Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Laureate of the Laid: Terry Southern, CANDY (1968)

Life is a latticework of coincidence, whether we see it or not. Usually we don't want to --we're worried we'd go crazy if we did. With our blinders up, thankfully, the coincidence matrix scans less a pineal gland-buzzing 9-dimensional grid of raw wave energy and more as abstract, meaningless white noise with the odd splotch of identifiable pattern-- a word lining up with a word you're reading or writing or saying at the same second someone on TV is saying it--that comes and goes long before any deciphering of the cosmic hidden message can ensue. But dig this: when you're alight with manic magic or 'awakened' or 'enlightened' or 'tripping balls' or schizophrenic, or a genius, then every single goddamn moment of conscious existence holds a hundred thousand such linkages, stretching from your mind into the screen and out to America and into your own cellular biology and macro and micro fractal-ing out and in, through the past and future, and in higher dimensions than we can consciously perceive, except through the metatextual incorporation of media.

Whether or not we can handle it, this interconnectivity exists like vast and unknowable tendril lattice matrix betwixt our eyes, ears, TV, film, music (only what is currently playing in that moment) and the outermost limits of one's living room and mind. It's all connected to the point of Rubik's Cube inextricability; the retinal screen tattoos the mind and the DVD spins as if a windmill testament to our mind's ability to perceive shapes, faces, voices, targets. Every single element of perceived external and internal reality is an interconnected 'other' staring back at "us" as blankly as we stare at TV commercials, perking up only when we're going through emotional extremes. This 'other' groans in boredom if we don't keep it entertained, as much as vice versa. If we behold its gaze directly we're either dead or insane, but art, baby....art... Art gives us the Perseus Medusa mirror shield by which to cautiously glimpse that which we cannot behold head-on, that which the blinders are there to block. In other words, we can keep our blinders on but widen our perception at the same time.

Mandrake, isn't it true that on no account will a commie ever take a drink of water?

And not without good reason!

When these latticework lightbulbs are flashing atop each pylon neuron 'round the pineal car wreck, that is (presuming fluoridation hasn't encrusted it), one turns naturally to Terry Southern. America's dirty Swift, the Texas Voltaire, the Watergate Lubitsch, the Lenny Bruce of Lauded Literary Lustful Libertinism, the acidhead Brecht, the Ayatollah of cock rock lit. Southern took the ball from randy sordid authors like Nabokov, Poe and Henry Miller and threw it straight through the Cuban Missile Crisis' fire hoop, shattering the speed of the three martini lunch glass bottom end zone and through the Hindu deity receiver's fifth and sixth arms, scoring the free-love mind game psychedelic put-on touchdown. True anarchy of spirit finds full flower of expression in his R-rated Marx Brothers protozoic chest-thumping. His scripts and/or original novels for films like Barbarella, Candy, The Loved One, The End of the Road, and Dr. Strangelove mix jet black humor with guilt-free sex, bawdy anarchy, trenchant satire, coded anti-Vietnam rants, un-PC skirt chasing, grim apocalypse and vintage slapstick in ways that make the puerile inanity of today's sex comedy seem tragically anemic.   

Maybe you don't, but I remember the year that the book The Rules reaffixed a heavy price tag to free love. It was the first time most girls actually bought a book in decades. Makes on think about how much sex would be in books if not for the juicy free press provided by censorship. Dirty books once were banned in many countries (including ours), and were therefore exceedingly popular. Authors like Burroughs, Southern, and Nabokov could make fast money churning them out for Parisian small presses, which were then smuggled into America as 'imported' erotica. Lax censorship in our current age on the other hand has strangely led to a second Puritanism, reminding one of the clean-cut Nazis rising up from the ancient Rome-style decadence of Weimar Germany. Southern is from an era when 'adult' cinema was adult--by adults for adults--and not the sole purview of 'endearingly' foul-mouthed nerdy immature boys. Literary lions have no place on our bookshelves now, except on library shelves, where erotica isn't always welcome. And more and more, old dead straight dirty white guys are being scissored from college reading lists. As a result, erotica now seems the result only of immaturity and a small vocabulary, a sad association from which it may never recover.

This putsch of maturity and learnedness from the realm of sex may seem a victory to the easily deluded PC snobs of the Ivory Tower, but they've never been good at spotting coincidence latticework anyway, their pineal glands being so fluoride-encrusted they're blind to even the idea of blindness. They've forgotten that when intellectual satire is volleyed at sacred institutions, exposing the truth of the latticework to all our awakened horror, it destroys only the dead cells within, leaving the rest vibrant and now hip enough to incorporate its own critique. Only the mundane and banal need fear. Meanwhile the potty-mouthed prattle of today's grown infants is never a threat to the higher-ed gestapo and can indeed be yoked to the PC mafia's repressive practices, encouraging said banal literati that not one dead cell shall slough off from the obese corpse of "literature."

Jane Fonda - Barbarella
Thus Southern, the Alvarado Swinburne, the heterosexual Wilde, was obscene only to illuminate the truer obscenities of religion, Washington, the pertro-chemical industrial complex, the funeral industry, the American military, Wall Street, academia, the American Medical Association, even the counterculture of which he was an active part. His was the the voice of the savage American expatriate id, run aground in Paris after the War, like the Lost Generation before him. First he attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, then became a Paris Review co-founder, then a dirty book writer full of unbeatable Bugs Bunny trickster tactics, then a black comic screenwriter. Willing to look deep into the obscene eye of humanity without blinking, or even judging, his adults-only humor wasn't aimed at naughty boys of fifteen, but real live adults, with deep smoker's voices, at least one STD to their credit, maybe a few scars from the war, and a level of maturity we no longer see today (think Johnny Carson's smooth elan vs. Jimmy Fallon's beer-bloated fanboy gushing or even Animal House vs. The Bunny -- and WEEP for an America that will one day make even Jonah Hill seem a stalwart fount of manly gravitas).


If there's still an author with 'adult' intellect left standing after the PC putsch (begun in the 90s --I was there), if there's a scribe yet able to be lusty without merely lapsing into unconscious misogyny, that author is well-hidden, and would never dare come forward until said putsch hath passed. One day he (or she --why the hell not?) may write a book that could bring us out of this maturity death spiral, or that could be made into a film like Candy, which seems to condone molestation, drugging women without their knowledge, borderline rape, etc., but seems is the key word in that sentence. Men now feel so bad for saying no to a relationship after saying yes to sex that we'd just as soon pre-empt the whole thing. I mean how else are you going to know, for sure, you don't want to go out with a girl unless you sleep with her first? But that's 'wrong' now. Not back then, apparently! Back then no one was meant to feel bad at all; even a man chasing a girl young enough to be his daughter around the room, his tongue hanging out, honking like Harpo Marx, was under no unseen liberal arts lash of penitence.

Well, if you neuter your satiric watchdog, he may stop humping your leg and peeing in the corners, but he's also apt to hide when the burglars of phony morality and 'sacred' patriarchy show up, thus making his entire existence superfluous. And those burglars he lets in are actually squatters who once ensconced within your walls will linger until they've worn your masculinity down to a mawkish enfeebled little nub, until all you have left are James Bond marathons and then only when your wife is away at spin class. When you hear her car pulling into the garage you quick change the channel to PBS, and bury your nose innocently in The New Yorker. And then, only then, will said squatters leave you to your misery.

You know what I'm trying to say: the institutional targets most deserving of take-down sit smugly behind walls of standards and practice policies, while once-proud writers are assigned stories of mundane consensual love affairs between rational adult celebrities who just happen to be married (albeit to other people). All bawdiness is now relegated to teenagers at band camp or softcore puerility on late night cable, and anyone who texts the wrong person at the wrong hour risk having their texts read aloud on CNN or sent around to all her friends.

And yet, do we think we can shame human nature? No matter how much PC lip service they pay, chicks still pick the brutish lothario over the sensitive poet, most of the time. What's the point of being a feminist if it doesn't get you laid? It took me 20 years to figure out what Terry Southern knew all the time. Intellectual writers could be just as wild, chest-thumping, and aggressively sexual as any jock, greaser, thug, or motorcyclist. We didn't used to associate the male college intellect with pussywhipped PC enfeeblement, is my point. I despise what's passing for a 'men's movement' these days, and their vile misogynistic corners of the web, but that world has nothing to do with Southern's, any more than a rabid Chihuahua to do with an Alaskan wolf pack.

The vanishing of Southern's pack, then, is a reminder perhaps that writers are not allowed groupies anymore, or if they have them they must either hide that fact lest it compromise their nebbish image, or boast like douche bags. Most comic talents lament their loserdom, their failure with women, their small dicks. Reduced to the status of a shiftless older sibling in the home by their ballbusting mom and her incestuous darling son, dads turn back to their buddies for support: bromance, and gay jokes, whistling in the hetero foxhole dark as women become more and more unapproachable, let alone molestable (Jody Hill's Observe and Report a rare, glorious exception). When we do see a famous comic in a standard groupie hook-up, its presented in the most mutually demeaning manner possible (ala Adam Sandler in Funny People).

In France and England (or Argentina) on the other hand, writers can be pot-bellied, balding, too drunk to even make it to the party plane but they're allowed sex, groupies, and lovely ladies on each arm. and they feel no reason to brag or feel bad or be made to look sleazy or pathetic. Smart is sexy over there. Or was last I checked. Or so I hear.

Southern centered
Southern's oeuvre now represents an era where it may have been a little sneaky getting some bird into bed but it was under the rubric that both of them would have a good time, no one would be 'slut-shamed', and that free love was just that - especially if you were a friend of the Beatles. So the high-functioning gropers of Candy may come from Southern perhaps witnessing blokes gone instantly from birdless to beflocked with a single hit record and noted the accompanying changes in their sexual drive and finesse or lack thereof. It's easy to be a stud when you're not actually getting any offers; once the girl makes it plain she's up for a roll in the way, once the free room and bed are located, and once pants come off--then all sorts of embarrassing equipment failures can manifest. Cialis for daily use is still decades away, erection-deflating coke dust in the party plane air ducts, and groupies impatiently waiting, their plaster cast a-drying more with every flaccid minute.... It's no wonder men have to boast later to their bros --getting the entire deed right, from first eye contact to putting clothes back on and sneaking back downstairs, to satisfy her needs as well as your own without fumbling the condom, losing the erection, and making it all seem organic --it's no easy task.

All of which is an elaborate, rambling set-up for my discussion of Candy (1968) because even in contemporary America's chilly intolerant climb we wouldn't dream of calling Ringo Starr or Marlon Brando a dirty womanizer, or Richard Burton or James Coburn a pathetic joyless bathroom groupie humper -- which is one of the reasons their characters' over-the-top sexual harassment, abuse of patriarchal authority, even medical malpractice, flourishes into full subversive flower here in ways that would be too unappetizing if ugly hairy-backed plebeians were doing it. That Brando, Coburn and Burton, particularly, lampoon themselves and their status' and profession's own most private (dirty) groupie-trawling here should brook no scolding. Indeed, should be celebrated!

Especially when juxtaposed with modern stuff like HBO's use of graphic rutting which stresses the more mutually demeaning and bestial aspects of sex, Southern's brand of erotica is positively life-affirming. He takes the Voltaire hint and presents the sex drive, and the naked body with all its hairs and gasses, as incorruptible and forgiven all trespass. Ultimately, what is being satirized is the sexual repression that forces men to strike comically unaffected postures before lunging at a passing hottie naif, and the way all their strutting oratory just make them all the more ridiculous once their trousers are halfway off, for no amount of bluster and male pride can smooth the awkward transition from civilized gentleman to a spastically humping mastiff. One look at today's conservative hysteria over birth control on one end, liberal PC lockstep on the other, and the Joy of Sex deflates to a pleasant moment before acres of guilt and anxiety.

And as far as movies are concerned, the kind of ravishment women like to read about in some of the more disreputable Harlequin offshoots is completely out. One false step and you wind up being demonized in a Lifetime movie.


Though only based on Southern's original novel (co-written with Southern's fellow Parisian ex-pat and Olympia Press dirty-lit writer Mason Hoffenberg), adapted for the film by American satirist Buck Henry (coming hot off The Graduate), directed by Christian Marquand (a French actor, as odd and illogical a choice for an American satire as Mike Sarne for Myra Breckinridge [1970]) and filmed by a French-Italian crew, Candy seems quintessentially Southern at first, standing alongside Dr. Strangelove as a savagely honest critique of America's noisemaker patriotism, its drug-fueled paranoiac flipside and the sexual puritanism that underwrites both. Kicking things off, Burton is mind-blowingly grand, spectacularly pathetic, and thoroughly hilarious as McPhisto, a grandiose 'dirty-minded' poet making his first appearance, wind in the hair, electric rock blaring, at a student assembly attended by Candy (Ewa Aulin), setting the mechanisms in motion. Brilliantly modulating a cascade of punch lines in a cue card rhythm  - "I wrote that," he says after reading his first poem, long hair and scarf blowing, "laying near death... in a hospital bed...  in the Congo... after being...savagely beaten... by a horde of outraged Belgian tourists." His fluid Welsh wit makes great rolling use of pauses and accented words as he orates, speaking in Latin only to admit he's not quite sure if it means anything, mentioning his books have been "banned or burned in over 20 countries... and fourteen... developing nations." Shifting from famous genius poature to hangdog contrition as he mentions his book is available... signed by the author... for three dollars... in cash or money order, even bringing Welsh florid anguish to the mailing address, culminating in "Lemmington, New Jersey."

Burton, orating with creepy alien hybrid
Candy: "Oh my gosh, (watching Burton fall out of the car, soaked in whiskey) he's a mess!
Zero: "Well man, that's the story of love."
Moments later MacPhisto has Candy in the back of his Benz (indeed there's the idea he came there expressly to pick out a nubile co-ed) while Zero (Sugar Ray Robinson) drives, though there seems to be a kind of understanding that they share the automobile and like to get into sexual adventures together ala Don Juan and Leporello (switching roles nightly, perhaps). "Candy - beautiful name," McPhisto says as prelim to his attack. "It has the spirit and the sound of the old testament." A Scotch spigot in his glass bottom Benz gets turned on by accident, and McPhisto winds up crawling around at Candy's feet, booming on about his 'giant, throbbing need' and pathetically lapping spilled Scotch off the floor, getting it on his trousers, and ending up in Candy's basement with his pants off, heroically making love to a doll that looks eerily like abductee descriptions of alien-human hybrids, all while reciting random verses and sobbing heroically; Ringo Starr is a Mexican gardener (terrible enough with his half-assed Alfonso "Stinking Badges" Bedoya-by-way-of-Speedy-Gonzalez accent to be a real adult film actor) paws at Candy on the pool table, all while Zero (Sugar Ray Robinson) helps himself to the basement bar while dispensing bon mots ("Quo Vadis, baby!"), beaming so approvingly at the crazy scene methinks I was in the kind of hetero-camp heaven I once believed the sole province of Russ Meyer!

Alas, the MacPhisto adventure is the best part of the entire film and even that is marred in the second part by Ringo's terrible performance.  Luckily John "Gomez" Astin kicks it back into some sort of gear as Candy's swinger uncle, setting up a nice contrast to his square twin brother (Candy's father, also Astin). Uncle's nymphomaniac swinger-in-furs quipster wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli) tells Candy she'll like New York, where kids "aren't afraid to scratch when it itches" but a drive to the airport finds them all accosted by Ringo's three sisters riding up on motorcycles, their long black veils fluttering behind them for a brilliant wicked witch of the west / harpy / Valkyrie / flying nun effect --another high point though once the whips and brass knuckles come out, the film starts to just hang there, they don't know what to do with the scene. They grab the first plane that happens by and run into Walter Matthau, miscast as a deranged Albanian-hating airborne paratroop general (it should have been George C. Scott or Lee Marvin -- who ever heard of a New York pinko Jewish-intellectual general?) and since when would a general waste his rank in control of only a planeload of shock troops? Matthau knows how to keep deadpan when mocking military patriotism, but his cadence as he rambles on about having a kid with Candy and sending it to military school lacks the kind of deranged jingoistic ring that Scott brought to both Patton and Turgidson or Sterling Hayden to Ripper, it's just depressing to imagine his scenario coming true, that poor kid.

But Candy's next adventure is one of the greats, involving James Coburn's toreador Hackenbush-ish brain surgeon Dr. Krankheit ("This is a human life we're tinkering with here, man, not a course in remedial reading!"). Coburn's histrionic operating theatrics might seem a bit Benway-esque but Burroughs was a friend of Southern's and Coburn has the spirit of the thing in the way, say, David Niven never did in Casino Royale. Like Burton, Coburn modulates Shakespearian antithesis and masculine actorly power, seizing the chance to let his sacral chakras vibrate and hum. Aside from Burton, he's the only other star in the film's luminary cast to recognize the covert brilliance buried in even the most seemingly mundane lines (which Matthau breezes right over) and to let each word ring like freedom's infernal bell. Amping up his patented actorly mannerisms, Coburn conjures a physician as a liberated but insane as any before or since, accusing the operating theater audience of thinking what he was a moment ago just saying--throwing his scalpel to the floor and just sticking his finger right into the comatose Astin's brain (one slip and the patient "will be utterly incapable of digit dialing"), saluting the crowd with his bloody middle finger in triumph, in short, my friend, Coburn is MAGNIFICENT!

And just when it can't get any better, Anita Pallenberg (alas, dubbed, as she was in Barbarella) appears as Krankheit's number one nurse; Buck Henry cameos as a mental patient in a straitjacket trying to attack Candy in the elevator; John Huston shows up as a prurient administrator who seems to get off trying to shame Candy in front of the entire post-op party after she's caught being molested by her uncle. Krankheit dispenses B12-amphetamine cocktail shots and the pink-clad nurses wait around like beholden nuns in some religious spectacle. Coburn's medical innovations include a 'female' electrical socket affixed to the back of Candy's father's head, so he can drain off the excess wattage while powering a small radio. Again, the kind of thing that modern films would not approve of, i.e. how dare you satirize a litigious, lawyered and humorless institution like the AMA, sir!? Sir... Sir?

Candy - w/ James Coburn and Anita Pallenbeg 
From then on, alas, the film's mostly downhill: a scene with a trio of groping Mafioso and a crazy Italian stereotype-a filmmaker is just crude, pointless and skippable; ditto the shocked cops playing up their blue collar bewilderment and earthy hostility as they bash frugging drag queens, crack nightsticks down on hippies, and wind up crashing the squad car because they can't help leering down Candy's dress instead of keeping their eyes on the road. The dialogue says interesting but the targets are too easily skewered. Why not have the cops be groovy, just to be weird, man? But it being 1968, I guess cop-bashing was still 'in'. Now, though, the blue collar drooling thug cop angle comes off almost more like class-based snobbery than cutting satire.

After a romp in Central Park, Candy joins up with a criminal mastermind hunchback (Charles Aznavour), who can climb up walls and jump into watery windows ("an old stereoscopic trick" says the unimpressed cops), all well and good but Aznavour's aggressively twitchy rat-like Benigni-Feldman-style behavior eats up another soul-deadening stretch, centered around a gag you'll see coming a mile off (if you've seen Godfather 2 - which admittedly came after). And seeing him rutting away atop the lucious Candy is like watching a cockroach dying of Raid atop a vanilla cupcake; with all his hippie minions showering them with down feathers from busted pillows from above, it's also very gang-rapey.


Escaping once again, Candy winds up in the holy water-flooded mobile ashram of the guru Grindl --played by Marlon Brando. Half-baked and not quite at the level of Burton or Coburn--his voice stuck in a congested limbo between Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson and Abie the Fish Peddler from Animal Crackers, Brando's Indian accent ends up just sounding congestedly Borscht Belt, mining the rhythm of Lenny Bruce as Groucho or Alan Arkin as played by Sky Masterson. Brando's way too internalized and self-righteous for this Grindl to reach the compromised grandeur of Burton's McPhisto or confident carnivorous genius of Coburn's Krankheit (better Brando himself be a character satirized by some other actor). When he says you 'must travel beyond thirst, beyond hunger" while eating a sausage he sounds just like Hugh Herbert, which is great, but it's such a dick move not to share the food that it's hard to feel anything but a sympathy headache and since by then the movie's cresting the two hour mark, with plenty more vignettes to go, you almost certainly will be ready to just smack someone, hit stop and go have dinner or a nap.


Shocking and racist as it might be for an actor of Brando's caliber and political leanings to appear in brownface while noshing on a sausage and floating phony guru raps to some blonde in the trailer equivalent of a shag carpeted party van, just remember he (and Burton) liked working in big budget European adult films at the time, to almost ex-pat consistency (when adult meant adult, remember) making things like Last Tango in Paris, and Bluebeard (both 1972, both X-rated), respectively. Abroad they could be free to drink, eat, smoke and screw to excess without having to hide it all lest America's post-Puritan pressure cooker explode all over them.

Which brings me to my final thought bubble--the idea central to Candy's Christian values--which begins with what MacPhisto says in the beginning about being willing to giving oneself freely as the height of human grace. Sure it's a line men use to try and get women into bed at the time, but if they didn't try, where would humanity be?  And as Lenny Bruce would say, that's the true difference between obscenity and humanity. The truth of our 'huge, throbbing need' is unendurable any other way except as a joke that paradoxically lets us save face and free ourselves of it at the same time. It's the last bastion of the healthy human body's societal failings, the hairy gorilla remnant that can't be hidden underneath the seersucker suit. We need society's forgiving tolerance of this gorilla, because if we denude the beast of his business suit only to sneer at him or deliver some drab lecture on morals or objectification, all we do is bum everyone out, we become just another nag, part of the problem. It's just sex, after all. In Europe it's just part of life.

In insisting on the okayness of these obscene trespasses, Southern proves 'nothing sacred' is itself the most sacred of philosophies, that there's nothing bad about the human biological system with all its warty needs. Let it be satirized but never condemned. Let only unkind hypocrisy be attacked without mercy.

"We are not old men. We are not worried about your petty morals." - KR, in deposition
To sum up: Candy comes from a time when intellectual men were still allowed to be men, and hipsters were not pale smirking skinny jeans wallies crossing the street to avoid second hand smoke or arguing in a mawkish voice against plastic bags at the food co-op. Southern's era had more repression and obscenity laws to reckon with, but they had the artistic clout to bash into them with dicks swinging, brain hanging, and fists helicoptering. If Southern and friends had been at that food-co-op meeting they would be hurling the organic produce at that anemic hipster, bellowing like a lion, inhaling every kind of smoke presented. Back in their own time all they could do instead was rage against the dying of their pre-Viagra erections, and then die for real, as nature intended, either in WW2 or Vietnam or that Norman Maine surf from which no faded reprobate returns. Rather than clinging to bare life like today's greedy octogenarians, bankrupting Medicare so they can eke out one more month (the impatient specter waiting in the reception area, rereading that old Us Weekly for the eleven hundredth time while doctors stall out the clock since they're getting richer by the hour), they died... like men!

Real hipsters of the older era--having faced death abroad or within, heroically dodged the draft or fought the war, leapt into the waiting arms of the angry fuzz, or served jail time for a single joint--earned their aliveness and their stash of war-issued amphetamine; they were able to dig on and understand out-there modern jazz, and to smoke anywhere, including the doctor's office. They lingered at the moveable feast of expat Paris, armed with coffee, whiskey, Moroccan hashish, burgundy and, if they pilgrimaged south, the holy yage or the magic mushroom. Today we're lucky if we can afford a single Sex on the Beach and there's no smoking, sir... sir.... no smoking (and in NYC no dancing either).

I'm not arguing against women's rights, or equality, or clean air, or any of the huge strides we've taken, just wondering if perhaps in revisiting Candy, we can, as a nation, whisper "Rosebud" for our lost sleddy balls and rediscover how well-read intellectual weight might once again benefit from rabid id-driven boosters in trying to make it through the zipper of hypocrisy and into the erect stratosphere. Southern was the first to climb up on the A-bomb of sexual freedom in lettres and ride the New Journalism (which he co-invented) to the primary target, which is your face, and he had the chops to turn on your electric lattice of coincidence-detectors, because America still knew that facing its own monstrous extinction with a joke rather than duck-and-cover rhetoric was noble, that working through the terror that strikes when a hot blonde girl with no discernible income lands in your lap (rather than running home to your wife or war in terror) is heroic, that being able to accept and engage in casual sex with a random girl on your commuter train is brave, while brandishing your wedding ring like a cross and racing out at the next stop is not. Gentlemen, we cannot allow... a NYMPHOMANIAC gap!

From Left: Burroughs, Southern, Ginsberg, Genet

NOTES:
1. Southern's mincing gay stereotypes (espec. in The Magic Christian and The Loved One)

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