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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

American Horror Hotel California Story

 Mirrors on the ceiling, The pink champagne on ice
And she said 'we are all just prisoners here, of our own device'
And in the master's chambers, They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast
- Eagles ("Hotel California")

The Eagles' 1976 song "Hotel California" and the awesome new FX show, American Horror Story are two peas in a grisly pod--along with Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon--that circumscribe the broken longing of Los Angeles. Hearing it as a kid (I was nine when it debuted on the radio) the dark eroticism of the song carried a queasy black magick power. Whatever those L.A. people were doing, it was evil, dark, and underscored by a sexual longing I felt deep within my polymorphously  perverse childhood soul.

 The song's lyrics painted a grim portrait of what might be called the Land of Hungry Ghosts, the Buddhist hell where everyone is ravenous with hunger and cursed with tiny mouths at the end of long, painfully thin tube-like necks. "Stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast" might very well be an illusion to cocaine, with the knives being used for the flat ends to distribute coke bumps, but no amount of coke able to kill the beast, the jones for more that ever threatens to turn success and fame and endless groupies and booze and drugs into a living hell, as easy as a still drunk from the night before morning gradually grays into a cruel, blue condition. Worse than an average Christian hell, where one at least is allowed to suffer loudly and unabashedly, in the California hell one must act as if they are always having the time of their lives, for if they fail the whole scene could implode on them, the veil pulled away to see that the glitterati at your back porch Laurel Canyon party are all grungy ghosts who bought their way in with mountains of coke and are already telling everyone you're their best friend, and it's too late you already got rid of your wife and kid so you could party 24/7 - it's too late to admit the mistake, the blindness, so you just snort and shoot and drink more and hope to blot out the grisly alien demon look of your joneser entourage which has gradually, without you knowing when or how, become all strangers. As Lili Taylor said in Abel Ferrara's THE ADDICTION, "We drink to forget we're alcoholics. We seek relief from the addiciton, but the addiction is the only relief we can find." Or as Taiyu describes it in "Buddhism and Recovery:"

"In Buddhism there is a myth about a hell-realm populated by beings whose appetites exceed their capacity for satisfaction. Their stomachs are huge but their throats are tiny. No matter how much they try to eat, their hunger remains. In ancient India, they are called hungry ghosts. We call them alcoholics and drug addicts... We eat and drink and smoke and use and gamble and love and lust and shop and exercise and obsess about anything that resolves the sense of incompletion, imperfection, or suffering we find inside."

The Hungry Ghost blueprint fits perfectly over the great new TV series on F/X, American Horror Story, which indulges in the 'post-10 PM sex-and-violence' slot trend to weave a multi-generational yarn about a large haunted house in the heart of Los Angeles that's acted as a focal point for a whole history of Hollywood murders--from the Richard Speck nursing home to the Black Dahlia's killing floor. In this week's episode we have the haunted-looking Mena Suvari playing the 1947 murder victim Dahlia, whose history became an emblem of the evils of 'Hotel California,' the sun-baked sin city where slimy predators take advantage of pretty, starstruck youngsters as a matter of course. Here we learn the truth is far less lurid, just a cover-up by a shaky dentist after he dies in her chair from an allergic reaction to his gas. But that's par for the AH course -- all the sordid evils of our LA nocturne imagination are simultaneously more mundane and more supernatural than we could e'er imagine.

But imagine we do, here in the rest of America, wherefrom we view the kind of druggy, sex-saturated, fame-whoring lifestyle L.A. indulges in as a vacuous fantasy. Middle America has families to worry about, they don't have to worry about the despair of those whose vacuous rock and roll fantasies are realized. L.A. rock stars like the Eagles can actually get enough drugs and sex with their rock and roll that it it's a fantasy no longer, and so it no longer keeps the lonely terror at bay, and they realize that while they checked in any time they liked, they can never leave. Guitar solo! BrawnabreeEEeaoum brau-brewarrrooooomm-rip!

The Black Dahlia became the pin-up girl for those who'd tried to make the dream come true and almost died as a result, or were abducted into a cult, or whatever the hell happens to those too wide-eyed to notice all the vultures gathered for the feast. And there's a meta charge to the casting of Suvari since in past years she appeared to be under the spell of some kind of eating disorder in the wake of her sudden surge to fame via AMERICAN BEAUTY (1997). On a subsequent SNL appearance her wild eyes, bird-like mannerisms and darkened teeth, all indicated something just not right; she's come out of it super strong in recent years and has been active in pro-women's esteem-style causes. Luckily for us she was still able to capture the sense of needy desperation in her portrayal of the forlorn ghost of Janice Short last night, bringing a ghostly sexuality that is so needy it simultaneously arouses and spooks us.


The hungry ghost / sexual sacrifice on the tortuous wheel of insatiable lust motif permeates American Horror Story. It is so L.A., and the actors playing desperate Hollywood fortune seekers broken on the rocks of skeevy casting couches clearly tap into their own experiences before finding their footing. The house maid Moira (Frances Conroy) is a ghost who appears as a young hottie incarnation (Alexandra Breckenridge) of herself to desiring men - clouding their perceptions, exposing them to judgment from their daughters when they're seen fooling around with a woman old enough to be their grandmother in the library. We in the audience are forced into a very creepy realization by this one-two switch: all hot young women become old and unsexy eventually so our desire for their young flesh and revulsion toward the old is suddenly revealed as a kind of fever dream grab at immortality. And most of all, we're faced with the question what is more important - that our friends think the girl we're shagging is hot, but we find her hideous - or vice versa? We can't overestimate the idea that the value of beauty in women lies largely in our status amongst our peers for 'having' them. Even in bed with a goddess we may be doomed to savor it not, imagining only instead the high fives and admiration to come the next day amidst our inner circle, being anxious to get to that. In other words, even in the moment of our ultimate desire's realization we instinctively pull away -- already reflecting on what it will be like to have had our desire realized. And Lacan smiles knowingly at your disillusion. He shouts, "Now! Now take a look around you and see things as they really are!" But you are already staring at a hot chick sitting down to dinner in the master's chambers.... with the Eagles. Lucky bastards.

Last night's episode showed that this clouding can be broken through via a man who is able to refuse his desires for a purpose other than fear or guilt. In this case Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is able to refuse not one but two seduction attempts that are created straight out of the Penthouse forum pages, and Ben--who we know from earlier episodes is pretty weak-willed and considers his sexual needs a priority over all else-- has good reason to act on his fantasies: his wife and daughter out of the house (we never see the daughter in the entire episode), and learning of his wife's infidelity as the perfect excuse. 

That he does not, even with no strict moral impetus hanging over his neck, is what breaks the spell. Buddhists call this 'moksha' or the ability to transcend ego via the abandoning of the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, tedium, etc. The realization whatever we run from chases us and whatever we chase runs, therefore we find pain always hot on our heels and pleasure always just out of reach. Or as the Eagles song goes: "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget." And it's the same dance either way. The pain of remembrance exists only in relation to our resistance, just as pleasure exists largely in terms of its delay. Ben's big breakthrough this episode was a refusal of the hungry ghost appetite even though fear of being caught became no longer a factor.  In other words, even with no witnesses and no possible reward for his asceticism, he chooses it anyway, and this is the only time it's ever worth a damn, for morality under the gun is only obsequiousness, itself a kind of sin. To thine own self be true, but is lust true?

That said, a lack of appetite for illusion has no place in haunted Los Angeles. The ghosts in his house, such as his ex-mistress student Hayden (Kate Mara), long and pine and remain trapped in perpetual hungry ghost longing. But on the other hand, they don't have to pay rent! They don't have to sleep, or eat, or go to work, or face rejection by the outside world. As the song goes "this may be heaven or this may be hell" and in Hotel California the difference is erased, just as the dance is both to remember and to forget. Either way we play it we can still hear the voices calling from far away, waking us up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say "thanks for coming in but I'm afraid we're looking for someone just a little bit younger."


  1. Wow. This is a GREAT piece! I'll certainly be watching the next episode while bearing in mind what you've said.
    I've really been enjoying the show so far, but at times it doesn't seem to know where it's going; which while not necessarily a bad thing, usually ensures it feels a bit disjointed and cobbled together. Still loving it though and can't wait to see where it goes next. :)

  2. Interesting. I think the show knows exactly where it's going, and I love it because it gives answers as much as it builds the suspense, which is why I stopped watching House a few years ago -- way too much buildup and never enough payoff. And apparently Season 2 of Horror Story has already been given the green light by FX, so who knows how it'll evolve. But I'll definitely be watching.


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