Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Bert I. Gordon, one of the few schlockmeisters whose career spanned both the 1950s 'big bug movie' craze (Beginning of the End, Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider) and the 1970s Jaws eco-horror phase, comes to Shout trailing clouds of toxic bughouse glory in two new Blu-rays this week. Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977) are now deep black spanking HD new and they may just save your life --in event of giant pest invasion you at least know what not to do. Flanked with B-sides equal to their terrible majesty (Frogs for Food, and Jaws for Ants)they come to us in deep lovely HD blacks and sparkling color, after nigh under forty years of washed out who cared VHS grays. That's a good thing, for when all else fails (and it sure does), we can admire how now pink natural light beams through the willows and fields of murmuring hemlock. Shout treats these tawdry gems with the same reverence Criterion affords Kurosawa: those shadows in which normal size snakes and large ants hide are now so super deep they're darker than the starkest midday shadows, and the colors and finery-- oh oh my children. I like big bugs and I cannot lie, you know this.

Shout knows it too, for they preserve the subtle grain of real film stock so HD or no these still look like 70s movies. And that's what matters, for there's no reason for these two double features to exist--they are abominations in the eyes of God. But some of us, of a certain age and misanthropic disposition, need them. They deliver a kind of deeper vertigo-inducing version of nostalgia, a post-childhood dread Pavlovian trigger that gets us deep where other monster movies cannot reach.

All nonbelievers beware, however: for there are two problems with these films' coming to Blu-ray. First: the contrast between rear projection and overlays is even more very glaring than ever before: the splices and outlines between the humans and the amok nature backgrounds glow like filaments. Second: seeing any animal--even lower life forms like snakes and rats--killed, stunned, betrayed, abashed or even annoyed... is abhorrent to modern sensitized sensibilities. Partially because of movies like these (see my rant on Day of the Animals), part of the 70s naturalist horror kick, we've learned to care about nature. Now Humane Society stooges monitor every animal shot--even the rats and insects get body doubles for crushing scenes--but I sincerely doubt the mysterious BIG had one. And the look of stunned betrayal in the eyes of some of these vermin is crushing in ways it wasn't back in the time of these films' release. To redress the wrong, and spare the sensitive unseemly sights, I've given each film an unofficial PETA rating. First up...

(1976) - Dir. Bert I. Gordon
**1/2 / PETA: D

Food has one of those weird casts that makes you wonder if the great Bert I. Gordon's obsession with giant little things and little giant things is the result of a vision disorder like strabismus that makes it impossible to tell how big or small something is vs. proximity (i.e. are children really small, or just far away?). How else can one explain his decision to cast the ever-squinting, frizzy blonde, cap-toothed, and suspiciously diminutive ex-child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as an NFL quarterback? Why, he's no bigger than a fourth down prayer! Yet there he is, practicing his throws on a frosty field (or is it pollution? Freeze frame!) before trundling off to a remote woodsy island with two of his teammate buddies. They go hunting on horseback - as NFL stars are wont to do, and the ever-dependable Jon Cypher is soon-offed by giant wasps. First they look like toys bouncing on a string and then like superimposed cartoons of wasps (you can see through them), and then--finally attaining opaqueness-- big rubber wasps with their pipe cleaner legs carefully entwined around his backpack.

Marjoe will not let Cypher's death stand! He must have vengeance against the hive! And so the film is off and running. Old Gortner climbs into the self-righteous power trip seat favored by so many self-appointed leaders in crisis situations and is soon battling a giant rooster, more wasps, Ida Lupino as a farmer's wife, and--playing the rote capitalist who wants to monetize the situation-- a bloated, hungover Ralph Meeker in a black raincoat.

Meeker's on the island to get a look at the weird white stuff coming out of the ground like bubblin' crude... the titular food, which might have profit potential as a growth hormone. One thing's for sure, it works! But without a rooster the size of a UPS truck (like the one Marjoe kills while investigating Ida Lupino's barm) there's nothing to keep the rats away, or the giant caterpillars from biting her hand! Argggh!

Gamely moving these big blood-doused rubber worms around in her hand, to try and get them to seem like they're wiggling on their own and that she's trying to shake them off (while she's clearly holding onto them), Ida taps into the same 'go for broke' madness of Bela Lugosi wrestling the rubber octopus in ED WOOD. Her moan of horror seems to encompass the entirety of her fall off the A-list into old age, an almost delirium tremens style moan of low-key horror. So howl, Ida! You have found in your pain the consolation of its full expression; it is only for this expression that the pain was ever for...

...teeth that could blind Erik Estrada

As Meeker's nonplussed secretary, Pamela Franklin disguises her British accent and real-life pregnancy (I'm guessing) by never getting out of her white leather trench coat (above), even indoors. That's gotta be it, for she was such a thin little hottie in The Legend of Hell House, just three years earlier, holding her own against seasoned pros like Roddy McDowall. Here she just tries not to hold back in order to not act circles around ole Marjoe even with clunky dialogue like "I'd like... for you to make love to me." Meanwhile, the much better-preserved Belinda Balaski, as a stranded mobile home camper, pretends to be pregnant, and young husband Tom Stovall worries about her as the giant rats start closing in around their camper faster than a drunken Cornish lynch mob.

But then... endless shots of rats getting shot (for real) with pink paint in the face and body (is it supposed to be blood?) begins to weary the soul. even if it's not fatal and can be washed off, the look of shock and betrayal in their eyes is dispiriting. For mauling Gordon's well-crafted miniature hippie vans and farm shacks with such aplomb, those rats deserved better. As I wrote about Day of the Animals, part of the appeal of these movies (for me at least) tends to be in how the abstraction of the animal attacks (arms about to be bit suddenly appearing to have a pillow crammed under the sleeve; animal trainers doubling for actors; dogs wagging their tales even while growling and baring their fangs) gives the feeling the animals are just good-naturedly roughhousing - the violence implied solely through the rapidfire edits - and if the animals know it's all in fun, so do we, and it makes enjoying the film easier (and no more or less scary). Watching that all-in-fun look vanish in an instant in the startled rat eyes when they get pelted by the pink pellets drains the joy de vivre tout suite from Food of the Gods, that is unless you really hate rats.

That said, many of the better overlays between miniatures, rats, and people still have a kind of chilling immediacy, they feel real and inescapable, maybe because they're big but not so big they can't fit through a window or attack you from ontop of the kitchen counter. Add the (real size) giant chicken and rat heads that menace the cast, the giant caterpillar monsters that claw up poor Ida Lupino's hand, and the hilarious climactic 'flood' when Marjoe blasts open the 'dam', and this bad film shines like pure crap gold, the kind we wouldn't see again until Sharknado. God bless the Gordons, and forgive them for all their sins...especially against the rats... future Indras, all.

(1972) - Dir George McGowan
*** / PETA - B

I always thought Frogs rather overrated--most of my horror critic friends love it--but that was on the small screen, wherein its colors felt drab and faded by time and low res cathode rays, its lovely nature reduced to green and brown blurs offset by a sickly yellow for interiors and the tediously flat red white and blue of Ray Milland's birthday party decorations. Now that it's on the Blu-ray, however, the voracious amphibian and reptile and insect footage is beautiful, creepy, and poisonous with ambiguity. The interior mansion shots that used to oppress my childhood with their faded Colonial drabness now glow with a sun dappled pink that gives the whole film a 'twilight of mankind' champagne pop cheeriness.

The lead hunk (you know he's going to be a conservationist) is laconic Sam Elliott (sans mustache) as Pickett, just an easygoin' nature photographer paddling around along the edge of the Florida's Eden State Park, snapping away when his canoe gets rammed by the prodigal son (Adam Roarke) who--with his sexy sister Karen (Joan Van Ark)--is trying out their new outboard motor during a lull in their duties fulfilling wheelchair bound patriarch (and pollutant enthusiast) Ray Milland's regimented birthday expectations at their nearby island mansion. Soaking wet from his splash, Pickett is invited home to change, meet the patriarch, and participate in the 'fun.'

Since he gets a come hither look from foy Karen, naturally Pickett says yes. Soon he's meeting the gang and finding a real kindred soul in Milland. One of the more unique relationships in horror, their connection forms a kind of off-center parallel maybe to Ben Quick and Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer or Col. Rutledge and Marlowe from The Big Sleep, each recognizing in the other a capable outdoorsy plain-spoken hombre. There's also a bisexual vibe in Elliott where we can't tell if Pickett's going to shack up with Karen or Roarke. As seductions and simmering resentments accrue over cocktails, deaths accrue via various (normal size) lizards, snakes, and arachnids outside in the greenhouse or around the grounds as one person goes looking for the one who never came back from looking for someone else. Meanwhile, no one can get any sleep or hook up, for the mansion is also besieged by frogs, croaking away at night, in a deafening cockblock serenade.

Blu-ray image much better
Another plus: so the constant frog song can ring out proud, we're treated to the absence of composer Les Baxter's usual on-the-nose loungey Mickey Mousing. Eerie silences cast a strange reverie-style mood over the proceedings. I'm especially grateful that Milland's wheelchair bound patriarch is more than a one-dimensional capitalist monster. In fact, he's almost heroic in his determination to carry through with the tradition of his birthday, irregardless of how many family members he's losing to the local alligators, frogs, snakes, and spiders. G'head Ray, you golden patriarch, and get that cake!

Meanwhile, they even go for a racial subtext, as the black maid and butler share a coffee at night with the youngest son's black girlfriend and though, true to cliche, they're the first to insist on leaving to the mainland when all the shit goes down, they all go with dignity, common sense and concern rather than cowardice.

The servants' leaving also signifies when the film really comes into its own: sort of like the climax of Orca or Jaws, now it's just the white man and the all-devouring natural world, like it was always meant to be. No witnesses, sides, or seconds, just like the old days. Not for nothing is the clan's name Crockett, for this is the raccoons' revenge for his coonskin cap. The escape for the rest of the clan doesn't go well either: a snapping turtle devours a defenseless Lynn Borden; Sam Elliott bashes the surface of the water with an oar; Adam Roarke swims out to his boat after something chews off the line... And then... well, don't worry - it's too late to change our ways now. Just savor the mix of nice things: the gorgeous willow trees, sun-streaked fog and mist; the dialogue like "pollution control on the paper mill will cost us millions" dropped into normal conversation rather than underlined in thick script marker; the incongruous mixture of wildlife that would only be literally found dead down in Florida (like the New Mexican gecko); the sense of wonder how in hell they effects crew are going to pull off a believable death by a handful of normal-size frogs; and most of all, where that dog came from just in time for the end.  Poor dog. Where did he come from? Dogs never do get a break in horror. The frogs get the best of everything. Also, Milland really needs a different record to play other than lame Sousa record to convey his eternal defiance of nature, but wily old Les Baxter would have his pomp. 

(1977) Dir Bert I. Gordon
***1/2 / PETA - N/A

Shore-swept toxic sludge has a curious effect on local ant-life, as you might guess. But this you won't: the ant queen's pheromones are discussed in a foreshadowing prologue as "a mind-bending substance that forces obedience." What does that have to do with a slumming Joan Collins trying not to break a nail while rooking time share commitments out of a charter boatload of retired and/or attractive freeloaders? Well, Collins' sales pitch is pretty shrill. So maybe she can pick up some pointers from that bigger queen. As it is, rather than seduce and coerce obedience through her pheromones, she bitches at and berates potential customers in a brutal stereotype of the 'lady boss' of the once-gorgeous / still-vain cougar/puerella aeterna archetype, trying to recapture the undivided male attention by trying too hard to spurn it. Spitting out harsh 'quips' like "You are terrific in the sack, and that almost justifies the salary that I have to pay you." Or, to the charter boat captain (Edward Power): "I'm paying damn good money to rent this boat!"

Hey, I'll defend the Joan Collins oversexed bitch in the boardroom capitalist to the end--she's one of the sexiest decade's powerful female icons-- but it would help if the writers had some notion how to make her time share rooking sound convincing. Her sell is so hard it betrays the fact that she yells at herself in the mirror at night because she has no kid to bully and can't make her diamonds cry. Not that I'm complaining. Joan rules! And Empire of the Ants is one of my guilty trash favorites. Shhh! The paltry 3.8 score it gets on might be enough to put casual viewers off their toxic feed but I'm betting that would go up to at least a 4.2 once detractors get a load of how vividly this tough old queen has cleaned her antennae for Blu-ray. Even if the dark shadows the drones used to hide in are now less dark, thus exposing the two contrasting film grains, it's still the Plan Nine of giant ant movies. In sum, it is beyond perfect. Even scrubbed clean, those pheromones command obedience!

Now that I've had time to think it over, I'm glad old Bert I. Gordon didn't suss out the subtextual links between Collins and the queen ant, each trying to control the world around them through top bitch manipulation. You can always depend on Gordon to keep things at a very primitivist level as far as adult behavior, missing even the most glaring subtextual veins in his blindfolded jackhammering. In omitting all subtlety and nuance he creates a grand framework for our own projections.

Like all 70s disaster movies, there's a cross section of Americans (Poesidon Adventure template) thrown together on a high-pressure life or death trek. This lets older stars and younger B-listers intermingle and each get a chance at owning a scene while their careers pass each other up and down the hill. There's never enough time to rehearse such a large cast, so the actors all seem like they're genuinely meeting each other for the first time, while at the same time having second thoughts about the whole venture. But there are no cell phones in the 70s on which to call an Uber or their agent, and there's no roads, so no escape. So... without a better suggestion coming from their unresponsive director, the marooned cross section of people who signed on for a 'free boat ride lunch' time share pitch play it like a Love Boat episode: a frumpy middle aged office drone (Jaqueline Scott) who got fired after blah blah years for Mr. Blah, with nothing to show for her years but a blah blah, hits on the grouchy captain; a rich girl (Brooke Palance) wishes her lame husband (Robert Pine!) wasn't such as a rapey coward; cute Coreen (Pamela Shoop) hits on the sulky pretty boy Joe (John David Carson) immediately after Pine tries to rape her.  Talk about bouncing back! And through it all Joan bellows through a bullhorn about where tennis courts will be and serves them more meals than there are hours in the day.

That said, the film wastes no time: the first casualties are swiftly followed by the giant ants storming the boat, which explodes, stranding them all in this remote section of beach, and, well a fire keeps the ants away,  but well, then, it starts to rain. And then, well... dinner is truly served.

As for EXTRAS... Well, considering how under-directed the actors are in his films, it's probably no surprise that Gordon is so awkward and taciturn as an audio commentary guy. It's like pulling teeth getting anecdotes and when they do come they tend to be utterly banal, and often wrong, like his declaration that Welles used Randolph Hearst's real name in Citizen Kane. Or the nonsense (hopefully) story of personally going down to Panama to shoot footage of a special kind of fire ants (but the footage looks like normal nature show stock footage; most ants seem to have been shot inside an ant farm and then matted into the main image, which is fine. I like the effect of seeing them look like they're crawling up into the sky around the terrified humans (above), standing on hind legs (the glass their leaning on invisible). And I also like the big 'actual size' fake ant heads used for the mandible biting scenes here better even than the ones in Them! They're actually scarier for being relatively smaller, the size of a sports car rather than a van. With their jet black eyes and hairy heads down low to the ground, their jagged mandibles seem infectious and sharp. They have a real grim dirty angry menace about them. But I don't think Bert intended any of that, which is probably why it's one of the few things that's effective. Here's a man so dependent on termites he never buys dry wood.

(1981) Dir Bob Claver
*** / PETA = **

Who'd of thought the second best film of the whole lot would turn out to be the most unknown, a bona fide gem of badness, a too-late entry in the Jaws-Exorcist ripoff hybrid race (The Car, Killdozer)? It's also known as King Cobra but Jaws of Satan is far more on-the-nose as to its cross-pollinated rip-off sources (even more specific would be Jaws of the Omen). For as you can guess, the devil this time is a snake, hibernating since being venerated in the Age of the Druids but allowed to return every 666 years to pick a fight with one lucky holy roller. Expository dialogue lets us know that faith-deprived priest Fritz Weaver is conveniently descended from a bunch of druid burning Christians, so is probably the right priest for the honor. "Considering your family history, father, I sure would like to have a look at that coffee cup," says the local tasseographer during a dinner party, perhaps little aware that the then-current rage for coffee filtration has rendered that form of divination fruitless. But soft! The devil cobra is coming and it has telekinetic powers. It can even bite people just by banging its head on an 'invisible' terrarium wall (the director can't be bothered cleaning the plexiglass that separates cameraman and snake so we see all the tiny cracks and smudges). The serpent then stops the train at the town where his old druid-burner descendant nemesis' current incarnation (poor old Fritz) waits, and you can start counting the beats toward the inevitable showdown.

If Jaws of Satan was any good it would be terrible, but since it's terrible, its terrific, because, you see, unlike other actors who channel their anger at their agent into their performance (such as Lupino and Meeker in the above praised Food of the Gods), Weaver refuses to to perform any other emotion than self-contempt and weariness. Every line feels like he's trying to do such a bad job he gets fired so he can go home and soak in a hot tub. "You know, God, he can be quite a 'trip,' too" he counsels a 'tempted' nerdy kid who's clearly never gotten high in his life. Weaver's even less convinced of his own bullshit than we are. What good is it being a materialist priest? Glug glug glug. Guess it's Nack do the toddle... You know, drinking can be quite a trip, too!

Meanwhile, the Satan snake has motivated the local serpent population to rise up from its rocky crevasses and attack the humans. Deaths by rattlesnake bites mount; small cobras show up out of nowhere.

The best sequence occurs in a late afternoon leaf-blown graveyard, where an ancient text is read to Weaver by his credulous monsignor (Norman Lloyd, stealing the film, though no one's even guarding it) and soon Weaver's being chased around the local graveyard by King Cobra, all while all while normal small town life goes on around him, oblivious to his predicament, and he's eventually he's trapped down in an open grave while the snake tries to get at him through a closed gate. Only then doth Weaver seem awake-- and the sequence is so badass creepy it feels kind of natural, like it could happen to anyone. King cobras really do chase their prey like that, so I'm told. People watching from far away wouldn't see the snake down there in the leaves, just you running like an idiot. It's a rare thing to see in a horror film, that sense of horror being all a matter of proximity to indifference.

The other star of the film, the Chief Brody role, is Gretchen Corbett (the spooky girl running around the graveyard in the highly recommended Let's Scare Jessica to Death) as the town's only doctor. Recognizing the big bite on the dead psychic's face is not indigenous, she calls in a good-looking young herpetologist (Jon Korkes) from the big city, but the gross, corrupt coroner has already burned the body, on the mayor's orders! A cobra loose in town could start a panic! And worse, could kill the buzz for the new dog track. It's going to be "the biggest thing that ever happened in this state," assures the mayor.

Damn, what kind of lame state are we in? Dog track? Really?

Applegate, Christina
And there you have it. You know by now that dog track opening is going to be a disaster, that is if the budget allows for enough fleeing extras in the stands (or dogs, for that matter). I don't think we see either. But we do see a very young Christina Applegate as the corrupt financier's daughter. She gets the film's only other spooky moment: wandering around the yard on a dark Lewton-esque night in search of her kitty, the wind rustling the grasses and trees around her. With just the wind in the leaves and her little voice calling for the kitty, it's genuinely chilling.

But the rest of the time, the details are so ludicrous as to defy all explanation. The supposedly independent doctor lady Corbett needs herpetologist Korkes to ride to the rescue when a rattlesnake crawls into her bed (she could easily throw a sheet over it) and when he finally arrives this professional snake handler needs to use five different snake-wrangling devices and a gun to finally dispatch it, only after pretending to struggle with it, for like six minutes, all so they have an excuse to sleep together. Bro, if--even after you have a loop around its neck--you--an expert snake handler--still have to really fight against a rattlesnake's power--and then, wait... wait... finally blow its head off (getting snake blood on the sheets), rather than throwing into a pillow case and releasing it into the garden, and it's the kind of innocuous serpent that even Ray Milland in a wheelchair could kill or incapacitate without looking up from his red white and blue birthday cake, then, well, you're going to be very good in bed either.

wait for it....

So now the couple is together, the evidence of something unusual going on confirmed, but the mayor still ignores them: the dog race track grand opening must not be delayed. The "biggest thing to happen to this state" turns out to be the kind of cheaply rendered event that Aaron Spelling might stage for a Charlie's Angels episode: a dixieland jazz band and about ten extras mill around a sussed up high school track field. Naturally we expect a snake amok in a stadium, people fleeing and trampling children as they fight for the exit, Satan motivating the greyhounds to attack the band, etc. Instead, all that happens is Christina Applegate gets bit by a snake while looking around in the janitor's closet. And that's the end. I don't even think we see a single dog. Nice!

Meanwhile, Weaver, converted by his graveyard scare like a born-again Scrooge, tunes heavenly antennae to yonder caverns for the foretold showdown, shouting "SayyyyTANNnn!" over and over in a perfect imitation of Oron Welles' shouting for his footman in his 1948 Macbeth .

Great stuff. Aside from some real dead snakes and a distasteful episode involving a sleazy would-be rapist biker hired to terrorize Corbett, there's nothing to dampen the overall mood of joyful disregard as the film travels the pre-set pathways of its chosen namesake/s. And then at the very end, after the flames of righteousness have burned the reels away, you can still see the wire that held the snake erect, like a thin little curse finger aimed right at those on imdb who gave this a 3.6. They might be right, but right only gets you so far. Jaws of Sayyyy-TAN goes farther.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chop wood, carry Sponsors: the MAD MEN Finale

This weekend's TV was momentous with AMC's crown jewel ending at the beginning of the glorious Free to Be You and Me 1970s. Don Draper finally hit bottom and was in the right place at the right time to surrender, couched in the loving heart of the American 12-Step share. After sneering through the consciousness-raising retreat center, ambling after the niece of his (stolen identity's) wife, the closest thing to a mother/lover he has left, and finally driving her away through his last straw / drowning man clinging, he's ready for the joys of complete collapse. He came to this retreat with this younger woman, a truth-seeker of her time, but she's the one who's not ready for the light. It turns out he's the one who's finally ready. At last, utterly beaten, he's able to rise up and hug a shlemiel in a group therapy session, tears flowing like melting ice after a long long winter. And that frees him.

Dude! I can vouch that it happens. Don't quit before the miracle and the miracle only comes when you're so near quitting you're already packing up your shit. It's like a deep end pool, when you get down so low you can finally launch yourself up from the bottom. Crack off the last few shreds of your toxic ego and rise, humble, beautiful, drenched in loving tears, the blood of the lamb. I been there! You understand at last that the expressions "everything's rosy" and "rose-tinted glasses" come from a real thing - the world does look washed in rose red; the color of the Buddhist's robes, and roses.

Ever the quintessential 'American' ad man, the spark of enlightenment leads to the perfect Coca-Cola commercial, one that would define the decade itself, the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercial, that seamless interweaving of the mainstream popular plastic packaging, post-Aquarius encounter group openness, commercialization and a freedom beyond the boy's club sexo-alcoholic escapism of the Don Draper sixties. This Cocoa-Cola commercial offered a freedom that understood no one escapes oneself for long, and the minute you stop trying to run, you start seeing yourself in others, you're what we in AA call "a worker among workers" (rather than the "piece of shit at the center of the universe") then joy comes dropping down like a cartoon anvil. Hugging the shlemiel (Evan Wood, below) is the first truly free thing Don's ever done, to release seven seasons worth of accumulated stress, of the Don Draper mask, the alpha male swagger, all melting like globally warmed iceberg wicked witch through just hugging it out with a weak-chinned balding charismatically challenged schlub, the kind I used to be always mean to, fearing if I was nice they'd hang around and try to poach foxes, embarrassing themselves, chasing off foxes and cramping my style by association. Learning to recognize myself in them, to love even them unconditionally, was the biggest surrender I ever had to make. Part of me always knew and hated to be reminded, in some circles I am that same shlemiel.

Believing the Aquarius line, "I'd like to teach the world to sing," we all were moved.  I remember hearing that song everywhere in the 70s as a kid and when I was getting sober in 1998, detoxing at home alone, bawling to the "Thank You" video by Alanna Morissette, which was on constantly in the last days of music video-playing MTV, reminded me of it. As she sang, standing naked in the middle of a busy subway commute, I could literally hear and feel the iceberg in me finally melting enough that it just split and cracked open and dissolved, finally,right in the midst of an AA meeting on a late Friday afternoon in 1999, triggered by my self-imposed humiliation over walking in late with squeaky shoes, toxins and sweat, laughter and tears, the surrender, the rose-tinted waves of gratitude all pouring forth like the incoming warm ocean. And the guy qualifying was just some old bitter ex-GI, ranting about how his true self is a crotchety old bastard. But he broke me. My true self could be a bastard too, and it was all right.

The Nordic Aliens bring their universal message

And to this last episode's credit there were no little montage vignettes woven in during the Coca-Cola commercial, no carousel pics of Betts and Don at the dance, or forward to Roger's third wedding, or Don getting the Clio for the ad. It's not even clear for sure if he came back to McCann and pitched his revelation, or ever went back at all, and someone else pitched it. And that's the genius, for in committing to meditation all that stuff ceases to matter --it's a new day, beyond duality.

And to me, my interpretation, he did pitch it. It's his career capstone. Because if he did, then the entire show from beginning to end makes a post-modern socio-historical Guy Debord meets Alcoholics Anonymous kind of sick-6th sense. It's glorious to see how the show really understands these kinds of breakthroughs. As for Don and Jon Hamm, of course no actor is worth a damn unless they've already worked through a lot of it. And moments like these remind us that being able to act deeply emotional 'true' stuff hinges on such unrelenting self-honesty. And that's how fiction ends up being truer than truth. How Don, as a fiction, is truer than any real person can be. I know it sounds corny, but I'm getting weepy just thinking about it.


And most unique to the 70s too, we were all--the entire nation--into that song. We all knew and know all the words, not that there's many. Because irony didn't exist in the popular media; we were too open-hearted and there weren't enough channels or options to separate us, no other devices on which to watch things. In the 70s we all had to endure each other's programming and the kids never got first draft choice if dad was around, but we were always in the same room, seeing the same things. Bored as hell as Meet the Press droned on Sunday mornings, for example, though dad might let us see Sesame Street later, because he thought it was pretty cool, good music. It left us all with a cross-generational water cooler currency woefully missing from today's everybody on their own screen post-nuclear familial structure. That's how that Coke commercial crossed the generations, it bonded the entirety of the nation in its moment.

TV was a shared language in the 70s but it was the EST and therapy groups and encounter sessions that brought us closest. Even if your parents didn't go, some couple they knew did, and the message of openness and being 'perfect in the now' crossed from that couple to your parents and outwards in a loving pink energy ripple effect. Parents knew how to treat us like people rather than valuable art objects being smuggled through downtown Rome, to not hold on tight or try to align us to their thinking, to not evaluate their worth as humans via what daycare we tested into. They were them and we were us and all were okay to do our own thing. This kind of encounter group wildfire helped prep me for later LSD, yoga and eventually AA. Don's encounter group scene's tremendous cathartic power comes from that same rippling love wave, the time when yoga and meditation were brand new to the west. There was no arguing with the resulting slow burn awakening as the news of inner peace's availability spread (like that 70s Faberge Organics shampoo spot: "tell two friends / and they'll tell two friends / and so on / and so on").
It's the same with Don's mountain retreat moment, as we say in AA, "your own best thinking got you here" - which has about two dozen dual meanings. To be able to commit to a meditation class without smirking, or judging, being able to take instruction from a young hippie kid in the lotus position, to get the message rather than let your ego--like a jealous rival--convince you to hang back and judge the messenger, to sneer at such naked emotional simplicity rather than shiver in the naked heat of the sun when the cool bar beckons. But looking at the entirety of Don's seemingly haphazard journey west, we see how every little incident led to this moment, from the invite to the Veteran's fundraiser to giving some snotty thief his car, all step by step, like a careful opponent making sure all his enemy's (i.e. ego's) avenues of escape are blocked before springing the iceberg break coup de grace. If he had his car he would have quit before the miracle (as we say in AA); if the guy speaking had been attractive, or young, or old, or somehow different enough to be either desirable or a threat the miracle would not occur; if that mopey bitch in that first encounter group hadn't cross-talked about being abandoned by her mom, then his ride wouldn't have bailed, and so forth.

Don was hugging the shlemiel not because he heard, as we say in the rooms, his own story, or recognized the dawning of the commercialization of the Age of Aquarius, but because he saw beyond himself finally, so beaten down his ego actually left the room, so he could know this person was him, and was Jesus, and the dying Betts, and his children, and his whore (real) mother, and the brother he drove to suicide, all wrapped into one flag-draped coffin of a rainbow child.

But Don is an ad man to his core, and even there in the crucible of surrender, lurks the next gold ring. For him they are inseparable, but that's the thing you go into the wilderness of Self but if you don't bring back a present, a souvenir we can use here in the communal house, you just wasted our time telling us about it. We're conditioned to accept that from popular culture, so maybe it doesn't even get our French theory noses in a twist when-- right after the finale's final credits-- comes a car commercial with Jon Hamm voiceover. The average critic writing about the show doesn't mention that, doesn't see it in the context of the show itself. But any acidhead huckster would note, that's SYNERGY too!

It's because I'm a Pisces and a child of the 70s that I can both scoff at astrology and yet know it's true, and it's because I have seen the land beyond duality; I know duality is beautiful as long as you know it's fiction. And I know that fiction is far truer than reality in depicting the truth of reality; I've hallucinated enough to know never to believe my own eyes or ears. When skeptics say they need evidence to be convinced of flying saucers I snort derisively. I secretly mock those I deem less humble than myself, and I get that irony of that, and yet prefer to laugh at myself rather than try and change it. And I know I can cry and feel bad about pollution all I want, but that never helps things, only action. I can donate $ or volunteer without losing the joy or sense everything's okay. I know I should meditate and feel joy and love and put it out there to those who need it, not who's hot or deserves it, to effect change. Not for nothing Jesus washed the feet of the lepers instead of the dirty supermodels. When I first had a big spiritual awakening I knew that, for that selfless perfect love to stick around, I'd have to be nice to ugly idiots, and god there were so many! Instead I ran and ran. By the time I stopped it was ready it was the 90s, and too damn late. Now there was the internet, and SSRIs. My hair was not on fire so I was no longer willing to dive into the well.

I'd like at this juncture to thank those who got me here: God, my sponsor, my therapist, the makers of Effexor, Wellbutrin, Neurontin, Remeron,  Robert Duvall in The Apostle. For Don, his first sponsor is clearly Helen Slater (left), this wizened broad (aptly, her first role was in 1984 as Supergirl!) eyes tired but serene with the gaze of one who's come through the inferno to the light of forgiveness and unconditional love. She reminds me of the cool people who kept me coming back to AA in the very very beginning, the ones who barely said a word other than 't'sup?' after the more overt and smiling welcome committees scared me off time and time again. Slater's wizened woman says and does the same things these "t'sup?" people did to keep me coming back and give me the final gentle push through the breakthrough door (see: CinemArchetype 11 - The Wild Wise Woman) rather than trying to drag me through like a stubborn mule. Slater comes to him not as a future conquest, or yet another mother on the run from her child (his favorite brand), but as merely a gentle guide who knows that, as far as a push towards the light, anything more than almost nothing was too much. There's a moment before the shlemiel takes the talking chair where she looks and smiles over at Don as if inviting him up but doesn't coax, sensing his inner ice already beginning to break and not wanting to rush him. The universe is clearly giving him this moment - no one is going to go other than him. And when he stands up walks over to the shlemiel she just gives the faintest of smiles, not the 'I made this happen' smile, but a faint one wherein we see the joy of the truly enlightened upon seeing the course of dharma in action and gratitude that they've been blessed with being awake enough to pick up on dharma's plans like it's some kind of subatomic benevolent Dr. Mabuse. And as the lighting cues ever so perceptively shift, we realize with her help the episode's stealthily gone from inviting us to sneer along with Don at all the new age claptrap to weeping at being once lost and now found, in the same moving way Clark Gable did in Strange Cargo! Or Billy Bob Thornton in The Apostle!

Helen Slater, showing she always had a way with reticent buds (Supergirl, 1984)
And that's how it happens, to we who have had the terror of death's visit and the post-ghost Scrooge satori, who've walked in late to an AA meeting with super squeaky shoes, every squeak echoing louder than the speaker, and the same creating the sound in our head of a cracked dam buckling, finally giving way into true surrender. I felt like my older brother ego finally passed the joystick after banging around the same game level for 30 years, and my inner little brother picked it up and effortlessly opened six new levels, including the exit. Freedom. Ugly or old, fat or anorexic who cares, bro? You're a child of God. I love all things scrooge satori merry xmas you old building and loan. I love you all as I used to think I loved myself, but only a sick sadist would treat someone he professed to love so harshly as I treated me. "Self-seeking will slip away" is one of the AA Promises. It does come true, it's the 'slipping away' part that intrigued me when I'd read them up on the wall, as if it wasn't something done consciously, it just happened on its own, like baby teeth falling out. When the egoic whipping boy construct of self is gone, the collapse of the persona illusion of difference falls soon after. What remains? Only Love.

It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru.

So we mustn't think of these events we've seen in Mad Men as fake, or either cynical (the 'Coke Meditations') or sincere.  Having lost both my parents recently and neither one of them much for protracted death scenes (my Christian Scientist mom lied to everyone until right up to the last minute, so we wouldn't worry or try to come visit or try to get her to move to a real hospital). I also was moved by January Jones' own melting frostiness. She showed in her one telephone scene that her frosty stiffness over the previous seasons was not just because she was a bad actor. All the frost pays off for this one beautiful scene on the phone, the one final moment of these two gorgeous emblems of the 60s, each accustomed to the social order elevating them by virtue of charismatic superiority, each clinging to the tenets and terms of their social personae, until they finally--in this moment--break and they can surrender to their real feelings. These moments of redemption are what makes all the bullshit not just necessary but worth enduring. The longer the climb the better the sledding, and what other reason for reaching the top is there? Behold a white horse. And the man that snorted it was Death. But first, Coke added life, and was the real thing. And he rode it.

Until the fuckin' 80s. Don't get me started...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

She Even Breaks: Edie Sedgwick in CIAO! MANHATTAN

It's probably a sign of your mental health whether you find Warhol superstar /debauched debutante extraordinaire Edie Sedgwick's continued toplessness in Ciao! Manhattan (1972) sexy or just tragic. If sexy then you're either a swine or just so enamored of the Edie mythos that you'd follow her off a cliff. And I who have followed three different gorgeous drug-damaged [anorexic] rich New England free spirits off cliffs know what I'm talking about. But if you've taken those cliff falls and they have made you sore, damaged, and wise in ways you wish you weren't, then you might see Ciao! Manhattan and wonder if her destruction is somehow your fault, a side-effect of your rubbernecking hot mess lemming diving icon-worship. If that's true, then the film may do nothing for you at all, except encourage you to pray for the still sick and suffering outside the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But Edie, princess long dead, cannot hear those prayers. We can only save ourselves... the trouble... of enduring Ciao! Manhattan.

But we can't avoid it, can we? So come back with me then... a ways. Know that I too, like Edie, am a descendant of a daughter of the American Revolution, the Puritan stock. Though not as land-rich (1), we are perhaps just as insane and prone to addiction and depression. I came to the Edie myth via the Velvet Underground, which I came to via Lou Reed, who--alone on MTV, with his video "I Love You Suzanne"), seemed relatable. Like me, he seemed to use shades and cool to mask shyness, yet, when that fine fine music starts, is always willing to dance like a maniac, his/my shyness melting off, all while never losing his deadpan facade--a mix of Zoot from the Muppets and Harpo Marx, that was me too--I was home! I only later learned Reed and I had the same birthday, March 2nd, and he also went to Syracuse and also majored in English and also took lots of that town's many fine fine psychedelics and wrote poetry and performed in a band, and probably like me dated crazy shiksas with Ritalin prescriptions, guzzled alcohol, and swayed before anorexic lost girls like a hypnotized cobra. But I knew nothing about Edie, so needed to get busy on that, because all the cute punk girls on my scene had the Plimpton book (below left).

I'd seen the book in the store as a kid, but I thought she was an androgynous boy in military school watching a Fourth of July fireworks display. It scared me, whatever it was. All the rough trade gender-bent black-and-white imagery pouring out of NYC in the 70s was charged with leather-studded sleazy danger. But the girls I swayed before all had the and other Edie books; they had that black and white striped shirt (below) and shared her and my enthusiasm for getting loaded. There was yet no internet so any scrap of information about her had to come through print. And there just wasn't anything except used out of print paperback copies of Plimpton's book, if you could find it, which was less a glorification of druggie artsy excess and more a Grey Gardens monument to fallen pilgrim aristocracy. As someone from her old pre-decadent circle, Plimpton's book had the same kind of higher ground shock many of us feel when watching someone we knew as relatively normal disappear down the druggie rabbit hole... in other words, not the roundhouse kick of advocative justification found in Burroughs, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

Alas, only one semi-mainstream movie exists starring Edie, a botched mess to run alongside the book with the same name, a dreary, ennui-soaked mix of old bedraggled footage from some 1967 unfinished black-and-white film without any synced sound, coupled to a foggy color framing of a dumb long-haired muscle boy hick named Butch (Wesley Hayes) taking a job as Edie's keeper (at this point she's perma-zonked and babbling while living in an Arabian tent in the bottom of an empty swimming pool). And it's Butch's dopey narration of genuinely intelligent observances that try to structure the film.

Behold, Butch
Watching Edie as she babbles and tries to chase half-formed thoughts around her bed, you might wish, as Butch does, that you could do something to help, but she doesn't even seem to notice whether or not you're even in the room. She only notices the camera, which she instinctively models for without looking directly into it too much. And in the older footage, she only notices drugs, stealing a cocaine stash from an absent lover before getting lost in a speed freak robot-mechanized version of NYC, palling around with one-time Hendrix flame Pat Hartley while trying to find Dr. Robert for B-12 shots all while some mysterious David Lynch-ish millionaire named Mr. Verdecchio tries to find her through the long arm of post-modern 'later filmed' foggy drab color stutter stock and shrill phone calls.

It's like we in the audience aren't there at all, and the feeling is demoralizing. Maybe Edie, lost in time, gets a Strickfadden sparkle-circumscribed glimmer of us, gawking at her from a future vantage point window opening in the space-time continuum during electroshock, but then we're just static... again, and she's back in her room full of (cracked) vanity mirrors.

It would all still be art by virtue of its Warholian association, and all the songs written about her (Dylan's "Just like a Woman," "Like a Rolling Stone," VU's "Femme Fatale" and more later by artists who didn't know her personally), but Butch's cornfed voiceover and big curly shock of hair, pale skin and slack jaw makes one think he snuck across the broken down Isle of White festival fences, one too many times. Know what I mean, Mr. Verdecchio? At least he's got respect for leather interiors, unlike most kids todayzz.z.

Case you can't tell, that Butch gets my goat. A fine, sophisticated, pathologically narcissistic pilgrim stock speed freak burnout ex-model like Edie is too good for him. Of course that's my opinion, for we straight sophistos loathe these cornfed trade hunks with their dopey lack of depth and stripper shorts. Butch's burly status --though he's pale as the moon--is clearly a signifier that this film, for all its female toplessness, is skewed for an older gay male audience. The cut rentboy rube from the sticks--as naive and dopey as traffic will allow--is a gay staple, a favorite recurring subject the way, say, a blonde girl leaning on a Corvette is "ours." Butch-types can get free room and board just by just traipsing around in their towels after a long day indulging in Fire Island volleyball or soaking up the sun while the old rich queens sit on the veranda drinking mojitos, glancing over and sighing wistfully. I hope that's why we're subjected to Wesley Hayes' super pale naked chest and dopey voice as he walks around in tight shorts, his dazed hick expression so charismatically challenged from a straight perspective he makes you wonder why Joe Dellesandro wasn't playing the part. Was Joe so unreliable by then? Or was he way past being able to play a rube, having shot too much, in both senses of the word? In the words of Marlene Dietrich, "Joe.... where are you, Joe?"

As an Edieophile (Edie-ott?) by association, and (no matter how trunkenshtoned I got) relentless in my gallantry when it came to protecting incapacitated hotties from leering ("rapey" - a great word I wish we had in the 80s-90s) gropers, watching Butch take charge of Little Miss Can't Be Right in these color pool scenes makes me feel like I was leaving my Rolls in a Tobacco Road ditch for the summer. No offense against Wesley Hayes, the actor who played Butch -  if he was a lot smarter he could have brought some crafty Jeeter Lester savvy, like robbing Edie on the side, just as she robbed Paul America in the earlier footage. And if Butch was dumber, then his scenes would feel more natural. A good actor would play the hick as trying to come off more sophisticated than he is, instead of vice versa. Instead Butch is right in-between... The only long hair with any smarts is the previous Edie-wrangler, who steers Butch to the job on his way out of town, smart enough, perhaps, to get out before a certain someone gives him hep C, unless she already has, or worse, he winds up buried in a chimp coffin.

Butch occasionally manages some sharp shirtless jean short observations as he tries to appease Edie's mom Isabel Jewell (who sharp-eyed viewers may remember from Lewton's Seventh Victim) but he does nothing to help his charge, who natters on and on down the druggie narcissistic tangent trail while lurching around topless in her emptied swimming pool terrarium, making some gesture with her hand to emphasize a point, noticing her hand there, pausing to stress the next words in her sentence, then blanking out. The only time she gets out of the pool is when Butch drives her to the doctor, played by Roger Vadim like a vulture hoping to nab another hottie-in-distress for his trophy case before giving her some much needed electroshock...

In short, Edie's like the sad ghost of her former self, a self of course we don't know outside of Warhol's home movies. Knowing what we know today about eating disorders (and knowing she was kicked out of two boarding schools for being anorexic) makes it hard to revel in her alien beauty in the Alphaville-esque city wandering scenes, and/or the Warhol factory and YMCA pool party footage. She died mere weeks after her color footage was shot, and you can feel it. Hers is not the knowing sadness, the glimmer of a gorgeous new type of maturer beauty, that we find in Marilyn's footage in the unfinished Something's Got to Give. Edie doesn't even begin to fathom where she is, and watching her is like watching a psychic interacting with ghosts, half in this world and half in the... was there... ever actually another half?

Andy Warhol supplied some of that other half, but he supplied it with a vacuum. And who knows how many times the Andy she interacted with was only Andy's double, and Andy's relationship with Edie itself a double, a bizarro mirror to the gay artist-female muse/proxy/twins bond between Waldo Lydecker and Laura... or Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond, by which I mean, their relationship was composed of celluloid, light, and shadow... and without a projector, it was just a spool. Swoop swoop, oh baby rock rock.

In the end, maybe, we all get the Joe Gillis we deserve, some half-in-the-pool-face-down floater of a biographer who only in death finds his poetic voice, and then uses it only to describe us, who killed him, like a hack Baudrillard drowning in a nepenthe stamen.

1. Two drunk brothers in the 1700s took care of that, they sold everything to spend on whiskey and women; if women could have owned property then, maybe I would be rich as she was.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Harpo Out of Hell: MIAMI BLUES (1990)

There's a time to play Monopoly and a time to kick over the board and throw the play money in the air like we're motherfuckin' Scarface (i.e. when we're losing). The Alec Baldwin-goes-nutzoid "Florida Noir" classic, Miami Blues (1990) is for that time. Those of us who've done that, we may be normally sane, but we have our moments, and we get how liberating it can be to kick back and watch your unrestrained id run amok. We can only really do that when we 'wake up' in a dream. But what is film if not a dream and yet how few are those characters who 'waken up.'  That's why Junior (Baldwin) is so precious, the herald of the mid-90s id, the missing link between Harpo Marx and Mickey and Mallory Knox, Wendy Kroy, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy in Goodfellas, Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. Before they all popped up from our moldy floorboards to kick the cobwebs of moralistic 80s self-censorship from our sleepy heads, there be Junior. He spooked some critics at the time. I remember reading a savage condemnation of it in the Syracuse student newspaper (I guess the uptight journalism major was taking it on himself to nip an amoral/openly violent cinema in the bud) but for those of us who saw it, especially we of the drinking class of 1989, we loved it. We needed it. Tarantino needed it. Paul Thomas Anderson needed it. Abel Ferrara needed it. Blues was the herald of their brand of amoral, violence-positive cinema, the kind that trusted the audience not to riot in an orgy of bloodlust just because the lesbians got away with murder.

That manic early 90s phase is long gone now, but for awhile cinema was a bonfire full of toothsome, fanged chestnuts. And way up atop the flickering flames there was Junior... blazing extra white before cracking open and spattering nut bits all over the living room. Sure it makes a mess and doesn't really thrill you (since you're the one who has to clean up), but damn wasn't that a fine bang?!

Adapted from the Charles Willeford novel, and directed by that shaggy dog beachcomber director George Armitage, Miami Blues is a violent Marx Brothers opus writ large in the Miami pastels of the post-Miami Vice era. The book is one of a series chronicling the adventures of hangdog cop Hank Moseley (here played by a perfectly-cast Fred Ward), loping after Junior for a bullshit manslaughter charge after he breaks a Moonie's finger at the airport. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars as the dimwitted prostitute Junior plays house with, and the trail Junior leads Mosley on features random crimes of utmost ballsiness, especially after Junior breaks into Mosely's bedroom and steals his dentures, gun, and badge. 

Thus begins Junior's deadpan adventures in cop impersonation. Even going so far as to stop crimes when he stumbles on them (there's nary a store not being held-up when Junior is not in earshot), Junior shows that in some cockeyed way he has ethics. He robs crack dealers with a miniature plastic Uzi; rolls pickpockets for the wallets they just stole; knocks over bookies by playing cop with Mosely's stolen badge, and so forth. There's no visible rhyme or reason to Junior's actions, but everything is logical because he acts on our expectations, based on what we see him see. If we see him in a convenience store during a robbery in progress, we naturally assume he'll try to stop it, as most heroes do in these kind of movies, so he does, even if all he has for a weapon is a jar of spaghetti sauce. If the security guard seems a little too cocky with his shotgun at the pawn shop, it's natural Junior will shoot him as soon as his back is turned, even if there's no real motive except to stay in the playful Joker/Marx-like fluidity of the moment, regardless of consequences.

There's no other way to contextualize the anarchy at work here--the only precedent is the Marx Brothers, which the author/s are well aware of, signaled by the in-joke of Junior's initial alias, Herman Gottlieb. i.e. Sig Ruman's ever-fuming, Mrs. Claypool-courting Baroni-signer in MGM's Night at the Opera (1935), a film I saw so many times as a kid that its textures and rhythms cloak me still in a kind of cinephile temple garment. And it's that very same garment that holds the secret to the madness of Baldwin's maniacal character, his crazy Marxian "life is but a dream so row-row yer way straight out the Truman Show" way of being. Forever caught in an old world (pre-WW2) bourgeois slow burn harrumph as Groucho dances verbal circles around him and Harpo sets his shoes on fire, it's only natural that old Mr. Gottlieb would eventually get his wallet lifted and identity stolen by a light-fingered Harpo out of Hell. How else might we measure the high crusting curves of the madness at work?

The real Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) center, and driving the bus top right
But Armitage doesn't rely on this id-fulfillment to the point his film ceases to be entertaining or to function successfully as Leonrard-esque (*) Florida noir comedic crime thriller. He knows that if Junior's unleashed id is too self-serving, or sadistic, the result will cease to be fun and become instead merely lurid and disturbing (Killer's Moon, Clockwork Orange);  if too anarchic, the result would derail our narrative immersion (Daisies, Weekend). If it's juuuust right, then you got the Marx Brothers (in their first seven films), Bela Lugosi in The Raven, Timothy Carey (in everything)... then... who else is left?

Then the answer come a-back: Alec Baldwin. He's left. And now that Blues is on a crisp, gorgeous Shout Blu-ray it's not just a chance to remember how goddamned charismatic and hirsute old Alec used to be, it's a comforting sign that true anarchic Harpo Marx madness shall not perish from the screen... Baldwin--a classic film lover (and TCM regular commentator), he clearly gets it.


Most guys as good looking as Alec are, let's face it, dull as chalk; they never had to develop a personality, so never did. Occupied with making sure their hair is perfect, their best angle facing the camera, their neck long and their eyes twinkly, they forget to accrue depth. No emotion registers on their face lest wrinkles appear. As a result, they come across often as drugged narcissist automatons drained of all wit and regular guy who-gives-a-fuckitude. They become empty aquariums, dusty with the kind of self-righteous petulance they're convinced is the height of butch charisma. The only time they come alive is when they see a mirror. 

Not our Baldwin.

With his balanced Irish-American boxer stance, Baldwin comes off as real, a real guy, even when he's acting the part of a charming actor who knows he's fake. No easy feat, he makes Junior a true a cipher without being a bore about it; charming without being cocky, crazy without being aggravating, cool without being pretentious, beyond the need for phony sentiment but brave enough not to run from a real emotion should it ever breezes past. Best of all, he has the glint of real madness in his eyes, the kind you can't fake.


A lot of us kids who grew up obsessively watching all the Marx Brothers and the Lugosi movies we could tape in the early 80s, naturally fell in love with Repo Man in 1984, but were left in the cold at the end of the 80s. In the pre-Tarantino-verse of 1990, Blues stood alone. We fans had a tracking-issue VHS dupe of it, taped off cable, and we had long grown used to the blurry pastel streaks of the decor and sky the fuzzy short hair cuts of both Junior and Susie reduced to a blurry halo. With the new Shout Blu-ray its all sharp and clear, with a nice lovely sparkle to the sea and sky and deep 3-D blacks to every sun-dappled shadow. The 80s pastels are darker, more textured,  and the transfer is so sharp you can smell the salt of the sea. The extras include recent interviews with Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both admit really enjoying themselves with the project, the characters, and each other, and it shows then and now.

As I said earlier, the film had its detractors, some of whom declared it emblematic of a rise in nonsensical nihilism. Those critics were clearly pretentious twits, the type who mistakes bitterness for acumen, their minds hardened with dogmatic readings of western dialectical philosophy. Today they're probably going to see the flaccid remake of Far From the Maddening Crowd at some UWS theater with their embittered wives. Fuckin' A.

In other words, the average petit-bourgeois New York Times-perusing filmgoer will not approve of Miami Blues, which seems like an open invitation to the underclasses to rise up and boot them out of their condos. But it's the reverse, really: Junior lets us release our anger vicariously. Out it comes in gushing waves of joy, an air pocket of tyrannical childhood, that playing Godzilla rampaging the building block city catharsis, that which lies beyond good and evil now rising like an oil gusher, lifting us up off the surface of our becalmed flat stoned moviegoing consciousness.

One wild man performance is worth three movies worth of 'importance' or 'meaning.'

We see Junior's kind of kinetic free-form insanity so seldom, especially in today's nanny state clime, that when it comes along in the form of dear old Baldwin it's like a precious little match in the Hans Christian Anderson blizzard of sanctified sanity His is the flammable madness that takes that fluttery match and lights up the sky for just long enough to let us see the vastness of heaven. And then the match is out, the sky is dark, the house lights come back up, the veil of paralyzing self-consciousness descends once more like a clingy Psycho shower curtain, and not even Fred Ward can be held accountable for what we do to try and get that fire back. We wind up in rehab, or as deranged loners, buried deep in our bomb shelters, watching our Night of the Opera tape over and over 'til the tracking button can fix the worn streaks no more... and the last packet of powdered bourbon is long ago thrice soaked.

* (I haven't read Willeford's work so I keep referencing Leonard, as the style seems similar, forgive me, Charles


And if you know you're in a dream, that nothing is real, why wouldn't you do all the things you never had the nerve to do in reality? An old friend of mine (through another friend) from the Princeton Blues Traveler days, Fisher (not his real name), lived that way. He was living legend amongst the local mix of debauched upper dregs at the 80s hippie-music-Princeton Record Exchange / Hoagie Haven / searching the ground and trash outside the Princeton Reunion parties for admission badges to crash in and drain their kegs and dig their Dixieland bands / pre-fame Blues Traveler (next time you see them, say hello from "Boot in his Hair!" --the name they gave me the morning after Max's 1988 New Years party ( I don't remember anything about that night between around 11 PM and the next morning but I woke up with dried vomit in my hair, then drove them all home) / Althea gave me her last double purple barrel (call me, Althea! I love you xoxo)- contingent. Princeton!! 

That 'Fisher' he a some boy all right.
I thought they were just making Percheur up, like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan until I finally met him at a big outdoor bonfire keg party somewhere in the wilds of Princeton towards the back end of my 'tenure', so to speak. He seemed pretty normal, drinking, as we all did, talking about people I didn't know to people I sort of knew, but as the night wore on he spied some other dude he kind of didn't like from the other side of the bonfire. 

The party was kind of relaxing and dull but, at one point, suddenly Percheur fell to his knees and in an overhand pinwheel motion, his head down, facing down (looking in the opposite direction of his target), in a seamless falling motion as if the bottle was released accidentally--his half full Bud tall boy soared high into the air out of sight into the darkness.

If you've ever flung a half-full tall boy straight up in the air backwards you know it's not easy to get either distance or accuracy and this toss seemed like he just lost balance (no one but me was even watching him), upon releasing it he fell forwards, rolled and hid behind a car fender. The ca landed with pinpoint accuracy, face up, straight atop the guy's head, and-- with a thonk-- bounced off onto the ground, and landed face up. I don't even think a drop was spilled. 

I pretended not to notice and refrained from looking directly at either Percheur or the guy on the other side of the fire once he got hit, but I clocked him as this huge motherfucker in a frat jersey, who looked right over in Percheur's direction, and walking angrily, almost through the fire, right towards where he hid. But when I turned to look, Percheur had disappeared; the guy ran past me, and took off after him into the dark surrounding forest. Fisher spent the rest of the party on the run, coming back to the keg periodically for a refill, suddenly glancing past me and running off; the guy entering frame a moment later in pursuit - not friendly pursuit, either, but seriously aching for a huge party-crashing bad vibe fight. Not sure if he ever caught him, but to this day it's the single most amazing throw I've ever seen.

But that story is nothing, Max shrugged it off as but lesser Percheur amidst the man's storied mythic annals. I asked about him recently (20 years or so later). and Max said last time he heard of him was when--inspired by Miami Blues, which by then had become a huge cult favorite down there--he stole a fireman's badge and was pulling over cars on the road to fuck with them and/or steal their drugs

And from then on they called him 'Princeton Blues.'


Soon after of course the neighborhood was altered by Blues Traveller's success, and while they were on tour, the rest of the crowd would be smoking crack and watching pre-code WB gangster movies on TCM, which I respected. I still have the tape their manager Dave Martin they made me of Two Seconds, Picture Snatcher and Beast of the City. (TCM was rarity back then - my neighborhood didn't have it - few did - so he hooked me up). But where are any of them now? Who knows. My buddy got married. Drugs, fame, motorcycle accidents, and age took the rest. But hey, like they do in pre-code Warner's gangster films and like Junior does in Miami Blues, the free man alone may soar to the heights the burdened only dream of, until

Oops he fell. 

As we all did. 

But hey, you have to be high before you can splat --that's the arc of a gangster. It ends and it's time for teeth to be returned to the ground floor Mosleys. Walter Brennan in Red River asking for them back 'come grub' after losing them in a poker game to Chief Yowlachie, now called 2-Jaw Quo.

Detective Gummo, your teeth had never ground so free as they did in this man's hand; he carried them above the clouds, atop the spirit sky frog he could not refrain from biting.

"come chow, you get"

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