Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Eric Jonrosh's Spoils of the RED DESERT


"Crazy gorgeous, crazy for real, unstable, reckless, spontaneous--today they'd be called bi-polar--there's a lot going on with modernist European art cinema's women. We love them and they love us back, or are scared of us (by us I mean camera / viewer / audience) since they can't really see us, not quite, but know we're there, watching, like SLEEP NO MORE. It's like they wake up to how trapped they are inside of a rectangular screen and we're their unseen child spirit trying whisper words of comfort across time and media platforms into their forlorn ossicles. We're like the tiny human figures these madwomen dream they give birth to in great numbers. Sometimes you'd swear as you gaze into their gigantic dilated pupils they can see you, no matter how big or small you are in perspective to them, watching like ghost owls from a couchy perch; staring across time in the dark they can almost read your mind. They can almost tell if you are enraptured or at least sympathetic to their cause or just leering down their dress... like everybody else... sigh. Honey, if we had to be a hot babe in Italy we'd feel just the same, all that pawing and leering, like hungry jackals nipping at a dying calf.

Women like the one played by Yvonne Furneaux in La Dolce Vita (1960, below -left/ right), or Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964 - above, below-left-left) are forever reaching for a 'real' connection with the men inside their film environments; trying to trap them into a full commitment, to devour them through hydra hair anemone tendrils; considering how bad Mad Men makes America look at the same approx time frame, sexual harassment-wise, I can only imagine how bad it was in Italia! These poor harassed, molested, objectified and leered-at ladies need more than just assurances from some diegetic dimwit trying to get them into bed; they need a champion, a little man they can keep it their pocket. You should be small, so you can look up to her, so she can be your ideal.

But is she? 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 leering, inevitable drunk uncles blinded by teenage hotness and cheap vino. 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 he can succeed, and that his star can transcend the confines of the Mussolini-period architecture and minimalist gallery space and escape out some momentarily open corner of the screen. Whether it's into his/our arms, or, within the screen, someone mature, rich, and debonair, who loves her for her, and can somehow survive the terrible suffocation of her maternal maenad devouring need for constant love, can just fight it out with her in the convertible, at dawn.

Alas, there is only one Marcello Mastroianni, and he spreads himself thin. Only suicide threats seem to get him to come home anymore. Antonioni is much more of a nice guy to his women. In the past his madwomen could find solace and escape from modern life via breathtaking island views (as in L'Aventura), 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 Vitti needs a different escape avenue; she's got 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 the 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 inept direction, dialogue, framing, mismatched rear projection and adorable miniatures. 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 maybe under the sloshy pen of trash novelist Eric Jonrosh, played with windy Paul Masson whiny-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 course through Antonioni's work constantly in both micro and macro, cosms and chasms, and in Spoils there is an arbitrary dividing line set up, an extramarital affair as elusive in its ultimate unimportance as the disappearance in L'Aventura. 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, like bringing money to heaven); one can't be an impassioned sensualist and a 9-5 captain of industry. 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.

the answer, my friend
It's these gestures of sacrifice 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. "

In Spoils, Cynthia mirrors Giuliana in Red Desert in that they both need to to waken from the idealized Edenic fantasy their personas embody. They represent the objet petit a and yet seek it, the only resolution: the 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. 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. But 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.

Similarly, Cynthia pursues Devon because forbidden love is sexy and befits the very rich, for whom the only thing they can't have is the only thing worth having. The signifiers don't add up in Spoils either, less 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 (even our own) and yet they admire our innocence, knowing it is born out of a single language system. But if we imagine seeing a German film in German class (hence without subtitles) and not being able to understand because we haven't paid attention ever in class, then 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 banshee. Antonioni helps us realize we're bound up in signifiers even without language: if we see in this unsubtitled German film the image a woman at a child's bedside against a white 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 candy 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. Now. Now we get the post-structuralist leaning tower of Babel alienation!

The Americans and censors don't want this to ever happen. 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. From there it's a small step 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 goes insane from 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 it 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.


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. Also, in saying "Lutz! Lutz!" he's 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 brewing 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--she closes the door, but it's to the cabinet by his bedside! 

At an earlier point she runs off 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, but then she tuns around, separated from the group in the fog, Corrado at her side; the others look at her as if she's been caught red handed in an affair --but are they really feeling that, or is just another passing mood? Now she thinks she's the one who needs to go rescue the sick on the ship. 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.


Finally, let's examine the cart selling apples in the street in Red Desert, all of which are strangely painted silver-grayish, on the Ravenna street. Who would buy gray apples? Are they some kind of decoration? Are the apples poison? Then why the gray paint buckets completely painted over as to challenge the idea they are paint buckets at all? Is this art or pollution? We can't tell but when Giuliana sits by the cart for a minute she becomes a post-modern 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 or a tortured bonding, or none of the above, and 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 and the wizards clothed and behind curtains hidden: once we no longer fall for the illusion then we have to face our own lady death, 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, grown surly with 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 of mother love. We will not leer.... We will not leer.

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