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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Prison of a Thousand Dimensions: GRAVITY, BUBBLE BOY, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

"I sweat when they stuff me in the pressure suits
Bubble helmet, Flash Gordon boots
Nowhere up there in gravity zero (
I need to breathe..." -- "Please Mr. Kennedy" (Inside Llewyn Davis
"I hate space!" --- Sandra Bullock as Ryan (Gravity)
"And then Pinocchio came out of his plastic bubble and touched the filthy little whore next door and died. The End!" --Mrs. Livingston (Bubble Boy)
Vinny Barbarino in the original
We used to call Syracuse the city with the concrete sky. We'd leave our parent's house in NJ Sunday to drive back up to school on a bright sunny day and then, cruising up Highway 81, lovely autumnal trees on all sides, clear blue sky for miles, just a small mass of twisting dark clouds ahead in the distance, up a giant hill miles and miles ahead, like a dark period at the end of a long sentence. Then we'd approach what looked like the climax of a dark apocalyptic horror movie --a dark stormy cloud mass completely contained over Syracuse. Pulling off the exit ramp all our mellow joy vanished by the time we hit Eerie Boulevard.
Syracuse, where the snow never melted, merely accrued like sedimentary layers of salt and frozen slush; any joy we could muster was a pale blue fire that we continually banked with all the drugs and booze fuel we could afford or handle; surrounded by plastic sheeting on the windows for insulation, layers and layers, the protective bubble of plastic coverings and mass quantities of bourbon, and blankets --an elaborate drug and scarf Jenga. Freshman year I had written often of the depressive yellow film that surrounded me like a plastic bubble, a feeling of isolation all the more painful in a crowd but a thousand times worse alone. Poems and poems I'd written about that yellow film. 4

Those poems are long gone. My mom threw them out. But their exact existential ennui is all over Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis (both 2013), which I just saw, and which in turn resembles Bubble Boy (2001) which my sig other showed me last night. This is no coincidence, surely, the three might just as well be remakes of one another. All three carry the same overall message: we're trapped in the 3-D space-and-time-suit that is the human body, the egoic gridlock that is the mind, and the whims of an Old Testament warden that is the soul --all three components relentlessly dragging us back into our orbit of desk, car, couch, and bed, no matter how high we fly outside the bubble.

It is the penitentiary of our unrealistic hopes preventing us from reaching through the brass bars of expectations towards the gold ring. After all, we know that ring is an illusion.

Better we learn to love illusion itself, with no delusions it's anything but.
On that note there's another film, not quite in the same league as these, Another Earth. It does have one good quote though, worth repeating, for it fits our micro-thesis:
"You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut? So, the cosmonaut, He's the first man ever to go into space. Right? The Russians beat the Americans. So he goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it's very small. So the cosmonaut's in there, and he's got this portal window, and he's looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. I mean, the first man to ever look at the planet he's from. And he's lost in that moment. And all of a sudden this strange ticking... Begins coming out of the dashboard. Rips out the control panel, right? Takes out his tools. Trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can't find it. He can't stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound... will break him. He'll lose his mind. What's he gonna do? He's up in space, alone, in a space closet. He's got 25 days left to go... with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides... the only way to save his sanity... is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes... and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn't hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the sailing through space in total bliss... and peace." -- Rhoda (Britt Marling) - Another Earth
The ticking, man, Brit Marling, you must hear that all the time, by which I mean the clamor of your geekboy devotees: those of us in love with your heavenly hair but confused by your pretentious way too literal grad school high conceptual sci fi and skeeved by the anemic, whinnying hipster boys you stock your films with. So much potential, so weakly rendered... so ultimately anemic. Those shaggy dork boys need some sunshine, Britt! They're pale. They make the hipsters in Ti West movies seem Lee Marvin-level robust. They'd break like glass goblins with the gentlest of knuckle taps. I'd fight them for you, Britt Marling. You remind me of a beautiful if ditzy girl I loved in college. She's older now though, and plain (Facebook, the great curer of longing for old lovers).

Save us all from the beauty-remover that is age, Britt Marling!

But if you bear her ticking quote about old Yuri up in space in mind with the upper deck Llewyn Davis ditty atop, recorded in the same approx. early 60s time zone as Britt's Another Earth anecdote WOULD have taken place, you realize there's more going on here than either film quite grasps. There's a very real trepidation about being next in line to be shot into space for both these films or--in Gravity's case--being stuck there. Britt only wants to go up in space because she killed a kid with her drunk driving; Sandra Bullock goes to space because a drunk driver killed her kid. Meanwhile I'd spoil the plot to explain whose drunk driving and who or what they hit in Llewyn, but either waywithout shame or grief to propel them, there seems no real reason for these characters to ever escape our orbit. In other words: a kid run over by a drunk driver = distraught protagonist shorthand.

But the Coens can't imagine what else folk singers were for if not to express trepidation about having to die for their country. And in 1961's folk craze there's still no Vietnam to name Llewyn's generation. Vietnam,  the war that made Milwaukee famous, that made Walter crazy with PTSD-by-proxy, that gave Dylan's protests songs resonance for a young male populace pinioned by American flag pitchforks at the border between Canada and Cambodia. Without a war to name them, the West Village scenesters of Inside Llewyn Davis can only hide under misty white smoke and dark green corduroy; the lighting perfectly dingy and key lit-perfect, like what it must feel like walking through an unlit folk museum in the middle of the day while slowly going color blind. Aurally, there's way too much quiet and too much resonance in every dripping faucet. Old Llewyn can hike his guitar all over wintry creation, whip it out and boom it's perfectly tuned and the sound resonates like you're listening to yourself in earphones with a good condenser mic. Ne'er does he have to play over clinking cups or drunkards. This land was made for being able to whisper at a crowded bar and still be heard from across the table.

But it's still the best film about elliptical orbits since The Werkmeister Harmonies!

Gravity has orbits too, and since there's nothing to slow you once you start moving, just bumping into someone can send you rolling along in an infinite somersault, until you're sure you're going to just hyperventilate up your remaining oxygen and die still somersaulting endlessly out into deep space, endlessly, endlessly, oxygen draining from your panicked huffing --until George Clooney comes to your rescue, time and again. Gravity's harrowing near death escapes, space station leap-frogging, and immanent metaphysical evaporation conjure The Swimmer, but it's just another orbit of cramped coffins. The average American's stations of the cross--bed, bathroom, breakfast, car, cubicle, car, couch, bathroom, bed--are interlocked space modules, which Bullock swims through in various space suits and in her Ripley "Lucky Lucky Star" brand underwear. But most of all she finds orbits. Everything that flies past her is coming back around maybe twice as fast in a few hours to her exact spot, Earth's outer layers, its travel routes, apparently narrower than subway tracks.

Such interlocking elliptical orbits are the Coens stock and trade, as folk musician Llewyn Davis says after "Hang Me Hang Me," the number that opens and closes the film and we have to wonder if it's the same night: "it was never new and it never gets old." In Gravity, Ryan seeks a space ship or vehicle to escape her orbit, but Llewyn Davis is the space ship, his old is new just like any musician playing the same song night after night until he needs to suss out new ways to divert himself within it or go crazy. He can't escape an orbit he doesn't admit exists, because it would mean acknowledging the ceaseless ticking of Britt Marling's spaceship's funeral clock. He's learned to sing over it.

"There's no success like failure,
and failure's no success at all" -Dylan ("Love Minus Zero / No Limit")
Llewyn would rather quit than make any artistic compromise that might jeopardize his folk failure. The basement clubs he plays in resemble (no doubt intentionally) medieval dungeons. Thin spotlights coming in from above and the side like stray rays of sunshine down into Poe's pendulum pit. Roger Corman's adaptation of that story was, incidentally, made in 1961, the year Llewyn is set, and there is no doubt the Coens are champing at the bit for the days of Roderick Usher. I kept expecting Llewyn to catch it at some hip Greenwich cinema. Maintaining the 1961 illusion with something like that would have been nice, but instead the Coens cram in unlikable anachronisms like the slimy commie cafe owner who seems to exist solely to rob the folk scene of every last ounce of solidarity, as if the Coens don't know the difference between a 1961 coffee house and a sleazy strip club, albeit one where no one ever talks, or even whispers, during slow dances, and crowd murmur never seems to occur. People rarely talk in Coen films and their dialogue certainly doesn't overlap, so they focus on the subject in isolation, ala Kubrick, forcing us to wonder: are they making movies about alienation BECAUSE they hate crowded ensemble cast naturalism, or the other way around?

As a result of all this they make Llewyn into a kind of bearded Susan Alexander Kane, driven by an inner Orson, seeking a gig while steadfastly refusing to compromise or be interesting. There is, after all, only one Oscar Levant. So why would anyone hire a bitter nameless hack like Davis? As Don Draper would say, what is the benefit?

But there are oases --the kindness of the Bohemian 'Lovahs'-style Columbia professor is timeless, so is the existential aura of the Coen Bros-brand Old Testament god-playing, which this time around is rather merciful by the end. They are still finding ways to insert quotes and themes from O Brother Where Art Thou's source text, Homer's Odyssey, into Sullivan's Travels-style deconstructions of the rich kid reverence for the poor working negro sick and sniffling at three AM dawn or whenever the junk man's gone to sleep, but this time they add some genuine character progression, some movement of coldness to warmth. Homer's gods note that men create for themselves "grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.” They throw down their proxy lifelines and opportunities so that Llewyn might throw them each in turn away, such as missing the chance for credit and royalties, cashing in on the cowardly claustrophobia of the above-quoted song for nothing more than a few hundred bucks which he quickly tosses away on a union card he won't need.

For Llewyn, the fear of being stuck up above the planet, utterly dependent on a pressurized suit to survive, i.e. famous, is very real because the sun never shines in his current world and he's terrified to find what not being enshrouded by dark clouds might feel like. Signing up on a merchant ship to escape his guilt over his dead songwriting buddy is akin to Bullock and Brit heading up into orbit over drunk driving accidents.

Hold on brother Llewyn. Psychedelics are coming! They sure lifted my film, ripped the bubble wide open and I stepped out of that yellow film shroud I wrote about all through freshman year up in the City of the Concrete Sky. I basked in the sun anew, thanks to God, alive and well, in a tab, or a shroom.

Bubble Boy (2001) by contrast, is already buoyant - a round planet onto himself, attracting satellites wherever he bounces. Why is he so much better with people than poor Llewyn? Innocence, man. The naïveté of sheltered bubble child Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes it an 'honorable' goal to break up an impending marriage between his beloved neighbor Chloe (Marley Shelton) and some sleazy rocker. It's a need that brings him on his own Candide-like innocent abroad incredible journey through to Vegas and beyond. Jimmy's handsome, pleasant manner is a rarity to begin with in comedy (it wouldn't be as cool if he was, say, Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider - they'd be busy powering the bubble's momentum through gaseous emissions or other bodily nonsense). It works as Jake is cute and endearing; the bubble is just the shell thrown up by any artistic extrovert who can't quite believe he could ever get a hot girl, regardless of how good he might look to himself in the mirror.

In his sweet naïveté, Jimmy is really more like the Justin Timberlake character in Inside Llewyn Davis, the happy alive, gentle, kind fellow, open to the universe's giving to others because he is giving by nature, because he's never been beaten up, shot down or distraught by grief (he's sheltered due to cuteness - i.e. what Jack calls "the bubble" in 30 Rock). Jimmy's plucky charm awes everyone he meets -- and though sheathed forever--apparently--in his yellow plastic film, he liberates souls wherever he goes, excepting a few, like Zach Galifianakis at the ticket window --a sad wretch trapped in his own bubble of a middle-of-nowhere bus terminal, standing as a reminder of just how easy it is to let a bubble make you remote, surly, obese, and depressing, thus further equating Jake's chipper inclusiveness with heroism. It's hard to be jubilant and extroverted in a bubble. If he can do it, what's our excuse?

The cat in Llewyn, Ulysses, meanwhile, his brave tail curling, remains the true astronaut of Davis. He's a Russian cosmonaut version of Bubble Boy, he's learned to love the ticking. Haven't all domestic animals, and bubble boys, had to do just that? Without the burden of expectation or experience, every tick is a banquet, every tock a day at the farm.
“A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” ― Homer, (The Odyssey)
"How his naked ears were tortured
by the sirens sweetly singing" - "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Creem)
I have some problems with Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón, as underneath his gift for sci-fi lurks a mawkish sentimentality and pretense similar to Marling's: for him, a madre's love for her nina is so powerful and important he makes John Ford seem cold as Kubrick. I had some deep fundamental problems with the santa-de-madre core of Cuarón's Children of Men as well. Suicide kits made sense in Soylent Green (see my praise of same here) but if there's no more kids there shouldn't be any more overpopulation, just drunken parties and censorship-free TV. Hell, I know I'm not alone in thinking that if there were no more children running around I'd want to kill myself less. And for Gravity, it's the same Cuarón-brand sentimental mierda de caballo coming through in the form of Sandra Bullock's haunted past, which enables her to have a few scenes of big emotional crisis and acceptance, that feels tacked on, baby, like a poster of Rita Hayworth in reverse.

Salvation deferred (from top): Rita Hayworth (Shawshank RedemptionBicycle Thieves),
Carey Mulligan (Llewyn), Marley Shelton (Bubble Boy)
Bicycle Thieves (AKA 'The Bicycle Thief') is not what most people think it is, where the dad makes so many bad decisions (like not keeping an eye on his bike) his first day on the job putting up Rita Hayworth posters that he snaps at any hand that tries to feed him. The patina of sentimental pathos-drenched Italian neorealism is created unfairly by matinee idol De Sica: in the minds of those who've never seen it (such as myself up until a few years ago) it's a sentimental sob story, the kind of thing enjoyed only by the bourgeois, for whom seeing and making movies about poverty is an expression of benevolent social largesse (much of the Coens work seems a warped satire of this largesse -- Llewyn is playing at being depressed and poor - because it's 'in' -while if he was really hungry he wouldn't hesitate to follow any suggestions that come his way instead of pompously refusing them).

What Bicycle Thieves has in spades is a deadpan analysis of the poor person sense of entitlement, oh woe is me, to the point the dad refuses the gifts and advice offered because it conflicts with his idea of himself as a martyr: for example brushing aside the offered ticket for a free spaghetti dinner only to then bug the guy who is attending since he might know about his stolen bike, only to then spend his last few coins on a meal for him and his son. It makes the rich feel better in a way, perhaps, seeing this poor financial planning as evidence of a will to fail --these peasants can't walk away from their conception of themselves as poor and so throw away their meager savings on lottery tickets (i.e. the mother paying her last lira on a fortune teller). The Coens stack Llewyn's deck in the same Vittorio De Sica fashion, allowing for lots of scenes of our scruffy nuovi poveri hitchiking and trudging across the barren landscapes to Chicago to hit up a hotshot owner of the Cape of Horn, a big dusky club bedecked, like the Lamplight, with posters and memoranda from past shows with other come-and-gone folk acts. There's a lot of that memoranda here, amping up the sense that the winsome wand of folk history shall not upon poor Llewyn's shoulder tap, with good reason. He's a a glum mid-tempo pony, destined for the two for a dollar bin at Princeton Record Exchange. He sings with no emotion, only perfectly-modulated voice, rich only with the idea he's impressing his listeners with the ability to fake 'realness.'

The Coens have always been the Stanley Kubricks of the contemporary lit film, by 'lit film' I mean Carver-esque observational minor key rhythmic detail dotted with quirky symbolism, illuminating the inner with the outer. Nothing much happens except alienation and possible redemption, told in moments and observational imagery. Like a character in  James Joyce's Dubliners, Llewyn looks around outside his restrictive bubble but never unzips, never trusts the oxygen will be there when he takes off his pressurized helmet. That said, he does learn something, which is how to forgive an enemy with a kind of papal benedictory wave.

Brave Ulysses. aboard spaceship Glum Folkie 
Adios, Llewyn: Vietnam, rock, and LSD soon will wash your incumbent gloom clear away. The youth and academes will realize the easiest route to outer space is within, and that one needn't lug one's earth-dependent body along with them to see the universe. Unzip the yellow film shell and step out of they egoic self into the loving void! It's waiting to take your call.

It's the body, in the end, that is the prison: its incessant whining for oxygen, its overreaction to desired stimuli catching it in a self-sabotage loop (so starved for sex you stutter pathetically around hot girls), its illusory permanence. You feel like you'll never escape yet at the same time are scared to leave. It just takes one magnificent gesture, unzipping the bubble to kiss the Chloe in BB; going over the cliff rather than surrendering, sticking your tongue out for electric communion in Hair; driving straight into the wildfire to rescue your cat (like Duncan Gibbons); or even just preparing for your immanent death alone in an airless capsule (or the DTs alone in your apartment too fucked up to even call for delivery) and finding a sudden inner calm. Surrendering one's corporeality to get that last minute mirage of freedom: that's the one decision that actually makes a difference.

Egoic fear keeps us locked into our breathing patterns on instinct, huffing that oxygen down, drinking that water. Shit will fuck you up, man, get you addicted to the tree of woe like a masochist Conan. Become an oxygen and water junky and become a coward when death beckons. Why can't we all be like Jake Gideon and just float into the warm body bag embrace of Jessica Lange in ALL THAT JAZZ? Instead we're slaves to our lungs. We're descended via evolution from those who feared death, not those gamely dying young. We are the spawn of cowards, and marauders, those who survived and procreated as a last ditch effort to stave off the reaper, and who reincarnate as soon as they can to try it again and again. Our genes themselves are afraid of floating in that clear black ether. The endless lotus blossoming of the crown chakra is recoiled from on instinct. It requires death of ego, You may not die physically, but the body can't tell the difference and trembles like its suffocating at the thought of letting go. But that's what heroism is.

As I write this a rerun of SNL is playing on the TV behind me, it's Cee-Lo singing "Forget You." And suddenly the inescapable loop of karma clicks back in place, like the revolution of the planet finally caught itself up and hit the Moebius strip tape splice. Any musician lucky enough to have a big hit (such as Cee-Lo's) is compelled then for the rest of his life to play that same song, the same way, stuck in amber, frozen in time at that one breakthrough moment, until its original potency is distilled, pasteurized, for mass consumption. Let's Spend Some Time Together Now!

From there it's all downhill to the eventual burying and VH1 resurrection--this is the brilliance of the digital tape. Even now we should be able to find Llewyn Davis' entire early oeuvre with a few key words. We can recapture the feeling of those coffee houses through the countless live-in-the-West-Village recordings of the era, all remastered onto digital, a perfect auditory capsule for a time when people could smoke indoors and were trusted to make their own decisions (listen deeply in headphones to Blue Note LPs and you can hear the producers whispering in corners of the room). But in doing so we see that Llewyn's world--where everyone waits in hushed reverence for him to finish his mundane songs--is an ever shrinking and expanding bubble. A prison of a thousand dimensions is still a prison. Gravity paralyzes even Sandra Bullock's astronaut in a holding pattern rotation, like a stationary needle on an LP when the power goes out mid-song.

Reflections of / the way life used..
“History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake." ― James Joyce, (Ulysses)
"Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison" - TS Eliot (The Wasteland)

The goal isn't to just not think of a key to escape your prison but for us to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the prison bubble the warden, the bars, the cot. You can still be yourself, but you are also your neighbor. You are also the world. Buenos Aires is your right foot. Your urine stream and Niagara Falls are the blood of a newborn lamb and a wave over an Australian shore. Every coffee or wine cup is 'the' holy grail; every shower a baptism. 

Recuse yourself from the bench, and make a vow to judge no more, and the thousand dimension prison dissolves behind you like a dizzy snore you have to take on your girlfriend's word is something you should see a doctor for. The vintage astronaut comic book must escape the tape of its protective mylar prisons and be read, fearing not the damaging oils of childhood's thousand thumbs. Of course it will lose its pristine mint status, but the helmet must come off.  The plastic seal must be opened, the mask must come off, viruses be damned. It's as inevitable as falling.

And we will fall.


  1. Jeez Erich! You worked The Swimmer in there! I was just writing about Mad Men Primers, and I listed, Seconds, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Rosemary's Baby, and The Swimmer. That is a movie - and short story - that just don't get enough notice. Great write up. I haven't seen Bubble Boy, but now I want to. I have friends that bought the soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis, "It's so beautiful! He is so talented! He is his own worst enemy! " And I'm just, he is handsome and can sing other peoples' songs with his eyes closed... That doesn't entitle him to anything. I just read TS Eliot for the first time, Ash Wednesday, and I thought of Bob Dylan in a new light. I thought I had seen Bob Dylan in every light of the spectrum, at least of my spectrum, now I see him as part of the cycle. LD was not a part of the cycle at all. I agree about Sandy Bullock's daughter being a hole in the script. It made me care for her less than if she had no backstory at all. Great write up. My favorite site.

  2. YES YES YES! this felt wonderfully necessary. thank you, that was enlightening as always


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