"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Slashological Strata of Fate: HALLOWEEN to THE TERMINATOR (1978-1984)


The early 80s --the height of the slasher craze --was for many impressionable, alienated teens like myself a time of fear, paranoia, isolation and frustrated sexual awakening; it all pooled together to form a budding fascist militarism within our ranks. Slasher films were an inescapable part of the landscape even if you avoided them: TV commercials, newspaper print ads relentlessly ogling cowering or showering girls from the perspective of killers --there was no escape. And it was before internet, so we couldn't really find like-minded pre-PC people, the ones who, like me, thought women very very vulnerable and felt horrible for being too small and young to protect them and to naive to realize that women weren't turned on by guys who made themselves miserable worrying about them. We developed an anti-misogyny, a misandry. We sneered at humanity in general and how sex and booze made our peers sloppy and indifferent to their own self preservation. We tried to absolve ourselves by thinking any bitch dumb enough to sleep with so-and-so, to fall for his dumb line and drink his gauche drinks, deserved all she got... Jason was to us what the Monster from the Id was to Morphius in Forbidden Planet

My poor Krell...

We'd later get sloppy drunk too, but for now--age 12-16--the borderline to forbidden knowledge was heavily patrolled by a legion of masked, silent, shambling butcher knife wielding, unkillable automatons.We, who saw the line, dared not cross it. Instead we carefully, quietly armed ourselves for future battles. Stashing the butcher knife under our pillow, our baseball bat under our bed, preparing for the time when we would need to battle the shambling slasher.

Get thee to a gunnery...
Of course it all more or less originated in Halloween (1978) which I hadn't even seen it at the time yet I knew all about it, via the clip Siskel and Ebert showed on the special episode of Sneak Previews devoted to "Dead Teenager" movies, wherein they taught me to turn my queasy dread into outraged feminism, where it would remain until I read Carol Clover's Men Women and Chainsaws and learned that was the whole point... I didn't have to afraid for girls, or of girls, I could be afraid through girls!

Back in those early 80s though, the main dread was that the slasher would get us in our sleep, or when we were alone, and we all thought of what we would do if he came home, as Halloween's tag line read, and the thought he was never going to die held us in a giddy grip that made it necessary to keep the TV or radio on, and a nightlight, to drown out the scrapings of trees against the house, and the creaking footsteps we couldn't be sure we heard as we tried to sleep.  My fear never stopped until I learned after watching Battle of the Bulge one night that just thinking about WW2 eased my fear. It could occupy my brain and all the armaments made me feel secure in the way armaments will, even if it was only in my imagination, that's where the monsters were too, so it worked. If that's not an encapsulation of the rise of 80s action movie militarism I don't know what is. So, retrace the steps and wonder... did Halloween indirectly cause the Iraq war?


The thing you have to remember though is that poor Laurie Strode didn't have a Laurie Strode before her to teach her to not drop the knife by the killer just because he's temporarily playing dead. Myers was the first of this type, this emerging breed of mute, indestructible automaton killers patrolling suburbia and in the first Halloween, Jamie Lee doesn't yet know he's got nine hundred lives and you need to take drastic steps like defenestration, or what I eventually determined was an unbeatable and less messy course of action: thumb removal (no thumbs, no strangling or holding weapons, all he can do is lunge and snap like a turtle).


Every kid had their own late night strategy for tackling a Michael Myers / Jason variety killer and in hindsight it's clear Laurie Strode's ignorance was the root force for the 80s action movie surge. The new heroes killed their enemies eight dozen ways at once, obliterated them. Sometimes they even tangled with indestructible psychos personally: Chuck Norris went on a round of futile karate kicks against a modified killer in Hero and the Terror (1988); Charlie Bronson tangled with a freaky psycho who kills while buck naked in Ten to Midnight (1983); Clint tangled with a kinky leather man in Tightrope (1984). We all thought The Terminator was--based on the previews--Arnold's contribution to the by-then passé formula; it looked like an low budget Italian knock-off slasher/action sci fi hybrid based on that preview. There he was, our Conan now dressed like he should be riding a scooter in Rome, using a laser sight at a phony looking 'Tech Noir' bar. We figured he had really gone off the A-list with this one, that he'd be doing dinner theater next. So we were stunned with incredulity when we read the glowing reviews and heard the record box office. Seeing the film a few weeks later I understood why: this time the opponent knew all the unstoppable killer's tricks before the movie even started, so it was like the final girl finally had a guy who understood her. There would be no more dropping butcher knives, ever.

Won't get fooled again: Blue Steel, Escape from New York, Aliens
The idea that kept us up at night was there there might be some crazy killer who has us earmarked for death for reasons beyond understanding: maybe your friend called him a creep when he drove past you on the street, but what allowed us to sleep was the idea that for every Moby Dick monster there would be an Ahab or Dr. Loomis and vice versa. In Halloween the same essential dynamic takes place, just substitute Donald Pleasance's quiver-voiced shrink for Michael Biehn.


To help lay all this out, I've assembled the following textual horror strata map. Most crap horror films never get past the surface (topographical) layer, while only a few get all the way down to the core, creating an inverse pyramid:

Surface (Topographical): Mise en scene; iconography: The mask. axe, chainsaw, screaming woman, corridors advanced down stealthily, shocks around the corners, cowering, rising up, sudden face in the bathroom mirror, closet doors being peered through. A killer presumably killed sitting slowly up and turning his head, the black kid dies first, etc.
Textual: Condemnation of lustful behavior; warning to never take the 'safety bars' of our first world social order consumerist entitlement for granted  (i.e. Marie Antoinette letting them eat cake).
Subtextual: Feminism; homophobia; collapse of the American Family; critique of sexual repression; man's inherent savagery; castration anxiety; Marxist ideology; misanthropy; misogyny
Structural: The uncanny rhythm of slowed down time and sense of danger erupting from even normal things as they exist in an unsteady relation to language and perception: closet doors, darkened laundry rooms, cars, darkness, bushes outside the house, staircases, mirrors, telephones, porches, windows - i.e. the lack.
Core: Death Drive; initiation from child to adult through endurance, fetishizing, celebrating our inevitable death; the learning of aggression; the encouragement of militarism; distrust of neighbors and people walking past your house (i.e. itchy trigger-finger neighborhood watches)
It's in this last one we see how, in its way, The Terminator, Rambo, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, are all illegitimate sequels to the slasher movie craze, and just maybe so is our modern trend of abducted daughters, torture porn, and NRA zealotry.
----------------

So that was the first half of the 80s. Maybe we never had a midnight visitor with a laser sight or a knife but it hardly matters now. I still can't sleep in dead silence. I need a white noise machine, old radio shows, a whirring AC, the TV left on all night on low volume, or all of the above; I moved to the city that never sleeps--which after seeing The Warriors and Escape from New York in that same approx. time frame I vowed to never do--but the crime of the 70s was my boon, because dead bolts, steel doors, small apartments on high floors all made one's safety from outside monsters easily secured. Meanwhile my "little" brother is a member of the NRA and lives in a city that encourages concealed weapons permits. Is this all the fault of Michael and Jason?

I would say, maybe.

It's no coincidence that the personal freedom of the 70s ended the same time slasher movies were widely available on video where moms and little kids could see them (the ratings took awhile to translate to the new medium,, so kids could rent very graphic stuff). Most of the violence was innocuous, even laughable, but the cumulative effect--the sheer number of R-rated violence available, even just looking at a shelf of the covers--was traumatizing. I could be traumatized by catching the end of Looking for Mr. Goodbar on The Movie Channel thinking it was Annie Hall one year but still get refused admittance to see Creepshow (1982) at the local cinema the next. Funny how fucked things are.... maybe it's in our nature to destroy oah-selves, but it's also in our nature to then get preachy about how destructive we are, and refuse admittance to teenagers for films perfectly suited to sick children.


At least one good thing came of all that fear and mistrust: Woman got a gun and learned to be her own Dr. Loomis. She kept watching the dark, and would never fall for a killer playing possum ever again. By Terminator 2, she had arsenals stashed away in Mexico just waiting... the fan was shit-caked and the Blockbusters were busted. There was nothing left now to scare us... not even the bomb.
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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cinq à sept vs. the Censors: LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, CHLOE, LOLITA, BABY DOLL, ON THE TOWN, RED DESERT


Censorship has been a constant bane of our great country, but the need to outwit dogmatic Christian 'morality' has inspired great writers and directors to new heights of sneaky double entendre. One of my favorite tricks of theirs is a common enough thing in Paris but unknown to the Christian right: the afternoon tryst. The censors of the 50s-60s never could grasp the idea of love in afternoons; sex to them was limited to one position (missionary), one place (bedroom), one time frame (night after everyone had gone to sleep). Having boys and girls even in the same room at night it was presumed someone would be pregnant by morning, but in the middle of the day these girls were safe as Fort Knox.

If anything this proves censors are both unimaginative and vile. The more you try to control something the more paranoid you get, and the more limited in thinking. Thus their misguided sexually repressed fear leads this warped idea that men change into monsters as soon as bedtime looms, as parodied in this hilarious 2008 SNL sketch:



If someone did sleep over in a post-code film, for example if there's a fade to black after a kiss between two lovers at night, we can never go right to the next day or morning, the scene must always end with him going home alone, or being interrupted by the terrified maid announcing some sinister distraction, OR you could cut away to something, like a clock tower (in CASABLANCA) and come back to the scene with the lovers still fully dressed, but now smoking, and later that night, and then you might presume (if you were over 18) that they were both just very fast dressers. But you had to show her leaving nonetheless, later that night, and leave room for reasonable doubt. If she or he does stay over, the butler might be shocked to see a girl lounging in his master's bed, but then find his employer not in bed beside her but in a knot of sheets on the living room couch.

In the days of the small town idyll of the soap opera 50s there was plenty of post-war modern sex colliding with pre-war small town moral hypocrisy, and movies and novels lolled in the horrific toll taken when a young free spirited girl and boy stifle their romantic impulses to please the shrewish old gossip next door. A kid hangs themselves to be free of all the slander in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and in A SUMMER PLACE (1959), Sandra Dee comes home from spending the night on the beach with her boyfriend to find her mother (Constance Ford) waiting with a doctor to examine her hymen. What the fuck is this, you think, Taliban rule?  No, just a reminder, perhaps, that the censorship boards are terrorist-affiliated, very very misogynist and backwards, prizing virginity, which is something only a very sexually insecure, small-dick punk would do with no idea of what's involved. There, I said it.

That's what that moron Sam Neill in Jane Campion's THE PIANO (1993) also doesn't understand. He'd be much happier if he just rolled with the sensual blowback from his new wife's affair with Harvey Keitel. But this baster Neill is so sweaty and repressed and easily led along by colonialism's backwards ideas of propriety that he thinks it's much saner to mutilate her hand instead. In short, he is a natural-born censor.

Censors even insisted husbands and wives had to sleep in separate beds, which makes no sense if you're trying to endorse marriage as desirable. No doubt sex was present, but censors suspected even husbands of turning into rapists once the lights were out, though of course the night table between the beds was considered be enough to repel them. Laymen will also bring up the rule of lovers having one foot on the floor on each side of the bed but I've never seen that. Still it's pretty damning evidence of the sexophobic Catholic censor board.

Thus it's natural that one of the most interesting ways the filmmakers sought to baffle the censors is through time (the way lovers in the 20s would fool the dozing chaperone by moving the clock back).

It took most of the later 30s (from when the code was implemented in the back half of 1934 through to the late 60s) for screenwriters to bamboozle the censors while providing what the code was all about -- enough doubt over what happened in the fade out to let innocents think nothing happened and sex maniacs to think something did. Two examples most film fans should be familiar with are CASABLANCA (1942) and THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). The former cuts from an embrace to an airport watchtower and back to the lovers, still dressed, smoking and looking out the window. Since it's only later that night, and the lovers are still formally dressed, they can smoke and look contented.


In FALCON, there's a fade-out with Bogart leaning down to kiss Mary Astor that moves away from them (we never see them kiss, just Bogart bending down past the window towards where she's sitting) and out the window, where a figure in a trench coat watches up at the window like a ghost wondering if a womb might be going up for rent. We move from this to the next morning but the censors couldn't stop it because a) we never see them even kissing before the fade out, and b) the assosication with danger (the gunsel) and sex is subtextually implied anyway, and c) they are very far from the bed at the fade out, and not even shown in any representational manner.

But the easiest way to baffle and flummox the censors was love in the afternoon, which is a common French practice, as I never get tired of mentioning, and which decadent directors and screenwriters (excuse the redundancy) use to their advantage, making fun of the censors' lack of earthly carnal experience. Here are some worthy examples:

BABY DOLL (1956)

Elia Kazan's masterpiece takes the “did they or didn’t they” aspect of production code censorship and makes it the focus of the story, something they could never forgive him for. As the censor / prurient viewer stand-in for whom all things must be clear and literal, hick cotton gin owner Karl Malden goes insane trying to figure out whether the hazy dissolve in the nursery where Vacaro takes a nap in baby doll’s bed late in the afternoon signifies sex.  And this was the way Hollywood dealt with the issue of “did they or didn’t they:" the narrative split. If you expect a yes or no answer and really try to find one, you will go insane. In the tree of sex, the cardinals can rest easy in one corner, and the horny bald-spotted Maldens can go nuts in the other... it must be so, or society cannot function. BABY DOLL calls attention to this split however, and ridicules those who would prefer one side over the other... if you feel the need to insist "they did it," you are a pervert, and if you insist they did not, you are a prude. As such, BABY DOLL poses an affront to the pious and phony moralizing of so-called "decent" citizens, which may account for the huge Catholic protest the film created.

After Vacaro and Baby Doll wake up from their nap, neither Archie Lee nor we in the audience know if they did or didn't have sex. Rather than confront them directly, Archie Lee hems and haws around the issue, and Baby Doll and Vacaro play up their flirtations... but is solely for Archie's benefit? Yes. What makes this scene so “dirty” is not the seductive play between Vacaro and Baby Doll, but its performative aspect. They exaggerate their seductive fire for each other in order to enflame the jealousy of Malden. Their kisses are passionate in direct relation to Malden’s proximity; the harder Malden tries to control things, the steamier their interaction gets.

The lesson to be learned is how to let go of control: Vacaro wins Baby Doll via a constant ebb and flow of masculine aggression, a flow that pushes her boundaries and then moves back a bit to let her catch her breath. He chases her but when she stops running, he stops chasing. When she chases him, he runs. Thus play is introduced into the mating ritual, letting Baby Doll assume a more pro-active role. Once he has her where he wants her (trapped on an attic beam) instead of demanding sex he forces her to sign the statement against her husband. Why this film outrages the Catholics may lie more in this area than in the idea of a man obsessed with an "underdeveloped" woman (Baker doesn't seem the least bit under-developed, merely inexperienced). There's an implicit notion in code-sanctioned romance that the sex must be dealt with quickly -- one dissolve between a kiss / fade-out and a cigarettes-in-full-dress afterwards. BABY DOLL lives in the twilight realm of that fade-out, stretching that black bar until it forces Malden into a corner.

LOLITA (1962)

A whisper, a fade, no mention of anything ever. But what did happen in that hotel room the next morning? We're still wondering... in removing anything remotely even double entendre, the film makes Debbie Reynolds movies look raunchy by comparison, yet the whole film fairly sizzles over because of our fascination, or censorial-prurient desire to look deeply into the did they/didn't they crevasse... (more here)

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957)

It's kind of weird to think that Billy Wilder's LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON came out a year after BABY DOLL. It's classy enough for the 30s but naughty enough for the early 60s. (Wilder was an unrepentant fucker-with of censors). Audrey Hepburn visits millionaire Yank wooer Cooper at his killing floor hotel suite (which he keeps stocked with a band of serenading gypsy troubadours) only in the afternoons, while her detective father Maurice Chevalier is at work (Chevalier gets a lot of cases trailing errant wives to Cooper's apartment), then splits in time to deal with her dull musician geek boyfriend, cello homework, etc.). She acts all worldly and experienced, almost a burlesque of the women she reads about in her father's lengthy file on Cooper, and slowly uses his own playboy image to slowly infuriate him with jealousy ("if it's any comfort to you, Mr. Flanagan, you are the first American in my life"), gradually shifting the power seat from his worldly wiles to her playful manufactured put-on. Her elaborate imagination with conjuring alpine guides, Spanish bullfighters, and Dutch alcoholics recalls the Lady Eve train scene. Meanwhile the censor gets easily sidestepped through ingenious pans away from the lovemaking to the swoon-worthy gypsy musicians, each song keyed to a stage in the seduction. The censor can't say shit about an orchestra, but when we pan back it's clear something has happened. As long as they're still on the couch, and more or less dressed (even if the clothes are mussed and they can't find a shoe or two), and it's not yet night, all is well, as far as 1957 is concerned.

I really resonate with this film for a few reasons, and one of them perhaps hinges on my whole enamored feeling towards the French cinq a sept (5-7), a tradition whereby one visited one's mistress between work and going home for 7:30 dinner. I still long for mine, now some seven years gone. Notes Chevalier in Wilder's film, "In Paris people make love . . . well, perhaps not better . . . but certainly more often. They do it any place, any time," but the film didn't do well, and as Film Projector notes, a lot of that was maybe the age difference:
Hollywood has a long tradition of teaming older men with younger women (and also that there is psychobiological evidence to explain such mutual attraction: men tend to equate youth in women with fertility, while women tend to equate age in men with the stability and material resources necessary to maintain a family), and such a romantic pairing as Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn—although certainly not fashionable in today's more age-conscious world—doesn't seem entirely implausible. (more)
Damn straight, age-consciousness --one is a dreamer wooer quite getting along in years, the other Hepburn in prime gamin beauty and jubilance, innocent but visibly intrigued. May-December relationships are as stigmatized today as gay relationships used to be. But it goes deeper than how an older man is in a much better position to benefit a younger woman, sharing wisdom and gallantry galore, while all a younger man can really share is surly petulance and vitality. I also think that goes both ways, and older women should take younger men lovers as often as they please. Why not? It's good all around, and might even save this fucked up country from its current quagmire of gender and age relations. And it's very French, n'cest pas?

But rest assured, these relationships exist, behind closed doors, denied in public, deep in the closet, and safe from the censors by making love mainly in the afternoons (by evening, the old man is usually too tired anyway, at least pre-Viagra).

ON THE TOWN (1949)

The war was over but girls were still being nice to guys in the service, and a certain sexual leeway was perhaps implied, especially between the working girls of New York (or San Francisco as with Dorothy Malone and that cute cabbie in THE BIG SLEEP - 1946). Once she gets rid of her roommate, taxi driver Betty Garrett all but devours Sinatra during the afternoon while Gene Kelly chases Miss Turnstiles and fellow sailor Jules Munshin hooks up with sassy sketch artist Ann Miller. We don't see much of that hook-up but it sure is great watching Garrett devour Sinatra: "I like your face," she tells him. "It's empty, know what I mean?" At least she keeps her goals reasonable -- going for Frank. "I knew you'd come back. They all come back." And since they all meet later, 8 PM I think, up in the Empire States Building, the unchaperoned nooner between Frank and Brunhilde (as Garrett is named) goes off without a hitch. The censor dozes right on through it. It was the war after all, or had been. Girls could hook up with sailors before marriage as long as they didn't stay the night and made it to their wartime riveting job on time the next morning. (see also High Society Matrons of Frank).

 CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972)

Eric Rohmer is a quiet genius when dealing with sexual tension of first kisses and hook-ups, and that genius is on big display in this tale of a Parisian man who runs into an old friend-of-an-old-girlfriend and starts hanging out with her in his lunch hour, gradually leading closer and closer to cinq a sept territory while his pregnant wife waits at home. Sure it might be a mid-life crisis and sure I can't give away the ending, but it's a great example of that love in the afternoon...


In closing, sex in the afternoon is such a great loophole to the conventional mores of the life-choking censors that it's naturally Parisian in origin. Paris, where people have sex rather than obsessing about it (to paraphrase Marlene Dietrich). What a delight censors can be confounded so easily!  Here sex is displayed all over the place as the ultimate status symbol: the stakes are high, and every one is holding out for a perfection they'd only run away from (or would run away from them) if they ever actually found it. We put all this pressure on the third date sleepover to deliver a wonderful mythic poetry that we can spend the next week analyzing and/or bragging about in long phone conversations with our friends; is it any wonder we're so single and so eager to settle? Ladies and gentlemen, let our great country discover the cinq a sept, and stop expecting sex to deliver all the answers... only film can do that.

RED DESERT (1964)

It's Antonioni's big art joke --the modernist response -- writ fast to the frisson disconnect of censorship - Vitti, her husband, her maybe lover, and a few assorted wives, secretaries, managers and swinging bosses all rendezvous for lunch at a brokedown shack by the docks. A conversation about the aphrodisiac properties of fertilized bird eggs leads to one of Vitti's few outbursts of ease-in-the-skin, "I want to make love," and this big bedroom space in the shack, painted red, is gradually full of bodies all being drawn to each other, dancing and slowly acting on their lusty interlocked blase cool. Have they gathered for an orgy? Or is just one almost happening? Is it a matter of Italian censorship that Antonioni can't be specific or is this the modern art genius? Yes, of course it's both, as in all these 5-7 movies. If we demand to know what did happen in the fade-out then we are like Karl Malden in Baby Doll, and we will lose our mind! Ah... Modernité!


Anyway we have the dissolve to darkness and when we fade in it's clear some great energy has been expended, or they ran out of wine or there's just one of those momentary lulls that occur sometimes among people having a really good time and almost having an orgy, but then backing off and feeling their good mood turn on them, pissed they chickened out. We're not meant to know, and by accepting never knowing we realize that's the point and that's why Vitti is crazy because even she doesn't know yet there is no knowing. She's the 'awake' character beginning to realize that all these other people know stuff she doesn't, that they have lives between frames, scenes, before and after, which she lacks. But is there really anything to lack? Again, that's the genius - no questions - we must embrace ambiguity as a pre-requisite to waking from the dream of consensual linear time. The result of our collective slumber to our true reality is what is poisoning the world. We miss the beauty of the trees so lose them. We 'don't know what it's got til it's gone,' but even when it's gone we don't know - unless we first get enough perspective, enough distance from our beds. So wake up, sleeper! The nap is over, the mistress is sated and watching the clock. The censor will be getting home soon; time to feign dignity and dishwater dull decency, until tomorrow, same time, same brief candle. The best part of it all is, you can wait.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Tick-Tock Initiation: PHANTASM (1979)


Tick-Tockality: (i.e. tick-tock momentum) The sense of dread created in a horror film through use of prolonged real time (or slower) narrative pacing, ideally beginning around the magic hour (twilight). First employed in horror by Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton in The Leopard Man, and perfected in the early films of John Carpenter, the ideal tick-tocka momentum begins anywhere from 24 hours before to the late afternoon of, the climactic anticipatory night, i.e. Halloween or Carrie's Prom. The desired effect is a sense of inescapable existential dread of what's coming at the onset of the darkness, imbuing even innocuous details with uncanny unease at what's coming. 
Maybe you need to have been an impressionable, easily-spooked kid in the latter part of the drive-in's heyday (the 70s-80s) to resonate to the setting sun's weird power, the anticipation of scares to come, the presence of fellow kids and family somehow only adding to the sense of vulnerability. Parents opening their coolers of beer and lawn chairs as the sun's last rays streaked away overhead, like a last chance to exit the ride over the cliff; the unsurmountable escape wall of white screen overhead, a magnet for the white of our eyes; the booming dim echo of the speakerboxes all around the lot --who knows what kind of evil things were going on in those other cars? A child's imagination can be more real, more vivid, than an adult's perceptions of reality, especially if that child grows up before VCRS and computers. The films of the drive-in era seemed to understand this, to know their stories would be embellished a thousandfold as recess gossip, so the special effects needed only suggest things. We kids filled in the blanks through the telephone game-variations of memory, and in the process merged them into our own nightmares. They became, in short, true myth.

  Such a movie was Phantasm; no one had seen it--too adult, too R, too far away--but none of us could stop talking about how scary it was. We'd all seen the trailer.

Ruscha gets it



I mention this because prior to directing and writing Phantasm (1979), Don Coscarelli was shooting kid movies, like Kenny and Co, in which he showed a real knack for connecting with 70s-style sci fi fan reproabates -- the ones like me, who would have punched you in the face rather than admit they cried at Benji (1974).

Phantasm's genesis began when Don wanted to adapt Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes but then Disney snagged the rights. So Coscarelli made his own dark fairytale about a tall strange visitor who comes to town and steals souls, setting it in a mortuary instead of a carnival and making the central relationship not between a final girl and final boy, not full of sexual anxiety but fraternal abandonment issues, not a girl's love for a guy in school but a boy with dead parents turned extra clingy on his older brother who's off every night trying to score.

Rated R as Phantasm may be, this is clearly a kid's nightmare, macabre as Burton or Roald Dahl, but with more genuine menace and garage lab goo and gore than either. It's Over the Edge meets It Came from Outer Space. As boys learning about it, the film became the ultimate myth-about us but denied us. This plucky kid is good with cars, afraid of his own shadow, but still brave enough to venture into a mortuary at night, crafty enough to tape a hunting knife to his ankle when breaking into the funeral home, to use a lighter to keep a coffin lid propped up just high enough see out of without drawing attention, and with the chutzpah to run, hide, and fire shotguns through the sun roof of his older brother's speeding Barracuda. There's an old lady fortune teller neighbor, and great moments like when Reggie the Ice Cream guy comes over with his guitar for a quick jam.

The weird secrets of the other dimension and dead soul enslavement make a nice contrast to these cool moments, providing a fine metaphor for not just where parents go when they die but where they work, the void they disappear into for most of the week, before they come back beaten and bowed low, or even more immediate where older brothers go when they're off doing cool adult shit - and following the little brother as he follows the older one is a completely new-to-horror then or now kind of dread. Just as we dread the dark secrets our older brother is up to, yet crave to be let in on them, we fear having to get a job out there in that mysterious void, and sense in both a fear of the elderly and the slow but inexorable escalator and the fear we'll get sucked under those jagged teeth at the top (or bottom).


In the Spielbergian make-over of children's horror films in the 80s, kids lost that edge of looming responsibility, quick-thinking and readiness for violence (as opposed to being passive little bully magnets) but in the 70s we knew we weren't safe, and felt exposed to the dangers around us, but it made us sharp. All the joys of life were outdoors, ideally at night. We didn't have cell phones. When we had to sleep we clutched toy guns the way priests clutch crosses in the thick of an exorcism. Today's parents think any kid with a gun is going to cause a Columbine, anything too scary will give them nightmares. So fucking what if they do?! They should have nightmares! Kids are already scared, if they have any brains. Shit is scary out there and you're too little to do much about it except run; even old women are stronger than you in a fight. Spooky movies just remind them to stay on their guard, to not let the sameness of modern life trick them into slackening their grip on the door knob.  Let the adults take the facade of death, the mausoleums and funerals, at face value, as kids we saw deeper, we noticed the little details didn't add up, and we knew nothing was ever as secure as the funeral director's measured tones tried to make it.

Halloween (1978), which was still circling drive-ins as a second feature in '79, may have launched a thousand slasher film imitators, but few of them caught how to make a movie scary on this 'seeing deeper' tick-tock momentum aspect. They got the topography right--knives, teenagers, blood, masks--and never bothered to capture the 'deeper' vision --the inexorable pacing Carpenter mastered, i.e. the deeper perception of being fully in the moment, and playing eerie synthesizer music during a slowed down suburban idyll until the unease and anxiety of nightmares formed out of thin air.


In its fuzzy horror glory, Coscarelli's Phantasm's mythos is totally unified even its freeform reversals and misdirections. Once can connect it to Lovecraft as well more recent 'nonfiction' writers like David Icke, Nigel Kerner, who theorize that after death our newly separated souls might be intercepted by a demonic force before we reach the white light, and then used as fuel for UFOs, or ground up for experiments and recycling. Our souls could be picked over like the bloodless cattle mutilations. The main Phantasm bad guy (Angus Scrimm) known only as The Tall Man turns souls into weapons (the spiked, silver balls) and stores the crushed down bodies into kegs for easy shipping home to his dimension through a tuning fork gateway --the use of sound vibrations to transfer between dimensions is also legitimate weird theory, 'acoustic levitation' which ascribes the building of pyramids by using sound vibration to convert huge stones to weightless floating states. 



A great example of a real case near-death experience (NDE) that fits this bill pretty well can be found in Nick Redfern's Final Events. "(Paul) Garratt said that he was confronted by a never-ending, light blue, sandy landscape that was dominated by a writhing mass of an untold number of naked human beings, screaming in what sounded like torturous agony" the sky was filled with pulsing flying saucer crafts, he watched them stop above the people
"then bathed each and every one of them in a green, sickly glow.... small balls of light seemed to fly from the bodies of the people... which were then sucked up into the flying saucers."
"At this point, an eerie and deafening silence overcame the huge mass of people, who duly rose to their feet as one and collectively stumbled and shuffled in hundreds of thousands across the barren landscape--like in a George Romero zombie film--towards a large black-hole that now materialized in the distance." (99)
I don't know if Coscarelli has read up on NDEs or not; perhaps his vision originated in a zone of his unconscious where the dark (but subjectively interpreted), coupled to some direct film references, which to his credit Coscarelli doesn't deign to hide: the tall man's evil minions look like jawas (Star Wars was only three years old); the way darkness laps at the edges of the screen and the tick-tock score echo Halloween (the year before); an old lady fortune teller works one of those hand-in-the-box Dune fear-control tests on Mike. What Coscarelli does achieve all on his own is the way he removes any sense of inequality between waking and dreaming life: Mike's sudden wake-ups from nightmares don't carry the feeling of a cheap scare for no reason like they do in American Werewolf in London or Cat People (1982), for example. With Coscarelli, like Lovecraft, Lynch, or Bunuel, dreams are just as valid as the waking life, maybe even more 'true.' He's not just sticking this references in there to try and cover all his bases and provide weird trailer moments; Coscarelli's mythos is more paranormally cohesive than any of his predecessors' and more brave. They don't dare answer the big, final curtain question, the one children ask and adults never answer.

Coscarelli answers it, and he goes all the way.


Now, you don't need all that parapsychological theorizing to dig the mortal coil dread going on in the Phantasm series, in fact you can just dig the rapid aging of the cast, because the four main principles from the first film -- the kid, A. Michael Baldwin (as Mike, though he's played as older by a different actor in part 2, a decision probably made due to Baldwin's non-movie star face and the bigger budget allowing the hiring of James Le Gros in the role), Bill Thornbury as his older brother Jody, Reggie Bannister, and as the sinister tall man, Angus Scrimm -- all stick around for the subsequent installments, which were released over a 20 year period but within the narrative span only a few weeks or months. These actors don't ever appear in much else, so it's a shock to see what is supposed to be merely a few days or hours later within the overarching narrative take such a massive toll on their faces and body language. Myriad worry lines drain Reggie's Jeremy Piven-style charimsa until all that remains is a sad guy trying to get laid in a world full of yellow blood vomit hell cops. He looks beaten but still fixing up sheds to look like seduction zones, moseying up to strange women in ghost towns, and wearily quipping after kills foes of various sizes. Quips were stale by the later films, but Reggie didn't get that memo, but that's part of the series' charms, the Phantasm series never gets any memo.

Young Mike (top); Old Mike (bottom) - IV
Phantasm would be too wild and weird to truly scare like Halloween were it not for Coscarelli's ability to generate the sense of something genuinely stake in the outcome, which most filmmakers presume means flashbacks, boring breakfasts with the cliche collection of family, etc. Coscarelli and Carpenter know that we need to see whole uninterrupted minutes elapse in the character's presence, to synchronize ourselves with their rhythms, rather than jumping around in eight different directions like so many horror movies today; and that doesn't mean lots of wasted time standing in corridors or saying "hello?". No one would ever make a movie like Halloween now because so little actually happens until the last 25 minutes. Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill spend a lot of time establishing what girl is picking up what guy to come over to whomever's house once it's free free of parents (with Hill taking the time to provide accurate, real life girl dialogue) at which time, checking in on the phone with each other--but it's still scary just from music and camera POV location; that's the tick-tock momentum. Imagine how much less scary it would be if they showed other random people getting knocked off, stressing the blood and body count over character... then you'd have crap like Halloween 2.


Maybe all children have to learn to be masochists just to survive, so small and helpless are they, and part of that may come from our ancient use of male initiation ceremonies to demarcate the line between manhood and boyziness: girls don't need initiation since nature has menstruation to traumatize them, forever; but male initiatory tribal ceremonies understood the psychological need for such trauma in boys as well. It only survives today in the form of, alas, fraternity or military hazing, but those are rites initiated by choice; a boy in a tribal society has no choice--it's inescapable, and that dread's allowed to build and build. We then lost that sense of inescapable dread/initiation until the 70s when it was gratified by our dread of the gore in our first R-rated movie. We who trembled at the coming drive-in night were unique in that respect: R-rated films didn't even exist when our parents were kids, and then video arrived during our teenage years, making it suddenly possible for our younger siblings to rent Clockwork Orange and Dawn of the Dead and watch them over breakfast with our moms. Any fear of R-rated gore never has any time to generate.

But in the 70s, just knowing  hard stuff was only out there, at theaters that we couldn't get into, launched an electirc gravitic dread in our spines, like I get now only when looking straight down while leaning over a tall building without a handrail.

The ad that scorched my 6 year-old mind
The most terrifying commercial ever for me in that regard was Torso (1973). The raspy male voice that used to hiss "Rated R...." after shocking 2-3 second snippets of scenes---like this sexy girl pleading and crawling through the mud in her nightgown while a masked killer advances on her with a hacksaw-- burned into my soul, and I'd get that sickly sexual twisting feeling, the type I only get now from looking over a dangerous ledge or plunging down a log flume.

But with VHS, that giddy terror gave way (for me at least) into depression from watching too many bloody horror movies instead of being outside playing, and from a kind of negative misogynistic osmosis, as well as a crushing disappointment that no amount of pan and scan TV room horror could ever compete with what we had imagined. And yet we had already seen too much and our faith in our fellow man and the feeling of being safe in our suburban houses at night. It had really begun, probably with renting A Clockwork Orange, and seeing the violent videos Alex sees, all raw and shocking yet dull and flat, they seemed like, real, as if a fake movie within a fictional film somehow created a double negative, and so these films played real. (the way they do with the snuff films found in the film, Vacancy [4])

So yeah, I attribute the rise in overprotective parental hysteria and nanny state fascism to the arrival of video rentals. We gained overexposure to imaginary danger at the expense of exposure to actual physical kind; in the process we also lost the rite of initiation. If the minute after hearing about some gruesome scene in a movie you can watch it on your phone in class, well, you don't have time to get scared, so there's nothing to have to use courage to overcome. It's just a lot of fake blood and acting. There's no initiatory fear and catharsis. You might be building a tolerance for violent images, but that's not going to help with the initiation need that's stifling your soul; there's no ceremony to mark your courage. The first one I saw? Outland (1981), at 14. We heard guys exploded from exposure to space sans suits, and that's where the dread came from. It was something to boast of.

Now of course anything even approaching some sort of hazing as a passage to becoming a man is considered a crime, but even the shockmeisters knew that engendering the fear of what was coming was more important than the thing itself. Generating fear helps us realize there was never nothing there to fear in the first place. Facing it, our older cooler friends feel obligated to be nice to us, to let us into the cool world. (see Dazed and Confused.) Running away from the fear stifles you and earns contempt. Seeing Mike and Jody roaring down the road in their '71 'Cuda (below) brings that back. This was a time when life was dangerous, and most importantly, so were we. (See also my analysis of the best movie about being a kid in that era, Over the Edge).

This. This you can trust. 
Awash in desolate suburban blight, dark, twisting woods, empty plains, fire-damaged barns, cobwebs trailing down from street signs, Phantasm leaves us with the feeling one has crossed somewhere back from banal day reality into unreal nightmare. These landscapes do exist, even more so now. I saw this desolation most in western Oregon. Every storefront along the road closed and boarded up and not a soul for miles and miles, yet you feel your car is being followed some tall shadow you try to tell yourself is only a tree in the dark of your rearview. Your tank's been on 'E' for an hour and when you see that white light in the distance you know it's a 24-hour Exxon station dropped from the sky by God's Jesus's own flying saucer. Every fellow traveler you meet smiles at you, for they too have survived the swallowed darkness of the empty expanses of highway and the feeling the world has ended and together you are grateful in a profound deep way only spooked lost travelers riding on empty through abandoned countryside know, or people leaving a very scary movie as one quivering mass edging towards their cars.


To get back to that frame of mind, where the setting sun strikes you with giddy drive-in terror and you long for the woodsman Exxon deliverer, first you have to surrender your 80s guns and your 90s disaffection and your 00s sincerity, back before VHS and Betamax and cable. Return to the time horror movies created far more dread with a single modulating synthesizer than any John Williams-ish overthought orchestra, when R-rated movie storytellers worked each other into frenzies of fear, describing events from films they'd seen or heard about, lingering over the traumatic scenes and embellishing on what they heard as needed for petrifying effect. (2) This is what Phantasm is all about, the fractured but impelling rantings of an imaginative child's mind as he hears the scraping of the branches on the window and tries to sleep; it comes to us as a half-dream hybrid myth, already re-spun by a telephone game's worth of spooky child imagination, it's fiction for the boy seeking initiation into guns, beer, muscle car engines, and beer--the lore of the cool American older brother. It's fiction, yet it still feels truer than anything contemporary adulthood has to offer.



---------



NOTES:
1. The 'blanks' --such as the fate of the captured girls (Reggie just says he found them and released them but we never see it) were probably a result of drastic cuts made by Don himself. According to the trivia notes on imdb: "This film's original running time was more than three hours, but writer/ director Don Coscarelli decided that that was far too long for it to hold people's attention and made numerous cuts to the film. Some of the unused footage was located in the late 1990s and became the framework for Phantasm IV: Oblivion. The rest of the footage is believed to be lost. " -Now that'a a damn shame, even if the unused footage is brilliantly mixed into IV and does save it from the edge of crappiness.
2. I'm still finding movies I remember hearing about from other kids, like Five Million Years to Earth, movies I was sure were made up. 
4. See: 2004: Collateral Torture (Bright Lights After Dark)


Sunday, August 04, 2013

Texting from the Heat - THE CANYONS (2013)


Deep in the liason dangereuse-drenched Canyons dwells the only reason we'd want to see it (unless we were Paul Schrader devotees):  Lohan's voluptuous, bruised body, and it is on full display, and it is marvelous. In between shots of her or other pretty youths on their cell phones, Schrader cuts to abandoned west coast cinemas to remind us we're not seeing this movie there, but on our iPads or TVs. At one point a character even takes a long Van Sant-like stroll through Amoeba Video, to remind us it still exists, but who goes there in the age of streaming? Meanwhile a nonstarter slasher film role is coveted by a hunky rent boy looking to 'make a dollar in dis business' before he blows it all for the love of the producer's swing partner (Lohan). But it's only Lindsay's coming-and-going older girl curves, her various minor hard living bruises, that remains when that dull meta-business melts away. It's the last thing standing, or lying, in a field of vision that's slowly being sucked into a tiny glowing square. In a film about vanishing media, Lohan's body is the one thing that won't be airbrush-pixelated.


Which means I care enough to spend $4.99 on Lindsay Lohan, to do my small part in resuscitating her career from its woozy downward spiral, approving with my 'vote' her plan of hitting bottom and launching herself off the bottom of the pool via short zero-budget springs on the backs of disreputable names like Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis, the way Robert Downey Jr. launched off similarly debauched-and-guilty-about-it James Toback's Two Girls and a Guy in 1997. It's a chance for mutual symbiosis: older established artist dudes who make artsy and disturbed visions of druggie youth that never make money find a budget via the casting of a genuine drug-addled youth who always makes money. None of them are at the top of his game here, but who is? Schrader's more on his game than most of his old Raging Bulls-era coke buddies, but when you forget even what you're using sex, drugs, and intrigue to escape from, you're in real trouble. That's when Schrader steps in like a wannabe savior, urging you to descend into the crevasse and out the other side rather than try to climb out. Maybe Jesus is down there, or a dropped Xanax bottle. Or at least a cool dark coffin to rest until Netflix streaming rerun night.


Old man Schrader's been subjecting us to this post-Calvinist morality slip-and-sliding for a long time: Taxi Driver (1974), Hardcore (1978), American Gigolo (1980) and Auto Focus (2002) were each in their own way about the evil lure of pornography: runaway daughters being sucked into the sniff film trade; Cybil Shepherd losing it (that is, her cool) at a screening of Sometimes Sweet Susan; Bob Crane's molasses slip from beloved TV star to amateur pornographer to a messy murder victim; a narcissist who sells his body to rich old ladies. Similarly, novelist Bret Easton Ellis wrote the source novels for American Psycho, Rules of Attraction, and Less than Zero, all awash in cocaine-fueled casual sex, suicide, murder, and scopophilia. Together with Lohan they generate conspicuous attention, older coke-head LA insiders trying to be all up to code on the disaffection of pre-debauched youth. As Schrader said in a Salon interview:
My generation — we thought we could make a difference and make the world better. Bret’s generation thought they could make money. I don’t think that this current generation has any real aspirations. They’re making money, but I don’t think they’re that crazy about money. The characters make movies and they don’t like movies that much. They’re hooking up and they don’t like that much. The difference is, my parents and I always believed life would be better for the next generation. The current generation believes life is going to be worse for the next generation. It’s such a change for the future of humanity — the future is not something, now, that guarantees a better life."
That's pertinent of course, but might also be prurient, like the old pastor who works himself up into a sexual froth ranting about the devil as he ogles some girl's halter top; or using disaffection as a back door justification for having sex with every jaded hottie you share a bathroom stall key bump with.


I remember a film very similar to The Canyons, by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Dreamers (2003), wherein you had to wonder who old Bernardo thought he was fooling by having these gorgeous naked young entwined beings haunting the la Cinémathèque Française and pretending to understand Cahiers du Cinema so he could feel he was getting away with something naughty, stapling art film posters on the naked poles, so to speak. As in Canyons, Bernardo gave equal shrift to shirtless boys; as befits the semi-invisible hand of boymonger film geniuses like Gus Van Sant (who appears in The Canyons as a therapist) and Larry Clark (Kids) who have both made some great films about their boy obsessions because they have bothered to plumb the depths, such as they are, of the skater, drug, and homeless kid cultures the way most rent-boy-cruising Sebastian Venable auteurs do not. I have to say though, in a way, I admire Schrader and Ellis more for not plumbing in this instance. Why do their heavy lifting for them? Let them fail on their own. It's the only way they'll earn.


Lohan is only 27 at the time this film was made, but the constant hounding of the paparazzi furies have left her as scarred as a hot bitch Orestes. Even so, by 27 you should be beyond letting yourself get sucked into menage-a-quatres just to flatter the closeted vanity of your rich cretin boyfriend. If she likes it she should let us know, instead of moping through apathetic oversexed and drugged ennui in search of a new bon-bon to distract her from all the strewn wrappers. Such lurid behavior should either be a turn-on or turn-off (Two Girls and a Guy, for example, was both) or far enough over the line to be either profound or traumatic (Two Girls was neither),  but instead Canyons strives for meta resonance with those empty cinema shot connectors as comments about how nobody goes to see movies in the theater anymore ("premieres don't count" - LL says) and showing the subterfuge when characters are so busy arranging intrigues on the cell phones they don't know one might be happening right in front of them. They even watch their own messages on "Text TV." Do they even intend to watch their own film? I can imagine them all at the final cut screening room barely looking up from the cell phones except when they're onscreen, to make sure their hair looks right.

James Deen, and a portrait of... Herbert Marshall?
The lead rich kid douche is a porn star named James Deen, and he does a grand job of playing an insecure shit, of course you can't really do a bad job of acting badly 'on purpose.' The film's best scenes are strained bouts of he and Lindsay lying about where they've been, as we're meant to muse on how sharing each other with strangers is okay but actually falling in love with someone else is unforgivable, and lying about it is grounds for psychotic tantrums. I guess that's understandable for porn stars, as any long term relationship they have must come with a complete lack of sexual possessiveness, naturally overcompensating on the emotional, on 'love.'  But this is nothing new, again, or particularly traumatic. It was a similar weakness that brought Valmont/Sebastian down in Cruel Intentions but here there's not even a cathartic Verve Pipe-scored coke-cross bust!


I remember partying with these sorts of people in the 90s; I could feign a strained pose of Adonis-like disaffect with the best of them, my every pithy comment a dying faux-carefree butterfly, my clothes and pose always style-infused. But just because you can capture that misery doesn't mean you're inventing it. Meanwhile even Lindsay is too old to know if kids are still putting out for bracelets, or ever did. Everyone's hiding something, even in this film. Did LL's court orders that ensure we only see one little coke bump snorted over the course of the whole film? Take it from me, orgies are impossible without either coke or ecstasy. Did I already mention the thing about the coke thing maybeyouknowherewecangetsomeIknow! Iknowcallthisnumberokayokaythisisgoingtobegood
butweshareitonlywiththoseofuswhoputin, okay?

I was always too uptight, too British, to ever fall into orgiastic abandon, no matter how much I tried. No matter how drunk I got or how much coke or ecstasy I did, I was invariably a gallant gentlemen; my body would just run away no matter how much I wanted to stay and get group naked. And I don't miss stepping over the myriad entwined forms on my loft floor on my way to the bathroom at four in the morning during the days I was detoxing, trying to sleep to the incessant thud of terrible Euroclash from my roommate's in-house turntables. Coming out of my bedroom to plead for mercy--the sun mere minutes from coming up to signal the dawn--and seeing only his coke-black shark eyes looking back at me without a shred of empathic connection. It was, I'm sure, fun, and still is, but unless you have a tolerance and money for coke, as well as a loose sensual disposition, a tactile calm born of being good on guitar and appealing to men or women or whatever you're into, then you're just a bystander. Even when deep in the orgy, just a bystander.

I don't miss it, and so I feel sorry for everyone involved, even as I applaud their freedom. Luckily the music in Canyons is amazing, full-on retrolectro tryptahol courtesy Broken Social Scene lynchpin Brendan Canning, moodily pretending like the 00s never happened.

I don't miss the 00s, or orgies, but I do miss places like Amoeba and Kim's Video and the time when theaters had no bedbugs or blue square texting-addicts. But since I tended to go to music and video stores when I was lonesome and agitated, I associate them now with the depression that Effexor took away for good back in '04, and now I have Amazon Prime, and cinemas these days give off an unsettling feeling of a shared dream with deformed fellow earthlings who have lives and bodies and gastrointestinal problems which they now carelessly reveal to their fellow audience members, accentuating how we here in the trenches are vastly different from the gods and goddesses out in LA, especially in The Canyons.



Luckily there are still a few demographics who go to the movies: packs of single ladies at a chick flick on Friday night (+ one or two spooked straight guys on dates), and kids who can drive and who consider any hour spent not in school or at home to be pure bliss. So, as you sit down as a family to rent The Canyons, be glad you don't have to live alone. Even working on a movie, it seems, is no escape from the inescapable pull... of loneliness. Theaters have become a reminder of what we're trying to escape from, our sad aging husks, our burdensome bathroom-bound humanity. But the perfect goddess we once sold our soul for still works on, no amount of Vaseline on the lens can save her from growing old and cheap and sad. Johnnnyyy Johnnnny come back to me she says, as her once firm and upright fan club dissolves into a hydra of a million nonstop texting blue lighted wrinkles and blemishes laid out before you in the seats like a blanket of frumpy stars. She once helped us escape from the hell of life even if only for two hours at a crack, we swallowed her whole, but all the time that white witch had a hook deep in her feathery bustier. She can be as frumpy as nature dictates now because you're on the line. And there's no need to struggle, against the sinker, little fishy. You've already evolved as far as you could go in such shallow surf. Time to belly up, or else go deep.
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