Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Don't go in the light, no wait, go into the light! - The Last of the Great 70s Dads, First Bad 80s: Craig T. Nelson in POLTERGEIST (1982)



The year of 1982 was, as we cineastes know, the great year of American science fiction and fantasy. Not only did we get enduring faves like THE ROAD WARRIOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, BLADE RUNNER and THE THING, there were two movies from the Spielberg camp, ET, and POLTERGEIST. Like a capstone to the great 70s, 1982 was a time to regroup on issues of masculinity, fatherhood and the outsider relation to the social order. A dad was notoriously absent from the ET family unit, and figures like Mad Max and Conan (and the entire cast of THE THING) stood firmly on the outside of any sort of social order or role model status, avoiding even feral kids as passengers; Deckard in BLADE RUNNER was a part of the order, a cop, but over the course of the film began to become more and more the bad guy, shooting 'replicants' guilty of little more than self-defense as they searched for a home on a planet beyond saving. In other '82 offerings, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, there were no parents of any sort. So what happened to the 70s dads?

One was left: POLTERGEIST, a rare glimpse into a 'cool' family with a hip, playful, relaxed good provider father, brilliantly played by Craig T. Nelson as a more domesticated version of Harrison Ford; his dry, knowing delivery made him seem fun and employable at the same time. During the opening 20 minutes of POLTERGEIST we get to know him and his family, including hip wife JoBeth Williams and we like them. There is, among other things, a whole great early scene with them smoking dope after the kids are in their beds.

Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams smoking pot in POLTERGEIST

The scenes show the dad shirltless in PJs, his arms or body stretching to the edges of the frame, at ease, a master of his domain yet not a tyrant. He jumps on the bed to demonstrate a high dive to soothe wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) over concerns about their daughter drowning in their under-construction pool. Diane mocks him: "your diving days are over." He barely deigns to acknowledge her remark: arms outstretched, demonstrating form on the high dive, noting with great mock solemnity, "we're talking about the Olympics here, Diane."


Imagine such a scene today in a horror film and you can't. Imagine Tom Cruise playing a dad this mellow, or Nicolas Cage a dad this unencumbered by free-floating anxiety. The wife would never let him jump up on the bed - those are 400 thread-count sheets!

And when the son, Robbie, comes in unannounced, they don't treat him with condescension, or anger he's intruded on their quiet time; they're not ashamed or embarrassed to be caught smoking weed either; they don't fall on some stock response like 'there is no bogey man go back to bed!" or some snide lecture about growing up, some excuse why it smells funny in their room while they bat away the smoke.  They merely deftly put their stash away, and look at him with some concern, but not sappily. "Hey, sport," they say in greeting. They wait for him to tell them what's going on.... they treat him like a person, like a guest, deserving of a straightforwardly respectful response, rather than belittle his fears in some rote, borderline hysteric bid at perfect parenting.


Spielberg's first big breakout film, JAWS had the premiero uno great 70s dad, so it's only natural this guy in his produced (and maybe partly directed) film should close out the decade by starting this cool. Instead of "gimme a kiss... I need it," we have him inviting the son to jump on his back, noting "I am the wind and you are the feather," clearly this is some kind of inside joke between them stretching back to his infanthood. There's no sickly warm strings in their reestablishing their bonds like there would be if John Williams was scoring. He's not, thankfully. Jerry Goldsmith is, so there is no music at all --just the crash of the thunder outside, allowing people to talk in their most relaxed inside voices. Goldsmith might get overwrought in a few places, but he knows when to play it cool. Conjuring a 'safe' kind of menace where applicable, and hanging back in other parts to let the horror build on its own, Goldsmith rocks in ways way beyond the ken of Williams and his overwrought mickey-mousing (i.e. the third act's sea shanty variations).


Poltergeist dad Steve also has an appreciation for nature and the mysteries of the beyond. Robbie is freaked about the tree outside the window, feeling as if it's spying on him. "It knows about us, doesn't it?" he asks.

"It knows everything about us," replies his dad with utmost whispered seriousness. "That's why I built this house right next to it, Rob, so it could protect us. ... It's a very wise old tree." This is a great example of superlative parenting because dad is not diminishing Robbie's concerns, not admonishing him for an overactive imagination, not rolling his eyes and asking wearily if he needs to call Dr. Scherzinger again. He's taking his son's worry seriously but elevating the sense of magical thinking into the proper pronoid direction. (My great 70s dad, for example, took my monster in the closet fear seriously by taping up a sign on the door, "No Monsters Permitted" or something, and I was fine from then on).


But all in 70s dad land --the 80s are looming. soon Steve is at wit's end, besieged by ghostly manifestations he actually becomes more scoffing and rude to those who want to help them. Steve's sense of powerlessness over the events begins to diminish his sense of confidence and self-worth. He starts to act like a sulky child, feeling his mastery of his domain slipping away, he can only sulk over his own powerlessness and snipe at the hands that try to help.


A subtle moment of this slipping occurs when Diane reaches over to him at the family table, telling the team, "He's been wonderful, really," as if boasting of some reformed wayward child to his parole officer. Her tone carries just the hint of belittling condescension (the equivalent of saying "this little lady deserves a big hand"). His acting out shows how slippery the slope is - treat him like a child and he can't help but act that way in protest. When the psychic medium (Zelda Rubenstein) comes over, he makes cracks, referencing Oz and snickering under his breath, even 'mentally' signaling to Zelda, refusing to answer her verbally since he reasons she should be able to pick up his answers if she's so damned psychic. Very insulting, Steven! Besides, just because a psychic can pick up spirit energy doesn't mean she can read thoughts. It's not all part and parcel, like if you can see dead people you should also be able to explode heads and start fires with your mind.


Losing his daughter to the void clearly throws Steve for a loop and for the rest of the film (until the big climax), he broods, seated, in shadows, his masculine force drained. The ghost hunting is in the realm of the feminine here; the older, flask-sipping lady first, and then the psychic Zelda. We see many shots of him sitting in shadow while the women stand above him, indicating his reduced status as an authority figure. Not even a promotion from his boss (who's worried he's missed so much work because he's looking for a better job), can allay his surliness. When he sees the nearby graveyard will have to be moved to make room for the new developments, he's gets especially uneasy. Earlier when his boss was inside Steve's house he'd made clear attempts to hide the paranormal activity going on (such as an organ flying across the room) rather than just letting it freak the boss out, not unlike an abused spouse trying to mask her bruises to visiting police. He doesn't tell his neighbors about his experiences, especially once they initially deny anything's going wrong in their own houses (why there's not is never explained. Maybe it's that they fall asleep with their TV on a lot, enabling the ghosts to come through easier?)

Steve ends the movie homeless and unemployed... presumably he won't be either for long. He's also a whole lot wiser. But what has he lost, this complicated cool dude who smokes weed but reads Reagan biographies, this survivor of poltergeist attacks who scoffs at psychics, this real estate man of the living dead?  It's the 80s and the war against drugs is looming. Will Steve and Diane still be able to smoke pot to relax after the kids are asleep, or will Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign convince one of their own kids to report their pot use to the authorities? Will the loss of the house be blamed on Steve, for illegal building of a pool, or something?

In the 80s the free love grooviness drained like a swimming pool over a sinkhole. The threat of invisible ghosts, Russians, terrorists, drug dealers, you name it-- was keeping the Reagan-Bush dynasty in business. Ghosts, slashers, and bogeymen were making their way to every home in America via the arrival of cable TV, which had no American flag sign-off or 5 AM static. Huge lawsuits and civil actions erupted; Satanic panic and pedophile ring hysteria led to massive firings of male childcare workers just to be 'safe;' moms were thrown to the ground in handcuffs when they went to the Fotomat to pick up family pictures that included unclothed photos of their own infants. MADD's boosted drunk driving laws, amped-up drug searches, and the availability of uncensored films rented (in the beginning) at stereo and appliance stores, made Friday and Saturday nights into stay at home affairs. Bars became hotbeds of paranoid moderation; no one wanted to drive to any party even at a friends house a few blocks away, unless their spouse was going to be the designated driver, which then made her a total buzzkill --who wants to drink in front of a judgmental, sober spouse? And god forbid you had a joint in your purse or something when they pulled you over on the way home: you might still be in jail even now.

Oh yeah, and hysteria over AIDS left it open season on firing anyone who happened to be gay, or even sound gay, lest they somehow contaminate our children. Plastic gloves, condoms, fear of inappropriate touching, all led to a great turning away from the social sphere.


The withdrawal of Nelson's Steve Freeling is emblematic of this turn, from cool 70s dad to a sulking, defensive couch potato. We can see it in the way he pulls the rope too early during the rescue of Carol Ann, because his myopic dismissiveness misinterprets what Zelda is saying. The psychic is continually reversing whether or not Diane should go into the light to find Carol-Ann. Because of all the spirit traffic and wind it's too loud to hear well, and he panics; Zelda switches from talking to him to talking to the other trapped spirits who are caught in the crossfire between the demon and the Freelings. She's telling them--the innocent, trapped ghosts-- to go into the light, but Steve thinks he's telling Diane to go into the light and so freaks out, pulling the rope too early.

For me, this misinterpretation and subsequent abortive action indicates the way parental myopia becomes paranoia, and how America's Most Wanted, slasher movies and the advent of home video and Satanic panic turned us against our neighbors. People bunkered down for the long haul, cheering the draconian drug laws that trapped innocent pot and acidheads like fish in a net meant for coke heads and at-risk youth. Homosexuals, male daycare workers, and young drug-addled teens (like m'self) became pariahs. No one could go into the light anymore, period. It was dangerous, so it was illegal. Spirits had no choice now but to just stay trapped in the plowed-over graveyard maze called suburbia.


These sorts of drastic measures can seem very sane, comforting even, to someone who is very, very afraid of what's happening to their neighborhood. Maybe it was Indian immigrants, or blacks or hispanics, instead of ghosts, moving in, but the resulting drive to retreat and fortify defenses was the same. The bad 80s dad had replaced the great 70s edition, and for no clear reason other than media suggestion. It was just our time to withdraw, as a family, from the social sphere; the hangover for the 70s boondoggle bad enough that swearing off having any kind of fun, at least in public, seemed at least some small comfort, like declaring you're going to quit drinking as a way to get your spouse off your back. Beaten down and emasculated by supernatural forces, Steve's final act of defiance, kicking the TV out of the hotel room, seems foolish and short-sighted. You can't shoot the messenger, and more than likely that TV would be stolen before morning and he'd get charged on his bill. One just doesn't do such things, except to get a relief-laugh after the lengthy suspense and family-friendly horror of the rest of the night.

Steve is right in one thing: the TV is the 70s dad's conqueror--it defeated his good vibes, defied and destroyed his sense of self, made his free-wheeling rapport with his kids seem suspect. Men who were comfortable around their own kids now seemed suspect, evil; those who ignored them on the other hand, were neglectful, but clearly not monsters. This paranoia turned children against their fathers and fathers against themselves. Dad's only consolation prize: that 'sign off' national anthem and subsequent white noise static was gone forever. As if quietly correcting the problem for future families, now the screens would never go blank. Now channels were always, always running programs. There was nothing dad needed to do now but wait it out, alone, unemployed, entertained, and shattered to the core by cable's endless aerobics.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) and the Ludovico Flu


I've been sick all week with a terrible flu--hallucinating, vomiting, sleeping round the clock-- and it all comes to a head and makes sense with THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) which was the first thing I watched once I could finally stand up and get out of bed (purely by chance, it just happened to be on - I missed the first five or six minutes only) and had never seen before. What a perfect marriage of set and setting - for it turns out a three hour movie about an eccentric showman with a habit of creating vast surreal set pieces full of billowing clouds was just about perfect for someone coming out of a raging hallucination-filled flu/fever. I'd sleeping in torrid bursts of super dreamy weirdness for 16 or more hours at a crack for a solid week, getting up long enough only to pee and shakily have a few sips of the only beverage/nourishment I could keep down: a lukewarm mix of ginger ale and water, before staggering back to bed to sleep another 8-16 hour tour.

Sleeping that long every day/night for an entire week with no food, naturally, I dreamt some mighty intense, strange things. Since I'm writing about Ziegfeld, it's only fitting I should share some of them:

I dreamt I was at the movies, of course, at the Union Square theater (in East Village, NYC), but it was called 'the Martha Graham Dance Cinema Annex,' and was an extension of a huge dance studio / ballet academy. This meant there were young girls in tights smoking Virginia Slims everywhere in the lobby and on the long carpeted steps up to the theaters. Most of them were calling their stage moms on their cells while stretching along the rails up and down aisles of the theater, or sitting on the carpeted floor, stretching and smoking, the lights were permanently only half-down, while collections of experimental dance shorts played in endless rotation over their heads, ignored by all but me.

The second most vivid dream - the passage of a long skinny joint passed around- hand-to-hand - all along a small Chilean town as it went about its business - the hippie giving it to the mailman as he got the mail, the mailman giving it to a driver he walks past at a stop sign, him giving it to the cop at the light, the cop giving it to someone passing by -- all without even commenting on it, like it was just a free-floating thing that passed through hands and mouths (was this the flu remembering its long visit across the world into my system?). I had been visiting with my Argentine ex-wife and enjoying this socialist utopia where people would light fat joints, pass them to the person on their right, and then just never see them again, each joint like a balloon released with a SASE attached in some elementary school science project.

Maybe all this is a preface as to why I didn't turn away in saccharine-phobic horror from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD like I normally would, and like I have a hundred times before. It was the first movie I'd been able to get up and see in seven days, the first time I was even able to sit on the couch and turn the TV on and there it was, by special unconscious request. I was too beaten and humbled to turn it off but also, it being as if I had dreamt it somewhere within my delirium, just perfect. It was three hours long, so I'd have time to soak into it and not worry about what to watch next, not have to deal with suspense or commercials or anything else that might unbalance my still fuzzy brain.

Instead, straddling centuries and styles of musical theater, it provided a perfect halfway point between real cinema and the cloudy diamond-facet fractured dance hall unconsciousness of my sick bed visions, all still clinging to the balance bar railings of my attention with the tenacity of a flu germ barnacle as nymphets in a torrent of Graham-Fosse-Degas-esque Village Voice articles spout-pounced in my head.


The two main things the serious flu bug going around does: a) tear you away from all abilities or concerns regarding: employment, sexual desire, standing up straight, and vices. You can't inhale smoke or eat solids; you can't make it out of your door or drink anything but room temperature ginger ale--and b) makes you humble. You can't stand up so you keep yourself buckled over, as if bowed under the heel of some unseen titan. All other trivialities except trying no to pass out on the floor before getting back to bed are jettisoned. All hail, Moloch! Or whatever evil archon laid me low... spare me another round of dry heaves!

I now belong to the flu, like Mongo belong to Sheriff Bart in BLAZING SADDLES. "There's nothing more life affirming than having the shit kicked out of you," as Matt Dillon says in DRUGSTORE COWBOY.

Such a basic core of conscience, ego constructs all bulldozed away, provides the ideal putty for theatrical drill instructors like Busby Berkeley and Oscar Jaffe (as well as Stockholm syndrome-cultivators like Abu Nazir and the Symbionese Liberation Front). Such exhausted psyches are explosions from which new stars are born. The heat of the flu, the looting by the archons, or the prolonged systematic physical abuse at the hands of an authority figure, liquidate once frozen notions of self, of loyalty, allegiance, taste, and identity. Patty Hearsts, Lily Garlands, and Manchurian candidates can, from this ground zero of consciousness, be forged.

Me, after that week of starved madness and raging delusion, I forgot my original prejudices against long, bloated, period piece post-code MGM musical biopics, so whatever kept me from watching THE GREAT ZIEGFELD in the past was now liquid draining from the ice sculpture sink of my being.

I once worked for a rich crazy person like Flo Ziegfeld, so I know the way they swim in debt, and depend on an indulgent, super-rich backer's foreclosure threats as motivation for their genius. They spend beyond their limits and never pay back debts, all while buying bigger and more opulent gifts for everyone around them (except employees like me, of course, whose checks bounce regularly). They built this whole country by trying to mortgage their way out of poverty, to become too big to collect from. A rich person by definition amasses wealth, stores and saves it, builds on it; the Flo Z or my old boss-type merely spends wealth, regardless of if he has it or not. Without such men, alas, capitalism can't succeed. And with such men, also alas, stock market crashes are inevitable, like the end of a game of hot potato that leaves everyone badly burned except the monster who first threw it, because he's already off heating up another.

Some wise tribes of Native Americans had a thing called the potlatch: at the end of each year, the richest person in the tribe gave away all their possessions to other tribe members. It was a great honor but at the same time it encouraged a constant flow of generosity in the tribe. No one wanted to get too rich lest they have to give up something they wanted, so they gave everything away they didn't actually need or use as they went. Indeed, what is opulence for if not to dazzle the public eye, rather than one's own? To create magic for others instead of 'security' for oneself? And what is it called when a man's ego transcends his sense of security, and his drive to create show-stopping brilliance overrides self-preservation? Baby, that's entertainment. And the wheel of capitalism moves one clank forward, powered by the fuel your ticket stub attention span. Doo Do Doo Do Dooo Dooo.

The girls at the Martha Graham Film Academy stretch their limbs past the point where it's even a masochistic itch, in a vain effort to lure their black swan prince from the shadows (I, the dreamer - appear only when they're falling off cliffs or torturing their toes and hamstrings in the name of Tchaikovsky - one ticket please and good night ladies). Their performances might be brilliant but are quickly lost to time, the stage tells no secrets, the brilliance of their work now only expressed by writers in old Times clippings, and moth-like flutterings in the hazy memories of aging box seat sponsors.

But the eye was dazzled. And that's the thing we've lost in our modern era, which prizes big moments of emotional catharsis centered around love and yearning, fear and desire. The older shows, like Flo's, treat the eye the way opium treats dopamine receptors. He cements the balsa wood bridge between the age when high art came to the wild west (like Edwin Booth doing one man best-of Shakespeare shows in the mining camps), the smoker striptease, Vaudeville, and our modern Broadway spectacle. It's all just a short jaunt along a cloud.

That's Ray Bolger down there
It's this latter form which William Powell's Flo-Z is always working towards, to bring it higher, to outdo all past versions of his Jenga-style opulent towering until the eye cups runneth over, and that's why MGM gives him a 3 1/2 hour bio. He personified the age of indulgence and is now a giant sugar daddy mountebank link across the generations of the Depression back to the bigger, higher, wider school of Americana. He's one of a Mount Rushmore of the 20th century's initial salty entertainment icons, alongside Walt Disney, Cecil B. De Mille, and D.W. Griffith. And like them he understood you could get away with showing all sorts of naughty bits as long as you wrapped them in so much lace and fashion show piety, high art and high fashion, that the old ladies were too awash in sentimental sighs to complain when the bare thighs flashed. So the crazy headdresses went wider and higher in some pagan mummery glorification of grandiosity, all to keep the world rolling forward, and straight up and trailing clouds of glory "for anybody willing to climb." A whole style of opulence became synonymous with his name, but with the clear understanding that fleecy celestial opulence didn't preclude a huge underbelly carny-style sizzle, ala P.T. Barnum, Earl Carroll, and Ripley. He was an early titan of titan-ism, and his like has not come again.

"when you say Spud
Still - he sounds like a square--why praise him in an Acidemic post? Well, cuz I love William Powell, and because some real psychedelic gold comes in the centerpiece musical number - a twisting carousel of bizarre interplay as surreal and strange as anything by pre-code Paramount of Warner's prime Busby Berkeley. David Lynch taught us that if you push normality to its extreme it becomes more surreal than your wildest imagined lurid tableaux, and the "Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" sequence of this film finally illuminates the appeal of frills and fancy MGM foppery even to a jaded-faded junky lace Americana-hater (like me) by pushing it to an impossible extreme. The cumulative effect is beyond the usual sense of claustrophobia, of being like Sullivan sandwiched between the portly matrons at the treacly triple feature during the first of his Travels, and instead breaking through the roof in a mythopoetic splume of transcendental connection with the screen, something even Willie Wonka, trapped by his mom at a 1906 fashion show and looking up the skirts of the passing models, couldn't imagine. He'd have to be reading Little Nemo at the same time, and strung out on Demerol.


Consider this revolving cake tableau below, in one of the coolest curtain effects ever (it turns as it rises, spiraling around the spiral): we start with the singer and his girl and revolve slowly to see 18th century noblemen; then Chinese rural moon beam guitar pixies; then find Pagliachi belting out his pain before a giant drum, a beautiful flame goddess mocking him from above; then a row of pianists working out an early version of Rhapsody in Blue; a sea of vampire women in black shimmering Dragon Lady dresses; a giant mummer sun crown headgear crown angel; and finally the curtain goes up all the way to unveil a magic femme fatale crown atop the cake. Slowly revealing it all as the giant marble column cake, it revolves, the crazy spiral curtain then lowers back down.


 It's a very psychedelic centerpiece to this gargantuan film, with billowing ruffles and angelic choirs that--for the first time--really helped me to understand the mindset that led to all the ruffles and bows of turn of the century theater and costumery (a style I used to find insufferably stuffy and claustrophobic, the turn-of-the-century equivalent of burkas). This one weird dream musical number alone shows what both decades (the 1890s and 1900s) were aiming at. Of course there's some real drivel elsewhere in the film, such as the unsettling sight and sound of an imitation Eddie Cantor in black face and Popeye glasses square-prancing around the stage like a politically incorrect robot singing "If you Knew Suzie" in front of a giant shower curtain. (Oh! Oh! Oh what a gal!) and now I understand the big Carnegie Hall performance of Andy Kaufman in MAN ON THE MOON with the human Xmas tower.


Like Kaufman's comedy, the follies may leer but they predate sexuality and embrace an infant-eyed humanism, a pillowy pre-Edenic river of cloud energy where women are done up like beautiful Weird Tales covers brought to life and the men are all in tuxes and standing very still. Peter Max, Bouguereau, Hans Christian Anderson and The Yellow Submarine artistic designer Heinz Edelmann are all heirs, it turns out, of old Flo Z.

This is especially clear in another surreal number, where we see legions of white and silver balloons flying out towards the screen, towards the camera eye, opening a middle field of depth that leads us farther and farther back, duplicating the effects of 3-D decades before it was invented. You can't help but be transported through the looking glass into a Little Nemo of Berkley w├╝nderland, the kind that the Wall Street crash of 1929 would put an end to until the mid-60s. That's the thing, when we watch a Busby Berkeley musical number we move inside the proscenium arch and out the stage door; the stage and the camera swirls and eddies and snakes around the dancers to form geometric kaleidoscope perfection. But it all had to be live and from the stage, for Flo. So he uses all three of the audience member's eyes and proceeds to aim his balloons and ostrich feathers right at them, personally, trailing big confetti streamers behind to create a long pipeline back to the stage. Theatergoers can dream while awake, and share their dream with everyone around them.. Sex is, in this fever flu, outmaneuvered, as if the show causes sex to fold early, and the soul to experience the rebirth it was hoping for in desire's sticky wicket, to become an infant again, awash in the hallucinations brought on by a mobile catching and reflecting light above one's cradle.

In the post-Depression era, tapping into the limits of the eye as a way to change viewer mindsets was forgotten, in favor of the recognized patina of cinema fantasy as we know it today (the arrival of sound cinema)--the 2-D proscenium arch style of middle range shot, the 'you are there' but-not-there ghost presence amidst the action provided by film, eclipsed the stage. Zeigfeld couldn't compete with King Kong. Now, a century later or so, we've become the invisible spectator. No one looks us in the eye anymore, except sometimes in musicals, and definitely in MGM's massive film. Here we learn, in a time frame big enough to encompass him, Flo Z is the one who dares dream the biggest cloud mobile of all, to bankrupt his backers and himself just to reach new heights in revolving stage staircases, just so the stage can reach out like two pairs of big mommy hands into our infant crib of an orchestra seat, passing us the floating joint, silently bidding those dancers on the aisles to get off their phones, crush out their cigarettes, and pay attention to our shivering newborn husks.

Maybe back at the time audiences knew what those hands were reaching for, but in 2013 it's pretty clear we need to be half-dead from killer flus just to see what Flo's billowing dreamscape eye seduction fuss is about. Or maybe that's just me, or maybe it's all merely an appeasement, a Nazca line to the giant Kathy Bates in the sky. Her sledge-hammer of withdrawal and phantom limb pain in one hand, a bottle of Vicodin in the other, she's the Kali of the flu-wracked MISERY arts. It's how she wants it, so Flo Z--her captive writer--gave it to her, just so he could have his Vicodin-powered row of beautiful naked / naked... Nemo, you've been sleeping again! More feathers!


Friday, February 08, 2013

Language! Drinks! Cake! Oppression!


Watching Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for the sixth time recently all I could do was absorb the language barriers; all those dinner parties I sat through in Buenos Aires while intellectual friends of my ex-wife talked in rapid fire Argentinian Spanish suddenly came into clarity. Quentin's whole film is about being at one of those dinner parties. Is he dating an Argentinian? Or wait, no, Che! Che es claro! C'est un chick francais.

Either way, when one is in a situation like that, one can't really do anything except smile politely, look at the speaker like you understand a word they say, and muse along BABEL-ish lines. After all, small children and animals feel bored and left out by adult conversation all the time... if you multiply that factor by Nazis in France speaking German, now you can start to get super mad. When Americans go to Paris on vacation and expect the waiter to know English, that's bad, but at least he doesn't have to know it. The tourists can't have him shot; they should take his rudeness as a sign of solidarity --he's free to be rude.


It might help to understand the feeling of being at the mercy of someone with whom you are having a 'civil' interaction if you were a teenage pothead during the Reagan administration watching your car get slowly searched by an idiot cop and acting like it's all good, la-de-da- any glimmer of paranoia or worry that might tell him he's 'getting warm' will send you to jail... hat long-term slow burn paranoia when one bunch of people has absolute power over another,  and each side pretends--one for their own vanity, the other for basic survival--that everything is copacetic. These moments are when Tarantino shines. In his world, every meal, every round of drinks, is pregnant with these sublimated maskings. One side pretends to not be a cat about to pounce, the other side pretends to not be a mouse about to bolt for the exit. Anything can go wrong and over drinks, deserts, and changing table guests, waiting for a check, the suspense can become almost unbearable.

The Cinematic Mountain of Leni Riefenstahl

These scenes work so effectively on the nerves because they tap into a deep, unresolved response of infantile rage still simmering after years enduring the bullying ignorance of adults. We all remember being a child and having no say in our life's direction. Parents decided when our bedtime was and what TV shows we can stay up for (none). They can spank, whip, imprison, strip-search etc. rummage through out drawers looking for drugs they heard about on Fox, and we can't do a thing about it. All we can do is count the hours and months and years until we're out of there.

But that's the thing, most of us don't have to submit to this once we are 18 and/or out of our parents' house. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with torturously long bar and restaurant and kitchen table scenes while 'playing' being someone else and how, eventually, by drawing out the interrogation and then letting the prey think they 'passed' and you are about to leave (but first a toast, or cream, or a pipe) and you start to lower your guard. A parallel might be trying to get through a whole dinner with strict parents as a ten year-old trying to hide the fact that you're stoned and drunk out of your gourd, and by dessert you think you've got them won over so your mask starts to slip a little, and you keep hitting the wine even though your mom glowers at the water level. And your friend who stayed for dinner is like dude, ixnay on the ineway tilunway erway outway the oordway


This is how the Jewish heroine of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has to live while hiding out in Paris, such as tense moments like the luncheon (above), where she's unceremoniously dragged by the self-adoring 'German Sgt. York'. She's expected to be charming as people talk in rapid German (which she does not speak, as we learn indirectly in the beginning) about her theater, never even asking if she wants to host their big film night, all but forcing the "honor" on her, with blithe unconcern about her personal desires. They must certainly know it's hardly an 'honor' for the oppressed French to host any Nazi event, but to mangle a line from THE MALTESE FALCON, "for her sake I let her pretend." Or another line, from a 1931 favorite of mine, "it's just only old Svengali, talking to himself again."

That's Tarantino's genius, level one -- the power of lengthy dinner conversations to with utmost fluidity chronicle not just the dynamics of power and deception, but of the way lengths of time work to change those dynamics, wearing down some positions and strengthening others, and the power of the words we absorb almost subliminally to expected meanings, laughing when our memory of them is rewarded by those small details coming unexpectedly to the fore.


Even as early as PULP FICTION, QT buries valuable intel in the rambling opener with Jules telling Vincent about Tony Rocky Horror, a big Samoan guy getting thrown out of a window for giving Marcellus Wallace's wife a foot massage. This bit of knowledge adds great depth to our apprehension at the very thought of Vincent--who weighs far less than the average Samoan drug dealer--going on a date with the very same Mrs. Wallace, and when she almost ODs on his watch, well, now we're really scared for him in ways we would never be without the saga of Tony Rocky Horror.

 We would need also to have absorbed the dialogue back at Eric Stoltz's dealer pad about 'the Madman' and 'Panda' to appreciate the strength of said smack... in other words a whole day and night of seemingly random pop culture referenced-infused dialogue is needed, every last word, to finally snap shut an elaborate trap that is never clearly spoken or delineated. And then that apprehension over Wallace's capability for wrath continues when we learn Bruce Willis needs to go back for his watch; and we needed the full flashback of Christopher Walken's monologue about the history of the  watch to make us invested in Willis' need to go back and get it, even when the full brunt of Wallace's wrath is going to be waiting.

QT never feels the need to underline his overlapping brilliance, which is why his films reward close study - they are created for the DVD generation and so I don't feel ashamed that it wasn't until this fifth viewing of BASTERDS that I realized Soshana can't understand what Goebbels and friends are laughing about at the lunch since she doesn't speak German nor see the subtitles we're provided with. Her blank cutesy expression as the men talk around her can throw you off if you're just following their subtitles instead of listening to them in the polite way we listen to a table of people talking very fast in another language who are presumably thinking we understand what they are saying. In America we have such a deep embarrassment about our knowing only 'American' that we automatically assume every European speaks all European languages. And in BASTERDS we would certainly think Shoshana knows English if not for her failure to bolt while hiding under the dairy farmer's floorboards in the opening scene. But that whole scene seems so apart from the later ones that it takes awhile to connect them - it's as if QT wants us to keep watching and digging, so buries new chunks of realization deep in the fabric of his rapid-fire dialogue.


So in that first lengthy dinner scene -- the Paris bistro with Goebbels -- we get a sense of constant on-edgeness that must accompany life under occupation. A good analogy in the US would be if the NSA extended their authority to include random house searches of all its citizens and if NSA agents wanted to invite themselves over for dinner, search our bedrooms, and sleep with our daughters, and if we ever complain or do anything but smile and make them feel as welcome as if we'd invited them, we'd wake up at GTMO if at all. The price of freedom from this is eternal vigilance, yadda yadda ---BUT even if we didn't grow up under German occupation or deep south segregation, even if we're lucky enough that we're more or less protected from such invasions, most of us remember the hopeless rage we felt towards our parents as children who never got to do anything ever and it's not fair and Waah Waah I hate you I hate you and the plotting to one day destroy them. Quentin understands that it's the job of great exploitation cinema to act as a catharsis to these deep-seated unresolved rages, on the personal, psychic, historical, social, and viral level.

And that's why every demeaning expletive and subjugation and atrocity is necessary in Tarantino's last two films--INGLOURIOUS and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Because no amount of vengeance, of cathartic destruction can be truly cathartic without it; if it sickens you beyond measure than the film is only doing it's job and this bloody catharsis will feel truly exalting. This is the kind of trauma we should be getting from our movies, not the casual torture of films like HOSTEL and WOLF CREEK. Serial killers and psychopaths are frightening but they're isolated individuals or groups whose actions are against the law. In Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South, casual torture, subjugation and atrocity are the law; extreme racist barbarism is the societal norm. The idea of what's 'right' as far as bloody vengeance is muddied by our inability to see the forest for the tree-like social order we're living in, and that's the Quentin difference.

Ae second example of time elapsing is the sheer length of the basement drinking game scene in BASTERDS; audiences generally complain that it's too long and claustrophobic which is the point. Perhaps in some ways the film never quite recovers from its show-stopper aspect. But here's the thing -- it shows the gradual erosion of nerves over a lengthy session of drinking and chit-chat, the length between thinking you're getting away with your ruse and feeling like you finally have, that your enemy is about to leave or give you what you want, only to have a last minute prolonged moment of suspense as suddenly everything reverses and you're caught but by then that's it - you don't give a shit about getting away with it anymore or even getting out of there alive. You've been stifled so long under the garb of your false identity and the other's ranting egotism that your rage overrides your sense of self-preservation and BAM! Say good-bye to your nuts.


DJANGO and INGLORIOUS each have one of these scenes, and these two films are separated by these scenes from the rest of QT's oeuvre. While gangsters, thugs and assassins from his earlier films are outlaws in a world in moral twilight, the pre-Civil War South and Nazi-occupied France are worlds beyond moral twilight because the morality of the prevailing social structure is evil and violent. Slavery and subjugation is moral according to the Confederate South, and Hitler's Germany. They use modern democratic social structures  to obscure the evil, but in these two films undisguised evil gloats from its established position of power via even the smallest of presumably friendly gestures. In a sense the Nazi's openness with their evil is almost more noble than the red state congressman who preaches family values and wants to ban gay marriage and sodomy, but then goes and picks up a male hustler at a bus stop; who wants to ban free speech but would never ban the right of rednecks to fly confederate flags outside their courthouses (imagine if the Germans wanted to keep Nazi flags in their court rooms, why is it any different?)

In being open with their oppression, the Nazis also set themselves up as an easy target, of course, and in doing so they--as with the slave owners in DJANGO--remind us that the power of cathartic violence lurks under the surface of any violently imposed social order. As the recent psychopathic gun violence in our country indicates, our citizens are hopping mad but aren't sure who is oppressing them, so they don't know who to shoot at. So thank your oppressors for letting you see their face up close, should they ever do that, because when you kill them finally in a moment of explosive release it will be so worth the wait.


ONE LAST THING -

Drugs are also Tarantino's sinthom magnifique - he sees the parallel between cinema addiction and alcohol and opiate addiction, most tellingly in a seemingly plot-advancing scene after the basement shooting. It begins with a morphine needle to the thigh of Brigit Von Hammersmock. The Basterds have commandeered the office of a veterinarian, and are in his operating room - while he stands by in a robe. A bullet has shattered some bone in her leg. Aldo Raine presses on the wound in a bit of torture to force the truth out of her, angry at losing three men in what he perceives as a possible ambush. He relents when starting to believe her but his manner never changes -- as the morphine hits her system though Brigit slowly morphs from anguished to calm, from defeated to intrigued, from near despair to almost excited, especially once the idea of pumping her full of more morphine is even discussed. It's a subliminal melange of addictive trigger motions I haven't seen so subtly played since that of Juliane Moore hearing about all the delicious drops she can pilfer from her dying husband's scrips in MAGNOLIA. In fact there might be so much crazy subtle acting going on in these moments that these subtleties might not even be in the actors or writers minds at all, not even unconsciously, that it might be just my own addictive, paranoid personality...BUT... that's the power of myth and metaphor after all, the way kids' don't notice bad special effects or cheap sets because they're bubbling over with an imagination that never wastes a moment to fill in details. It's a habit we start to lose when we get older, unless we suffer from withdrawal or a bad fever, or really cultivate it through lots of time writing, painting, cinemagoing and doing drugs, all things that involve going deep within the Self, surrendering to the loss of a fixed locus of identity. Language isn't the only thing forced to behold the strangeness of itself when talking with someone of another language, it's national identity itself, employed towards its own opposite to win a war (as in codes). Crack the code, win the war, learn the language, lose the imagination... or else cinema.
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