Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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. 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 selling off of her wicked stepsisters into bondage. 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 on a whim.

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 buddies and pass out cigars to convince himself he's a key part, like a guy who hits a slot machine jackpot trying to convince himself it took skill. Perhaps it's only through such wool-pulled-over fictions that man can enter those gates and allow his whole soul to be devoured by the voracious chthonic tide of Woman, and convince himself he 'took' something from her, rather than vice versa.

There is only one way he can collaborate with woman and be the birth mother - via art. His feminine unconscious is the one who impregnates his fertile conscious imagination. He must figuratively unlock the foreboding attic and let Mrs. Rochester prowl the halls at night; his pen and ink left out on the coffee table, and his guitar tuned, like flowers luring bees with sweet perfumes. Keep her locked up, deny her the tools of expression, and you'll get mighty stung.

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 (possible mechanized) 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.

But mostly, the male-as-mother creation myth comes through as man trying to tame woman, to keep her docile and silent, resorting to the pulpy-but-true horrors of shock therapy, iron maidens, aerodynamic brassieres and other repressive devices to keep her hobbled if he fails.

If his repressive conscious projection scheme 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"). For some of us, it's maybe just as well. Woman as a complete entity is hard for men to swallow in 'real life.' Only the Perseus mirror shield of fiction allows man to acknowledge her true chthonic devouring gorgon nature, and thereby his prehistoric-alien-insemination roots, in ways he can't if he has to spend his time arguing with closed-minded skeptics re - some kind of rewriting of the history books. 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 the Hyde/madwoman out 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 still 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. Nigel Kneale beat them all to it with Quatermass and the Pit (1967) so maybe that does the honors. Either way - Express and Flesh each have such similar stories you can sense a conspiracy right there (neither are Hammer films, nor from the same studio, but both emulate and maybe even surpass Hammer): both revolve around an ancient alien fossil brought back to life by heedless archeologists in the Victorian era (when science was much more open-minded about the ancient alien theory, apparently). Both films star Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as rival scientists battling the creature and its archaic skills in telepathy, telekinesis, and other assorted precambrian maneuverings. In Horror Express, the alien is a free-floating intelligence freed from the fossil of a frozen caveman (a kind of ancient yeti) when a guard looks to long into its red eyes. In Creeping Flesh the word nephilim or 'titan' is never bandied, but with its huge saurian skull and skeleton, its marrow blood ripe with undiluted evil of the kind gods might make floods (and Ice Ages) to erase from their chalkboard Earth, what else could it be? Both beings have 'ancient alien' written all over them and, perhaps because of the Jules Verne-style liberation of the depicted era, their existence is never subjected to the dismissive hampering of closed-minded skeptics (such as the demolitions colonel in Five Million Years to Earth) or witch-burning Christians. Yet in Flesh, there are those whom crazy 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 the need to win a big grant to keep exploring weighing 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. For no real reason, he forbids her from looking in his laboratory or upstairs in her presumably-dead mommy's room or leaving the grounds, or doing frickin' anything. Turns out the mom 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 coloring. Finally working up the nerve to invade mom's scarlet boudoir, Penelope's soon wandering the streets in mom's red dress, her hair wild, eyes alight and jaw clenched like she's on her first big coke high or really good acid. Her drug? Ancient Alien blood injected into her by Cushing to try and cure her of the madness which hasn't even yet manifested, like giving your kid electroshock therapy on the off chance they have mental problems later in life. Horrifying!

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 in her wild freedom from inhibitions. Seeing her crazy eyes as she goes running down the street after gashing a sailor with a broken bottle, her red dress like a gorgeous shimmering hallucination in the cobblestone puddles, may well be the highlight of my cinematic year!

Penelope (Lorna Helibron) after shooting up Nephilim blood

Speaking 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. One is like the post-Freud psychosexual shattered mirror reflection of the other's pre-hysteria. 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 epiphany of both is of course that 'we are the gods' own robots" subject to short-circuiting when presented with the unfathomable horror of our true ancestry. Is this not perhaps the root of our government's own fear of letting us know the full truth of our alien origins?

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. In the film's refusal to name one or the other as the cause it mirrors 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. Dietrich's naughty Lola would be the one crowing then, after ze nice lobotomy.


(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. 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); and the "Be Right Back" episode of Black Mirror S.2 (which features the same annoying ginger actor--Domhnall Gleeson---but as the robot instead of the 'human' he plays in Ex-Machina.)

I mean, I get that it's a futuristic riff on Eve, but jeeze, Garland, 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. Don't you? I loathe them!). Most of the time is spent with awkward programmer nerd Caleb (Gleeson), an employee of a five minutes-into-the-future version of faux-Google, selected to do some top secret tests at the house of his reclusive, burly, bald-but-bearded billionaire boss Nathan (the wearingly ubiquitous Oscar Isaac) currently living in a big post-modern, sterile, TV-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, Nathan is a bit like Dr. Coppelius from Tales of Hoffman crossed with Omni-publisher Bob Guccione if he hid out on an Island of Lost Souls with enough employees he could just fly over his choice of Mr. Parkers to try out his Lola the Panther Woman. Unfortunately for us all, he picks super awkward programmer Caleb, who could handle the situation a dozen better ways than his rote nerd bag of smarmy tics, all no doubt gleaned by Garland 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 as cold as I am about boutique hotels, and smarmy passive aggressive shitbag gingers.

Irritating as Caleb is, Isaac's Nathan is 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 creator's imitation hipster-snob algorithms. He wants Caleb to be the fresh meat (the Edward Parker, if you know your Island of Lost Souls inhabitants). In interviews, Garland says that he wanted to convey how Nathan considers himself just a tool through which evolution and art coincide, but this idea of supplanting mankind with mankind's own creation isn't as clearly or cleverly illustrated as Garland seems to think. Instead, filmed in a beautiful but depressingly posh designer Nordic scenery hotel, where every room is either locked or openable with a pass card (which can in an instant to trap you wherever your are), with no TV or stereo, it's too hung up on bourgeois minimalist surface to posit any question other than: when will this joyless, airless, suffocating, isolating, infuriating experience end?

To me, boutique hotels work only for those art design and COMD majors who enjoy having their personal comfort stripped to nonexistence by some post-modern minimalist interior decorator, but for a guest with no love of "forms" over function it's like that overpriced spa where they expect you to relax and let it all hang out but sneer at you if your toenail accidentally scratches their glazed concrete floor. In case you can't tell, I loathe those sort of places. When I'm in a boutique hotel, I feel like I'm sleeping in the middle of an overpriced posh shop, 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 how I'm not blending with the 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 warm 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 on 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 ice machine or why the cable doesn't work.

Ugh, sorry for that rant. It had to be said, though.

So... anyway, this wearingly austere locale is where we learn (slowly) that AI testing is apparently common in this future, to the point that testing AIs is a whole craft unto itself (we've come a long way since Voight-Kampff). 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 uncool, and we hate Nathan for choosing him, apparently for no real reason other than rubbing his face in how much more (relatively) cool he is. (Is that why he was picked? To make Nathan feel less like a dork?) The only good wrinkle with Caleb is a moment where he can't even tell who's real (whatever that means) and who's artificial, which recalls a great, hilarious bit I'm sure Garland cribbed from Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (but Scott left out of 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 legitimate person to drink with. Then again, even preserved in amber liquid and film stock, Fields and Charles are more alive on my stoner 1995 living room TV than the preservative-based characters of Ex Machina within their own diegetic reality.

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

Or is it just an example of a self-isolated auteur whose lack of contact with pop culture leads has cut him off from knowing which ideas have been done already and whose auteur status means none of the ten lackeys he lets into his life have the cajones to tell him 'the Simpsons did it.' Is Garland someone who--like latter-day Malick or Kubrick--maybe got called a genius once too often and so stopped listening to the heartbeat of the world and presumed the world would just listen to his, never getting a straight answer from his acres of awed doters as to whether his ideas have already been been done to dustless death? Maybe, too in love with peace and quiet of boutique hotels in the middle of nowhere, too far away from contemporary cinema, even a talented writer is unable 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 legendary production 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 where a man must 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.

That mythic duality is all that's fresh in Ex Machina. It presumes it's asking tough questions about the future of artificial intelligence and what constitutes 'free thinking' but it comes off like having to watch Hardcore Zen 'master' Brad Warner passive-aggressively bitch out a Starbucks barista. Schlocky (auteur-free!) films like Android, Creation of the Humanoids, the Machine, Demon Seed, Terminator: Salvation, and The Matrix, might be 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 the speed of its less weighty competitors within the same slot of time. That's fine if you want to hang back and tune in to the nowness - but who wants to do that around smarmy hipsters like Caleb and Nathan?

Only in the female-male dichotomy--the Pygmalion/Trilby hybrid--does this Machina work, and even then it works anemic, especially compared to the exact same one in The Machine three years earlier. Give this "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 maybe some good will come of it. And if those dentatas should castrate you for damages 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, you might go blind, and miss all those views....

For those who like their reptile houses without reptiles, and their airless tombs without any cable TV. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...