Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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, (back then they were just hiply alienated)--there's a lot going on with modernist European art cinema's women of the 60s. 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, but they sense us there somehow, feel our million eyes all over them as they wake up 'acidentally' to how trapped they are by the confines of male (directorial) desire. We're 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 these madwomen and little girls dream they give birth to in great numbers, like a plankton flood from the netherworld oceans. Sometimes you'd swear, as you gaze into their gigantic dilated pupils, they can see you, no matter how far away and small you are in perspective to them. Watching like ghost owls from a couchy perch, staring across time and darkened rows of space, 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. Now wonder they went mad. 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. Honey no wonder you're alienated. Come, cry on Erich's shoulder. I'll keep all the other jackals at bay better than a wedding ring and screaming baby.

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 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.

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