Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA

The American holiday trifecta has already passed its first hurtle, Thanksgiving. Now the sluggish traffic and unruly Wal-Mart tazing begins in earnest and a skittish mummified shamanic Pisces like me turns naturally inward, for movies are the best way to avoid holiday shopping lines. All those commercials that try so hard to become a patronizing life coach for Americans, using the "we" not to mean their company but you the viewer + them, united: "we don't settle for anything less," and "we're always pushing just a little further" like they already know you, like David Manners telling Mina "we're going to forget all about these dreams, and think of something cheerful, aren't we?" in DRACULA (1931), or a narc would if he suddenly appeared at the edge of your druggy circle trying to imply he's always been part of your inside clique. But "we're" going stay inside, like an urban hermit, and savor the poison path, the peaceful darkness of the amniotic sac couch bog. One century soon, some decadent Warsaw university students will dig us up and put us in a nice preservative solution isolation tank. Rummaging through our fanny pack he'll find our secret stash of mushrooms both psilocybe and 'flybane' (i.e. fly agaric or Amanita Muscaria) and then eat them, so he can bond with us, and we'll warn him about the crazy woman fixing to devour his soul, SZAMANKA (or She-Shaman) is her name... and like so many hot girls in cold climates, she's fucking crazy. She's the one who killed us!

 (PS - All the collages in this post are made by me - so don't expect to see them in the actual film, I was just trying to help clarify the madness a little bit, on Zulawski's behalf, by throwing in some druggy Polish film stills with Bosch 'n shrooms hallucinations)

Speaking of shrooms: amanita muscaria are currently legal, and it's easy to see why if you ever tried them --they're gross. Too many can make you feel poisoned, not enough can make you feel like you're not getting off - and just the right amount gets the colors enhanced and the sweaty glow feeling of being connected to the world, but they also make that world smell like urine. You're supposed to drink your urine once they 'pass' through you, and then you get really high - but no thanks, bro. I have yet to do that, so can't comment. Maybe they were better in Poland or Siberia, 2,500 years ago, when the locals noticed the reindeer rummaging through the snow for them, wolfing them down and getting drunken crazy on them (apparently they used to drink the reindeer urine, which---I guess makes it all right? (Who was the first laplander who figured that out? "Dude, I was drinking reindeer urine, you know, like always, and I suddenly noticed...").

Either way, age has not diminished their power: a few thousand years in the bog and the anthropologist, played by Boguslaw Linda in SZAMANKA still gets off on them (literally and figuratively). But he learns the hard way: once you've submitted to the full stripping away of persona layers, divested yourself of all attachment, unmade the trappings of self, remembered your own birth, bathed in the white light of pure love, and forgiven everyone everywhere, then what? Life goes on without you. No one gets where you're coming from, or quite buys your mystic conversion. Your fiancee thinks you're nuts, and the people who do get your message, who feel the same cosmic light, are gross. They wear sandals and patchouli and eat too much garlic and look anemic from not eating meat. "We" sure don't want to hang out with them, too often.

So we turn to the nest of sweet isolation, a few cool cats to cuddle with, and an endless supply of DVDs. There's so much great trippy shit out there. No matter how 'gone' we get, Chile's Alejandro Jodorowsky, America's David Lynch, and Poland's Andrzej Zulawski can always guide us in a holding pattern 'til the rest of the world slowly catches up and we sink down into the post-Thanksgiving depths of Mordor Xmas. To that end, we save SZAMANKA for when we're delirious or have been in the cave so long we've forgotten there's even an outdoors. Zulawski doesn't even need to show us anyone actually taking the drugs. The shit's in the celluloid.

I first discussed Zulawski's SZAMANKA in conjunction with Carrie Matheson and Claire Forlan's awesome Dewar's ad while back in November of 2012, during that previously discussed enlightenment breakthrough awareness state I wrote "from boxes heart-shaped shapelessness, bags tossed as rubbish into the Warsaw mud, flown, Angus, darlin' - rather, a punk-en down Dalle Betty Blue-blackened bird spazzing through anthropology classes as her lover pilfers thousand year-old psilocybe and Amanita Muscaria mushrooms from a mummified shaman's pockets. Each wodka shot or peanut butter-covered stem tracking each punch and drunken stumble dream pie like meth and coveralls to grinding mechanical factory sex atop crumbling swamp corpse; grinding academics in their dancing and beer spillage and moving far away from the needle tip distance twixt the ancient fungal shaman's last expression train down through more more the turn style jumps, coiffed, jumps back through and gay references hurtled like Jack Benny's Polish theater troupe, bombed and built anew under which in the shelter Zulawski slept as a child. (more)

I don't remember writing that and I'm miles away from that galactic alignment euphoria, but I dig my crazy jive poetry as if it's from a long lost twin. I'm finding references to everything from T.S. Eliot to SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS to the obscure Lou Reed song, "Billy." But I wouldn't write like that again if I could. I'm too jaded. I was on a holy fool pre-apocalyptic role back this time in 2012, as seen in The Scrooge Satori, all without a single mushroom, And I would never have made the TO BE OR NOT TO BE connection in my current cave-bound form. Yet when else is a Polish theater troupe the main character of a comedy film set and shot in 1942 Hollywood?

Before you answer, quick imagine Roman Polanski urchins skittering through the Warsaw sewers while Germans shell the city above and Russians wait on the outskirts, until the Resistance is wiped out, so they can step in an Iron Curtain the place. What a bum deal. Poland gets screwed double, so who can blame them for being depressed? A little urine.... clears them of this deed.

Am I going somewhere with this, as some ancient astronaut theorists believe? Shamans are waiting for you to exhume their ancient stashes! Did you hear in the news that a 747 recently crashed in a cemetery in Poland? The Polish officials have so far retrieved 2,000 bodies! (1)

SZAMANKA (1994), aka SHE-SHAMAN, is one of them. Great judicious synthesizers underwrite Andrzej Zulawski's uber-bizarre panic movement-ish meditation on the nature of primitivism, Neanderthal train sex momentum, insanity, eating brains to gain that person's knowledge, and the lack of mores or coherence in 90s Warsaw. And the script was written by a woman! Manuela Gretowska co-founded the Polish Women's Party and ran for office... So best believe it's way darker sexually than even Zulawski would normally go. But thanks to his own 'maturer' madness, he makes a pretty good movie around it, way better than that punk Jean-Pierre Leaud was making in LAST TANGO IN PARIS (below, overlaid by me with a Bosch detail for easy decoding).

I mention this because Zulawski and Gretowska clearly know SZAMANKA is a lot like LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and that star Iwona Petry looks and foams at the mouth like Beatrice Dalle in BETTY BLUE which lest we forget ends with Dalle going totally crazy, getting electroshock, and winding up smothered with a pillow by the man who loves her ala saucy Jack in CUCKOO'S NEST. As with Bertolucci's film, Zulawski's crazy roving camera chases sexy nutcase Petry, running everywhere--onto trains, off of trains--upstairs and down--and at times there's obscene perverse men leering from every corner and it begins to almost seem like some perverse sexual nightmare. Fat bugs, these men are ready for the maw of a Kali mantis like Beatrice Dalle's in her holy trifecta - BETTY BLUE, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, and INSIDE.   One of her anthropologist lover's pals notes of her weird behavior that some people are "God's fools, with souls so big there's no room for brains," Iwona Petry's character is known as "the Italian" but is at least smart enough to realize they're talking about her, and to knock over their table accordingly. So while Boguslaw Linda goes on his lecture, she's illustrating his tales of Neanderthal shamanism by mouthing a display case and "careening through the streets of Warszawa like a culturally inept marathon runner who's afraid of clowns" (2). While he pursues a doctorate in medicine, she's studying engineering at the same school, so it's a metaphor to the division of labor and culture in Poland, and of woman's sexuality as something so archaically Precambrian as to devour the entirety of Apollonian civilization in a single sparagmosticated brain bite.

Her hotness making her a one-woman cliff for Warszawa's lemming males, it's as if she's constantly trying to keep them at bay by behaving in a way that turns even the staunchest stomach: she foams at the mouth, eats cat food out of her landlady's cat dish, and in short behaves like a proper panic movement-era primal screen actress, which means undergoing convulsions like one does on, say, too way way way WAY WAYyyy way too much acid. Four times what you usually take, I guess, is enough to get you to that level of walking down the middle of the street with no pants on, screaming at the top of your lungs, each root of hair in your scalp tingling like fiberoptic tendrils pummeling signals from every web string of time and space, sensory impression magnified to the point of distortion, contradicting the other impressions, coming into your brain past your normal blinders and defenses, so that you literally hear your own thoughts talk to you in the roar of a passing truck or the bark of a dog. In case you can't tell, I've been there: everyone you see looks like melting Cubist seventh dimensional sculptures, all laden with pulsing blood just millimeters from the surface. And it goes on like that for upwards of six hours (or if on DOM or STP, up to 36 hours). The only salvation is benzos, or whiskey... lots and lots, like a bull rhinoceros popping Ketamine in a vain attempt to put yourself under while being slowly fed through a paper shredder. Sometimes open mouth kissing display cases, salting your clothes, peppering your hair and spraying perfume on your lettuce, will at least help you break free from the normal behaviors of your social and cultural position, behaviors now revealed to be little more than straitjackets pulled past suffocation tightness.

this is your brain on drugs

Zulawski's been there, too. Petry and Linda know all the tricks, and maybe so has Gretowska, I'd imagine, because in SZAMANKA even engineering lectures weld sexual-reproductive organs on to the curriculum in ways that would probably blow Cronenberg's mind.
"Zulawski said the animus inspired by his film was mainly directed at his uninhibited actress. The press “hated her and destroyed her, and she disappeared.” He has not made another movie in Poland since: “This country is still in the Middle Ages.” - J. Hoberman NY Times March 2nd, 2012 (my birthday!)
Still in the Middle Ages. I agree, half of America is right there with them, and as Petry's performance is clearly meant to have a certain 'the whole Cro-Magnon Thing passed my evolution by" -style idiot savant savage ambivalence, she's a living contradiction to everything the Texas Board of Education--and by weird extension the International Film Critics Circle-- holds dear, he said, reading aloud from his notebook while running it under water in the sink, then dripping the blue inky runoff all over her naked body. Clearly, he (Boguslaw Linda) is tripping balls. But it's for science! And he doesn't need a frickin' medical research hothead like Charles Haid (in ALTERED STATES) or a creep like Bruce Dern (in THE TRIP) as a 'guide,' in fact Zulawski doesn't even feel the movie needs a shot of him actually taking the mushrooms. He's just suddenly on them, and we're left to guess how many he took or how long ago or which kind. He doesn't even need to mention reasons at first that his doctoral thesis is going to be an attempt to locate the ancient shamanic spirit within modern paranoid schizophrenics, realizing that "drugs, hunger, danger, darkness" -the constants of life in the dark ages--kept these primitive humans in a paranoid schizophrenic state 24/7. In other words, they were all the time, like most of us only are when tripping. To prove this point, Boguslaw starts slowly devolving along the same lines, craving that mystical union via any ceremonial sex magic or 2,500 year old mushrooms he can find. 

In that sense, no one does it quite as shamanistically correct as old Andrzej Zulawski. Jodorowsky is , by contrast, too bawdy-vulgar, Emir Kusturica too eccentric-whimsical, Lynch too straight, and Gilliam too bent. None are the types to take "fucking flybanes" at their science lab and pitch a doctoral thesis to their advisor and future father-in law while rolling around on the floor in the hospital chapel, to offer a unique fusion of the dramatic, forward-thinking, mystical, druggy, and socio-political all without whimsy, vulgarity, weird-for-weird's sake-ism, or any semblance of humor... or drama...

Maybe Poles, stuck in those Middle Ages, just don't give a fuck. They sidestep altogether the things that trip up America--for all its talk of freedom--in unhackable tendrils of churchy censorship and the compulsive need to to exposit onto the rubes. These students don't need to worry about narcs or rubes -- due to the joys of free socialist education, all are educated, and all hate the government. If they find some shrooms in the ancient pocket of the exhumed shaman, they're going to do them. And wait for the shaman in the dish to make the first move. And they're going to hide that they did them from even us, so you have to know what the signs are. And the signs are, apparently, indistinguishable from 'everyday' Warsaw life in the 1990s.

Dude, I've been on all sides of that equation, everyone except the mummified shaman. And that, according to my spirit guide, is what's waiting in fall 2015. Because let me tell you, without our space mushroom brothers as co-workers, we'll never get off this rock in any conveyance other than space ships. What's it gonna be, Hollywood? More big dollar-intensive conveyances just to wind up back with Jessica Chastain in the Pre-Raphaelite TREE OF LIFE shirt reflection, where we could have been all this time through some simple deep breathing meditation and/or a handful of nonlocal mushrooms?

these are Amanitas not psilocybe cubenses, but they're prettier

By the power of Terence McKenna, I hereby confirm that psychedelic mushrooms are standing by, ready to work hand-in-stamen with the next generation of psychonauts. The future's alien skies are limitless. Let the shrooms be your NASA and orbit is instantly transcended. Just first make it past the screaming terror breakwaters of your Scrooge tomb slab; breathe and pray your way past the hottie primitive from the Middle Ages eating your brain on drugs as it sizzles apart in the heated pan of pure consciousness; and the cancerous cops inside the marrow of your bones will melt away like dew in the desert.

On the other hand, maybe the dollar-intensive conveyances would be better, frozen forever 'til some far gone destination is arrived at, comfy in the couch-like peat bog of the 'old freezarino' in deep empty space, til the Boguslaw archeologist computer rifles our pockets and bids our mummy husks defrost. Alas, not even INTERSTELLAR sleep lasts forever. No matter how long they drag it out, the exhuming from the bog of cine-dream will inevitably occur, and one will wake up to house lights and the terror of an empty screen, once more reflecting like a DOS prompt on your empty helmet. Fucking flyboys...

1. Old Polish JokeS
2. The great Yum-Yum, House of Self Indulgence (5/30/13)
3. i.e. the Warsaw-set WW2 comedy thriller To Be or Not to Be

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tales from the Retrofuturist Pharmacy, Part II: PHASE IV, Boards of Canada, SPACE STATION 76 (1st 20 minutes)

See Part 1: 
And Tales from the Benway Pharmacy; BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE MACHINE

The future is always already then, as then is the future, so it is/n't written. Some tomorrows are maybe yesterdays' correct prediction and if you ever believed man the axis of his own spinning destiny, consider the wisdom of that hedonistic and empathic era known as the 70s --a scant 40 odd years ago, though it seems like it hasn't even happened yet--a time when we were much more collectively decadent and forward-thinking (about some things). Now it's all just a pipe dream, a smoke cloud we let be wrest from our collective lungs at the first wheezy indication of long-term damage. We let the revolution slip through our fingers. We were too hungover to find suitable hip answers to the terror of AIDS, and then the wearying, streaked excesses of home video, and the death of John Lennon (completing a JFK, MLK trifecta) made us realize how ugly the world really is. The low-res saturation that Nigel Kneale predicted in his 1968 BBC mini-series YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS unleashed a televisual level sleaze and violence we'd been too scared to go to the inner city or X-rated cinema to hitherto know existed. We finally saw the dead end of vice, and the sheer number of grisly misogynist titles made us turn away... but not from the screen, from each other.

But before that, innocence let us think we were quite adult, even lewd and bawdy in this safe space called the swinging suburbs (ala Spencer's Gifts). In theaters there had been successful 'head trips' like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1969) showing us mankind itself as a giant brain ever expanding thanks to contact with big black rectangular slab of LSD sent to us by a highly advanced civilization. We were ready for his next stage of evolution, one with free love, Evelyn Wood, EST, ESP, and mood rings to go with the Valium, whiskey sours, wife-swapping at all night drunken block parties, and DoodleArt for all. The 'dark arts' were solely at the drive-ins and city theaters. TV itself was safe for all generations. We though Burt Reynolds using the "S"-word in car chase movies the be-all and end-all of badass subversion.

Everything was coming our way: the 70s offered a future we felt we were already reaching, aspiring to and achieving all at once.

Underneath all that was another element: we sensed back in the late 60s how even the future would eventually look outmoded one day, that commercial space flight would eventually be reduced to a few 'idle' commie intellectuals in the Howard Johnson spaceport lounge on ridiculously modular furniture. But we felt we could afford to admit our own tacky tendency to grow complacent and glazed-eyed without regular visits to the obsidian obelisk. The obelisk would be there, like a parent giving us kicks and threats to get out the door and looking for a job after college.

Yeah, and part of our evolution, according to Timothy Leary, is that our collective intelligence will meet and merge with collective intelligences from other kingdoms, like the kingdom of the insect or of plants (we already had merged with the mushroom). Today we can't imagine giving up the reins on Mother Earth without a lot CGI overkill and Space Marines "going in hot" and that's because we've yet to let go of the individual mind. We succumb to the lure of fascism (or cults) to reach glimpses of the power in letting our will be subsumed in collective oneness. But if we go too far in that direction, our leader turns megalomaniacal, greedy, delusional. The PHASE IV (1974) ants would be six moves ahead of us on that score, their collective hive intelligence seeing through our paltry mammalian herd cross-purpose milling. They'd dominate us: total victory--we wouldn't even be anything as coarse as wiped out. Wiping out itself is--as we learn at the end of the film-- a primitive notion that involves a fixed identity, and what is unfixed cannot be threatened. The unfixed never needs to worry about new kingdoms slithering over to visit and mate; they can dilate to encompass galaxies, or shrink in aperture to infinitesimal abstraction.

Groovy geodesic designs by ants... for ants (PHASE IV)
Recent retrofuturist head trips like the misguided SPACE STATION 76 (2014) and excellent BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010 -covered here), provide the full measure of timeless nostalgia for these times un-past, these nearly-fulfilled ambitions. A hauntological subgenre of electronic-analog music, initially spearheaded by Boards of Canada (see below), and sites like The Scarfolk Council, indicate a longing to return to the less covertly oppressive, more tactile and modular ur-Pagan future promised by the 70s... one where documentaries about The Bermuda Triangle could sell millions of tickets at the theater and no one ever imagined we'd lose that unified sense of an entire planet being ready for things to get weird.

Too bad, then, that SPACE STATION 76 (2014) was so trite I couldn't make it past the first 20 minutes. I kicked it out of my TV after three strikes: 1) the terribly anachronistic use of bad CGI for the space shots, instead of models which could have looked phony but would have been tactile, which is the whole fucking point; 2) wasting the fantasy of a druggy space station fantasia with a lot of anachronistic alienation and angst, as if writer-director Jack Plotnik couldn't visualize the 70s at all (beyond one or two unconvincing cigarettes and a strung out emotionally unavailable caregiver on Valium), relying instead on the cliches made banal from overuse in hack script workshops the world over. When the hot bad boy lights a joint in the garage/hangar for example, he does so with perfectly mussed hair, and rolled-up shirtsleeve, working on his motorcycle, such a useful device on a space station. And only one cigarette going at a time and even that one smoked like the person smoking never smoked a cigarette before, like a mime in an anti-smoking ad; 3) Hopelessly trite and obvious pop music choices, spelling out the mood they're hoping to generate rather than providing any interesting form of contrast or counterpoint (or cool analog synths). ZzzzzAP!

"Welcome to the future of the past" is the film's tag, but this isn't the past or the future-past. It's an idea whose time has come.... and gone, sunk by last minute second guess groupthink, or underthink.

Liv Tyler looks good though, even with a paralyzed upper lip and a mousy reticence utterly at odds with her character's supposed accomplishments as a pilot (but not at odds in the mind of a bad screenwriter using those trite cliches we mentioned). Compared to mighty feminist vanguards like Christina Applegate in ANCHORMAN or Denise Richards in STARSHIP TROOPERS, Tyler's girl pilot asserts no sense of competence or strength. Her polyester uniform is sexy in an offhand way I was glad wasn't overly obvious... it looks genuinely worn, lived-in, rather than, say, a sexy space girl outfit of the sort never worn outside a single slutty Halloween party. Even so, a good costume designer can't save a sinking ship. It's too little too late to care. I clicked it and ejected the silver disc like a character in a 60s Phillip K. Dick novel might.

I know that disqualifies me from a genuine review, so why did I mention it? The future, man. I'll see the rest one day, when I'm less picky about my retrofuturist serio/rom-coms. It does inevitably happen --there is a season, burn burn burn. While we're waiting for that fateful day to be come/gone, to gratify my frustrated retrofuturist jones I returned to a film I've already seen twice, and which just gets better every time, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

RAINBOW is a mad druggie psychologist's 70s dream of a geodesic dome paradise for people who are ready to leave behind petty moral strife, behind even if it means working or being worked on in a cold clinical red Cronenbergian psychiatric ward. In a flashback to 1966, the drugged-out shrink takes some powerful liquid LSD, is reborn, and rips out the jugular vein of his mentor's wife with his teeth.. or... something. Back to the mid-80s, and the rich scientist who set it all up is a shattered junky, his star child daughter a telekinetic Scanner-type kept under protective glass to contain her ability to project thoughts and melt people's brains. The drugged-out shrink delights in tormenting her and talking super slowly in their sessions, each word savored in his speedy mouth for its gorgeous liquid curvature. Does even he know he killed her mom? (more here).

Look close into the green in the blackness at right
Right as I was writing this, Craig T. Nelson behind me said the words "phase four" in relation to the real estate development agency he works for in POLTERGEIST (1981). Is it any coincidence that this PHASE IV is the movie I'm writing about at this very moment? "Reach back and remember when you had an open mind," JoBeth Williams says to him, right before a chair slides across the floor. As I've written, Craig T. Nelson starts the film in the 70s great dad mode--and winds up a closed-down conservative Reagan 80s dad. "Remember when you had an open mind" could apply to our current world as well. I never thought, as a kid in the 70s, that neo-conservatism would ever resurface.

Even so, as a kid in the very early 80s, I wrote a short story about a stoner orgiast grandfather trying to turn his grandchildren onto punk rock and LSD while their parents (his children) preach strict joyless religious/conservative dogma. To me, at the time, such a willing retreat from decadent freedom was unimaginable except as science fiction. I was sure things would get more decadent, and/or stay as they were. In Buenos Aires, for example, which I was in only a few years back, it's still the 70s in a lot of ways--sideburns, jean jackets, big collars, open-heartedness. North Americans down there are considered mighty backwards, violent, and conservative - our pop culture has reflected a descent from the coolness we had back in the decade they still seem to live in.  It's hard not to agree when you compare the breadth of their interests to ours. At coffee my wife and I would discuss Freud and Lacan, Godard, and Dali with her friend who drove a cab and his painter girlfriend.  In America, that would be considered pretentious - we'd discuss The Simpsons and Britney instead.

Though the USA has grown too conservative to advance back into the 70s, there is still analog synth music at our disposal, most of it from the UK, via outfits like the Canadian Board of Education, i.e. Boards of Canada, whose eerie electronic music seeks to capture that late afternoon feeling of woozy instant hauntologique deja vu when we kids absorbed the 70s elementary school-enforced complex lessons of overpopulation, pollution, Saturn, the world of insects and the darkest ocean depths all set to murky analog synth space music. Though the BOC is actually Scottish, no doubt their ingeniously socialized education systems shared film strips and 16mm shorts, as did my own in, in a progressive 70s PA grade school - where my classmates and I saw short sci-fi films on themes like the hole in the ozone layer like THE ARK (1970) constantly, and I've been looking for it for years but can't find this one thing they showed a lot that was so weird I can't find mentioned anywhere: maybe you know it? It's the one where a lone color butterfly invades a depressing black-and-white industrial hellscape, almost initiates a revolution amongst the hazmat-suited workers, and then winds up pinned to the wall above the manager's desk. We saw that film a dozen times over the years! We kids could handle depressing industrial hellscape cautionary metaphors in the 70s, goddamn it. At home, on PBS, we watched things like LATHE OF HEAVEN and STAR MAIDENS. These hazy but profound persona-shaping memories of elementary school 70s films have spawned a whole genre of music, beyond what trail-blazers like Tangerine Dream, Eno, or the BBC Radio Orchestra could have e'er imagined. It's a music so time-specific that a certain generational swath (which includes me) grows hypnotized with a giddily ominous rapturous mix of sadness, dread, and delight --the future as imagined in the past, literally out-of-time, ultra-dimensional, soaring backwards and winding up ahead of itself.


So if England made Scarfolk, Scotland made Boards of Canada, and Canada made RAINBOW, what did we make? Goddamned half-baked overthought de-clawed SPACE STATION 76. Jeeziss. We got to get it to / gether / then.

Luckily, los Estados Unidos rules the actual retro-future. We gave the world SOYLENT GREEN, SILENT RUNNING, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and LOGAN'S RUN, and--now on Netflix streaming (PS - not anymore 6/16) -- PHASE IV (1974), which used to come skittering through the usual after-school creature features on local TV, and had me thinking hyper-intelligent ants besieging a geophasic dome in the middle of the desert sounded pretty cool. But these ants aren't EMPIRE OF THE ANTS or THEM size. They're not giant, and for most of the film's running time we barely see them interact with the humans at all except through basic shapes related via fax machine. They wait until said humans are dead or 'right where the ants want 'em (in a giant hole) before they make their designs known.

Now, as grade school scamp, I saw, up-close, tons of insects, both on nature documentaries and living across the street from a thriving park where every upturned rock delivered unto us kids a vast eye full of struggling worms, pill bugs, centipedes, and spiders. I even had a bug collection for a time, pinned on a cork board, each one labeled, their exoskeletons slowly crumbling onto my desk. Most kids, small and powerless in a strange world of giants, come to depend on tormenting, killing, or capturing, or just cuddling with smaller creatures to feel any sort of power. As kids we relished the chance to feel bigger than something, for a change.

Now though, on the widescreen HD TV, the close-ups look like alien monsters. Now I've put away childish things, taken them back out again, and now left them at some party I lost the address to... and anyway am too embarrassed to retrace my steps and to admit I can't remember which bars I was in where I might have left them. I revisited that Lansdale park a few years ago and the creek was dried up, the trees dying, the park was now just a stretch of crabgrass with a softball diamond. Bugs got zero cachet for me now anyway, and besides DDT took the lot of them. Reality is parched and empty while the screen explodes with HD color. Reality is certainly the wasteland the 70s predicted it would be, and PHASE IV awaits rediscovery. See it!

Nigel Davenport plays an entomologist who has detected disturbing signs in the desert that all the different kinds of ants are working together, and that their natural enemies are all conveniently and mysteriously disappearing. With a big grant he sets off to build a high-tech research station geodome in the middle of the desert, near the disturbances, to find out what's going on and (hopefully) destroy the ants before they wipe out mankind. Recruiting a games-and-theory code breaker from MIT (Michael Murphy) to help him, Davenport hopes to communicate with the collective hive ant intelligence!

The film actually moves very fast, even truncated, like a Reader's Digest abridged novel, moving through a cycle of ideas briskly and intelligently. It's not at all the molasses drip of meaningless I remembered as a kid (though I understand now why I didn't understand it then). It helps to have taken some drugs, grasped some rudimentary structuralist precepts, I guess, in the decades between viewings, and so be able to better understand the psychedelic journey of the end, where the couple come together as the ambassadors of a new insect-commandeered Earth, one no doubt infinitely better managed. In short, 2001: An Ant Farm Odyssey

Theory of film recollection:

Sometimes in close film writing I start to get a thrill from remembering a scene in great depth. The more I write about it, the longer and more powerful the scene becomes, until it begins to change - and I remember elements that--when I see it again--are not there. Lines of dialogue I know clearly in my brain, have changed. Being able to revisit a film over and over while writing about it is something denied film critics until the age of video, but we lost something in gaining that ability. In going back to check whether what we remembered is actually in the film, we drain the essence of myth - the way form and structure change and warp as a kernel of deep truth forges and reforges its molten self. Sometimes though, the DVD version isn't the same film - director's cuts, editing for TV, etc. So sometimes we were right in the first place. How can we know which is which?

Sometimes I get convinced the film been edited, somehow changed with time, or else I was 'on' something at the time and aren't now. The film's presentation might be different - certainly the widescreen and HD makes a huge difference over the old analog square. But after writing and thinking about a film, revisiting it we realize we're the ones who have changed, and memories have accrued around initial impressions until what's there isn't there anymore. That doesn't mean the memories are false, merely that time is. END OF FILM RECOLLECTION THEORY--

PHASE IV is the only feature directed in entirety by Saul Bass, the genius who used geometry and abstract planes to shape animated credit sequences to Hitchcock films like VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. This indirectly makes him the perfect man for a movie about geodesic ant architecture and hive intelligence. The genius of the ants makes a perfect analogy to that kind of animation and design --and the script is masterful at conveying the idea of non-localized intellect, the hive mind. Each ant in itself is not smart, but the hive mind is. Combating a non-localized intelligence is almost impossible. We're forced to consider them as an entire new form of intellect, genuinely superior to ours because they're so self-sacrificing, so devoted to the whole. Davenport sprays the ants with a yellow poison, for example, they die en masse, but then we see ants dying as they relay a chunk of the green-glowing toxin through a long ant tunnel and into the queen's chamber, where she eats some of it and immediately starts to lay immune green-glow-tinted eggs, as if each new ant is born with a booster shot to immunize them to that poison.

Humans simply can't evolve that fast, not sober, not after AIDS, not after the Reagan 80s brought us into crash-and-carry modality, forever more.

LANGUAGE arm uakdfgrgdgum84deij-VIRUS:

'How come giraffes haven't learned to talk by now," we used to ask in class when arguing evolution in class. But now I know how that kind of thinking : Darwin is great, the theory of evolution is just a bitter pill we're afraid to swallow, so we misunderstand on purpose. This is not because we're weak, but because it means language doesn't necessarily make us stronger, so language resists our attempts to expose its limitations. Language, as the ants well know, is a soul-killing virus that slowly strangles our five human senses in favor of abstract symbology. Our dogs and cats look at us with concern, like we're crazy, as we stare at the TV in a state of zombie hypnosis, but they see more than we do of the world; when we're really troubled and ill, they know it before we do and comfort us without a word. Their senses are superior, they smell our souls, and so they get cuter all the time, that's evolution.  If we were animals we would have long ago adapted to our natural world rather than destroying it to the point it conform to the limitations of language, the way a normally free-thinking woman might be hobbled by a restrictive religious patriarchy (i.e. cutting off the fingers to fit the glove). Animals see what language and abstract thinking have done to us and they say 'no thanks, man.' Just say no. The giraffe's evolution involves reaching higher and higher to access more leaves than its neighbor, it has no need of talk. Humans, in our vanity, presume whichever dead-end we hobble down is the one true road out.

Maybe one day our evolution will involve curing ourselves of the curse of language, and we'll merge once more into the cosmic egg, fuse our intelligence to that of our Sky Mother, Shakti Kali Durga, the one without a second. There She is, waiting for us to swim once more into her lighted tunnel womb. And the two of every animals will all be waiting to welcome us when we return, saying "hey man, you finally evolved!" And we'll be like yeah, but what's wrong with you, you got the virus now too? And then we'll all look at each other with warm compound eyes and try not to say another goddamned word. ++


 Further 70s "learning" -

See also from Acidemic:

Tales from The Retroufuturist Pharmacy II: The Metatextual Cigar Edition

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932) + Peg Entwistle, the Ghost under the Hollywoodland Sign

Imagine if Fu Manchu's insidious sadist daughter Fah Lo Suee (Myrna Loy) in the unbelievably racist but very entertaining MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) went off to a girl's finishing school in America, tried to pass as white, pledged a snooty sorority and was "outed" as half-caste by the evil sisters, and forced to leave school in shame. Naturally she would wait ten years or so for her cold-served revenge, wait until they were all ensconced in their respective jobs and luxuries, then slowly and creatively destroy the lives of everyone in the sorority, one at a time, with the power of hypnotic suggestion via her astrologist boyfriend.

Man, I'd love to see that, wouldn't you? And for an hour, we can. Loy, who at the time she was swathed in roles as Asiatic temptresses, plays Ursula Georgi in THIRTEEN WOMEN (from the same year) does just as Fah Lo Suee would, driving to suicide the very same sorority members who got her kicked out through suggestion and rigged horoscopes.

Knowing her justified vengeance is on its way helps we in the audience endure sleep-inducing scenes of some of the titular number of women, who gather on Irene Dunne's Westchester veranda, with its indulged boy child and continual flow of chauffeurs, butlers, and cops, to discuss the spate of recent deaths in their party. Turns out they all had their horoscopes done by a mysterious swami Yogananda (C. Henry Gordon) who's been sending them letters saying the stars predict their deaths! What the swami doesn't know is that Ursula isn't sending them his predictions, all for health and happiness, but her own, predicting death. Yogananda thinks he must be losing his touch when he reads of their demise. Why didn't the stars predict this?
Answer: because the stars didn't predict Ursula would meddle in their cosmic message giving (this leads to all sorts of cosmic questions, i.e. why didn't the stars predict Ursula's changing their message and thus killing the women through the power of suggestion?) 

Dunne's materialist beeyatch will have none of it. But, in the age of rational thinking, the notion you can avoid fate through strenuous college educated denial begins itself to seem like a kind of obstinate 'scientific fundamentalism.' Yet it's smart just the same since clearly belief in these grim horoscopes sent by evil Ursula may just make the deaths happen. In short, even if you know the stars never lie, their interpreter easily can. (Hence my feelings on it are a typical Piscean dichotomy: I don't believe in astrology, but I know it's real.)

To illustrate that point, Dunne's sunny veranda is contrasted with the shadowy eastern mystic exotica apartment shared in NYC by Ursula and the Swami. Schooled in the arts of hypnotic suggestion as per her exotic birthright (she's "half-breed type, half-Hindu, half... Japanese, I don't know..." labels detective Ricardo Cortez), she spends the days and nights toying with his affection to enhance his anxiety about his "skills" at divination.

It's based on a novel by Fortean Society-founder Tiffany Thayer, so you know the astrology and hypnotism involved in THIRTEEN WOMEN aren't dismissed by him as mere poppycock or treated with disrespect. And Tiffany was a dude, so you know he probably got ostracized in school himself. A man named Tiffany no doubt has vengeance on his mind against any number of schoolyard taunters.

Myrna Loy may have been gliding on a semi auto-pilot through a slew of these kind of 'evil Asian' or 'wild half-caste' femme fatale roles as an MGM contract player at the time, but she's still got Loy star power radiating a cool wicked allure and never phones it in. Unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing it's hard not to admire her drive, and secretly be rooting her plans of bloody vengeance to come off, even (or especially) when they include blowing up that 'adorable' moppet of Dunne's. 

It would have been great if they got a real Asian actress, like Anna May Wong, to play the part. Though she may not look caucasian enough to pass, the racism would have some real bite, then, but one understands if not forgives perhaps these pre-code baby steps, and if you love Loy as I do you have a special spot in the dark of your heart for her early Hindu-Asian vamp roles. What she lacks in the warmth and wit of her later persona she makes up for in slow-measured cobra staring. And as a villain she's quite complex--and as her main opponent, the single mom of rich whiteness that is Irene Dunne seems hardly a saint... When Ursula tells her of being raped at the hands of white sailors while a still a child,  Dunne isn't even sympathetic, but merely snaps "You're crazy!" 

But even then, Ursula's racist. She talks of how her "white half' craved the care and respect due her, i.e. she buys into the idea of white superiority, that white people need and deserve extra care and respect not afforded to the more savage non-white races. Telling of her desperation to pass as white she notes that Dunne and her friends "wouldn't let me cross the color line." Hard to believe that so few films even in the pre-code era were so blunt. Imitation of Life, eat your heart out! This chick actually is doing something about it! She's taking matters into her own hands, and getting revenge. And I respect that. There should be more of that kind of thing going around, but producers are always afraid of riots, and Southern distributor boycotts. 

David O'Selznick produced, which may explain part of why the California veranda scenes are so cloying; he loved that stifling flowers and maids nonsense, the kind of thing that reminds me of being bored as a kid. Dunne's star started to rise as the film was being prepared for release, so it seems like the cool murders were cut to make room for her to stretch out on that veranda. At least the veranda is filmed indoors on a set; something about too many outdoor shots depresses me in a film like this. Real daylight should be banned from supernatural-tinged thrillers, though big crowd scenes at train platforms (LA's La Grande doubling for the Hudson Line out of Grand Central) help make the film feel truly A-list. The big train chase finale is train lover catnip!

Alas, even with the Dunne-upping, THIRTEEN WOMEN didn't do very well critically or commercially and still hasn't earned the cult reputation it deserves (in my opinion). Perhaps the well-scrubbed rubes of '32 hated to be reminded that their callous racism was inevitably heading back around to haunt them via the slow, inexorable spin of karma. And men don't like realizing just how easily their hormonal desires can be used against them, i.e. that falling in love with a pretty exotic girl may mean said girl's manipulated them, not that they're irresistible and just found a disposable mistress they don't have to worry about marrying (due to miscegenation laws), that love might be something easily harnessed and co-opted as a weapon (film noir was still a war away) rather than a wondrous magical blah-blah that goes on between two white people, with other races and half-castes free to serve said white people as domestic servants or prostitutes but not to find love themselves unless they die at the end or are otherwise ostracized.

Naturally the forbidden aspect of all this led to a huge craze for DH Lawrence adaptations and other 'miscegenation fantasies.' In these romances,  it's never in doubt that the non-white woman is inferior to the white man she loves; she's crossed a line, dared to love outside her people, and usually has to die in the end (preferably jumping into a volcano to appease the censor Gods ala Bird of Paradise) so the white guy can marry the long-suffering dull-as-dishwater white girl waiting at home.

What makes 13 Women so unique is there's never a doubt that Ursula is superior, mentally and coolness-wise, to every other character in the film. She has the whole male population snowed, including investigator Ricardo Cortez. Her only mistake is in letting her thirst for vengeance cloud her judgment at the very end. But before that, she's a miracle of diabolical cunning: seducing and beguiling every man in a ten mile radius, driving an array of white ladies to murder and suicide using only the power of suggestion, shamelessly trying to kill an innocent child, effortlessly avoiding the police dragnet out for her by shacking up right under their noses in Dunne's gate house, having seduced and moved in with Dunne's chauffeur --it's all pre-code gold. As I've written before, the censors let sexy Asian characters get away with all sorts of kinky madness no white chick would ever be permitted (as long as the people playing them were really white, in make-up --see my award-spurning Skeeved by an Asian).

And so it is that Loy's Ursula goes down swinging, diving onto the tracks in the wake of an onrushing star, head unbowed, even robbing Cortez of the special joy of nabbing her. And once she does, the film ends with nary a shred of follow-up to the white dogs she's left dead or post-traumatically distraught. The star claims her and that's it.

That in itself might make you want to see it again and again, as I have, especially since parts of it are better than Nyqil, which then makes the weird Loy sequences all the more dreamlike as you gaze on them with one eye open, and the great rushing shooting star dissolves into the camera lens and all the stars and victims and treasures are no more. And it's pretty short. 59 minutes. No word exists on why they edited two of the 13 women out --did Selznick think his rube audience couldn't count that high? Maybe Hollywood just couldn't handle that many women at once --too dangerous to the status quo? I can see it now: "Ten's the limit!" Selznick exclaims, "Any more and the South will riot!"

But what happened to one of those cut girls?

Top: Entwistle as Hazel Couisns in THIRTEEN WOMEN (premiere: Sept. 16, 1932);
bottom: Entwistle as herself in NY TIMES (death: Sept. 20, 1932), a victim to Hollywood and the power of suggestion.
That brings me to one of the women--Peg Entwistle. A scene of Entwistle killing her husband after getting a letter from the swami was almost entirely cut out of the film except for the single shot of her standing in their boudoir with a knife, looking down in horror,  her own dire horoscope at her feet by her dead husband, and an overlap dissolve of screaming headlines (above). Was it perhaps a bad reaction to her theatrical performance in a a pre-release screening that led to the rest of her scene/s being cut from the film? Did this acclaimed stage actress ham it up too fiercely, unacquainted with the subtler forms of big screen acting?

Whatever the reason, she was dropped by RKO before the film was even released, and man she fell mighty hard, straight down to the rocks. In other words, distraught over Hollywood's could shoulder snubbing, she leapt, in real life, to her leap atop the Hollywood sign, just a few days after the release of her only film, Thirteen Women-- a film about the power of suggestion, and of the evils of gossip and snap judgments to derail careers, invisible forces that can drive women to murder and/or suicide. The stars never lie, but whomever controls the stars--be they God, Ursula, or RKO--can make whatever celestial adjustments suit their whims.

Who knows why she chose not to stick it out? I won't be coy in my mystic prowess and suggest some life imitates art occultly-foretold fate even when said fate is fiction, but I will venture is that a lot of actors are bi-polar and easily confused when it comes to make believe. Good actors can be enormously susceptible to the emotions of their characters, i.e. their roles bleed into their personal lives, sometimes fatally. In Thirteen Women her character is hypnotized into murdering her husband during a black-out, and this seems to have carried over into reality, as if the missing scenes found a way into her soul, like a kind of self-projection compulsion recreation disorder. We're in the black-out too. It's as if we can only hope some combination film archival sleuth and Montgomery Clift in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER somehow merge together and the repressed memory--that long excised scene of Hazel Cousins stabbing her husband--is at last unearthed in some long buried preview version. Until then, the spirit of Entwistle can have no rest. Her ghost still walks, they say, around the base of the letters, scaring off tourists and whitening the pallor of intrepid ghost hunters.

Clearly Entwistle had issues with this kind of actor-role power of suggestion psychoses going into Hollywood, which may explain why she was such a success doing Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK on Broadway. In that play (hod onto your cigars, my armchair Freuds!) she played Hevig, a sensitive daughter who.... kills herself at the very end. She allegedly was so good she inspired a young Bette Davis to become an actress. Maybe she was too good.

In the end, Hollywood rewards tenacity and gumption. Even terrible films endure forever, so if you're in them, so do you (unless your scenes are all cut).  Nailing the oblique existential pain of Ibsen without a camera present, ala in the theater, ultimately dooms your best work to the void. Hollywood's a tough racket, with a wide audience, where talent and charisma win out, provided you endure with trouper-level patience -- unless somehow they decide to bury you. Loy toiled diligently through a solid decade of vamp roles, stretching from silent to sound eras, waiting for Hollywood to stop saddling her with exotic femme fatales, but she never complained loud enough to earn top brass ire, nor did she blew her Asians off. She tackled each new half-caste or full-caste with sensual relish, and eventually she rose above the typecasting to become the fist cool wife in cinema, Nora Charles. And if Peg had bothered to read her stack of unopened mail in the foyer before taking that long walk up the hill above her bungalow and jumping off the sign, she would have realized she'd been offered Hedvig again in another production of Ibsen's Wild Duck, so her options had far from dried up.

Maybe she's still doing Hedvig out in limbo, caught in an endless loop of life imitating art not wisely but too well.

Here are the last lines of The Wild Duck, after Hedvig has shot herself (my underline):

May I inquire,--what is your destiny?
To be thirteenth at table
The devil it is.

Life imitates art a priori to the art.

In THIRTEEN WOMEN, Ursula implants suggestions into Hazel Cousins' (Entwistle) mind via hypnosis. Hypnosis is a tool for being able to influence the unconscious, and it's this unconscious mind that must be courted and accessed by the conscious self in pursuit of great acting. It's where paranoia is born, and where artistic gold is forged from molten lead of mania, despair, craft and inspiration, sometimes all at once

Without consciously surrendering the reins of ones' being to one's unconscious in some measure, a truly great performance cannot be achieved. That's the heart of 'method' and it can sometimes unhinge actors to the point their offstage personalities change in affinity with their characters. The unconscious doesn't always give back both reins.

Being too good at playing a suicidal woman onstage surely commingled with Entwistle's own genetic depression. Her mind was a pile of kindling responding to nightly Hedvig matches, sparked by Hazel Cousins and all the 'suggestions' of suicide going on around the other characters. Her summary rejection by Hollywood fanned a fire so large that no curtain call or vodka binge could quench it, all while a letter that would have kept her working for another six months at least lay hidden under a stack of unopened mail in the foyer. If that's not a sick sort of unlucky 'thirteenth at table' kind of fate, what is?

The Hollywoodland sign was right above her house; all she had to do was climb.

They took the 'land' part of it down awhile later. Her story, though, is far from done.

People who've snuck over the fence to stand below or near the famous sign sometimes run into her phantom (as seen in PARANORMAL WITNESS.)  Apparently, she leaves the scent of gardenias (her favorite flower) in her gliding eerie path. (See Stephen Wagner's: The Ghost of the Hollywood Sign or the short film and e-book by Hope Anderson.) It's bizarre how that all works: ghosts, scents, power of suggestion, unconscious, art, cinema, color lines, snubbing, fear, depression: LA.

She's become an emblem of Hollywood Babylon to the locals, and to me.

I hope one day we'll find the original preview cut of THIRTEEN WOMEN and finally see Entwistle's full murder scene, so we can judge for ourselves. Maybe then she can finally rest in peace--the heaven escalator take-up reel can roll her under the angelic white light lens and project her onto heaven's screen at last--and what was once just a truncated 60-minute wisp of a film will finally be a decent length and so weird and pre-code violent it can stand up to anything, even the sudsy micromanaging fingers of O'Selznick. Alongside the original pre-code cut of TARZAN ESCAPES and the excised Myrna Loy in her underwear singing her verse of "Mimi" in LOVE ME TONIGHT, this is my biggest 'censored outtake' reel excavation' fantasy. Similar recoveries have already happened to FRANKENSTEIN (the return of the girl being actually tossed into the pond, rather than the old cut right at the moment he starts to reach for her after running out of flowers), BABY FACE (the restoration of "Crush out all sentiment!" in the letter from her Nietzchean mentor instead of the bad faith "you have missed the meaning of my teaching"), and THE BIG SLEEP (here)! Come on and make it happen, please, God of the movies!

Until then,
Peg Entwistle, 
may you find the peace in the endless obsidian scene, find the stardom
denied you in lights
by a cutting room snub
in Los Angeles.

May exhumers of dead reels
undo your scene's cold knifing.
May Tinseltown's fearful fathers
be judged cowards 
for snipping you down to a single scream,
lest you shred with your thousand sharp edges,
the dull leaf Dunne's center holding.

Let the autopsy of your shattered soul restore your role
on Blu-ray
or at least DVR,
but, either way, forever,
so your solo sign vigil might at last be relieved,
gravity reversed, soaring up and up to the top drive-in screen 
of the Forest Lawn.

Let thy night's shrouded woe be shed,
as it flutters o'er LA's orange grid--
like tinsel in the Santa Anna wind
turns to swaddling cloth
for a newfound print.

Bette Davis loves you!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Meta Murderous Surreal Post-Modernism in Under Twelve Minutes: TOO MANY COOKS (Infomercial)

No amount of David Lynch or Eric Andre can compare with or prepare you for TOO MANY COOKS, the recent 4 AM informercial on Cartoon Network once and now existing only on the VHS-ish Youtube pages of intrepid dupers. No matter where you think this bizarrity can go, it goes far farther than a fur-forn farddio brand of beyond the black rainbow farrity, beyond even the swords of photo bomb "Bob of Twin Peaks" giallo and Fun with Real Audio What on Was the Britney old Thinking SNL. See it and understand the cryptic proclamations of the pie Von Trier. See at last how the the need to break free from our programming is so intrinsic to the construct of our identity as to be inseparable from the programming itself, i.e. the minute you break free of your character, your identity dissolves back into project turnaround. It's enough to make better actors go mad but that's televaginal enlightenment: the acceptance of one's eternal actor darkness. Heaven for an actor is just the hell of a sitcom cycle of endless retooling fully surrendered to, letting your ego construct dissolve as the infernal flames of Nielsen-baiting groupthink shark-jumping lick your soul clean for sweeps week, award season, reruns, stalker fans, Buddhist hell, and back again backforth fardidio.

For maximized post-modernist refraction, I'd recommend seeing it on your laptop on the couch, with the TV on pause or slow-motion behind it (on any random channel --as long as it's 'desperately' random). Because when a show is this meta, it just needs one tiny push to make it off the screen and across your living room, like a loping North Korean water ghost, through your ocular cavity and into your brain, your life, your soul, our collective oversoul, and then beyond what's beyond our collective oversoul, and back around to the screen/s in perpetual shrinking /expanding Ourobros double dips forever and ever in echo rerun, on perpetually cheapening channels, so help me, God, our legal team Hunginunga, Hunginunga, Hunginungah and McCormack, and of course the holy trinity: Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear, and Steven Bochco. Sing Amen. We're home. Less.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...