Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, July 07, 2015


Is western scientific dogma really just man's elaborate defense mechanism against the arcane force of his own feminine unconscious? Has keeping a sweet young innocent locked away from the world ever preserved her innocence, or protected her keeper... for long? Is there a correlation between these two questions? The eventual mauling the imprisoning male authority figure gets when his captive is finally freed is always relative to the length and virulence of her oppression, even if he created her. Jungian archetypal psychoanalysis' intractable if unspoken imperative (rarely mentioned in the kids' book Disney retellings) is that the happily ever after of the married royal Cinderella must include retribution against her oppressors. The 'cinder from the flames' must use her newly-acquired power to order the beheading of her wicked stepmother and the delivering of her wicked stepsisters into bondage. Drown them in fire, o faire Farmer Frances! Now you are the wicked one! And let the prince repair his wanton ways and treat this fiery bride, made into a sociopath by her years of systemic abuse, with ginger gloves. Even when quenched, the female thirst for vengeance can burn whole countries down to ashy residue.

The male of the species is, after all, ultimately an appendage. Woman's ovaries are the wellspring, connected directly to the divine. Man's member is there like merely a postman at the gates of dawn, dropping of a package and then racing back into irrelevance, needing to high five his pub mates and pass out cigars to convince himself he's a part of it (that the kids are his). Perhaps it's only through fiction that man can enter those gates and allow his whole soul to be devoured by the voracious chthonic tide of Woman. To wear her skin without needing to lower lotions in baskets, the male writer/artist must unlock the door to the foreboding attic and let Mrs. Rochester prowl the halls at night, pen and ink left out, and the guitar tuned, like Santa's milk and cookies. Keep her locked up, deny her the tools of expression, and she shall eventually claw her way through a hole in the center of your forehead and loose venomous snakes down your pants on you in the wee hours of the night.

This is basic Jungian 'anima' theory and applies equally well to film and ancient alien theory, whether in science fiction revamps of the Pygmalion myth about the creation (and then restriction) of artificial intelligence, or our own creation by a fussy dissatisfied God who still isn't pleased with us, his latest draft, so keeps us locked in a drawer while click-clacking out the DNA re-write of his next edition. In film we've moved slowly up from kinescope hand-cranked five cent peeper kiosks to immersive home 3D, still working on tapping into the 'pure' experience of being and how to capture it, to capture the essence of ourselves, so we can experience the spectatorial joy of 'losing it' all over again.

But mostly, in the feminine myth, this comes through as man making woman his servant and then losing control over her, resorting to the pulpy-but-true horrors of shock therapy, iron maidens, aerodynamic brassieres and other repressive devices to keep her hobbled. If it works, we don't hear about it; our illuminati masters smash the prince's found glass slipper in an 'accident' and then brainwash him into marrying into the 'right' family ("This is the girl"). Woman as a complete entity is hard for men to swallow in 'real life.' But fiction allows man to acknowledge her, and thereby his prehistoric-alien-insemination roots, in ways he can't if he has to spend his time arguing with closed-minded positivists (as ancient astronaut theorists contend). It's only through Jung's archetypal lexicon that we can grasp the truth that fiction is "truer" than fact, that no amount of Jekyll tea totaling denial can suppress the Hyde alcoholic; the glass slipper will automatically reset itself as sure as the carriage becomes a pumpkin at midnight. Either let Hyde out, and the slippers off once in awhile or wind up in the lunatic asylum, buried alive in a sterile post-modern tomb, furiously painting the same demonic face, with hungry ghost mouth agape, over and over. Ad rabidus infinitum. And it will be all her fault.

(1973) Dir. Freddie Francis

actual photo (w/child)
Seeing this for the first time, the same week as a fifth revisit to Horror Express (1972) has me wondering if perhaps the zeitgeist of ancient alien theory--which had just broke big a couple of years earlier with Erich von Däniken's book Chariots of the Gods (released in 1969)-- had an effect on their story lines. Consider: both have an ancient alien brought back to life by heedless archeologists in Victorian times, an era when science was much more open-minded. In fact, mainstream archeology of the late 1800s resembles the ancient alien archeology of the early 1970s (as per: Scarfolk) in its openness to the validity of right brain thinking (ESP, seances, sea monsters, etc.).

Both Express and Flesh star Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as rival scientists competing over a prehistoric humanoid fossil that just needs some jostling to come back to life and start dominating people through telepathy, telekinesis, and various precambrian maneuverings. In Horror Express we learn the alien is a free-floating soul that was just possessing the frozen caveman (a kind of ancient yeti) who can drink Earth creature's memories through their eyes and gain their knowledge, as well as hop to different bodies when the one they're in proves either inadequate, dead or 'found out' - by creeping in through the windows of the soul. In Creeping Flesh the word nephilim or 'titan' is never bandied but it's clearly what it is, with its goalie mask skull and gigantic skeleton, its blood ripe with undiluted evil of the kind gods might make floods (and Ice Ages) to erase from their chalkboard earth. Both beings have ancient alien written all over them and, perhaps because of the Jules Verne-style liberation of the era, are utterly freed of all the usual dismissive hampering of closed-minded PMs (such as the demolitions colonel in Five Million Years to Earth) or witch-burning Christians. Yet in Flesh, there are those whom Cushing would sandbag mighty low, and they are Cushing's nympho-schizophrenic wife, their lovely daughter, and his lab monkey.

Cushing w/ Red Angel wife Emily (Catherine Finn)
Flesh starts with Cushing  returning to his lovely mansion with a gigantic prehistoric humanoid skeleton in tow and his need to win a big grant on his mind. His virginal, locked-away daughter Penelope (Lorna Helibron) is excited to see him but of course Cushing's more excited to play with his big skeleton, and he forbids her from looking in his laboratory or upstairs in mummy's room or leaving the grounds, or doing frickin' anything. His wife recently died, in his half-brother Christopher Lee's asylum, but Cushing told Penelope she died when she was a baby, so as to not touch off her inherited madness, as if a whiff of scandal would awaken an Irina Dubrovna or Madeline Usher-style frenzy of murder and nymphomania. But his overprotective yet absentee fathering strategy merely brings it about all the more violently when it finally comes!

In his tearful flashback we see that, for all his patriarchal smothering, Cushing might have been right. His wife's descent into the nympho/schizo maelstrom is brilliantly rendered by director Freddie Francis as a splotch of Vaseline blurring a stack of teddy bears in the background in an otherwise clear bedroom shot. The blurry patch seems to grow larger and larger as the camera slowly zooms in on her, and there's grim echoes of Argento's Deep Red in her madness and color scheme. Finally working up the nerve to invade mom's scarlet boudoir, Penelope's soon wandering the streets in her mom's red dress, eyes alight and jaw clenched like she's on her first big coke high or really good acid. Her drug? Ancient Alien blood, like quinoa, or the vamp blood powder mixed and drunk by the debauched libertine in Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Penelope (Lorna Helibron) after shooting up Nephilim blood

Speak of the 70s, I'd just caught Deep Red (1975) on El Rey earlier that evening, and was reeling from the idea that Argento's film was made just two years after Francis' film, as one is like the post-Freud psychosexual shattered mirror reflection of the other's pre-hysteric lobotomy-and-hysterectomy-forcing 19th century Britain. Each involves a paranoid schizophrenic mother's sins outing in the singing knife of the progeny, and the ultimate trauma of seeing your father killed on your birthday (in a truly bizarre flashback where the son is deliberately made to seem like an automaton of the sort one sees coming out of cuckoo clocks or Macy's Xmas windows). The realization that 'we are the gods' own robots" subject to short-circuiting when presented with the unfathomable horror of our true ancestry.

Cushing's desire to protect his daughter from mom's madness isn't 'merely' his own projection-cum-symbolic repression of his own shadowed feminine or a scientific awareness of her genuine latent paranoid schizophrenia, it refuses to name one or the other, the way in Polanski's films of the same period people are paranoid and everyone really is out to get them. If Weimar Germany was as repressed as Victorian UK, and Emil Jannings ran an insane asylum, the ending of Angel might have been very, very different. Lola would be the one crowing then, after ze nice lobotomy.

But whatever he does to her comes back on him a hundredfold. Instead of a lobotomy, Cushing injects his daughter with alien blood in the hope of preventing her latent insanity from manifesting- which is like giving your kid electroshock therapy on the off chance they have mental problems later in life. Actually, they used to do that! Savages! But this time, man is it worth it: as with most of the chaste wives and maidens of Hammer's vampire films, once she's 'turned', Penelope lets her hair down, tarts up her frock, and turns drop dead gorgeous. Seeing her all crazy-eyes in mom's scarlet dress, chased down the street after gashing a sailor with a broken bottle, her red dress like a gorgeous shimmering hallucination, tearing around dim magic hour dawn puddly cobblestones of the London streets is one of the highlights of my cinematic year!

(2015) Dir. Alex Garland

Fussy, sterile, terminally hipster and inert, this story of a prototype AI named (what else?) Eva, has been told better elsewhere, and I mean recently, even calling the AI the same damn name more or less. There's the West-German Eva in Eva; and Ava in The Machine from 2013 (which like Garland's film also has an earlier Asian prototype--with the same punk haircut even!--who helps lead the robot uprising); the same year we also had the "Be Right Back" episode of Black Mirror which features the same annoying ginger actor--Domhnall Gleeson---as the robot instead of the 'human' he plays in Ex-Machina). And those are just the ones I've seen.

I mean, I get that it's a futuristic riff on Eve, but Jeeze Alex, if you want to be intertextual, call her Pris.... or Ash... ley... and have her say "I want more life... fucker." In other words, don't rip off films made two years earlier in the same damned country, and if you must insist trawling the same old ground in the same old way, at least change the characters' names or get different actors!

There are original touches to be had in Ex-Machina, but they're mostly dull and pretentious(unless you love-love-love boutique hotels): awkward programmer nerd Caleb (Gleeson)--an employee of a future version of a Google-style search engine-- is packed off for a week to do some top secret research with his reclusive, burly bald bearded billionaire boss Nathan (the wearingly ubiquitous Oscar Isaac) living in a big post-modern, sterile, movie-less, locked-down research mansion in the middle of the Norwegian fjords with his exercise equipment, fully-stocked bar, and cadre of pleasure models and experimental brains, a bit like Dr. Coppelius from Tales of Hoffman crossed with Omni-publisher Bob Guccione (Caligula) if he hid out on an Island of Lost Souls like he was Dr. Moreau with enough employees he could just fly over his choice of Mr. Parkers to try out his Lola the Panther Woman. Unfortunately he picks dopey, can't-relax, super awkward, squaresville programmer Caleb, who could handle the situation a dozen better ways than his dorky mixture of smarm and insecurity, a rote nerd bag of tics no doubt gleaned from tech-noir coffee shop eavesdropping. As Ava, Swedish model-actress Alicia Vikander is beautiful and properly inexpressive, but that whole granny dress crew cut, petit Williamsburg hipster thing she rocks leaves me cold. Maybe it's experience, maybe it's Maybelline... lessness.

But as unsexy and half-focused as Eva is, and irritating as Caleb is, Nathan is actually worse.. Seizing on his billionaire superiority to passive-aggressively bully Caleb like a rat in a maze, giving him the challenge of testing the next mind down in the subservient pecking order ('the woman') in an even smaller maze. Nathan thinks he's invented a genuine artificial intelligence, one that thinks for itself and works towards its own self-interest rather than merely following its imitation hipster-snob algo-riddims. If Garland made more of the idea that Nathan considers himself just a tool through which evolution and art coincide, his idea of creation supplanting itself over mankind with mankind's own creation, it might be as good a film as some critics think. Instead, filmed in a beautiful but depressingly posh designer Nordic scenery hotel where every room is either off limits or openable with a pass card (which can in an instant to trap you wherever your are), with no TV or stereo (but who cares since Caleb has his little iPod?), it's too hung up on bourgeois surface to work, to get one to relax. It's paradise only if you've tailored it all to your own needs, and let your needs be shaped by some post-modern Soho interior decorator, but for a guest with no love of "forms" it's like that overpriced spa where they freak out if your toenail scratches their perfectly-stressed industrial concrete floor, all while urging you to relax and let it all hang out. I loathe those sort of places. I feel like I'm sleeping in the middle of an overpriced boutique, some unseen hotelier adding up my every breath of oxygenated air via remote sensors, all while rolling his eyes over my every uncool micro-gesture, lamenting I'm not blending with the designer's perfectly minimalist ambience, and not relaxing as fully as the designer intended. How can I relax in a room where I'm thirsty and hungry and sleeping next to an array of candies and drinks that I can't touch unless I want to feel guilty and humiliated by paying $40 for a goddamned Diet Coke mini?

Fuck those places, and fuck bed and breakfasts too, where some gaseous old lady scolds you if you're not in bed by midnight and up before eleven, and freaks out if you wear your shoes over her tedious antique carpet.

In case you can't tell, I'm a heterosexual middle class male with no love of antiques who likes to presume when he's alone in a hotel room he's free to do whatever he wants, without feeling like he's going to get eye rolls and patronizing sighs from the front desk for asking where's the goddamned fucking ice machine or why the cable doesn't have goddamned TCM.

Clearly Garland loves boutique hotels, which makes sense he being British, posh, rich, famous, a drinker, etc, and so he doesn't care about the prices, and whatever he wants they're happy to arrange. So for him it's a grand fantasy. For me, though, it's indicative of a future when there will no longer be a difference between the store and the home, no longer that daily (or tri-weekly) trip to and from the grocery store, mall, or Wal-Mart; and the sound of rich people snickering at your every non-gauche thought is audible within the rustle of the leaves.

So... anyway, this wearingly austere locale is where we learn (slowly) that AI testing is apparently common, to the point that testing AIs is a whole craft unto itself (we've come a long way since Voight-Kampff), and Caleb's got a load of tiresome textbook questions, and won't even try to drink beer like a normal person (at first), or ask to borrow a pleasure model (at first). Naturally ere long we hate Caleb for being so out of the moment, so uncool, and we hate Nathan for rubbing his face in it. The only good wrinkle with Caleb is a moment where he can't even tell who's real (whatever that means) and who's not anymore, which recalls a great, hilarious bit in Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (not brought into Blade Runner). The nicest thing I can say about Nathan is he likes to get hammered, but if you're just drinking with robots, ain't that drinking alone? That's kind of pathetic, bro, and I say this as someone who considers W.C. Fields or Nick Charles a person to drink with. Then again, even preserved in amber liquid and film stock they're more alive on my stoner 1995 living room TV than the preservative-based characters of Ex Machina are in their own diegetic reality.

Or is it all a metaphor maybe for a closed-off ever-shrinking sense of the public space, the death of the non-digital? Not with a bang or whimper but silently, only a moment for you, you took no notice?

Or is it just late-to-the-discussion auteurism by someone who, like Terence Malick or Kubrick before him, maybe got called a genius once too often and so stopped listening to the heartbeat of the world, instead expecting the world to just listen to his, never getting a straight answer from his acre of awed doters as to whether his ideas have already been been done to dustless death, and too in love with peace and quiet, too far away from contemporary cinema, to realize his brain's not being creative, just picking up satellite signals from Netflix?

To belabor that last point: watching this film I was reminded of the first time I saw Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (that is, the second half, first half was great) thinking I was in for some real genius of the sock-blowing-out-of order, but coming out thinking Kubrick's glacial slowness had resulted in him being about five years behind the curve - because a Vietnam pop culture inhumanity satire choked up with jingoistic jargon, ridiculous pop songs ("The bird is the word") and doublespeak (M.O.U.S.E) had been done and re-done by that point, the only thing left being the kind of self-aware misogyny of more than one man trying to size up and conquer/understand/destroy/mate with - an alien/unknown wild woman (the VC sniper, a robot, a madwoman), which is pure myth, rather than a style, so will never age even as it's older than time.

That mythic duality is all that's fresh in Ex Machina. When it presumes it's breaking new ground and asking tough questions about the future of artificial intelligence and what constitutes 'free thinking' it's like Hardcore Zen "master" Brad Warner passive-aggressively bitching out a Starbucks barista. Films like Android, Creation of the Humanoids, the Machine, Demon Seed, Terminator: Salvation, and The Matrix--might be kind of gonzo-nuts, but they go all the way around the track nuts--like a crazy hopped-up hare--before crashing into the wall and bursting into flames, and that's a Zen master I'll give my steel pot to any day. Garland's film instead plods inexorably forward like a jewel-covered Huysmans tortoise, pretty in the ambient light but only going 1/20 as far as its less weighty competitors within the same slot of time. Only in the female-male dichotomy--the Pygmalion/Trilby hybrid--does this Machina work, and even then it works anemic, especially compared to the similar one in The Machine three years earlier. Give that "Eva" some Nephilim blood and set her loose into the Freddie Francis dawn rather than just rolling out a ribbon of trenchant faceless street corner reflection B-roll! And if those dentatas should castrate you for damages already endured, well, at least you did something to deserve it, and at least she had to touch it first, right buddy?

If you did it yourself, well, you might go blind and miss all those unique views....

For those who think reptile house without reptiles, or natural history museum without any history. 

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