporter with the dizzy dame in 1948's SCARED TO DEATH. A film that I, Ken Hanke, and one-teen other people recognizes as a modern shitass classic of surreal nigh-Bunuelian disconnect. This however, between the sickly jallopy sincerity of rube -----; the sweaty hostility of Victor Jory, the idiocy of Laird, and the duplicity of masochistic Marie Windsor. "They can, Kip! They control me! Laird knew more and they wanted me with him!" - the problem is of course we don't like Jory's stick-in-the-mud dickhead or ----- greedheaded capitalist or the greaser rube, they're all despicable - as if America's doucheness is divided up. You can't deny it's an effective Colonialism memtaphor - Walt as the East India Trading Company ("You're too smart, baby -- I like 'em stupid"); Jory as the sweaty military strategists and paranoid Tories; Laird as the stick-upper-lapsed Colonel Blimp, Marie Windsor as the future generations hearts and minds, and the rube as--well--the canon fodder, which is why we fight.

Irresistible in its graceless charm and missing--thankfully--any sense of self-awareness or wit, MOON manages to forget more about male-female relationships than the entire rom-com genre will ever remember. Whether convulsing in alcohol withdrawal, or fuzzily fading in and out of stoned consciousness, CAT WOMEN is like some strange oxygen-enriched air magically adhering to the dark side of the moon for only you and your asleep, annoyed lover next to you to breathe. If someone else enters the room, its magic vanishes. It can't even hold up in a review like this. I don't know why I always defend it. I mean I love Lambda, and I love the dreamy flute passages by Elmer Bernstein. My favorite Bernstein? Ya, because I'll cry to WEST SIDE but I'll laugh an easter's wicked son through with ROBOT MONSTER and the CAT.

CAT WOMEN, a movie so cheap that half its action scenes occur off-camera, described secondhand by actors who've just entered the room, whichever room the action's not in. The presence of a giant spider on strings pops up to wake you with Helen's screams if you were about to fall asleep. You could laugh at the spider's strings, but why? There's something poetic in the film that comes from somewhere far deeper, where Victor Jory is so beside himself with love over Marie Windsor he reacts with the news the Cat Women are bad like a surly schoolboy, but then only remembers at the last minute that literally twisting her thumb makes her his sleeve ("don't ever stop hurting me!"). "Helen look at me!' Lambda says. "My will is as strong as their's! Stand firm!" But then --what we don't see the standing.

Simple. Poverty-stricken. Beautiful. Faces on the wall that only eventually turn into flowers. A psychic palm reading in some terrible alternate reality, here no one washes their hair and the future is unwritten, just improvised off the back of the screenwriter's cocktail napkins. And UFO enthusiasts should dig that thing on the wall in the upper left. It looks just like a primitive sculpture of the face of a reptilian grey. An accident? Intentional? Just some weird trinket rummaged from the discarded prop bin in the alley behind the sound stage? Are those eyes just fronds, leaves on a forehead rose? Baby, there are no accidents in bad 1950s science fiction. I can imagine that face being added in the dead of the night by covert military disinformation specialists to throw paranoid fans off the scent... or onto it. In erasing the difference they earn their wings, or stripes. To consider the seams of the simulacrum as the message, the glue on the aluminum siding spaceship as the meta link that breaks narrative hypnosis; the lounge chair beds right by the instrument panels as a genius kind of sketch shorthand, is to consider myth at its most basic reptilian cortex-convex subterranean function. Saving it for special occasions (after travel-related trauma), I sink into it with the cozy feeling as if space is a giant slumber party where someone is always awake and someone is always asleep, keeping the crew rooted in a place neither unconscious nor conscious. 

Cinema and viewing, especially late night semi-conscious viewing, is just like that.. I figure this, if I enjoy CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, I know I am too drunk to drive. Or at the very least, don't need to go out. 

And in watching the characters throwing themselves into the path of the (now horned) spider, positioning themselves so they can struggle gamely with it (since it clearly can't move on its own, save vertically) you feel unmoored from the limits of narrative and into the 4th wall freedom of post-modern awareness. 

This is true freedom. Death is but a dull dream of soggy claws in contrast to such shallow depth, such groundless hysteria. 

Above is another cool shot of some people sleeping. Doesn't it just make you want to sack out on a cold night like this? And of course, Helen. She sleeps like a champ:

Marie (NARROW MARGIN) Windsor plays Helen (everyone in the cast has to shout her name for some reason: "Helen! HELEN!!"): the one woman on the ship, susceptible to the mind control of the cat women, and a masochist - an extreme masochist. She's the navigator and guides the men to the dark side, and then pits the humorless Victor Jory against incompetent dimwit (Sonny Tufts) to better telepath geometrical flight data back to Alpha (Carol Brewster), the lead cat lady. 

She sleeps good, too. 

I'm picky. I like that there's no exterior footage in CAT WOMEN. Not one daytime exterior establishing shot, no mismatched day-for-night driving scenes, no sense of grass or earthy values. It's soothing to my Swedish blood to imagine a world where the sun never comes up and the planet is populated only by cat girls who--for all their guile--are much more sympathetic than the brain-dead Tufts or the reptilian Jory. Sure, Jory never doubts his own moral rightness as he punches out women right and left (he'd be a great candidate for Summers' Isle), but the nakedly greedy and self-serving Walt (Douglas Fowley), and the pop culture void that is Doug (William Phillips), who somehow earns the love of Lambda, ah sweet Lambda (Susan Morrow), are such blights upon the scene... well that maybe Walt could sell space blight to the suckers on earth for a hundred bucks a blight, whaddaya say? And Lambda would like to try, how you say it on Earth, a crisp clean Coke? 

I first got into this movie while drunk in Seattle living with a girlfriend who was beautiful and already fed up with my sloth and debauchery after three months of unemployed cohabitation. Lambda could have been her sister, same kind of deer-in-the-headlights sweet clueless brunette cool and aquiline profile. Man oh man. I was so in love and all I could do was treat her mean and contemptuous until she left me, because god she was dumb. I didn't know then just how often beautiful people get away with never developing wit or acumen (what Tina Fey calls "the bubble"). Then for years after, I watched CAT WOMEN to remind me of her.... "Lambda...." Seattle may as well have been the moon now that I was an east-coaster forever. The perfect Pacific Northwestern pre-Twilight fantasia was born. 

Like Seattle itself, CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON has no sunshine but does come with sparse and mismatched garage sale decor, a beatnik coffee house aesthetic gone wrong, a sense of smug sanctimony clouding its once-beautiful blankness, and the realization, as I had moving back east, that once you leave you can never go back. Not that you'd want to. But your lungs miss it. And so much of your heart is near the lungs. Seriously, the Puget Sound air is so good your lungs cry at the airport, either with sadness to leave or gratitude to arrive. Luckily, lungs aint the boss of me. I'm too wise and rich with acumen and wit to let air be the boss of me. Sigh. 

It's been a long time since I was in Seattle, and New York has no room for CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. In my personal constellation, Lambda's archetypal resonance has dimmed over the decades, and thanks to David Icke I recently learned  the truth about the moon (psst - the moon is not your friend - either that or Icke is crazy --or maybe both), but I took the DVD of CAT  to PA earlier this month and it got me through a rough patch (reading Icke by day, watching CAT by night). It's the kind of film that can get you through almost anything, except... maybe... itself. But isn't life a lot like that... in PA? or WA? or NY? or anywhere on this stupid 3-D earth? Cheer up, pal, and press 'play from beginning.' Breathe deep. You depart for NYC in 20 minutes. Maybe you can bottle Washington air and sell it over in NYC for a dollar an inhale, whaddaya say?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The First Lebowski: CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

Every once in awhile a man has to pause. Every once in awhile a man has peer into the decades behind him, take a cursory flip through Leonard Maltin and wonder... is John Heard really a good actor? I mean, is he awesome? Or is he too much too late?

The question is answered the same time as you ask: do all 1970s movies involve grizzled vet loners going after corrupt power father figures like they're lone wolves growling valiantly but for naught against the machine?

As Robert Evans would say, you bet all 1970's movies involved grizzled loners growling for naught against the machine. And they all must have a big crowd scene parade, or a wedding, or a political rally, or some place where they can see some figure in a white dress representing old world innocence now reduced to a symbolic lamb sacrifice against the coming storm of dread and draconian soul-eating.

Perhaps a bit shaggy, CUTTER'S WAY can't make up its mind about itself: is it called CUTTER'S WAY or CUTTER AND BONE? Is it an Elmore Leonard-ish beach bum crime drama, a Vietnam vet character study, a dysfunctional buddy comedy meets California corruption tale, or an elegy to the American dream ala DEER HUNTER. A quirky tale of a small California town where everybody knows your name and you can drink right out in the open and not be arrested, ("Hey man! I have a beverage here!") it's CHINATOWN meets MIDNIGHT COWBOY divided by BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA meets NIGHT MOVES + SHAMPOO divided by THE DEER HUNTER if Roger Altman started to direct it, got replaced by William Friedkin, who turned it over to Louis Malle. It's got a little of a lot and sure it's brilliant but by 1981 these tropes scan like quirk by the numbers. Why shoehorn the whole evil murder plot in there at all? And Heard overplays so much and acts so drunk that a murder case seems way too much for him to handle, or care about. He should be using some of that voracious animal intellect to not piss his pants, like the rest of us!

Those pants really tied the room together.

In short, this movie could be a prequel to THE BIG LEBOWSKI, wherein a younger Dude, still played by Jeff Bridges, deals with a similar conspiracy by the much saner approach of saying fuck it and going bowling, and Bridges' Vietnam vet wreck of a buddy isn't a little scrawny fucker with only one leg and an eye patch but John Fucking Goodman! Goodman would have shaken the shit up in CUTTER'S WAY, but Heard can't do much more than ride a horse through a window. As Sam Eliot once said: "Take her easy, dude... I know you will, too."

CUTTER takes it too easy, way too easy. It started as a project back in 1971 and if it had been released in 1972 instead of the early nine years later it would probably have been a hit and a modern classic like your DEER HUNTER and your CHINATOWN, but studio regime changes as well as trend shifts delayed its completion and release, and by 1981 people had grown a little weary of the traumatized vet loner solving a rich man's crime thing. I remember reading some good reviews in the local newspaper when CUTTER finally did come out, but I knew even then, at 14, that the 1970s were over. We'd all had a good laugh at the HEAVEN'S GATE debacle, and grown tired of the undignified posturing--chronicled in PEOPLE magazine--between the stars of DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME over the 1978 Oscars, and Jane Fonda bashing the former over its 'demonic' portrayal of the Viet Cong. One more film about a Vietnam vet disillusioned and seeking to overturn the turtle of American politics wasn't going to make us leave our sofa. We craved fantasy, escape, ET!! And lo, ET he was on his way, to trade us our innocence for some magic candy--like a safety class stranger--just one year after this last gasp of 1970s corruption-venting. In 1981, being disillusioned about America was universal to the point it had disappeared from notice.

And for some of us, John Heard was just too... Kevin Bacon-ish? No denying he's ferocious here and gives it 111%, but seeing the film now, long past any due date, I honestly don't know how I feel about him, or the film. All the ingredients are there and maybe that's the problem. It's like the film was given an unlimited shopping spree at the seventies' paranoia cliche' store and just had to clean the place out.

But hey, it's worth seeing some time when you're high on 1970s Vietnam-gate, and what a double bill it would make with LEBOWSKI! May I recommend an angle on which to view them, for political meta-purposes? Just have Bridges = Blue States / right brain (far out, man) and the vets (Goodman and Heard) = Red states / left brain (guns break class barriers) The corrupt power elite figure equals the 'real' corporate shadow puppet (Halliburton, Enron) figures that capitalize on the dissonance between the colors/hemispheres to steal everyone's IRA and soul. Keep this in mind and let the bowling balls and cocktails fall where they may.

The fine and trenchant blog OUT 1 reviews CUTTER here, and draws a similar Lebowski conclusion while dealing more with the plot and production of the film itself. It makes a fine double bill with this post! Tell them the Dude sent ya. I know you won't, too... you'll forget. I know I have.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Best Erich Kuersten Film Writing of 2010

Whether in Bright Lights Film Journal or this very blog, Erich Kuersten's been busy trying to fracture reality through bizarro psychedelic film analysis. This year he found himself hung up on the ambiguous sexual crosscurrents of feminine desire (in #6 of the Acidemic Film Journal proper) was cited as one of the best film criticism sites by The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and had his mind blown by seeing ENTER THE VOID and BLACK SWAN in a single 24 hour time period, all while sick, and strung out on Robitussin DM!

Do we not, in associating white for virginity and purity, forget that red means the alchemical opening up of that purity into the raw violence of procreation? So what does that third color of the French flag--blue--represent? Naturally, the cooling rescue of death--or rather as symbolized in the 'bloody chamber' where all the previous brides are stored, a suspended animation -- a sleeping beauty status wherein the enslaving agonies of childbirth and old age are forever kept at bay. In short, the blue represents frozen death and timeless decadence, pleasure and a disruption of the natural enslavement process of patriarchy. Bluebeard postpones sexual relations--and life itself-- in order to keep romance forever young... (more)
No great art actually solves problems or answers question, but instead brings confirmation to doubt, a sense the answer to that question you were obsessed with as a child is still relevant and waiting for you to pick up its breadcrumb trail. To firmly believe in two simultaneously contradictory opinions is to free to be in on the joke of your own enslavement, which is all true freedom is... (more)
A good myth functions as a natural psychedelic, but OZ also functions, like 2001, as a metaphor for acid itself, and remains a common way to describe the effects to people who've never tried it (...) No matter how many times we've seen (the film), even knowing it's coming after dozens of viewings since childhood, that transition from black and white Kansas to technicolor OZ is a bit of a shock. And the shock just intensifies with the arrival of 'The Lollipop Guild'...  The great Terence McKenna wrote of 'machine elves' as common mushroom hallucinations, positing that fairies, aliens, mythic creatures, all might be tied up into particular, small, elvin beings that exist in alternate dimensions but are nonetheless real... (more).
... I say this not to belittle Edward or lay down some pseudo-psychological trip. I think this pre-sexual object of desire is very important and incredibly erotic. It's the whole virginity/purity thing that fascinates me about this series and its popularity. The idea of chastity being hot is not just some Mormon conspiracy — it dates back to the age of King Arthur and courtly love. It's not just a mask for fear of sharing bodily fluids; it's a spiritual act, a renouncement... (more)


I've downward spiraled many times and I can tell you this: she'll either die or she won't, but unless you're a traffic cop and she's swerving down the road; or you're a relative planning an intervention with her crazy family; or a producer who's already paid her an advance on an upcoming role, it's really none of your frickin' business if she wants to drink herself into an early grave, sneak off to Cannes and promote a film barely in the preliminary stages of casting instead of going to out-patient; orblow holes in her car with a shotgun, or set herself on fire like Richard Pryor... (more)

Isn't it sad to realize the patriarchy has to repress and belittle the feminine, for the very simple reason that otherwise women will realize it's much better to kill men off once they've served their reproductive purpose, or send them off to work in the fields as castrated slave labor than to have to launder their clothes and do their dishes until death? Hasn't anyone seen CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)? What's the matter with you people? You think this is a joke? A child is missing! Her name is Rowan! (more)
Their push-pull dynamic is only heightened by the words and melody, making this one of my all-time favorite musical moments. Particularly I love the sudden breaks from singing to speaking: "That's life I guess (sung) / I love... / (spoken) your dress," he sings, the 'love' causing her to look up expectantly. Then he says 'your dress' and she looks down at it, her tears temporarily subsided. "Do you?" (more)
Bigger Than Life
However, the tricky part of a Jekyll/Hyde role like Ed Avery is in first winning audience sympathy as a good, "normal" kind of guy. Remember when Stephen King got all mad at Kubrick for putting Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining? Dude!...
But the thing is, though Jack Nicholson made for a creepy dad, he was the creepy dad that we all know: the kind who laugh at their own jokes, presuming no one else will get his brilliant wit. He's smarmy, but a sexy, earthy, real smarmy that comes from having lived a full and addled life, i.e., a mix of love and hatred for his rich plethora of vices. He lets it all hang out with a sense of a college-educated snob who surrounds himself with unintelligent people and takes jobs lower than his abilities just so he knows he'll always be the smartest guy in the room. By contrast, James Mason comes off more like the child of a very harsh British prep school, all the mischief long since beaten out of him, employing a dry Ronald Colman-ishness as a carpet to cover the wormy floorboards of his megalomania...(more)
...she slithers between the moral poles of silent film virgins like Lillian Gish and unapologetic, homicidal sirens like Fu Manchu's daughter, Fah Lo Suee. For a prime example, please see BIRTH and play close attention to the sex scene early on, and the long take of her face at the concert...(more)
Coutard's camera leers over Karina's shoulder, sympathizing with her sadness even as it causes it, never sure what's an act and what isn't Is she just drawing us in to ask if she can borrow 2,000 francs? In a meta way, it's even true that her character's dreams of being a film star are realized, right there in the act of being in the movie you are now witnessing, and yet even that is not enough. Godard is forcing us to realize how we destroy the characters we love by looking at them. Our eye is the real monster here. But whereas the similarly distant Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion reacts to the encroachment of our gaze with delusional homicidal madness, Karina's prostitute just watches, almost bemused, as her freedom and life are crushed up in the jaws of the other's tepid desire...(more)
Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth,  what do men get to do as far as "taking the pain?" No wonder we men have grown so squeamish, like women we should be forced to take a punch in the stomach at the end of every lunar cycle... (more)
Valeria's fierce devotion and her beautiful monologue about passing other people in couples in tents in the night breaks our hearts and when Conan leaves her to pursue his quest for vengeance, we understand her sorrow and still understand his quest, because in this case Valeria's reasons not to ride against Doom aren't based on fear of death, but fear of losing this love so soon. Laugh all you want, but this was our Romeo and Juliet, our Titanic! Our Twilight...(more)
When their plane's about to land in Japan, the pair quickly wolf down their coke and pills in the airplane bathroom to avoid trouble with customs and suddenly the film speeds up for the butterfly stomach sweaty-palmed high of being cranked up onstage, twirling under the hot lights, and the slow-downs of first kisses in the dark of post-show euphoria. The big seduction lesbian moment between Joan and Cherie is scored to a slowed, drug-drenched "I Wanna Be Your Dog" that makes you ache in rock and roll remembrance of the first trip on acid, the first trip on ecstasy, while on stage, the blazing red lights in your face as you sing and the flames form a holy funnel around the microphone and your mouth becomes the size of a black hole in outer space, spewing flaming lyrics into the clenched alien insect fangs of the microphone, and outwards in waves of flaming energy that washes over the melting-faced fans...(more)
The amazing performance by Olga Mironova as a Madonna/whore split personality is alone enough to catapult COME AND SEE into the pantheon of all-time greats. And there's nary a drop of easy sentimentality or preaching, just a savvy truly artistic appreciation for how war turns existence into a literal living nightmare, with all splits between awake and dreaming, interior and exterior, home and abroad, life and death, good and evil, mended into one twirling mad carnival of chaos, starvation and violence... enough to make Von Trier's ANTICHRIST look like a summer picnic..(more)
From: Film Experience 1/28/2010
Blondell goes from trying to stand up for her beaten-down beau against an unfeeling cop to addressing the audience, and the world, directly, her hands outstretched in a massive, Broadway belt of a plea. Watching Obama last night I was reminded not of Jimmy Stewart's hoarse fillibuster in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but Blondell, opening her human heart a mile wide to engulf the nation in a surge of compassion as the music marches inexorably onwards. (more)

Some of these are heavy, some too light, some too just right, some caught me flak from angry feminists:
1. Towards a New Cinema of Castration: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (#67 - Bright Lights Film Journal)
2. X is for Xanax (Acidemic 11/18/10)
3. Katherine Hegl: Infantilization's Poster Girl (Bright Lights After Dark 10/5/10)
4. Book Review: Hammer's Lethal Ladies & Femme Fatale (#67 Bright Lights Film Journal)
5. The Drowned Phoenician Sailor and his Mermaid Muse: HE RAN ALL THE WAY (Acidemic  11/24/10)
6. Let the Right One KILL BABY KILL (Acidemic 10/5/10)
7. Remote in Reach: THE WALL (Acidemic 7/27/10)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

American Grievers, Part Two: THE FOUNTAIN

"Death is the road to awe."

Was it an accident I watched THE FOUNTAIN (2006) the very next night after INCEPTION (see Grievers part one here)? There are no accidents in cinema when its imagery is way more high-def than your foggy day-to-day 'reality.' There's a handful of differences twixt the two: DiCaprio's brooding dreamweaver in INCEPTION becomes FOUNTAIN's Hugh Jackman, but they're really the same -- one bends time through dream-invasion, the other through past-life recollection.

THE FOUNTAIN's American Griever, Jackman, claims to love his wife but he dismisses her attempts to show him the wonders of the stars as mere imbecilic prattle. 

As a concerned neurochemist trying to cure his terminal wife (Rachel Weisz) via ancient tree of life scrapings, Jackman's many lives-one master hero is even more dour and dull than Leo. Poor Rachel just wants to find peace and die but Hugh's too ridden with angst and postures of grief to give a shit what she wants. We flash forward and back through time (via her calligraphy hand-written journal) like we're skimming a glossy-paged graphic novel: a shadowed inquisitor is self-flagellating and plotting against a golden-hued queen and her champion (Jackman again), a seething conquistador who sets off to South America in search of the same mystic tree.

All well and good but what makes FOUNTAIN such a classic American Griever saga is Jackman's blindness to Weisz herself. He loves only the thought of her dying, like hurry up and die so I can drink to escape the pain and you can haunt my fringes, like all of Leo's dead wives. Weisz has seen the light but Jackman buries himself in sunless jungles so he can create an eternal light. All this when the deathlessness of light already is eternal! Right? You can float like a Buddha all you want, Hugh. It's as phony as a tree dolla bill. The parts in the beginning where he seems to die and be reborn into another aspect of self are very cool, but turn out to be kind of misrepresentin'. When and if he dies, he demands the whole earth shake and dissolve in admiration. He may meditate and look as self-righteously enlightened as Richard Gere, but the ego is a cunning focus-puller.

Personally, if I ever lost a parent as a child, or vice versa, my attitude might be more conventionally 'oh death, I'm mad at you!' Instead I  have a great grandmother who lived to 107, and her daughter, my granny, alive and bored at 97 and put on suicide watch at her home if she even jokes about going out in a bang not a whimper. So I'm a represent, for her sake, that under-represented, pro-death voice: If your eyes are truly open, and life appears as it really is, infinite, then you know death is just the brief dream-filled prologue to life's 3-D space-time waking--living in the moment is impossible without feeling this to be true, making peace with your own mortality is all it takes, what your whole barrage of egoic distractions has been avoiding--and so when you hear this 'life is still life even if that life is less than lovely' jazz, you understand why our medical system is so fucked up. We'd outlaw death if we could, jamming a crowbar into the wheel of life and wondering where that grinding sound is coming from, and why the lines at Epcot are so long, and why so many people are being born with such cheap knock-off souls.

I know it's a touchy issue and I don't mean to sound all-knowing or callous, but in not even daring to touch on it we're killing quality at the expense of quantity. I've known people who've pissed away their life savings keeping a vegetable hooked to a machine. And I've waited in lines. At Epcot. And I've seen the limitless expanses of trash dumps, and mass production, and stockyards, and phone books... and suburban sprawl. Know who benefits from our fearful overpopulation? The soul-eaters, the reptilian overlords, and CEOs of giant conglomerates.

And the box office, of course.

What makes THE FOUNTAIN all the more troubling is actually its most interesting aspect: the way death is viewed as a form of public transportation; if you surrender to death in the right spirit you never really die. So in a way this tree of life thing is a sister to the mind altering South American plant concoctions like ayahuasca. But these elements aren't explored so much as passed like ship-shaped phantoms in fog on the way to another tearful tantrum. I stood up a few times and yelled at the screen: "Hugh. we may already be immortal, soul-wise, so why cling to one body forever rather than find out?" It may well be that radiation treatments may prolong your life if your body has cancer, but at the cost of warping the weave of your immortal soul, which is an electromagnetic field that can become permanently damaged by radiation, hence William S. Burroughs' description of the atomic bomb as a soul killer:
Can any soul survive the searing fireball of an atomic blast? If human and animal souls are seen as electromagnetic force fields, such fields could be totally disrupted by a nuclear explosion. The mummy's nightmare: disintegration of souls, and this is precisely the ultrasecret and supersensitive function of the atom bomb: a Soul Killer, to alleviate an escalating soul glut.
Imagine if in doing chemo we are prolonging our current life at the expense of mutating our immortal soul, like the Bridey Murphy witch in Roger Corman's THE UNDEAD. Now that is an awesome movie.

My point with 'American Grievers' is not to be controversial for attention but to illuminate a gap between romantic male characters in today's cinema and those of old Hollywood, when men related to their female partners in a direct and tender manner while remaining tough (not falling into rom-com territory). Think of the rapport between William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN or William Powell and Kay Francis in ONE WAY PASSAGE and JEWEL ROBBERY. Think of Bogie and Bacall; Newman and Woodward; Taylor and Burton; Gable and Lombard; Gable and Scarlett --all instances of actors able to be both masculine and tender, deep and badass but also sexually healthy compared to the anguished loners of post-'82 American dramatic cinema, who were never supposed to become role models. Aside from Russell Crowe--an Australian--who can still do this?

I must be preaching to the choir in the case of Aronofsky. In his last two films, THE BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER, death is practically advocated as the one truly badass artistic climax of performance. I would hope we're meant to side with Rachel Weisz's right to die vs. Jackman's tiresome "you're not gonna die!" tirades. This keen and subtle critique of America's blase' closed-mindedness towards any talk of death with dignity or eternal life as a reason to let go of a dying body is a subtextual touchstone for Aronofsky's last two films. The characters Jackman resembles are SWAN's Barbara Hershey as a micro-managing stage mom, and WRESTLER's Marisa Tomei as a single stripper mom wary of ex-client Mickey's headlock.  The trouble is that Jackman's the main character in THE FOUNTAIN. He's supposed to be the good guy. Would you want to see THE BLACK SWAN if Hershey's character was the lead, and Portman just an ungrateful daughter, ala MILDRED PIERCE?

In the end, Jackman may or may not get wise to the joys of nonexistence, but his life as a lotus-posin' baldhead taking care of an outer space yum-yum tree doesn't seem real, doesn't seem "earned" based on his record of glum tantrums. Meditation is where one goes to find the truth of what lies beyond our current mortality, a full immortal self that survives when the rest of us is burned away. Hint: the part of you that is immortal is not the part you think. If you imagine the total self as a movie projected on a wall, the immortal part is the empty rectangle-shaped white light that's still projected once the film runs all the way through. What makes Aronofsky's later films much better than THE FOUNTAIN is the introduction of art to that equation: Art equals a very cool death, regardless of your clocked meditation tree-time. As a doctor, Jackman's whole Hippocratic Oath thing stops him from being true to Mickey and Natalie's ideal of deathless fierceness --but truly good doctors know when to stop torturing the patient with painful, temporary stave-off measures and endless spinal taps and start encouraging them to enjoy their last remaining moments. Don't they?

That said, the visuals of THE FOUTNATIN are quite impressive, but again you can have acres of trippy hallucination and it's no more than eye candy for something that never seems to really happen, i.e. the transcendence of the duality of life and death into one eternal deathless state. In a word, it's not psychedelic. If you're going to be that deep, it's cool to not show self-righteous American grievers getting rewarded by the cosmic good fairy for their dour self-importance. There's more to Zen than baldness and Jason Patric-style sanctimony! Look at Jack and Rose on THE TITANIC! They loved a lifetime worth in a few hours, but ole Hugh doesn't care about a few hours, and that's the very definition of un-Zen. Imagine for example, Leo spending his last moments with Rose just lecturing her about how stupid it was she jumped out of the lifeboat to be with him... that's THE FOUNTAIN.

Fortunately, Aronofsky learned the lesson from its failure at the box office and with critics.  THE WRESTLER and THE BLACK SWAN would keep the best elements of THE FOUNTAIN--the even-keeled examination of mortality-- and sideline the blind clingers. Aronofsky learned in THE FOUNTAIN that the best way to make a point about art and the death drive is by portraying artists in physically masochistic fields like wrestling or ballet. Without some true artistic pain, these greenscreened actors are as lost in the winds as Jar Jar off his meds.

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