Friday, January 31, 2014

Leslie of the Heretics: DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)

"Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. " - Ahab
But to paraphrase Slim in To Have and Have Not, "what happens if it slaps you back?" The answer is that the undying savage beneath Leslie Nielsen's butch veneer emerges, a new Ahab for a Moby Dick that's been solar ray-disseminated into the wild beasts of the American mountains. 

The natural world in total becomes his Dick.

There was another leviathan that splashed the nation in the mid-70s--Jaws-- and it changed the way the country thought about nature--but it too had precedents. Initially a part of a seventies eco-awareness trend, it made many people aware of sharks as a source of life-threatening danger for the very first time. Before then we'd thought of nature as something more likely to die at our hands than the other way around, hence the formation of Earth Day, and campaigns to stop pollution, littering, aerosol cans, pull tabs on cans, and so forth (leading to the pop-tabs and roll-ons we use today); a Native American was crying by the side of the highway on TV. We kids were keen on Cub Scouts and 'Indian Guides;' TV had Mutual of Omaha's Wild KingdomGrizzly Adams and The Waltons, Apple's Way, and Little House on the Prairie; in school we read My Side of the Mountain; at home a magazine called Ranger Rick. Mom took us to see matinees like The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.

In sum, we were in the wilderness, pop culturally. All we needed was a beast to fear, a bad grizzly, to make the good grizzly seem even nicer.

All this was going on before the widespread us of VCRS and cable TV, so if an exploitation pioneer wanted to get funding from the major TV networks in advance of production, he had to entertain three generations, in the same room, looking at the same screen. PG didn't just mean kids can come with the adults, it meant the grandparents wouldn't be offended or confused. And Hollywood was dealing with a surplus of stars who had drawn huge salaries decades earlier and would now work for scale in just about anything (and the older folks would blurt forth their names in momentary excitement), so ensemble cast disaster films sprang up, with older former stars and younger newcomers, and in-between the granite jaws of B-list Charlton Hestons. Meanwhile, the American west, outdoor sets (like Spahn Ranch!) beckoned as a cheap location for monster movies, far from front office meddling and prying eyes, free from expenses on things like set design and extras. You didn't even need a fake monster on account of coteries of trained grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions for rent from animal talent agents. And oversize or swarms of vermin (Kingdom of the Spiders, The Swarm, Empire of the Ants, Food of the Gods, Damnation Alley, Night of the Lepus) could be rear projected to look freakishly large and at half speed to seem lumbering around miniature sets. We kids never ratted out the fakeness of the effects and there was no way to rewind or repeat play since DVRs and VHS were still a ways off so we had to tell other kids about it ourselves, and we told it better anyway. No kid ever said "it looked so fake" - even if we laughed about it with our parents at the time. It was the seventies, man, even the monsters were accepted for whatever mask of naturalness and freedom they chose to wear. And raining on someone else's parade was considered a form of cockblockery or narcing.

There was nothing else to worry about, so these vermin subbed as a common foe. There was no blue state / red state divide, we were all purple, like the mountain majesties. And into these mountains strode an eagle-eyed copycat director named William Girdler, a mountain man whose monster films were mountain man-made. He saw there was a way to make a PG monster movie that could combine the children's nature film craze's fondness for grizzly attacks and the monster craze's fondness for supernaturally intelligent oversize carnivore attacks, and he made that movie. And it was Grizzly (1976), a huge hit. He could now afford to empty the cages at the Hollywood animal wrangler's, for 1977's Day of the Animals.

Up until the Blu-ray that just came out I thought Day of the Animals was a TV movie. Thanks to Scorpion Releasing though, a gorgeous 'Walden Filter' widescreen vista of an anamorphic aspect ratio has appeared, majestically dwarfing the relatively incompetent action we're used to on the small square screen of the earlier DVD. Did I mention I love this dumb movie? You want to know the plot? There's humans on a hike high in the mountains, and then there's animals driven mad by the ozone layer hole (and close proximity to the sun up there in the mountains with thinner air) and they fight each other. The end. There's one hawk, three vultures, a carload o' rattlesnakes, a tarantula, wuxia mice, a wolf, three panthers, a gang of German shepherds presumably fresh out of a hole in the K9 Academy fence, and savage alpha male Leslie Nielsen, shirtless, as nature intended. Can you prove it didn't happen?

Like all its devotees, I was the right age to remember the night Day premiered on CBS, but I missed their whole dog attack climax because it came after my bedtime. Sometimes I wonder if this blog's real origin story lies in my dad's declaration of kids' bedtimes, a strict law which he enforced regardless of how riveting the movie we were watching. I missed the end of a horde of great films that way: The Poseidon Adventure, Telefon, Day of the DolphinOrca, The Cassandra Crossing --I still don't know how some of them end. I would be in bed furious and crushed, but I dreamt my own wilder crazier endings. For Day of the Animals when I heard at next Monday's recess that the humans had survived by riding a raft down the rapids with rabid dogs snapping at their hands every yard of the way I envisioned a pretty wild ride.

Naturally it's not that wild, as it turns out --but 'naturally' is the key word, that's what saves it. Animals was filmed as far away from the age of CGI, mentally and spiritually, as film would ever get. Girdler feels his way along in real time, in real nature, with semi-real actors and real animals--especially vultures, hawks, a cougar, a crazy dog pack, and a tarantula--the scene where the hawks and vultures maul the bitchy girl is terrifying because those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and they're pissed, and her unease is palpable.

The key signifiers of amok nature horror movies, such as animal mauling, really can't be shown unless you're a dickhead whose going to really kill animals for his movie in which case fuck you, Ruggero! Girdler doesn't do such things, I presume, and that's where the comfortable cult pleasure is for we sensitive types. Quick edits between what is clearly just well-staged play wrestling with tame animals, close-ups of  baring teeth, pink foamy blood, actors and stunt men yelling and running, an animal's teeth resting on someone's arm, and then the hawk looking down signals an end to the scrimmage with his infamous scream.

Girdler's films aren't meant to be great gore pieces, but they are great for those of us in search of Cecil B. DeMille-levels of under-direction. Actors stand around in a 'funeral processions of snakes' kind of Cinemascope chorus line and wonder what to do, receive no guidance, and improvise.

I.e.... it's the Seventies.

With smaller animals this mellow mood can be undercut, as when mice on fishing wires come flying across the rooms backwards onto the head of the fat old sheriff, or hordes of snakes sun themselves inside of cars, upping a skeeve factor (though nothing like the paintball battering of the poor rats in Food of the Gods). Dogs try to mute an instinctive wag of their tales as they snarl, as if afraid of breaking character and losing the treat in their trainer's hand. I don't consider these negatives. In fact if this were an Italian or Japanese film every animal in the film would probably be dead by the end of each scene. Why waste money on a trained cinnamon bear for a wrestling match when you can just stab and drug a real, and let him bleed out like Joaquin did to poor Comodius in Gladiator? Sic transit gloria mundi! But film is forever... and no animal murder will ever be forgotten, Ruggero! And if William Girldler hurt any of these critters, he paid the ultimate price, dying in a helicopter accident scouting locations in Indonesia soon after making The Manitou.

If you're too young enough to remember Airport you may not have the same giddy rapture for the Poseidon Adventure-Grand Hotel-Stagecoach type ensemble cast trapped in a bad situation films that were all the rage in the seventies, as parodied in Airplane! (1980). But either way let me give you some background on this too:

Once upon a primetime,  The Love Boat and Fantasy Island ruled the weekends. They had a steady cast of hosts and a sea of B-list celebrities of all ages wandering aboard the boat or onto the island for their mundane adventures. Some people managed to become celebs by doing nothing but showing up on these shows, like Charo! Girdler rides this ensemble zeitgeist too, so on this hike in Day of the Animals we have the disaster movie cross section:

1. The Shelly Winters Broad
Check ("She KNOWS what she's doing!"- only this one doesn't - to the point of dressing for an overnight hike in her Sunday best). She's also an idiot, following the guy with the whitest hair towards her doom, and dragging with her
2. A tiny 25 year-old stunt man as her 12 year-old son (BONUS!)
3. 70s bombshell career woman contemplating her lack of a love life and children while eyeing the hero's ring finger - check -70s mainstay Linda Day George + extra point for Farrah hair and off-the-cuff New York accent to playfully rib the Winters.
4. Christopher George or David Jansen? Former, Linda's husband, occasionally trying on a terrible Southwestern accent.
5. A Richard Dreyfus in Jaws-style dweeb for scientific exposition? check
6. Famous athlete considering retirement / disillusioned preacher? - Former (written in case I'm sure Girdler signed some actual famous athlete looking for some screen time)
7. Native American or black sidekick who will certainly die - Check
8. The insane challenger of the rugged hero's leadership? Leslie!
 9. The 'Newt' or little girl alone and wandering the wasteland - check
10. Attractive young couple dealing with some issue? Check
11. Fat sheriff roused out of bed in the middle of the night to investigate? This better not be another prank!

It's a glorious "Girdler Dozen."

A midnight evacuations of the towns above 5,000 feet is given a few shots, hazmat suits, you know, it's The Crazies but for animals. And eventually you'll have deeper resonance to the phrase "Watch you like a hawk" cuz there are some shots of hawks watching the humans and honey you are glad what they watchin' ain't you. Hawks' cries signal the start and stop of attacks like a coach's whistle, and Nielsen--going shirtless to signal his de-evolution into a Putin-like celebrant of masculine power--pokes a big stick into the belly of a young man so he can make caveman gruntings at the cowering girlfriend: "I killed for you! You're mine now!" and to the 25 year-old widdle boy, "Shaddup you little cockroach or I'll shove you off the cliff!"

But that's not even his most memorable quote, it's this:
"If there's a God left up there to believe in. My father who art in heaven you've a made a jack ass out of me for years. Melville's God, that's the God I believe in! You see what you want you take. You take it! And I am going to do just that!"
And by it, you know he means that girl, from the young couple beset by some issue hitherto mentioned in the Girdler dozen...

It's hard to remember if I had a point to all this or if I even recommend Day of the Animals, though of course I do, if for no other reason than Nielsen and the amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin. But take a knee and let me tell you one last story:

There was this townie up in Syracuse in the 80s who stole all my Tom Waits albums but he had the best dog in the world. This dog, a mutt of medium height, was super smart and sweet, a brilliant actor and almost psychic. When I was filthy drunk in the Syracuse snow some nights, this dog and I would roll around and I'd scream like he was tearing me apart while he jumped all over me making these terrifying growls. We'd go on and on, rolling around growling and screaming, the dog managing to seem like he was tearing my arm off while barely even getting fang marks on my coat. We sounded, I thought, like someone was being mauled to death. One night, someone finally yelled out a window "hey, you and the dog - please keep it down!" and I was like how the hell can that guy tell I'm not really being hurt? Why isn't he calling an ambulance? But he knew. This dog and I stopped in mid-attack, both looked up at the window, without a word or bark, then looked at each other, and resumed the attack quieter. How that damn dog knew to go quiet, I still don't know. And I think that story shows why I love Day of the Animals, because even very young kids can tell when animals aren't being hurt or hurting anyone for real, no matter how vehement the snarls and screams. Melville's bedtime demands solace.

In the 70s, even the mauled sleep well. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Eric Jonrosh's Spoils of the RED DESERT

Crazy gorgeous, crazy mental, highly unstable, reckless, spontaneous--today they'd be called bi-polar, but at the time just post-modernly alienated--there's a lot going on with modernist European art cinema's women of the 60s. Even now, more than ever, maybe, we love them and they love us back. Though how do they see us, sitting there, in the future? Somehow, due to their madness-sharpened psychic senses, they seem to feel a future history of eyes all over them. Somehow, they 'accidentally' peak behind the curtain to realize how trapped they are by the confines of male (directorial) desire, especially if they're in super sexist Italy, where half the male population freely whistle and howl like lunching construction workers. We see their pain, we want to be their unseen child spirit trying whisper words of comfort across time and media platforms into their forlorn fossil ossicles. We're like the tiny human figures little girls commonly dream they give birth to in great numbers, like a plankton flood from the netherworld oceans. Sometimes you'd swear-- as you gaze up at their gigantic faces--that no matter how far away and small you are in perspective to them--they can read your mind. They know whether you're actually sympathetic to their pain, or just using it as an excuse to drool a little closer... sigh. But in that dress, how can you not?

No wonder these girls went mad. Any hot babe in Italy would feel just the same, all that pawing and leering anytime they enter the public sphere, like hungry jackals nipping at a dying calf. Come, cry on Erich's shoulder, sweeties--he's an "ally". He'll keep all the other jackals at bay better than a wedding ring and screaming baby. But does he even know his own heart? Is this all just a sly jackal's long con?

Women like the one played by Yvonne Furneaux in La Dolce Vita (1960, below, right), or Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964 - above, below/left) are forever reaching for a 'real' connection with the men inside their film's mise-en-scene, trying to trap them into a full commitment, to devour them through hydra hair anemone tendrils. The men all just want to pollinate, whet their probosces and split. They feel trapped and suffocated the minute their feet stick to the stamen.

These poor harassed, molested, objectified and leered-at ladies need more than just assurances from some pretty boy trying to get them into bed --they need a champion, a little man they can keep it their cinematic pocket! You should be small, so you can look up to her, so she can be your ideal.

But is she the sort of girl the "ideal" you would want? I mean, she's fucking crazy! And too hot for words, and isn't it strange how they go together?

Not really, if you realize the toxic effect of a lifetime of endured leering by the inevitable drunk uncles. Even a sensitive intellectual like Antonioni may fall into the dress-leering trap as he endeavors to sympathize with his female character's neurotic condition. We hope his star can eclipse the confines of this Red Desert - this Mussolini-period architecture, this minimalist gallery space--and escape out some momentarily open corner of the screen. Whether it's into his/our arms, or, to some character we actually like, someone mature, rich, and debonair, who loves her for her, and can somehow survive her maternal maenad devouring need for constant love.

Alas, there is only one Marcello Mastroianni, and he spreads himself thin. All other men in Italy are ten times worse. He's the best bet, but only suicide threats seem to get him to come home anymore.

Even if she just shrinks by running away from the camera, then crawls out of the screen and out through the 'Exit' door so boldly marked below the screen, anything to be free - free!

In this, Antonioni is much more of a nice guy to his women than Fellini is -- who seems eternally trapped in an apron string latticework of webbed denial (lying to both wife and mistress, neither of whom believe him but somehow he believes himself). In the past Antonioni's madwomen could find solace and escape from modern life via breathtaking island views (as in L'Aventura), mysterious boat engines on the other side of the island that spirit her away; in piquant vacant lots (ala La Notte), or even the quiet of a glider over the countryside (L'Eclisse), but for Red Desert all these avenues are blocked by condemned roads and marshes, or gone altogether. Yellow poisons give the air a red speckled hazy hue; the waters of the river are choked a dull coal black above an almost Star Trek alien worldly sky. Vitti's post-modern apartment seems like just a different wing of the same factory her husband works in. This time she needs a different escape avenue, She has to go all the way through the looking glass, into post-modernism metatextual refraction, until her persona finally shatters like a Lady from Shanghai funhouse mirror. '

Only thing is, we in the dark Chinese theater are stuck being Welles' sleeping pill-sloshed Irish sailor dupe. Maybe in a few more movies, we'll finally lern ta fergetter.

Twelve years ago Dr. Paul Narkunas (the skeptical professor in The Lacan Hour if you're keeping score) lent me his DVD of The Red Desert, painting it in my mind as a lurid desert odyssey that went dark places he knew I'd been to, neurochemically. And he said it was funny, too.

But twelve years ago I was a different person--I didn't know Spinoza from Shitfaccia and the DVD Paul had was a far-off cry from the gorgeous Criterion Blu-ray I have seen thricefold since, weeping with joylessness as my throat pouch widens to encompass more and more hot, psychotropic gas with every viewing because sooner or later I shall 'ribbit' with realizaccione.

But the Narkunas disc was a bust. My TV was smaller and farther away and back then DVDs used letterboxing; even my socialist art filmmaker then-wife was bored after twenty minutes. The story's vagueness and incoherence weren't recognized as intentional even by her from so great a distance. We saw it as just the result of language barriers and our own modernist post-work headaches. I fell into a half-sleep for the rest, and coasted through to the end, one eye open, unwilling to turn it off lest I have to admit defeat to Narkunas, or that I was not man enough or intellectual enough to 'get it' - that my psychotropic throat pouch was.... tadpole-ish.

My problem was not uncommon for an American of my posture, sloth, social conditioning, and drunk-English Lit bachelor degree education. Now I realize my initial response of boredom was intellectual, was correct. French critics labor for years to reach such complete disinterest! And how can a film that bores you stiff the first time get better with repeat viewings? That makes no sense, and no sense is very Antonioni. But Criterion's Blu-ray is gorgeous and now my TV is larger and wider and flatter with deeper blacks. The purple pollution diegetic fog is 3-D now, pulsazione como veleno deliziosa. The purple and dark blue flecks taste like cotton candy to my long-since shattered senses.

Naturally as a result, my outer (or 'real') life has gotten sparser, less anamorphic, to accommodate the balance shift as I merge with the televisual HD clarity. My glasses are dirtier, my mind shrunken and blessedly polluted with rivers of pharmacological run-off. My lily pad is littered with empties (or emptiness). But even as this world fades to a dull scream, the screen breathes and grows, ever sharper, deeper, vaster.

Speaking of psychotropically inflated throat pouches, let us vault into the future for the new post-modern comic mini-series, Eric Jonrosh's Spoils of Babylon, a recently de-vaulted 70s miniseries deconstruction from IFC. Here, at last, is high camp trash deconstructed past the point of being genuinely funny, and more like Godardian abstraction. Somewhere between Ed Wood (1994) and an actual Ed Wood movie, between intentional failure and unintentional result, Real et Surreal, just as Guiliana (Vitti), the crushingly alone and confused wife in Red Desert lets modern alienation vault her into madness, for Eric Jonrosh, the madness is already there, itself, as a whole. Locked in a deadpan absurdity ouroboros, it is madness' final destination.

In both, the acting and writing are intentionally 'off,' with no grounding in anything approaching reality, reaching a heightened abstraction that makes even Sirk's Written on the Wind seem like kitchen sink realism (see here on Splitsider for a shot-by-shot comparison). While Red Desert achieves post-modern affect through mixed signals and ambiguity (in short, art), Spoils achieves it through specific soap signals which are then delocated to the point of abstraction. Giuliana doesn't know what kind of movie she's in -- comedy, tragedy, horror, sexual soap, clinical study of depression --she has no idea what the right response to any situation is and the movie never gives her a signifier without contradicting it a moment later. In Spoils, the link between signifier and signified is forever broken. Meaning spills out everywhere, adding up to nothing through its sheer abundance.

Spoils' story, for example, apes the 70s mini-series and 50s soap only for the first two episodes. By the end there's no longer a sense of being in any one style (though probably it's meant to be the late 60s). The story of foundling adventurer Devon Morehouse (Tobey MacGuire), his capitalist amok sister Cynthia (Kristin Wiig), and their forbidden love begining in the Dust Bowl Depression before rising up in Rink-like plumes of oil, WW2, beatnik junkiedom, hipster underwater observatories and into a climactic shoot-out in front of a bemused Shah of Iran. Just as the core of Red Desert comes from Giuliana's--and therefore our--inability to decode the social signifiers around her, the six-part series' deadpan humor comes less from jokes and more from signifier collapse as a result of inept direction, dialogue, framing, mismatched rear projection and obvious miniatures, all threatening and challenging any attempt at genunine narrative immersion. Carey Mulligan's voice shows up inside a mannequin playing a British wife brought home by Devon when he the war from home comes a-marchin' - and that's the order they would use those words in France (and thus maybe under the sloshy pen of trash novelist Eric Jonrosh, played with windy Paul Masson-era Welles-ishness by Will Ferrell). The idea of a mannequin as a legit rival for Cynthia is both oddly foreboding - a Stepford wife moment - and funny, depicting the dehumanized interchangeability of characters when stripped to the bones of meaning (ala the son's erector set robot in Red Desert). The iconography of the mini-series becomes a tattered yard sale as easily as a red velvet smoking jacket might sell for $500,000. if it was owned by Errol Flynn, or tossed into a rummage pile for four bucks if owned by Errol Flynn's stand-in, and yet it's the exact same jacket - and in fact, it was the same jacket (or a Jeff Beck guitar neck), because the two got switched at the cleaner years earlier or later. Deal with it.

The idea of stand-ins, and a deep ambiguity illuminating the arbitrariness of place, value, and ownership, courses through Antonioni's work constantly in both micro- and macro-, cosms and chasms. In Spoils madness is prevented via an arbitrary dividing line, incest. In actuality--not related by blood---their extramarital affair is the ultimate unimportance, just as the disappearance in L'Aventura turns out to be. Neither Vitti nor Wiig can consummate their desire due to loyalty to missing or dead signifiers -- the dead father, the missing friend). The forbidden love of Cynthia and Devon is made so only in the sense of social propriety --they are not related by blood -- but soap opera cannot function without such refusals, such sacrifices of love in the name of propriety; this sense of sacrifice helped found the Italian film industry, stemming in part from floridly romantic opera and verse, Verdi and Dante, and the realities of the post-war post-class economy and censorship which also factors in Red Desert: man's willful exile from an Eden that exists only in the memory (being in Eden is impossible by definition); one can't be an impassioned sensualist and a 9-5 captain of industry, yet one without the other is not freedom. Operatic soapy romantic signifiers are cinema's way of mourning the loss of sensuality, the sacrifice of sexuality and romantic love in the name of victory --in war, commerce, and construction -- and the way the rise of provincial conservative censorship is intrinsically tied into that industrial age commerce, and how grand actress gestures of selfless sacrifice are the icing that sells the workers this bogus cake. I shouldn't say it's bogus when all other cakes are even more ephemeral. "Real" cakes are eaten and forgotten (or, in weddings, flash-frozen for decades in some pointless loyalty to soon-frosted-over frozen sludge); the 'bogus' cake, never having been eaten (due to not being real) is always 'there.'

the answer, my friend
It's these gestures of sacrifice--of renouncing the cake altogether--that Antonioni subverts, just as the Cinq au sept movies subvert the censor's limited imagination and inability to to comprehend the naughty bits in the center of a quadruple entendre. Codes and the symbolic structure of language point towards specifics; did they or did they not have sex? Sexually frustrated moral ethics guardians insist on knowing! Whole presidencies have been endangered over these nagging questions! But the code can be skirted, the censors stymied by symbolic references that point back only to themselves, forcing the prurient and the narrow-minded literalists into a tizzy... on purpose! And creating modernism... by accident!

"Ooops, I post-moderned. "
Spoils' Cynthia further mirrors Giuliana in Red Desert in that they both need to to waken from the idealized Edenic fantasy their persona embodies. They represent the objet petit a (for a man) and yet seek it without (for any other man). The only resolution is renouncement, sacrificing love on the alter of propriety. Each has an idealized Edenic space to retreat to (i.e. the riverside picnic tree in Written on the Wind), but the difference is that Giuliana knows hers no longer exists, it's been cut-off and blackened by toxic sludge, and that even thinking some new man understands her isn't even a pipe dream (unless the pipe is 'exhaust'). If we've been presuming the signs in the film point towards it being one of Italy's countless 'red telephone' dramas of forbidden extramarital affairs, we're as confused as she is. The signifiers pointing in that direction don't add up; they're more like one of those Salvador Dali dream sequences from the late 40s, only using smokestacks instead of scissors. We 'get it' kind of, since that's how it is with mutual attraction. You can easily forget you don't know the first thing about the other person, and that's dangerous.

Similarly, Cynthia pursues Devon because forbidden love is dangerous and sexy and befits the very rich, for whom the only thing they can't have is the only thing worth having (hence the proliferation of incest in rich people houses, i.e. Chinatown). But whether genetically inadvisable or not, incest is very detrimental to the organization of one's unconscious language syntax. The whole psyche explodes like a house of cards hurled smashed flat between two mirrors. Signifiers no longer have any space to 'mean' anything. In Spoils though, it's less out of that, or out of seeing the world through the eyes of a crazy person, and more seeing it through the eyes of an Ed Wood-meets-Harold Robbins-style windbag.

I think being American is a distinct disadvantage to getting the modernist alienation affect. Europeans and South Americans all sneer at us for not tolerating subtitles, or for learning languages (other than our own) and yet they admire our innocence, knowing it is born out of a single language system that frees us to dwell in isolationism and therefore think more elaborately (taller houses of cards) since we're not constantly having to translate our every utterance three times at the same dinner conversation (until all but the most airy bon mot sink).

The closest thing Americans might have to being 'continental' is if we imagine seeing a foreign film in a high school foreign language class (hence without subtitles) and not being able to understand because we haven't paid attention ever in class, but we're struggling to read facial cues and other signs as it will be on the test, maybe we too can get the modern alienation effect so coveted by the Cahiers du Cinema set. And if, after twenty minutes or so, bored and restless, we start to notice how silly and strange the people onscreen seem when language isn't there to contextualize their behavior, then we can feel the spirit of Bazin rise within us like an excited Harpo Marx pounding enthusiastically on his seat and whistling. Antonioni helps us realize how we're bound up in signifiers even without language - for we have been to the cinema enough times that: if we see--on the movie screen--a woman at a child's bedside, and the child looks pale, and the bed is against a stark, institution white plaster wall, and the kid in the bed has what looks like a thermometer in his mouth, we would totally believe that the kid is sick and the mom is concerned. But then we pan back and the thermometer is revealed to be a cigarette and it's not a hospital room but a post-modern apartment. So who is the woman? Suddenly an orderly comes in to take her away and you think she's insane and this is a mental hospital, but how did we know it was an orderly? Did he have a white lab coat on? That was no orderly! And it's not a kid at all! It's a pile of clothes she drew a face on. It's not even a cigarette, it's just some steam from the fresh laundry.

Now we can either get the post-structuralist leaning tower of Babel alienation effect.

The Americans and censors don't want this aha! moment to ever happen for US audineces. They already demand a certain kind of code of conduct and a secret code to imply sex has occurred --if you're adult enough to read it, and hasn't if you're not. For snazzy post-modernists though it's a small step from the code adherence to leading that crazy Jack Torrance dirty-minded censor on a wild goose chase through the Overlook maze of contradictory signifiers while oh, how you laugh and laugh. To take Americans outside the prison walls of language takes a great deal of this laughing. It's important to realize that Antonioni arrives at his 'plain as the nose on a plane twirling like top' effect through serious artistry, while the three layers of intentional-accidental post-modern intention in Spoils of Babylon occur through the accidental-intentional. It's the difference between acting the role of a guy leaving a half-eaten doughnut on a park bench and realizing there is no audience, or camera, or script around you, and so you were really just a dude leaving a doughnut on a park bench, like, for real.

Did anyone in the park see you leave that donut there? If no one saw you leave it, how do you know it was even yours? Maybe you should quick pick it up and eat it before they notice! After all, maybe you're hungry! If only you could tell... someone. You go up to some strange-looking old lady on a bench and ask her discreetly if you're rolling and if so where the cameras are. You honestly don't know whether she'll point and shrug, or avoid eye contact and edge over to the traffic cop without making any sudden moves.

An example of a similarly dry refracted modernism in Spoils of Babylon is right there in the name of one of the characters: Seymour Lutz, a variation of course on the name 'Seymour Butz,' an old Bart Simpson prank phone call favorite ("Is there a Butz here? I wanna Seymour Butz!")

This joke in its unaltered form would be far too crass for Jonrosh--a great Falstaffian bargain of a man--so in Babylon the name is abstracted, mispronounced by Cynthia constantly, leaving him to finally shout "it's pronounced Lutz! LUTZ!"

Now of course any comedy lover reading this set up will presume Wiig's calling him Seymour Butz instead of Seymour Lutz, which is where the joke would be if it was only once refracted. But Cynthia keeps calling him "Seymour Lund." (Quintessential Jonrosh!). (Hardcore fans of classic surrealist comedy will note he's Lutz is, in these scenes, invoking the tone and delivery of W.C. Fields in 1933's International House saying "Nuts! Nuts!" while fixing a loosened nut on his autogyro). Coincidence? Never!

One similar favorite moment late in Red Desert made me finally understand why Paul Narkunas recommended it so very long ago: Feeling guilty about the affair beginning its early simmer when she's alone with Corrado (Richard Harris) in his swanky bachelor quarters, Giuliana looks up from the bed, sees the door is open, and--worried neighbors or husband or the porter might barge in any minute--guiltily closes the doors and windows, but the ones she's closing aren't doors or windows where neighbors could see in, but drawers and cabinets, bathroom door, and etc.! 

At an earlier point she runs off from her cocktail party down the dock after him towards a ship that's been quarantined, to stop him from what she thinks is him risking his life by going aboard to help with the sick. Then she catches herself and tuns around, separated from the group she left behind in the fog, Corrado at her side; as they come out of the mist, the others look at her as if she's been caught red handed in an affair --but are they really feeling that, or is it just another passing mood? (a classic Antonioni guilt trip fake-out ala the hospital nymphomaniac aftermath in La Notte). Now she thinks she's the one who needs to go rescue the sick on the ship (one might recall similar moods affecting guilty heroines in W. Somerset Maugham much copied and imitated "The Painted Veil"). Both impulses are forgotten by the next distraction, just like they would be for someone on strong acid. Everyone seems always about to start an orgy or come onto her, but are they? Is this what being a hot mess in sex-crazed Italy is like? Or are they just ghost Repulsion wall arms?

The answer is ---she's not crazy. We are. Antonioni is revealing our red-telephone-signifier-trained tendency to seek romantic sparks and soapy betrayal everywhere. In truth, we wonder if Harris' architect is even seducing her, or just--as with her--kind of bound up in this archaic social model of behavior. They're the only ones in town with nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it, and are remotely young, attractive and lonely.

Finally, let's examine the cart selling apples in Red Desert, all of which are strangely painted silver-grayish, on the Ravenna street (above). Who would buy gray apples? Are they some kind of decoration? Are the apples poison? Then why the gray paint buckets? Is this art or pollution? We can't tell, but when Giuliana sits by the cart for a minute she becomes a post-modern portrait of an apple/art peddler. Still, we can't deduce what's up with this cart, or her relationship to it, anymore than we can deduce if an orgy happens later, or after that a cheap affair, tortured bonding, or none of the above. Like the censor we might be driven into a tizzy, or like some child, dead with boredom, but if we don't fight the surreal de-signification domino effect then not knowing is like waking up from a dream within a dream. The hidden puppeteer hand is clumsily pulled down onto the stage and the mind's tendency to lose itself in green smoke and booming voices finds itself challenged by the sudden sight of an old man wizard in his underwear, without a testimonial or diploma to his name.

But there's a reason we like that puppeteer hand offstage, our wizards clothed and behind curtains hidden: once we no longer fall for the illusion then we have to face our own lady death and her poison apple. And she speaks to us, as always, through a collage of remembered movie lines, song lyrics, and poetry, in a voice like Veronica Lake's in This Gun for Hire, patient, but grown surly with waiting, and burdened by concern, like she just rescued one right guy from another bad orphanage, and her legs are lovely, but they're squeezing the life out of us like an anaconda. We will not leer.... We will not leer.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Let the Darionioni Nuovo entrain your Dissonance: AMER (2009)

Stendahl syndrome is a real thing and now I know because it happened to me with this experimental-narrative post-modernist hybrid fairy tale-erotic awakening giallo bit of mind-melting genius, Amer (2009). I didn't pass out but I did get a full bore panic attack mind shatter moment of pure Vulcan mind meld between image and reality. I have fallen into this film like Alice into that K-rabbit hole down through the 'David Lynch-as-a-girl twisted up with a giallo fan version of Maya Deren' Wonderland. Amer isn't just a film, it's a disintegration engine, sucking up the distance between the viewer's mind and the screen like lovers on either end of a Twizzler, swallowing towards the middle and into the blackness.

What sets Amer apart from almost all other films, and it's clear from every frame, is that it's written and directed by a male-female team, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. They come together like the reunification of the conscious mind and the unconscious. "It’s because we are a couple that we can work together," they noted in a 2010 desktop interview. "It would have been impossible to make the film with someone else. We trust in each other and we can speak honestly about intimate things. That’s why we can collaborate." That they sure as fuck can. Their names evoke their respective Italian male and French femaleness, which makes sense because there are certainly strains of Catherine Breillat as well as Argento, Antonioni as well as Claire Denis, but then again, they're Belgian... and beautiful. So that does happen.

If it helps the process, maybe have seen enough experimental cinema to check the references in advance: Antonioni-ish ur-ambiguous 'intentionally signification resistant' art, and Argento-ish European erotic fairy tale horror films from the 60s-70s, so the analytical signifiers and references can cascade upon you, the way Un Chien Andalou cascaded instantly recognizable political horror upon rioting Parisian art critics in 1929, or the Basilica of Santa Croce cascaded upon poor Stendahl. Thanks to these two kids who made this wild film, Stendahl syndrome's not just for Florentine tourists, or Asia Argento, anymore. This time it's poison L. This time they came for me.

Until mon Amer there's always been a weird dissonance, a grinding disagreement, between the iconography of experimental film and narrative film, even in Europe, where art doesn't have to be framed and velvet roped the way it does here. A mirror to this twin dissonance might be found between the Jungian anima and the Mulveyan male gaze, between Jess Franco's 1967 Succubus and Lucretia Martel's The Headless Woman. But Amer brings to this twin dissonance (experimental vs. narrative / male fantasies about what girls dream vs. female artist's impressions of girls dreaming about men) a twin serpent DNA lover's frequency that harmonizes all those dissonant tones, and the resulting unified field harmony expands wider and wider until it envelops and entrains other dissonances, widening its wave until even the most ideal sympathetic response to the film is swamped and carried off ever outward into space until the floor rises up to meet you like a wall

and then forward into panic
the image of self within your mind shatters
like Ellison's glass goblin
ancient crumbling nitrate like Edison's ghost dance.
Your crystal skull's shambling pedestal falls
to the marble Florence floor
Its eye sockets, twin gondolas, stay afloat.
Your back's hard against the couch still
watching the shards of your coil's shard's scatter,
the cards shatter off the diving board
couch in a 52 pick-up of fluttering
raven-hoofed watery wings,
and you swim


deep down, Diabolik-ish.
The floor sinks towards you like a mouth,
Betty Blue Boy blows candy canings,
the outcast cowboy burning constantly at stake

But what mouth?
Don't do drugs,
but let them do you if they wish-
it would do you honor.

And what is the difference between faking not having amnesia and not having it but secretly pretending to hide that you have it (as in pretending you know what's going on when you don't but not really, i.e. faking it even to yourself?) This is what we black-out drinkers are familiar with --easing our way into our lives each morning like we know all that happened the night before but we don't - it's an art, a bit of sly detective work as you suss out the night's events and all witnesses' remembrances of your actions without letting on you don't remember. With a level of remorse that would crush a sober man, we eye our girlfriend on the couch for signs of her displeasure, trying to fathom what we may have done to embarrass her... pretending we already know and are sorry, as we quietly (when she's in the bathroom),
and with practiced legerdemain,
spike our orange juice.

Many have tried and a few have come close to harnessing the kind of alternating current a romantic male-female directing-writing team couple can generate: Debra Hill and John Carpenter came as close as anyone with Halloween (1978) but every film has to get up from the table and go pick a bathroom sooner or later, and Halloween eventually chooses the Men's, which means John Carpenter in the limelight, Hill to the side. No film has made it all the way past the border of gender and to the boundary of the split subject, avoiding picking the man as the director, woman as producer, or writer, or vice versa --no film makes it past nationality, temper and even age, smashing through the wall between the bathroom doors and finding its own special hidden alcove. Amer isn't the male gaze or the female gaze but both gazes sliced up in long celluloid pupil Laura Mars strips and arranged in Sergio Leone eye close-up layers to form something as new as neither, something genuinely transgressive without relying on anything so paltry as meaning, story, narrative, coherence or logic... or even cheap shocks. Would your dreams ever deign to use them? Why should Amer? Instead it resists even the fundamental hazard at a guess of meaning critics might find in something similarly post-structuralist like Antonioni's Red Desert or Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon. It's something as slick and enjoyable as any modern movie but deeply entrenched in the experimental and certain to confuse or irritate anyone expecting signifiers of the real to properly adhere.

The male-female creative interaction of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani seems mirrored in the zig-zag rhythm of the shots - one step into giallo narrative, one step back along fractured dream surrealism, each refracting and reflecting the predecessor - move, countermove, and so nothing is ever clear or unclear. Everything resists a concrete interpretation but continually beguiles us into wanting one, uses that want for its own purposes, maybe even better than Antonioni did: it doesn't charge ahead like a boy with an Uzi and climax or dissolve into curios like a girl with a flower, yet if you don't run away in disgust, or boredom and if you don't dismiss it all as girly stuff or misogynist or think you don't know what's going on, and if instead you just ride with it, but remain alert and enthralled and ideally high on lack of sleep and Jung and art and Robitussin, then there it is, in its sublime perfection, the mind--both halves--inner and outer, conscious ego and unconscious animus locking into place while busting open at the same time, the unconscious's language signifiers becoming reshuffled, the normal narrative progression cracked open like a nut, the inside goodness free falling in slow motion and for a moment you and the unconscious and the images onscreen are all one - the barrier of screen and speaker between you has evaporated.

When dealing with the giallo genre in the scope of female fairy tale iconography it's important to stress that the collective as well as personal unconscious does not recognize the border between life and death, between the alive and dead version of you, the ego/soul/body/consciousness. Your dreams are the same whether or not you die outside of them - death in your bed doesn't wake you from the nightmare. The razor in the hand of the man chasing you is never just a phallus, penetration anxiety or even fear of death. It's a fear of dissolving, a loss of self, the split - you are afraid to turn around and face the demon chasing you in your nightmare for a very good reason - once you turn around and face it the demon will merge with the 'you' who stopped running, both will cease to exist and a new life will begin. Only through fear of change, or merging, of opening the self's border, does one hold onto the virginity of a tangible unchanging self. All else is transition. All of Amer is this transition - it is a coming attractions highlight reel of infinite length, the narrative arc of the 90 minute film split three ways, and from there three more.

The first such split occurs during childhood - the Freudian key that unlocks Bluebeard's secret dead bride storage: Bava's Black Sabbath, Suspiria, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Brothers Grimm, and Valerie and her Week of Wonders. The second turns sunny and erotic with the girl on the cusp of sexual maturity: Rohmer, Betty Blue, Emmanuelle, Fellini, Blow-Up and Chabrol, and even maybe Cocteau. The third and final turns to the dark again: Argento, later Bava plus Blood and Black Lace, Soavi, Fulci... but with the jittery bipolar modern 'twang' of Antonioni's Red Desert. The eternal dance of metatexual refraction never ends even at the end. The movie becomes a male-female duel in exquisite corpse fashion, each image reinterpreting the one that came before, ever circling dark truths but resisting meaning and remaining the pinnacle of cinematic 'dream logic.'

The only way to describe what's going on is to give these kids a name that can link them with certain of their peers, so I'm calling them the Darionioni Nuovo, a group of filmmakers who have melded the experimental and deeply psychoanalytical styles and substances of Argento and Antonioni into a modern new vision for cinema, one geared towards not just the moviegoer's eyeball but their pupil, not just their ear but their ossicles, a group who refuse to label Antonioni and Godard as art and Fulci and Franco as trash, but to see each as half and half. This is a zone that we usually don't trust 'new' filmmakers with, especially not in America where everything has to be laid out with big yellow lines and breasts and 2.3 children and token minorities and police and moral lessons and zeitgeist-dictated products placed according to rating and market. But in Europe and South America and places where socialized education and less hysterical reactions towards sex and cigarettes lets the youth get super intellectual for free, there is thrives. Maybe it's their less repressive attitude towards sex that frees them from infantile obsession, helping them to make deeper movies: Berberian Sound Studio, Only God Forgives, Magic Magic, Boarding Gate, Beyond the Black Rainbow, A Field in England... but mainly or totally in this instance, Amer. Maybe they can't be appreciated, or even endured, without familiarity with the 60s-70s European horror film canon, but if you haven't experienced any of it, then what are you, un poulet? dive in to the grinder! If it don't make sense, congrats. Take some acid and try it now. If it makes sense at last then bro, you missed it.

Now when a guy, a bro, a dude tries to make a female coming of age story, no matter artsy or 'feminist' it's still a male fantasy, in the end, am I right guys? And that's a shame, because on the one hand we're not allowed to get turned on by the Blue is the Warmest Color because it's still the leering male gaze (a middle-aged man filmed it), and on the other we can't enjoy Chris Lilley's HBO show Private School Girl because our anima gets jealous (if anyone should pass as a school girl, it should be us). And when a woman makes a coming-of-age film she either lets her animus, "her master's voice" lure her into a phallus-sacrificial circle in the forest, ala Thirteen, or she projects said voice clear out of the room with the flat-age swack of a musketeer's sword (Breillat's Bluebeard). Instead of either, Amer rolls elegantly along the sharpened edge of the blade and into the 'win a free game' hole at the end. When it emerges it is, como si dice?, ready for the Lynchian eraser factory.

Counter, Paul!

And what then? The lights come in corners of this massive mausoleum of industrial space that have been dark for years. You forgot those lights were even there; you forgot the corners were even there; you forgot the machines were even there. The machines that now start whirring but you forgot what they do or what you're supposed to do to them to make them run. But people are applauding you, Nina! You didn't even know you were onstage! You've moved from being just another American whining for his phallic climax to a European calmly engaging the bivalve sensual. Now, Nina, Now! Now you really are the Black Swan. And as some trick velvet light trap choker snaps shut behind you, the concrete Basilica floor tilts up to greet you like the concrete smack of a grounding lover. And on the count of three you are back to one / true unified / split. Two/ Snap, dragon. Truth or illusion, George, at last, and for all time, there is no difference. 3

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It's only real if it wrecks your life: HER, THE WAY WE WERE, LOVE AFFAIR

O Love, thou coaxer of dopamine and norepinephrine through miserly neruological alleyways, you can cure illness, reduce obesity, turn blue meanies into pink happies, sound trumpets and sport horns like the satyr Pan, Zeusishly cause lightning that the thirsty soul imbibes like wine as it zaps the chains from the mind and the sleeping corpse beneath it to electric life. You make once dumb love songs on our car radio suddenly profound. Our old life and crusty ways in rear view mirror fade as you drive us into the warm and final Aerosmith shot of Dazed and Confused dawn sunshine.

But then evening falls- the car stops, the door opens, and you too fade in the rear view mirror after dropping us unceremoniously off in the middle of highway nowhere. "This is where you get off," you say. There's only so much lightning our Frankenstein shell can take and you've got bolts to throw before you sleep, not that you ever do.

Love in the age of digital communication has led to something so instant it's impossible to internalize and therefore no change in the persona has been possible. We can't sit down at ye olde desk to write to our distant love with Ken Burns' fiddle music mournful in the background because there's never a time when our lover's voice can't be there, here, wherever... Verizon... 4G. No distance or mountain high enough; you can be Tom Hanks on coast-to-coast radio Sleepless in Seattle and wow a nation of ladies with a moment of near-but-not-all-the-way tearful sincerity in your voice, have them all fall in love with you, without even meeting you, because of course they've all imagined a perfect animus-reflective ideal via your sincere tinge. But that's what you are, right, Tom? A sincere tinge? Don't lose the octave-dropping edge of grief in your voice, or not be what they dream when you're seen, and you're gonna wind up with a Meg Ryan atop the Empire State Building, ala the end of Love Affair. 

I hated Sleepless in Seattle because it was the reminder my own relationship in Seattle had been a lie; the sex stopped and we began to gnaw at each other because hot as she was, and cool as she was, we were just not 'in love' in that special thunderbolt way, because I was a poet and my true love became a hybrid of Joni Mitchell singing how she wanted to shampoo and renew me again and again while I drove past a Virginia Slims billboard of a girl with long blond straight hair who looked like one of my best friends back in Syracuse whom I loved in a platonic courtly way. She, Joni, and the giant Virginia Slims girl swirled together into what I even knew at the time was an anima ideal, having studied Jung, with her, back in Syracuse. So now, alone in my car on that route I learned to cry again; my anima began to finally talk to me, using Joni and a colossal-size model with a cool white cigarette, and letters and thoughts of my friend back east, through which to project. My real life / 3D girlfriend in Seattle sniffed this out and thought my being platonic with a cute smart blonde back in Syracuse was impossible. When we saw When Harry Met Sally at the $2 theater in Edmonds she felt proved right and we broke up during the credits, and I still hate that movie.

This is the power of the signal, which is part of our unconscious too, the part neuroscientists and Amazon basin psychonauts are gradually coming to realize: the unconscious core of the soul doesn't come from within the mind or heart but rather is beamed into the pineal gland from an outside source. We are a signal ourselves, from some far off planet or even deep within our own, some fathomlessly long DNA serpent dreaming us from within the structure of the world. We can catch glimpses of its scales in the reflection of neon off the bathroom tiles or at night in the streaky painted light on the blacktop after a rainstorm, but we can't see it directly, or hide from it ever, and either way the voice on the radio singing about love or talking about it is a combo of two signals that are connected at both ends - receiver and transmitter- both just old Svengali talking to himself again. True Love is literally written on the wind, a billion cellular coded mash notes coursing through our atomic structure every second, a net of support so intimate no mask can survive it. No Walter Mitty can have his fancy flights, nor an American keep his Hustle once this signal strikes. Only in Her does it meet a receptive transmitter, and then only because it is a pure signal and it's found a dude who wouldn't know a mask if it came up and spooked him.

Like the less successful film Surrogates (see: The Wringer of Ringerhood), Her takes place in a Catfish future wherein everyone can be whomever else they want in virtual reality, and for some reason choose they selves. Meeting other 3-D real time people has lost much of its feigned jocularity in Spike Jonze's succinctly imagined future; no one smokes or makes wretched small talk or goes on benders; bluetooth sex chats with strangers are as natural as Ambien isn't. If Don Draper could see what his Madison Ave sincerity carousel would lead to, would he ever had turned against Luckies? Better to smoke indoors at the martini bar of masque-on-mask artificiality than be healthy in a bubble of self where a computer voice validates your every movement like a conductor on baby's first potty train.

As a Pisces born during the psychedelic free love eclipse of 1967 I am late to the party or far too early most of the time, so I know too well that when you go out dressed as someone else your old self may not be there when you come back, but accepting that and disguising anyway is something called maturity. I've had my soul shaved into nothingness by transdimensional clockwork gorgons so I also know too well the self is not a constant, anymore than a tornado or polar vortex is separate from the air around it. But I've also known the loving rush of brain exaltation and excitement that can come just from love e-mails, IMs and phone calls, and a mix tape. I vividly experienced how the absence of pictures in those early days of the internet (c. 1995) worked to boost the endorphins. As when we imagine a character in a novel, our love stayed a haunting gorgeous screen of fluid features in our mind. No purer form of anima projector screen has e'er existed. No face-to-face meeting has ever surpassed that giddy rapture.

My first realization of this, the aghast misery of 'the big reveal,' precipitated what AA would call my 'bottom' --after a few months of bliss via long letters and amor-fou-phone calls she sent me a care package: a photo, a watercolor with a romantic original poem, and a mix tape. The poem was... okay, the songs super sad like I love (it was the early 90s, so lots of grunge pop), but her photo was from when she was a child of about twelve, with a cat.

Hmm. From when she was a child... with a cat.

You can guess the rest if you've seen Catfish, or know how internet dating works, and the way alcoholism fuels clinical depression and vice versa. Now there's no excuse but back then the World Wide Web was almost exclusively AOL chat rooms, all the Catfish tricks were still brand new, and I was a prize chump. I flew to Denver to meet her anyway, too drunk to figure a way out. It was the spring of 1997 and the arrival gate bar was serving doubles for the price of singles. Within ten minutes of getting off the plane I had parked us there until she came out of focus. Denver, man, was a blur after that.

Flash forward ten years, falling in love with a fellow writer on the phone from 3,000 miles away.  I wrote this post on Coming Home (1979) for her; photos galore to vouchsafe her mad hotness, twelve hour stretches whisked by breathless on the phone, me hardly daring to switch my phone to the other ear lest I miss a second. A bad cold had brought my voice down an octave and an opiate-enriched Tussianex prescription made me self-assured, our voices merged like two sinuous serpents. Then Christmas came, dragging us apart to our separate families. I went from slithering through the warm, whispered waterways of our shared vocal embrace to shouting into elderly phones just for a single mundane pleasantry to be heard by my 95 year-old granny. My self-assurance withered under my dad's heat ray glare.

My new phone love didn't return my call for almost a month. Really it was just four days, just long enough to break the whispered waterway connection. I had mailed her pictures, you see, in the interim, along with a poem, a watercolor, and a mix tape...

Blood of the Lamb Lenses

Five years later I finally did find a true love that managed to begin on the internet via long long letters of adoration, this one a big Rilke and Thoman Bernhard fan, and it ended in real life cohabitation. And last year during a three month flash of blissful enlightenment brought about by pre-apocalyptic euphoria and galactic alignmentI got to experience the literal reality of the 'everything looks rosy' or 'rose-colored glasses' or 'washed in the blood of the lamb' effect. I was seeing an actual rose-tint over the world and everything seemed to be infused with a healthy crimson, a flush in the world's cheeks. It didn't last of course, and I had forgotten about it until seeing Her. The whole damn film is rosy. But maybe that's the problem. Any acting teacher or therapist would surely weep with joy over Phoenix's sublime and constant state of emotional nakedness, his wrenching honesty, his palpable joy and heartbreak. But that's all we really see of this guy - his heart-sleeve vulnerability and grueling honesty. It's a such a lonely word and everyone is so / untrue, for a reason. A man without a mask unnerves even his gooiest friends sooner or later. He's not even really a man, just a crossroads between tears and doofus grins.

On the other side of the manly coin, consider The Way We Were (1973): Robert Redford's final goodbye to Babs at the end, an accidental run-in after not seeing each other for years--is the first real emotion he has in the film and maybe in his whole career--is so powerful, I cry every time... or would if I had seen it more than once. Redford ("the Natural") can't act in the emotional naked Phoenix style and that is his strength. When he finally does crack the mask, the walls come down where you didn't even know walls were. That's what art is supposed to do: break down walls where you didn't know walls were. Redford's entire stone-faced oeuvre is worth enduring for this one crystal-like clear water fountain / to the sea / moment. Is this single vulnerable crack equivalent to, or equal to, all of Phoenix's performance in Her? I think so. At what point does an unmasked man go from touching to douche chill-icky? Answer: when he had no mask to smash in the first place.

A true story memoir about a beautiful golden WASP Adonis lured out of his quail and ale club by a bohemian Jewess intellectual socialist played by Barbara Streisand, The Way We Were is a star-crossed romance that goes on far longer than most, across acres of history, the lovers crossed as if forever. He initially shacks up with her against all his better judgment and friend advice, partially because, let's face it, WASP girls don't take lovers, only husbands. Babs ain't so brittle. For the progressive socialists, shacking up's no big deal. I can vouchsafe from experience that intellectual Jewish sensuality is totally terrific, a shnozz or some physical imperfection fades in the mystical connectivity of their spirit and electromagnetic heat. And Bab's got such a light spirit you can see why he comes to see her as more than a booty call. There's a complex layer of completion-seeking added when a bronzed Adonis not in touch with his feelings melts for a heart-on-sleeve Brooklyn motormouth. Opposites attract for a reason, it's a polarity thing. A north needs a south for a proper axis.

That's why you can tell the love affair in Her isn't real, not that it matters, which is the point. Minds meet, excite each other, enrapture and engage and then they are no longer the same minds. You can't expect them to stay with the person their previous mind chose as a lover, that would be cruel. Love is an accelerated learning process, absorbing the other persons likes and dislikes and philosophies, and then what? Moving onto the next lesson. But TRUE love is cruel, a teacher who never lets you out of first grade. Opposites can change all they want, but since there's no overlap they can never make each other's input redundant.

Redford and Streisand's characters grow apart not because they've outgrown one another but because around each other they've stopped growing, period, and only later, at the end of the film, when they run into each other on the street, all betrothed to proper class and religiously affiliated spouses - and only then, after it all has happened - does Redford finally crack, because he had stopped growing for so long with her and even without her and now, crack goes the mask - the naked self spurts forth ungainly but true. In Breezy, for example, a whole fifty years of hardened crust cracks right off Bill Holden when he spontaneously bursts into a child-like smile of rapture on the beach with younger girl Kay Lenz, and it's beautiful and makes me weep for joy because he spent those earlier decades being tough. It's the epiphany moment of the hopelessness of love, that impossible star-crossed fate where even if you each ditch your old life and together make your grab for the gold it will never survive, just as it can never die, and so you do it anyway, and ten years later you wonder if it even ever existed (as in Before Midnight), but this one moment on the beach stands tall as a reminder of the vast acres of self you could have claimed that are now forever lost no matter which road you take. But this is at least one road being taken, now. Where it leads to is irrelevant, and you proved to yourself that given the chance to smash your mask, even knowing you'll never get a mask that good again, you smash it? That's bravery...

But in Her, Phoenix the actor stands naked before us from the get-go, hitting these painful notes that are masterfully honest and Jones' script backs him up with eloquent moments like being crouched on the subway steps while a rush of commuters file around him while hearing of how his digital love is having intimate conversations with thousands of other operating systems, juxtaposing how cut off we are from even the surface of our fellow man--streaming past in that commuter rush. All we have when in the Catfish-verse of virtual perfection is the illusion of connection, and the hope of one day uniting with the machine reflection, the 'what we wish we were' vs. 'how we are,' the hope we can one day merge so well that our Frankenstein Skynet Robbie the Robot This is for Pris, Cherry 2000 Absolut vodka Demon Seed love child shall stand as proof that Lady Skynet and John Conner can unite the Capulets and Romulans after all.

 A man moseying along the crowded bubble of his electric navel / real world destroyed
The woman looking outside the bubble at the real world  /  Communist
Two souls alone together in the shipboard bubble / real world inaccessible
Then there's Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939). Now as a man who now only cries when he passes a liquor store window display, I don't care for Irene Dunne in most things. Studs like Cary Grant and Charles Boyer are too good for her, sez I. But in Love Affair her prissy ball-busting schtick is needed because it is so unlike Charles Boyer's nostril-breathing sensualist --she's the Redford, he's the Babs. But they're the only first class passengers traveling alone on a trans-Atlantic cruise, brought together by their miserable separate tables, so opposites sizzle. Director Leo McCarey is peerless at matchmaking, using precision walk-ons to break down all walls and hardness: a talkative chipper landlady, a trio of weird little girl harmonizers (with Irene Dunne on ukulele), an endearing orphanage manager the kids call Picklepuss, a charming art gallery owner, a smitten club manager, a drunk guy carrying a Christmas tree all the way up to 182nd Street, a heavenly orphan choir singing not too loud there's a baby upstairs, gathered around Dunne's sick-bed, and the celestial Maria Ouspenskaya in her greatest role as Boyer's Yoda-like grandmother. Not a single mean word or ill will in the whole film, just two people cautiously reading the signs that fate's throwing at them and quietly slipping free from all their original plans. And we worry about the final big meeting like saps, because everyone else in the film is also aware of how vital these meetings are, the one thing that can cut through all the crap and yank us right out of our lives, even if it's for the worse, is the one thing worth doing. Fortune favors the bold but love doesn't give a shit about fortune or anything else. In Before Sunset, Hawke misses his flight, doesn't cancel or change it, just outright misses it, because Delpy's smoldering to Nina Simone; Amy Jolly kicks off her thousand dollars shoes and barefoot marches off to follow the Legion. It's the grand gesture, so make it while you're high.


And in that height of highness, it's not just the lovers themselves but the romance of light and shadow and sound caressing Boyer and Dunne over glistening rear projection seas that has to pound its board against the surf of uncertainty; the landlocked future already preventing them from being together, like some poison chocolate pink champagne aphrodisiac. You only know for sure it's love when it wrecks your life. If your favorite thing was golf, love will ensure you can never play again; if you loved to touch, your true love hates being touched; if you like to ski, your true love stabs you in the kneecap. You are giving up the shiniest cheap car collection in the world for one battered but sturdy BMW to last you the rest of your life. Before in relationships you would just mark the hours 'til your escape, even if the girl or boy seemed perfect for you, but when true love calls even a Boyer or Redford becomes just a smoov version of Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel! But dig, the trick is 'becomes' not already is, Phoenix! Now crow! Crow into the empty screen for a chance to glimpse your soul's secret norepinephrine stash! Crow before the charm's unwound and your sockets empty of all but stray current. Crow damn yo... (end transmission)

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