Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, April 09, 2011


I've been enduring a lot of reality TV 'elimination' shows like Project Runway, America's Next Top Model, American Idol, etc. for they keep me drifting back to the idea they have a direct relative in the depression-era dance marathon. And nowhere is that connection clearer than via Jane Fonda's thousand yard stare and Sydney Pollack's unflinching yet compassionate camera eye in 1969's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?

I'm glad I saw HORSES for the first time at the right time, which is around four in the morning after I couldn't sleep, alone in my studio apartment, on a big projector and with great big stereo headphones, and hallucinating on fever and cold medicine. The idea of a group of people all forced to live, eat, sleep and occasionally die together while dancing forever in circles seemed appealing as well as horrific --as if they don't know how good they got it under impresario Gig Young's wing--given food and a place to skeep off a nice hour or so. It's both a nightmare and a strange kind of paradise, a grueling metaphor for humanity at its most withered and crushed where at least they give you free meals, and live music.

Pollack doesn't much care about the over-arching metaphor for humanity involved in this reality show-meets-ensemble drama (the players slowly drop out... who will be the next sent home?). Instead he finds everything he needs right in the eyes of the actors: the world-weary disgust that infuses Jane Fonda's as they meet Gig Young's across the room during a late night rest break (leading to reams of unspoken dialogue chronicling seduction, refusal, persistence and weary acceptance); or the wild animal fear in Red Buttons' as a heart attack lifts is skinny sweaty old body (they've been forced to run laps to speed up the eliminations, Auschwitz-style) off the ground like a condor then sends him shattering to the floor in a pale skin spastic heave, his eyes twisted and widened with pain and exhausted terror, but you can feel his soul still running through his wild eyed desperate stare, determined to win the race before the devil knows he's dead. 

It's the idea of all these people being awake for such huge lengths of time that seems to resonate most with us drug-addled insomniac cinema lovers; for we know the joy of the four AM movie, shattering the barriers between waking, sleep, reality, illusion, screen, skin, eyes (including the third) --all smashed together like an elevated subway car in Kong's ape hands. We the insane can see thaat Gig Young earned his Oscar not for any sparkle or Satanic gravitas but because he so brilliantly conveys the duplicitous way humans have of maintaining a vein of compassion even as they torture those around them. They're balanced because all their evil is spoken for, nothing bad is hidden so they can be nice and calm and try to balance it with the suppressed good rather than the more common other way around, and Young is balancing them, and it's awesome. Though frankly I don't think I can ever see the film again, I appreciate that a friend of mine once watched it over and over for 48 hours straight. In a way, she did it so I don't have to. It is a movie that should be watched over and over, all through the night and into the next, but how many of us are brave enough, crazy or tragic and tender enough to endure such a withering grind? What is the prize, aside from the way it all perfectly matches its own watching in just such a way?

Pollack knew how to create a space for Fonda to be sexual in ways she just never was while trying to be sexual under Vadim for BARBARELLA (though was great at innocent sexual openness --like Bre without the undercurrents) or SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (though is at her most gorgeous and well-costumed, her eyes wickedly alight with the job of conveying decadence without language).  Out from under Vadim and instead in service of a great director like Pollack's or Pakula's wing, as HORSES or KLUTE (1971), she transcends sex altogether. She becomes post-sexual, beyond passion's fleeting orgasms and the sense of druggy stupor that sometimes bubbles up in the war against eternal loneliness. Here if love does find her she rears back against it like, well, a horse with a broken leg. Pollack loved her for that, loved her like that healing bullet to the broken mare's wild-eyed head, like a scalpel loves the sickness of the 20th century. She can cut your heart out through a hole in the screen and the stale hypocritical endlessly-needy venom pus swell that is human "civilization" can at last begin to seep outwards, even if only down into the puddle of credits on the floor. There will be no refunds.

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