Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Psychedelic awakening, madness, and tonto re forro puta madre yankee nonsense is afoot in Chile, and a beady-eyed, hawk-nosed, blonde-tousled Michael Cera is there, a-swooping down from El Cóndor Pasa with jellied arms akimbo, fulfilling the soul-deadening norteamericano tourist promise even into the ego-dissolving mescaline maw. Luckily (or unfortunately, depending on your tolerance for smug yankee nonsense), the beautiful locals are so chill they don't even tell him to go take a flying leap. Enlightened by socialist higher education and lax taxation, the Chileans accept him despite his inability to accept himself. And so it is that--over the course of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva's shot-back-to-back 2013 films, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus--our jittery ectomorph trips, trails, shoots, swims, jumps, screams, freaks out, titters, ducks, snarks, whines, twists, and wakes with his face in the bush. He wants maybe to be a psychedelic Antonioni-esque shattered icon, but he's not handsome enough to be Peter Fonda, loco enough to be Dennis Hopper, menacing enough to be Bruce Den, or devilish enough to be Jack Nicholson. Cera does have a dash of Dern skeeviness, a peck of Jack loucheness, a minor case Hopper dementia, and Fonda's penchant for self-aware narcissist feedback loop deafness, and that's a start. Separated like Pyramus and Thisbe by a lean ridge of a nose they're forever trying to peer around, Cera's beady eyes are in front to judge the distance to his prey, but can he swoop down on the bunny before creeping self-awareness blinds him to everything but his own black hole navel?

It doesn't even matter. Because today we'll be using Dali's 'paranoiac-critical method' to pick at this pair of films' paisley scabs:
According to Dali, by simulating paranoia one can systematically undermine one's rational view of the world, which becomes continually subjected to associative transformations, "For instance, one can see, or persuade others to see, all sorts of shapes in a cloud: a horse, a human body, a dragon, a face, a palace, and so on. Any prospect or object of the Physical world can be treated in this manner, from which the proposed conclusion is that it is impossible to concede any value whatsoever to immediate reality, since it may represent or mean anything at all" (Marcel Jean). The point is to persuade oneself or others of the authenticity of these transformations in such a way that the 'real' world from which they arise loses its validity. The mad logic of Dali's method leads to a world seen in continuous flux, as in his paintings of the 1930s, in which objects dissolve from one state into another, solid things become transparent, and things of no substance assume form. -- Language is a Virus
With Magic Magic especially, we can count Sebastián Silva part of what I've dubbed the Darionioni Nuovo, an emerging international school of filmmakers picking up the breadcrumb trail left by 70s Argento that connects back to 60s Antonioni and Polanski, 50s Hitchcock, and 30s Cocteau, in the process conjuring up a beast with Tennessee Williams' sparagmostically flayed wings, Jung's mythically fluid manticore "tail," and a single-first-person peeping tom keyhole crystal ball eye passed amongst its three gorgon hydra acidheads. Berberian Sound Studio, Amer, Boarding GateScarlet DivaThe Headless Woman are some of the other films that fit this unique niche --a style too paranoid to be acknowledged even by its originators: each devoted in their own fashion to the paranoid-critical dissolution of sexual mores, and the unsettling irrational paranoia that erupts in even the sanest mind when the comfort of steady signifier-signified connectedness disappears and the "real" emerges, like a strange tropical fruit that becomes--with a blink of the eye--a dead parrot. It's a feeling Europeans and globe-trotting hippies know very well, since language and culture barriers can sometimes make--especially if they're jet-lagged, alienated, or fucked-up on weird drugs (how can they know the recommended dose when they can't speak the same language as their dealer?) ordinary things lose their signifier links and become strange unassimilable things menacing the subject's conscious structure like a wrecking ball swinging in the wind.

Magic Magic taps into that same paranoid mind melt that we find all over the 60s-70s 'collapsing female mind' films: it's got the same 'rabbit rotting-on-the-plate Antonioni's Red Desert Vitti finding the dead pigeon under glass on Judy Chicago flatware in a Yellow Wallpapered room surrounded on all sides by Lynchian buzzing'-style fecund jungles and horny dogs.

The Crystal Fairy film by contrast is, for all its mystic leanings, more or less a conventional 'shitheel learns to respect others' moral tale (Rohmer on Roybal) as well as a very good look at what it's like to have a bad trip where your head's so far up your own ass that maybe you're depending far too much on the psychedelic drug trip you've planned, hoping it will cure all your crippling self-conscious depressive hangups in a single flash. I've been there, bro, and know from bitter experience that it doesn't work like that. The San Pedro cactus-derived mescaline (in this case) only forces you to experience the full feedback squall of your own DSB venom. No one surrenders to the mystic without first a great deal of terror as reality dissolves and the horror, the horror, emerges; the wide-screaming abyss of the impermanent, that which dwells beyond all the bullshit walls you set up, consumes you at last. You have to try and make a friend of horror, go into the womb of fear, and hopefully after you sup full of horrors (can you name those three source references?), and emerge with some humility-sourced genuine compassion for others, rather than a willingness to be seen looking interested while they talk.

Not to get all Burning Mannish, but the ancient Mayan gods demand full existential dissolution before they lift your egoic agonies. The farther we are from this baseline mortality awareness, the less 'alive' we feel, the more violent the breaking out of the faerie bower has to be, until the whole self splinters like a glass goblin back into its red, green, and blue component cables, back into the awareness/terror/impermanence of unprocessed signal.  If you're not ready for that dissolution of self, the Mescaline Gods' mystical awakening is really more of a reverse keelhauling, as your squirmy psyche is lifted out of its comfy depths and exposed to the sun's superegoic jeering in a northerly clockwork motion, and the comfort of the dark, murky underside of the ship longed for like a Linus blanket.

Crystal Fairy manages to get this exactly right, but in the process it reminds us that even if we're nowhere near as obnoxious as Cera or Crystal Fairy, compared to the easygoing balanced chill of bros and ladies of South America, we're all hinchapelotas.

At any rate, the photography is lovely. By the end we're managing to hallucinate into the beachfront rocks the way Dali used to do along the Costa Brava and if you've ever been stuck tripping with (or been) the Crystal Fairy type (patchouli, unshaven armpits and legs, ratty hippie hair, playing the PC den mother no one remembers asking for) or the Cera type (can't shut off their motormouth solipsism for five minutes, their "I'm getting off, are you getting off yet?" trying to turn the wordless experience of the divine into a Disney ride lecture tour), you may wince from painful recognition (these types can leave deep scars of Pavlovian annoyance in your deep/soft psychedelic tissue), but at least you know Silva feels your pain. 

Apparently cast members did ingest the San Pedro cactus being depicted which may explain the lacksy-daisy narrative progression. I can imagine freaking out grandly, with a big camera crew following me around as I frolicked on the beach, thinking I was making Citizen Kane but really making Hearts of Age. (I've done the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale). I would hate to be in that frame of mind and have to play an obnoxious twerp like Cera's comeuppance-craving Mr. "Magnificent" Anderson of a red pill psychedelic seeker as much as I would hate to trip with him. Forsooth, methinks he is a wally. 

Cera handles the abuse well - but is there really a point? In its way, my problem with Crystal Fairy is the same as with Welles' Ambersons, i.e. a fatal misjudging of audience empathy for a particular actor that makes the film hard to watch, like a cookie filled with arsenic where they forgot the Sidney Falco sugar --so what's there to eat without the ice cream face? I have the same problem with both Ambersons and Lady from Shanghai -- in each case the entire point of both films seems to be to allow Welles the chance to play a larger-than-life egotistical swine but at the last minute he gives the plum role to someone else - and neither Tim Holt or Everett Sloane can fill Welles' mighty big shoes --and isn't that precisely why, unconsciously, he cast them?  

Magic Magic is the better of the films because Cera is only a side player, so his horrible lesion of a self-conscious shitheel matrix doesn't pollute our minds, only Alicia's --an American tourist even crazier than Crystal Fairy, but less obnoxious, substantially cuter, and played by the great Juno Temple. She's on a Blanche Dubois-goes-on-a-Repulsion vacation to Chile, where, instead of isolation (with just a dead rabbit and rapist hallucinations), it's the lack of privacy that drives her mad. Expecting to have a restful visit with her American college exchange student buddy Sara (Emily Browning), she finds instead a car full of other people, including: Sara's novio Augustin (Agustín Silva), his sisteBábara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Cera, the Ugly American, speaking Spanish with ease but still unbearable, the four of them picking her up for a spontaneous holiday to some remote island before she can even unpack, not the kind of thing an exhausted probably bi-polar L.A. girl getting off a ten-hour flight wants.

And it gets worse, a straw too far: suddenly Sara is called away for an enigmatic 'test' and so Alicia has to go to some remote island alone with these weirdos. Cera is her designated friend, since Alicia speaks no Spanish, which is worse than not speaking at all. And it's miles to go before she can sleep. Alicia's got to deal with all this life-affirming Chilean ease-in-their-own skin nonsense and it drives her mad like all the rustic Americana did for Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.

Things go downhill faster and faster, for poor Alicia, even though the island is pretty. Eventually we go from feeling her pain to that of her strange companions, because she can't blame it all on the bad cell phone reception, fear of water, alienation, insomnia, and being more-or-less a captive audience to any dumb animal that won't stop humping her leg.

I dig it - because I know well the feeling: tired from the trip, staying with a bunch of relaxed, groovy people who want to party all day and all night, thus preventing you from getting the 12 hours sleep you need to recover from an overnight flight. They seem to taunt you with their niceness. As the moody irritable lack-of-sleep depression kicks in, you begin to hate your fellow revelers for rubbing your lack of joie d'esprit in your face.

For me this was visiting friends up in Syracuse for the weekend, after I'd graduated. The people I stayed with invariably had cats and I'm allergic and would be wheezing and gasping all night, depressed by lack of sleep and too much speedy Sudafed which made me intensely paranoid and didn't even really work. And then the auditory hallucinations started: some girl in the kitchen might say to her cute single friend "can you pass the Pepsi?" I'd overhear it as something like "Erich has hep-C."  Which I don't, and I totally would have slept with her, too. That other bitch be cockblocking. See? It's already too late - I now hate that girl who asked for a Pepsi! Even though I, being a psychedelic veteran, KNEW I was having auditory hallucinations, I still hated her.

Such cranky, crazy oddness is what Dali's paranoid-criticism is all about. If you cultivate it, seek it out - dive into the madness rather than run from it, the world is yours. Once Carol takes up the razor in Repulsion she's no longer scared, see? She's free, hacked clear, carving a wall of human flesh, dragging the canoe behind her, beyond Ulmer's time barrier.

For the full effect of the paranoid-critique you need to see the preview for Magic Magic before you see the film because the preview makes it seem like a 'Most Dangerous Game meets Welcome to Arrow Beach meets Svengali' horror movie instead of the 'Red Desert-style modernist melt-down mixed with I Walked with a Zombie-style poetic ambiguity' it is -- a hard thing to pull off really well but Silva aces it--and the photography by the amazing DP Christopher Doyle only justifies his reputation; his stunning use saturated color (stark yellow raincoat against a purple-blue sea) makes the film look how one might imagine the Polanski mid-60s trilogy: Knife in the WaterRepulsion, and Cul-de-Sac would look if shot today.

Hell yeah, Polanski and Val Lewton both would love Magic Magic.

Lastly, I know I've been mean to Cera here, but it's only because I've been his character here, I spent agonizing tours desperately hoping a psychedelic trip might bring me out of my self-absorbed depression; wanting to feel as happy and interconnected as everyone around me seemed, but not being able to get there no matter how high I got. Only in AA did I learn that everyone feels that way, just not as painfully so they just muddle past it rather than overdoing it in a vain hope some old magic will return. Then you learn that ego can't be burned off by taking too much of anything. You can't fight it, only coax it into giving up on its own via being nice to other people, through empathy, through service, sharing your story, honestly, therapy, 12-steps and self-expression. 

Or you can have it flayed off, too much mescaline like an Ilsa She Wolf of the SS torture room. Damn straight, fuck sobriety! Drugs don't always work, but writing about how drugs don't always work does, which brings us to this moment: Back in the 90s, the downtown Manhattan lounge scene, flitting from one exotic storefront lounge to the next in my tuxedo jacket and feather boa, wondering if the K I'd snorted was working, struggling vainly towards feeling spontaneous and free, and failing even when ecstasy was flowing in bumps right off the table and I was dancing with lovely ladies while Moby and Fancy spun away and the city beamed up at us from Windows on the World vantage-- even with all that, it was as if some heavy blanket of strained artificiality was choking the joi de vivre right out of me. Every August my roommate would jet off to Ibiza leaving me to try vainly one more time to drink myself to death (my boss, being French, gave me the whole month off for vacation), and then in October---when New York City is the best place to be on Earth--whomever my roommate had crashed with there would come visit NYC and stay at our place, and suddenly the clouds of despair would lift - these Brits or Venezuelans or Germans could get all of us united, dancing, alive, happy, in love with the scene, joyous. Feeling so real, at last.

Then they'd be gone again... The same alien disconnect denial malaise would descend. 

I guess it could have been worse. What if we didn't even know how in despair we'd been?

We might have been Michael Cera.  

1 comment:

  1. I loved Crystal Fairy, and felt like I was right there with the cast. I liked that it was a hallucinogen movie with a positive spin on putting the squeegee to the third eye. I will look for Magic Magic. I think Juno Temple is the cat's pajamas.


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