"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From my grave to yours: PENNY DREADFUL (Showtime), FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (El Rey)



Two new horror series are worth checking out, presuming you have the patience, the cajones, and the channels on your cable. The Robert Rodriguez-backed channel El Rey (read my shuddering praise here) launched a month or so ago with the From Dusk til Dawn series, a ten episode-long elaboration of the RR-QT 1999 film, adding the full measure of hallucinations and Tex-Mex flavor and replacing Tarantino in the part of psycho brother Richie Gecko with a much more mesmerizing low key lad named Zane Holz. As Richie's brother and fellow bank robber Seth, D.J. Cotrana diffuses Clooney's terminal charm with hothead overreactions, so now the two feel like real brothers who actually grew up together, rather than the charismatically mismatched Quentin and Clooney, and each has problems the other helps correct, like real siblings. And the queen Mayan reptilian hottie Santanico Pandimonium (Selma Hayek in the original) has a much more integral part with lots of dialogue and empowering femme fatale inscrutability, embodied by Mexican TV actress/pop singing star (and staggering beauty) Eiza Gonzalez. Robert Patrick is the disillusioned preacher, Don Johnson the sheriff, and a cast of handsome Mexican-Americans with either admirable swagger or furrowed brow intensity. The ten part series all occurs over the course of one 24-hour period, from dusk to dawn more or less, which slows things way down with that old tick-tockality and a novelistic attention to detail.

Eiza on the street! 
It all works because it's not that the performances are great, but that they are all of a piece, as is so essential for a good horror to work (i.e. John Carpenter's best), they play it deadpan straight while never overdoing it and driving their ordeals into bummer territory. I mention all that because, in Showtime's new horror series Penny Dreadful, that level of solid team player dynamics vanishes to be replaced with a bunch of breathing exercise-prepared actors all fighting over every syllable like it's their last chance at an Emmy, only dimly aware there's other actors across the dark expanses of the cavernous Victorian era sets.


I'll confess I desperately wanted to love Penny Dreadful, and am a chronic disciple of Eva Green, but the show simultaneously tries too hard and not hard enough. Cramming in all the famous literary characters from the Victorian era's (and earlier) literary mythology, it never seems to know what to do once it starts something, other then send them walking in ornate garments through long tracking shots or into bed for joylessly graphic sex scenes. I'm hoping they rectify the absence of any characters or monsters actually from the real penny dreadfuls, as seen above in my hand-made collage. Instead of the same old Dracula (here a Drac-mummy hybrid) or Jack the Ripper (and no doubt Burke and Hare also soon to shamble forth), or Frankenstein. Where's Spring-Heeled Jack? Wither Varney the VampireJust because Dorian Gray's an immortal bunburying Sadean doesn't make him a monster, just an aesthete. On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned this young fellow playing him, Reeve Carney, has the whole show sowed up in his pocket. While the other characters rant and rave and underplay, Carney's Gray seems genuinely entranced, not in any effusive way but in a delicate, eerily jaded way, and graced with an in-the-moment openness that makes him seem to me one of the few young actors around who seems to understand the importance of seeing as much as being seen and who seems to fully inhale the atmosphere. (the only other one I can think of offhand is Kristen Stewart). Trying to figure out who Carney reminds me of, then it hits me --he could be the son of old Brian Deacon, the young man in the trailer outside the castle in VAMPYRES (1974).


Meanwhile the murky dim brown Victorian London craftsmaship often runs the risk of choking the life out of things (though the darkness can be very very dark, almost 3-D and it seems thrillingly real, like life before electricity was one long SILENCE OF THE LAMBS climax) and the writers are so busy paraphrasing the eloquent flights of 19th century authors that the British thesps run unsupervised over actorly monologues until every line sings with resonant oratory. In other words, it's very gay, in its way, though not in a giddy, delightful Tim Curry or Udo Kier way, more a Sal from Mad Men kind of way. And the handful of characters must play many parts: Eva Green is a vampire hunter who is also a trance medium, easily possessed by demons and departed angry daughters; Timothy Dalton is the Qatermain / Dr. Ven Helsing / Seward who just wants his daughter back;  Mina, the daughter who's already gone to vamp in presumably Dracula arms; Josh Harntett a Wild Bill Hicocky dead shot who may also be Jack the Ripper; a brilliant young Frankenstein is probably going to have to be Jekyll and Hyde later on (his monster doubles as the Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, and The Crow). I have no doubt Drac will turn out to be another hunky British monologuist impeccably attired in elegantly distressed Victorian fashion who says things like "the burden of eternal life wears me down like a slow watch, like the taste of withered dying opium addicts, their narcotic blood crawling time to a standstill...."


Second Episode is a big improvement - it gets more down to a set of reversals and twists and seems less about getting its lighting as painterly and haunted. The purplish blue mist of London coal fog in gorgeous compositions of ships in harbor and snug waterfronts is impressive but the centerpiece Eva Green possession monologue, while a brilliant showcase for a brilliant, nervy performer (her voice sails up and down octaves while her body writhes and contorts and eyes glare with unholy fire) goes on long past our patience or its own effectiveness. AMERICAN HORROR STORY might pick up and abandon story threads like an impatient schoolkid with a box full of monster toys, but it understands momentum as key, and transgression as a locomotive, and above all it doesn't take itself a tenth as seriously. PENNY is so busy covering the period that it doesn't notice a real person squeezed through played by Billie Piper as a de facto heroine streetwalker in that she's coughing up blood like a Poe heroine but doesn't complain and not only that, has large measures of bar whiskey for breakfast with Josh Hartnett, who lounges with ease in the saloon window like he's Eugene Goddamned O'Neill waiting for Hickey.


These kind of character-based critiques don't concern FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, though as Santinico, Eiza Gonzalez is no Eva Green she's got a certain cold allure, even naked but for a golden bronze tan, brown bikini and Aztec shaman blood queen headdress she's always holding her own, in charge, using her body to seduce and ensnare men, to believably conjure ancient Mayan deities, to pit brothers against each other, and she's no ham. Even big tearful farewells or life and death anxieties are nicely underplayed in the American Carpenter-Hawks tradition, rather than being overly underplayed in the British style of PENNY. I wish to god PENNY's writers were up to the challenge, rather than confusing graphic sex and death with what being truly dreadful entails.


POST SCRIPT (6/2/14) - Just saw the fourth Penny Dreadful episode and things are picking up, with a detailed evening at La Grand Guignol that managed to weave together nearly all the disparate threads, as well as a climactic absinthe scene that allows the series' hitherto locked closet door to finally burst open. Can't spoil it of course... 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rise, SORCERER! The lost masterpiece of 1977


It's been a long time on its jungle creep but William Friedkin's much anticipated Blu-ray SORCERER (1977) has emerged into the clearing and into the flaming oil fire of our American hypocrisy. Distance, time, and the the totality of Friedkin's stunning attention to vivid, lived-in widescreen detail are now revealed as the staggeringly beautiful shots they are: the monstrous grins of the trucks moving through the mist like prehistoric alien rhinoceroses, the apocalyptic rainstorms; flooding rivers lifting flimsy bridges up off their moorings as trucks loaded with nitro slowly grind and sway across; crowded Tel Aviv streets rocking from a bomb and the quick soldier reprisal; NYC Catholic priests robbed of vast stashes of money in the backroom of a church during a wedding; a white collar Frenchman ducking out on his wife at a swanky Parisian cafe to avoid prison for embezzlement --each character gets their origin exposition, their reason for escaping to the anonymity and weak extradition practices of some nameless South or Central American one-horse town, and each origin packs enough real  hustle and bustle for a film of their own (such as Friedkin's surreal Cairo dig, the Georgetown protest film set, the real-life NYU hospital spinal tap procedures in EXORCIST). The locals depend on nearby oil pipeline work for survival, so when there's an oil fire at one of the wells, it's up to them to fix it. It's the kind of thing Warner Herzog seems to go for in his own work but sometimes errs on the side of decency, lacking the same insane drive and egotistic bullying needed to smash the world apart in order to capture its plummy essence, which is why he needed Kinski, or a Cage. Friedkin, however, is his own Kinski. We all read EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, so we know the horrifying anecdotes of the film's troubled shoot, with Friedkin harassing the locals and crew in the paranoid, foamy-at-the-mouth way of the coke head rich Anglo filmmaker from the 70s.

Well, all that pain was worth it.

What's most interesting now that its been remastered in gorgeous Blu-ray is the surreal contrast between the hostile nature of these male characters and the deeply human story (which I mean as the opposite of Fordian sentimentality - human as in 'true' human, bestial, full of grudges, fears, greed, and the way cowardice and courage can switch places at random). Taking a page from Peckinpah, these men are dangerous lowdown scoundrels who are, in a sense, the only people around crazy, tough, and desperate enough to handle an almost suicidal task - hauling very unstable explosives through 200 miles of rough dirt roads and jungles to snuff the fire.

There are almost no women in the story - the one who gets actual billing in the cast is Anne Marie-Deschodt as the Frenchman's rich wife. As a counterpoint commentary to Clouzot's female character in the original (played by Clouzot's then-wife Véra), an elderly barkeep in Friedkin's version never speaks. It all works because this is a movie that is not about desire, but survival. No time for soft stuff.  It's like THE THING or THE GREY, i.e. no women! It's not a movie for flowers and song, it's about struggling through the mud, man. It's about the kind of men who are, as we learn in Hollywood, the nasty necessity of the western world. I like it way better than Clouzot's original, wherein I never really felt anything was at stake. I had to take their word for it, and I didn't trust or like them. But who doesn't love Scheider? Point them out and I will snuff them like an oil fire! And now, on a big screen with a booming stereo you can feel Friedkin's trucks in your coccyx.


The Tangerine Dream SORCERER score has been some of my favorite soundtrack for awhile, long before seeing the movie. It's like if John Carpenter and Klaus Schulze got together for the score of THERE WILL BE BLOOD; it never micro-manages our emotional state, the way, say, John Williams or Howard Shore do with their flourishing orchestras, the pulsating amniotic eerie music just sets the chilly, nerve-shredding tone and as such is ahead of its time, at least for Hollywood. In its moody percolating contrasts and mystical ominousness, the score never tells us what to feel, it just gives us a way to mystically transfer this rainy wet misery we see onscreen into an atmospheric alien buzz.

I remember this film when it came out in 1977, around the same time as STAR WARS. Naturally we kids thought, based on the title, it might involve wizards, aliens and armies of the dead and so forth - and instead, what, trucks? Good lord, that's false advertising! No wonder it bombed. But now that ignition is thrown in reverse. We're sick to death of wizards, and alien landscapes can be found right here on earth, caked in rain and mud. All they need are the right music, the right drugs, and a crazy coked-up son of a bitch like Friedkin at the wheel.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Collage Portrait of Melanie Daniels + Pre-Raphaelite Portrait of Famke Janssen

Melanie Daniels in the throes of Laudanum
2014 - collage with pre-raphaelite elements by Erich Kuersten 
Decadence Lost
(Collage-Surrealist-Portrait of Famke Jannsen in GoldenEye watching Eyes Wide Shut
post pre-raphaelite exhibition party). - by Erich Kuersten
Melanie Daniels - first layers (ed. XXIV)
Kristen Stewart finds her place in horror (Acidemic Special Issue BXV)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Age of Asherah: ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)


"The creepy nature of the film is not in its special effects, but in its realistic premise. The story takes place in a real apartment building (the Dakota) that has a real reputation of attracting eccentric elements of New York’s high society. The evil coven is not composed of stereotypical, pointy-nose witches but of friendly neighbors, prestigious doctors and distinguished individuals. They are elegant, rational and intelligent and are connected to important people. The realism of the movie forces the viewers to ponder on the existence of such groups, to a point that some feared that the movie, after its release would cause an all-out witch hunt" --Vigilante Citizen
“This is no dream, this is really happening!” - Rosemary Woodhouse
The first film perhaps ever to exploit our deep dread of, old folks, 1968's Rosemary's Baby gazes deep and diabolically into the murky waters wherefrom skeletal hands of grandparents reach up to pat their captive breeders' kicking bellies, the waters wherefrom crawl real life abominations like the 2012 male-only hearing on women's reproductive freedom and the stoning to death of women whose hair is accidentally exposed at fundamentalist Muslim markets. At a certain depth, Christianity and Satanism become indistinguishable, especially once Asherah--Mrs. God, Yaweh's female counterpart--is excised from the Old Testament and patriarchy squashes women's rights as if in terror of them. A million witch burnings later and who can blame the devil worshippers for being so well-hidden from the public eye?  To the persecuted Asherah-worshipper, Christianity is as the KKK is to African-Americans, or Nazis to the Jews, and proof that if you go too far in any direction you become your own opposite. 

A typical early Christian demolishing an Asherah pole (by Dakota O'Leary)
So for a perspective high enough, let us rise out from that murky water into modern 1968, a key point, if there ever was one, for Asherah to cautiously lift her head above the murk of sleep and look around. In Polanski's work comes the super-paranoid feeling Asherah has been worshipped all the while, but we've been left out of some shared secret; Mrs. God has become a vengeful Medea --and who can blame Her? This feeling of being excluded from a dark secret taps into the unconscious memory of when we were children and any "sh-the adults are talking" moments seemed fraught with mystery. And we were too small and powerless to fight back against even the wussiest adult or older kid, and we could sense evil around us always, parents were our only protection. If they betrayed us, we were doomed.

Since we see the entirety of the film from Rosemary's point of view, we know that she is treated like a child, never privy to what's going on. Her husband doesn't even think she has a right to know to whom he has sold her womb. We have to guess, just as she does, until the very end, where babies really come from. The entirety of the film is absent direct visualization of any devil practices (the paintings at the Castavets are removed when Rosemary comes over), as if they only occur in a weird dream-alternate reality. Strangely enough, that paranoid hallucination conspiracy angle was jettisoned for most of Rosemary's imitators, to be replaced by external signifiers like robes, horns, pentagrams, possession, smoke and mirrors and screaming naked virgins. The imitators got the surface iconography right but missed the paranoiac angle, 1974's The Exorcist included, and above all missed the idea that if devil worship seems evil, remember all things are relative, and the devil's minions have a long way to go before they equal anything close to the Spanish Inquisition. 


Polanski knew to never show such iconography or mindless externalized malice, and even the "this is really happening" dream sequence is kept surreal and strange. Polanski knew a Satanist with a gentle smile and a natty bow-tie and no real malice in his eyes could be far scarier than one that 'looked' scary, i.e. with a goat horn cowl and black cloak sacrificing virgins on an altar. We never allowed (never old enough?) to see Rosemary's unholy baby, or the molesting devil (a hand and yellow eyes aside); the old people chanting around her in the dream are naked, no robes, and no horns or forked tail (a motif repeated with the witches in Polanski's Macbeth) can compare in uncanny dead to the mystery and horror of the human reproductive system, or a flock of naked old folks standing around your bed while you're writhing in a drugged stupor.

If you know this blog you know I've had my own drugged demon visitations (see here) -- I believe the boundary line between the real and the vividly imagined is traversable in ways our minds as yet cannot consciously grasp, but who knows if certain ancient cults haven't figured out how to do just that, to creep in through the basement of our psyches?

For instance just last night on Late Night with Craig Ferguson he was talking with an author about how characters sometimes break away from you when you're writing them - they show up in places and do things you don't consciously expect as you're writing - as if they notice you writing about them; I had that happen to me writing my first novel wherein my character realizes some people he met the other night at a coke party are Yaqui crow trickster shamen, and right at that moment I could feel real Yaqui crow trickster shamen sensing me writing about them, and they began to begin to stir in their far-off nests, sending psychic representations forth through the gossamer tubeways of thought to climb out of the page to get me, like they could blind me or destroy me with their unified field of chant just as the coven had done to Tony Curtis in RB. 

But there's more to the story of Rosemary's Baby than just combined creative unconscious drives commingling to blind God long enough that a dream lover spawn might sneak across the uterine expanse of Mother Gaia unburnt-at-stake dimensional dividers (after all, souls of even non-devil babies have to come from somewhere)


It wasn't just Polanski's film and his wasn't the only life it allegedly destroyed. It had as a producer the legendary master of ballyhoo, William Castle, and by 1968 his gimmicks weren't cool anymore; he needed to go deep, as the Castavet cult does in the film, to stop with the cardboard horns and skeletons and go right for the unconscious, the power of paranoia. I'm not saying, mind you, that he made up a Macbeth-style curse hanging over the film's production, that his linking of strange on-set accidents and tragedies to the film's subject matter was straight up Castle ballyhoo in a new bottle. But if he did do that, then maybe the unconscious trickster shamen of alternate dimensions noticed him weaving a paranoid associative rumor nexus for Rosemary's ballyhoo and sent their Satanic kidney stone calling card across the gossamer web that connects myth, dream, mind, soul, and nerve endings... to 'help' as it were. We attribute a lot of recovered Satanic abuse memories to False Memory Syndrome today--but which came first? If a cult uses hypnosis to mask its presence in a victim's life, and then the memories are recovered via a clinical hypnotist later on, who's to say which is the cover memory, which is the reality?

David Parkinson writes about the hate mail Castle received for the film, the curses leveled at him, and how composer Krystof Komeda and Castle were both struck down with crippling, painful ailments shortly after the film premiered, and then the murder Polanski's real-life wife Sharon Tate (who co-starred in Eye of the Devil, see: The Blonde Devils of '66,) and the untimely womb ripping of their child; he omits the eerie similarity to the violation of Rosemary in the film and Polanski's own rape charges, to end with a link to John Lennon's death in 1980:
John Lennon had spent the spring of 1968 with Mia Farrow at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India. During their stay, Lennon had written "Dear Prudence" for Farrow's sister (who shared a name with Sharon Tate's Yorkshire terrier) and it featured on The Beatles' White Album that November. Charles Manson claimed that the LP contained coded messages about the impending race war he hoped to provoke with the Cielo Drive slayings. Lennon himself met a violent end in December 1980 when he was gunned down in New York — outside the Dakota apartments." (more) 
For Polanski, a child survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, the coven aspect of Levin's novel surely tapped into the paranoia of his childhood hardship. Part of the Nazi's rationale for their homicidal anti-Semitism was that Jews were a mystical black magic Protocols of the Elders of Zion cabal, and just as educated women had to lay low for centuries lest they be burned at stake, so too this feeling of a secret conspiracy lingered in the Jewish intellectual community, creating separateness, enforced perhaps by Aryan rivals for Jewish business (or property disputes--as in Salem), or disgruntled employees getting passed over for promotion in favor of some kid fresh out of Yeshiva school, or ghettoization (as in Merchant of Venice), or your learning your Jewish fiancee was being pressured not to marry you by the mother of one of your Jewish friends. Which came first? The secrecy and elitism, or the goy intolerance? The shit goes way back, the sluggish slouching of Christianity from oppressed to oppressor, past Moses, past Asherah.... deeper... deeeper... getting... sleepy... sleepy....

This works on a macro level too: in America we can't imagine what it's like to be invaded, to have an openly evil and oppressive system turn human compassion and morality upside down, to obliterate all traces of rhyme and reason, to be persecuted for something we didn't even have a say in. But for Polanski this is a formative experience. He knows all we see and hear of 'reality' is only the tip of a black iceberg. Behind closed doors, who knows what monsters still dwell, working spells and deals to ensure they win all the marbles before the game is even started? If we knew those spells, wouldn't we use them, too? Didn't we, in a way, already? 

In the 1930s, America was the unquestioned benefactor of German intolerance, as all of Europe's intellectual Jews, gays, physicists, artists, and filmmakers fled to our shores, bringing their strange occult customs, their atomic bomb formulas and expressionistic lighting designs.

But after the war, America turned away from seances and toward atomic age anxiety, lots of giant bugs and rockets to the moon. The suburbs were born, a place where junior could play catch in the back yard and old people with rakes smiled from cross the street. Occasionally a dad could go insane (as in Nicolas Ray's Bigger than Life) or kids could grow up into spoiled brats (as in Douglas Sirk's All that Heaven Allows), but childbirth was holy and the country club was 'restricted.' Babies, housewives, and old people could never be, you know, evil. We'd taken steps to esnsure they weren't, steps so drastic as to nearly emulate the foreign intolerance we'd just destroyed.

A few exceptions came and went. There was The Bad Seed, and a spate of crazy old broad movies launched by the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But Jane and Rhoda were psychotic, flash-frozen before their brains developed an empathetic response --we knew this from the get-go. But what about the sane, gentle sweethearts bringing you vitamin shakes to help your pregnancy, or the 'no arguments young lady' condescension of top shelf pediatricians played by stalwart salts like Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein who tells Rosemary "And please don't read books. Don't listen to your friends either." Sapirstein could be espousing the Muslin fundamentalist sexist line, or America's before the dawn of the sixties. He might as well add "and please don't vote or wear slacks." Rosemary's only form of revolt against this trap is her short hair-cut, which to Guy is tantamount to her drawing on the wall in crayon, or otherwise defacing his property.


In conveying Rosemary's gradual awakening from compliance ("you're gonna think I really flipped,") Polanski exploits our willingness to grant power to unseen forces, and thus allows us to see the link between paranoia and pregnancy, and how the patriarchal condescension in the big city can completely dominate even a free spirited young woman from Iowa whose determination to be hip is both her saving grace and undoing. Taken in total, her story has devils of both the psychoanalytical interpretation variety (paranoia brought on by hormonal surges due to pregnancy) and the physical arrival, up from the subconscious realm, of a devil ("Hail Satan!"), in other words, Rosemary's Baby is the opposite of a film like Inception - which is a story about people invading other people's dreams. Baby is about a dream incarnated into living tissue.

When we sense something is being kept from us, whatever it is gains in power as our fears project onto it and projection is exactly how the coven operates: they chant together and use combined mind projection to astral travel along an associative nine-dimensional curve via an item belonging to the victim into that victim's nervous system. This is the same 'reality' that paranoid schizophrenics and remote viewing agents live in; it's an ocean wherein all dreamers are linked together, are as fish, surfers, sailors, drowners, whales, or dolphins, in a matrix of nonlocal consciousness. The Satanist sails on the surface (hence Rosemary's dream of being on a boat and seduced by a navy man, like Nicole Kidman's fantasy in Eyes Wide Shut - see Make-Up Your Mind Control); the psychedelic shamans surf until they're wiped out; unconscious dreamers bob in the waves; and the schizophrenics drown. Rosemary's dream begins on the ship and winds up bobbing, then sinking, before clawing her way back to land (finding the secret passage between the apartments). In the end she joins with the cult because her maternal instinct is too strong to resist. "What have you done to its eyes?!" she asks, horrified. "He has his father's eyes," Castavet answers. And its the eyes of Guy's rival for his coveted part that are affected by the telepathic sabotage of the coven.


It's interesting to note that in both Rosemary and the Exorcist there is a mother alone with her child and an absentee father (since the devil only shows up in her vision), and a kindly old friend who dies in mysterious circumstances. The males are all either dysfunctional, absent, or very old and full of strange oaths and bearded like the bard. Is God Dead? so trumpets Time Magazine!


The last proper dad we see in the film, played by Maurice Evens, is the proper authority figure of the old school of monster movies, the enlightening scientist, or in the Hammer films, the merry fire-toasted Van Helsing type, outlying some grim history: "Adrian Marcata lived there, so did the Trent sisters." It turns out of course that Marcata / Mocata, it's all the same old man in the painting above the Castavet's mantle. The name Adrian Marcata should of course remind Hammer fans of The Devil Rides Out and its villain Bob Adrian Mocata, played by Charles Gray (below left), which came out the exact same year but, compared the resonant contemporary realism of Polanski's film, seems to be from a much earlier era. Even Rosemary's utterance "Hey, let's make love," while they're eating dinner on the floor in their empty apartment, is straight out of the 70s, while in Devil Christopher Lee is throwing magic beans at giant spiders.

Mocata, Marcata
The first time we see Roman Castavet AKA Steven Marcata, he's wearing a Satanic dark red velour shit that contrasts sharply (especially in the recent brilliant hi-def version) with the dark surroundings. The first time we see him he's off by himself, seated in a big chair far enough away from the couch whereon Rosemary, Guy, and Minnie are squeezed together to indicate his mastery over them, as if he's on stage, and just his talk about having been all around, every town on earth, makes him seem ageless, omnipresent; his ability to seem familiar with Guy's work is standard suggestive manipulation ala fortune tellers at the carnival.

The cynical self-serving unconscious bluster of Guy is apparently sensed by the Castavets, which is why he's brought in to their fold and not Rosemary. They sense in her a deep goodness that he--self serving prick that he is--lacks. When the news announces "Pope Paul VI arrived at 9:47 AM" - he excitedly shouts, "that's a great spot for my Yamaha commercial!" as if as a paltry actor he has some say in media buying. We later hear some of his true vitriol come out while he's rehearsing with his crutch, shouting the line "I'm in love with no one, especially not your goddamned fat wife!" as if anticipating Rosemary's swollen belly. He would almost be forgiven just because he's so bad at hiding things. Some actor, he can't even act the part of a concerned doting husband convincingly. It's a part that also shows Cassavettes' limits as an artist and actor: he was always better playing a charmless swine who genuinely thought we were all awed by his wormy charisma and Polanski nails all that down around Guy so all Cassavettes can do is squirm and pace the room and seem utterly confused by the fact that Rosemary's not charmed into submission by his patronizing grin.

Coming as it does so buried within the more 'normal' surfaces of Polanski's mise-en-scene, the lengthy dream sequence centerpiece to the film is a benchmark in how such sequences can enhance the story rather than diminish it. Most films' dream sequences are cop-outs, places to dump the sexy weird shots or artsy ideas that don't fit the story but which the producers want so they can use them in the poster and coming attractions. Only great surrealists like David Lynch or Luis Bunuel understand that dreams are the real part, it's life that's the artsy diversion. When Rosemary momentarily comes out of her trance to note that "this is really happening" it's terrifying because we can't really fathom which parts of what we see and hear are the dreams and which are reality. Polanski knows the power of the mind and the flexible nature of space and time and that in these areas lurk real horrors. The blue laser eyes and telekinetic devil children of later films are just the opposite, which is not necessarily bad. In externalizing and literalizing the threat, we can laugh at our own fears and so in some small way, allay them, But with no monster in sight, no matter how far we look, and no 'seen murders' (no blood), there's actually a crisper sense of dread in Rosemary. Of all the horror films of the last 20 years, only The Blair Witch Project has fully exploited this murky power. 

"This is no dream..." 

The conspiracy theories of authors like David Icke, re: the Illuminati and Zionist banking cabals, work on a similar level to these terrifying ambiguous dreams, all suffused with strange symbols and meanings that tend to make one slightly insane if they get too into it. Irregardless of its authenticity, the Illuminati-Zionist-Rothschild banking conspiracy is vibrant, fascinating myth, operating between truth and fiction, allowing us to see through reality until it dissolves into a a series of stages, mirror reflections, or stereograms. As Peter Tork once said: "the mind can't distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined." He said that in HEAD, also from 1968. And the reverse is also true - the mind cannot conceive of itself as an unfractured whole except through a projected hallucination, and what's the difference between a graphic artist working with a computer to create a hidden 3D pattern in a stereogram and a shaman chanting a spirit into existence? And this is the power and importance of ritual initiation ceremonies in indigenous tribes (and why Satanists and CIA brainwashers allegedly use inflicted trauma to create dissociative states and split personalities in their subjects). I myself noticed this with the one instance of prolonged unbearable pain in my life, which was when I dislocated my knee cap on the Bellevue dramatic therapy stage. The extreme sensory pain launched my perspective into a split distance, on the one side me in agony, screaming, on the other me standing slightly back, impassive, the white hot pain in a sense knocking me into both a contemplative serenity as if I'd left my body behind to sort itself out. The later shot of morphine at the hospital brought me deeper into that calm detachment, and I knew it was no coincidence I'd been conducting a group therapy AA meeting on the importance of telling doctors you're an addict so they don't give you opiates earlier that very day.

I didn't say a fucking word to that doctor, and when I heard the word morphine my blood surged in excitement. 

The breathing exercises of Lamaze also tap into this, as well as Stockholm syndrome: the agony of childbirth shifts the consciousness of a woman into that of a mother; the pain of ritual initiation-- torture for boys becoming men; menstruation for girls; hazing for frat guys; one's first beer funnel --it all coincides with the journey from mythic third eye visualization, 'the becoming', the five senses perceiving 'the becomed' sixth in a kind of recoil motion, vomiting the soul up into the mythic outsider "observer" position, the subject moving from being an honored child guest, kept out of the adult swim, to being initiated into a cosmic truth too ambivalent and full of surface hostility and danger (such as Christian persecution) for children and innocent Iowa girls to grasp unaccompanied.

Most devil movies end with the coven being swallowed up in flames (ala Suspiria, Inferno, The Devil's Rain, Ride with the Devil, etc.) which is why the burning church painting Rosemary finds when she finally breaks through the hidden door into the Castavet's apartment is so wry (and which she recognizes from when it was "really happening" below decks in her dream). There are no flames for the devils, the fiery climax is frozen in amber and it's the Christian church that burns down, but safely contained in an oil painting on the wall of the devil's domicile (top) or in the past, or in the collective subconscious (where Rosemary saw it). When Marcata declares that God is dead you feel that he just might be right, since He can hardly have been said to help the poor girl. At any rate, the party Rosemary bursts in on is, after all, hardly the typical cliched evil power mongers. They're eccentrics - they're funny - such as the miffed old lady trying to rock the cradle, and the weird guy from Japan. In finally solving the mystery, Rosemary doesn't trigger the usual inferno that burns down the devil's house in all the Corman Poe films, she just realizes God's church is already burned down, metaphysically, in reality, and in memory. Enlightenment isn't always a matter of restoring patriarchal supremacy, or conquering evil on behalf of good, it can also be about finally telling your husband to fuck off, and recognizing no amount of negativity has ever killed a devil yet. But slowly rocking it back to sleep, with a loving, forgiving gaze? Momma, that's murder. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Texas Time Out... for EL REY - Roberto Rodriguez' gonzo new cable channel


If you have cable, and love cool shit, you must seek out the EL REY network (if you have Time Warner, its channel 797, at least in Brooklyn). The man who gave the world some of my favorite post-modern grindhouse epics - including PLANET TERROR is behind it, Roberto Rodriguez. The big series being launched is a TV version of FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, which has a great pace, spreading the events of one night into the entire season, with hallucinations, ancient curses, Spanish conquistador heritage, reptillian blood lines, Mayan sacrifice, a snake cult hierarchy that connects forever CURSE OF THE SNAKE WOMAN to the writing of David Icke and even a dash of inverted SNOW WHITE and the poster art below is beguiling as is the actress in the much more fleshed-out role of Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza González Reyna), the queen of the whatever (dig the subliminal resemblance of her neck blood to some ornate Aztec queen frill color - but also the way it looks like rather than blood drippings, it looks like flesh colored paint is dripping down her blood-colored neck). A second season is in the works, and it's all just the beginning for El Rey, which has channel ads that are smash cut vintage grindhouse images all layered with celluloid stresses, lines, cigarette burns, emulsion scratches, and bright, flashy colors. Between this channel and the Alamo Drafthouse, Texas is officially becoming the last bastion of the drive-in.


One of my pet fantasies is having my own cable channel, wherein I could just show all my favorite stuff, and I love that one man, whose taste in trash is impeccable, basically has such control over a channel, so we have cherry-picked shit stretching back to the 70s through to now: reruns of STARSKY AND HUTCH, X-FILES, and DARK ANGEL to name a few (he's tight with the hot Latina American goddess Jessica Alba, and fellow indie auteur Cameron, presumably). Not that I'm a fan of all them, but look at the overarching theme - badassitude!


For example, right as I write this he's interviewing Carpenter, showing some of the best of his early stuff (not HALLOWEEN or THE THING interestingly): THE FOG, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Damn right. I can hardly wait to see who's next! His choices for Grinhouse Fridays show a definite familiarity with the good stuff vs. the dross: NIGHT OF THE COMET, SHAFT, HEAVY METAL, FROM BEYOND, DAY OF THE DEAD... the kind of cherry picked greatness only one familiar with the genre would know, and one with a keen eye would appreciate. In short, it's a fan's dream. Then there's the kung fu, shown in English but with quality sound effects and dub jobs, which somehow makes it all right, especially as they're all in widescreen, from the Dragon Dynasty versions released by Miramax a few years ago, shit like FIVE ELEMENTS NINJAS and EIGHT-DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER. Again, it's the fan's eye view. But it's clear that like me Rodriguez is a Hawksian to his core. HAWKSIAN!

My new hero, the 21st century's JC


What's been so strange is the way the press junkets Rodriguez has been on focus the channel's name and 'Hispanic' or 'Latino' aspect, as if the show's Telemundo or something. It's in goddamned English, and its Mexican-American aspect exists only via Roberto's chosen filmic locations and the multi-racial, Tex-Mex-American slant of el casto. It's way off the mark, this is simply a cool channel, reflecting--which is rare even in our allegedly post-racist age--an accurate depiction of America. With programming that reflects what Rodriguez would put on when his drinking buddies come over for a party weekend. The channel's still pretty young --the advertising is mostly junk like those scrunchy hoses, Flex-Seal, and Rosetta Stone, but I couldn't be more excited for this gonzo channel's future, or devoted to the great Robert Rodriguez for this ambitious move. And I've never been happier to see car commercials, the first sign El Rey rides... to victory!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Not with a Wimp but a Banger: KICK-ASS 2, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, ENDER'S GAME



Look deep into the screen, my children. Any screen, all screens --this is your new reality: screens in the classroom -- a big one instead of a blackboard, a laptop on your desk, the phone on which you secretly watch movies with a well-concealed earbud instead of watching the screen your teacher is pointing at; screens on the way home on the bus (your phone) or car (DVD player above the dash); screens at home, the big flatscreen in the living room, the small one in your room, your laptop and phone still flickering as well... wake, and repeat. How many more minutes of life can the screen co-opt? There aren't any left. 

With their action figure and video game readiness, their graphic novel and teenage sci fi novel roots, a batch of films recently regurgitated up onto Blu-ray and prove, to my 'grown-up' eyes, to be great examples of what Guy Debord called recuperation, which is to say using the trappings of subversion in service of the institutions you're subverting (i.e. the Che Guevara emblem used on a Budweiser label: "Viva l'revolution... responsibly.") I saw them all over the weekend so I feel, however falsely, plugged into product placement pulse of teen fantasy nerd America and all the synergy and branding that implies! Piggyback on, Jackie! Wonder Twin Powers Activate! Form of Coors Lite Ice! 
---------

KICK-ASS 2 (2013) nearly drowns here and there in coming-of-age platitudes about being yourself and collecting 'wherever outlaws rule the west' merit badges come sailing down the Donkey Kong ladders of your life, but if that justifies dressing up in goofy costumes and sticking your pretty face harm's way in the name of a safe America, then Yog Soggoth blessings on you, the both, because if like me you loathe the bloodless PG endless ammo expenditure and zero body count of the old A-TEAM show (or T2's "Casualties Zero"), then its very realistic damage done to property, life, and limb makes KICK-ASS a priceless precious thing, as gleeful in its sociopathy as Wendy Kroy or Mr. Blonde.

Christopher "McLovin" Mintz-Plasse is the supervillain again, hiring cop-killing badasses from the dregs of his late father's mob business to kill, pummel, strangle, gut and maul Kick-Ass and all his friends and family. Meanwhile witless cop Morris Chestnut doesn't want his orphaned ward Hit Girl (the still-glorious Chloe Grace Moretz) doing any more killing. He wants her to experience the 'beauty' of a childhood (where the hell did he grow up?) I kept praying Chestnut was one of the cops to be killed during the massive slaughter inflicted by 'Mother Russia' - a gigantic female ex-KGB assassin, just so Hit Girl could get out from under his buzzkill sanctimony. But noooo.


That's the real lesson here: just because you promise something to an adult doesn't mean you have to deliver on it. And don't hide anything in your room. Searching your kid's drawers for drugs seems to be the in thing these days. Kids acting weird? Search the drawers. So hide your drugs outside your window, on a string, like Don Birnim's bottle in THE LOST WEEKEND!

Complain all you want, and some have, even co-star Jim Carey (I think he took his kids to the premiere, and was shocked at all the beheading), but to me the film's absurdist brutality-- its gleefully 'real' cartoon violence-- is a long sigh of relief after an eternity of teen-friendly action movie hypocrisy. That said, the romantic / sexual elements are sexist and cliche'd. Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) has a great midriff but she's subjected to a strange rape gag which I did not care for. I also don't like that Carey's character would be so stupid as to crate his attack dog upon realizing he's under attack. Someone breaks in your house you don't lock up your attack dog! Schwontz, indeed!


But the rest of it is sublimely subversive, whether in a deliberate STARSHIP TROOPERS crypto-fascist way or just unconsciously doesn't matter. With Hit Girl + her awesome vampire in LET ME IN and as Jack's nemesis Callie Hooper in the much-missed 30 ROCK, Chloe Grace Moretz is the promise of Angelina Jolie's Lisa in GIRL INTERRUPTED fulfilled. She's not squeamish about ripping someone's throat out with her teeth. Viva la revolution... irresponsibly, as Thanatos intends!


Speaking of revolution, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013) isn't fun or romantic or at all pleasant, but after a grueling angry week of work (or school) it's certainly cathartic. Snide observers might dismiss Katniss' (Jennifer Lawrence) as just another morose girl who likes hunky boys to fight over her, and who prefers the company of guys which paraphrase the Lady Eve's ideal husband as a man who'll be shorter than her, "so he can look up to me, so I can be his ideal" - but we barely explore that by-now dulled triangle (except as an oblique analogy to Hollywood's lavender marriages) instead Katniss frets over little Josh Hutcherson like a neurotic hen; he's coddled and protected like the uncooked egg the health teacher makes you carry around for a week, you know, so you don't want the responsibility of a real baby. Instead the film nails down the nerve-shredding implications of the 24/7 media coverage: celebrity hinges on survival and failure to smile with casual joie de vivre when cameras are present, and convincingly be in love with some designated shorty ensures your family is killed and your village fire-bombed.

The concept is ingenious, because HUNGER GAMES is a cottage industry at its own throat, equating its dystopia with the ceaseless flash of paparazzi, make-up chairs, TV promo circuits, award shows, and red carpet press sound byte droppings that is the grueling regimen of our modern starlets. I can only think of three other films to explore this troubling element of pop culture in any relevant way: THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY (1969)- here), 1990's A HANDMAID'S TALE, and BATTLE ROYALE (2000).


Perhaps to metatextualize these implications, Jennifer Lawrence spends most of the movie caked in enough bronzer to weigh down three Cleopatras on a death march backwards through the uncanny valley. Her glum face beneath this load would be too much to bear without some of her old spark, so thank god Jena Malone shows up, the Night Bitch if you will, from one of the other districts. Malone looks great in her black and silver uniform, or naked in an elevator, or spattered in blood, stealing her scenes while JL's Katniss mopes eternal.

All the old cast is back as well, including Donald Sutherland as the evil emperor whose refusal to grasp even the most basic tenets of social psychology makes his tenure as leader the most unrealistic thing about the film, since he genuinely believes he can quell a revolution by publicly executing and flogging anyone who makes a Girl Scout sign. A man whose reign hinges on TV propaganda should know enough to mass produce that verboten mockingjay as keychains, T-shirts and bumper stickers, and have his Stanley Tucci greet the TV audience with it (in short, comrade, to employ recuperation), the way MTV has done to every underground music movement since its inception. Draconian brutality never works in quelling revolution --it all but ensures it. You can't put out a spark by setting it on fire. And so Sutherland's preference for bloodthirsty draconian brutality is off-kilter, as if he's trying to throw us off the scent of the film's own ingenious use of recuperation by showing his own obliviousness towards such a practice, for I have no doubt those 'mockingjay' pendants are on sale just a few stores down from the multiplex at Forever 21, but if the evil emperor endorses them to help pacify the gum-chewing masses, real-time sales might drop. They mustn't get wise, these kids. A happy consumer is an unconscious consumer, even if what's being consumed is the notion of the waking the fuck up.


Other signifiers are probably not going to be sold at the multiplex, such as the garish fashions worn by the hoi poloi, thank god. With their frills and pouffiness drawing obvious parallels to both the Reagan 80s and the French Revolution, the series offers enough hammering on the dividing wall between the champagne and canapés of the sophistos up top and the peasants starving and flogged below to make even D.W. Griffith's ORPHANS OF THE STORM seems subtle. That said, there are moments when Elizabeth Banks as the agent-PR maven looks mad hot in her gold and this go-round she gets a few scenes to act other than as a shrill mouthpiece for plot exposition.


Then there's a rare treat lacking in the other films discussed here: a genuine drunk hip older dude, one of the few 'understandable' adult characters in this or any of the series currently marketing themselves to teens: Woody Harrelson. Advising Katniss how to blend in, make friends, and learn to think outside her box, he also eats when food is offered and gamely drinks this wretched dystopia out of focus, freeing himself for better things than validating Katniss' useless sulking and refusing all offered goodies. Another priceless factor is the bizarro twist of having to imagine spending all your time with the dude you don't like yet must pretend to love, and he's shorter than you, and his being so sweet and staid and supportive only makes it worse. That tweens are swooning for him only shows there's still hope for short, staid guys and hope is a dangerous thing. 


(check out this great paranoid rant about the Girl Scout / Katniss salute on the Dismantle the Beam Project!)


ENDER'S GAME (2013) is far removed from the love nonsense, but there's a lot of care and time spent getting the glistening eyes of the space bug exactly right. And Asa Butterfield as Ender is a kind of fourteen year-old Hannibal Lector recruited by Harrison Ford via the old LAST STARFIGHTER tactics and put in charge of a drone armada to fight a bunch of STARSHIP TROOPER-esque space locusts.

I hated LAST STARFIGHTER and its bland 'every lad' though I didn't mind the hunky ciphers in STARSHIP because we were supposed to think of them as caricatures, not as 'normal suburban teens' as imagined by guys who haven't seen a normal suburban kid in 30 years. But Ender is different. He can defend himself and underneath his nervous ecotmorphology and liberal guilt lurks the heart of a carnivorous killer. His nebulous doubts about the rightness of his mission are played up but we never really get the full HEARTS AND MINDS story before the reverse of the climactic battle of BREAKING DAWN smashes through our screens and from there they start setting up the hoped-for sequels. The film's structure ingeniously keeps the space war stuff on the screens within the screens (knowing we've seen it all before) and secondary to the Enterprise-ish minutiae of commanding a row of similarly young and gifted kids sitting at drone computer screens. And hey, it's what the military is doing right now with drone programs! THE LAST STARFIGHTER really is coming true!

Real life drone pilots at their gaming consoles
The last thing any kid wants is to see an 'average' kid like themselves
in a sci fi movie. We go to sci fi to get AWAY from that shit.
As in CATCHING FIRE, ENDER wants you to want the sequels, to get the DVD, see it again on the IMAX, in 3-D, commit to it, for it only earned, so far, a paltry sixty million, little more than half its budget. I wish my interest in seeing sequels to under-performers like JOHN CARTER and THE GOLDEN COMPASS could bring them forth through sheer will, but then again I don't have either on DVD. I know I should buy them, like an indirect post-production Kickstarter, but it's a lot of emotional baggage to deal with, a lot of responsibility befriending the nerd no one else likes. You can never shake them off once you do.

I feel like I should defend JOHN CARTER in particular because I read all the original Warlord of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as a kid, as well as Burroughs' Tarzan and Carson of Venus books, Robert E. Howard's Conan, Moorcock's Elrik; and Fritz Lieber's Fafhr and the Gray Mouser. 

from 1946! I got it for cover price
at the Lansdale PA Bookswap!
The best part about all of them? No fucking kids! No 'average teen' hero for us to 'identify' with. No 'Boy' in the Tarzans ('Boy' ruined the later movies), no boys at all. In those books we were still allowed to identify with the badass adults, the ones who could kill the oppressors of their conscience without PC moral hand-wringing. We need those adult heroes back! Imagine STAR WARS if Han Solo never showed up, replaced instead by a 12 year-old boy with really normal hair and a nagging mom?! Horrible... yet there it is...

And so it is that we must fight Morris Chestnut's call to safety and fight with all our strengths against unimaginative dogmatic Hollywood's glorification of 'being a kid.' Already they have gone back and digitally removed all the cigarettes, replaced the guns with flashlights, removed the nudity and much of the cursing from our cinema heritage. They will not stop until everyone wears helmets even to bed. Stop them before they jab their safety-first overhead florescent lights even into the darkest recesses of our most secret-sacred heart. I say roast Morris on the open fire of aimless youth rebellion! Richie in OVER THE EDGE, thou shalt not have died in vain!

If only you had a cool keychain I could buy to prove my fealty.

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