Tuesday, December 25, 2012

BEST of 2012



Some films this year were loftier or more intellectually advanced, but none provided the pure visceral cinematic euphoria of DJANGO UNCHAINED! And none have as much to say about this country (the USA) and balls and the N word.

What this year's election showed us, incontrovertibly and probably permanently, is that when minorities and liberals and freaks like me stick together we can finally and forever outvote the repressive white Christian male conservative bloc. They can drag their heels in the sand over every new little change if they want but if we stick together they will go down. DJANGO is the dancer on their grave. It is the year's cinematic equivalent of a lit stick of dynamite tossed into the stagnant Mississippi swamps of conservative oppression.

Of course like all QT's films, DJANGO references far more of cinema history than its title would indicate, namely the social issues and mood of late 60s-early 70s cinema like THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and MANDINGO (1975). Critics at the time (with a few exceptions, like Robin Wood) misunderstood and panned MANDINGO during its original release, and it's a harrowing stretch of dehumanizing violence that clearly traumatized DJANGO director Quentin Tarantino as much as it did me.  And like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, DJANGO uses a title from an Italian action flick from a certain drive-in era to deconstruct issues of cinematic genre, social oppression, class, and history, all while delivering visceral, awesome revenge highs only dreamed of by lesser directors with lesser running times who don't understand how to build tension and so their films are all release, no tension, and so suck. Tarantino undoes the open ending of the original MANDINGO, which left a horrific plantation in bloody disarray, but hardly broken, and and obliterates it all with a howling vengeance and splattering of blood that for once actually does what such violence is supposed to do in movies, provide a heady cinematic catharsis that connects the multiracial multiplex in all the good ways, finally. In short the film delivers what the great 70s trailers promised. It vindicates all film, and all shackled souls who resist dehumanization no matter what the cost to their own safety. For in honoring our cinematic dead more than the tropes of bare life we honor ourselves. Sam Peckinpah, your Wild Bunch did not die in slow motion vain.

(Wait there's more!) yea, for in the unchaining from the soul-crushing bonds of antebellum mentality (the film includes a blood-curdling phrenology lecture) we can finally rise up and be the apocalyptic nightmare the red state uneducated "Christian" right think we are. Let them arm and barricade themselves in bunkers and strangle themselves on the twisted nylons of their own hatred; their progeny will see the benefits of having an open palm instead of a balled-up fist and they will be as 'the boy' who leaves 'the man' to his death on THE ROAD. As the great Stevie Wonder once sang, and I paraphrase, we don't even need to do nothing to them / they cause their own country to fall. It's their country that falls, that has never done anything but fall, and ours that has already been rising, and has always been rising.

And Leo, you took my advice and added some truly Widmarkian relish to a despicable dandy fop villain and hit it so far out of the park those racist rednecks will be picking that swatted fly out their teeth for the next 300 years. I wanted you to be evil but I could never imagine you'd go THIS evil! I go all the way around from worrying about you growing all puffy from beer and tough guy from the streets-itis to once more worshipping you as the elfin powerhouse actor demi-god you are. Dig those tobacco-blackened leprechaun teeth!   If Oscar rewards you as it should with a best supporting, the way they did for Waltz as Tarantino's last super villain, my faith in Oscar will be restored after the aggrandizing nostalgia-huffing of last year.


Pair-bond romance has always been Wes Anderson's weak point--he tends to focus on the childhood friendship of two ne'er do wells or scoundrels which a girl comes betwixt, but here he nails it by bringing together a bespectacled but eerily confident weirdo boy scout together with a slightly more mature girl who's got mad 1965 yeh-yeh style and an obsession with post-fairy tale / adventure books. Their romance is never weak or sappy or creepy because they are outcasts and they fight back when pushed. They do not cower! She even stabs a kid who tries to come between them. That is rare. Underneath Anderson's moon vest beats the heart of a basement fight club brawler. This is the first film of his, then, since Rushmore that I've actually loved with that fierceness one has for some romantic outcast films,  where you get a fierce protective instinct and want to go rip open hostile critics with your tiger claws.

The album that sets the romance in motion, Francoise Hardy's "The Yeh-Yeh Girl from Paris" becomes a beautiful chorus to the action the way the music in Tenenbaums wanted to, but failed for trying too hard and instead setting the bar for unbearable tweeness. And the action is sublime: these two legitimate oddballs start a romance that's so vivid it doesn't need to travel past second base to seem like the biggest score in cinema this year. With her dark eye shadowed fox eyes and focused fearless deadpan expression, 14 year-old Kara Hayward is to Anderson as Lauren Bacall was to Hawks, or Lana Del Rey to Val Lewton, and the effect is the same; Jared Gilman as her opposite number, an intrepid woodsman orphan, is shorter and seemingly younger, with owlish glasses, but possessed of an eerie confidence and curiosity that sets him leagues apart from the 'average' shy doofus so many lesser directors mistake for 'real' kid behavior. As I've written before, kids who love movies HATE seeing awkward shy kids in them - we watch to escape the mirror! But I've no problem with cool kids, and these are the coolest since the gang in Over the Edge. 

We all have felt this type of heady connection, this thrilling outlaw romance, at some point in our lives, I hope. I would regret anyone missing it, this lightning bolt that comes at any age, at any time, and we either rise to its challenge or drown our cubs in the bathtub like Paltrow's snuck cigarettes. Moonrise Kingdom commands you turn them loose and hope they don't get run over crossing the highway, but don't impede, or you will get bit. And this is maybe the best and most undrowned wolf of a film Anderson film he's ever released into the wild, it's a true wolf whirlwind. Did I cry? I did.

Speaking of wolves... As Claire Trevor says in Murder My Sweet --pouring Marlowe and herself heroic tumblers of Scotch from her rich feeble husband's crystal decanters --"Let's dispense with the social drinking shall we?" The Grey dispenses with all the social drinking, the tommyrot about kidnapped daughters and struggles for freedom and lengthy debates over cannibalism and just crashes a plane in Alaska, sets the dire wolves upon the trail of Liam Neeson and company, and lets cruel nature take its frozen course.  I don't want to spoil it but the ending is one of the toughest and best since the Black Swan or Runaway Train. What else do we have, as men, in the end, other than how we face our own Sebastian-ish rending? Whether with cringing arms up to block, or out to embrace the fangs of our final freedom, Neeson and cast are top notch, and the action flows like a blast of Arctic air. The aesthetic is relentless, captivating, and final - what it is to be man is to surrender being anything at all And it's not long... aye...it won't be long at all.


Is this the best movie about the first love and acceptance of a mentally-scarred high school freshman? Yes. The heady acting chemistry of the three leads and the deep American Beauty-style cinematography turn 80s Pittsburgh into a magical place where anything is possible, including finding cool friends who recognize the beautiful genius buried inside you, and the bonding glue of friendship is still mix tapes. Here they are so important that the music used--even if we've heard the songs before, in the 80s--seem deliriously new, even Dexy and the goddamned Midnight Runners sound vividly alive.

In addition to all that is a refreshing absence of the bawdy sexual humor that mars 91% of coming-of-age films, and the energy pulses so well with the colors that it becomes a dizzying dream I still can't let go of. Emma Watson made my knees weak all through this film, even when her character's longing risks becoming a cliche, she has the guts to ride right through and sell it like it's the first time it ever happened, to her or us, proving that when a film is this good it can have cliches, because the actors will be so faithful to the material it transcends the ordinary anyway. Meanwhile, Ezra Miller blows any complaints about the gay best friend stereotype clean out of the picture and has such magical alive chemistry with stepsister Watson that when the movie was over I already missed them. I wanted to write them all a letter from camp, and make them a mix tape.


It had profound effect on me, and still haunts me in some ways, to the point I had to travel back in time and add it to this list, bumping lesser titles off. If like me you avoided it because you're wary of Tom Hanks, maybe even especially if you're wary... you must come baaaack....see here)


 Hilarious and disturbing in its low level candor, Dr. David Cronenberg turns Don Delillo's book of post-modern Wall Street Samuel Beckettishness into a sophisticated addendum to his misunderstood semi-masterpiece Crash. Critics may decry it but Robert Pattinson's performance is genius. He wryly critiques his Edward mystique in a manner that's not trite and seems always about to morph into some new Cronenbergian advanced hybrid life form. His square alien face seems like a computer monitor with pale skin stretched over. Note the way his British mouth twists and curls with druggy last-ditch hunger at Juliette Binoche's mention of an available Rothko chapel. Such pointless desire recalls Christian Bale freaking out over business cards in American Psycho, but that was an isolated moment of high brilliance the rest of the film never quite matched. Cosmopolis is like if that one scene was slowed down to 90 minutes and moved to a car. So yeah, I'm getting in. Keep your chainsaw 'fantasies' and cocaine, Cosmopolis is far more subversive. Pattinson brings it to life in ways I never could get from just reading the book.

As the film and vehicle progress we realize Pattinson's billionaire alien (think David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth) can't really die because he barely exists, and a lot of the credit for that surely goes to Pattinson's knack for queasily possessed self-implosion. It's a marvel the way he can convey such moment-by-moment disintegration without any of Cronenberg's usual prosthetics (there may be some ultra subliminal CGI at work on his skin tones, or I was just hallucinating). Critics may grumble now but when his demographic gets older they will write of Pattinson the way mine write of Karloff or Lugosi today. He's far more complex with that strange alien face than maybe any of us--except Cronenberg--give him credit for. Robert Pattinson is the future. When he begins to get older and more in control of his career, look out. This being is no ordinary heartthrob but a reptilian hybrid with a willingness to contort into shapes and moods yet to be imagined by sober men.

7. Three Way Tie:

No, it's not art, or trash, just the best film made about the American endless highway since Natural Born Killers. Lana Del Rey proves with "Ride," that even if its an act she's got the truest sense of operatic-sexy-sad-dangerous going in music, cinema, or anywhere. She's sexy-dangerous, not Madonna or Miley dress-up dangerous, but the flagging down Mike Hammer's roadster in the middle of the desert in a raincoat and bare feet kind of dangerous, the kind where self-cutting, anorexia, nymphomania, and pill addiction all swirl together to keep a young girl barely one step ahead of her rock and roll suicide or Goodbar murder. She goes in this video where most coy lip biter pouter jailbait-poseur pop girls wouldn't dare no matter how much attention their gigolo boyfriends promised. She goes right over the cliff, into the arms of a bunch of guys at least twice her age with Harleys. She gyrates like a cub in their lion paws and they award her a gun, a bottle of whiskey, cigarettes, a Native American headdress, and a bonfire full of fireworks. She deserves it.

b. R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet 
(Chapter 3)
I was lucky in enough to attend the NYC premiere of the third installment last month and it was a perfect fit to a hilarious, fun thrilling time. Del Rey's video features a persona I know very well, and while Kelly's vast cast of personae are well outside my zone of direct experience, but they're such a fun, crazy, tragic, hilarious, and insightful array I love them all anyhow. With that catchy yet hookless incessant repeating stanza, Kelly sings the vocals of all the characters, even females. My favorite is the stuttering Pimp Luscious and his three special ladies, one of whom is Asian and blind. And if the whole powerful fade-out with 'the package' reverberating across endless phone lines in the second chapter is gone, the mystique and fun and sheer ballsiness of Kelly's aimless narrative remains, making it a perfect double bill with Del Rey's video--two portraits of two different artists who somehow in their fractured role playing managing to capture the gist of America's strengths and sadness while they smoke and look good and do damned well whatever they please.

Claire Forlani may not be really Scottish but it's about time we had more 'Red Flag' style nutcase women pitching booze and ruling in hell rather than letting these khaki-wearing 'regular guys' think a new flavor of Bud Lite is heaven. I vote for the natural hell habitat of stumbler psycho hotties storming through 4:20 AM clubs, ranting about some guy you've never met pouring you enough post-last call slugs of near-top-shelf from behind the bar that her anger and narcissistic indignation is seductive instead of chilling. You'd follow her anywhere rather than listen one more minute to the still preachy echo of last call wives and moms and bosses and sanity hand rails and mothers-in-law, all shuckered loose from as you inhale the scent of her skittering perfume and real fur (faint scent of kitty litter and/or bile amidst the Chanel), her marble ice covered in melanin-melting thinner in older age hand slipping from yours soon enough. Aye Angus, out along the slimy ocean cobblestone streets, into more and more warming drinks, floating you home on blackened bruise cushions (for the nonce mere tingles), a vague memory of a cab driver shouting but no sound in the oceanic roar of your ears, handing a crumpled twenty like a flag of surrender, the hallucination of soft applause dampening your fall into the comfortable trash pile.

UFC kickass Gina Carano is the hottest most believably ass-kicking American babe since Cynthia Rothrock, but this is no Hong Kong cheapie, this is Steven Soderbergh making up for the outrages of his ill-conceived CONTAGION. Here Carano herself is the contagion and the men don't have a fucking chance of survival if they cross her.  My favorite film in Soderbergh's canon, I've already seen it four times and it's going to be with me forever, thank god for I bought it on Amazon Streaming. I could go press play and re-see it right now! (PS - it's ideal to see in an airport on your kindle or iPhone while waiting for a delayed flight back from Arizona to NYC, then finish watching when you get home at 6 AM and the sun is coming up over the skyline. Word)


I know, I know -- only number nine? It's a Masterpiece! Nyuk Nyuk. PTA found the problem at the heart of the American male once again but wasn't able to mend it the way he's done in the past, or Quentin or Liam or Wes Anderson did this year. He could only to point at it and then encourage us to both marvel and wince while Phoenix and Hoffman act the roof off to ultimately no cumulative cathartic or moving effect. Maybe I was just too damned apathetic to take a subway, dirty and dank, into Manhattan to see it on 70mm. My 35mm trip to BAM (much closer) gave me lots to write and think about (i.e. here) but no real Plainview-style jolt, no emotional wallop, no moment of stand up and cheeritude. Hoffman offers little spurts of insanity that are then crushed by the concern of the clueless cultists and local law enforcement and Phoenix is such a great actor it's a little annoying that we just don't care about his scumby persona. This is Anderson's driest work since HARD EIGHT. Is he at the point in his artistic evolution where his characters' alchemically masculine outbursts against idiots must be considered childish? Who was the girl, Steve?


These two big cold films have a lot in common: a crazy villain who represents everything our hero has failed to incorporate into his persona over the course of a long, embittered life; analog masculinity facing the computer digital generation; the tragic sudden self-awareness of how a fleeting male fantasy has ground into a permanent way of life.  Both films raid Homer's archetypal trough in telling of an old Odysseus-type, thought dead, lost at sea, now returned to save his bride (Judi Dench, Gotham) from Vandals, and does he have any new tricks up his old dog sleeve, and once more unto the breech dear friends, live and die on this day, time to dust off our hidden go bags, and unsheathe.

In each case it seems odd that so much firepower, manpower, triple-crosses, and imprisoning would be expended on something as banal as revenge. Bane claims his vendetta is a 99%-er social experiment but it's really a grudge, and Bardem's macho fey nutcase claims he wants revenge against 'mum' for leaving him to rot in an enemy cell. Both have anticipated the hero's every move, both use the sewers and underground tunnels to stage attacks and both draw endless amounts of arms and armed support from out of nowhere. Just as the main 'woman' of 2012 is the 1963-retro beauty combination of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom and Lana Del Rey, the 'man' is old enough to be their father's boss, but still wearily facing sharper, more damaged foes. (for Dark Knight see here)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Yes Virginia, the World DID End Yesterday

Dear Virginia,

Yes, you called last night and gloated that no aliens landed, no volcano erupted, no meteor crashed, no new anything happened yesterday, and yes, haltingly I stumbled like an off-guard republican at a press conference, seizing up in my Martin Sheen Dead Zone arms all sorts of rationalization nation children shields against your Walken seer reproachment ammunition. I should have cried, or conveyed my sadness, which was even then too deep perhaps to voice. Ah, I said, but the change is within. The change is within us all. The 2012 event horizon is where the personal and the universal meet. This is, unfortunately what even Ancient Aliens (all new starting yesterday only on H2) doesn't understand. There was an AA marathon last night and they were talking of Nazi archaeologists using Buddhism's secrets of astral voyaging --going outside the confines of space and time-- as the foundation of some time machine they had created underground in Hungary somewhere to travel back and forth through time.

It's like bitches, why would the Buddhist means of astral voyaging, which is how 90% of alien travel is done to begin with (just as 90% of our communication now is via cell phones and Skype and email), have anything to do with actually lugging some physical body around outside of space and time? The ONLY way to do that is by going through black holes (1), so if you're planet's nowhere near one, you're never going back to anywhere, anymore than you can use a chute in Chutes and Ladders if you're not on that square. So it's only when earth is way way close to a black hole in the distant future will we be able to travel back to here, which is how I know, and I've said too much. Put down the gun, Virginia / Christopher Walken, we're all humans here.

But that's the gist, Virginia. Just as that enterprising columnist wrote you all those years ago about Sinter Klaus being in all our hearts, now too I write to you to justify the doomsday prepper mentality, the fear and woe that swept Hollywood, Ancient Alien theorist contenders, and even me up in its exaltation and dread. As I wrote earlier this week, the horror of facing an immanent personal apocalypse is what makes Xmas movies so cathartic -- i..e. Scrooge crying on his own gravestone while the ghost of Xmas future wags its skeleton finger, or Clarence showing the distraught Jimmy Stewart the dreariness his absence would portend in It's a Wonderful Life. So how could the impending doom of some long-ago predicted doomsday be anything but a guarantor of holiday cheer?

We should of course feel grateful nothing did happen, and find comfort in little everyday miracles. For my family it was finding the face of an alien (left) hidden in a bag of red potatoes! Or various jokes and wisecracks, at my expense, as usual. Or the sudden terror I felt when alone here in Arizona in Fred's house and the darkness of the desert night so sudden and ominous the way the pink ridge of evening just plunges straight to midnight made me think the aliens had come for me and had their ghostly trans-dimensional hands around my heart.  Maybe the surest sign of alien intervention is the relentless sameness of our world, where a minor disaster here and there effects only one side of one country, one power grid here or tornado path there, never enough to bring our status quo to a halt, never enough to wipe away our credit card debt in a huge burst of magnetic energy, or enough to wipe out all life through a super volcano eruption or massive meteor strike. Someone is surely looking our for their investment.

So yes, Virginia. In some ways the world didn't end, in others maybe it did. Now if any of those predicted calamities do erupt we'll be like too little too late. Even if we go down in flames we'll be like sorry apocalypse, you had your chance! Isn't that, in some ways, a triumph!?

Eckhart Tolle writes about working with inmates on death row and getting them to let go and embrace the light of pure consciousness through meditation. The change is so incredible that oftentimes the result is some sort of governmental pardon, but then -- since the void is no longer so close, the felon goes back to coveting, scamming, lying and bargaining. It's only with death immanent that change occurs.

It's perhaps inevitable we'll do the same coveting reversion as 2013 roars off on whatever course it chooses. But we'll have 12-21-12 to remember us by. They'll never want to rerun all the 2012 documentaries--and there were tons--but we'll know, won't we Virginia? We'll remember. And we'll know this is all a dream, a colored cartoon carnival, an exact duplicate, a remnant, a thought, a sound wave beamed from the transgalaxial fractal connection and are now living on repeat, a holographic image projected over a wasteland world. It won't help, but it won't hurt, and if life is going on just as before and that's annoying the hell out of us, maybe that's on us this time. We just can't wait anymore for some giant heavenly hand to pluck us off into some new dimension, we have to carve it out ourselves.  As the technician said in Close Encounters of the The Third Kind, "it's the first day of school, fellas." -- and I don't wanna go, mom. I'm sick. I just want to stay home and watch Lathe of Heaven 'til it all turns to black.


NOTES - 1) for the sake of brevity I didn't put "As ancient astronauts theorists contend" in every other sentence... or preface with perhaps, but of course everything I write here can't be proven, but then again explains things way better than some other paradigms I could name. It was all 'told' me in various trances.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Psychedelic Scrooge Satori

Nothing gets us in the holiday spirit more, perhaps, than reformation: enlightenment, the sudden game changing glow that turns misers into open, generous souls. What magical formula is at work, and how can we slip some in the coffee of, say, Mitch McConnell or the Koch brothers? Whatever it is, whatever the ghost of Bob Cratchit slipped into Scrooge's watered-down soup, it worked, producing three spirits of Xmas: one symbolic death / ego dissolution, one spiritual awakening and an electric partridge in a banisteriopsis caapi (that's an ayahuasca reference). So why don't we deal with the unspoken and unvarnished cosmic truth? Lo, Scrooge is reborn!

I was in tears on Sunday watching Alastair Sim leap around his bed chambers on Christmas morning in the 1951 Christmas Carol. I cried because I know what that's like -- you just came back from the rim of the hideous void, so grateful to be alive you can barely contain yourself... but the maid, or dorm RA, just thinks you went looney, manic, off your meds.

Only Tiny Tim, his antennae already half-connected to the world beyond, knows where the goose is coming from. It's coming up from the graveyard. Its spirit flies free, even as we eat of its flesh and drink its creators' son's alcohol blood.

Masque of the Red Death (1965) - Initiation scene
I think it would be nice if there were 'Ascendency Welcome Centers' for 'awakened' misers. I think the Scrooge awakening is going to start happening all over the world because of the cosmic alignment (or pre-apocalypse fever); people will all go off at once, like popcorn after the first early kernels. Hopefully their jubilance will override the preconceptions their family have about their sudden change.  After all, this initiation / conversion / awakening is nothing new. It's only new in this century. Witness Hazel Court in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH! Tamino and Pamina in THE MAGIC FLUTE. Have you ever been 'experienced'? Been to the Mountaintop? Across the river to Nirvana? Or River Jordan, New Jersey? Do you want to try?

It's only natural to be wary. Without the all-consuming threat of death --without genuinely believing you are going to die, or are dying, or have died--and not just for a little roller-coaster moments but for what seems like hours, days, of being dead or terrorized by death (while not being such a baby about it you decide to call 911, or demand someone drive you to the ER)-- you will never get there. Without that third ghost, the skull in the hood, the conversion doesn't stick. There's no significant change, no maturation, without the trauma of facing one's own extinction. Even then, the humility and grace wears off eventually. Ego and pride and entitlement sneak back up through your hard wiring like parasitical worms. Man, you start to think, we're so humble and enlightened we should write a post about it!

But let's focus on the hitherto mentioned movie adaptations that mark this initiation/mystery: In MAGIC FLUTE, Tamino and Pamina have to brave the writhing flames of the initiation mystery cave to the tune of Mozart; in MASQUE Hazel Court (above) endures an around-the-world of ghost shamans cutting out her heart upon a Satanic altar in blue-green tint and slow motion to the tune of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." And Ebeneezer Scrooge endures the cold marble of his own tombstone as all his dear possessions get tossed to beggars and fences. He even winds up at the bottom of a deep grave, struggling to get out while the dirt falls around him. He screams and moans and vows to be good and twists up in his bedsheets. He has to get that low, not a penny less, for his rebirth. His temporary cessation of toxic ego vexation, to click in on some permanent level, must have an acceptance of oblivion underwriting it.

Why don't most Xmas movies realize that without this big looming death presence, Xmas has no deep, lasting catharsis? The holidays in the end are all about this -- sometimes even just having to talk to your grandmother for a few minutes can be enough to remind you where your frail aging flesh is headed.

Jimmy Stewart doesn't experience his own death in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE but he gets a cold from trying to commit suicide by jumping into an icy river on Xmas eve (or rescuing Clarence who tries to stop him) and that's kind of the same, because suicide is often attempted as a means towards spiritual awakening. The sufferer wants to trigger their egoic death and rebirth and doesn't understand that there are easier (albeit even more terrifying) ways (i.e. psychedelics). In Capra's film, Clarence the Angel serves as a melange of Xmas ghosts, rescuing Jimmy and showing him the miserable Dickensian werkhaus of a place his little town would be without him, which manages a kind of latent Scrooge-ness on his part. A kind of reverse-Scrooge, his character has been selfless his whole life, not by choice but on instinct, his altruism comes built-in, and prevents him from doing what his ego wants (i.e. to travel). Thus the three ghosts of Dickens are inversed. Without Jimmy the world world is as dead as Scrooge's heart before his conversion.

Again, I stress that just like CHRISTMAS CAROL, WONDERFUL LIFE would have no resonance without these scenes of grim despair, mortal loss, defeat and desperation. There would be no cathartic tears of joy if we were not allowed to gaze into the snowy void of terror at our own mortality and the grim world that awaits us once we let go of hope and selfless love. Cut out the despair and you cut out the exaltation, the tear-streaked gratitude.

The last time I was in Chicago (circa 2010?) visiting my relatives I had that same sensation, part of which was caused by the unceasingly grim weather, another part by the severely aged condition of my granny, the cancer of my father and my own mix of cigarette withdrawal (couldn't smoke in the hotel, and couldn't even light a cigarette outside as the sleet-soaked wind blew so mercilessly it would suck the tobacco right out of the paper, like hay going up in a tornado), lovelorn heartbreak (couldn't get my long distance 'talk-every-night-for-five-hours' crush on the phone anymore) and constant winter sickness. Sitting around in my granny's little nursing home room, watching them all drink gin and tonics (my dad brought a whole portable bar with him in a suitcase, including a hotel ice bucket), I had a vision were all chained together, in order of age, sitting on a small ship sailing out to sea, and the chain ended somewhere below the waves --our great grandparents were already overboard and the chain was just forever flowing out of the coil, being sucked down below the waves as it sailed on and we were all slowly getting pulled under by the weight of our sunken family tree and the chain...kuchunk, one link of the chain at a time, unstoppable, like grim clockwork. Granny... then dad... then... me.

Death... it's what's for desert. Let's face it -- there's no true art without death. Without death, it's all just comedy, or pornography. So it stands to reason that mortality is no enemy to be feared!

Rather it is only when we avoid her, forget what we're running from, that she has to come looking for us. Observe the lower right hand of Kali, indicating 'no fear' or 'welcome' or 'how ya like me now?" or "Ta Da!" or "Look Ma, there is no permanence in life or death." Below the severed head, a nice pie.

Instead of letting this existential dread wash away our current ego like a snake shedding its skin, it's like that snakeskin (ego/fear) convinces us it would be a much better idea to block all that mortal terror out, veil it behind curtains and movie posters, sex gossip, political debate, petty seductions and longing. Try to stop the progression of decay so this old, dysfunctional skin might stay in place around you and sooner or later there are so many curtains and covers and objects and seductions over the face of mortality that we can't see it at all, and so we feel cut off.... After awhile, we can't remember where it is. We're stuck, we're becalmed, tepid, terrified to remove even one curtain, lest that be the one with the tiger behind it; then we forget what we were even covering up in the first place and our now rotting snakeskin (that should have been shed long ago) has gone rogue on us, using our own serpent venom against us the moment we so much as rub up against a tree. Trapped, we obey the old skin ego's edict to pay no attention to it, and instead blame people around us for letting us down, not moisturizing our back and keeping the skin supple; we blame our spouses for holding us back, parents for holding us up when we're trying to get, you know, moving!

But it's impossible to slither anymore, that skin is so fragile by now any forward slither and it starts to disintegrate. So you slowly die of starvation, the snakeskin like a cancer that kills you rather than surrenders control.

It's like when you're looking for your keys and a part of you thinks it might be in a big clump of crap way down under your desk, tangled like Jack Torrance searching for an exit in the Shining maze of computer wires. You don't want to bend mighty low, get your hands dirty, confront the extent of the mess you've stashed below knee level, so you search any other place--at eye level--getting madder and madder at not finding them and then finally you bend on down and reach into the dirt.

And there the keys are.

Always, deep in the dirtiest of your hidden corners, buried under rocks of crap, and now you have FOUND THEM.

Ganesha! Saint Anthony! George Bailey! Hazel Court! Scrooge! Finding that sense of oceanic bliss means reaching down in the dust under the desk: you gotta get low. You can't buy your way in, can't just look where it's convenient, and you can't ever possibly be too poor. No Tim is too tiny for the open heart. Make yourself poor and wretched and your old snakeskin has no power to stop you from the big shed. Preferring not to be associated with such a loser, your ego, your old skin, slides off like a shallow supermodel from your table when she realizes you're all out of coke. And you're free. The new skin is glorious, it's barely attached to a 'you' at all. What 'you' there is is negotiable, ever-changing, a fire not a log.

Mystery Cave initiation in The Magic Flute (Bergman's)
Today, of course, those who knew Scrooge would just say he was having a manic episode, that he should adjust his meds, or worse, that he had gone "new age" and they'd make some joke about crystals. I've often wondered what it would be like if Scrooge became a "ghost-of-Xmas" junky, needing bigger and bigger stretches of future Xmas tombside terrors, wanting more and more details about his Christmas past lovers, needing to give away bigger and bigger turkeys just to feel orphans are still "marvelous," needing to act all miserly and bah-humbug starting around October so he can conjure a new Jacob Marley and wrangle another visit to that tombstone, to get that magic selfless glow again. Or what if his new open heart and generous spirit led to him being swindled of all his fortune after only a few weeks, and so he bitterly renounces Xmas, blaming it as instrumental in getting him to let his guard down and so he becomes even more bah-humbug than before?

Thankfully, Dickens lets us know this was not the case, noting that through the end of his days Scrooge 'kept Christmas well.' May we all be so lucky, and shed last year's egoic skin before it poisons so much as a hair on our dog bodies. God bless us.... everyone

Monday, December 17, 2012

Drug of Choice: 4:44 - LAST DAY ON EARTH (2012)

The apocalypse, or at any rate the end of the Mayan... thing... is Friday. Some preparation may be in order, and if you're reading this blog that means movie choices. What's the ideal apocalypse film you want to be watching at the very moment of apocalypse? I've already seen mine. Just the other night. Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth. It couldn't be more timely! In other words, if you live in New York City, and are a permanently drug-addled middle-aged artist in recovery and share a loft apartment with a younger or older partner and you've always looked forward to the end of the world as an ideal excuse to relapse, 4:44 - Last Day on Earth belongs to you as much as it does me. And man it belongs to me. If you substitute whiskey for heroin, and make the guy slightly less famous, the apartment slightly less cool, Dafoe is me! Either way, fuck it. Just don't forget the weird numeric title and to set your clocks back. Way back. To zero.

Of course television figures prominently in the film. How else would we know for sure the world is ending? We see the main character Cisco (Willem Dafoe) watch Al Gore talk about the truth of global warming with a knowing smirk; We see him watch the Dali Lama with a big old grin; and finally he watches NY1's Pat Kiernan with concern. Cisco's younger girlfriend, Skye (Shanyn Leigh) meanwhile paints a grim ouroboros figure on a big piece of paper on the floor at the other end of the loft. As artistic couples do, Cisco and Skye fool around, fight, putter, try to break each other's concentration out of sublimated creative jealousy, and so forth. It may take some extra dirt in your nails to identify with the part where Dafoe almost does some heroin (or meth or something) even after six months clean (or whatever),  but it's the last day on earth, and in an Abel Ferrara film it's always the last day on earth --so this is double your pleasure day, and never a better time than whenever to do the mortal coil shuffle sensitive bluesy minor key melancholy madness munchies malaise trip.

Top: 4:44 / Bottom: Seeking a Friend
Ferrara's druggy Catholic kinetics have been in short supply stateside of late due to, apparently, fucked-up deals with French producers at Studio-Canal. His tale of the virgin Mary was supposed to be pretty heavy, and there was Go-Go Tales, both MIA.  It don't matter --4:44 is as perfect a career and global autobiographical capstone as we're likely to get. And as such it functions fine as a skewed sequel to his very first film, Driller Killer (1979), which, we may recall, ends on a very similar, under-the-sheets apocalyptic fade. Driller gets a bad rap because it was banned in Britain during the whole 'video nasty' 80s, but it's really just a good mix of grit, grime and druggy Catholic anti-punk punk energy, with some drill killings thrown in to keep you from dozing off. The killer targets older male derelicts rather than foxy young women (probably on account of his fear of failure, and growing up to be just like them - failed artists-turned-homeless-junkies living on park benches. More than these sporadic and half-heartedly-filmed murders (marred by terrible blood the consistency and color of rusty tap water), Ferrara seems preoccupied with his central character, played by himself. He's slowly going crazy, maybe because downstairs from his loft is a loud, terrible glam-punk band and they practice constantly. His two girlfriends end up hanging out there and when the band finally gets a date at Max's Kansas City, even Abel gets shoehorned into going. All of which which both drives his character insane as he tries to concentrate on painting his buffalo canvas (a picture of a buffalo, I mean, on a regular canvas) and provides a way to pad the running time (as both of his girlfriends end up preferring to rock out down there rather than watch him paint and curse the fates - and he's smart enough to understand why they would).

Both Driller and 4:44  are apocalyptic in their own way. In Driller, the artist exorcises his terror and madness by drilling old homeless guys instead of Skyping or almost relapsing like Dafoe does here. Both end the same way - with a couple in bed and a fade out (to white and red respectively) while the girl whispers soothing gentle words in OS voiceover. And Ferrara doesn't star in the latter film, but there's little doubt that Dafoe is playing Abel, right down to casting Shanyn Leigh, Abel's real life girlfriend.

Ferrara is Driller Killer
Ferrara's longtime screenwriter Nicholas St. John isn't billed on 4:44 and based on the hesitant weirdness of it all, I'm betting a lot of the dialogue and action was improvised, which I totally get. What are you going to do during the last 24 hours on earth, fumble through scripts? Most of all, the characters are really just avatars of ourselves as we watch TV on the last day of the world. We take a break and look out the window and dig on how empty the city seems. We try a lot of things to grant our lives some last-minute meaning. And then our addiction shows up out of the emotional blue with a hastily scrawled IOU note you gave it back when you got sober. In return for not crippling you with the horrors you promised that--if the world ever came to an end--you would relapse. You figured why not- you'd be spared the hangover or the St. Vitus or whatever came after. And you forgot about it, but your Addiction never did. And it's come to collect.

I know mine would, I promised it that if the eternal thirst would just back off I'd relapse when the apocalypse came. And it's coming!

Is this why Ferrara made this film in the first place? To deal with "that" issue in a way that hasn't really been dealt with? Because 4:44 more than any other apocalypse film I know brings us to the crystalline point imagined by every recovering alcoholic or addict, the 'if you know the world is about to end, is it okay to relapse?' point. I wrote about it a bit in a discussion of the film 2012, which I called "Day of a Million Relapses!" There's a character in that named Harry (Blu Mankuma), the beautiful old African American jazz man father of one of the main characters, the bleeding heart geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The two have a nice farewell via ship-to-shore phone (Harry's a pianist in residence on a cruise liner) and upon hanging up--his responsibility to his son completed--Harry grabs a Jack Daniels off a passing waiter's tray.

His old sax man (George Segal) remarks: "Harry, you haven't had a drink in 25 years!"  Harry doesn't even answer, just takes a big swig and sits back down. Damn that's cool. He's doomed and relapsed and doesn't give a shit! As someone with only half his 'time served,' I can't help but cheer!! Someone in that scriptwriting pool knows the score! Finally --a disaster movie actually put in what every sober alcoholic waits for--the unshakable excuse to relapse. (fulll)

But as it turns out it's just not that easy for poor Cisco. Spurred on after a hilarious fight between Skye, and his ex-wife on Skype --trying to break it up and protect his computer from being slapped shut by Skye while the wife jeers and curses onscreen -- Cisco goes out onto the street, to his old dealer's house and climbs in through the fire escape window, like the old days.... all right. Now things are going to perk up, you think. Now, we shall return to Ferrara's druggy urban Steadicam rhythms. The mood in here is jovial, sexy, intelligent. These are believably his cool downtown friends and their interaction feels natural and real, the way only Abel could really conjure back in the day.

But Cisco's plan is blocked because his NA sponsor, Noah (Greenwich Village musician Paul Hipp), happens to be there, canoodling but not getting high, and instead reveling in the freedom of choice. His choice. He's totally cool with other people doing it in front of him though, he says. Noah 'chooses' to just hang out with his old user buddies but face the end with clear open eyes. He tells Cisco it's his choice too, but he should choose not to pick up. It's a bizarre moment that few who are not addicts will probably truly understand.... we've been waiting, after all, for this. It's the night of a million relapses! Those of us who are in recovery will have mixed emotions. On the one hand, good for him, on the other that's not his sponsor's business --let the man do his thing! He has an IOU to pay. It's like if you're Jekyll and you make a deal with Hyde that he will go away on the condition he gets to come back for the end of the world. Even though it's just you making deals with yourself, it's still a valid contract, my brother!

In the end, as it always does, the only thing that saves the artist is the art. The drugs are either a means to that end or a hindrance. Nothing else matters. Skye spreads great puddles of color all over the floor and makes a giant protective circle ouroboros for them to lie in (shades of the cave made of sticks in Von Trier's Melancholia. (meinen posten hier )and of course Dafoe was in Von Trier's previous film, Antichrist, so there you are, the web of genius is all connected...

Dafoe is the key, and art, and it's all about to end, so get inside this circle before the snake swallows up the world. Dafoe has no one to act with, no audience with whom to perform (except us, in the shadows, of course) while she works, so he watches TV.

This is another interesting aspect since Skye never doubts how she wants to spend her last hours, painting. She has what I've referred to as the addict's Keith Richards life preserver, wherein you have that one thing you're good at so you just do it, constantly, either practicing, composing, creating or jamming - and that's what keeps you from freaking out, succumbing to depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts, bad decisions, killing yourself, metaphysically drowning, and so forth. Their guitars--always at hand--are what saves the life of Richards, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) in The Runaways (see my post here).

Of course Ferrara's limited budget doesn't allow for real world-swallowing, so its conveyed via stock footage and newscasts which is fine with me. I enjoy the tense energy of the mixture, the camera following Dafoe around wondering when he's going to go off. The film feels padded even at 74 minutes, but Ferrara spares us the rerunning of previous footage in his similarly multi-media / post-modern adaptation of William Gibson's New Rose Hotel (which starred Dafoe with Christopher Walken and Asia Argento) and like in that underrated film, Ferrara allows the action to unfold as it would in real life, i.e. mostly somewhere else, watched by the characters from their secluded den of druggy, sex-boosted comfort. With so many screens onscreen, the post-modern affect has completely subsumed the real. The only way to stay above the multimedia din is via sex, meditation or art, and in Ferrara's film all finally three merge into the simulacrum so it's all as it should be. After all, in the final count, you and the TV are two snakes, facing each other, but they're One! 

Even if you can't relate to the addict stuff, it's worth seeing just to soak up Ferrara's legendary fly-on-the-wall NYC authenticity, with such great details as NY1's Pat Kiernan, an inescapable presence in most New Yorkers' frenzied mornings, delivering a professional sign off indicating he's been happy to have been a part of your life and now he and his co-workers are going home to their families. Kiernan plays these moments with beautiful grace: angry, poetic and always stoic. As Frank Lovece of Film Review International notes:
In a nice surprise, given how lame most TV and movie news anchors sound, Kiernan, of the local-news channel New York 1, offers onscreen reports that sound like a broadcast journalist; perhaps he himself actually wrote them. His final signoff is dignified and humane without becoming sentimental or overwrought in the least.
It's interesting that this journal of international cinema sees nothing offensive in Kiernan's statement in the film that "Al Gore was right,"  and that global warming will take us out in a blinding solar flash at exactly 4:44 AM. Meanwhile condemnation of the same line comes from Will Leitch something called Deadspin: 
In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, what gets us is the ozone layer, i.e. not caring about it. (Writer-director Abel Ferrara actually makes poor Kiernan say, "Al Gore ... was right." Ferrara should be arrested for that.) This is the lamest possible reason for the world to end in a movie, because what kills us should be a metaphor for the sins of man, not the actual sins of man. Of course, most of the movie involves Willem Dafoe in his apartment doing yoga, muttering to himself and playing around on Skype, so whatever it is that hastens the end of our suffering, as far as I'm concerned, will suffice.
Man, it's easy to tell which writers are American, sometimes. Naturally such a fellow would want the world to end as soon as possible, cuz he's tired of looking for a real job. Haw Haw! Just kidding my man, hey man, what's your name?

As I say, your mileage may vary. Let me give you some tips: a good way to watch 4:44 is while calling loved ones and chatting idly with friends on the phone, with laptops and Kindles all playing different documentaries and TV shows. Put Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, or The Quantum Activist or 10 Questions for the Dali Lama on your laptop, with the sound off, and position it about 10 feet away from your main TV screen but still in view, tilted towards the other screen so it looks like they're watching each other. That way you can feel the erosion of the screen membrane and make it all more urgent. A brilliant little moment indicative of this--what Steven Shaviro calls "post-modern affect"-- occurs when Skye looks across the length of the loft from the floor by the window, and the lof is pitch dark, as Cisco is out scoring, and she's startled to see an old black man sitting in a chair staring at her. How did he get in and what does he want? As she starts moving trepidatiously towards him he suddenly vanishes into a square white static. He was just on TV, a big flatscreen that was left on in the dark and is now off. It was just a coincidence that he was framed on the TV and the TV was off the ground in such a way to look like a chair. The sudden change is jarring, funny, and brilliant, the coolest post-modern goodnight ghost set-up since The Ring. These are the kinds of things Godard and Antonioni fans look for but most Americans don't expect from one of our own. In an earlier post I wrote that, in a post-cinematic affect you're neither safe nor in danger, neither an actor nor an extra, neither on TV or in front of it. The way man and space merge into one dream consciousness in 2001 is the way man and TV merge into one dream consciousness in 2012 at 4:44 - no accident they're both number titled.

More ways to metatextualize your experience: If you meditate, do so when Dafoe does, assume his poses as if he's a yoga instructor. Counterpoint your own movements with those of the camera as it paces around the loft. Dig that Anita Pallenberg plays Skye's mother and remember fondly her insane work in Performance (1968) as part of a threesome living in a big hippy house (ala the Ferrara and the two girls in Driller Killer). Here she looks pretty haggard, speaking over Skype to give daughter the fare thee well in a deep, gravelly voice, and to let her know she's proud of her artistic drive. You can bet that Anita Pallenberg would be fine with you dating her daughter -  no matter how old or poor you were - as long as you were cool and artistic. You can feel her benign indifference to the mundanity of bourgeois morals in the Teutonic depth of her voice. This is a film with no villains, no purpose, it just waits, it has the guts to stand still and let the finish line come roaring.

An ideal movie to see while you're alone or with your lover and if they don't like the film as much as you do and so are on their iPhone or browsing the web while you're watching, so much the better. I never saw this in the theater but I can't imagine liking it nearly as much outside the safety of my own NYC artist loft-ish bunker. Of course if you're a materialist who's never had any addiction problems and is not an artist or struggling with a contempt for mainstream society that keeps you isolated like Max Von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters, then good for you! For the rest of us, who've felt the oroborous tightening the last few years and feel it's now reaching its zero reset black hole point, for better or worse, I say congratulations for making it this far. Even if nothing tangible 'happens' - no meteors or alien invasion or super volcano eruption or massive chain reaction tectonic plate shift or pole reversal or planet wave or solar storm -- you have already felt the apocalypse, the eruption of fire and Gomorrah in your thirsty veins. Some of us have shot a million dollars worth of white powder and wood onto the logs to keep that star alive within our pulsing systems. Some of us have almost drowned our nebulae with whiskey just so we could drag our moldy carcasses to this one beautiful point in history. Some of us have felt the hot pink fuzzy warmth of God or the white light ticking us down to our soul, and felt our heart chakras opening up now. Breathe in with me now children, ooooommm, all together now ommmmm like spiral antennae picking up the cosmic frequencies beaming right into our planet from the galactic alignment.

All I ask for myself, oh wonderful Quetzlcoatl of Machu Pichu, is some ruby slippers, so I can clack them three times, chant "no place like Hommmmmm" and then wake up back in the spring of Syracuse 1987, when I was 20 and in a locally popular hippie band, surrounded by gorgeous everything, had the world by the tail, and could drink like nothing you've ever seen. How I wish I could go back! And yet... how glad I am to know for almost certain I won't have to.

 To rest assured even without assurance, is this not the highest wisdom?

Sunday, December 09, 2012


In the early pre-code 1930s the Asian menace was a hot topic. China was in a bloody civil war; newsreel scenes of exotic people in various states of distress brought the mystery of the orient into movie audience's laps; 'miscegenation' fantasies popped up, always proportionate in intensity to the the fantasizing culture's racism. The white male viewer was presumably all alight with lust for the beautiful Asian ladies they saw, whether via the exotica-betrothed Theda Bara or Myrna Loy in Asian make-up. Before she hit it big in The Thin Man Loy was the go-to girl for scheming Asian honeys, in pre-codes like Mask of Fu Manchu, Thirteen Women, and The Barbarian (where she often got around the miscegenation by being half-"Other"). Even today audiences who should know better, like myself, are ever-aswoon over Loy a-shimmer in shining silks, but she's reflecting an evil double standard: white man + Asian girl = sexy; Asian man + white girl = censors and southern markets no likee!

With every double standard like this comes suspicion. If the entitled American white straight male viewer is all agog over the (Hollywood amped) exotica of this beautiful half-Asian girl, imagining her Sadean-skill in inflicting kinky pleasure-pain and her complete freedom from the suffocation of western bourgeois 'morality,' he must naturally, inescapably, worry his wife is being seduced in turn by some handsome, smooth-skinned, erudite Asian man, like Nils Asther in Asian make-up in the complex, beautiful yet ultimately frustrating Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Without that corresponding anxiety over the vice versa, the white man's fantasy is inert, and so the spiral tightens, autoerotically, to blackout.

The celestial Hal Eriksen notes of Bitter Tea:
"The one scene that everyone remembers takes place during one of Stanwyck's fevered dreams, in which she imagines Yen as a Fu Manchu-type rapist, who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. Directed with the exotic aplomb of a Josef von Sternberg by the usually down-to-earth Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was unfortunately a box office failure, due in great part to its miscegenation theme (this was still 1933). Even so, the film was chosen as the first attraction at the new Radio City Music Hall."
Yes, what about that miscegenation theme? Speaking of 1933 (arguably the greatest year ever for Hollywood) one can feel in its prohibition-repealed euphoria that the racist angle is being stretched to its limits in Yen, backing the censor up just a few inches with each assault, until gradually, if not for the damned Breen-enforced new code in 1934, Capra might have slowly been pushed racism back across state lines. At least in his film you can feel the sheer stupidity of miscegenation codes come full flower, practically baiting the intolerant bourgeois 'moralists' into getting pundit-level furious. Capra's film dares to present the forbidden love of Stanwyck and Manchu general Asther as preferable to the disposable British missionary fiancee, even if said forbidden love 'can never be.'

Abducted and given a beautiful room in his summer palace, Babs becomes enamored of the spring moon and the sight of Chinese lovers frolicking in the fronds, even if they are just soldiers and concubines (in order to not be shocked, she probably presumes they're all legally married before vanishing into the bushes together). Meanwhile her own sexuality is at stake; her letters back to her fiancee are misdirected by the treacherous Mai-Li (the Japanese actress Toshia Mori), Asher's young local girl lover, who resents having to sit lower than everyone else at the dinner table. Yen is foolish enough to listen to Bab's pleas of mercy for Mai-Lin's life when a different betrayal is discovered, and its this mercy that costs Yen his kingdom, fortune and leads to his bitter tea-drinking. A white woman's naive pro-life soap boxing is the end of him, like Joseph Breen looming over Asther with a glass of poison, like they did to poor Elisha Cook Jr. in THE BIG SLEEP!

It's fascinating and kind of appalling that even though the general is played by a white man, even a kiss on the lips with the white Babs is forbidden. Similarly, a later Stanwyck vehicle, the Furies' (1950), presents a romance between a Mexican man and Barbara that leads to a bitter hanging early on even though he's Gilbert Roland, a white man given the most meagre of tan make-ups and nothing happens between them, either.  In Yen a kiss happens kind of but only in the Fu Manchu-cum-handsome prince monster dream sequence. "They found a love they dared not touch," read the tag line, but it's rather Columbia who dared not; Yen is down to touch that love BUT is also a gentleman, so she has to want to come to him, and then even if she does she's eventually unable to actually kiss more than his hand in fealty. When Babs even thinks about kissing him, dream or no, she's repulsed

One of my favorite critics, David Thomson, gives the film the benefit of the doubt, racism-wise, interpreting Stanwyck's missionary coldness as the result of external metatextual echoes of Capra's smitten advances. They had dated for their first three Columbia pictures and she had broken it off and he remained lovelorn. Thompson thinks he cast her in Yen to try and win her back:
"So Stanwyck tries to be the missionary when everything in the film calls for a creeping abandon in Megan. When I say everything I mean above all Nils Asther's Yen, one of the most attractive figures in early sound cinema--witty, fatalistic, and very smart." ("Have You Seen..." p. 99)
Of course Yen can't be that smart if he lets his attraction for another man's naive bride get in the way of his war, since it means he'll lose it. His fascination is a slow suicide from the moment she first offers him a handkerchief after he runs over her rickshaw driver. He doesn't care about the rickshaw driver because "life, even at it's best, is hardly endurable" - a great line he delivers with the perfect mix of ennui and breeziness - but he's moved she gives him a handkerchief even after berating him for his callousness. He sees in her something that if he follows it through will lead to his death, but hey, life's hardly endurable. Yen adopts her forgiving attitude towards the treacherous Mai Lin almost on a dare and, while he handles the subsequent loss of his fortunes with Zen aplomb, he can't really handle the strait-jacket of the production code (who could?) which results in Babs' surrendering to Yen in penance yet still unable to think about kissing him without recoiling as if he was still the leering Fu Manchu character from her dream. She loves him but his non-whiteness ensures she'll never convert him back into that masked prince.

This repulsion and lust see-saw between beautiful white women and hormonal Chinese warlords was prevalent all over the years 1930-33, and so it's no surprise one shows up in a 1932 Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich film: Shanghai Express. White actor Warner Oland (who also played both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu in the same approx. era) hijacks the title train and won't let her man, a stodgy Brit officer played by sleepy Clive Brook go until Dietrich agrees to becomes his mistress. She will, because she's heroic, but it's implied that this would be a fate worse than death. Luckily Anna May Wong stabs him in a race-appropriate act of post-rape retribution before this miscegenation fantasia gets any farther. And the censor wipes his brow in relief.

Shangai Express by Erich Kuersten - 2008 
Wong and Dietrich are upscale prostitutes in the film, so it's presumed Dietrich has slept with Chinese generals before, but as long as we don't have to see it, or know about it, I guess it's okay (don't ask don't tell). She says she's reformed. But Oland takes Anna May Wong into his makeshift train station boudoir as consolation, not asking permission, thus justifying her deux ex machina stabbing as he's packing to leave. Apparently sex with an Asian man is hardly endurable... even if he's actually white and you're the only female star in Hollywood who's actually Asian!

Anna May Wong played another 'entertainer' who felt this way, the previous year, in in the 1931 Fu Manchu sequel Daughter of the Dragon. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa plays a smitten detective who starts presuming that, since he's young and Asian and so is she, he can dictate who her friends are and make all sorts of won't-take-the-hint advances. Wong prefers the rich white guy, of course, even if she means to kill him eventually and even if he's played by Bramwell Fletcher, an Englishman so twee he makes David Manners seem like Marlon Brando. We're meant, I think, to be a little repulsed by Haywakawa and simultaneously to secretly root for Wong's plans of vengeance agains the Petries, and to identify with the sense of love and duty she feels for her infamous father. We'd hate to see her throw away her happiness with this stiff Uncle Tom of an Asian detective, and Fletcher's even worse, a slice of limp white bread falling over on itself. Anna meanwhile can have any white man she wants, as they're all beguiled, though of course its understood none of them would ever marry her, other than the dregs of the dance card, a man of her own race, and a cop no less.

The fear of course was that seeing a love scene involving a young Asian male with another woman, even an Asian woman, would lead to riots and lynchings and burning of the nitrate in the southern markets. Censorship pre-empted the crackers' pre-emptive strike against nonwhites, lest as Fu Manchu urges his throngs in Mask of Fu Manchu (1933), they "kill the white man, and take his women!" It's the sort of roundabout self-hatred that makes the white people in that film so much more contemptible than even Fu Manchu and his evil daughter. One can't fault the latter for having a grudge against the white race if only from the contemptible racism displayed by the character within the film itself (their feeling that Asians have no right to their own art treasures, for example, because Britishers "like to look at them on holidays." Sure Fu and company want the treasures to rally the 'yellow' race against white civilization, but to deny him access to them is not unlike the censors' own denying of any possible riot stirring imagery.  At the end of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith throws the riot stirring sword into the middle of the ocean rather than bringing it back for the museum and one can't help but draw the comparison with the burial of Osama bin Laden in the exact same way for for a very similar reason. One thinks too of all the edited film footage that was burned or otherwise destroyed for similar reasons too, things too progressive for their era (Paul Robeson's striking of the white cop in Emperor Jones (1933) for example, though that's been partially restored).

As someone who was almost lynched in a South Carolina two-dollar theater on a 1998 Xmas day, just for wearing a yellow sweater (the movie being In-Out and my brother and I being the only ones laughing) I can vouch that a lot of that intolerance in certain states is still very real. To these racist swine Asians are almost scarier than Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans or Native Americans, because the derogatory phrase 'yellow' doesn't really fit. Asians are in fact 'whiter than white' - more refined than the white racist thinks even himself capable of. That's why for every exquisitely cruel and cultured monster like Manchu there must be hordes of leering Chinese soldiers or grinning, moronic cooks, often played by the versatile character Willie Fung, to make whitey feel all master race-y again.

I write this post not to stir up racist trouble.  In fact quite the opposite. I'm fascinated by the tropes of exotica, of chinoiserie -- I can't help it. The art directors involved in these 1933 films took the Asian milieu as a license to go nuts with ornate doorways, sparkling, slinky black dresses with dragons glistening down the slit skirt, Hindi deity statuary casting monstrous shadows over exquisite torture devices. I've never thought these cine-fantasias represented the real Asia, but I love their beauty and weirdness, the liberation from the sticky wickets of drab western symmetry when an art designer is allowed to go full out on the Asian opulence.

Who wouldn't lose their head over this... "possession"?
In The Cheat (1931) for example (see my review of The Universal Pre-code Collection on Bright Lights), Irving Pichel's character isn't Asian at all but a British diplomat or something ensconced in Japan or wherever for the last three years but now back at his old club, bearing tiger scars and emitting vile comments like "the oriental woman isn't a slave, she's simply been well-trained." So he's vaguely Asian if only by association with his sculpture collection, penchant for sadism, black silk pajamas, and statues branded with his seal of ownership for every sexual conquest like little awards, giving his whole playa thing a sickly sheen of reptilian self-sabotage. Bankhead promises to sleep with him if he pays her gambling debts but then when she no longer needs the cash, backs out of the deal. Pichel is plenty creepy sure, but Bankhead's stoop-shouldered, cigarette-voiced, gambling addicted, overspending old broad dowdiness isn't exactly the stuff that dreams are made of either. When he gets the spurn he brands her in reprisal. In the 1915 original film by the way, the miscegenation angle was clearer as the Pichel character was played by a real Asian, Sessue Hayakawa. By the time of this remake, even the thought of owing a real Asian any sexual favors was too loathsome to, apparently, contemplate.

The overriding motif throughout these films is that Asians are treated with some respect if they are cultured and can speak English, though they tend to go all to blazes when they get a load of any white chick. Apparently even if played by whites, and given British names, guys into Asian culture are still so repulsive that being literally branded on the breast is better than putting out, regardless of your word of honor.

The sordid Asian lustiness was all over the silent era, while the earliest and most influential chaste interracial romance of them all is surely that between horribly abused Lillian Gish and the disillusioned Asian curio shop owner played by white man Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms (1919). Chris Jacobs writes "it is a delicate story of characters and ideals caught up in an inexorable destiny.  Modern-day critics who acknowledge Griffith's contribution to cinema also find the eloquent plea for racial tolerance less embarrassing to embrace than the controversial The Birth of a Nation." Yeah but as I recall they never even kiss or embrace despite this poster:

Nowadays of course racism is still a problem. But may I suggest that a part of this is the prevalence of the attitude that we are all the same? I applaud kids who get way into the minutiae of another culture, even ironically... this is how racism is healed, through admittance into one's own lexicon. The purpose of making fun of something can be to join it, to playfully analyze and encompass it. How many best friends didn't like each other at first, indeed mocked each other's mannerisms? But drawn to the unique complimentary energy the other provided during their inevitable fights, insults, or misunderstandings, special bonds are formed? It's well known now that, contrary to racist ideology, mixed race children are actually genetically superior to many purebreds. The bigger the gene pool for your DNA to work from the less likely you are to have birth defects and the more likely you are to be beautiful, as per books on the subject, such as Breeding Between the Lines.

We should rejoice when our children start dating someone of a different race. The best thing we can do is to mix our genes and absorb all the details of each other's culture, celebrating each other's unique perspectives, the prelude to which is nearly always to mock, probe, and burlesque said differences. The sooner we're all one glorious carmel-skinned, mildly epicanthically-folded race the better... as far as our genes are concerned, especially. In the meantime we should try on each other's cultures like robes at a costume party, and in the process de-demonize ourselves to each other. Films like Bitter Tea can be accused of racism or copping out on miscegenation but they also open up the dialogue. They point out the withering hypocrisy at the core of the anti-miscegenation code and its ultimate damage to world culture the same way homophobia in later stretches of Brokeback Mountain later would.

When we feel denied the right to objectify, imitate, adopt or consume a differing culture, isn't that also a kind of racism? Instead it's more likely we react and form opinions based on personal experience: we may go through a faux-Rastafari phase as a college kid then get mugged on a trip to Jamaica for spring break and get all racist all of a sudden, burning our Peter Tosh albums in moot reprisal, as if the two had anything to do with one another. Let's learn the lesson of our fascination with exotica, and let's let the tortured sprits of conveniently killed characters like General Yen point out the absurdity of Hollywood's censor system, an outmoded code which encourages Montague-Capulet divisiveness even as it portends to delve into sensitive issues of star-crossed lovers separated by chasms of culture who are destroyed by the very divisiveness the code encourages. Demanding credit for putting out a fire they themselves lit is no more than Munchausen by-proxy racism.

The devil falls in love with those that won't be tempted.

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