Wednesday, June 25, 2014

America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton

The new Lana Del Rey album is out this week, like the Stygian tide, and with it "controversy" so perfectly-pitched that she and her salivate-on-cue detractors must be in on some cosmic PR joke. Take it from an old punk rocker-turned hippy-turned-hipster-turned post-Peaks-ian, who missed all his grabs at the big brass ring: it is good to die young, whatever Frances Bean may say. The only freedom an artist has from eventual irrelevance lies embedded in the obsidian wind that whistles through gratings of that other sewer's shore, or the cane in the fields at night on San Sebastian. In death, alone, can artists safely say they made it. Once past life you're way past worrying about the critics and audience indifference, hit counts and box office. The same way you used to forget your troubles at the movies--safely darkened to the point of anonymity in that eternal shrine to our shared past--you forget your irrelevance in the field of 'breaking new artists' via a before-your-prime death.

There's no difference between living through the movies and living through death. Either way you coast into immortality like second base on a field of feathers. If you're writing or painting or singing only for the edification of the future rather than the adulation of the pearl-twirling swine of today, then rest, in peace and assured, no matter how maligned or ignore you are today, some distant unborn generation will pretend to have read or heard or seen your work. First, though, they need to know you died, to prove you're serious - and so they aren't afraid of running into you at the part while they're reading your book and then you start trying to autograph them or worse. Immolation purifies art from compromise by cumbersome human mortality. Lana Del Rey knows. I'd say she knows it so well she doesn't have to prove it. I'd say she's free from the iffy benefits of validation, and has achieved this purely through facing her own mortality, via the bi-polar abyss.

As we learn only after much resistance in AA or therapy, in surrender lies the only true victory. The only true heaven is hell, accepted.

And, from Lana Del Rey's perfectly framed early 60s car crashes and second shooter denim paranoia, we stagger down an off-road shortcut through the slashed tire car wreck James Dean 50s, and all the way back to the 40s wartime graveyard of Val Lewton. It's no accident that all the Del Rey backlash ballyhoo started up again yesterday-ish while simultaneously TCM played Lewton's acclaimed low-key masterwork THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Like all Val Lewton's best work, Victim is suffused with his deep wartime homefront guilt and paranoia, conjured to scare and yet comfort the Rosie Riveters on their lonely dinner breaks. Their man was gone but death was right there. All Lewton had to do was dredge the cables up from the ocean bottom like collective unconscious tentacles. His best work is like a modern art exhibit after the public has long drifted home and the lights are off; the crumpled invites and plastic champagne flutes loll ominously in the breeze of an open window. And then there's Lewton, creeping in with his art, the art of the nervous insomniac who remembers as a child seeing Death watching over his cradle, making sure the orphanage of mortal light was taking good care of him, ready to yank him back at the first sign of carelessness on the part of the living staff.

Icons from top: "Summertime Sadness," I Walked with a Zombie"Tropico"
Lana Del Rey and Val Lewton both create a vibe where the ebb tide of childhood abandonment anxiety is stronger than any fear of death. When this abandonment tide washes through the psychic land, once the terror subsides, the crap is washed away and all that remains are the immovable immortal icons, the stone memorials built to last, in whom we first found a source of protection that wouldn't abandon us. Thus Elvis, John Wayne, Marilyn, and of course Jesus all loom on Lana's heavenly plane like death coaches. On Val Lewton's post-tidal surge shore are immortal archetype statues from Greek and Egyptian myth: Cerberus, Set, and later on San Sebastian (above). Waiting in crevices of the stone stairways and rustling cane fields and wine goblets and calypso songs, Letwon's idols are literally etched from rock. All-seeing blank eyed demons that are only vaguely visible in the shadows, animated black-on-black splotches that resist all but the final Rorschach meaning.

So while some are threatened or indignant (same thing) over this death drive fancy of Del Rey's, I say hey, man, be grateful: her death drive is visible, in our sights to share, because all she has to do is pout, turn slowly away, and take a backwards slow mo Peg Entwistle dive off the Hollywood sign and down through Diane Selwyn's pale blue skylight and it's YOU who die, not her. Keep her in view at all times. Once you can't see her you'll know she's behind you, with a gun or sharp sword. You can follow her around like Boris Karloff follows the hottie Greek wurdulak in Lewton's ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945); you can be a whole internet worth of Karloffs reigning down torrents of ancient superstitions and gossip on anyone who'll click your link; you can drip a whole nation of self-appointed sanity over her sun roof... it does not slow her rush home to your death one hourglass grain.

Lana Del Rey knows memories and movies are the same thing and that every home movie of happier times must speed up as you approach the black hole realizations that the people you're watching onscreen are long dead. She even casts herself as the bad guy most of the time, as in "Summertime Sadness" --driving her lesbian ex-lover to jump off a bridge ("kiss me once before you go") while she pouts in fog machine student films and home movies that repeat faster around certain points as the weeping lover falls, the drama finally so impressing Lana she jumps/falls too, the doubling inherent in an L.A. lesbian affair fully embraced- - drowning in each other's reflections in each other's eyes, downing cliffs and Hollywood sign letters, their eyes stare straight ahead, batting lashes until they morph into a thousand penitent film strips striping down Hollywood's naked back. They come already refracted like an ever-opening lotus mirror reflection of cinema: hence Rita/Betty=Diane in Lynch's quintessentially L.A. masterpiece MULHOLLAND DR. (below); hence the shifting dynamics of the nurse and her glamorous willowy zombie in Val Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942); Klo-Klo/KiKi's continual mirroring/sacrifice deferral in LEOPARD MAN (1943) and Irina's attempted devouring of Alice in CAT PEOPLE (1942).

Sister, she called me her sister.

It's fate, baby. Watching CAT PEOPLE today on DVD it's possible to see just what's in the deep dark shadows around the swimming pool: there's a black hole cartoon animation in there, a shape that mutates from vertical to horizontal, ever so briefly. When Irina turns back human she moves from paw prints to high heels prints (not bare feet - Lewton never tries to literalize), she wears a fur coat that when she changes tightens in around her and, if you look close at her body lying on the ground outside the panther cage, she looks like a bearskin rug with a teddy bear's head sewn to one arm, but we only see it from far off, up on the street lamp. In ISLE OF THE DEAD we can see, if we look very close, the way the undead Mrs. Aubyn seems to materialize out of the moonlit reflections on a stone wall, like she's only semi-corporeal but never in that common special effects way that would make it obvious. DVD's clarity alone makes these things at last visible; they were never meant to even register consciously. There was no way to pause and rewind before video tape... No one ever knew for sure just what they saw, if anything, so they remembered all sorts of darkness.

Lewton's subtlety reveals a Russian's love of great literature that extends deeper down than the average bourgeois tenure track, deeper even than the blood (his real name is Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon), deeper than the cauldron from which are dredged all our hopes and fears, and our tomorrows are like a thousand yesterdays. And great literature is always about death, that's how you know. It's where we go to prepare, to remember that a vast elevator full of blood is only a thin, easily-punctured epidermal layer away, and the only freedom comes in whether to ignore this dread out of fear, or embrace it out of courage, love, and rock and roll who-gives-a-fuck-it. This is where Lana Del Rey's coming from with her comments about being a feminist and thinking it's cool to die young. Would you get mad at David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or Hemingway for saying those things? No. And they're all dead, at the hands of the same assailant, the only one that truly makes it. Performance.

Now, if my dad killed himself because of Lana Del Rey I'd be pissed. But my dad was killed by doctors (he died, after all, in the hospital) and it's hard to be pissed at them, as a whole. At home with an ocean of bourbon and ginger ale he was immortal. He kept death close so it couldn't sneak up on him. But that hospice-strength IV cocktail's got no spirits. Without his whiskey and gin, the door opened right up and waved him in like a pit crew waving in a race car. Maybe when we try so hard to keep the body alive we kill the soul. Who wants to die sober? Only those for whom sleep is the cure-all; for some of us, the fucked up artists and writers who do what we do because we'd go even crazier if we didn't, the only cure-all is music, literature and films. We can die because we've already left our immortal imprint on the living world. Lana Del Rey is both the cure and the cause for the cancer of Hollywood because she embraces the theatrical aspects of emotional anguish, with herself as both the sufferer and the object of longing; her faux-period home movies, painstaking in their iconic recreations, are like the restaged car accidents in Cronenberg's CRASH, only transcending sex in the service of art, music, and obsession.

I love Lana Del Rey because of her pro-death chanteuse-rock fuckithood, not despite it, and I have no problem with it all being a persona put on by a failed pop star named Lizzy Grant. If her schtick didn't resonate we wouldn't be talking about her, wouldn't feel strongly one way or the other, and if her story is really a confession, then so is mine, though not, apparently, Rolling Stone's and Jezebel's -- though both were once edgy in their ways, I hear. Now they're both 'institutions' successful enough to feel they have something to lose, something they'd kill to protect (see CinemArchetype 5: The Human Sacrifice) but never endorse dying for. Lana Del Rey is a persona that has nothing whatsoever to protect, so can engage in a kind of high wire free-form self-immolation theater. Animas with respectable DSM-IV counts are plentiful but then they have kids one day and Whammo! The persona is replaced, even grown out of, but is it really a growing out of it or just doubling and diluting? How many great sexy young actresses have we lost to their children? Even when these starlets come back to us, babies delivered, they're not the same: their dangerous heart--that thrilling gleam in their eye--now exists off camera, transferred to vessels still mewling and puking in nurse's arms.

It should have been me, puking, like the princely changeling in Midsummer Night's Dream. I had to quit her, my whiskey... sweet whiskey, and ride off with AA Oberon. My sober life --that's my cross to bear, my LSD Albert Hoffman problem child, the thing that robbed me of the gleam, my lost Lenore. But I'm not a star. No one even notices. Not even the guys at Liquor Warehouse on Broadway, still the best prices in New York City.

But I still haven't forgiven Angelina Jolie, or Liz Phair. Ladies, you broke my heart!

Never stop smoking or drinking - even knowing both are poisons,
for you've already spilled more than secrets (bottom: SEVENTH VICTIM)
Now you love your children the way you used to love the fans.
Now your love is funneled to some off-camera cradle.
Those who love you from speakers and screens are left orphans.

We can't see through your kids' eyes,
for we are not John Cusak trapped in John Malkovich's child.
But either way you will soon age, past this singular moment.
And you will know the sting of this abandonment
once we both eventually move on.

There's no way to stop the ravaging.

You'd have to leap off the edge
like Lana Del Rey.
But she does it in advance of our gaze, and so
we will never move on
from her.
She's already
gone, and you - mom,
you've fucked it all up.
The apron string hydra, newly hatched,
whines you away.

In a semi-deserted Bijou in 1943
a nervous young assembly line worker calls in her sick day,
watches SEVENTH VICTIM or THE LEOPARD MAN at the half-empty Bijou.
The dark shadows of the empty seats surround her,
where a boyfriend or husband would be.

Then, onscreen in the shadows she sees him, beckoning...
She knows in her heart he's just been shot down over Europe.
Doesn't even need to read the evening telegram.

Lana Del Rey is the eyes that discern changing shapes in that darkness, and Lana Del Rey's eyes are that darkness. On digital, nothing escapes notice... even the void hidden within the void.

This is the girl
That's why Val Letwon's morbid preoccupation with death is so relevant. Using deep black shadows he reveals that the thing wartime America most fears isn't death but loneliness, abandonment, being entombed --all of which is brilliantly realized by the cheap B-movie sets where even the sky seems indoors (and is)--of being left alone too long in a dark empty country with only the ghost radio signal one clings to for company, for news of the vast armadas of sweethearts and sons vanished into the bookending oceans.

And then... Frank Sinatra's voice like a phantom mellow echo; his mastery of mic technique giving his songs an almost unworldly amniotic sound markedly different from the rest, welcoming you to join him in the pulsing warm fog between two shores: "if our romance should break up / I hope I never wake up /if you are but a dream." You are. Hardly even born yet. There in the unrealized amniotic slumber of the Stygian crossing, as Sinatra's songs coast overhead in ceaseless tachyons towards the past, you can hear your father's conception becoming re-buried in the sunken space between the words. 

Lana keeps her expression blank --she does it for our haunted projector, so too Val Lewton's deep black shapes --they accept our projection just as American small towns became a ghost towns for the wartime duration: the younger healthier men all drained away by old Europe's vampires, even in Hollywood, until all that's left in Hollywood are German and Russian Jewish intellectual exiles (and gay Weimar actors whose only roles are as the very same Nazis that drove them out). The young male stars of the B's are now tenderfoots, the old men, the crippled, the meek, the short and reedy. And everywhere, in the air wafting from Europe, the smell of death --the inevitability of it--in ways we can't imagine with our current wars and their paltry kill levels (we might lose a few dozen thousand but nothing close to Europe and Asia's combined sixty million in World War Two). Only a full scale nuclear war would even put a dent in us now. We need hundred of million dead, and it would still be the same % as we lost in WW2--a spit in the bucket. Half of us could die and we'd only be where we were in the 1970s, when we first started to worry about overpopulation via films like Soylent Green (1973). It's not death that dooms our planet, but life. Our blind clinging to health like panicked survivors swamping the lifeboat. If we could all just die like gentlemen, like the great Solomon Guggenheim on the Titanic--if Lana Del Rey can lead us by power of bad example, and if we leave right now--we just might make it.

We won't.

Echo of my undead soldier (from top) Del Rey, DEATHDREAM
Lana Del Rey and Val Lewton know we're not going to make it, and they see and hear and reproduce the ghost of America's past in the deep shadows of the cinema. Their work is already self-aware, feeling its way backwards, seeing their audience for what they are, already dead, or soon dead, relative to the immortality of movies and recorded music. Del Rey makes music for America's ghost future/past to haunt the wasteland with, but for now she's all alone, like any still-living phantom. As Pitchfork notes she's "an utterly distinctive figure in popular music, not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely." There are a few artists over the years who have explored similar ghost transmissions: Miles Davis' trumpet echoing through the primordial pre-ears-to-hear-it howling of an uncooled Earth in Agharta; Kubrick's use of "Midnight, the Stars and You"; Lynch's use of Roy Orbison and Julee Cruise... but none live and breathe within that ghost transmission - none play on the idea that--even if you weren't alive to hear them sing--the sound is encoded in the crystal receivers at the core of your DNA.  

Lana Del Rey--her "self" as persona, her videos, her willingness to invite nanny state feminist shock and outrage--returns Freud's 'death drive' to its preferred verb status, floored and drunk down Route 66. Her music is ideal for drug overdoses, lover's suicide pacts, long drives with tearful anorexic self-cutters, and self-immolation at the graveside of James Dean. Without Morissey-moping but rather with hair done up and radio playing Elvis with JFK convertible top down, smoking, hovering over Marilyn's lifeless body like a wraith, hiring an actor to dress like Elvis and sneer while rubbing up against the old time microphone stand in front of the John Wayne's rawhide coffin, to paraphrase the Donne-quoting devil-worshippers in Lewton's Seventh Victim, death falls to meets you as fast, halfway. And death x death = life.

"National Anthem" - note vivid attention to period detail and home movie posing 
while at the same time revising JFK into a contemporary-ish sexy, rich, cultured rapper, and 
gaggle of cute biracial children. Like so many of her best work, the music and imagery are linked and
build to a  final 'bells' montage i.e. the final moments of DON'T LOOK NOW, or the last seconds of 
Del Rey embraces the sacrificial phoenix icon of the damaged hottie in ways Lindsay Lohan never understood well enough to make part of her art, to use it rather than be used by it (painting a fictionalized self-portrait vs. being someone else's paint). When it comes right down to it, Lohan is sharp, talented, and ballsy but LA has robbed her of self-perspective. She's mystified why she always lands in jail and loses her film funding. Lana Del Rey skips all that and just films in the jail. She avoids the trap of co-dependence or prison or rehab by becoming the 'act' of the drunk, the Baby New Year of the Mulholland Death Drive. Where Lohan avoids the stake and the torch of the frightened villagers by promising to get help, Del Rey climbs right up and starts the fire and directs the camera angles, but it's an act, man - the villagers never gather for real because they're already there in effigy. Del Rey acts it so she doesn't have to be it, whereas Lindsay is it but tries to act "normal." If you get angry at Del Rey because she's fake (shouting "hey Lana, why a-you change your nice-a Jewish name?" from across the street) or are worried because she's real, well - all your rants and raves will do is boost her hit count --like the boost in album sales she got after her hostilely-received 2012 performance on SNL (see "Kiss Me Del Rey"). 

The Leopard Man
Val Lewton's poetic dread of death similarly produces films that hang inches from the darkened grave, performing/exorcising the collective demons of wartime, so he doesn't have to go fight and die for real. He has to prove himself somehow, feeling the terrible guilt reported by so many stay-at-home men during World War Two. The best you can do if you're an artist on the home front is try to capture death's lightning spirit in a statue of Hermes or San Sebastian watching over the scared endangered souls, understanding in this the entire primal purpose behind art as totemic sacrifice, a giant burning man made of straw, a sand mandala patiently perfected then dusted away. The true artist never hides the skull in the ice cubes because, when the death wish is externalized for posterity, one achieves immortality. Death is pleased that you've honored him and so spares you for another year, the living ghost retina burn outline of his long ago flown-free firebird cohering from the flames.

"Summertime Sadness" 

Del Rey trusts we're not going to kill ourselves just because she says it would a sweet gesture, would show her we really care. That's her whole secret, believing in our intelligence as much as we believe in hers. How many films other than Lewton's or music videos other than Lana's with this level of trust? I sympathize with Kurt's daughter but really, Rolling Stone, it's you should be ashamed for soliciting angry responses from a girl who never got to know her father any better than we did. That doesn't reflect badly on LDR's statement, or FBC's retort, only on your journalistic 'ethics,' RS. You who were a once mighty countercultural institution (even smart enough to be aware of the paradox in that phrase) are now reduced to passing gossip, angling to be ground zero of a viral thread, leaping down the throat of anyone speaking out against the principles of bland nanny state life-for-life's-sake-PG-tedium (rock out, safely!) and embedded advertising-ready rebellion. Maybe you should go run another cover piece about Bob Dylan and Tom Petty together again, or Neil Young and his guitar! Like all the other fallen giants, you've let 'trending' become the new version of stock market panics, all real guts and glory trampled underfoot in the stampeded to avoid being trampled by your own clod readers. 

"National Anthem," ISLE OF THE DEAD
Most filmmakers and artists and musicians only think of themselves, of their hunger for fortune and fame, or their ennui after achieving all their goals and realizing the hunger still remains. But some of us know well that every film, post, or album we make will survive our own death --and it haunts us. We know black magic's promise of eternal youth, of the ghost in the machine, the threading spools running emulsion past the projector beam light measuring images and spinning shutter rotary out in 1/24 second still images that give the actor on the wall the only immortality there is. The Bing Crosby songs from the 30s radio shows are still flying out into space, signals coasting farther and farther away, just waiting for the right crystal skull receiver. These signals will, in a century or so, be still traveling, more alive than our own cracked and disintegrating skulls. Compared to this eventual alien Akashic record-style idea of future reception, any reward of fame in this lifetime is paltry. Some of us know we're long dead already, but we have our living image, our words and voice, out there, up there, in the ether, the WiFi signals drifting out in waves recorded by time, or down in the teraflop stone tapes. Even if no one reads us or sees our art in our lifetime, we can die easy. 

Some, like Val Lewton and Lana Del Rey, take this weird solace one step further, enacting rituals of death and transfiguration for posterity and mimetic power in much the way the Gunfight at the OK Corral is recreated on the streets of Tombstone by scholars with big gun collections. Thus the JFK Zapruder footage will endure any memory of the actual presidency of JFK, and in doing a macabre, melancholy homage to this ritualized repetition-compulsion, Del Rey cracks the door handle to the beyond. You can feel it in her sad puppy eyes, the fusion of sex, sadness, lost, lust and American-style freedom, the sort of sad-eyed lady of the lowlands that always needs to be courting death to feel alive, that lives in the crevasses of national tragedies like a sexy afterthought. It's there in the films of Val Lewton too. Watch the first four of Lewton's RKO horrors interspersed with a few Lana Del Rey videos all in the same night (the older ones--"National Anthem," "Video Games," "Born to Die," and "Summertime Sadness") and before you die you shall see their America of ghosts. 


  1. "When the artist pursues fame only after he or she's dead, one is free from the need for validation."

    Fans are also free of the threat of what I'll call Phil Collins Syndrome. You know: Collins played on great records by Brian Eno, Gabriel-era genesis, John Cale, John Martyn, Brand X, etc.... and then did "Sussudio."

    Kurt Cobain never lived long enough to do "Sussudio." Or his equivalent of "Say Say Say." Or "Owner of a Lonely Heart."

    No one was more aware of this than Cobain, who of course actually quoted Neil Young's "It's better to burn out than fade away" line in his suicide note.

    With Lana del Rey, it's probably more of a pose, but that's okay, too. I haven't heard much of her stuff, but what I have heard seems to have more in common with moody indie music like Josephine Foster than it does the MTV stuff where her stuff is more likely to appear.

    1. yo, five years after - and yes, I'm always wondering "am I in my Sussidio phase?" - it's better to fade away though, and just burn way way way down. As for Lana, her last few albums haven't really moved me like the six or so classics from her first album (and its weird expanded version) and those videos. She seems to have become too much of an icon and is now basically doing the seasoned lounge singer belting out the American songbook for the molly generation type. -maybe I'm out of the loop? Val Lewton was already dead by my age, and she'll be old too - if she's "lucky"

  2. Hallucination in prose, post-verbal text. A garbled mess / marbled guess... Your writing often acts for me as a chemical key that prefigures perception of the artefact. The sense of recognition inherent in new stimulii. Sections of that broke down into a primordial soup narrated by William Hurt from inside a giger-esque flotation tank. Don't know if that's you or my phone messing with the formatting. Keep writing please, your perspective and phrasing illuminates, reveals and dazzles. Sublime.

    1. Thank you Haydn. You are right that it was parbled gobably. My words tender blue together, but am glad the weird melancholy of the Lewton-Rey-Hollywood distaff mystique got through scathed enough to expose its delicate inner tubing


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