Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CinemArchetype #9: The Devouring Mother

It's amazing--though not surprising--how relatively hard it is to find strong 'Devouring Mother' archetypes in cinema -- they abound in Greek myth, eastern religions, fairy tales, and in the great works of Tennessee Williams, Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Italians, but patriarchal forces have been at work declawing the devouring all-powerful chthonic mother since the dark ones of Rome first weeded Mrs. God (Asherah) out of the bible (she does show up in the 'forbidden gospels'); in modern American Hollywood we like our moms saintly and pasteurized -- the Dee Wallace of ET and the Jo Beth Williams of Poltergeist--the decent MILFs out making lemonade and s'mores while the menfolk hunt demons and collect gold skulls--or not at all. I mention those two Spielberg productions since I'd blame him more than most for this decline, the reduction of the myth to a 16 year old boy's hero journey, with moms staying home on shore while the boys go out on the boat. What Spielberg never sees is that the boat may be boy's town, but the ocean is mom's purview; she's the shark, and she's coming to eat you up! The fake shark may have been named Bruce, but if JAWS is a myth at all the shark MUST be a female. There is no such mention, as if females don't devour the world in every natural hierarchy order except man's.

Maybe that's why there are so few cinematic devouring moms outside the aforementioned rarefied realms, no one's ever dared depict the Seven Deadly Sins as anything but women (the shadow side of the nine muses), they bring writer's block and torpor just as they bring inspiration. sometimes they bring sandwiches. Sometimes you are their sandwich. You are just so much clay to them; they're just happy to remold you into a tree as leave you as the rock you wish. They are beyond deadly, literally--for they are what lies beyond even death, the fallopian interdimensional gateway between the bardos and the time-space reality of dharma; they are that which our fear fears. Even writing this post I felt a knot tie in my stomach, a sense of creeping dread overtake me... mother! Mother, get back! Her apron string hydra tentacles doth st--

1. Katharine Hepburn as Violent Venable - Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
 Violet: “The dinosaurs are vegetarian… that’s why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. And then the carnivorous creatures, the ones that eat flesh...the killers… inherited the earth. But then they always do, don’t they?” (my 9/9 entry Acid's Greatest #14 Suddenly Last Summer)
 2.a. Diane Ladd as Lula's mom in Wild at Heart (1990)
A camp parody of herself, Diane Ladd's over-the-top performance as Lula's mom takes the typical histrionics to the level of surrealist burlesque. The lipstick covered face above is a very disturbing image, the rich 'flushed vaginal' signifier brought far past its boundaries, creating a flood zone red hole; her whole face becomes a giant octopus mouth. 
2.b. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981)
"There is no other more terrifying than "Mommy dearest." It is she who carries the hidden, secret, and dark, and anything that devours, illuminated through the writings of Carl Jung, myth, and fairy tales, as these are the very dynamics that impact and affect us in our personal lives and relationships." - Course desc. for "Mother Dearest / Mommy Dearest ", C.G. Jung Foundation

3. Jessica Tandy - Lydia Brenner - The Birds (1963)

She's not directly responsible for the bird attacks, but the implications are that Lydia Brenner, the possessive mom of bachelor #1 at Bodega Bay, has somehow summoned the bird attacks from her elemental unconscious--the way Dr. Morphius summons his Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, for example--in an outburst of primal, Oedipal jealousy. It's all conveyed wordlessly in her body language, the withering glances she shoots Melanie, her nagging passive aggressive hounding of Mitch over Melanie's scandalous Roman swimming incident hint at the general level of sublimated incestuous frustration involved in their relationship (the difference between Mitch and Norman Bates is of course Mitch shrugs her off with a laugh); the stresses of the repeated bird attacks compel Lydia's better, maternal nature and she begins to warm up to Melanie, but as a result never regains her status with the arcane elemental devouring forces that drive the birds. She can't be the Kali goddess of a million claws and nurturing at the same time.  Once the birds thoroughly assault Melanie she becomes just another child in Lydia's care and there's nothing really left for Lydia to fear as far as alpha female status, so the birds give them a pass.

4. Terri Hatcher (voice) - 'Other Mother'- Coraline (2009)
"A wrinkle in the argument is that both parents are not equally to blame for Coraline's plight; rather, since she is the dominant figure in the family, it is mostly the mother's fault. Thus, in Coraline's real world, her father (John Hodgman) casually refers to his wife (also Hatcher) as "the boss," and as another sign of her power, she gets to do her writing on a modern laptop while the father is relegated to what looks like a computer from the early 1990s. The power structure is even more pronounced in the other world, where the other father (also Hodgman) turns out to be only a manipulated lackey of the sinister other mother, who grows in size as the film progresses to emphasize her authority over the other world. To further condemn motherhood, Selick falls back upon a commonplace analogy between black widow spiders and domineering women — found nowhere in the book — making the other mother increasingly resemble a spider and even at one point having her try to trap Coraline within a gigantic spider web."--Gary Westfahl, Mommy Dreariest (Locus Online 2/9)
5. Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) / Marlene (1984)

This film hasn't even been released yet but can you really go wrong with Charlize Theron as the evil queen out to devour Kristen Stewart so her condescending mirror will get off her damned back? Having gone the Monster route and exposed the fragile talons of the narcissist alcoholic in Young Adult (2011), it's a safe bet her evil queen will be a great addition to the burgeoning canon of roles that show her to be one of Hollywood's rare few hotties with enough distance from her own 'type' to critique it. The very fact that she plays these kinds of unsympathetic roles shows her bravery; she is 'not that' for the very clear fact she's dared play it.

 In AA or outside of it I've indirectly known three of my friend's mothers who were drop dead MILF-gorgeous: they were their husband's second wives, soon clinging to their own fading beauty through a regimen of personal trainers, malnutrition, tennis, bitchery, and endless mirror-mirror primping. If the stepdaughter is fairer than she, this stepmom will often refuse to put the dad on the phone, refuse to even let the hot daughter see the dad (who is too drunk to answer or come to the door).

Another example would be Marlene Dietrich and her daughter Maria Riva, and much as I love Miss D. her German rigidity and witheringly stringent criticism suffocates Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary Marlene, reminding why I try not to read too much about my favorite icons, lest the cease to be so. At any rate the real Marlene is very German, and reminds me of my old German grandfather, which might be why I find the 'real' Marlene so suffocating, my grandfather's burnt potato pancakes were so taste bud-deadening and austere they aged me before my time.

6. Ms. Bates - Psycho (1960)

Norman's mom is such a badass she doesn't even have to be alive to create all sorts of magic mayhem in Hitchcock's most iconic masterwork. Whether possessing her dummy son like a master ventriloquist or shocking visitors with her super tight facelift, Mrs. Bates brooks no mirror-mirror nonsense or women prettier and younger than herself. Look at her resigned, sublime expression in the photo above. And so thin! 

7. Ursula - the Little Mermaid   (1989) / Barbara Hershey: The Black Swan (2011)
Ursula: "Now, here's the deal. I will make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days. Got that? *Three* days. Now listen, this is important. Before the sun sets on the third day, you've got to get dear ol' princey to fall in love with you. That is, he's got to kiss you. Not just any kiss - the kiss of true love. If he does kiss you before the sun sets on the third day, you'll remain human, permanently, but - if he doesn't, you turn back into a mermaid, and - you belong to me!"
Isolated from its context in the plot, the quote above could serve as the edict facing every girl in the pre-feminist era, wherein you had a limited time to 'be human' and try and score a husband. If you failed you became an old maid and lived at home under mom's thumb for the rest of your life. While not officially Ariel's mother, Ursula fits the bill of the archetypal devouring mother, wicked stepmother, etc. hoping her daughter will fail to get a husband so she'll have to stay home and mom can order her around while putting her big fat tentacles up and eating bon bons. As part of the archetypal underwater family, Ursula is the outcast abject feminine energy that both defines and devours. Feminists might criticize this duality--the mom rejected from her own house-- but we shouldn't forget that the devouring mother as a figure of abject evil does occupy a valued critical function. If mom didn't assume the mask of the monster her kids might never want to leave the nest.

Therefore, a good mom knows at some point to appear a 'bad' mom. After all, A child's desire to avoid the terror of the first day of school must not be indulged. If the mom relents and lets the child's tears and pleading sway her even for a few moment she risks becoming a bad mom by refusing to appear as one.  In their mythic archetypalization, the sheltering apron strings of the overly protective mother become kraken tentacles that can never be escaped without bravery and sometimes force. The longer you postpone escaping her the more evil she must become... until at last she has no choice but to pull you back into her kraken's tooth-lined vaginal gullet for re-absorption.  Of course Ursula is an archetype of just this gullet so she sabotages the process of Ariel's romance with prince Erich via acts of cockblocking and demoralization --the "no boy will ask you out unless you lose some weight, but you never will because you are weak, but cheer up because I brought home our favorite kind of cake!" soul crusher.

We see it too, to a Tee- in Hershey's stage mom in The Black Swan, i.e. she gets this horrifyingly ornate cake to celebrate Nina's winning the lead in the ballet, only to threaten to throw it away if her daughter doesn't eat it, against her own will, and continues to cockblock her even from masturbation or going out with her first friend ever.


8. Sarah Polley - Splice (2009)
The mad scientist genre has finally found its most worthy villain, a female scientist who, like Mommy Dearest herself, figures out a way to get around the messy laws of adoption and child protective services so she can torture, control, manage and stifle her daughter to her heart's content. Forget it Jake, it's science. There's no animal or human rights for a being that's neither, so making such a being is the devouring mother's dream. Dr. Frankenstein-ish Sarah Polley even uses her own DNA--and some scorpion and other creature DNA-- to create Dren (above). Just as Frankenstein's monster had to be hid from the fearful peasantry, Dren must be hidden due to nervous scientific bans on the use of human DNA in research projects. What's shocking is Sarah Polley's progressively cruel treatment of Dren, treating her like a mutant Children in the Attic character, locking her up in the barn, taking away her kitty, refusing to let her fly, run, swim, or crawl free.

With her bald head and alien eyes Dren's a bit like Britney Spears or Sinead O'Connor. The latter as we may recall got flak by drawing attention to the innate cold cruelty towards children perpetrated by organized human power, in her case Catholicism, but is there a difference?

9.  "The Queen" and Ripley #8 -  Aliens, Alien: Resurrection.
If Ripley’s identity involves breaking down boundaries, then she must somehow integrate her own internal dualism. As argued by Janice Hocker Rushing, one important element in that dualism is that Ripley and the Alien Queen in Aliens represent different aspects of the Mother/Goddess archetype.  According to C.G. Jung, the Mother archetype can be either the loving mother (nurturing, wise, and spiritual) or the terrible mother (devouring, seducing, dark, and inescapable). With Aliens, Rushing shows that Ripley and the Alien Queen represent the Good Mother and the Bad Mother respectively, but the problem is that the film does nothing to heal this maternal dualism. For Rushing, Aliens perpetuates the divide between the two mothers by pitting Ripley against the Alien Queen, a confrontation that only furthers patriarchal domination. Their reintegration (in Resurrection) would mean accepting both as part of us all—something the previous Alien films have denied. - Kile M. Ortigo (I’m a Stranger Here Myself”: Forced Individuation in Alien Resurrection, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture,Vol. 17, 2007)

The main moment of idiocy for Ripley in Aliens comes at the climax, torching the queen's eggs in the hive, nulling their quid pro quo hostage release deal, and why bother, since the whole area is just moments from nuclear destruction, and she let you live so you wouldn't, which makes you a rat? Why bother risking your life just to shoot your hostages in a Hiroshima apartment complex the morning of June 5, 1945? That kind of petty vindictiveness sets up the final anti-climax and indeed serves no other discernible purpose except as a moment of vengeful spite that betrays Ripley as her own brand of Kali chthonic devouring I AM LEGEND nightmare to this rival species; Ripley becomes the boogeywoman in bedtime stories told to alien children while they sleep nervously in astronaut tummies.

10. The 3 Mothers - Suspiria, Inferno
"... simultaneously nurturing and devouring, the Great Mother can also be personified in dreams by houses, a particularly provocative association in light of the entire notion of the houses of the three mothers (repositories of their filthy secrets, etc.) ... Inferno easily surpasses Suspiria in this respect, adding Jung's notions to a web of allusion that encompasses De Quincey's refined 19th century opium dreams and the psychedelic hallucinations of sixties pop designs, itself a melange of past styles, made bigger and brighter, and weirder by turn..."- Maitland McDonagh, (Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, p. 146-7)
The long eerie corridors of horror movie haunted houses have long since been analyzed as representing the Freudian birth canal -the horror/misery of light/life through the exit door, the horrific unknown of death back where you started, or vice versa --but which is which? In the bizarre homes of the three mothers it's a little different, the "psychedelic hallucination" aspect of the architecture refracts the Freudian into new realms so that the sheer foreignness of the lighting schemes, the art nouveau windows, the absence of hard rigid lines, makes even standing still in an empty hallway a new kind of movement-based nightmare. In Argento's corridor there is no entrance or exit, no life or death, just a feeling of eternal, inescapable dread. The breadcrumb trail doesn't lead to a way out, it just finally reveals you are swallowed. If you do escape, you need to make your way off the film set itself, and out on a plane back to Hollywood before Dario can dump any more maggots in your hair. 

11. Naomi Watts as Rachel - Ring 2  (2005)
Not quite as bad as some of the reviews make it out, Hideo Nakata's Ring 2 is too waterlogged (are the Japanese intrinsically hydrophobic? A result of their island upbringing?) to frighten, as About.com's Rebecca Murray notes " I don’t find water all that scary. And I definitely didn’t find water cascading from a bathroom ceiling or seeping out from under a bathroom door particularly terrifying."

But one thing is scary: an over-protective single mom funneling her anxiety into her son, using his safety as an excuse to shut out the world and in the process becoming the very thing she seeks to protect him from, i.e. a paranoid schizophrenic (think Viggo in The Road). There's a moment in the hospital where the doctors and nurses survey Rachel's unstable paranoia and her son's wounds, suspect she may be abusive, and suddenly the film comes to life. Nakata forgets about telling his dull ghost story and brings us a chilling example of how a mother's surplus of protective instinct can cause her to become the very danger she's trying to protect her child/children from. Rachel's only salvation is to focus that laser beam of toxic attention away from her son and towards the demon video installation artist Samara, thus attacking media itself (by 'entering' the TV), and adopting Samara even unto the abyss.

12. Old Lady in room 237 -- The Shining (1980)
In her mutability from beautiful young spirit to terrifying old crone, the phantom of room 237 represents a feminine prism of decay: the young, desirable woman gone old and decrepit, worm-ridden and crumbling into putrification. This usually happens over a period of many decades so her husband doesn't notice, but since room 237 exists outside space and linear time her withering occurs in the blink of an eye (like Bowman's rapid aging in a similarly sacred tiled chamber at the end of 2001).

Under Kubrick's cold gaze, phantom 237's devouring aspect becomes a magnetic lure; standing outside of space time, melding into the eerie drones of Györgi Ligeti, one can sense the slow revolution of the earth under the floorboards of the Overlook -- on its axis and around the sun and forward through space all at once--like a slow steady inexorable countdown. In other words, when one moves into a dimension outside time one's reality becomes a slow melting 'clockwork' --the difference between dream and reality are erased, and the old lady advancing towards you can't be escaped --she is the only escape route, Kali, the devourer; the same Donner party cannibal who brought you into the world slowly sucks you back in through the same inexorable orifice. SEE ALSO: (Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror)

In closing, hail hail - Kali!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Favorite Critic Series: Camille Paglia

Ancient mythology, with its sinister archetypes of vampire and Gorgon, is more accurate than feminism about the power and terror of female sexuality. -- Camile Paglia ("No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality")
If the only thing Camille Paglia ever wrote was her BFI The Birds book, she'd still make my list of top critics. It's easily the best of the entire series (Paglia alone covers the film the way a BFI book should, by delving into the rich symbolism and archetypal protean punch behind every aesthetic and dramatic element, rather than lumber through pointless behind-the-scenes anecdotes, synopses and historical critical responses, the way some less insightful authors do). And alas, that's as far as she has really gotten, film criticism-wise, but she delivers a damn good commentary track on the Ultimate Edition DVD of Basic Instinct (1999), and (I think, Showgirls) and occasionally she'll cover a film or filmmaker for Salon. Most importantly though, if you're up to tackle Sexual Personae she'll blow you wide open using an array of art and poetry as her explosives. 

She did it for me, blew m'brain wide open, and I am forever in her debt because of it. She broke the spell I was under from my  mid-80s liberal arts PC brainwashing and lifted me from my embittered, desperate shyness and self-poisoning misandry. Before Paglia, I had no way of knowing the tonnage of self-loathing being dumped on me (by myself, mainly, but academia sure helped) for being a straight white middle class American male wasn't necessarily deserved. I'd have to get super drunk to muster the gall to hit on any woman, even if she was already in my goddamned bed, gazing at me dewily, lest I somehow 'cross the line!' Hell, I'm still that way, but Paglia sure helped me get over my rationalizations for it. Now I know my hesitancy is based on shyness and karma-related intuition (more than likely I would have regretted it otherwise), and not at all that I'm just waiting for her to make the first move 'cuz it's 'the right thing to do.'
"Ambitious young women today are taught to ignore or suppress every natural instinct if it conflicts with the feminist agenda posed on them. All literary and artistic works, no matter how great, that document the ambivalence of female sexuality they are trained to dismiss as “misogynous.” In other words, their minds are being programmed to secede from their bodies … there is a huge gap between feminist rhetoric and women’s actual sex lives, where feminism is of little help except with a certain stratum of deferential, malleable, white middle-class men."  (No Law, p. 28)
"Malleable white middle-class men," that was me! I first found out about her via a compilation of her essays a friend (a SWM!) had loaned me, which included the above quotes. I shared at once his staggered awe-we were both feeling finally liberated. Having been at Syracuse U. together from 1985-1989, my friend and had seen first the carte-blanche license to date-rape enjoyed by reprehensible fraternities, and then the wearying, tar every male with the same brush, overreaction by the extreme left. I had even had a comic strip censored in the alternative newspaper 'the Alternative Orange" because angry literal-minded feminists couldn't tell I was joking when I portrayed the big baseball cap-sporting orange mascot of the SU football team as a sexually frustrated endomorphic frat pledge.
Campus speech codes, that folly of the navel-gazing left, have increased the appeal of the right. Ideas must confront ideas. When hurt feelings and bruised egos are more important than the unfettered life of the mind, the universities have committed suicide. 
Of course, mainstream feminism has done great things, and I do not think campus speech codes should be an end to themselves. The trouble in my mind comes from a class I call "PC carpetbaggers" i.e. they didn't fight in the war that liberated (in this case gender) slavery, but now that it's gone, they strut around taking full advantage as if they were one of the heroes of the hour (i.e. threatening to accuse a teacher of sexual harassment unless they give them an A). The good that's come of it all is that frat parties are now well known to be date rape zones (girls my freshman year had no clue and their misery after their first experience 'sleeping over' at frat parties after drinking 'the punch' - was epidemic) and now everyone knows to keep their drink in their hand (I hope) and not let the guys serve you the grain alcohol punch;  and men know that the behavior they consider harmless workplace banter may well be perceived by co-workers as sexual harassment, so they check themselves, and all that's good stuff. But back in 1990-92, when I was a young unemployed recent graduate with a serious drinking problem, PC fever was still a new craze and no one knew how bad they really were, most of all myself, tortured with sexual frustration and alcoholism and guilt for both. 

All these elements cohered in my soul and reached a nadir in the summer of 92, one of the hottest summers ever. I had nearly died of alcohol, several times in the last week, and was trying to get sober, single, broke, and was unemployed.... shaking alone in my bed, my only relief from my solitary torture was when the central air clicked on again with as nerve-rattling whoosh. What I needed to distract me was a book... a big book.

And like a gift from heaven, Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae appeared in a thick paperback.
Heavy, packed with words and references I had no familiarity with, but that summer I needed to have a big, thick book to anchor me, like a hot air balloon tether, as I writhed and convulsed through the days and nights. Paglia snapped me out of my first bout of delirium tremens with a dominatrix whip snap.
As I've written before and I'm sure I'm not alone, hearing about the rape of a woman I know makes me, as a man, feel responsible. If I don't find the guy and kill him, I can never let it go. I feel the same way about animal cruelty. But like animals, women respond to power and displays of feathers. How else to explain why I'd get so mad after being a shoulder to cry on for some cute girl at a party, listening patiently to her complaining about some jerk who'd wronged her, only to have her start making out with that same jerk within minutes of his late arrival? Until I read Camille, I had no idea why that happened. Why I put up with it. Why I couldn't blame her, or him, only me. Why getting mad at her for doing that made me madder for getting mad, like being nice to someone creates some sexual obligation? What a tightening gyre of self-hatred fueled by hormones and peer pressure!

Paglia smartened me up, and gave the finger to my feminist brainwashing. She freed me, cutting through guilt tripping bullshit like a chainsaw sculptress. Her way of incorporating her own Catholic Italian heritage and personal detail into her writing was revolutionary, harkening her back to Emerson and Whitman. She had the same brazen stance against the machine of superegoic self criticism. Women, Paglia's book told me, would be all right with or without my help. I had been falling for the sticky sweet messages purred by the chthonic Venus flytrap. It was time for me to stop wringing my hands and instead join in the merry, eternal battle of the sexes. Not to forget the lessons learned and the sensitivities needed to go forward, but not to overreact and/or let it turn me into a self-lacerating prude. 
"The most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights. "   -- Clive James (Break Blow Burn Review for NY Times)
Of course she catches a lot of shit for these ideas but she dishes it out as well. Her writing encourages active dissent, almost asks for it, uses rhetoric to raise impassioned responses. Even a fan like me gets mad when she bashes 'blog writing' as generally worthless (even this post, Camille?), and I think she gives way way too much credit to Madonna, but I dig that her media persona is deliberately confrontational and that she believes in the theater of sexual politics rather than the pulpit, and would rather provoke a visceral negative response than a piss-warm liberal head nod. I'm not sure of course if her writing is ever discussed in any liberal arts course today, it seems like a teacher might get fired for even mentioning her name. I had already graduated before I'd heard of her but I've seen firsthand how liberal bandwagon jumping has left the liberal arts canon lopsided with 'safe' writers spouting the revolutionary stance on one hand while submitting to a tyrannically conservative core of 'approved' western thought om the other. Where once openly gay literature like Burroughs was banned now it's Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, Paglia is out there singing the praises of governor Sarah Palin! 
 I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World. (Salon, 2008)
 She's so wrong (nothing could be worse than pro-life women allowed to control the reproductive rights of the third world) it's like she's answering a whole different question. She's looking past such trivialities as abortion rights and into the paradigm of pro-sex post-feminism. Her pro (straight) sex stance makes her shocking to modern liberal arts faculty, where showing gay porn in class is beyond reproach (anyone who complains is homophobic) but championing straight sex may well be read as harassment or coercion and get you fired.
The problem with America is that there's too little sex, not too much. The more our instincts are repressed, the more we need sex, pornography and all that. The problem is that feminists have taken over with their attempts to inhibit sex. We have a serious testosterone problem in this country. . Men are suspicious of women's intentions. Feminism has crippled them. They don't know when to make a pass. If they do make a pass, they don't know if they're going to end up in court.
(1995 - Playboy Interview)
I was cured all right.

Hitchcock's 'blonde' films and camp classics like Verhoeven's Basic Instinct and Showgirls are where her stance comes to bear in film criticism, exonerating the reputation of the icy blonde femme fatale as pagan goddess, and the war of the sexes akin to a forest slowly swallowing up the Eiffel Tower. Film criticism may not be her main thing, but it could be, and I'll tell you this, without her words to guide us, would we be able to truly savor the chthonic nightmare films of Lars Von Trier? The apocalyptic pagan desperation of Suddenly Last Summer? Here she is praising Elizabeth Taylor and lamenting the relative remoteness of modern stars like Angelina Jolie:
... Despite all her children, no one would ever call Angelina Jolie maternal. But Elizabeth Taylor’s maternal quality is central to her heterosexual power. Elizabeth Taylor could control men. She liked men. And men liked her. There was a chemistry between her and men, coming from her own maternal instincts. I’ve been writing about this for years, and it was partly inspired by watching Taylor operate on-screen and off. The happy and successful heterosexual woman feels tender and maternal toward men — but this has been completely lost in our feminist era. Now women tell men, you have to be my companion and be just like a woman; be my best friend, and listen to me chatter. In other words, women don’t really like men anymore — they want men to be like women. But Elizabeth Taylor liked men, and men loved to be around her because they sensed that. (Salon - 3/11)
Paglia taught me above all that academic writing can be thrilling, that it needn't bow to the unwritten edict that one must always use obscure terminology to mask that one has nothing to say, reiterate the party line hook and sinker and then add one tiny microbe to the canonical dogma while thesis advisors sniff over your every footnote. Instead, one can combine personal details with theory, and indeed should to provide insight into the writer's unique subjective position (Paglia's working class Catholic Italian background anchors her unflinching eye for blood and paganism, her comfort in the arena of conflict), vs. the draining of all autobiographical blood from a text as done by most academes who genuinely believe that, with enough time clocked at the library, there can be gleaned such a things as an 'objective truth.'
I am popular with certain people, but I'm still blocked out of the establishment. I hate that incestuous world. It makes me sick. It's impossible for anything truly original to get done. Thinking is not allowed. It's all PC. It is so horrible because it is a fossilized, parasitic version of Sixties philosophy.
 While most academes flee from it, Paglia actually courts controversy, rocks the boat, flips it over, and laugh maniacally choking and stabbing the now senseless drowned Phoenician sailor of safe mainstream academia. The dearth of like-minded voices in the academic mainstream testifies to the accuracy of her picture, and most academics I know, agree, but not always publicly, that this guarded PC conformity is choking cultural progress. That's why Camille is such a one-of-a-kind natural treasure, and I place her in my personal canon of inspirations and hope and pray that one day she'll live up to that promise she makes all over, up and down, the pages of Sexual Personae but even now, over twenty years later, she's yet to follow up on: Sexual Personae 2, i.e The Rock and Roll Edition.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Primal Father (CinemArchetypes #8)

A nature documentary on sea lions explains this archetype: there's a whole long stretch beach full of ready-to-mate female sea lions, packed in there, all being ministered to by the one huffing, flopping, dominant / battle-scarred male. Any other male tries to flop on over to the harem and get some and the main bull dismounts whomever he's currently rutting and goes flopping over to drive away or fight the interloper, to the death if necessary. He seldom has time to 'finish' or so it seems.  What an exhausting life. He could conceivably share, but give 'em an inch, suddenly they gang up on you--your own sons driving you off the herd.

This is the 'nature' of a father's obscene enjoyment in its most uncivilized form, one we see in cavemen movies (Tumak's chief father in ONE MILLION BC), and David Lynch, and some pornography. The obscene / primal / anal father gives us the model for uninhibited jouissance which as men entering the social order, are simultaneously denied in reality and granted as fantasy. If we band together with our brothers to kill this primal father, and we always do, the fall-out of our freedom is that we can't ever experience his level of obscene enjoyment and so must renounce such enjoyment altogether except insofar as it remains a fantasy. We don't want to kill each other over the whole herd of women, so we each pick one, and stay faithful to her. We marry and stay faithful. Simultaneously the fantasmatic dimension--where we experience via fantasy the obscene pleasures of the dead father--is opened up, granted as a magical doorway.

Bull sea lion with harem

But though murdered within the confines of human culture (outside of cults), the primal father is hardly down for the count. He lives in our dreams as the fantasy but also our nightmares, ready to abuse us, to take our innocence, to drive us to murder him again and again, to promise us grand initiations where we one day will enjoy as he does, where he will take us to the movies, help us make a friend of horror, or introduce us to his entourage... but he never does. We kill him instead, and the idea of all those enjoyments becomes a fantasy - a primal 'boost' when we need just a little more raw animal force to get us up to and over that orgasmic peak. On the way down we stash such ibidinal fantasies back in the sock drawer of our unconsciousness, until needed again.

In his book Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, Todd McGowan forms a concept of the anal, or primordial, or primal father, based on Freud's conception of a primitive society, one devoted to unlimited enjoyment rather than prohibition, in Totem and Taboo:
"... In the horde, enjoyment is not readily available to everyone. It is confined to the strongest, the primal Father, who hoards all enjoyment (i.e., all women) for himself. This Father enjoys without restraint, but only until such time as the sons, jealous of his enjoyment, conspire to murder him. According to Freud, this murder of the primal Father is the first social act, and the prohibition of incest—or, of enjoyment—follows directly on its heels. In establishing a social order in the wake of the primal Father’s murder, the sons recognize that, if they are to live together in relative peace, they must agree to a collective renunciation of enjoyment. Without this collective renunciation, no one can have any feeling of security, because there is nothing to mediate a life-and-death struggle for enjoyment. Force itself—and force alone—prevails: the strongest can enjoy himself, and all the weaker ones will not survive. The sons, however, had already opted out of this life-and-death struggle at the moment they conspired to murder the primal Father. In this first moment of collective action, the renunciation that would ultimately become the incest prohibition has its genesis. After this point, the enjoyment embodied by the primal Father becomes only a memory, the object of fantasy for all those who have agreed to give it up. That is, the murder of the primal Father has the effect of triggering fantasies about the enjoyment that he experienced prior to his death. These fantasies sustain those who have sacrificed their own enjoyment in the collective renunciation that made the murder possible, and they provide the reassurance that, if enjoyment is inaccessible now, at least it once was accessible for someone." (p. 26)
This concept then leads up to the idea of the 'anal father' as an archetypal link to the archaic primal father (named anal due to his halting at that stage in infantile development, wherein the idea of possession leads to an obscene surplus of enjoyment, the ego cohering from a new appreciation of the body, potty training, etc i.e. "the terrible twos"). As McGowan points out, the fantasy of this primal or anal father posits that pure libidinal enjoyment can exist when ensconced in the past (i.e. HBO series' like Rome and Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, etc.) If we see the degrading misogyny and violent sex going on in these shows in real life we are for more apt to run in horror, as if some unclean demon has manifested. Safely depicted onscreen, or in our minds (or on the page), the lurid sexual dominance of the anal father can run guiltlessly free, carrying as it does the consolation that he's soon to be killed (by his sons) for his crime of living our libidinal repressed fantasy.

At a more modern level, however, lies a new brand of 'anal father' that's not as violent yet oppresses all the more by denying us even the fantasy of enjoyment, of a primordial father. This new 'dad' doesn't want to be the ogre his father was, doesn't want to be rejected by his children, feared, killing all laughter and conversation when he walks into the room, so he makes himself a friend to his kids. He wants to be "one of the boys", but the result can suffocate his sons and rob them of their enjoyment in the shared fantasy construct of the primal father / non du pere dichotomy. Their enjoyment depends on his exclusion and disapproval. In inviting himself, pandering to their age, undoing his ultimate signifier status in a bid to "not be like his own dad", he drains his son's pleasure of its transgressive oomph.

 We can see a bit of that primal father even today in things like the irrational conservative hysteria drug laws, deviant sex, and so forth. Rush Limbaugh ranting against the sluttiness of any girl on birth control - it's the reaction of the terrified and oppressed anal father-murderer, looking to destroy what they see as the threat to their enjoyment, the beating of the primal dad's hideous heart. Rush's mind is crawling with the idea of some loafing lout equivalent to that bull sea lion. It should be him! Drugs are outlawed 'cuz the kids seem to be having too good a time without poor Rush. For such a person, his ego boundaries long since eroded, civilization seems always ready to topple back to sea lion chaos, where even the alpha male never gets any, as he's too busy fighting off challengers. That's Rush on the radio, lashing out at imaginary male interlopers on his imaginary beach.

I'm not much better. When I see someone really living it up, I want to smash his face. It's offensive, the way we feel like people walking behind us laughing at some private joke are always laughing at us.

This is why characters like James Bond or Bruce Willis in Die Hard can't seem to be having fun killing people, or even bedding down dames -- they don't smile and shout "Woo Hoo!" out the window... they enjoy their sex and violence on the D.L. (you never see Bond boasting to his buddies about the girls he's with, for example, no high-fiving, no orgasmic moans).

In cinema these anal male characters find their true fruition, for theirs is a 'past' dominance; and best of all, the silver screen provides a democratic utopian sharing of this fantasmatic libidinal enjoyment. Unless our seat is bad (too close to the screen, let's say) we all share equal access to the film. Similarly in the old days, all the subjects--from peasants, serfs, upwards--are granted access to the sight of the king and/or queen at their throne or on parade. A king might be flanked by half-naked voluptuous maidens, mocking the younger, handsomer, more virile party crasher standing haughtily before them, for he would attempt to claim this alleged enjoyment for himself without quite knowing the risk.

Let's start with the most primordial and instantly recognizable and bull sea lion-ish figure for most kids of a certain age...

1. Jabba the Hut- Return of the Jedi (1983)
Darth Vader is a classic 'dark father' but a joyless authoritarian; his mask which hides a presumed phallic hideousness is his main 'primal' aspect, as is his own awareness of his son having come to kill him (see #3, Kurz). In McGowan's paragraph above, Vader would be the father who has forgone enjoyment, with no sense of humor or sadistic flair. Jabba, on the other hand, rolls large. In the added scenes digital director's cut he even calls for a musical number filled with spastic muppets! And of course, we all remember Leia's sexy shell bathing suit -- the one instance of sexual 'skin' in the whole damned series, so it's worth noting her nudity is in the service of a giant slug who likes to eat live beings, i.e. it's associated with vile excess and mindless cruelty. Jabba's corpulent primal fatherness is so immense and grotesque it overflows the conventional iconography of the kid-friendly films, hinting at a darker Game of Thrones style sadistic / human trafficking vibe lurking underneath the innocent laser beams and chasm swings. Darth Vader might blow up your home planet, but he doesn't put you in skimpy costumes (and do god knows what else). In fact, I don't think there's a single women in the entire empire. What does that say to kids?

2. Ming the Merciless - Flash Gordon (1936, 1980)
More than just a typical space dictator, Ming is a great primal father, with his harem to which he seeks to add the comely blonde Dale Arden. Especially in the original serial he's full of crafty tricks, such as promising Flash he can go free, then decreeing he's free all right, free to fight the three-horned beast of Mongo. Heh heh heh. Ming uses his great power to crush opposition but when cornered he resorts to crafty trickery and Flash, unconsciously registering him as a father figure, believes and obeys every new trick, never dare running him through with a sword during any of his ample opportunities, often out of loyalty to Princess Aura, Ming's daughter, who has the hots for Flash and regularly throws herself into the ring to share his danger, thus Aura keeps the ball in play - preventing either side from killing the other. Time and again Flash is never killed outright either, but subjected to test after test, battling monsters for the perverse enjoyment of Ming, who's anxious to get rid of him and clear the way to Dale Arden, dressed regularly in skimpy harem clothes for Ming's lascivious pleasure. (see also: Tigron and Taboo: The Freudian Dream Theater of FLASH GORDON)

3. Marlon Brando as Kurz - Apocalypse Now (1979)
"The figure of the "other father"--the obscene, uncanny, shadow double of the Name of the Father--emerged for the first time in all its force in the novels of Joseph Conrad; what we have in mind here, of course, are figures like Kurz in Heart of Darkness or Mister Brown in Lord Jim. In the midst of the African jungle... the hero encounters Kurz, a kind of "master of enjoyment," a paternal figure which comes close to what Kant called "radical evil," evilness qua ethical attitude, qua pure spirituality... Conrad depicted what remained hidden to Freud... namely the 'primordial father' is not a figure of pure, symbolic brute force but a father who knows... The ultimate secret of the parricide is that the father knows the son has come to kill him and accepts his fate obediently" - Slavoj Zizek (Enjoy your Symptom!, p. 158-156)

4. Daniel Day Lewis - as Bill the Butcher - Gangs of New York (2002)
He is both the former lover of Leo DiCaprio's wench (Cameron Diaz) and the murderer of Leo's father, but said father was killed in a fair fight, so Leo's motivation for revenge seems pointless.. and as Bill knows who Leo really is (but Leo doesn't know he knows), the  plot is known in advance, as with Kurz above. Though he's not disfigured, he is scarred and wears a ridiculous stovepipe phallic hat which contrasts nicely with the exposed bald phallic obscenity of Brando and Ming (above). Bill's 'Native American' propensity for anti-immigrant violence marks him as a remnant of the past, unwilling to die a peaceful dinosaur extinction death... When he does finally die, Bill's lust for life his 'out in the open' hate will become just a myth of the past. Characters like Bill, Kurz and Ming serve as figures of fantasy that fill a missing place in our ego ideal, the father who is not castrated, who has opted out of the latent stages of maturity and remains a wild, untamed frontier yet holds a high place within the fading social structure. He must inevitably be killed for the newer more democratic (less enjoyment-based) social order to manifest, but ideally some of that fire remains in the usurping son, though in a much more controlled and empathic form.

5. Robert Brown as Akhoba in One Million Years BC (1966)
Narrator: " There are not many men yet--just a few tribes scattered across the wilderness, never venturing far, unaware that other tribes exist even. Too busy with their own lives to be curious, too frightened by the unknown to wander. Their laws are simple: the strong take everything. This is Akhoba, leader of the rock tribe, and these are his sons, Sakama and Tumak. There is no love lost between them. And that is our story."

 Frank - Blue Velvet / Mr. Big - Lost Highway / Baron Harkonnen -- Dune 
For true deep insight into the primal/anal father and his conspicuous enjoyment check out the works of Todd McGowan or Slavoj Zizek. They both use Lynch films as springboards for whole books on the subject. Here's a choice quote from McGowan's The impossible David Lynch (which I reviewed for Bright Lights in 2008):

on Lost Highway:
"What is  the  Law's  secret? That the Law is nothing but its secret, that the Father never really was alive with enjoyment, except in the fantasy of the son. This becomes evident when the Mystery Man, just before shooting Mr. Eddy, presents him with a video screen that displays him in obscene enjoyment. What we see on the screen, however, is not Mr. Eddy enjoying himself but him watching other people enjoy. The Father, the master of jouissance, turns out to be capable only of watching others enjoy, not of enjoying himself.  In this sense, the fact that Mr. Eddy is a pornographer makes perfect sense. While we may imagine (i.e., fantasize)  that the pornographer is constantly awash in enjoyment, he is actually constantly awash in enjoying the enjoyment of others, of merely observing enjoyment. The Mystery Man lets Fred know that the Father has never held the secret of enjoying women, as Fred had previously supposed, and that Mr. Eddy is an impotent pretender. As Lacan says in Seminar VII, 'If for us God is dead, it is because he always has been dead, and that's what Freud says. He has never been the father except in the mythology of the son.' 32  In other words, Mr. Eddy's enjoyment, his vitality, existed only within Fred's fantasy, insofar as Fred supposed its existence. Fred can now know this secret of the Law because he has already sacrificed his object, and, having made this sacrifice, he represents no threat to this Law.  Thus, it is only after having sacrificed our enjoyment to the Law that we learn this is a sacrifice made in vain." - (p. 174-5)
 7. Robin Williams as Keating - Dead Poet's Society (1989)
"Dead Poet's Society is invested in Keating (as a representative anal father of enjoyment) to such an extent that it does not even depict his authority as authority... Precisely because he doesn't appear as an alternate authority, Keating's authority is all the more powerful--over both his students and us as viewers of the film... unlike traditional symbolic authority the anal father appears as one of us; he's on our side, not on the side of authority. Hence Mr. Perry and the headmaster can only look on in envy at the authority Keating wields. " (McGowan, Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, pps. 49-50)
8. Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers (1994)
The casting of respect-devoid comic Dangerfield as a slimeball father--full of abusive oaths, threats, and incestuous intent for his daughter (unchallenged by his doormat wife)--marks a touch of casting genius that shows Oliver Stone is hip to the obscene comic dimensions of the archetypal primal father (the laugh track congratulates Rodney for his incestuous tyranny). This is a man who undoubtedly sees himself as hilarious and it's that comic coarseness that makes him so vividly nightmarish. A pure archetype of evil self-absorption, he exists only to be killed. I used him for the list instead of that even more repellent gangster in The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and Her Lover but they are the same, the father as a vortex of hideous incestuous enjoyment who all but demands his future son-in-law/s kill him.

9. Richard Dreyfuss - Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
 He's not as odious as most on this list, but the buddy to his kids style dad is just as unbearable, stealing as it were his children's enjoyment via his first trying to be 'a pal,' the type of dad who cheats at board games, insists his kids see a cloying bore like PINOCCHIO (1) when they want to see something else (typical of the type: Roy saw it as a child, and so wants to force his own childhood on his children), and ends up trashing the living room because he saw a UFO, acting like an obsessive tantrum-throwing first grader, playing with his food and making giant mountains in his living room, smashing windows, uprooting the garden, instead of going to his job like a real man and keeping his mouth shut about the weirdness he saw (which would show the law, as per McGowan above, that he was ready to learn its secret). Had he been able to be cool about it, he might have in fact earned a space at Truffaut's side for the big mesa meeting, and not had to sneak around.

From my Dads of Great Adventure on Bright Lights: a dad might participate by playing ball or whatever when asked, but not to the point of being a burden, and not to the point of trying to be his child's "best and only friend," which nurtures a sense of deep mistrust and fear  toward the rest of the world, and prolonged immaturity coupled to dread. The dad of great adventure is driven by guilt to become everything and everyone to his children, to be a "buddy" rather than an authority figure, not realizing that in doing do so he leaves a gaping hole in the family dynamic that the child then feels obligated to fill. A good father knows that in sometimes playing "the bad guy" who restricts (enforces curfews, etc) and punishes when needed (Lacan's non-du-pere) he also creates the space needed for genuine enjoyment, a feeling of relative safety. The dad's demonstration of authority allows the child to relax his own guard - confident his safety and that of the family unit is being looked out for. When he remains a little bit afraid of his dad's authority, the son feels by extension less afraid of everything else. An anal father like Roy creates the reverse - the dad is an immature idiot, so the son has to be 'the man of the house' and as he can't even drive yet he's not going to be an effective protector, thus they are constantly exposed to danger, which slowly turns the son into a joyless neurotic.

10. Don Fanucci - Godfather 2 (1974)
Fanucci is the old world type of deep oak patriarch... the odious ruler who insists on being seen enjoying (as in his conspicuousness and little bits of attention grabbing at the San Gennaro festival), even as he robs others of their enjoyment. There's a great moment at the puppet show for example, that is the epitome of the primal father, when Fanucci makes a joke about it being "too violent" for him, and turns around expecting the whole crowd to meet his gaze and break out in approving laughter. When the crowd doesn't even notice him amid the din there's a flicker of shame that passes over his face before he blocks it away and saunters off. This 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' micro-grandstanding exposes Fanucci as an easy target for a man as streamlined and rid of all personal pleasures (surrendered-of-his-object so privy to the absence at the core of the law) as Vito. Using Fanucci as a cautionary example of how NOT to be as a mob boss, Vito cultivates instead a kind of heavy humility (the renunciation of conspicuous enjoyment), coupled with a canny ability to use the granting of favors as a kind of paperless, untaxable currency. Beneath it all, Vito maintains the ability to repress anger in the moment and then kill in cold blood later, when it's safer. This is the 'gift' of bravery, of keeping a cool head, and it's what any successful space cowboy also has, for he or she must keep a straight face when, for example, the walls are crawling with mutant tentacled wallpaper pattern demons as you walk past oblivious parents in order to get to the sanctuary of the bedroom..."  (See: LSD Godfather)

11.Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976)
The modern cult leader tends to believe that whatever comes out of his unconscious is the voice of God or some higher power, never questioning when that voice tells him he should have all the women  as his wives and that any male threat to his rule should be cast out. It's fascinating because such figures represents a real return to the primal father, and the cult members go along with it as the promise of their own conspicuous enjoyment--in heaven if not sooner--is contingent on their subservience. To believe someone else has all the answers and holy power is quite liberating, freeing the individual cult members of all responsibility and obligation beyond the simple tasks assigned them by their all-powerful leader. A strict vegan diet helps keep the flock passive, and soon after that 'God' is demanding all the 14 year-old girls become his brides and kicking the boys out of the congregation and letting them fend for themselves in the city. Such cults challenge the idea in some psychoanalytic circles that the primal father only exists as an archetype in the collective unconscious, for he can also be very real.

12. Gig Young as Rocky - They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969)
As master of ceremonies for a grueling, month-plus long dance marathon, Gig Young is charming, sympathetic and very dangerous; spinning the pain caused by the ceaseless, agonizing dancing (including weeding out the elderly via concentration camp-like races around the dance floor) into a joyous celebration of the human spirit. 'Feeling' the pain of his contestants with a sympathetic trill in his voice, Rocky functions as the exact opposite of the non du pere who-- in forbidding enjoyment--creates space where actual enjoyment can occur. In demanding enjoyment (i.e. dancing) beyond the point of exhaustion and even death, Rocky denies all possibility of true enjoyment (they'll never dance for pleasure again... just hearing some of the songs the band plays on, say, the radio, might later give them terrible Pavlovian leg cramps).

And there's always the scariest one of all.... Noah Cross.

SEE ALSO: Paters Horribilis: Harvey, Hookers and a Man called Pollack
1) Not to knock Pinocchio but as a kid it can be pretty dull with all the whimsical moments especially early on in the toy shop seeming to drag on near forever...  boys especially don't care about pretty little princesses rotoscoping their way into life and dumb, spastic puppet boys taking forever to master their limb movement. It bored me so bad as a kid I think I threw up so my mom would have to take me home. The way Dreyfus insists on dragging his kids to see it shows that he allies himself with the notion of a classic kid's film that moved him a boy and therefore must move his children. Their own vote on their own entertainment doesn't count because he has posited himself as the master of childishness--he alone knows how to rebel against his own authority.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Are You Lonesome, Automaton: Terminator and Halloween vs. HUGO / or Woman is the Father of Horror

I am a mechanical man
And I do the best I can
Because I have my Family
   -- Charles Manson ("Mechanical Man")

Was it chance I saw Hugo (2011) and The Terminator (1984) in the same day and Halloween (1978) the next? Three tales of automatons... one amok and one clockwork and one clockwork amok, all about going into the past, as it were, to either repair or destroy icons, be they girls or auteurs.

First the first two: with amazing actors glassening up their eyes and amazing photographers capturing the play of light therein, you don't have much of a chance to stay unmoved on an emotional Sunday afternoon watching Hugo, but the clockwork momentum and awe and everything coming synchroniciously true was much more machine-like than the pre-CGI Terminator; in other words the science fiction film seems ancient and primitive while the nostalgic look back to the silent film era is futuristic slick --the true 'tech noir'.

Like Scorsese, I know there's no getting past the space-time conundrum of my own memories, and like any film critic / theorist I love to dredge long lost celluloid from beneath the skittering heels of post-industrial society. The resurfaced and belatedly lauded (within Hugo) Méliès is just perhaps the latest/first example of a reflexive Cine-Lazarus resurrection in cinematic memory (his films were melted down to make shoe heels during ze war). Alas such resurrections are subject to an unspoken bourgeois law that says ahead-of-their-time 'underground' artists must lie buried for not less than one and ideally not more than seven decades before being exhumed and wept over by the wonderful wizard of film curation, who gives them something better than life: a retrospective! But Hugo's tin man's heart-shaped key can't compete with its own clockwork orange-hued enshrinement in the perma-pantheon as far as shiny tokens. Though the artist's work has not changed its essential form, the world has tick-tocked so many times around the orb that old is new, quaint is revolutionary; whimsical antiquation is post-modern; cheap drive-in fodder and newsprint comic books are hundred million dollar box office business; and night table films about film preservation are filled with enough clocks you'll never have to reach very far to smash the snooze button on the industrial age for another two hours of hand color-tinted dreams...

The problems in Hugo lie with the heart-shaped key (as Sarah's answering machine puts it, "machines need love too"), indication someone convinced old Marty that we need a catchy symbol to recognize a film, and the Méliès 'brand' of that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye must be recognized as iconic (ever try to watch Trip to the Moon in one sitting? Sure it's imaginative but it's also boring - all static long shots), and the douche-chilled bouts of bouncily orchestrated whimsy in the cutaways to the budding romance between old dude and the old lady who sits at the cafe, --oui, monsieur, but she has, 'ow you say, the bitey dog?-- So he gets a dog of opposite gender for to woo said old lady. This contrasts in cakey layers with the plucky orphan film lover's Dickensian bouts with the evil stationmaster (Borat); and in the station works a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who lost a brother the way the stationmaster lost his leg, and Méliès lost his negatives... in zee Great War! Ze Jews made shoes mit dem. It all must be recognized and underlined and sugar-flecked for easy patenting. Sure, I cried. But I felt cheap for doing so. I felt like someone was trying to be Ron Howard, and that's a bad thing when that someone is already Martin Scorsese.

Then there's The Terminator, a film that makes me want to rescue from obscurity that old James Cameron, not the Titanic control freak, the Pirhana 2 protege.  I remember seeing the trailer for The Terminator at the Montgomeryville Drive-In (the main feature was C.H.U.D!) Shuffled in with about six other similar-looking indie sci fi-ish titles, The Terminator looked cheap, sleazy and we in the car, all Conan fans, loudly mourned how far Arnold had fallen since 1982. Focusing on the sad-eyed New Wave disco Tech Noir, with its tacky neon and Arnold dressed like  the kind of guy who usually has Rutger Hauer or a naked screaming woman reflecting in his Gucci sunglasses.

Of course that's not the way it panned out; the reviews glowed and the box office soared, and my jaw dropped in pleased amazement. I remember seeing Terminator by myself up in Woodbridge to get away from my family Thanksgiving day in 1984 and lord knows I felt pretty wowed. The trouble was that it became too popular. Overnight Cameron became an auteur, the most recognized newly minted wunderkind to emerge from the exploitation genre since John Carpenter in 1978 with Halloween. And if you meshed Hugo and Halloween together, wouldn't you have The Terminator? Look at the resemblance of the 'shape' and the mechanical man in the below shots, so many similarities to with the Sarah's roommate and her boyfriend and PJ Soles and hers, right down to the getting killed going for a post-sex snack, the annoying rock headphone-wearing, the presumption--as with so many modern cell phone users--that being myopically absorbed makes you invulnerable, etc.


1. Automaton!: The idea of the automaton goes back to the 1890s (see below right) and was forgotten by the 1920s, but the automaton killer thing began again with Halloween (or maybe the 1940s Mummy sequels). Of course I'm talking about the slow moving but unstoppable variety, the shambling shapes who can't be killed yet are not alive, and are already slowed yet won't be stopped. And like The Terminator, Halloween was a scrappy independent low budget ($6 million; Halloween was $320K) thriller that wound up being iconic and inspiring many much bigger-budgeted imitations, all of which corresponds to the figure of the forgotten auteur and his lost gem 'automaton.' The filmmaker's own alienation from the actual machinations of projection, of the mechanism of screening and seeing the film with an audience (aside from the premiere), anxiety about the cross-country marketing and promotion, and the obsessive need to tinker, to keep taking things in and out of the final cut until the last possible moment. What does it all deconstruct to?

"Draughtsman-Writer" by Henri Maillardet c. 1800

The surrealist concept of 'automatic writing' is probably at the farthest extreme of big budget Hollywood moviemaking: the first is unadulterated raw unconscious, the second has been tooled by a team to wring maximum suspense and greatness, with dozens of unionized voices pitching in and every creative decision having to eventually boil down to entries in a budget ledger. The whole mission becomes capturing the blazing brilliance of the automatic writing session inside the carefully constructed and staggeringly complicated mechanism of filmmaking. It's what occurred to me watching the mechanical man in Hugo start to draw... we don't know what the metal hand will write or create, but neither do we know what our own hand will write during automatic writing... it becomes the opposite end of the Hugo spectrum, the mechanical voice, SKYNET's distant cousin, reaching from beyond the well-guarded door to hopefully scribble something accessible and profound: "I'm sorry, Dave. I can't let you do that." or "we think of the key, each in his prison / thinking of the key, each confirms a prison."

2. Women are the fathers of Horror - And now, gender controversy comes into the mix, because creating mechanical people and automaton killers is a man thing, his approximation of the birth giving experience. The mad scientist is the classic Apollonian archetype, attempting to replace the chthonic madness of woman's birth canal with living tissue over titanium endoskeleton... or big fat cogs. The man rejects reality and creates his own, either a shape, a tower, an automaton, a poem, a science fiction or horror film...

So wouldn't it follow that women, then, are perhaps the 'fathers' of these creations, the automatons, and therefore of all the best science fiction and horror films? Look over the roster and you see women right behind the scenes, letting the man take the director credit, and instead working as producer and writer, script supervisor, and sometimes star

Consider yet another Halloween-Terminator similarity: in both films the target of the monster is a normal, good-hearted girl who locates her true heroic self in the course of events, and both films transcend cheap boy's club sexuality and feel more assured about gender than a genre picture had seemed capable of prior to. And a look at the credits reveals why: women were actively involved, as writers and/or producers, in both productions: Debra Hill in Halloween and Gale Ann Hurd in Terminator, and though their contributions tend to go unrecognized in the rush to canonize directors like Carpenter and Cameron, looking at the later works of each lady you see a lot of the same wit and charm that made both these early films so successful, a wit and charm lacking in the director's work without them. For example Hill also worked with Carpenter on The Fog and Escape from New York and Hurd worked on Cameron's Terminator 2, Aliens, and The Abyss. These films all have a spark and wit and self-effacing deadpan soul that is lacking in later work by the men (unfertilized eggs, if you will). The trick of course is to find and then honor the woman creative voice who understands the masculine psyche without being contemptuous of it (the genius of this being Katheryn Bigelow, below w/ Oscars).

Debra Hill, left
Within the context of Hugo we have the female character played by Chloe Grace-Moritz who, in the end, finds her own groove by deciding to write the book whose adaptation you have just seen. So in a way she's also a female 'producer' helping a male's automated vision make it to the screen, filtering the material through feminine perspective, watching from on high as a man expresses through art his own weird gender-fucked procreation. Like Hurd and Hill, Moritz is participating in the rearing of a film--through support and input the way a husband would in the rearing of the child. Just as a dad helped conceive the actual child, and may help raise it, he will never get the auteur credit for the child's existence, that credit belongs to the woman, no matter what part dad had in it. So it is that great sci-fi and horror films seem to depends on women like Hurd and Hill, who become, in a way, the fathers (Scorsese of course has genius editor Thelma Schoonmaker;  Argento had Nicolodi, even George Lucas had Marcia, the list goes on, and the dip in quality after their split is always noticeable. (Hitchcock stayed the course with wife Alma, so his work stayed good),

Blue Meanies: (from top) Terminator, Halloween, Hugo

3. The Gears: In the end, our 'submission' to the process of entering a film 'dream state' is an interface with a machine - our brains becoming clockwork, revolving with the turning reels of film, the gears and wattage of the projector.  The actual movie may have cost millions to make; it may have been made by talented craftsman tinkering for months, years or it may have cost just a few hundred thousand, shot and edited in a few weeks, but the final result is always the same (as is ticket price): it all boils down to a machine spitting encoded light and shadow out onto a white screen in some suburban multiplex. We enter collective hypnosis willingly - leaving our necks and heads exposed to the person in the row behind us who just might stick a knife through the base of our skull. Sex and sleep may leave you vulnerable to killers onscreen, but film watching is to actually invite them in. 

But it's okay, they're not human - just electromagnetic waves.  We've invited in the machine. Hopefully it's not, you know, become sentient. 

Man Ray - Rayograph

We repress or ignore this cinematic mechanism element when surrendering to a movie (unless it's out of focus, or too quiet, or the sound is out of sync, or the theater is too hot or cold) as easily as we forget that we--personally and finally-- could become raw meat in the blink of an eye on the highway, or that 80% of the voices we hear tend to be electronically reproduced, that we barely speak anymore except to order food... on the phone. The automaton then comes as an eruption of the mechanism even further into consciousness, a black hole opening up in the center of the film, fixing to turn us all into mecha-aberrations, like Chaplin threading through the machine in Modern Times, or Sarah Connor in the crushing metal compactor in the Terminator climax.

To avoid this we like to keep a respectful distance from the mechanism itself, we hide the wires behind the walls, but as we prepare for 2012 it becomes pretty terrifying to realize how hopelessly addicted we are to electricity. One magnetic pulse and we will be totally lost--everything digital wiped blank in the blink of an eye. The tactile will survive, like celluloid, there just wont be any way to project it. 

The Terminator and the mechanical man in Hugo are both examples of machines that don't use electricity, that would survive the pulse - one just needs to be wound up, the other is nuclear-powered. Neither needs an outlet. 

They, alone, are truly independent. Autonomous, far freer than ourselves.

blood and gears (from top: Hugo, Modern Times, Terminator)

4. False Nostalgia Syndrome - Like a suspicious number of films nominated for a 2011 Oscar, Hugo bathes in nostalgia for pre-WWI silent film whimsy, recalling Modern Times if it was remembered by the film scholar who managed to find its lost reel in a mislabeled can and won a prize, and Scorsese is certainly a major savior of film preservation, but is his nostalgia enough to warrant the 'greatness' label for Méliès? Is the subject even a worthy entry in the oeuvre of the man who made Raging Bull and Goodfellas? When dealing with the working class Italian neighborhood of Little Italy or Brooklyn, Scorsese gives us 'real' nostalgia, as in he 'really' witnessed it. For an escapist like myself, Hugo seems as suspiciously self-indulgent as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. These are the fantasias of pampered rich kids who have been able to spend their lives tinkering with sound and image and now wonder if maybe, if they could travel back in time, then even Earnest Hemingway would call them geniuses. They'd be able to recognize themselves in work by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and get to drink 'real' absinthe. It works as their fantasy, but it can't work as ours because they've inhaled the fun out of it, and left us nothing but a shrine to their own desire, nothing but the act of showing us something that meant something to them when they were young and dumb like they think we are now. 

The Terminator on the other hand is my experienced moment of childhood whimsy (well, teenagerdom - right at the time I was changing from comic book nerd to punk rocker)--and revisiting the film today it seems, at least on the surface, refreshingly trashy. With its pouffy hair, pastel clothing, Italian rock synthesizers, rear screen-projected stop motion animation, copious neon, pet iguana, and casual sex roommate getting killed off slasher-style, this pre-digital futuristic film is the 'real' wake-up to nostalgia that Hugo can only catch from a fleeting Parisian postcard, that is, unless Scorsese actually remembers going to films at the turn of the century, pinning that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye image on his bedroom door to anger his mama. (Mama, it's just-a la luna.) Because without that genuine connection, only an egoist would think he could deliver any real meaning... unless he admitted Méliès films lacked narrative thrust, and that--depending on how long it's been since we saw our favorite childhood films--our expectations are seldom met. 

Paradoxically, it's in not meeting expectations the actual magic occurs. It's the very gritty low budget tangibility, the tactile vividness, of the 1984 Terminator that somehow makes it seem more alive today than a CGI-sandblasted 2011 film like Hugo. No one knew at the time of Terminator's making that "I'll be back" would become such a catch phrase, to the point there was no way avoid its embarrassing repetition in the sequels. They became a slave to a tossaway line, doomed to repeat and repeat every time someone puts in a nickel and turns the crank.

The original Terminator is a movie free of that kind of presumption and reptition; it presumes it won't be loved any more than most sci-fi down-and-dirty action pics, which is why it's so indelible. Hugo all but tells us we have to let its magic symbols -- the rocket-in-the-moon's-eye, the heart key--into our hall of future golden memories, to make this an Xmas staple to get gooey with grandma over. But for me, even though I well-knew of Méliès beforehand, and I had his Trip to the Moon on super 8mm and we'd project it over our drummer in our band's light show in 1986-9, what that moon makes me think of all these decades later is "Tonight" by Smashing Pumpkins, another recreation that doesn't even bother with the rocket in the moon's eye shot... to its credit. Instead, the Pumpkins take the look and feel of Méliès' pre-modernist world's fair whimsicality and then update it to rock, speeding up the imagery and adding deep emotional hooks.

Scorsese instead tries to slow us all down into Méliès' level, to put the film in a shrine or museum and destroy its last link to the real world. If Hugo were truly to be worthy of the Scorsese canon it might end, for example, with the audience slowly realizing that the static long shots and endless flurries of spastic activity make Méliès' films kind of boring (except maybe on a huge screen so the actors seem approx the size they would be as actors on the stage). Though undeniably creative and elaborate, they're hung up on the magic celluloid provides at the cost of resonance and narrative cohesion. Instead we see a lot of things disappear and reappear as if that never gets old. Today these films only capture attention when used in a new context, a collage or lightshow. Scorsese would have been wiser to try and capture the chaotic making of the films, jilting Hugo altogether. And hey, he fixes the hand-tinting and slyly tweaks out the dullness through just showing a long Academy-style montage of highlights from the found Méliès oeuvre at the very end. There's too many train station vignettes to cover to go much farther.

Hugo's unthinking reverence for the great Méliès reminds me of the ending of the 1958 film Teacher's Pet: Clark Gable plays a scrappy self-taught city reporter butting heads and other parts with Doris Day as an over-educated journalism teacher with no real experience, whose father won a Pulitzer for his smalltown paper editorials. Love happens against their will, with Gable preferring to pick fights with Day's platonic pal Gig Young than make love. It's not until Gable finally reads Day's dad's old editorial clipping that he can proclaim "they stink" and come into his own as the confident uneducated lover of an educated gal. Call it reverence prior to investigation, or just bourgeois idolatry, but it takes him the entire film to learn to value his own opinion enough to make this claim, and until he does he's stranded behind this slab of journalistic integrity that he's expected to measure up to even though he's long since surpassed it. I wouldn't even bring it up if it wasn't so relevant to Marty.... Marty, come back to the 'hood! Stop puttin' on those fancy airs. 

I'm not knocking Hugo; I cried and thought Asa Butterfield was eerily perfect, but while I normally love Moretz she seemed ungainly and confused... 

Spielberg's Super 8, which was released the same year as Hugo but not nominated for an Oscar, is nostalgic for the era that I too was a a young super 8mm filmmaker in (the Terminator era), but also proactive about actually making movies instead of revering the makers or cleaning the projector. Scorsese has never really gone self-reflexive that way, to the point its suspect. There's no real salute to the creative energy of the moment in Hugo; it's all about preservation and repairmanship; it has to run all the way around the massive sets five times just to make us think the right hand doesn't know the left from a hole in the wall, through which it hopes to add some Amelie Rear-Window-Psycho insightwithout drawing attention to its own absurdly over-qualified self-awareness.

Eyes of Laura Mars... or Supergirl?

 Super 8 on the other hand is just as top heavy but it fights from its gut; it kicks and scratches and its orphans are only half-orphans and the pain and the bonding between Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney devastated me a lot more in a lot less time, and seems a more logical film to champion for a ballsy academy. But they weren't awake enough to realize Super 8 isn't about the alien or the evil government but about kids carving their own sacred space out of the lumpen absence of parents too dumb to know either their own beastliness or their kids' frail genius. The alien in Super 8 suggest what might have happened to ET if he'd not been able to phone home, or if we abducted the greys at the end of Close Encounters. In other words, he's pissed! He's the perfect reflection of the suburban teen forever denied any form of dangerous self-expression ala Over the Edge or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. No wonder, then, the old timer Academy dismissed Super 8, probably with the glint of fear in their eyes.

Super 8

Final anecdote: I had my own Hugo moment in 1997 whilst out of my mind on acid up at a friend's big weekend party at her Swiss chalet in the Catskills. It was gorgeous night under the stars and everyone spread out under a massive blanket on the ground, facing the blank white side of the house. Behind them I set up my old super 8 projector on a picnic table bench and projected on the wall an old clip reel from 1931's Dracula, unintentionally at the wrong (slower) speed setting, and since I was tripping I had no way of knowing. An already slow movie became dripping with poetry as that slowness was doubled into a total dream state. Is there a more indelible image of death at 12 frames a second than black-and-white Helen Chandler as Mina, her voice now almost manlike in its druggy depths, slowly explaining her dream of the room becoming filled with mist? As I crouched hallucinating into the weird gears and mechanisms of the projector, threading the machine like some old Rumpelstilskin out of time, shut out by choice and inclination from the orgy of physical warmth going on in front of me with my friends, who lay in a row under a huge zipped together sleeping bag, I felt like an outsider, yet in command. They were watching the films of course, but also doing physical stuff under the covers of which I knew not -- e they would be the last people to notice how... sloow David Manners was talking. He finally sounded like a man.

So there I I was alone, in front, in the cool damp of the night, threading my machine to dazzle them with slow motion vampires from 1931, and while most nights my feeling of disconnectedness would shatter me more than any constant drip of bourbon could repair, that night, under the stars, I accepted my role as 'projectionist' and gave up my hunger for the golden hair and sleeping bag sense of belonging. It all came into focus for me in that moment, and though my friends were all making more money than I was via advertising and computer network maintenance, and were basking in their ability to create human warmth and self-confidence, not all of us can turn down our genius enough to lapse into the tactile bonding of more socialized, less alcoholic peoples. But they accepted me, loved me, I knew that, and meanwhile I had Bela Lugosi... and I was running the films, and here in this Alpine heaven I had proven, despite my lumpen clay demonic self-consciousness, the gravity dragging me back to my level of cinematic isolation, that I belonged. 

If that doesn't make me a Hugo, I don't know what does, or a Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator, who is also in his way, an archivist, going back in time to preserve some imperiled damsel in mid-bloom. Don't we all hope some Hugo is going to dig up our little forgotten super 8mm films up from some garage sale attic one day? Or some collector of my old hand-drawn comic books look me up in hushed awe? And I'll find out there's a whole cult around me, and they thought I was dead, and --oh wait. maybe I am?

"A mistake is made."

This is what non-family man artists do instead of having real human children of our own and wondering if they'll ever call us once they move out: we make them out of clay and wire and words and weird alchemical machinations, hoping some version of ourselves in a future generation will come along and figure out what we were trying to say. The Mechanical Man's reproductive organ is a camera but women don't need to have one since they can have real babies... Like Manson in the top quote, they have 'a family.' The camera is there already - the man brought it, because he does what he can. 

When will intelligent women stop writing about man's obsession with giving life to the dead, as if it's she who should be jealous?! Honey, why do you think we're doing it. 

We build it to impress you.
We use it to escape you.
We escape from it,
too late.

Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley (Bride of Frankenstein)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...