Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tales from the Benway Pharmacy: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE MACHINE

If I ventured into the 'flix stream, between the viaducts of Dr. Benway prescribed drug-enhanced science fiction hallucination dream, would you find me?  Or would there no longer be a 'me' to find, and no difference between you, these words, the future, the past and all constructs of self I may adopt and discard over lifetimes? Yeah, it's the second option, because good films dissolve all difference. The screen is just the first in an endless banana peel of self (and vice versa).

I dissolved once or twice into that void this week, thanks to the following two films being available on Netflix and their modulating, droning and pulsing analog synth scores being available on Spotify. By Sinoa Caves and Tom Raybould respectively, these evocative scores make a big difference, especially this time of year, the autumnal Samhain, i.e. Halloween. These two films seem to occur in a realm of permanent ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) midnight where dangerously liberated prisoners/patients/experimental subjects break out of bizarro world environments, in the process etching out as fine a metaphor for the dangerous liberation offered by psychedelic drugs as anything I've seen since PSYCH-OUT (1968).

So, when you're on an all-night weird movie binge, save these two for the late late show slot, i.e. the high strangeness Interzone gateway stretch between three and six AM, when the straight and sober are fast asleep so their bland consensual reality can't interfere with your psionic reception, because thanks to Netflix, the future is then!

2010 - written and directed by Panos Cosmatos

A lot of typical science fiction buffs are nerds, man, and they stay that way for one reason: they're scared of psychedelics. Scared to lift the throbbing rock of the known and scoop the writhing worms and scorpions from the muddy void and devour them, they live in a reality circumscribed by the trappings of the social order; the border between their fantasy life (as a fifth-level chaotic good paladin in D&D) and reality (high-school) is very well-marked. The closest they get to living their own fiction is, perhaps, LRP or paintball, but never the 'inside job' of acid or mushrooms.

This cautious avoidance is a wise decision. Unless one feels the psychedelic zone tug them towards it like a magnet, one is probably not invited, and would probably not be treated well. As Bill Lee says in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, "the 'zone takes care of its own", implying: all others beware. Not everyone is meant to have their ego ripped like a bad tooth from their screaming psyche. Their self-centered fears lodged like a giant tick in the back of their skull, each wrench of the psycho-active pliers felt like fire consuming the crown chakra, and only the already in pain would want to stick it out in the chair, enduring the probing and inflamed wrenching, until that sucker is at last ripped out. But for nerds of the sci-fi role playing type, maybe their egos aren't solid enough to be killed. There's no formative I AM life experience to get cocky about, no hardening of yesterday's persona.

Lick the 2001-legged Monolith
Sometimes the sci-fi coterie do make it past their initial fear and enter the void, and if they do, they tend to run in packs, and--when running is done--retreat to the movies (as we all have), spending the come down from the peak watching 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), because it's the familiar made unfamiliar. Kubrick's movie is never entirely familiar no matter how many hundreds of times you see it, and on LSD or shrooms it's a whole other thing. From there, an adept sailor of cinematic madness will wind up leaving England along Commonwealth solar trade winds and winding up at two Canadian horror films: SCANNERS (1981) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1978). Each explore the long term psychic side effects of prolonged exposure to the drug-dealing elder god behind the wizard behind the curtain. In BLUE a particular strand of LSD makes people lose their hair and go on rampages after exactly ten years elapse. In SCANNERS a briefly marketed pill prescribed to pregnant moms has caused a offspring to be born with the power to blow other people's heads apart through conscious projection.

I mention these two films this for a reason, this acidhead tab of Canadian druggie sci-fi history is imperative for a deep lysergic appreciation of the 2010 Canadian homage to that golden era of tripping man's Kubrickian-Cronenbergian-Blue Sunshine maker crossroad science fiction, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The first feature by Panos Cosmatos, RAINBOW stars Michael Rogers as a batshit crazy psychiatrist named Barry Nyle. His pet patient is a scanner-style mutant girl Elena (Eva Bourne) kept under sedation in a futuristic white room for reasons no expository monologue need explain (we having seen SCANNERS and deduced the drug side effect angle via the psychoactive experiment clinic prologue). During the daily sessions, Nyle tries to provoke any kind of response from Elena, talking molasses slow through a thick protective glass while jotting down 'notes' and going even more insane. He also has special guards called 'sentinauts' (their brains can't be exploded) and a weird white triangle device that can deliver sound vibrational (presumed) shockwaves to knock Elena to the ground and (presumably) jam her brainwaves should she try to escape. Clearly, she must have the power to transmit her thoughts and explode the heads of anyone in the same room if the puramid thing should be turned off.  The uncanny analogy synth score by Sinoia Caves heats and throbs and pitch modulates as the doctor and patient engage in a long drug-addled silent treatments and staring contests. Cosmatos trusts his viewers to connect the dots, to have seen the classics, to have had their egotistic wisdom teeth pulled at the psychedelic dentist, to know that fields of red and pulsing, throbbing analogy synth music is enuff.

To make it all just that much better, the institute is housed in a bizarre retrofuturist geodesic dome, which includes the office/drug den of a terminally-ill Buckminster Fuller-Timothy Leary-ish junky, the founder of the institute (and Elena's father). In a flashback to 1966 we see this guy taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (the date is important: LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists the provinces over). Barry's trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 if slowed down 99% and experiences while meditating as one's face melted off. It's so much like my last few salvia divinorum trips I nearly fell off the floor, but Barry is not like us. He is  reborn in an oil slick, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latching onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? Does he kill her by ripping her throat out with his teeth, or is that an ejaculation? Is she coasting on an orgasm, or is the light going out of her eyes?

Either way, when it's over it's clear the doctor blames himself; Barry's not held responsible... but the hope for the future is done, and though Elena shall be born with all the special extra sparkage having a dosed-out LSD-awakened mother can bring to one's junk DNA, she'll wind up a prisoner in an all-white room in a geodesic dome in the middle of nowhere, the captive of an insane doctor who killed her mother while in the throes of a deep dish LSD freakout.

 Meanwhile there's lots of delicious red walls and filters and the sense that time is melting (Barry pops pills from the Benway pharmacy--another nod to Burroughs) and though he's off-putting at first, Rogers gonzo performance grows on one over repeat viewings; he's committed to his work, he should be committed into the place he works, period. It fits hims snug like in a strait-jacket. Being a shrink seems like a pretty awesome occupation for a druggy maniac: you get to prescribe whatever mind-expanding things you want for yourself and go so deep into the void that reality ceases to exist and you finally get a peak 'beyond the black rainbow' and don't have to worry about a thing, as you have all the Ativan and Thorazine you need to bring you back down to 3D space-time if things get too terrifying.

If you get confused, just presume this is all meant as an analogy to the mysteries of consciousness itself as it may have existed in Canada after the collapse of the psychedelic movement: Elena is the unconscious, the anima- mutated along with the psyche's chromosomes; Barry is the amok ego trying to keep the sinful Jane Eyre attic madwoman lovechild locked up tight; the old man is the repressed superego dissolving from years of drug abuse (nothing nullifies a moral compass like addiction) and watching his high watermark 60s utopian vision for the future gradually erode under the deranged stewardship of his sociopathic protege. No matter how lofty one's intention, the ego finds a way to take advantage of it.

So remember, nerds: baldness = homicidal madness, and if you can't escape quickly, move so slowly no one can see you; otherwise you're dead at the hands of a guy who's so high he can't tell the difference between your skull and a stress ball.

2014 - written and directed by Caradog W. James

THe low-budget but highly intelligent (if unimaginatively titled) British film THE MACHINE (2014) has great gloomy electronic momentum (no daytime shots ever, which is great), a beautifully retro Carpenter-meets-Vangelis synth score from Tom Raybould, an overall aesthetic that splices the labs of the Tyrell Corporation to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's Lee Van Cleef sub basement, And a script that mixes some TERMINATOR touches with CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962) post-humanist philosophy. The captivating Caity Lotz is great in a double role, evoking Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, as both the inventor and the machine. And thanks to thrifty use of lots of Val Lewton darkness, a single, largely empty cavernous soundstage and great artistic (and ingeniously simple) touches like the way the bodies of the artificial beings light up in strange patterns when excited (though the lights are clearly just projected onto their skin), Caradog's etched out ONE of those economic sleeper B-movie gems that can sometimes be unearthed when digging around in Netflix Streaming, ranking it alongside other dusty gems I've found there, like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, THE ORGEGONIAN, IRON SKY, BOUNTY KILLER, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. It's short, yet operatic. There's no filler, no corners are cut. Everything fits and it doesn't need trauma or didactic postures to feel justified in existing, though of course there is some of each. Even the bit with the dying daughter sidesteps all the usual cliche'd sentimental pitfalls.

The story begins with bigwig AI engineer Vincent (Toby Stevens --the Richard Branson-ish villain in DIE ANOTHER DAY) interviewing various freelancer-designed artificial intelligence programs via a series of surrealist questions to see which can answer far enough outside the box of logocentric thinking that genuine personality is possible. Ava's (Caity Lotz) program comes closest, and she's cute, sparks fly, so she's hired, and brought down into a deeply buried network of basement level research programs, all funded by the British military intelligence operatives for assassination work in China. Vincent's not a fan of the assassin aspect, but he loves the unlimited funding. It's enabled him to develop software that can scan and duplicate whole personalities via sensitive headsets worn during Voight-Kampf-style questions. Meanwhile, military vets suffering from brain injuries and missing limbs are turned into half-machine monsters, the trouble being they're liable to kill everyone in the room during the slightest existential tantrum. Meanwhile one of them steers Ava towards a possible cover-up conspiracy in the works - these soldiers are being cut off from their loved ones, treated essentially like slaves. She knows too much!

Ava is assassinated by Chinese assassins before Vincent can even work up the nerve to ask her out, not before doing all the tests of course. How convenient! Dennis (DR. WHO) Lawson is the ruthless installation director who wants to make sure this new Eva isn't so independent she'd refuse a direct order, especially since Vincent tells her killing anyone--even Chinese diplomats!--is wrong. She murders a guy in a clown mask during a routine test. She feels bad. Raybould's synth pads swell in mecha-grim portent.

Oh well, it's not hard to guess the rest, and we viewers we don't really give a shit about Vincent's Asimovian ethics, so Lawson needs to to up the stakes via an enforced robot lobotomy and another easy-to-guess subplot with the daughter. But what could be some douche chill sentimental nonsense in non-British hands (such as Guillermo del Toro's) doesn't rankle, and I've got a sensitive rankle meter for that shit.

Slick and dark, but with some genuine AI insight and vintage analog originality to back it up (See also CinemArchetype #13 - The Automaton / Replicant / Ariel), it's a good lesson in how you too can survive the coming robot revolution! Hint: treat the machines with compassion or at least tact, because they'll remember every last kind or derogatory word forever, no matter how far out of earshot you think they are when you say it. They are the past and future, reaching back and forward along your every gesture, like karma's own sweet engine.

Remember us, your future? CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS! 

If you have Spotify, click here for a mix of both the amazing scores of these films.

1. If you don't get that reference, see BLUE SUNSHINE!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Fridays this month on TCM are devoted to pre-code Hollywood and, honey, pre-code Hollywood is devoted to its lord most high, its Capitalist King Tut, its Maestro of Satanic bravado and merry carnivore sparkle, Warren William. Until the dawn of TCM and pre-code festivals (like the one that regularly comes to Film Forum here in NYC), Warren William was all but forgotten except as a B-mystery star from Perry Masons and the Lone Wolf films, a kind of hybrid Basil Rathbone-Errol Flynn. Now maybe we feel why, for Depression era audiences, he was such a charming, sinister figure he stole their love for the young moral 'hero' (along with said hero's money) clean away. The juvenile maybe got the girl in the end, but she was pious naive reformer, so who cared? Despite his amok capitalist characters being so emblematic of what tanked the stock market in the first place, William was the great antihero for a nation sick to death of treacly Americana and bootstraps idealism. Steal big and ascend to power -that was his credo, and it was the only one in America that still worked.

He ascended the throne in 1932, the height of American Depression free-fall, part of a global economic death spiral in which there seemed no hope for pulling back up except via the methods of the same crazy capitalists (or crazier) who'd brought the markets so low. Audiences knew William didn't give a shit about their small fry suffering, but he didn't waste time scamming them either; instead he scammed the fat cats who had scammed the small fry in the first place. He robbed from the guys who robbed the poor and may not have given it back but at least he used the money as collateral for bigger loans to get his phallic building higher, higher, and that meant more jobs. Gray-haired, squinty, corrupt old board members vainly harrumphed while William aimed his cigar / wolfish nose-chin combination down at them like a revolver and cleaned their pockets. And if he stole the juvenile hero's girlfriend on his way up, so much the better.

By then we hated the juvenile hero anyway, the types who turned down offers of easy dishonest money because they still believed in the American dream of little guys making good honest wages. They should have been boiling fat cats in oil or dragging them to the guillotine but instead kept dutifully working themselves to death in service of the giant black could Dust Bowl Moloch to afford barely enough company store credits to keep a young wife in hairpins. No wonder she left for Williams' champagne and opium penthouse. You had to be soft in the head--like Joan Crawford or Loretta Young--to think the homespun decent folks Americana small town ideal wasn't a bogus con enforced by the fat cats' sour matron moralist wives in some weird venomous outpouring of stifled sexuality. Guillotine the rich, or work yourself bravely to death like that poor trusting horse in Animal Farm --at MGM there was never a doubt which option their films advocated. You can smell the glue there even now. But at Warner Brothers? hors de leurs têtes!

Alas, sometimes even tough-minded Vitaphone demanded William get a 'conscience' by the end and start doing the right thing after being reformed by some high-handed secretary's refusal to put out, but aside from a glimmer in his eye as he dutifully shed a tear in the name of good common decency, all he ended up with for his trouble was a gut full of self-loathing and a few bullets from the guns of the people he double-crossed. As Handsome Harry once said, "the trouble with people who reform is they always want to rain on everybody else's parade, too."

And anyway, the average workaday joes and handsome college boy heroes these girls ended up with after poor William took a dive were played by annoying little pishers like Gene Raymond (the schmuck in RED DUST), Charles Farrell, Randolph Scott (as the Puritan geologist in HOT SATURDAY), or Norman Foster in SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933), who relentlessly paws and stalks Maureen O’Sullivan, just because he happens to be her age and social class. The swine! Warren William develops eyes for her himself and who wouldn’t? Look at those legs (above)! And anyway, she works for him and sexual harassment laws are still just a distant troubling tom-tom in 1933. Meanwhile Foster is so full of himself and his presumptive ladykiller charm he literally makes it impossible for her to do her job. I had a guy like that haunting my assistant one time, and I kicked him out of the building and convinced her to file a restraining order! It's a boss's job to make sure his female employees aren't harassed at the workplace, which is why he sometimes needs to protect them, personally... even if takes all night.

1932 - ***1/2

Warren William rules in this fictionalization of the career of legendary mob defense lawyer Bill Fallon. And until some hick virgin puts him noble he's pretty badass. Granted, he starts off as an 'clean' assistant D.A. but, after sending an innocent man to the chair, he joins the other team, defending the guilty in a belated attempt to right his wrong. As in all these type films (William Powell played versions of Fallon for Warners, too, in Lawyer Man and For the Defense), he becomes a big shot gangland defense lawyer and drinks heroically (Guy Kibbee 'tends the 'speak') and sleeps around with impunity (look fast for Paulette Godard as a party girl) while his gal Friday Aline McMahon adds notes of warm complexity as his half-secretary/half-detox nurse / half Leporello crossed with Joan from Mad Men. She's become so adept at her Moneypenny-esque repartee with William that even she can't remember if there's any real desire underneath it, and McMahon's tall enough, and physical enough, that she can believably heave him onto his feet when he's dead drunk.

Aline McMahon: What a gal 
Anyway, they're a great team, and all is well, with a few defense strategies so outlandish they must have been based on real life cases (William here drinks poison to destroy the prosecutor's case, in other versions he throws a vial supposedly full of nitro), but then it all goes to hell when a hick typist in the pool turns down his wolfish advances because she's lousy with the type of small town "integrity" Sydney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker would later sneer at. But, hey, this was 1931, there were only a few years left to even talk about other options, soon that sentimental sunshine malarkey would be so pervasive it would take another world war to shucker out into the freedom of the shadows.

Sidney Fox is the c/hick who sways him, William Janney the naive chump she's sweet on, who (of course) winds up implicated in a crime orchestrated by one of Williams' shifty clients. You can guess the rest. It's all worth it for a giddy stretch in the beginning where William rockets through his day, pausing to lift a $10,000 fee out of an embezzler's stash before returning what's left to the employer on the condition he doesn't press charges. For this one crazy stretch, The Mouthpiece is a masterwork.  It's the role that made William a star. It will make you a fan.

1934 - **1/2

All procedural political machinations, this post-code potboiler plays a bit like Perry Mason wandered into The Glass Key. William plays an ambitious assistant D.A. secretly married to the daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of a framed governor (Arthur Byron). If the public knew about their marriage, it would be conflict of interest! Nepotism! Whatever! It's a little vague, your honor, but the governor can be proved innocent only by compromising William's coming promotion to 'full' DA.

But hey, as long as he's innocent, you have nothing to worry about, maybe.

William is on medium setting here, but that's still a high for anyone else. The cast includes: the always fey and Capote-esque Grant Mitchell; the ever-dubiously allied Douglas Dumbrille; Glenda Farrell as the woman blamed for a murder that Barbara Stanwyck saw happen but can't reveal why she happened to be in Williams' apartment to see it. Courtroom will be cleared while the jury reaches a verdict! The verdict is that this is reasonably engaging thriller that adds up to little beyond its own dated contrivance. How can you go wrong with Stanwyck and William as secret lovers, even if they're not playing to the fullest of their madness? William fans who are wondering if this being made in 1934 means William is defanged, rest easy: he's not, he just doesn't need to bite anyone, so is in semi-asleep mode. William Dieterle directed, so there's atmosphere even if Warners had by then worked the old 'D.A. or Defense Attorney who has to sacrifice his career to protect his lover's honor' horse all the way through the glue factory and back again. (Callback!)

1936 - ***

Before it gets bogged down in needless variations on its The Maltese Falcon source text, it's great fun. Muddled and nonsensical as it may be, fans of the Huston version may savor this as I do, like a jazz riff on the same tune. Effie (Marie Wilson) known here as 'Miss Murgatroyd' below left, is an adorable little ditzy Red Riding Hood who has great chemistry with the big bad wolf Warren William - she's as tall, standing, as he is, seated, which I'm sure made it twice as easy for him to work his charm. And the way she rolls with his wolfish come-ons makes them a perfect pair. She all but grabs onto his fur and rides him to grandma's house.

Made in 1936 (after the code, but Mister, ya coulda fooled me) it co-stars a very young Bette Davis in the Mary Astor role--she's much less coy in this version, and much less bemused by William than most, and instead of the usual blithe flirting they share a conniving sense they're both too used to snowing members of the opposite sex to snow each other, but they just keep trying, like the salesmen in Glengary Glen Ross selling to each other in infinitum. Alison Skipworth is the gender-switch version of the conniving Gutman. I couldn’t find billing for the unsightly Tweedle Dum type who keeps repeating “I told you once, Mister…” as her neurotic gunsel son. He’s no Elisha Cook Jr. Then again, who is? William's Spade (here called Shayne) does a variation on the crippled newsie scene (pulling the raincoat back over Cook's shoulders and grabbing his twin .45s) and plays it out with a beanie he steals off Kenneth's head with a wolfish grin not unlike Lonesome Rhodes chasing a secretary around the Vita-Chex pitch meeting in A Face in the Crowd. 

The best substitution comes with Arthur Treacher as the fey Joel Cairo. A tall, game-for-what-for posh bounder, he brings his own quirky wit to the proceedings and the scene where William helps him ransack his own apartment looking for the 'horn' has a great comedic flow--like Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in the first three seasons of MASH. Were they huffing laughing gas off camera? It's almost like William has met his match in William-ness, and they feed off each other's energy like long lost brothers. Whether helping Treacher casually break things, repair them, or William's glee at finding on a thought-lost little black book under a chair, their scene could be the drunken grandfather of Altman's The Long Goodbye. Rather than a long stretch of time in Spade's apartment waiting for a package, the big climax meets Captain Jacobi's boat down at the rainy docks for a good old-fashioned shoot-out. Which let's face it is pretty cool, considering Huston's film only talks about a whole mess of events we see being played out here.

Davis meanwhile smokes and wields a piece like a pro, she's even annoyed by Williams' not taking the gun she's jamming in his ribs more seriously. If you can recall the Huston version moment where, after giving Cairo back his gun upon receipt of the two hundred dollars, Cairo turns it on him and says "Clasp your hands behind your head, Mr. Spade..." and he just smiles and laughs, saying "Go ahead! I won't stop ya..." that's how William plays the whole damn movie. And unless you're like Davis, a serious actress, trying to establish her character's duplicitousness before the short running time elapses, than Williams' fun is contagious. If you've seen Huston's remake a few dozen times (if not, better start!) then the use of so much of the same dialogue under such bizarre, nearly Godardian tweakage is startling. While the whole cast (Davis aside) seems to bounce merrily on his lap, William has such a good time he can barely remember his lines. Who cares though? He may just as well just read the book aloud and mix some more drinks. I'd watch it.

1932 - ***1/2

Three girls meet while at a Brooklyn public school (allowing for plenty of ethnic stereotyping - oy vey) and stay friends even after going separate ways up and down the New York City economic ladder (pre-code Warners loved showing their adult subjects as children first --God knows why, and maybe social workers). Joan Blondell winds up in a reform school; Bette Davis learns to type and settles into a nice cog-in-the-machine-shape for the duration; Ann Dvorak marries the rich guy (Warren William) and becomes a nymphomaniac alcoholic who feels strangled by the touch of any man dumb enough to treat her with respect. They end up running into each other and sharing the ominous match on a post-lunch round of cigarettes. Dvorak has Williams' kid, then goes running amok with smooth-talking idiot Lyle Talbot, who gets them both in deep with some low-down mobsters (Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Ed Arnold) who figure they can collect big by holding the kid for ransom. With the 24/7 carrying on (and only cocktail peanuts for meals), the poor kid becomes a seriously neglected urchin, all while William looks desperately for the boy, finally procuring the help of the now reformed Blondell and Davis, who by then has nearly typed herself sexless. She must have really loved being relegated to glorified extra. But hey, she gets to be the kid's nanny when all's said and done, if that helps any. If it helps, in 1933 she could still hold her own in a bathing suit. Better get it on record, darling. In a few decades you'll be back on that beach in a very different seaside ensemble, toting a malnourished Joan Crawford instead of a finally-fed Dickie Moore.

What a double bill this would have made with the same year's MATCH KING, wherein we learn the shady truth behind the "three on a match" superstition. Here they take it seriously and if its "vignettes through the ages" narrative style is clunky, the pre-code luridness and game cast makes up for it: Blondell is her usual reliable self, good-natured and morally flexible, inherently decent without being a drag about it; Dvorak's big tragic spiral out of control is awesome, believably self-centered and trapped in a terrible addictive cycle where the only time she's in a caring loving mood is when she's too high to get out of bed, leaving her kid Dickie Moore suffering from neglect to the point even Bogart's slimy gangster is concerned (he makes a wry cocaine nose gesture to indicate what Dvorak's doing in the other room). If even your child's kidnappers are more concerned about your kid than you are, that's shocking stuff, pre-code to the nines, second only to the deprivation / starvation of the kids in Night Nurse, the kind of thing we just wouldn't see after the code, and it's those post-code kids that gave kids a bad name in the movies since we all know kids aren't saints, they're complex little heathens! Dickie Moore can be unbearably cutesy pie in the wrong hands, but throw him into the next room during an all-week all-night gangster poker game while his mom lies drunk and unconscious for days at a stretch, now he's legitimately heartbreaking. FINALLY!

William meanwhile is just the sugar daddy here-- a noncomedic variation on his role in Gold Diggers (he wound up with Joan there, too) as the sensible Daddy Warbucks for the gang. That's the way it was in these punchy mellers from the WB though; the whole thing rips past your stunned eyes so fast you can barely light your twentieth cigarette before it's all over but the scraping off the sidewalk. 'hiccup.'

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Misterioso Blu Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."                                                                                    --- Nietzsche
(1973) Dir. John Hough
A serious-minded, less campy, grumpier, more sexually experienced ground level update of Bill Castle's House on Haunted Hill, the British horror film Legend of Hell House (based on a Richard Matheson novel) was once seen often on late shows on weekend TV movies by kids like me. I remember seeing it at slumber parties (before VHS existed so it was just 'on'). We seldom made it to the end before falling asleep or losing our UHF reception, but what we saw scared us silly. While the plot seems kid stuff--a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--it's not just for 70s slumber parties or skeletons on strings, not anymore. Now, with Shout's new Blu-ray, Hell has taken over the adult wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for closer inspection - and man is it pretty. Cinematographer Alan Hume delivers near Bava levels of warm, dusky, painterly light, and shows special magic capturing the the translucently pale skin of the two actresses, giving them an 'alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper' glow that makes them look sexy as hell yet creepy, untamed, assertive, even dangerous.

Pamela Franklin (upper left) proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence the psychic (is this a sequel to her role as the child "Flora" in The Innocents (1961). Am I the first to make that connection?); Gale Hunnicutt is Ann, wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill) and quite prim by day, but open to wild sexual possession at night. The men, on the other hand, are buzzkills. Barrett is self-righteous prig who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse generator, which he's bringing over later, so considers Florence's reports of spirits in the house with scathing condescension. Roddy McDowall is in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last such sleepover party) so spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks about their inevitable doom, without any of Cook's dreamy hipster disconnect (instead he's just snippy). They've all been hired by a dying millionaire (who's trying to determine "once and for all" if there's life after death) to to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester-ish estate of sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate Earnest Belasco. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000. for a week's sitting around?

Does this dying bastard really figure setting up some investigators for a week in a haunted house will answer the age-oldiest question once and for all? It would be hilarious if it wasn't played so grouchy-dead straight.

Fans who hate when a ghost movie wastes time with character development and other bits of business will rejoice over Hell House, for--like Castle's Haunted Hill--the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very fog-bound manor, the house looming above them, all ominous. Instantly setting the mood, it never returns to exterior daylight, or any of those piddly-ass subplots or cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster in your room disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you were only dreaming. Or what about those tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, to see stodgy vicars? Or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds, peering around corners while chopping wood with scary axes? Not this house, sisters. And it's all based on what might, one day, be real life paranormal events! In a forward blurb, Tom Corbett, 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes that “although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” Or as Criswell says in Plan Nine, "Can you prove it didn't happen!?"

As the allotted week of investigation goes on, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, approaching and passing Dec. 25th, though no one mentions Xmas. The randomness of the dates and times adds to a feeling of authenticity and also enhances the sense of endless night and gloom; it might only be 4 PM tea time or 9 AM breakfast, but it all feels like one long night in this mostly windowless, dark strange mansion, which they mostly never leave. Kubrick was undoubtedly inspired by this sense of time's mounting irrelevance for his sporadic use of of similar 'time stamps' ("Tuesday"!) in The Shining.  What better endorsement do you need? Another influential aspect is the throbbing echo-drenched diegetic distortion score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hogdson of 'Electrophon Ltd.' Pitch-shifted somewhere between Forbidden Planet's 'electronic tonalities' and the avant garde echo-cussions of 70s thriller-period Ennio Morricone, it's so weird it's sublime. It may well have influenced some of the wilder music choices in Shining as well.

Another thing I love in a ghost film is when it totally doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or just figments of a suggestible mind, which is usually a big problem in American and British films. Here the supernatural is a given-- even Dr. Barett believes something's happening-- so the argument can finally move from an 'if' to a question of whether actual personalities survive beyond death or just a form of psychic residue which we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy, void of personality or soul, and pissily accuses Florence of creating it, unconsciously or not. Florence thinks the activity is being generated by the spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. In the dead of night, to liven things up, Mrs. Barett sleepwalks, possessed seemingly by the ghost of a major nymphomaniac. When she glides down the stairs or makes sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame, in flowing hair and nightgown she generates an autonomous sultry frisson that's quite unforgettable. Sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband while conscious, asleep she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin. Modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending maenad cannibal, Hunnicutt is simply outstanding here. McDowall, on the other hand, just stands frozen in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie. Instead, he just waits patiently until she's at maximum pitched intensity to slap her, as if he has no interest in helping anyone with their big scenes, or trying to do a decent job, or even feigning interest or even homosexual panic. No wonder British women are so sexually assertive, with such men as these for pickings! And why is Roddy even there in the scene? They may as well as put a suit of armor in his place, or a life-size cardboard cutout. Mainly he stands around and waits through almost the entire film until nearly everyone else is dead before he finally steps up to the bat, shouting whole pages of plot point denouement at the ghost of Belasco. Wind howls, doors rattle, and the tenor of McDowell's voice rises and rises to match it. Finally you can sense the phantom residue of Vincent Price rouse from its chewed-scenery nest, proving once and for all, you dying rich sponsor, ghosts is real!

Too bad Revill's smarmy know-it-all doctor makes sure that no one gets along, bonds, or laughs until then. You could offer him a coffee and he'd snarl at you for your stupidity in believing caffeine is the answer when it's merely a placebo for the feeble minded. He curtails all attempts at camaraderie and as a result the cast all keep to themselves, reacting to each other's presence only with shouts and slaps, demeaning disbelief, and worried condescension. It's enough to make one long for the cozy lesbian flirtations between Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson in The Haunting remake. In fact, I know it's heresy, but I'll see that movie again any time, while this this film for all its thick atmosphere, beautiful photography, superb Brit thesping and spooky effects, makes the criminal mistake of forgetting spookshows are supposed to be 'fun'  -- hungover bitchiness never helps generate repeat business.

The Shout Blu-ray does what it can to allay the damage, bringing out the full gorgeous eerie textures and depths of the film. Extras include a genial 'talking shop'-style interview with John Hough, wherein he notes that Disney hired him to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work in Hell House, and there's a repetitive if interesting commentary track with Franklin. She mainly says that Hunnicutt and McDowall kept to themselves while, surprisingly, she and Revill got on famously and that the cinematographer took forever with his lighting, using every single light he had in every single shot, to the point the crew would start hiding lights from him in the cupboards. Though the time spent was clearly worth it, and thanks to this spiffy Blu-ray upgrade, every shot is suitable for framing.

1988 - dir. Stan Winston
Lance Henrisken is (unsurprisingly) strange, muted, a tad poetic and A-gaming through this EC comics-esque B-backwoods monster tale. As the woodsy general store/gas station owner and bereaved single parent Ed Harley he's the type of character we usually only see in the beginning of a horror film, cryptically warning the teenage weekend campers not to go too far from the highway, before spitting tobacco at their feet and wiping his hands on a filthy oil rag. This time the equation's reversed: the visiting teens are the bad guys, kind of, killing his son (by accident) and spurring old Ed to backwoods vengeance. Surprisingly complex for a monster film, director Winston lets us see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even-keeled look at the rural-vs.-suburb/city divide in horror until Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. 

The down-ramp of all that though is the usual 'get to the monster already' agitation, that is, unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray. Now we can see the full magic hour-heavy breadth of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's genius, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors, and vice versa, how he makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace the way Dean Cundey did to the suburban streets in the original Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets, for example: with its orange light shining through the windows, captures an uncanny stillness in the air, as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting to see what old Ed Harley's gonna do. Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins, and eerie crosshatches of moonlight and diegetic headlights, flashlights, and lanterns for the outdoor nighttime shots, Bajelli conjures a very Halloween-ready mood that never really survived the journey to the small screen in previous video editions. Now we can savor how how the poetic-realist folktale touch is gradually applied, luring the story from rural revenge saga afternoon, to dark setting sun fairy tale, to nighttime blue-filter monster movie.  I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and the details of the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch can be pored over like we're right down in the muck with Ed. Now too we can see the details of the old crone in her cabin (where on VHS it was all just an orange darkness): her old age makeup makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932)!

The rest of the cast is pretty interesting too, now that some of the actors have become minor stars: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik are two of the barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant (there's always one kid who's afraid to hear it. As Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals and even the lesser mortal sheen of her fellow teen co-stars. The pastel 80s fashions and terrible headbands are guaranteed to provide uncomfortable shivers to anyone who remembers an anguished teenagerhood spent amidst Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans. Me, now I rejoice to see them, signifiers as they are of pre-CGI monsters to come (vs. the CGI revolution of the early 90s, with its khakis.

But even then, the real reason to see the film is Henriksen, with his ever-strange otherworldly air working in full step with Bazelli's color filters to make the overly familiar backcountry milieu neither hostile nor friendly in conventional ways, but as uncanny as an alien landscape. That his character's southern accent comes out strongest when he's really angry or upset is the mark of a truly subtle actor, as if the rest of the time his Ed Harley is trying to mask his mountain man roots. Only great actors bother to fill their B-roles like this with such layered lived-in termite detail.

That said, if the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced, it forgets its purpose along with the way. As with Hell House, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads us to demand sequels (though they sure came). If the teens were cooler and the demon was loosed on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us far more more, which is the point. Also, the idea that any boy wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those motorbikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least be watching in awe as they jump, is just hard to believe. It would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice or somethign. And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, or his neighborhood drinking (or AA) buddies, especially him being a small business owner where success depends on being sociable and developing repeat customers, or that he wouldn't first try confronting the kids directly, taking revenge himself, or at the very least find some other recourse to be exhausted first. Not to make light of losing your kid, but no matter how aggrieved he got I don't think any man would leap to the demon conjuring option first, without even considering other saner options, especially when he well knows the consequences. Even worse is Harley's second guessing himself, trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him kill it when that doesn't work. All this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place and they wouldn't. I don't blame them a bit for keeping their doors barred to his pleas. You made your bed now lie in it, Ed Harley!

Such qualms might irk, but they might also melt away once one sees the film a few more times. Its earthy folktale aspect, its devotion to minute atmospheric detail (the lived-in dirt of the rural clothing and faces), its sparingly ominous synth music, the myriad facial expressions and unique movements of the monster, the eerie stillness in the exterior magic hour photography, the way the monster uses the lifeless bodies of its victims to smash in doors and windows, the way it travels with his own whirlwind of leaves, fog, and crackling lightning, it all adds up big time now that it can all be appreciated in its ultimate HD expression. 

Extras include a lively fun commentary track with the special effects guys, and you can tell they had a blast making the film and love pointing out all the strangely-placed puppeteer eye holes, and the cuts that alternate the monster between live-action puppet, stop motion miniature, mechanical head or arm, guy in a suit, and animatronic dummy, sometimes all in a single action. My favorite detail was hearing them point out that the guy wearing the monster suit in some of the walking scenes was deliberately trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (i.e. a human in a suit aping stop motion animation!) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out. There's also a dozen or so talking head interviews, including one with a moist-eyed, breathless, possibly insane Richard Weinman, some great VHS tape monster suit test runs, and a tribute to the late, great Winston.

All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help make these two minor horror films into 1080 HD works of art. Maybe in the end all the needless killing has been worth it, for we are living the dream of every movie lover who died before the advent of this format. I know I dreamt of such things as a monster lover kid. I even wrote a paper in junior high school advocating the importance of creating a widescreen TV, dreaming of perfect vivid picture and giant screens while reading Famous Monsters of Filmland instead of playing kickball --they always picked me last, so why wouldn't I spurn them?. I wonder if I'll have to pay some hellish price for my anamorphic HD Blu-ray wildest dream wishes coming true... Whatever it is, I'll pay it, Ed Harley!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Beyond the Green Inferno: HERZOG: The Collection (16 film Blu-ray collection) - Review

Francis Ford Coppola's disastrous decision to cast Brando as Colonel Kurz for Apocalypse Now (1979) is by now a true Hollywood cautionary tale of amok ambition and dangers of trusting in the improv skills of titans: Coppola was losing his Godfather fortune, and sanity even before Brando finally showed up. Francis was already stretched past endurance by typhoon season, drugs, malaria, wayward helicopters, Martin Sheen's heart attack, and Dennis Hopper's gibbering mania. Brando arrived late, as the myth goes, and overweight. He appeared befuddled, acted irrationally, if at all, pissing away Coppola's millions while he mumbled incoherently along, utterly and in every way unprepared. This final straw took years off Coppola's life. The entire shoot dragged on for two years, and Brando wore Coppola's genius down to such a low point he's never gotten it back (he admits it). Francis's films have tended towards the safely set-bound ever since. Never in a million years would he work with Brando again, let alone bring him back to Philippines in ten years for Apocalypse Now 2. 

Herzog would. 

Let the woeful tale of Coppola's nonetheless undeniable masterpiece be testament not just to the dangers of jungle location shooting (when overlapping with monsoon season can be cataclysmic) and hiring temperamental egomaniacs as stars, but to the gonzo madness of Werner Herzog, who went back again and again to his jungle, and worked with his egotistical maniac, one who made Kurz-era Brando seem a model of professionalism, no less than five times. Such masochism is surely indicative of a personality that would have thrived in the very same madness that consumed Coppola on that woebegone shoot, would have welcomed the miseries, would have saw it all as a welcome relief from the terrifying existential crisis proffered by German 'sanity,' and maybe would have put a gun to Brando's head and said snap into it or die here, right here and now. Maybe Coppola needed to be German to find that heart of darkness, maybe he needed a German actor like Klaus Kinski as his Kurtz.

See, Kinski starts deep in the darkness heart, already deeper in the blackness that Brando could ever reach, not if he mumbled and hid in the shadows for ten thousand takes. And Klaus just goes deeper from there. Brando's Heart of Darkness is as a blazing sun by contrast.

In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)--their first collaboration and the film that put Herzog on the map--Kinski plays a wayward conquistador searching for El Dorado. His Aguirre doesn't just usurp his royal commander on a side trip down the Amazon, he usurps the King of Spain himself, and sails ever onward into the jungle, eventually ruling over a raft full of gibbering monkeys after the rest of the expedition has been picked off by unseen natives or quietly run off while his crazy ass was sleepin'.

Insane or no, while the other actors make their marks and look around nervously, Kinski's Aguirre is making friends with the insects; he's imitating the movements of wind through the fronds in every little gesture; his giant frog eyes dilate, seething, and lolling back on a tide of bi-polar narcissism, Kinski seems eternally adrip and a-trip with the psychedelic madness of the messianic complex - the kind of psychosis you can't fake. It takes real wild man energy. Magnetic, tragic, and terrifying, it's almost like he can see us watching him, through the screen, while he's Aguirre, from back in 1972, from across time and media formatting, when his eyes meet ours and we shiver in our safety shadows as if he's right there in the room and could turn us to stone and steal our drink from our of our frozen hands. We feel his breathing in the clatter of trash cans and whir of sirens in the distance outside the window; he's in our blood like a fever, and somehow he knows it.

And now, thanks to a gorgeous and essential set from Shout Factory, we have the whole story of Herzog's existential sanity with and without Kinski's foam-at-the-mouth madness, whether colliding in the middle of the South American jungles and German hamlets of the mind and mud, it's all there: Herzog: The Collection gives us 16 films on stunning Blu-ray, covering a 30 year period--from his black and white cult slice of mayhem Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to 1998's My Best Friend, Herzog's documentary about his five films with Kinski (all of which are included in the set). All in all, it's a three decade-spanning Götterdämmerung of low-key brilliance, ranging from fictional films to documentaries, cinéma vérités and even semi-faux documentaries. It's one of the most well-constructed sets I've ever seen, no annoying slipcase or crackable plastic, all beautiful thick pages with the DVDs fitting perfectly within thick paper pages, dark colors bled to the edges, all pulsing green photographs from the films. The dark images perfectly capture the moody existentialism, Germanic emotional Alpine peaks and harrowing crevasses of Herzog's style, the intentional blurring of the line between documentary-reality--with himself onscreen as narrator and shaper of action--and historical recreation and/or other fiction. And each fiction movie is likely to include a documentary of its making, it's own DVD extra in a matter of course, with commentary tracks abounding, the very least a death to nature.

Maybe like me you've seen some dusty PAL or VHS copies of these in the past, but these Blu-rays are a whole different world; we can now make out every blade of grass, every drop of flowing river, and every dirty fissure in Kinski's extraordinarily expressive face. Challenging, disturbing, beautiful, tragic, and sometimes downright boring, watch them all and feel your senses slow and widen and dilate to better behold God's all-seeing blindness.

And through all five of their collaborations, Kinski's willingness to throw himself off a cliff at the drop of a hat provides the perfect orbiting satellite for Herzog's implacable planetary sanity. There are also several documentaries and two films with his other insane star, Bruno S: 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (a true story of an abused man with eerie parallels to Bruno's own dark childhood as subject of Nazi experiments), and Stroszek (1977). According to imdb: Bruno "was very difficult to work with... sometimes needing several hours of screaming before he could do a scene."

If anyone was going to be able to work with him, to wait out the screams and/or get them on film, it would be Herzog.

Bruno, you look the picture of health!
Needless to say, the extras are not all successful (Where the Green Ants Dream, for example, has a commentary track but it's in German mit out subtitles, was ist los mit dir, Shout?). But all the extras add to the self-reflective post-modern sense of dreaming and waking up into a dream far more vivid than localized reality. Herzog's films almost being commentaries of the films as they're happening, the sheer metatextuality of commentaries on commentaries adds one more rung on the ladder between screen and viewer consciousness, until the TV is as a giant fishbowl mirror where you can see yourself slowly drowning.

Brother, you said it
In addition to the stunning and essential Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and their final collaboration, Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog made two small scale masterpieces, shot in Germany, with Kinski in 1979. Wocyzek is an adaptation of a German play about a soldier who kills his wife after he's endured mind control experiments: claustrophobic, hypnotic, glacially slow and tragic, it provides the chance for Kinski to bounce off four walls for a change before caving in on himself in high Germanic style. It's also a more effective horror film for my money than Nosferatu, which seems airless and beery compared to most Herzog films, partly no doubt due to the uber-bland, soft-bellied somnambulism of Bruno Ganz's Harker. Though he's supposedly making a fantasy-horror film, a remake of a silent vampire classic, Herzog is unwilling to abandon his beloved docu-realism and uses found settings to replace the dream expressionism the tale so clearly demands (and Kinski's little baby doll fangs are ridiculous). Shooting on location in Bavaria and Carpathian towns in centuries old buildings seems a good idea on paper, but the budget wasn't there to paint things in cobwebs and Gothic air, so the slick white sealer lathered onto the brick walls of old inns and castle interiors (used to keep the dampness out) gives them a dead museum air. Put Herzog in the jungle and he comes alive, but on European soil he drowns in ghosts, the centuries of history strangling him in a Germanic noose he cannot film except through terrible period haircuts, beer-puffed German faces (nothing like the hardships of the jungle to strip that away) and costumes that seem fresh from the Oktoberfest peasant parade.

Adjani is--however--a great expressionistic Mina. With her darkened doll eyes, pale skin and jet black hair, she seems straight out of--not just Murnau's original, but Cabinet of Caligari or Lang's Mabuse -- a child of some Gothic Tim Burton does Weimar Marwen dollhouse.

Having only seen Herzog's Aguirre, Nosferatu, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and At the Top of the World before diving into this set, I came in thinking Herzog's obsessions with dreams seemed a kind of knee-jerk raison d'être for his continued docu-wandering. Just the weirdly Germanic way he says "what are their dreams?" every five minutes in his voiceovers made me kind of want to throttle him, or go to sleep and have dreams and not tell him shit about them. I was however drawn to review this massive collection as some kind of masochistic indulgence (my own German heritage?) which I knew in the end would be soul transforming. Indeed, it has proven a soul-warping, awe inspiring, yet deeply troubling--sometimes even maddeningly boring but always insightful and deeply Herzogian--25+ hours of jungles and paranoia.

Another confession, in addition to the way he says "their dreams" I have always been put off by some of Herzog's more jokey titles, especially: Even Dwarfs Started Small and Little Dieter Needs to Fly may boisterous, very original, and life-affirming. Like Jodorowsky or a drunk Bunuel, filmed in black and white, Dwarfs is a bit like the end of Over the Edge stretched to feature length with little people playing the kids, only not as good. Little Dieter Needs to Fly turns out to be a deeply moving true story of the only POW pilot, shot down over Laos and held prisoner for two years, suffering terrible tortures at the hand of the Viet Cong until he made a great escape through the uncrossable jungles. With Herzog in tow, Dengler revisits the locations and some of his captors. In one unforgettable scene, Dengler puts his forgiving arm around a former torturer. The look in that ashamed Vietnamese guy's eyes is so profound, their connection so human, it almost makes the whole war worthwhile. Dengler is quite a character, his ever-present gratitude to be free and his continual fascination with planes and food and the joy of being able to open doors -all speak to the long term effects--negative and even positive--of surviving long-term captivity. It's catchy. You may never look at doors the same way.

As Herzog's camera follows, Dengler talks us through his ordeal in modulated perfect flow of English, words cascading over the rocks and trees, and he never seems to need to take a breath. Through it all, Herzog--a bastion of sanity begging to be eroded by the fertile fecund jungle--watches and learns of nature's bloody initiation. As Dengler goes on, one realizes he's a great writer --it's all facts, no wasting time with describing emotions or feelings, and when he mentions his dreams and hallucinations they're described in the same matter-of-fact style. When he tells of a near-death vision he had of horsemen angels rolling towards him through the clouds, signaling his death approaching from hunger, disease, and deprivation, Herzog doesn't need to do anything for us to feel the collective soul's thunderous nod.

It's through these moments that one discovers the root of Herzog's genius. Physical reality, to him, is just the eventual manifestation of the unconscious. Twisted up as we are, raw and full of mysteries, dreams have more in common with reality than our emotions or feelings. Herzog eventually filmed a more dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn (2006), starring Christian Bale, but it's Dieter that packs more punch for being such a gentle, forgiving film in image and speech, conveying at the same time such deep horrors and inhumanities on both sides, but never with judgments. It helps there's no actor like Bale there to bring the tortures vividly to life. Hearing about them rather than seeing them makes them bearable.

Another example of this unique documentary approach is Lessons of Darkness (1992), which shows the horrors of Kuwaiti oil fires in the weeks after the (first) Gulf War, the oil blackening the sky and pillars of flame illuminating everything in all directions. Using shots of fire alternating with faces of Kuwaitis, letting the amniotic droning of the music, and his infrequent moments of enigmatic narration, he guides our response only, as it were, to the precipice - not of emotion (there's no judgment one way or the other) but of Germanic awe at the weird intensity of life here. At the end, when the oil firefighters, having extinguished most of the fires and capped the wells, re-light one, Herzog doesn't concern himself with getting to the rationale behind it. He's only looking for his own answers to his own questions the nature of dreams, madness.

He describes the sight thus:
"Two figures are approaching an oil well.
One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to?
Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content
Now there is something to extinguish again."

In the end it's this kind ambivalence and moral ambiguity, that 'need to extinguish' that makes Herzog endure. His narration in the documentaries makes no plea for tolerance or recycling. He doesn't try to understand if there's a valid reason Dieter Dengler was bombing Laos or being starved by his captors; he doesn't judge the oil workers lighting the gushing untapped oil back up after working so hard to put it out; he doesn't judge the mining company finally winning the right to blast the green anthills apart in Where the Green Ants Dream. He knows any judgment would automatically reflect his own prejudice. He lets instead the camera finds its way to a zone where poetry and truth operate free of imposed meaning. Within these jungles and hellish landscapes, Herzog is like an astronaut letting his camera find some unknown new planet; the camera does the searching, he obediently follows, bringing only a gold record of Wagner's "Siegfried's Funeral March" along for company. Even if the planet is 400 degrees he will gamely step into the pyre, refusing to judge the flame as it consumes him. Get this set, then, and wade in to there with him. As your screaming ego melts down around you, you will see the light at the end of the dark tunnel, glorious and godly.... let go of that need to extinguish yourself... keep burning....

And if you keep melting and moving deeper, you will see a new, stranger darkness waiting behind the light, the darkest heart, the one Coppola's camera could never quite catch...

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