Sunday, September 30, 2012

"If you ever want to buy a book" - THE BIG SLEEPs

There's a guy whose name I never remember amidst the mostly blogging dames (Kim and other LA denizens) on the Eddie Mueller 'what is noir" TCM spot, who says "No one can tell you the plot of the  BIG SLEEP" well, now I can tell YOU. And if you're in LA, let Co. Rutledge know he can roll over and go back to bed. That old Irish 'legger Rutledge hired to his drinkin' for him had nothing to do with it, oh (SPOILER) except his murder sets it all on motion. See in the book (SPOLER!) the wild nympho alcoholic Carmen murdered Sean when he wouldn't sleep with her, just laughed at her he did, but also went on giving her pistol lessons which was foolish. He was changing the targets and well, you know Carmen.

Never one to miss an opportunity for blackmail, capable Eddie Mars -- the facilitator of all the Rutledge sisters high-end illegal needs--gambling, drugs, etc.--already jealous of Reagan because he was friends with Eddies' wife, convinces the wife to shack up somewhere south of Rio Lido for awhile, so it looks like she and Sean ran off to Mexico together. In the end both sisters end up needing to pay blackmail money to make this happen, so Eddie will just whisk the problem away.

One of the payments on Carmen's end, clearly, is posing for pictures for the 'books' peddled by Mars' store, operated by Geiger - and -as usual--hot addict girls get their fixes and just pose for payment, with prostitution just around the corner (if they're not rich enough to stay out of it)

In Carmen's case they were apparently just getting started but the idea is clear that this would be how Mars could easily hang a blackmail angle if say there was a photo taken of Carmen high as a kite next to Regan's dead body.

This is where Marlowe comes in.

Meanwhile young dumb idiot chauffeurs with romantic ideals don't know what hit them when they fall for a fledgling fatale thrill seeker like Carmen. So he follows her, sure she's up to no good (and wants to marry her). He sees the lurid shit going on (Laudanum cocktails to put Carmen in the mood). So he shoots him. Seeing the camera, grabs the film out of it, intending to burn it at the first opportunity.

But not just Marlowe is casing the joint - there's also Joe Brody - a small time grifter shacked up with Geiger's secretary Gladys. Brody follows the chauffeur and saps him down steals the photos (and probably whatever $$ he's got) then runs his car off the pier to make it look like an accident, then uses the photos to on Vivian this time (the father just got gambling notes from Geiger when he hired Marlowe--perhaps he bought the notes from Mars as coercion to get Carmen into his literature, when she resisted or attacked him or otherwise proved difficult he resorted to shaking down the dad. )

X-rated literature (especially the gay stuff) being illegal in 30s-40s LA, apparently, so quite valuable in and of themselves, usually circulated in high end lending libraries (the nervous dude who comes into the store when Bogie's there with the stall about the first editions, is there to return one - in the book Marlowe chases him down and the guy drops the book like it's some kind of dope stash). Marlowe clucks his tongue over in it in one of his rare signs of moral snobbery.

DANW/LATE THAT NIGHT - the sulky obsessive rentboy lover of Geiger's, Carol Lundgren, slinks home to find Geiger dead. Enraged he follows the trail to Joe Brody -- seeing the play Brody makes with Agnes for Geiger's "stuff" and catches up with him finally that night at Brody's apartment.

You can unravel the rest from the film....


The discovery of an alternate, earlier version of Howard Hawk's THE BIG SLEEP (1946) is one of the greatest archeological finds in cinema history For this alcoholic, it's like some kind of angelic intervention. I know I'm not the only who feels a unique personal connection to Hawks' films. His best draw you in like a circle of cool new friends, comprehending and admiring each other via rituals of friendship involving tobacco, coffee, fire-arms, dangerous flying, shots between drinks and drinks between shots, being good at your job, devoted to your friends more than your own comfort, but no sucker. The focus is always (for his non-comedies) on tough iconoclastic men and the way they need to be risking death and enduring hardship, and drinking and smoking; kissing beautiful women with deep voices is nice they'd like to do more of it--if it can be harnessed to a professional ethic that awakens courage from its somatic 20th century languor. With Hawks, eery lighting of every match is mythic, like that last offered mercy offered before a firing squad.

I had already seen THE BIG SLEEP approximately two million times between when I first taped it as a kid and the alternate print was found. I had read Robin Wood's Howard Hawks book over and over (at the local 'ahem' library) because of my love of SCARFACE (1933) and THE THING (1951). Chesca! Chesca, my steel shutters don't work!! Could dogs chew off an arm? (This kind of an arm...) Between you me and me, Captain, he's havin' kittens.

Hawks is that rare auteur who can speak to me in a way that feels personal, honed to my own constellation of inner weirdness. Hawks draws me into the group in a way I wish I deserved to be drawn, like he's acknowledging some dormant knight-errant whose been awash in booze and decay, bidding him--and me by extension--inward. He creates the notion of a true, good, honest, self-sufficient commander we'd love to follow into battle, whether he sends us to our deaths over the Andes or about to charge some kind of super carrot, such things matter to a film loving 15 year-old not even aware how desperately he's in search of a masculine code that he can't get from watching his dad drink beer and yell at the Mets or his brother and his dumb friend making fart jokes in the garage. I was and still am such a Hawks fan that I refuse to read that huge Hawks biography by Todd McCarthy; I won't have his oeuvre tainted for me by unsavory anecdotes or other evidence of mortal baseness. I just couldn't handle life without my ideal. I don't even want to hear his voice. His voice is his films, fuckin-A.

I remember the different chapters in my life by girls, like Hawks probably did. When I first taped the originally-released BIG SLEEP I was painfully single and a virgin. I didn't think of the surplus of sexually open women holding professional jobs all over the place as anything to do with the war and all the young healthy men being overseas, with only the homosexuals, crooks, cops, old folks, and butlers left for competition. Only now do I realize the line "how are you fixed for red points" has to do with ration stamps. Most of all, though, insecure. But when I saw the newly-found version at Film Forum one rainy Sunday autumn night with, as Hawks would have called, her "a damn good-looking girl" who'd just stayed over, but not all the way yet, if you know what I mean--as nebulous a night as the hour inside the book store opposite Geiger's shop; the ratcheted sexual tension giving soft edges to a mounting hangover, and the rain and the sudden wealth of big screen details and strange new and alternate scenes made me hallucinate. I never saw the damned pretty girl again, until a year later when she showed up at my door and I showed her QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) and she thought I was trying to tell her I was gay, or a woman. What the hell is wrong with me, hmmmm?

On the other hand -- we never know what happens in between being 'closed for the evening' and going out - he doesn't kiss her goodbye or anything - yet perhaps less gallant or experienced viewers will instantly assume it was a full on tryst, a 5-7 shag (vs. snog). Well, the censor is a great one for compelling lovers to not kiss and tell; the time between the glasses coming off and the paper cup toast and the "so long pal" exit are strictly their own business. At any rate, it would be pretty hard to believe even in the 60s-70s that something so cavalier as a sexual hook-up between strangers could go on during regular working hours and not leave any repercussions. You could say it's all just a male fantasy--all those young., available women in all those working jobs (taxi driver, etc.) but don't forget - the war was still displacing all their men, leading old Doghouse Rileys like Marlowe to gambol wild and free amongst them. Further wartime references are scattered through the dialogue ("How are you fixed for red points?" Marlowe asks Bernie, meaning to corpses and culprits he has along with their guns, red points being weekly ration booklet meat allowances.

I love the ambiguity --it's much sexier. And I love the torture of endless snogs vs. the brief and cumbersome finality of any kind of intercourse. I see too the the link between this endless frustration make-out and the movies, which offer similar chimeras. And so mixing the two delivers a new kind of pain + the sweet pain of seeing a film you know almost by heart but in a new altered version with scenes you've never seen on a rainy hungover Sunday night with a girl you've been in bed with all rainy afternoon but only made-out with, then you know that sweet, twisting pain is why I love reading Lacan, Freud, Josef von Sternberg, Shaviro, Baudry, Bunuel, Dita von Teese, and Stadler. With that masochistic eye brought to the Film Forum on a rainy Sunday night, with this girl who didn't know Hawks from hydrangeas, I entered a perverse spectatorial realm of pleasure through which that missing scene at the midnight D.A's office burned a new chapter into my psyche. Sometimes I dream imagined missing scenes from movies (I dreamt an entirely different ending to ANATOMY OF MURDER where Ben Gazzarra attacks Stewart and then confesses), and so this DA scene became one of those, only real.

"you'll have to take that crab net off, dear."
While the film is less dazzling without the reshot scenes that heighten the Bacall-Bogey interplay, there's more ambiguity about Lauren Bacall's character in the preview version, so when Bogey falls in love with her there's more of an element of danger, like he's taking a big chance the way he's not with his more casual hook-ups, like Dorothy Malone in that bookstore scene --a gem right up there with BABY DOLL and CASABLANCA. (1) as far as heating up the boundary of the code: did Marlowe and Malone just have a few drinks in the dark, make out while the rain fell and get no farther as I had done with the damned good looking girl? Or less? Or more? We'll never know; as opposed to this tell-all blog, but one can't just.... fade...

It gets no better
Even without censors, ambiguity reigns with Dorothy Malone there's no inferring with Bogey and Bacall, even in this early version they create a draggy vortex of desire, like two smoking cobras hypnotizing each other in a rapid circling that ensnares anyone who comes within eyeshot, and drags them to the floor in a druggy stupor. Then again, the scene above with that crab net on is very jarring. Bacall is clearly uncomfortable and stiff, they both seem hungover. It happens.

The key scene that was missing altogether for so long is a late night trip to the DA office after the murder of Arthur Gwen Geiger is apparently 'solved' by the chauffeur's 'suicide' and then the nailing of Joe Brody, the grafter (who may or may not have accidentally killed the chauffeur who murdered Geiger after 'sapping him down' to steal the picture and driven off the pier). The Sternwood name is brought up but it's clear the DA is an old friend of the very wealthy Colonel, so will bend customary procedure to keep him out of the papers. That's the gist of what goes on. Maybe it's not enough, and Hawks trimmed it up as less important than more scintillating banter with Bacall going over similar ground but now we know why Marlowe still pursues the Reagan angle, which really only has minor connection with the first issue.

Though it does kind of provide a lull of sorts, Hawks movies do fine with mid-film breaks, usually for music but here for exposition (music later), and there's a lot of subtextual stuff going on that no scintillating banter could summize. This nighttime D.A.'s office scene illuminates Marlowe's place in the constellation of L.A. law enforcement as a kind of knightly rebel. We learn why he "rates pretty high" for the insubordination that got him fired from the DA's office. We meet the brutish looking by-the-numbers homicide detective, Captain Cronjager, who wants to turn Marlowe in for sitting on his evidence, and not reporting the Geiger murder the previous night and we get more of the great Bernie Ohls as Marlowe's cop friend. It's satisfying to watch Cronjager fume, Ohls needling him every step of the way. "Cronjager's always been my pigeon" Ohls tells Marlowe outside the office with a cat-eating grin.

If that was confusing, and many are confused who've only seen this film once or twice and haven't read the book, I herewith describe the 'hidden' plot as I've discerned it, translated to a more linear form of events, i.e. what happens BEFORE Marlowe takes the case up through the movie's events, so MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if you have only seen the film once or less, or plan on reading the book, just stop reading this post HERE. And either way you should also read the book. Chandler's prose is delicious and tight as a scared man's grip on a .45.

So, here's what happened: Marlowe's old pal Sean Regan (an ex-bootlegger and IRA terrorist) is ex-wild child Vivian Sternwood's husband and friends with the wheelchair-confined old General Sternwood ("paid to do his drinkin' for him" as Bernie Ohls puts it). Sean is having an affair or is maybe just friends with Eddie Mars' hot wife, Mona. Mars operates various illegal activities like gambling and drugs and seems tight with the General's daughter Vivian, whose younger sister Carmen, a deranged nymphomaniac, doesn't come gambling, but does like to get high, and goes to get her laudanum from a dealer who also runs a smut operation out of his house.

Carmen is not just a druggie but a nymphomaniac sociopath who "still likes to pull the wings off flies." She makes a play for Sean and when he rejects her, she shoots him. In the book we learn that Sean even taught her how to shoot, and she shot him, intentionally, when he was changing targets out in back of the mansion after he laughed off her seduction attempt.

Vivian calls Eddie Mars for help covering up the 'accident' and he makes arrangements to dispose of Sean's body and--since it's believed around town (whether true or not) that Sean and Mona were having an affair--hides Mona out in a lonesome cottage behind a garage he owns outside Rio Lido. This will ideally make people think the pair were lovers and ran off together. Of course Mars doesn't do this for free, blackmailing Vivian, who will 'do anything' to protect her sister. And, like so many blackmail deals made with gamblers in movies, the pay-offs are done by intentionally losing bets for large sums of money at Mars' place, money which is then paid off in IOUs sent to the rich invalid Colonel Reagan, who then hires Marlowe at the DA's recommendation to figure out why he's being blackmailed again, and that's where we come in.

One of Mars' branches of service is an illegal adult bookstore, which, like in video stores of olden times, has an adult rental library in back through some bead curtains, and some scattered old volumes in front to make it seem legit (this part is all spelled out more clearly in the book). New York City still has some of these stores, where the front has a bunch of depressing faded blue Kung Fu movies in the window and once you get it in you realize you're the only who's ever come in there searching for actual kung fu movies, and if you ask them for Jackie Chan's PROJECT A-15, you're like Marlowe asking for BEN HUR 1860. It's important to remember that in the 40s hardcore pornography still was illegal, well-hidden, and prosecuted vigorously (especially the gay kind). Knowing Marlowe's familiarity with these kinds of operations (the porn library rental 'sucker list' is then used for blackmail--ala the Mattress King's operation in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE) adds extra resonance to Marlowe's lisp and dark glasses when barging in on Geiger's place ("I'm late for my lecture on Argentine ceramics").

Carmen Sternwood's backwoods cousin -Jill Banner in Spider Baby (1968)
Arthur Gwyn Geiger is an associate of Mars and runs the shop and also provides some the content via his druggy home secret camera orgy operation. In the film we see Joe Brody packing up the books in the back of the shop the day after Geiger's death and it's completely confusing why he would, unless he's trying to get the books out of there super fast so no cop comes by and says hey, what's in the books, Joe? And then confiscates them, so the library has to start up from scratch all over again. We see Geiger's chauffer Lundgren helping Brody pack up the books, though when he sees Marlowe he maybe starts putting two and two together and getting the wrong idea about who killed his boss/gay lover.

Geiger also deals drugs, one presumes, which is why Carmen hangs out there (the drink Marlowe smells and wrinkles his nose over is, in the book, wine spiked with laudanum, like Lord Byron served to Elsa Lanchester). She's also apparently an unwitting model for the photos, which are snapped off the cuff inside a statue head. In a twist white slavery / Requiem for a Dream angle, she's barely aware of her exploitation, but as long as Geiger keeps the cocktails keep coming she's in no condition to resist or complain.

The Sternwood's car, with dead chauffeur inside
Lundgren, seeing Marlowe and perhaps putting pieces together
The night of Geiger's murder, Carmen's smitten chauffeur--part of a long string of them thanks to her druggy nymphomania--perhaps waiting outside for Carmen as she drugs it up in Geiger's house, sneaks in through the back, and, well "he had a gun and the gun went off as guns will." The chauffeur freaks out once he realizes he's killed Geiger, and sees Carmen way too druggy to even know what's going on. So he leaps into the Sternwood car and blazes out the back driveway. Marlowe snaps out of his semi-doze, and sees another car, that's also been staking out the house from down the street, pull out and follow the chauffeur. Marlowe doesn't pursue them, but goes inside to find Carmen, high as a kite, in a sexy black kimono, with Geiger's body at her feet. She is completely oblivious, fascinating with hitting her knee and observing the reflexive kick. Geiger's own chauffeur, Lundgren (above), is seemingly absent; he helps Brody--Gladys' boyfriend and a small-time grifter --pack up and hide the books the next day but when Lundgren later finds out that Brody has the compromising photos of Carmen he thinks Brody shot Geiger, so he returns the favor and plugs Brody in his apartment the following night, while Marlowe is questioning him.

Shortly before answering the door, Brody confesses he did follow the Sternwood chauffeur, who he found parked on the side of the road. Brody came up to his parked car and "played copper. He acted rattled, so I sapped him down." The way Brody says this however, shifting in his chair and avoiding Marlow's eye contact, makes it seem like a lie.

So who did kill the Sternwood chauffeur way out on Lido Pier, if wasn't Brody? Was it Carol Lundgren? Was it Eddie Mars or his thug, Canino? Why would Brody cover for Canino and how did he get the picture? Is Brody even affiliated with Mars? It would seem like a conflict of interest, since Mars was already leeching off the Sternwoods via the Sean Regan incident. Did Brody think the Sternwood chauffeur was alive when he left him 'sapped down'? Apparently Hawks didn't know either and called Chandler, waking him in the middle of the night once during production to ask him. Even Chandler didn't know.

It was probably Brody, who was staking out Geiger's place that night to see if he could get some blackmail leads on their operation. Clearly Agnes, who was working as a front for Geiger's book operation, had hooked up with Brody as the muscle for her own shakedown of Carmen via Vivian (the kind of thing Eddie Mars wouldn't approve of - like double dipping). This leads to Brody's blackmail attempt on Vivian Sternwood with the recovered picture of Carmen from the scene of Geiger's murder, the picture Vivian brings to Marlowe the next morning.

This would seem to end the case, but after Cronjager skulks off from the briefing in the DA's office and Ohls waits outside, the DA tells Marlowe confidentially to keep digging and find out what happened to Regan. The general, who loved Regan like a son was worried Regan was mixed up in the racket. No one yet knows he's dead and buried and used for deeper, longer con of blackmail by Eddie Mars. Vivian Sternwood tries to find out why her father hired Marlowe and that becomes the bulk of their early interactions ("Do you always think you can handle people like trained seals?") since somehow she'll have to put him off the scent if he starts probing about Regan. In an effort to protect her sister Vivian goes to great length to prove there's nothing between Mars and the Sternwoods. When Marlowe doesn't buy it Vivian rats him out to Mars who sends to serious thugs to work him over as a warning.

Meanwhile Agnes has her hooks into a avatar / boyfriend for her dirty deeds, a funny little guy in a gray suit named Harry Jones.

The key as far as understanding Marlowe's motivations to keep going on the Regan angle, enduring even a later contradictory order from the D.A., brings us full circle back to the rediscovered D.A.'s office scene: After dismissing Cronjager and Ohls, the DA rips up the pages in the transcription of Marlowe's disposition and tells him to keep digging, on behalf of his friend, the Colonel. This is why Marlowe later shirks off pressure 'from the DA's office' to stop digging. Marlowe doesn't run back to the D.A. after Ohls tells him this and say "Gee, boss, but last night you said..." I've learned this is how you get promoted, by doing what the big bosses say privately they want you to do even if, later, they publicly tell you to stop. Sometimes the way things get done that your superior can't authorize is that you do them and then the superior yells at you, to cover his ass, then promotes you once the heat's off. So the thing is done that needed doing and you were punished so the boss's hands are clean. Understanding this, the seemingly contradictory statements like "I seem to rate pretty high on that" (on being fired for insubordination) are understood in this context. Thus, Marlowe becomes an agent through which the D.A. can operate outside the law's limits, as needed. And this explains why Marlowe keeps digging even after being warned off by everyone including Ohls.

I like the way Cronjager and later Marlowe sit on the edge of the DA's desk - like they're two sons at the desk of their dad, comfortable with his benign rulership, competing for his favor. Marlowe becomes the prodigal, the privileged knight of the old boy network that makes the D.A. a King Arthur to General Sternwood's fisher king. The unspoken bond between these old scions is the core of the momentum of the film. Vivian is the one who made that request that Marlowe stop but he ignores it, suspecting she's hiding some dark secret that needs to come to light because "it's cleaner." He's hired by the General and encouraged (off the record) by the D.A., two kings he obeys from a recognition of their lack of, as Sternwood puts it, victorian hypocrisy, it's a service of love rather than from a blind worship of power or title.

 And that's really all you need to know, except the end line "we'll have to send Carmen away, from a lot of things" never fully illuminates that she killed Regan in a "hell hath no fury"-style fit. In the book she has a much bigger role and comes onto Marlowe on more occasions (one of the few scenes re-shot or added for the new edition has Carmen showing up at Marlowe's apartment to seduce him and then biting his hand when he tries to throw her out) and we get the full depth of Marlowe's dislike of her associated with his detection of laudanum fumes that make her "stink of corruption" like the general's orchids. It's an odd mix of factors, as ultimately Carmen and Vivian's very existence is borne of the general's mid-life crisis. "Frankly," he says, "anyone who indulges in parenting for the first time at my age deserves all he gets." While smiling on the surface, the scene and tone of the film suggest that sometimes it is too late to start fatherhood. Be contented in thy childless state, lest scorpions issue from thee. Book of Chandler 8:13

Through watching both versions of BIG SLEEP mixed together, flipping the awesome DVD, I am happy, General, as if deserving all I get for my mid-life crises, for enduring the long cocktease that lonesome rainy Sunday with that girl, has paid off, I have two versions of my favorite film in the world. It's like a finishing metatextual touch from God, because this 'preview' version, for the film itself is all about 'duplications,' and doubles not just on page 116 of Ben Hur 1860, but the pair of Mars' more menacing nighttime thugs (Huck and Canino) doubling for Mars' daytime, more comical and unthreatening version (Pete and Sydney "that's what the man said, he said that"). There are also the two versions of the father  (the D.A. and General Sternwood); the two versions of the femme fatale (Carmen and Agnes); and the two versions of the sexually mature 'good' girl (Dorothy Malone in the bookstore and Vivian). There's the two versions of Agnes' patsy, Joe Brody and Harry Jones, and so forth. What does it all mean?  Veils and boundaries are crossed here, between the obscenely rich and the obscenely broke, between night and day, death and life, drugged sleep and waking from a bad dream. Each person Marlowe encounters echoes another he met earlier until finally he runs out of buffers and the banal face of his opponent, one whom--it should be noted--never comes off as hostile or menacing at all -- "he just pays someone to do it for (him)"
--at last is revealed.

In the meantime, as God is my witness, I'll never go to bed early again, not when I can re-watch THE BIG SLEEP over and over, flipping the disc from one version to another, and ponder the mystery of who killed the chauffeur and what the hell happened in that sexy bookstore during the fade, and why there's no one around today with the masculine cool of Hawks and Bogart, or the low voice sexy of Bacall, and why in the hell that damned good looking girl I brought in the Sunday rain to the Film Forum would stop calling me. All we need to know is that Bogie and Bacall both radiate such alchemically rich magic both separately and together that time stands still and the fine print of the plot fades into the dripping shadows of time like the last, chuckling gasp of Harry Jones. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down. Even knowing it would be her last.

1. See also: The Tell-Tale Dissolve: Baby Doll and the Collapse of "Decency" 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Butler of Orbs: THE MASTER

 "The only performance that truly makes it is the one that achieves madness" - Turner (Mick Jagger) -  PERFORMANCE) 
What was true in 1968 in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's countercultural mindfuck classic is still true in 2012's impression of 1950 in Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER. Blocked rocker Turner (Jagger) says the above quote to a working class brute named Chaz (James Fox), who's been sleeping in Turner's basement. Turner wants to kick him out, but isn't sure quite how or why; he's half indignant, and half is drawn to the danger he feels emanating from him. Like Turner, Chaz does performances too, not juggling like he claims but via intimidation, beatings, vandalism and destruction for his boss, Harry Flowers. Turner just makes music. On the other hand, if you can't see the element of violence in the Rolling Stones then you never saw GIMME SHELTER. Eventually the psyches of the two men merge like Alma and Elisabeth Vogler in Bergman's PERSONA (1966).

No such merging occurs between the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and deranged alcoholic sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in MASTER, but that's the point, I think. They try to. All writers and artists are warmed by the true madness-achiever, like they provide some crazy kind of fire. Ideally we don't get burned, but them's the breaks if we do. We never regret it, even if we end up permanently scarred.

safe in the cradle
Freddie is a character without conscience, whose drive to make intoxicating liquids out of household chemicals is reminiscent of that old Buddha saying: Do not seek enlightenment unless you do so as one whose hair is on fire seeks water.  When we see him first peering over the front of a landing boat, his helmet, shining in the Pacific sun, makes him seem almost Buddha bald. Next he's gamboling about the beach making cocktails by pouring paint thinner into a coconut. Next he's screwing women made from sand. In short, he's cooling his flaming hair with anything that's around. If you've ever convulsed with the DTs, or been stifled by writer's block, then you know what scorched hair tastes like and you'll do anything to avoid it, including applying some Devil's Springs 162 proof scalp ointment, hoping somehow you can just have a few thirst and burning free moments in between blessed unconsciousness and the misery of the day.

So when Freddie wakes up from a black-out on a ship heading out to sea, the master and commander of the vessel, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) invites him into the fold, recognizing a Chaz when he sees one, and Dodd's budding Scientology/EST-esque cult needs a wild man in its deck. Instead of dosing him with shrooms like Turner and Anita Pallenberg do with Chaz, Dodd tries his experimental hypnosis-ish techniques, which seem to take far longer than just giving the man a goddamned tab of acid (which wasn't yet well known as a psychiatric treatment, I'll grant you.) We're given to understand that normal ink blot-style testing didn't work on Freddie;  he just sees vaginas and dicks in everything, but that's cool with Dodd. This stowaway alcoholic sex addict is a perfect storm of flaming hair issues, and Dodd likes to drink the crazy chemical cocktails Freddie's a genius at whipping up.

Holy Robes of the Magi - Top: Performance / Bottom: The Master
Anderson's films have always dealt with wild men and shamen father figures, helped no doubt by his own childhood as a son of the original Ghoulardi! It's practically a given Anderson's films will have repeat viewing cachet, rewarding deep study instead of providing mere escapist immersion. Most people I know who've seen THE MASTER have already seen it twice. I didn't like it the first time but it was too hot in the theater and I had to pee, and it was very long. I can only wonder if it will improve on a second viewing, or if it was better in 70mm, which I presumably will never get a chance to find out. And I trust it will, like all PTA's films, continue to expand in meaning and tone as it ages. And certainly it would help if I was more of a cult person, which I'm not despite eight years as an active AA member. I certainly belong to the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson, and Orson Welles, a cult Anderson seems to be a member of as well. Imagine if Orson Welles started a mind-bending sci fi-ish religious cult? Would you join? Even knowing what a charlatan he is? Certainly Hoffman seems to have incorporated a bit of chicanery-espousing MR. ARKADIN-era Welles in his Dodd, which is interesting since Welles is a titanic auteur who's acted in his and other people's movies, just like John Huston, who Daniel Day Lewis incorporated into BLOOD's Daniel Plainview.  Coincidence? Never.

Cults work, I think, because (sometimes) in life and (always) in Paul Thomas Anderson's oeuvre, there is a 'second' father needed to complete one's journey to maturity and there's a woeful lack of second fathers around in real life. As a result few men ever become mature enough to be one. This father is what poet Robert Bly called the 'Iron John' archetype -- he may be a monster or a preacher or a boss or an AA sponsor, but we need him. The men in today's cinema are either whiny whipped pretty boys dutifully sloggging through some rom-com trip to Bed Bath and Beyond, or a hulk with a machine gun in each hand, jumping from an explosion in slow motion.

Anderson's films stick out because they all have their Iron John second fathers, to such a degree that his films feed the soul through deep Jungian IV tubes, bypassing messy subconscious resistance and going right into archetypal maturity rituals our growing boys and near-men need, even if it's only to stand up to.

First in the Anderson canon of second fathers was Phillip Baker Hall as an aging gambler taking John C. Reilly in as apprentice in HARD EIGHT (1996); Burt Reynolds found a XXX home for hung lostboy Mark Wahlberg in BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997); in MAGNOLIA (1999) said patriarch was dying, played bravely by Jason Robards, the world around him collapsing because he was a shitty father now reaping what he sowed; PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) had Philip Seymour Hoffman as an impresario of blackmail, extortion, mattress sales and phone sex ring operations, bullying Adam Sandler into standing up for himself; Daniel Day Lewis is the ultimate in dark powerful fathers of course in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) and there you are. Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE was the first time we noticed the strength of this nurturing second father character that marked PTA as a unique auteur, able to fuse dark masculine energy with warmth. That tracking shot through the first pool party set to "Spill the Wine" by the Animals, that moment when the camera follows that girl into the pool, that may be the happiest moment of 90s cinematic life. To dream there's a party of accepting, sexy people waiting somewhere, with a pool, and a jacuzzi, and a blender, wondering where you are, needing you to complete them, ready to make you a star, is that so wrong? Naturally, it all turns to shit, but without that warmth there'd be no mourning the loss thereof. That's one of the things that makes an artist, the ability to craft a group of characters to care about, and create a vivid warm place, then have the crazy guts to trash it.

What makes THE MASTER unusual in the Paul Thomas Anderson canon is that while Dodd provides the father figure connection to a pre-built social group, the masculine 'Iron John' energy lies with the scoundrel outsider "son," Freddie, hence the PERFORMANCE connection.  Dodd--a charlatan as well as a mystic-- recognizes the need to incorporate this wild hair-scorched outlaw drunk sex addict into this oeuvre. Dodd has some anger management issues of his own, though nothing compared to Freddie's. Whenever Dodd's unusual psychoanalytic/hypnotic methods and philosophies come under scrutiny by smug skeptics his repressed rage comes bellowing out in huge gust of Wellesian thunder but undone by childish cursing; I was the only one who laughed in the theater during the first of thse outbursts, I found them liberating and familiar to my own holy rants where I'm filming myself pontificating about peace and love and then the phone rings and I start yelling in outrage; but while Lewis' Plainview evinces real evil in a huge burst of madness at the end of BLOOD, that's among the most splendid pieces of acting ever, Hoffman's Dodd has his greatest acting early on, and then fades away, high and outside on his cult adulation, until the best way he can communicate all he feels about his lost connection to Freddie is through singing how he'd love to get him on a "Slow Boat to China," i.e. he'd love to tangle his neurons into Freddie's raging alcoholic madness, to lock into and siphon off some of the kinetic in-the-moment pit bull brilliance of Freddie Quell, but his mom, I mean his wife, and his flock by extension, won't let him. Wow, he's come so far.

For all his charismatic free association, pasts-life regression, and science fiction mumbo jumbo, the things is: Dodd is pretty rooted, rather dully, in consensual reality, like a Moses who can only guide others to the holy land yet himself never enter. But with Freddie, we never know for sure what is 'real' to him and what is 'an illusion' and that proves he's already got the goods Dodds is aiming for. In several scenes we can't be sure if he's dreaming or what he sees is real: a song and dance number the Master performs is seen by Freddie with the women all naked, like Quell is X - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES but with more of a selective vision (no penises). Later he receives a phone call from the 'Master' while passed out in an all-night theater, only later we learn it was a dream. Freddie also perceives lascivious come-ons from every girl he's interested in, and later we hear those same women remark he gives them the creeps. These are common effects of long-term sexual addiction and can lead to restraining orders. It's a fascinating, barely understood or delved into aspect of such behavior: women appear to him to smile invitingly to Freddie the same crazed dysmorphic way an emaciated anorexic still looks fat to herself in the mirror. Such divides between the real and the vividly imagined are what partying and cinema should be all about. To elaborate on Jimmy Stewart's quote at the end of BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, Who's to say it what's real, so long as you're tripping?

And I personally think all of us know, deep down, that most of what Dodd says is true -- reincarnation is real; it's been proven over and over in several different scientific studies and examinations of children who can remember details from past lives they couldn't possibly know otherwise. James Leninger, for example, and all the names and places they talked about have been confirmed through their parents and physician's subsequent historical research. Skeptics can deride all they want from their safe accredited distance, but a few hours of investigations into recorded cases (investigated by academics from established universities) may change even their minds.

Photography through Time, Top: The Master / Bottom: Birth
Still, mainstream science is understandably wary about letting the eerie evidence of reincarnation into their lexicon. It could change everything, for example: property inheritance. Imagine being able to secure your past life property (or debts)! In the future maybe you can take it with you! Then again, the believers may be failing to understand the slippery slope they're sliding on. A true scientist wouldn't deride the possibility just because there are some alternate explanations. (5) Sean (Cameron Bright) in BIRTH (2004) for example, plays at being Nicole Kidman's husband back from the grave, and maybe he is, but there's also some evidence he isn't. It's surely no coincidence that Freddie from MASTER is a portrait photographer and the last time we see Sean (from BIRTH) he's getting his class photo taken, and he seems happy for the first time in the course of the film, willingly dissolving into the frozen sea of amnesia which helps foster the illusion of linear time and lets us 'start from scratch' with all our Monopoly pieces back in the box and a big stupid say cheese smile plastered on our infant kissers.

Even if it's all just science fiction, I still cheer and applaud Freddie's tightly coiled rampaging against the Master's critics. But at the same time I sympathize with the rest of Dodd's family and their disgust over this scrawny, violent, twisted creature who's invaded their sanctuary. The important thing Dodd never quite owns is that it's pointless to even talk to or try to help alcoholics if they're not at least semi-sober since they won't remember a damn thing you say. Oh the shame I'd feel when some guy or girl had to explain to me that we talked all night about all these deep things and I promised this or that or we were supposed to go the zoo or whatever, and I had no idea who they were... and was way too hungover to deal with a depressing-ass zoo, sorry.

Bill Wilson - "Master" of AA
To be drunk is to be mystic
then trashed,
with joy as but a brief rest
'tween ordeals of ideals 
smashed to teensy bits. 

O Whiskey, wife, I sacrifice 
the promise of tomorrow's light,
to the painful, dull, hangover knife
just to get God off our case
for one more glowing drunken night 

 --Abraham Drinkin' (EK)

But at the same time, Freddie earns his keep just by being unbearable. Such monsters are the test of any holy man's mettle, like a bed of nails for the swamis. How do I know? There was a kid, we'll call him Tim, in my AA group, a huge Fat Albert kind of kid with a stutter who laughed too loud and harshly, and he blurted out misogynistic 'jokes,' and his sexual frustration and neediness was like a fungus. No one liked him, but he hung around me and my clique like he knew we had to accept him, since it was AA, after all. This was in the fall of '06, when I was enlightened; my third eye was lit up and with my eyes closed it glowed like sun right above my head between my eyes, and I could predict the future and was never afraid and I was in no hurry and always nice to strangers and able to drink things I never could before without an allergic reaction, like carrot juice. Also I had auric tentacles, like Dr. Octopus if his metal arms were invisible spiritual energy. I could wrap the tentacles around, say the ends of chairs, tables, subway railings to support myself for balance, they could latch onto the flowers and trees and open up interspecies communications on a level I couldn't entirely consciously comprehend.

But then, after only a month or so of this rare bliss... Tim showed up. My inner God voice told me I had to be nice to him, to accept this crazy violent-sounding counting-days needy clingy SOB, that it was a test of my nonjudgmental brotherly love. He was my leper. Here's a sponge said God, go wash that big dude's feet. No thanks, said I. END. End of enlightenment.

The third eye shut, my window on the future closed, all because I couldn't accept this uncouth hulk of a clingy little would-be sponsee lodestone cross to bear. For me, having grown up with an annoying little brother (named Fred, coincidentally) who copied everything I did and followed me around nonstop, the reaction was out of my control. I could never be a cult leader like my dad wanted, not with that attitude!

I have no regrets. I'm happy to be back in the shadows. Enlightenment is a pain in the ass. If you ever achieve it 'early' you know what I mean. You have to follow it around like a butler in charge of a glowing orb of light. Your free will is more or less jettisoned like a booster rocket. There is only love, only the orb, so there is always only one decision and it's not necessarily 'your own.' Selfless love seeks its own level and you just ride along. The orb comes first, like those eggs you carry in high school to imagine being pregnant. Jesus couldn't suddenly decide he wanted to get drunk and go on a bender tell his apostles to take a flyin' leap, for example. Jesus did drink a respectable amount of wine I have heard - but I haven't read of him getting drunk.

He was too busy butlering that damned orb.

clockwise from left: L. Ron, W. James, G.I. Gurdjieff, Bill W., Aleistar C.
Court fools like Jim or Freddie are clearly meant to challenge this universal love practice; they test patience and humility like a personal trainer for mystics, like in the famous story of Gurdjieff's teaching as told by Pema Chodron:
There was a man in his (Gurdjieff's) community who was really bad-tempered. Nobody could stand this guy because he was so prickly. Every little thing caused him to spin off into a tantrum. Everything irritated him. he complained constantly, so everyone felt the need to tiptoe around him because anything that might be said could cause him to explode. People just wished he would go away."

   "Gurdjieff liked to make his students do things that were completely meaningless. One day there were about forty people out cutting up a lawn into little pieces and moving it to another place in the grounds. This was too much for this fellow, it was the last straw. he blew up, stormed out, got in his car, and drive off, whereupon there was a spontaneous celebration. people were thrilled, so happy he has gone. But when they told Gurdjieff what had happened, he said, "Oh no!" and went after him in his car."

   "Three days later they both came back. That night when Gurdjieff's attendant was serving him his supper, he asked, "Sir, why did you bring him back?" Gurdjieff answered in a very low voice, "You're not going to believe this, and this is just between you and me; you must tell no one. I pay him to stay here." (Pema Chodron)
 Gurus admit these sorts of wild jokers into their court only when they are strong enough to stand the test of embracing the abject aspects of themselves; they are the leper's feet tied to a wild Judas goat with the departed soul of Chaz / Turner / Borges in its horns. One look at the crazy eyes, one smell of that noxious alcohol sweat, a sense of the unending animal fury of Freddie Quell, and any sensible person will get away fast. If you don't know how to feel about him you're not 'getting' the joke, that his inscrutable, twisted mask is meant to baffle you. He's a brute, an alcoholic sex addict, in short he's the iron man competition for gurus; he's the spiritual equivalent to the Olympics.

What many who have not seen THE MASTER want to know is, is it as genius as THERE WILL BE BLOOD? The answer is no. The indoor crypto-hypno-regressive exercises of 'the Method' are not as cinematic as BLOOD's mostly outdoor oil drilling and wildcatting. But it's perhaps as a result more mature - not to say it is mature. Part of the appeal of PTA's work is that- even all alight with craftsmanship and period detail--the rough and gutsy boy genius energy still pulsates. He'd rather make a towering mess than a good safe little drama and thank god because we have far too many of the latter. In a field full of stuffy bourgeois-kowtowing academy-courting craftsmanship pictures, Anderson moves like A bad boy genius, and this is his CITIZEN KANE, with L. Ron Hubbard instead of William Randolph Hearst.

AA press photo
My original title for this rambling post was 'Perfection not Progress,' a play on the AA adage of 'Progress not Perfection' since at first I felt the film was kind of inert and rambling (much like this post, perhaps). More so than BLOOD or MAGNOLIA. THE MASTER is 'perfect' but it doesn't resemble progress. We all know how Scientology will become a billion dollar mystery cult, and we're never really convinced one way or the other to go along with the Cause's giddy momentum, nor Dodd's jovial king of fools charade. The ultimate difference is that --while Dodd may be a true mystic-- so are most drunks, as we learn in this quote from William James' Varieties of Religious Experience:
The next step into mystical states carries us into a realm that public opinion and ethical philosophy have long since branded as pathological, though private practice and certain lyric strains of poetry seem still to bear witness to its ideality. I refer to the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetics, especially by alcohol. The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. (XVI - Mysticism)
The alcohol metaphor-- so unique and beautiful in its depiction in BLOOD, the drilling into the flesh of the earth, so to speak, and drinking its 90 proof blood-- is both too literal and too figurative in THE MASTER leading to a wearyingly sober movie. Freddie makes his own near-toxic fire water. Freddie builds his own perfect woman, made of sand, as ephemeral a symbol as you're likely to find. What the Cause helps Freddie realize is that those feelings of warmth and contentedness of being with a giant mom of the sea, drunk on solvents, can be duplicated anywhere at any time. It's all just sensory impressions and if we can master enough of our emotions we can manipulate them, and keep that sandy sea broad in our pocket. We can go to, as the therapists call it, "our happy place," just from sense memory. And as actors know too well, sense memory is no joke. The thing is, do you need to join a cult to access it, or the Actor's Studio?

After all, why struggle with your chairs and coolers on the train to Long Beach for the day if you can (as I like to do) stay home and lie by a window with the sun in your face, close your eyes, dab some suntan lotion on your nose and play wave sounds. That's all the beach is anyway, whatever comes through the five senses that paints the beach picture - and if you can get three out of five you're doing all right-- especially smell and hearing. Sometimes my beach re/creation is so real it gives me that vertigo pelvis chill feeling that I'm still in the waves. For real.

That vertigo chill feeling isn't just waves of course, it's the nervous system 'remembering' being in the ocean, remembering perhaps our own happy place, as a fetus in the womb still small enough it had room to float. If you remember playing in the surf, it's only natural your body can deliver the same shiver it felt at the time via a mere handful of external cues. Without looking out of our windows we can know all things on earth, and we can method act our way into Oscarville and Paul Thomas Anderson is the closest thing America has to a modern titan of cinema, so I should go see THE MASTER again, on 70mm, even if I have to go back to my old neighborhood, the theater across the street from my old fifth floor walk-up, 12th Avenue and 2nd, home of a thousand painfully sweet memories.

Manhattan, I'm sorry I haven't written, or called, or returned. I got mad when all the record stores closed. Brooklyn doesn't understand me the way you did. Help me, take me away from all this safety..

PS (from 4/13) - I never did go.

See also my entry in the Andrew Sarris new American Cinema canon on Paul Thomas Anderson (over at Jeremy Richey's peerless Moon in the Gutter)

1. I was the only one laughing in the theater, though. Too bad, hipsters. They probably didn't laugh in joy to see Mickey Rourke rampaging through the supermarket aisles in The Wrestler either. 
3. the objet petit a, as seen in my Lacan Hour sequel. 
4. A. Huysman's A Rebours ("Against the Grain").
5. (see my Divinorum Psychonauticus piece Zealots of Doubt: Why Skeptics are the New Cranks.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Virna Lisi in How To Murder Your Wife

I finally saw KNIGHT AND DAY (2010), mainly because I learned it was directed by James Mangold, who's been slowly losing artistic weight since his groundbreaking HEAVY (1995) but is still an auteur (I loved HEAVY) who could possibly add a few layers of fatty subtext to even a rote 'rom-com/action' hybrid film. And while it's bad, as expected, it's not as horrible as the similar THE TOURIST (my review here), or Jonathan Demme's TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (2002). I hate to say this, but Cruise saves it as a variation of his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series, like he was just in the process of choosing to accept a mission when some hottie wiggled into the room and self-destructed his train of thought. Trouble is, I just can't see that hottie being Cameron Diaz, not anymore. So his train of thought is never quite destructed. He accepts his new assignment of pretending she's still hot - And it nearly kills him.

I hate to be so blunt and even shallow, but when in Rome!

Success when casting two A-listers in one of these 'date films' is chemistry.  If the stars are too big, chances are they haven't even met before their agents shake hands on the deal. And, as Cruise proved in EYES WIDE SHUT, there's only one person who has chemistry with Tom Cruise, and that's Tom Cruise. Far from the the hoped-for level of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, they also lack even a shred of the more age-appropriate Pierce Brosnan-Renee Russo mature chemistry of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, nor is there even a touch of the cold professionalism breached by a sudden rush of adrenalized vulnerability between Brangelina in MR. AND MRS. SMITH. There's not even the Melanie Griffith -Craig Wasson chemistry of BODY DOUBLE! Instead it's the Pierce Brosnan and Selma Hayek trainwreck non-chemistry of the insufferable AFTER THE SUNSET. J'accuse!

So what's up with this need to wear navel piercings and short shorts into your forties, ladies of Hollywood? Cameron was so jaw-droppingly gorgeous in her debut, THE MASK (above, 1984) that she could have just talked into her cell phone through the whole movie and we would have sat, agog in worship. She was dynamic and fun and there were no cell phones then so double bonus; she had to pay attention. Now, well, she should be taking a good, honest look at her UV-damaged, collagen-depleted midriff before donning a slutty halter top. A bit like Jolie, trying to hide how tired she is in action films such as TOURIST and SALT (my review here), Diaz is stranded by a Hollywood that does not remember how to segue youthful bombshells into mature actresses. If they win an Oscar, they might get to make some dull prestige pics like CHANGELING, or an HBO remake of MILDRED PIERCE, but they probably have to put up some producer money, paid for through their conscription to the action genre. So even though we can see how calcium-depleted their birdlike bones have become we're supposed to believe they can fall five stories onto moving trucks and not shatter their fibulae. Can you imagine Bette Davis or Joan Crawford doing that shit? They'd just surrender, and then see you in court for lengthy flashbacks, and lawsuits that award them sole custody of your boat, house, and art collection. That's how a lady conquers the bad guys, and everyone else.

Tom Cruise used to annoy me, but, as I lose faculties to the old devil of age, I've come to respect his amped-up vaguely nonhuman HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED agelessness. For this KNIGHT, however, his momentum-addiction becomes a problem when faced with the hyper-clingy un-fountain of youth-smacked Cameron. Cruise can't tolerate either being rude to, or slowed down by, her dopey boy-chaser hack moves. When the bullets start flying and she keeps getting in the firing line, he just drugs her. BOOM! She wakes up in paradise, or her apartment, or a helicopter. Was it all a dream? What a way to travel and to wallpaper over plot holes! Go to sleep in the middle of a gunfight and wake up in a hammock on a private beach where Tom Cruise is cracking your cocoanuts and preparing the marital hut. Guys like me meanwhile can barely get it together to look at travel sites without having a panic attack but here's the thing: we won't drug you, unless you ask, and anyway we're all out of roofies, because we ate them already, ourselves, alone, like real men. And because we know that drugging your date as a way to shut her up is as wrong as it is for any other reason, you'd not only have to ask, but we'd only give you a half. Yet here it is, the weird subtext angle of ick in KNIGHT AND DAY, the roofie-slipping. Several times!

Meanwhile Diaz is stuck with the kind of nagging attention-mongering dull void of a character that used to drain all the fun out of post-1934 romantic comedies.  She's jealous of the bullets! She's mad Cruise is looking at the guys who want to kill them instead of admiring her hair. Somehow, Mangold expects us to find this endearing. While bullets are flying all around their heads, she's wrangling for his attention like that live-in girlfriend who wants sex only when you're deeply absorbed in the climax of your video game or trying to head out for Thursday night poker with the guys.  Just look at the photos of Cruise and Diaz together above and atop: Cruise is looking outward for danger, guns at the ready, while Cameron moons defeatedly behind him like she genuinely thinks he's just inventing all this danger as a way to not notice her new nail polish. She picked his favorite color! 

Of course she must--and does--become a warrior by the end of film, moving all of a sudden from annoying LA puer aeterna narcissist to competent spy all in a single dose of truth serum --but at no point does she seem anything more than a once too-pretty girl whose youthful sex appeal allowed her to coast through life without developing any survival skills or even basic intelligence. Now the LA sun has caught up with her epidermal soundness and she fumbles for a Tom-sized patch to her ego's torpedoed hull. Her character allegedly restores vintage 70s muscle cars for a living, a trait which, developed, may have made her more interesting, but this characterization is never convincingly developed, it's just a detail cribbed from Michael Bay movies (but Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds, and even Monet Mazur in Torque managed to actually convince us they actually knew something about cars, which helped give, rather than remove, a layer of Hawksian depth). The end result is she's one of those frilly dames who used to chase the detective hero around, trying to trick him into marriage while passive-aggressively fouling up his murder case (i.e. STAR OF MIDNIGHT, which I discuss here). Scud missiles of marriage, these broads have no other goal in life but finding, seducing, and trapping their man, actual danger be damned. The man knows we bought tickets to see him solve mysteries and get into danger, not wrestle out of wedlock, but that's show biz when a censor is watching and counting the gun shots like a mother-in-law counts your drinks. Any self-respecting girl should get pretty mad at the thought they're supposed to find Cameron's ditziness identifiable. For men it's valuable just to see how blind beauty makes us, because if the Cameron Diaz from THE MASK were acting this role, same script and all, we wouldn't even notice how shallow, myopic and self-centered her character is --our eyes would be too glazed over. Our discomfort and alarm at seeing her now, trying to pull off the same shit after the bird of youth has flown, is the fall-out from that indulgence. We're suddenly grateful our fantasy of marrying her and living happily ever after never came to pass. If she had any brains, she'd bow out of the role and play the mother, Davis-style, or fly to Rome and date gigolos, Leigh-style

For all their faults, these kinds of  romantic misadventure movies have been a staple since the silent age, when DW Griffith would pawn his young lover Carol Dempster off as various island-raised innocent flowers falling in love with castaway Richard Barthelmess, thinking she was Polynesian but then in the final reel learning she's really white, so fit for marriage. The miscegenation-negation was offensive enough, but Dempster's roots-deep blandness didn't help, except as a cautionary tale of how important it is directors not let their vision get clouded by personal relationships. If the stars they chose or received from their backers ("this is the girl") don't have the chemistry hoped for with the leading man, a smart director knows he must recast one of them immediately. Chemistry is all-important in these films and you can't just 'hope' for it - that's what screen tests are for.  Otherwise your harvest will be a vacuum of cringe-worthy moments surrounded by impersonal travelogue details, the sort you see on airplanes when you're waiting to take off or land, telling you about various restaurants and shows and 'hot new' destinations. Now that you're in Spain you must take the time to drive a nice product placement-furnished sports car through zee running of the bulls; while in Paris don't forget to run along the rooftops with Peter Sarsgaard taking potshots at you. iSo classique, oui? 

And of course if you're in NYC, the.. um... place to be is the Brooklyn Navy Yards and perhaps the Lincoln Tunnel. If there's no one to chase you up the nose of the Statue of Liberty, it's only that Mangold (rightly) fears being compared to Hitchcock, the undisputed master of the lovers-on-the-run genre. The comparison would end badly for him. 

Ultimately the fault of films like this-- as opposed to the 'good' romantic meet-cute travelogue spy adventures--is their inability to closely read the sexual politics inherent in the classics they mimic. They capture the exterior style but not the interior motivations. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Eva Marie Saint is the spy, not Cary Grant. She saves him continually just so she can put him in danger later. That's an important detail filmmakers forget when mining its riches. Grant's character thinks he's in charge, and we're conditioned to take his word for it, which makes his referrals to "mother" during cocktails in the beginning of the film so uniquely jarring. Mangold and company forgot all that, and indeed everything else that made Hitchcock's films hum with Freudian subtext. All they remember is a couple meeting cute, and chases.

 If instead of the plot it has, Diaz turned out to be a Keyser Soze mastermind, feigning nincompoopery to get close to her target, endangering him to try and actually prevent his success, that would be awesome; it would make her klutziness suddenly relevant. But KNIGHT is never even close to that level of high-flying paranoia. Diaz is just a girl, flash frozen but already a tad decayed, permanently not yet a woman, standing before a guy who by now seems like an ageless superman, asking him to protect her from getting shot, but preferring death, anyway, to being ignored one minute longer. What she should be doing is watching old films wherein talented, driven older stars like Jill Clayburgh and Goldie Hawn or new ones like Anne Heche or Judy Davis show how one can get older and still stay sexually desirable on camera. One thing they don't do is act desperate. They don't act like those drunken moms who crash their son's Saturday night basement sleepovers with a bottle of wine and too much lip rouge.

In HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965), Jack Lemmon tangles with a similarly needy lady but she's young and hot, like MASK-era Diaz, so his treatment of her as if she's a suffocating drag makes no sense whatsoever. A comic strip writer whose work is nationally syndicated ("The Adventures of Brash Brannigan" - a character similar to Tom Cruise in KNIGHT) and living the NYC bachelor dolce vita, Lemmon winds up married to hot Italian Virna Lisi after she pops out of a bachelor party cake and he's too drunk to understand she's misunderstood his lewd proposition. Still, Lemmon could get used to her if his agent's shrewish wife wasn't brainwashing her to be a jealous harridan, instigating her crashing his gentleman's club because she's sure he's with another woman, the kind of thing she might do when she's Cameron's age in KNIGHT, but which makes no sense in her present 'pristine mint' condition.

Another problem: Lemmon is no suave ladies' man super spy, except in his own mind - while Lisi is the real thing, a goddess. And she's present. And that can be unnerving for a man who lives most of his life in either his imagination or an alcoholic fraternal fog. It's unnerving for her too; she's like a bee trying to get nectar from a plastic flower. And anyway, in New York you can't just marry someone-- you have to get a license first, then wait at least 48 hours, in order to make sure you're not making a decision while in a drunken black-out, and even I haven't been able to stay blacked-out more than a eight hours. I doubt even Days of Wine and Roses Lemmon could go more than 12. 

The title, incidentally, springs from Lemmon's 'acting out' all his Brash Brannigan adventures all around NYC while his knowing butler takes photos as source model for the strip's art, but Lisi reads the latest edition wherein Brash plots to murder his wife, and she thinks he wants to get rid of her, so she vanishes. Lemmon winds up on trial for murder thanks to the strip's murder plot, and from there it gets really misogynous, as in his closing statement:
"Gentlemen, I address you not as judge and jury, but as a fellow American male. The crime that you have just seen Harold Lampson commit in his imagination I have been accused of committing in reality. Too long has the American man allowed himself to be bullied, coddled, and mothered, and tyrannized, and in general meant to feel like a feeble-minded idiot by the female of the species. Do you realize the power that you have in your hand here today? If one man - just one man - can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we've got it made. We have got it made. All of us." 
 The trick of course through which to avoid murder trials like this is to not let women get the upper hand in any movie scripted by George Axelrod in the first place, and that requires a certain danger and unpredictability in your actions. Girls love a mysterious bad boy. You don't have to be bad, just seem bad. For example, if she wants you to cut the grass, go out drinking. If she wants you to go out drinking, cut the grass. If she wants to know where you are at all times, then leave telltale signs you're having an affair in such a way as to make her crazier and crazier so she bursts in on you doing something innocent, in front of witnesses. Collect matchboxes from strange clubs and leave them in your coat pocket for her to find; keep a locked drawer in your desk and when she pries it open there's a single envelope, and in it is a single note that reads "honey, you should be ashamed of yourself opening other people's mail." Hide a single woman's earring under the bed in a slipper, a splash of perfume on a crushed Kleenex in the bathroom trash can. Write down the things you left lying around in a hidden notebook you can pull out when she confronts you, to prove you were setting her up. Sounds devious but if she's paranoid and you don't supply her with clues and evidence trails to occupy her time you're not doing her any favors. 

Oh you poor thing,

Perhaps the best thing you can do is to just relish the squabbling. A lot of women just need to sharpen their claws, to punch at you and scream and yell and enact the archetypal tug of war that is one man and one woman tied together like cats on a clothes line. Woman, capital W, will never be satisfied for longer than a few days with any of Man's attempts to appease her: furs, jewels, bridges, water works, steel mills, circuses --none of it has ever worked for long. If he lets her pick out all his clothes she'll lose all respect for him; if he dresses himself she'll wince in embarrassment. The truth is, Jack, she's testing your mettle; she wants to fight. It doesn't matter over what. She just wants to know you're stronger than her, or at least as strong, so she can relax and not feel she has to be the dominant one in your pack, to use Dog Whisperer parlance. Many men make the mistake of trying to appease Woman's wrath, to supplicate, to do anything she asks, but such spineless behavior in their men is what makes wives into nags, which they resent you for, and they should.

Still, I don't mean this as a knock. Without woman's continued dissatisfaction would there be any decadent luxury, or even civilization? Understand the deeper currents at work and admire Woman's rage and discontented howling for its vigor rather than wincing at realizing you're more than likely its target. There's no need to drug her or murder her or cave in to her demands if you're down to fight... for you're right... to par.....

Oops, the ball and chain just yelled out from the bedroom... it's 2 AM, on a weekday. Gotta go...!
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