Monday, July 29, 2013


"Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day.
Woman and nature stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant."
-Camille Paglia (proud Italian-American)
"Son? I wish I had one! He's a bum!"
--Mama Mantana (Scarface)
 You can argue that gangster cinema began at Warners with Cagney and Robinson, but a few pre-code masterworks aside, the gangster never hit his grandiose peak until it became a distinctly Italian-American saga, directed by an Italian-American with maximum tactility. Robert Evans knew this, and so insisted on Coppola for The Godfather (1972). An Italian director for an Italian story, this according to Evans' Kid Stays in the Picture. Defamatory? Maybe. But the Italian-American Anti-Defamation league was founded by one of the heads of the five families, Joe Colombo, as a front for mob activity, so who can you truss? Me, 'ass who.

And so you need an Italian-American director, or an Italian straight-up, one who is going to ideally bring in a sense of Italian flair and artistry, i.e. the Scorsese 'boy pack' forward momentum, the Coppola darkness, and the De Palma operatics. And just the word "opera" should make you think of Argento, an Italian, straight-up, whose films have such elaborate beauty, brutal violence and strange rhythms that he even called on of his films Opera (check out my 10/2009 companion to this piece, "Nightmare Drive-In Logic, Italian-style); they transform the work of everyone who sees them... whatever that work may be. Mine included

Italian-Americans and Italian-Italians don't all love opera but it's emblematic of their artistic genes, along with the poetry of Dante, the art of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the masochism of Catholicism (each centurion lash upon the wrecked torso of Christ fantasized about in excruciating detail). All this and more pumps, drives, twists the flagellant Italian heart, consumed by "original sin," which stretches its exposed raw nerve beating-heart history back through Roman orgies, gladiators, court intrigues, brutal inquisitions, the plague, Il Duce. Thus the murders in Argento and De Palma and Scorsese and Coppola sing like operas of the damned, in which every emotion is heightened, and played out in full, wringing every last drop of blood and pain. They present characters who are adults, who sometimes joke around with each other, but never about business, and who keep their wives and mother out of it --wayyy to the side, and do not let the apron string hydras devour them the way they devour our 'sensitive' liberal guys. They're real men, unless they're really women, and when violence occurs to or through them it's always painful, always transmitted across the screen with time for the victim to scream, or scrawl a note on the tile steam, or be confronted by his own pulled-out small intestine, to protest, cringe, plead, try and crawl away and--recognizing the end, to screw forth enough macho courage to stare one last time into the eyes of their killer and shout "Fack Yew!"

In these films, death may be cinematic and beautiful, but it also hurts. No one dies easy; no one just gets shot or strangled and dies in a second. Characters get time--even if just a second--to register the horror of realizing their whole life is about to end, suddenly and with no good reason, and so much left undone. They see death coming, and if they live long enough to kill in kind they make sure their opponents get the same luxury. There's a feeling in this operatic Italian schemata of what might really involved with killing people. In normal gangster films people just get shot, Blammo! But being true to Italian operatic rhythms means one needs time to die, a whole scene for one lengthy tortured aria while Ennio Morricone strings play a semi-mocking eulogy overhead and you look at your killer with a slow turn from pleading to fear to anger and oaths, to resignation and then downwards or up into the infinite abyss, or onto some busy Rome street while passers-by hustle past you on your way to work and it's not until you fall face down and the blood pools in the middle of the sidewalk do they finally stop and scream. Death isn't the scariest thing in De Palma or Argento films, it's the loneliness of it that hurts the worst.

Thus it makes sense that De Palma has no real interest in capturing the Cuban culture of Miami, filling the score instead with the boss Italian synths of Giorgio Moroder, and the gaudy pre-fab architectures of the Floridan disco. Hawks' 1932 Scarface bounced around with merry good-cheer and a mock-Italian comedy-team rhythm that made a stunning counterpoint to the violence; Paul Muni showed that thing we all love about our one Italian-American friend: their positive life force--always on, never wavering, how-- even when they're breaking your thumbs for not paying your debts-- they can joke around and make you feel like a regular guy and ask you how's your mother and seem to mean it. And if you dated one then you know how nurturing their women are, cradling your head when you throw up, and only crying and freaking out when they realize you are never going to stop drinking long enough to be much of a take-home-to-the-parents-style boyfriend.

Scarface's ice princess blonde Elivra, played as a bundle of nerves snaking themselves through sheer brass will into the shape of a svelte cat-eyed bombshell (by Michelle Pfeiffer in her big breakthrough) is the opposite of the gaudy Italian persona. She's so trapped in the narcissist WASP mirror she can't wait to snort the lines off it, all the better to see herself with. But if you can get her to laugh, a woman like that? Ah Manolo, she break her septum for you. Plus, she's forbidden. That's the boss's lady, ogay? But Tony values only that which he cannot have because he's too dumb to know in advance that attaining it will bring him no satisfaction. when he gets all he wants even then he has to look closer to home, towards the ultimate taboo of incest. He falls for his sister the first time he sees her as a young woman. That he's been in jail for five years in Cuba excuses it somewhat at first (the way it didn't in the original) but then he makes no effort to rein in his incestuous impulse. He can't even admit he feels it, so makes no attempt to question the violence of his jealousy.

As Tony, Pacino is filmed first in long shots, his musky tan face paint dripping off when he's hot--which is all the time--or being bathed in Angel's watery blood with a gun to his head, the blood and brown make-up swirling together to form a muddy rust. In the early scenes, when he's bluffing his way up into Lopez's good graces, he seems to fold into himself like a sullen teenager. All terrible bangs and loud shirts, short frame and hairy arms, he's an illiterate peasant trying to cover up his clueless innocence with tough talk and bravado and big cigars (see below). De Palma's camera doesn't circle at this early stage, but rather observes him from on high, in a kind aloof regard. As Tony increases in stature and drive, De Palma's camera moves in for close-ups and lower angle shots, subliminally accentuating both his rise in stature and the disorientating effect of chronic cocaine abuse. Pacino's performance imperceptibly mutates to accompany this slow trend, oscillating at first back and forth between tough guy killer and loyal clown, gradually losing the clown aspect along the way and replacing it with self-absorbed money-obsessed paranoia, as if Elvira's glum narcissism is seeping into him through prolonged proximity. 

We learn from books like The Devil's Playground that De Palma 'knew something about gogaine' and if you look at this movie and the bloated satire of Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and The Untouchables (1987), as a trilogy, you get a saga of desire, loss, and how empires might be built on the underbelly of America's endless thirst for getting fucked up vs. the futile attempts to inflict the morals of senator's wives onto the common people while their rarely-home husbands get rich from under-the-table kickbacks, the money increasing relative to the intensity of government crackdown. The importance of not getting high on one's supply is understood so deeply you can feel De Palma's good judgment slipping away as the film goes on, for he too, clearly, is breaking that rule. I don't think that's libelous to say - it's not like it wasn't the style of the time. I'm not judging - you know me.

To bring it back to opera, consider that Verdi's La Traviata begins at a beautiful party and a party girl luxuriating amidst a rich paramour's baubles and ends with her broke, dying, all her remaining furniture being carted away as she dies in bed, alone but for a nurse who wonders if she'll ever be paid. Substitute Tony's paranoia for Camille's noble self-sacrifice, i.e. her betrayal of her courtesan code by turning noble, and the way Tony sacrifices his empire because of some dumb refusal to kill kids, and then you see it all so plain... Tony is a whore. 

Fade to Black, from sun to setting sun image to dark marble death
Looking back at it now on an anamorphic DVD (after decades of watching it religiously on pan and scan VHS), Scarface looks badly blocked: sets seem to end a few feet from the side edges of the screen and the backdrops often look like freestanding drywall in the midst of slow waterlogged-curling. We start the film sensing this will be a big budget panorama: Cuban refugee stock footage, crowded sweaty scenes under-highway encampments, dishwashing, stabbing, twilight phone booths, the wild Colombian chainsaw set piece, but then the gradual tightening noose of opportunity boils it all down to that La Traviata garrett. As Tony "makes his own moves" there are only a few places to be, and fewer actors stick around as the scenes tighten up in a forward Apollonian arc that begins to wither into fecund limpness: real Miami sunshine devolving to that car dealer backdrop of a sunset, its edges just visible enough on either side of the action to seem meta-textually accidental; hot disco lady dancer montages devolve into some dorky dancing 'El Gordo.' More and more mirrors dilute Tony's vibrancy, as if the vast empire of Scarface merchandise was already draining his snarl of tragic meaning. The architecture eventually turns to gold trim and black marble (a symbol of death like the 'X' markings in the 1932 version) that Gina finally enters like a ghostly echo with her flimsy negligee open and gun like the fish-eyed demoness at the climax of Suspiria. I'll go even further on a limb and say that Suspiria borrows quite a bit in color and nightmare logic pacing from De Palma's big break-out Carrie which came out the year before (1976 -though Carrie was still in theaters, and drive-ins by then, as it had become such a cultural landmark even parents were going to see it).

But this crazy "Fuck me Tony" scene with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and her nightmare black halo and temple of Dionysus sacrificial dress, is where De Palma truly comes to life: mixing that queasy, death-saturated Argento color scheme and slowed-down time (which he mastered with the nightmare pace of the prom queen stair climb in Carrie) with the queasy sense of post-modern sexual displacement emblematic of his idol Hitchcock (i.e., Tony can't realize he's in danger until it's 'on TV'). Not until this final bloody incestuous kiss-off does De Palma find the pitch black death rattle wide-eyed in the face of horror wit that Hecht and Hawks understood better than any others before or since --though for them the preparation for facing death took courage, the actual death itself was a bit of a joke, whereas with De Palma death comes before there's much time to fix a game face, but the actual process of dying stays as felt and faced as in the grimmest of Italian horror films.

Despite all his problems, Tony lives on today, twenty years later, as a kind of living demi-god - his image is as ubiquitous within hood cosmology as Tupac, Jesus, and Che Guevara. But as a character he has aged less well than the the emulators might think. If there's something heroic about his "say 'ell to my leedle fren!" last stand, it's tempered by his blindness to his monitors, his letting his security team get slaughtered, his own impulse killings of Manny and Alberto the Shadow. Mired in cocaine and confusion, he pulls the plug on his existence by letting his coked-up ego and repressed love of kids and guilt over his mama get the best of him (sooner or later, the apron string hydra wins out). His final shoot-out can be read academically as a zero point tantrum of grief and self-absorption. He doesn't know how to handle success, but blazing shoot-outs? Why not - if it comes to him, delivered like a pizza so he doesn't have to try and cook. He's comfortable when he has nothing to lose, but having everything is too much responsibility, especially if his mama won't take any of it.

To get back to the "Italian thing" - one aspect we admire about these mama-free men is how true they stick to their working class roots. Scarface was--the original version--modeled very clearly on Al Capone, so naturally the Untouchables' version Al Capone doesn't let wealth compel him to hide his working class roots. Note the pic below where he's getting shaved by his old barber in a beautiful palatial space under twisted dark manly flooring. This is wealth spent by the man, to realize his aesthetic, not to placate some rich wife's drive for respectability. No flowers, white tiles and dinner parties with all the best snobs. This is instead the nouveau riche bachelor in full flower, wherein the dark sleek look of the Corleone compound, the Italian aesthetic, free of WASP petit-bourgeois wife redecorating, is allowed to flower in its own dark orchid fashion, and it is beautiful, because darkness is beautiful and because today's man gets only one room, his 'man cave' in which to express his taste.

From top: Suspiria, Untouchables, Bonfire of the Vanities

The only real separation between Italian-American gangster films and Italian-Italian horror perhaps is that death is where the gangster film stops, but horror keeps going. And the brutal circumstances of that trip, the violence of going out, is everything. If you look at non-Italian American horror of the same approximate time, once it appears, death doesn't dawdle. Even most slasher films, the American ones, like Halloween, are really about the stalking and POV camera: when death comes it's almost a relief, since as I pointed out in "A Clockwork Darkness", we now know where the killer is, so there's no more worrying from where and when he will strike, how the person will die or if they will escape. They're dead, so they're safe. For the slasher era suspense-sufferer, no onscreen death can match the dread of not knowing when it will strike. But Argento's murders, De Palma's or Scorsese's or Coppola's first two Godfathers, are the exceptions: the moment of the first bullet, stab, or slash doesn't necessarily end the escape chances of survival, or mean a close to the episode. Death throes might go on for a full reel of near escapes, feeble cries for help, and forlorn looks up at the uncaring sky or (as in Fulci's Don't Torture the Duckling) busy highway, pleading for someone to stop...

And architecture plays another part in prolonging the sense of helplessness. In the apartment building where the first murder goes down in Suspiria, the multiple reflective frosted windows, the bizarre wallpaper, strange vertical angles, unholy lighting, and the howling, strange music and create a sense of complete alienation, an inescapable interior 'Hotel Overlook'-style space (though far less recognizable), we feel we recognize from our own nightmares. We're never sure what is a mirror and what a window; the smoked glass of the bathroom shower stall seems to look right out on the hallway elevator!

De Palma is more rooted in the concrete at least in Scarface, and his vision less baroque, more enthralled by the surface, the mirrors reflecting Tony in ever increasing distortion. De Palma has a natural tendency to use crane shots to create a mood of unease. In the climax, it is Tony himself who is the Mater Suspiriorum, or rather Mater Testiculorum Fide and the Bolivian hit squad is Jessica Harper sneaking in with her sewing scissors.  

In the above quotes at the top of this article I wanted to exhume the roots of the Italian artistry as the constant need to escape from mama (or even kill her symbolically, as in Suspiria). In the end of Scarface, Tony realizes even a macho endeavor like criminal empire management can turn him matronly ("Got tits," he drunkenly laments to Manny, visualizing his future as another complacent Lopez, "need a bra"). I say unto thee, blessed is the filmmaker who can recognize his own mom-haunted apron-string slashing anger as art and not feel the need to apologize to both women and the social order in general for his venting. As long as he's conscious of it. And both Argento and De Palma revere strong women, but fear them as well. They are conscious of the animas' warped ferocity and respectful of its power. A strong woman can make a man feel outgunned at every step, emasculated (since nothing he can do--even killing--will ever measure up to the raw violence of giving birth) but if he can stare death square in the face and say hello to his little friend --this is his balls. And balls alone can deliver us into the sad twisting architecture of the last breath, the byzantine nightmare realm where reality and dreams switch place, and life disappears like those fading scraps of a dream after you just woke up.

Mom would pull you back from that void. She's afraid you'll fall. If you heed her, you no longer have your balls, just your word, and the words is: be good, call more often, and take out the trash. Being a safe distance from the void may please her, but bores the rest of us stiff. God bless the director who says mama, back off-a me, and then dives right over the ledge with his camera

He who chooses hell over heaven, death over life, he is alone truly free of those apron string jelly fish stingers. He looks at the modern reverence for life, health, the family, and winces. He knows these gym rats and granola moms are all just scaling heights to nowhere, preserving their mortal husk on entomology's display board both in vain and vanity (or that old excuse, 'for the kids'). We men are from birth trained to apologize for our own measly drives, our desire for younger girls rather than the husks our own age; we apologize even our desire for death, and so we follow some vague plan of being 'good' or even 'true' -- yoking ourselves ever further beneath the plow to compensate for our inexcusable appendage. Missing the brass ring circle of light on the swim out of the merry-go-round abyss, we may well wind up permanently trapped in Lucifer's pool filter. All we can do when that happens is throw some of our magic seeds out onto the grass over our heads and hope it's enough to leave some kind of weed in our name that will survive the mower. All we had in this world was balls and words, but mama's world can find no use for either. Our writing is still ours, at least, unless-a someone pays us for the rights. Either way, our balls are yours, Cook's Tours! Take them around that womb globe. Sow their seed like Set sowed Osiris's chopped-up body, or else get stuffed, into the palatial tree coffin, the polluted womb. Marry well and often and love your chil--no, don't do either, just run! Run before she gets here she .../// Vito! Where are you going now, you silly boy! 

See Also:
Two hearts stab as one: Brian De Palma + Dario Argento = split/subject psychic twins of the reptile dysfunction

Saturday, July 20, 2013

CinemArchetype #25: The Fisher King

The cinema has done louhght and songed to the Fisher King. What are these two odd words? They wrong and right, sought and longed for mixed inextricably together -- fusing until body, mind, and soul bleed into each other. The point where they intersect and overlap is the wound of the Fisher King. It is what sets in motion the search for the Holy Grail--which can be anything from la sangre de Cristo to a a needle full of opiates, a sled or a stolen golf trophy. You a-silly English-a person! For without the blood of Christ there can be no cure, and so the land in turn is turned to waste, and the day is wasted if you're not. To paraphrase gentle Ben, up sluggard, and waste not the drinking day!

The grail in these cinematic contexts can be read as either deliverance or the final abandonment of the futility of hedonistic pursuits and the embrace of the divine. Imagine being, say, a rock star in the early 70s, living a nonstop drug-fueled orgy. Well, if you spent your painful pre-rock adolescence dreaming of such a life, then as a youth achieved it, then what ever will you dream of now that you are living it, a beat too long, 'til thou art old and irrelevant? Now the young groupies look at you askance. So, being a dad, try that maybe? To paraphrase Colonel Rutledge, any man who engages in child rearing at your age deserves all he gets. You're screwed, bra, wounded in exile. When one's desires are fulfilled beyond measure one is put in the painful position of being forced to realize one's desires were idiotic. Or as Mick Jagger says, "sexually satisfied, philosophically trying." He was debauched enough by then to know debauchery is only useful as an artistic tool, a perspective-widener, rather than something that builds long-lasting happiness.

Apparently, happiness can be found in one's children and one's art/music. The alcoholic, like me, compulsively chasing the next drink, would be destroyed within weeks if he one day inherited a fully stocked bar (as I almost was). The Fisher King's wound--a mirror to Christ's own wound from the Roman spear in the thigh--reflects the agony of achievement without God. It's Dr. Faustus painfully walking amongst his signed-for splendor without joy. No amount of gold can match a hunk of rock if the lord hath tossed it, so sayeth fans of the lord.

Depending on whether you're hearing Wagner or reading Wolfram Von Eisenbach or Maria Franz or Carl Jung, the Fisher King's wound is from either possessing the spear that pierced Christ and mishandling it, or being stabbed by a Muslim warrior (Parsifal's own long lost brother, in one version) who then flees with it or it's stolen from the Muslim warrior, or the Fisher King is just stabbed in a joust with a visiting Muslim knight and the spear and grail come later, or it's the spear that wounded Jesus on the cross or whatever. Whatever the cause of the wound, the Fisher King's power endures. Enough of cinema's most memorable patriarchs display some visible wound or weakness that mirrors their nation/family's current pestilence, something that can be symbolically healed and thus also the wasteland restored to Edenic flower.

This is an archetypal quest. We are given an unconscious purpose in life by the Fisher King, a chance to perhaps save our father from his lonesome death and thus stay our own irrelevance (we being next on mortality's gruesome daisy chain). Gandhi made himself almost die of hunger to give the newly freed Muslims and Hindus a purpose, to stop their escalating reprisal spiral. FDR's wheelchair made his resolve in the face of German and Japanese aggression that much more motivational, etc.

Watching Lincoln (2012) the other night made me aware that if the Fisher King archetype inspires only a single Parsifal on a hero's journey, it is enough. As long as leaders are smart enough to display their wound, their symbolic groin castration, to exploit the Jungian collective unconscious, they will always inspire the independent man who's heart craves a worthy cause. For true men are not inspired by the heat of the mob, the social contagion of mass hysteria, or the fear of others' power. True men, the best of us--if we are to walk, unarmed and unblinking, into the bloodied batons of salt mine sentries, or the spray of redneck fire hoses, or Japanese machine gun fire--must be reached on personal, mythic level. The Fisher King, the wounded leader, must activate the warrior spirit in us, so that we risk our lives in the service of his quest. Convincing free thinkers to lay down life and limb takes the kind of touch where a single speech or TV broadcast can galvanize a million individual human minds and hearts, like Martin Luther King, or Lincoln, or Kennedy, or Bulworth. And look what happened to them! They were given their wounds, too well. 

God be praised.
Sorry. So yeah, I'm the Fisher King, too, as are all middle-aged warrior spirits too long left wandering in the woods, wounded by age, loss, irrelevance. My wasteland du jour: Park Slope, Brooklyn with its infernal stretches of brownstone front lawn flower bushes, willowy fairy children, co-op organic red kale jutting up from the cardboard boxes they carry with a sanctimonious sneer as I rush past in my Spotify and cigarette isolation. I, who feel born for war and abhor their comfort and ease in their own skins and if I'm too lazy and peaceful to fight, well, I can at least sneer back at that kale. In the words of Lana Del Rey, I got a war in my mind. Maybe that's enough as far as keeping it from bursting out into the real. Maybe that in itself is some kind of heroic deed, a Herculean act of containment; I see others with those wars outer projected: terrorists, street corner ranters, rageful feminists; the burning cross flame-fanners at Fox news... but in hating racists and misandrists, misogynists, what am I? I am more of the same. I am wounded, my knights. Wounded...

1. Charles Waldron as General Sternwood
The Big Sleep (1946)

"You are looking at the end result, Sir, of a very gaudy life." - General Sternwood isn't being self-pitying with these words. just rueful of the way wild women and whiskey has taken its toll without even leaving him much in the way of pleasant memories. Hell, I am rueful too, so is Bogart, who takes an instant shine to the General. Though alas he is only present in this one scene, the loyalty General Sternwood's searing honesy inspires in both Marlowe and the D.A. supplies impetus to keep digging into case even after Vivian calls it over. Sternwood is a capital Fisher King, the wheelchair providing apt analogy to FDR, with the blackmail letters concerning his wild daughters hanging like the grail spear of Stalin over his orchids.

2. Bill Murray as FDR
Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012)

The movie itself is one of those anemic too-pretty art flicks, a Merchant-Ivoried bit of dreary memoir where tiresomely reticent hearts, fields of flowers, arrays of butlers, polished silver, antique cars that look fresh off the assembly line, and the lack of any legit rhythm to the dialogue. The only actors with any ability to stand out from the wallpaper are Bill Murray as FDR and Olivia Williams as Eleanor. And it seems very disrespectful that the sexuality of a president is once again relegated to an off-the-wrist HJ, poorly and confusingly alluded to. Is this proper, to focus on a great man's Clinton-like indiscretions? Perhaps a great politician is by nature an emotionally stunted lover. Did Ken Starr produce and insist we add this quick one off the wrist down on the auld main drag to the lexicon of the presidential persona? The writer and director have no idea how to film a friendly genuine social interaction or even to provide a demonstration of presidential authority. FDR's mom orders her son around; she comes off as bitterly irritable; the visiting king and queen are portrayed as two squirrelly twits afraid of their own shadow. Having first referenced Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky via the off-the-wrister, they now go off to reference The King's Speech and Lincoln (insane shrew of a wife or mom trying to make a great man's home life as miserable as possible). The music rummages through John Williams' most corny and obvious passages while he's in the shower, not that he'd be able to prosecute, having stolen them in turn from long dead Russians. Laura Linney seems like she's rehearsing for a job reading Hallmark cards to her mentally-impaired grandchildren. Bill Murray fails to represent the full width and power of FDR; he seems too subsumed in mannerisms. In the end it all seems like a painful memory from the eyes of a very bored child stuck watching grown-ups talk, and remembering them only as a bunch of strained, uncomfortable simpletons. The men grit their teeth and wait 'til all the bitchy women (moms and wives) finally go to bed so the real drinking can commence, which then we don't even get to see.

Of course Murray's a Fisher King in and of himself, and FDR inspired an entire nation to rise up on a bloody hero's journey --you don't get more Fisher King than that. Too bad they're both left stranded in a doily-decked, sickeningly perfumed bed and breakfast, with the martinis measured out in eyedrops and the old lady owner banging on the ceiling with a broom if we so much as creak a chair after nine PM.

3. Nigel Terry - King Arthur 
Excalibur (1981)

My interpretation of the Fisher King might differ from various texts of Parsifal, but always Parsifal needs to answer the questions of the grail correctly to win the grail; the variants condensing in Boorman's Excalibur posit Arthur as the Fisher King, sort of, the wound inflicted not by a Muslim warrior but by lightning thrown from his evil sister, timed with his spotting Lancelot shacked up with Guinevere, leaving behind the sword of power - stabbing the earth in his sorrow, and having the sword run through Merlin, all timed to this double betrayal. "The king without a sword! The land without a king!"

Percival finds the grail at last by recognizing the Fisher King is Arthur, who is synonymous with the land, and the stuff of 'future legend.' Arthur sips from the grail, is restored, retrieves his sword from Guinevere, who has kept it all these years, and when Arthur and his nights ride forth to battle Mordred, the wasteland blooms as they pass by into a flowering kingdom, a beautiful brave scene scored to De Falla and bursting the stitches of Jungian archetypal symbolism into an operatic intersection between myth, psyche, music, and cinema. Boorman never made a better movie since, maybe even before.

4. Max Von Sydow as King Osric
Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan is the ultimate teenage alienation movie. The dark dad comes, kills the old, and kicks you out of your home life, shackles you to the wheel of woe (school), and you go deep into your room and comic books. When you finally make a friend, the movie's 1/4 way through. Before Subotai shows up there's no banter, no joy, just unrelenting grimness, we feel the release of a lot of tension when Conan finally has someone in his life who's not out to kill or enslave him. Conan gets a girlfriend after that, and the three of them are off and running, until they get brought before the king after robbing a cult of serpent-handlers. Rather than punish, the king salutes them. He seems not quite "now grown old and sotted" as Mako narrates, but he does have two hot babes at his side. And he hates the serpent-handlers since his only daughter ran off and joined them. They're like Woodstock if everyone smoked salvia divinorum instead of pot (if you don't know the serpentine menace lurking beneath the divine sage, you won't get that joke).  Osric isn't notably wounded, he has lost his daughter to a shady Eddy Mars of a grifter named Set (James Earle Jones) and wants Conan for a Sean Regan. Conan agrees because he's sworn to kill Set (he stole his fatha's swoahd), which right there tells you that Excalibur the mighty phallus is alive and the character of Conan is thus presented with the third father so essential to a fairy tale, and Conan's path to helping King Osric is his path to confronting the dark father, Vader-voice made flesh, James Earle Jones, and Max played his own dark father in Flash Gordon (1980)

5. Jack Harvey as Jeffrey's Dad in 
Blue Velvet (1986)

The sudden mortal vulnerability of the father is a terrible thing for any son to witness. Regardless of how mature the son may be, he is never ready for this, as he can't help but realize that he is next in line. The son will soon be in this exact spot, dying, wounded, vulnerable, a tube up his nose, unable to talk, only burble. The son will then perform the phallus, as it were, enact the father's stiffness in his absence. For me, for example, that consists of mirroring my dad's home life: sitting on the couch, drinking, smoking mounds of cigarettes, and yelling at the TV, presuming it hears my cutting japes. The severed ear Jeffrey finds is his first glimpse of the grail, the start of the breadcrumb trail, the purloined mail that Jeffrey returns. Sandy "heard a few things about the ear." Too much? Soon dad is back to mowing the lawn, and the beauty and banality of Lumberton is restored, all indirectly because of Jeffrey's dogged detective work, i.e. he's Hamlet if the dad was just in the hospital and the treacherous brother sucked on laughing gas while molesting his mother.

 6. Charles Durning - Warring Hudsucker
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

There are a lot of Fisher King archetypes in the constellations of the Coens, from the Colonel Sternwood-riff of the 'other' Lebowski (also Durning), to George Clooney's machine and oxygen-tube dependent old boss in Intolerable Cruelty, but the best for me is Durning as Waring Hudsucker because, though he may jump out the window, he's always present. His death a mystery but a sacrifice, his letter, never delivered by the incompetent Parsifal (Tim Robbins), figures out the riddle, at which case the angel Warring doth re-appear.

Katherine Hepburn is evoked (flawlessly, at first) by Jennifer Jason Leigh (with dashes of Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh later, even Stanwyck); editors spitting out questions in the manner of the news reeler in Citizen Kane; two bum taxi drivers at the lunch counter do Lady Eve's Stanwyck talking to her mirror while discussing her rivals for Hopsy; Paul Newman chomping on cigars and showing off his incredible 70 year-old abs, a living connection to the invoked studio era. The only drawback is Tim Robbins' discomfort with playing such a reticent spazz; he seems to amuse the Coens--they give him long loving takes to do his business--but it takes a lot of forgiveness on our parts to stick it out and just appreciate the unified field theory, geometric symbolism, those horrible dreams you have that you're still at your last job and ordered on some unfathomable mission, and Waring's triumphant reappearance, playing ukulele and singing "Comin' Round the Mountain" like he wrote it.

7. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (1953)

He turns the Holy Grail myth on its head; instead of a potion to cure his pain he seeks the strong venom of vengeance, but in this case it's far beyond mere retribution, and that's why I think Peck's strange performance is so great, and I fie and foo and even fum those critics who call him a confused Lincoln. I know Welles wanted to play him and wound up playing Father Mapple instead, wherein he does a grand job. I think the combination of a difficult water shoot and difficult Welles would ensure they'd STILL be working on it otherwise. What makes Peck so great is that he seems like a pretty normal, capable guy, but the combination of having been struck by lightning in the past, and losing his leg to Moby Dick has left him with a kind of unholy power. He won't be cured until Moby Dick is dead, so in this case the Grail is filled with the blood of the whale, and when it comes, he gets a chance to drink deep ere he departs, if not of the blood then at least the salty water Dick calls home. He in effect becomes part of the etchings around the lip of the Grail -- in addition to gold letterings of harpoons and scar, thar he lies, a skeleton caught up in mariner's ropes beckoning... beckoning to drink deep therefrom its whalebone rim, and let the hot blood within roil down into your inner furnace.

8. Daniel Day Lewis
Lincoln (2012)

While Spielberg makes sure Lewis is as penny-and-five dollar bill-like as possible, Lewis makes Lincoln gentle-but-fierce, and full of biblical anecdotes--new testament mercy and coiled old testament wrath, speaking in a Walter Brennan voice modulated like the ebb and flow of a leisurely incoming tide, until the zero hour at which point he becomes a paragon of democratic fire and initiative. When canons fire and the celebration hits the streets he becomes gentle once more... ebbing and flowing again.

This kind of long-game rhetorical strategy should of course be in any decent politician's schtickbook... but isn't, nor is it achievable for any ordinary actor no matter how talented. Lewis is miles beyond his closest competition in the modulation ebb and flow department --it goes beyond mere 'realism' or brio into something like a Beethoven symphony. For his inspiring fisher king wound, Lincoln also uses his terrible posture, his tall thin geekiness, the ache in his heart over losing his first son and having a bi-polar harridan for a wife. None of this is ever cured by the Parsifal grail of victory in his time. In fact, the bullet from John Wilkes Boothe may have been that grail in a dark hue.

Maybe men with mentally ill wives often succeed at their jobs because they never want to come home. The office becomes their place of comfort and relaxation. They dread weekends and look forward to Monday. When our dear Lincoln dies it's almost his own marital triumph, as if his spirit moves into every five dollar bill, painting, and film about him, and his wife can no longer find him to nag, even during her frequent seances.

As children we're brought up to think that 1776 was a long, long time ago, and that democracy is solid and inescapable, woven into the fabric of our humanity itself. But power corrupts and ambition kills those around it; America was constantly in jeopardy then, and so is today, both from within and without. In that sense we were in 1776 a lot like Israel is today; Israel is only 70-ish, right? That's approx. how old America was circa Lincoln. This is how I imagine history, through such leap-frogging. I try to be the Fisher King for the holy grail of 70s encounter group/open-shirted enlightenment, to make sure I record and remember a time of sexual and experimental freedoms that I witnessed in awe and envy but never got to experience. We choose now forget how far we went, to murmur it down to shag rug and black light panther poster that we wince at once in awhile, never looking past the tackiness of the chosen signifiers to recall there was something real behind them. It's something we hunger for.  For some people, real freedom is far scarier than any conservative tyrant's crushing grip. Goddamn it, I hope I'm one of them.

9. Bill Nighy as Viktor
Underworld (2003)

Vampire Kate Beckinsale's mentor Viktro hibernates in a state of freeze-dried blood-drained stasis for millennia while upside down and vertical in a giant ornate bronze tube and isn't scheduled to be rehydrated for another 200 years. But Kate needs his help because her lover's a werewolf and her ex-boyfriend is a vampire out to gun him down. This is really big, but she forgets it's only big to her. How dare she wake him up just to prattle about some boy? Does it turn out Viktor is evil --even for a vampire--and whatnot? Of course it doth. He's got dark secrets, and when your dark secret lord takes a drink it better be Christ blood in a pure gold chalice (not silver) if you wake him early.

Whatever you might say about the Underworld films, they have a great coterie of Brit thesps and a unified dark blue look. There hasn't been a ray of sun anywhere in the series' four film run, and for that I am truly grateful. Beckinsale is beautiful and can act, as can the mostly Shakespeare company-ish cast.

10. Gabriele Ferzetti - Morton
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

If you got into Italian cinema via Leone, you may have wondered why you instinctively didn't like the romantic lead in Antonioni's L'Aventura (1958). That's because you first saw the same actor as a sweaty railroad baron in a film made a decade later called Once Upon a Time in the West. As a Fisher King railroad tycoon crippled by polio and losing control of his body, and his men, Mortn needs his champion blue-eyed death-dealing knight to bring him the grail cure, which in this context is getting his train car all the way to the Pacific Ocean-- to know the railroad made it all the way west--before he dies.

In Leone's hands this is no Jungian self-actualization but the scourge that is capitalism, big business, ambition and naked greed at the cost of decent wages and fairness. Apparently this cross-country rail-laying odyssey started out pretty well but out here in the endless wastelands of Monument Valley it's a bit like Aguirre, Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now --only the darkness-infused hearts can survive. In the end, Morton hits the dirt to a nice little Morricone death cue, and a few final goodbye bullets from his anti-Parsifal, a brilliant Henry Fonda. Not every Fisher King gets to live through his wound's rough cure. At least God and Leone grant him a gaze at his long-longed-for Pacific ocean, even if it is just a painting on the wall and a merciful, angel wave crash foley mixed in with the heavenly choir.

11. Brando - Vito Corleone
The Godfather (1972)
"There just wasn't enough time, Michael."

 12. Burl Ives - Big Daddy
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1958)
The family basement is packed with souvenirs and statues from a Cook's tour to Europe Big Daddy took with his wife, who takes after the mendacity side of the family. What could be just a cliche'd rendition of Charles Foster Kane's big ole basement becomes a mythic underworld, with Burl Ives as a kind of pot-bellied troll king, and cobwebs on tall lamps draped to resemble stalagmites and tree roots. There's moments for Burl and Paul to each smash stuff in a clutching heart attack way as their illusions of immortality and glory are dashed on the altar of passing time and irrelevance. Facing finally the full horror of all existence, they are redeemed by embracing what they as men fear and recoil from the most - genuine feeling and human love. 
I've had those breakthroughs before with my own big daddy. Maybe you have too -- the late night boozy moments of truth when you can look at him and suddenly see--instead of a paragon or symbol of authority--a fellow aging human, ever trying to escape his future by ignoring his present, just as you do, and if alcoholism runs in your veins you can bond quite well until the hungover morning when you scarcely remember the progress you made. Like many of Williams' plays, it seems made for me, made for a brooding drunk writer by a brooding drunk writer - with booze as the thing that both gives you the brio to stare into that void, and at the same time shorten the distance to the bottom, where the teeth of Sebastian's Venus fly trap garden go Click-clack!
13. Jeff Bridges - Jack
The Fisher King (1991)

Man, if I wanted to see an alcoholic artist slacker in the late 80s taking advantage of the kindness and fierce protective instinct of a goodhearted Italian-American girl, I would just look at my photo album, which I didn't want to do. That's why when I eventually did watch this film I was so happy to see Jeff Bridges finally becoming.... Jeff Bridges. Robin Williams in prime 'who's crazier, the crazy guy or the 'sane' one in an insane world?" mode is the Parsifal, making our friend Jeff the Fisher King by restoring his faith and stealing him a golf trophy grail.. Look at him the dude There, above. Aren't you proud? Grail achieved! 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Getting to Own You: CLOUD ATLAS (2012), RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935)

In my eleven feet of apartment, in a couch gone saggy from my restless weight, armed with a hairless cat and a vast battlefield of Coke Zeros and Camel Lights, I spent the Fourth of July weekend watching a  six part Revolutionary War documentary and marveling at the mule-headed courage of our American forefathers (many of my ancestors fought in it, from Ipswich, Mass --how Lovecraftian!): "All men are created equal," Jefferson wrote, believing it "self-evident," yet even on his deathbed the man could only bring himself to free five of his many slaves. What a complete bastard, but perhaps the meaning of freedom is lost on those who are born free. Unless they watch the right empathy-triggering movies, of course.

Here now I celebrate my freedom from the bondage of self, from the need to socialize to stave off anxiety and depression, to reap the benefits of age and medication which allow me to sit and be fully absorbed into what I watch. I observe no bed time, no three course meal structure. I am free to gild my cage and wallow in the tube's glowing captivity. Fuck the picnic grilles and distant echoing screams of children. The world outside the screen becomes more and more like an easily forgettable dream, a place to visit to stock up on Diet Coke and snacks, before the next two-hour plunge into the collective cable-DVD-Blu-ray-Streaming ocean. Without plans or rivals for the remote, I am free to choose any illusion.

A true slave, at last, am I. The Butler of Orbs, the eyes and ears that connect my unconscious to the screen; my hands that connect my unconscious to the page. Is this not a kind of ecstatic freedom, to recognize consciousness as little more than some unseen being's tool to communicate? Reading my own work 20 years later, it's like connecting with a stranger.

And over in 'real life,' what is it about owning our fellow man that is such a vile turn-on (the unconscious is without empathy of morality). Why are we natural enslavers of ourselves, we who pay the concept of freedom such sanctimonious lip service?

I didn't realize my next choice of dream submission transmission, CLOUD ATLAS (2012), would perhaps explain all that and more. There are whippings and escaped black slaves, Soylent Green references, unlawful incarceration, schizophrenic devil visitations, bombs on planes, cannibalism, Tom Hanks as you've never seen him before, an ingeniously understandable futuristic neo-ebonic patois, interesting predictions, and way too many Jim Broadbents and fake-looking epicanthic folds for comfort. There is misery and the sweet sting of freedom's disconnect and an examination of the bizarre difficulties in trying to whittle a human soul down to a commodity.

Its source novel-- written originally no doubt in that page-turner potboiler manner where something bad is almost about to always happen at the end of every riveting chapter--each small victory against the tyranny of evil men comes cathartic through the door at the last possible moment, and even if we're all going to eventually be sucked under by Miss Fellowes-closeted dykes, racist capitalists and homophobic Capulets, somehow we go on to write interesting if overly familiar philosophy about our intertwined destinies, one life after another.

The fantasy at play in ATLAS' life-after-life thesis isn't just reincarnation, for there are enough documented cases of past life remembrance to convince anyone willing to look, the true fantasy is that our words, art, or music will somehow endure through the ages, even if it looks for all intensive purposes like we'll die in obscurity. ATLAST posits that--even if we only get a handful of copies of our music out on CD-R, or LP, or our films are only seen by a few hundred on YouTube, or our abolitionist diaries are only used to prop up piano benches--as long as we reach one other person in the future then we will have succeeded, because that person might be us, or be interested in helping a future version of us, based on what they read or heard by this past us. And so, each piece of art or writing is a message in a bottle to a future self, every shipboard journal or pirate broadcast a possible bible to one's bored future servant. It's what we writers and artists and musicians tell ourselves when laboring in near-obscurity --even if we're one-day world famous, we'll still have to face that blank page, alone. And it's never satisfied. Even after inspiration has long since flown it begs for words, like a junkie. The "after I'm dead I'll be famous" fantasy helps us keep it sated. If we focus more on the page and less on the press agent, we can crack on rather than crack up. Only a focus on the perfection of craft has any results as far as relief from the withdrawal of full self. But is that 'satisfaction' a true artistic 'in itself' purpose, or a distraction from finding out how far we can go in the 'real' world?

Hugh Grant - Reloaded all right.
Hugo Weaving, about to get (finally) clobbered by a mellow Scotsman
All writers of today and even yesterday dream and wonder about whether their words will live on to tomorrow, or disappear forever in some massive power outage that kills all internet files. We wonder if we wouldn't have been better off writing everything down in longhand and saving it all in a mysterious pouch for our future descendants to marvel over in 3-D Technicolor flashbacks. Alas, years of typing and bad posture and impatience have made our thoughts too rapid for slow pen movements; our hands have gone arthritic from poor circulation. In longhand, I end up writing three sentences ahead of my previous one. My text collapses in on itself like a slowly forming whirlpool.

CLOUD ATLAS understands all this. The censors of the mind are embodied in the text by some seriously twisted villains, cast against type mostly, except for Hugo Weaving as, depending on the century, a Papa Legba-style demon, a corporate assassin for big oil interests, an old world evil enslaver of black flesh... and an evil female nurse at a no-escape Dickensian old folks home wherein s/he looks unaccountably like Matt Damon (above). And then, evilest of all, Hugh Grant as a cannibal, another slaver, and an old grotty rich dude who traps his freeloading brother in said gulag rest home.

But the filmmakers, siblings Wachowski and Tom Twyer, may have brought over too much baggage from THE MATRIX. For one thing, they are way too into face tattoos and other neo-pagan body mods (who can forget MATRIX: RELOADED's big rave scene, despite our best efforts?). But the many lives/many genders thing is fascinating when one considers that one of the Wachowskis is a real-life transgender/woman, and this undoubtedly helps add a sense of lived-in vivid urchency. Couple that to the feeling of powerful corrupted agents of power breathing down our necks and we're in a weird but riveting zone between the epics of DW Griffith and the gender-bent soaps of Pedro Almodovar (only sans any form of humor).

One other theme, more pronounced than even gender and freedom/objectification issues, obsessing the Wachowskis seems to be the concept of art's 'permanence,' the glory of art and letters (and video tape) to transcend time and  keep the flames of freedom alive. We see this in V FOR VENDETTA's secret chamber of forbidden pop culture collector's items, and in THE FOUNTAIN (see: American Grievers), wherein one letter writer gets an art exhibit and people flock to gaze at their faded penmanship. Experiencing the full magnificent weight of ATLAS, you get the feeling the Wachowskis are already justifying to themselves that it's okay if this film doesn't make any money. Future generations will recognize it as the defining film of our century. Hell, maybe it isn't but when they're dead, along with the rest of us, who knows what films will be the ones revered as eternal by our aquatic ancestors? I can see CLOUD fitting the bill far more than THE MATRIX, which seems more and more clunky and over-the-top pretentious with each passing day.

And who amongst us, late at night, alone, drunk off our asses with notebook in hand, haven't looked down upon our illegible scrawls and felt the surging power of Wagnerian music in our unbound soul, as if every line will one day be memorized as gospel by millions? If every drunken scribble is one day to be studied by enraptured art history and English lit majors, does it really matter if it's just the booze warming your cockles? As long as you feel famous during your drunk scribbling, who gives a shit whether anyone will have ever heard of you in 100 years, or has heard of you even now? The Akashic Records, man, they'll have you on microfiche.... and that's good enough. The future is where, as Criswell famously said, you and I will spend the rest of our lives. And your work will be there, lasting maybe even longer.

And then, on the passive end, on this plane, if you could feel entwined and get that old unfamiliar familiar feeling listening to a dead stranger's music, or seeing their art, or reading their life story, or seeing them act in a film, does that make them you in a past life? Doesn't that make their ghost feel better about their (to them current) lifestyle choices? Do the things they sacrificed to bring you that book or painting or film feel worth it once they see you inspired by it? Do they almost feel like they could have or would have written it themselves if they could (Which is how I feel about John Dies at the End). Or what about contemporaries? Can't you be living more than one life at the same time, separated from it by a wall of conscious amnesia that only art and music can cross?

Didn't I write this....tomorrow?
See, I feel that way about Lou Reed (hear me sing "Sweet Jane" here). I felt a deep connection to him and his music even BEFORE I ever did drugs, drank, or realized we shared the same birthday, and studied the same subject at the same University. It was all just a kind of weird fate connection (albeit one-way). And so I feel that reincarnation can occur in a contemporary phase, to varying degrees (Reed might be 1/10 me or rather we both might be 1/100th someone else. If all of us are connected and time doesn't really exist then it makes sense that not only will we live many lives along a linear historical axis, but we'll live every life in all eras, eventually. The only lasting illusion of our reality, besides space and time, is separateness, oh yeah and everything else.

Unlike the Wachowskis and Tykwer I'm not a big budget story teller. Rather I am a story liver-througher. I treat what I see onscreen and hear through my headphones as part of my own living heritage. As Peter Tork said (while wearing a white robe): "It is impossible for the brain to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined." Media is more meaningful to me than my own reality --I feel it too deep. I can read the future in a passing synchronicity ("plate o' shrimp") on TV, and find any mood or exaltation reflected in any actorly face. God, in other words, speaks to me through the randomness of TV chance. Film is my I Ching.

There are reasons for this: I grew up in the land where color aerial TV was the height of home entertainment and no child overruled their father on what to watch, so we learned to take it all in without distinguishing regardless what we liked or disliked.  Cartoons were on until dad came home from work and switched on the news, without so much as an apology, and I regularly had to go to bed before the end of the prime time movie, forcing me to dream the rest of it. I learned to roll with the boredom of Meet the Press, exalt in the heights of Shock Theater, soak it all up sans filter, ride the cathode ray like a twin-stalked lobster surf into the blue dream mystic.

Anyway, my point is...

Close our eyes and think hard enough and we can feel the feelings of being anywhere any other human has ever existed. If it can be imagined or performed, if we can feel and hear and taste that which is suggested, then it's all true, and those instantaneous links our words and music and art create are proof we are immortal and All Things At Once. We're the cumulatively encompassed transparadoxical double helix timeline of Self. DNA... we're a virus... written by a genius trying to figure out just Who "I AM".

Hugo Weaving, comin' ta get ya!

By contrast, the evil people--the racist, classist, sexist, and intolerant-- the Hugo Weavings and Hugh Grants in their various ATLAS incarnations-- will always want to isolate, enslave, incarcerate, or annihilate a subset of humanity for personal gain. Our unified field of self is proof of their evil and separation. They refuse to be connected in any compassionate way to the people they've deemed lower than themselves in order to justify their inhumanity. They don't 'feel' the connection so they don't realize that to oppress humanity in any of its forms is to abjectify an aspect of oneself, which is what leaves homophobic racists on a shrinking life raft until they finally have to try and open fire on their own toes for lack of options (1). What anti-gay marriage proponents forget to mention is that up until 1968, it was illegal in most red states to marry outside your own race (see: Anti-Miscegenation Laws). Nowadays even Rush Limbaugh doesn't dare publicly wish this law was reinstated, or slavery, or segregation. That's.... temporarily... too far.

Olivier's Richard III
I pity these haters in many ways because I know the horrible feeling of powerlessness that underwrites such veiled misanthropy. These souls can only create human bonds the cheap, fast way, by demonizing a subset. "Not it!" they cry, always first to say that, always terrified of being "it" in life's game of tag. But they know it's only a matter of time before they're next on their own chopping block, like the Duke of Buckingham (above) in Richard III, slowly realizing the unspoken rule of paranoia: if one sells out others one shall inevitably be sold out in turn. It can be no other way, by definition of karma's own law, which we realize all too soon is just for us.

BUT even within the context of this, there's something downright unnerving about CLOUD ATLAS and its suggestion that evil souls can survive through many lives, rather than the common conception, shared by me, and Buddha and probably the Rosicrucians, that after one life of such condensed navel-orbiting, they have their dark, condensed storm cloud souls stripped clean of all liens and barnacles and their magnetic field used as fuel for a gravity propulsion engine. Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving in ATLAS however are unconscionably evil shits for centuries, persecuting the same souls over and over. It's truly a horrifying idea, to link a victimizer and victim together over and over across aeons, the one dominating, incarcerating, flogging and inconveniencing the other without relent.

I choose to believe this isn't 'really' how reincarnation works. I believe Weaving's character would probably wind up re-melted in Satan's forge and caste in lower forms after one go round, or better still would reincarnate as his own victim. BUT - it's damned scary to think that some souls are just evil forever, given a license to shit on the same other soul/s throughout eternity. That idea is just too odious to bear, though it does make for riveting viewing. Real nightmare shit --I don't advise seeing it alone, high on DXM and a fever, unless you want your old FLATLINER death signals reawakened.

And then they came for me.

Carrefour is the name of the mindless black slave descendent-turned-automaton
played by Darby Jones in I Walked with a Zombie - coincidence?

I cooled down after ATLAS in the warmness that is RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), which was smart of me. In this Leo McCarey masterpiece the struggle against systematic oppression and human "ownership" involves a third generation English butler (Charles Laughton) learning to stretch out in America's limitless potential as a Washington State small business owner/restaurateur, and to stand up to both his original British "owner", an earl (Roland Young) and current harridan employer, Effie, the petit-bourgeois wife of Egbert (Charlie Ruggles - no relation), the laconic heir to a vast lumber fortune in Washington State. But getting there first involves the pain of being 'lost' in a poker game Ruggles wasn't even present at.

"You're going to America, Ruggles," the Earl (Roland Young) simply announces that morning as Ruggles  hands him the morning paper.

"The country of slavery, m'lord?" Ruggles asks, British upper lip masking his aghast shock.

"Oh that's all finished, I think."

And yet Ruggles has been used as pokers stakes, which seems pretty close. He later takes to drink (With Effie's verbal consent because "she's broadminded' - her finest moment).

As US citizens it's both amusing and alarming to hear an English valet dismiss America as beneath contempt for its practice of slavery, a nation that boasts of its relative classlessness. Stressing the difference is Effie and he brother's attempt to bring class stratification to the States, a sure sign of their petit-bourgeois vanity. The Earl, when he visits to retrieve Ruggles after realizing he can't live without him, proves his true nobility by choosing to hang out at the never-ending clambake keg party down the street.

Ruggles' merry sidestepping of their pretense involves--among other brilliant things (I cry every time)--his reciting the Gettysburg address. Director Leo McCarey shows his humanist steak in spades here, and I think it's his best film, which says a lot (he's the man who gave us Duck Soup and The Awful Truth). Another highlight seeing the villainous social climber Belknap Jackson (Lucien Littlefield) who tries to fire Ruggles for various perceived insults (including Ruggles kicking him square in the arse) get what's coming to him. He and his sister are the same types who in the past upheld the traditions of slavery because it was 'being done' in all the best southern families; the sort that prizes one type of person over another, i.e. anything that enhances or upholds some social hierarchy must be superior to the French ideal of liberte' egalite' et fraternite' which is way too populist for the rich afraid of losing their riches to liberal taxation... even now.

But--as I learned while working in a high end art gallery through the 90s--the really classy people--depicted here by Ma, Ruggles, Nell, and Egbert and even the Earl --avoid the bourgeois nonsense and stick to drinking and having fun. The highlight being that the Earl and Egbert sneak out of the house to avoid the guests at the dinner party Effie's giving in the Earl's honor. All they really want to do is drink and hang out with cool-as-hell Ma (Maude Eburne, below right), a wise woman cinemarchetype if ever there was one, never getting involved in the petty domestic squabbles of her in-laws, just paying the bills and shrugging it off with a good laugh. We should be able to do the same, and thanks to Warner's Archives, RUGGLES is at last on DVD, and looking great. Don't ever not see it.

I'm about out of time so, in closing, America, happy birthday again. For the most part, you rule! Just don't try to rule me, because I am not even here, psychically or spiritually. The last thing I want is for you to find that out and come looking for me inside the screen, hunting your lost property like a relentless alarm clock, insisting--as my mom used to do--that I come outside, to work, play with the neighborhood kids, and be my awful 'trapped-in-the-sticky-amber of linear time' self instead of vicariously living multiple lives across time and space. It took me years to be able to let all that go and indulge my misanthropy and vanting to be alone without hearing mom's nagging voice and my own depression dampening my spirit. But I made it, Ma. Look at me looking!

Still, even with this celebration of independence, I am not really even my own master. I belong to that remorseless muse, the inner spectator spirit, riding me forever deeper into the muck, heedless of fame or fortune, caring only for the next crazy turn in the untraveled yellow wood pulp. As long as it's the one less traveled, and a dead end, I'll keep going. Even after it all vanishes in an electromagnetic pulse back to page one stone age tablets, I'll be there. Id be so stoned too - m'lord. to go elsewhere. If I can't find freedom from my cramped office/studio apartment cage in my cramped office/studio apartment cage, I'll never really find it at all. Is that right?

1. I of course refer to that old folk tale about the scared lodger who, spotting two shiny eyes at the other end of this bed, scared in the dead of night blows his own big toes off with a shotgun (the nails of the big toes resembled eyes in the moonlight) - as apt an illustration of projected hatred one is likely to find. Makes sense it's from Appalachia. They wise.
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