Saturday, August 29, 2015

Shrooms, for Remembrance: Mel Gibson's HAMLET (1990) in Psychedelic Context

The recent discovery of cannabis traces in Shakespeare's old pipes only confirms it: old William was 'experienced.' It takes weird alchemical magic to write as potently as he did, which means mind altering heights not dreamt of in your dusty professor's tenure-sanctioned philosophy. My high pot-a-this? Will was experienced via the potent psilocybe cubensis mushroom which--lest we forget--grows naturally in the foggy climate of merrye England. Thanks to an obscure but enduring law stretching way back to the ancient times, it's always been an inalienable British right to grow, harvest, sell, and ingest all shrooms. I even saw some for sale at the Portobello Street Fair around 2003-4 right out in the open!!. I thought I'd stepped into an alternate dimension, the Notting Hill Interzone! Then a year or ten later came Ben Wheatley's A Field in England a shroomy old gloaming of a thing, and I knew at last how the Elizabethan Golden Age got its space cadet glow. No matter how adamantly they clench their jaws, trippers of today can't hold a candle to that Elizabethan lot: druid hold-outs, alchemists, astronomers, other alchemists, poets, plants and pie-eyed poppinscrabblers, a party so groovy even God got involved, to wipe out the evil Spanish armada as seen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. God hates buzzkills, Phillip!

And God-sanctioned explorations of the druggy British psyche have been flourishing ever since. Unlike America with it's tendency to overdo things, get lazy, then demonizes, trusty Europe just moderates and keeps all its potent herbs handy in its bag of collective tricks. In this they have seldom wavered up through the centuries, from the metaphysical poets to seances and fairy photography, ghosts haunting ancient castles, Crowley to Jimi Page, to ravers, love thugs, post-druids, neo-alchemists --a vast forward rolling spore network visible only through magical pupil dilation. In making them illegal, the 20th Century tried to induce a whole second Dark Age, to wreak the belated King Phillip's Inquisitor equivalent upon our young stoned psyches, but Elizabeth's tide-altering magic still sinks all narcs.

In the words of Peter Tosh, "let them be melted, Jahjah."

Some bedraagled Inquisitors squiggle ashore though, and take shelter deep inside the culture itself, and from there infects the psyche, which is perhaps that's why today's shroomer is seldom as full of fiery oratory as his forebears. Being on massive amounts of drugs seems to invalidate any insight or artistic breakthrough. Trained by pop culture to think he's 'just high' he never considers trying to transcribe his all-cylinders firing psychedelic madness or record it in coherently poetic dialogue. Lapsing into either incoherence or abstraction (a 'good trip' or a bad trip') with no grasp that art lies in between, these fledgling Boswells fall either into the bad trip asylum (Poe, Lovecraft, Thompson) or the good trip monastery (Ram Dass, Ginsberg), or worse, fake their way along in a kind of faux hip sandalwood snap (Eric Robbins, Robert Hunter).

Only the truly far-out there--too far perhaps, to ever just come rolling back all prodigal once their oats are sewn--can see the shadow of the devil even in the blinding light of God, and vice vera (Yeats, Huxley, Joyce). Only the truly far out--but not so far out they can't keep it together long enough to dodge the ambulance, prison and the strait-jacket--can hold off on an emotional reaction of love or fear, a 'this or that', a 'good or bad' duality trap; only the very few. can hold off on judgment until all duality is burned away and a whole second spectrum of shadow and light emerges (Blake, Shakespeare).

Shakespeare brings that layer of madness into perfect visibility for even sober audiences. They don't need the magical dilated pupils to see the fungal network when his language is there to bring that second spectrum up through the depths. Not all Shakespeare's plays are trippy, but they all have a Sgt. Pepper-type of playfulness when it comes to hip wordplay, continually doubling and tripling meanings, each quip laden containing ornate insults and bodily humor on one end and mercilessly accurate piercings of callow folly on the other. The ability to temper lacerating self-awareness with 'fuck it let's party' kind of gallows' humor wit is the most vital skill in the psychedelic arsenal, and there's no Shakespeare play more layered with this overlapping tide of meaning and counter meaning--none more taken over the edge into full night-tripping weirdness without lapsing into histrionics and babbling brooks--than Hamlet.

And no filmed Hamlet is more attuned to the druggy aspects than Zeffirelli's. No more vibrant, wild-eyed appropriately bonkers Hamlet than Mel.

What a supporting cast: Glenn Close is the queen mother, Paul Scofield the ghost dad, and a 23 year-old saucer-eyed tarot card come to life is Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. I had forgotten all about how awesome she was was until the film poked up through on EPIX the other day. How did I forget? And why didn't I see the shroom connection back in the early 90s when I taped it and watched it around the clock? I was too drunk, too young, Shakespeare too dried in my mind from boring professors and white elephant productions, to fully soak it up. Not even sure why I watched it so often, except that it was great to watch drunk.

Oh yeah, Mad Max Mel Gibson in the lead was the reason, and ironically he's also the main reason today it's not more highly regarded compared to Olivier or Branagh versions. Mel was at the height of his action stardom in 1990, and typecasting being what it was/is, his valiant performance became merely a talk show punchline rather than a cause célèbre. It was a vanity project, they said. Vanity, Horatio? Didn't they mean frailty?

Frailty thy name is Mel. For he hath from the high horse fallen, and the wild-eyed craziness we always knew was really there under the wild-eyed crazy acting is now exposed. But doesn't that make this then the exact right time to re-evaluate his performance as one of the rare truly crazy Hamlets? Now we can taste the tang of acid in Zeffirelli's glowing air, can feel it twist and burn in our saliva, feel it slithering across the decades towards us like a dead king-eating, fractal-spewing, black hole wurm. We see now that Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet didn't just hit big with the free love generation because it tapped the war protest zeitgeist and was gorgeous to look at but because Zeffirelli bore down to the lysergically venomous poetry in it, so that time seemed to stop as heady madness cracked open the world's mean heart and set-a the dove-a free, and then it was shot down by an embittered, jealous Cupid.

Youth politics has changed since 1968 but you can still feel the psychedelic pulse in all Zeffirelli's subsequent work. Maybe he was always hoping, like so many of us, that his next film might strike the match that lights the fuse that blows his legend back to life. I reviewed the entire Zeffirelli canon for the Muze while I was newly sober, and seeing his long version Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972) over the same weekend made me a blissed-out, converted Christian for three days, and I wasn't on anything on but the 'pink cloud' of early sobriety - and acid flashbacks. I almost got my own bible or went to church before the spell wore off. So I feel, in a sense, Franco was my first AA sponsor, which might seem at odds with the psychedelic pulse motif I just talked about, but not if you've experienced both the pink cloud of sobriety AND the 'religious experience' that is a psychedelic "peak"--take it from me, there's not too much difference.

But what Zeffierelli really has is the painter's eye: the classical beautiful dusky painterly style that's almost cliched shorthand for 'art house.' His films pulse with a genuine connection to real Italian painting, stretching back to Michelangelo and the Renaissance; a sublime mix of natural light craftsmanship and genuine artistic-spiritual feeling seethes serpent-in-Eden-like and, from this mighty bulb, psychedelic illumination arises --the dilated pupil third eye point where death and transfiguration meet above the eyes of the tripped-out painter. He's the Italian William Blake! His films create the full spiritual potency of the religious experience, the Stendahl syndrome.

Mel Gibson's great genius in the lead is to use all his star wattage and (real life, it turns out) 'crazy eyes' Martin Riggs Mad Max Aussie wildman energy to bear on Hamlet's mood swings, rather than bury that wattage in some stilted bowing to the pillars of 'important' art (like a Brit or American would). He's fully aware that stuffed shirt critics are going to roll their eyes and--almost to spite them--rolls his own. Ranting and frothing like the dark bad trip cross between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx's paranoid schizophrenic shadow, his Hamlet brings terrifyingly concise coherence to a miasma of late night drug dealer paranoia and the way the fear of death--normally down to a manageable abstraction--becomes terrifyingly vivid during the peak of a trip, compelling you to either get your war face on, like Braveheart, or cower and plead for your annoyed friend to drive you to the ER, like a wally. And then when morning finally breaks, you wonder, "is that the sun or a cop?" And when the band finally comes on after all that standing around, and the players finally arrive to catch the king's conscience, you rush to their holy fool distraction like a drowning man to scorched and dusty desert.

It's not for everyone, that kind of 'high strangeness.' You have to be drawn to it, called by an inner voice. Most people fear letting go to the extent such a journey involves (and not without good reason). They stammer excuses that they read LSD damages chromosomes and they want to have children with only ten fingers; or that they're afraid of going legally insane. What it really is, man, is fear of flying, and it appears in Hamlet courtesy of those men who lead Hamlet to the battlements where his father's ghost walks, then urge him not to follow where it beckons, as even seemingly benevolent spirits can turn into demons and lead off the parapet. How often have dumbass wallies on one too many hits jumped out a window thinking they could fly? Hard to say, as that sort of detail doesn't get reported in general, except through the grapevine--it's just another college student suicide otherwise. The kids who didn't jump are certainly going to be too cool to rat him out to the cops, even if he was a wally.

The thing with psychedelic drugs though, is dosage. A drop gets you high, but drink the whole vial and your psych ward-bound. Your only chance to avoid the bughouse is to get very, very drunk and/or gobble many Thorazine. And as far as I know they haven't made Thorazine for 20 years. That's why any good and responsible dealer takes care in prescribing. Give a sober nerd the same dose as a Woodstock-era Wavy Gravy and you've got either a complete breakdown (like that naked chick trying to crowd surf in Gimme Shelter) or worse, a guy who's not nearly as high as he needs to be (like Marty Ballin).

Thus the detailed caution of Horatio and the rest of Hamlet's entourage, that the father's spirit might be a trickster, the type who tells you three truths so that you believe the fourth (which is the lie) suggests that cognizance of this kind night-tripping trickster was common knowledge of the day --while in our current society it's known only by a very few maligned and scoffed-at fringe dwellers. That Shakespeare had this level of foresight in dealing with such bedevilment (a priest cautions the same thing re: the witches in Macbeth) indicates this was a time when people encountered supernatural trickster advisers frequently (I've encountered them too, been burned in the exact way Horatio worries about).

Black magic is all over Hamlet, as if Elsinore was Page's/Crowley's castle or NASA, i.e. the deep 'rottenness' in Denmark stems from Satanic root blight. We never see the odious Claudius given evil ideas by spirits himself--there's no three witches pronouncing him King of Denmark--but if they did, off camera, maybe it was a trickster spirit's a priori move-countermove to spur Hamlet's rash ghost-fueled frenzy of revenge just so he'd strike amiss and kills doltish Polonious instead, setting off a whole second arc of vengeance this time from Laertes on Hamlet, thus inaugurating one of those chains of sorrow that evil tricksters live for

All that said, Zefflrelli's Hamlet is not all supernatueal druggy madness, this film: it takes him a few beats for Gibson's Hamlet to snap out of his wan funk so the first few scenes are drippy dull, but bear with it for once dad's ghost lures our Mel up to the dangerous heights of the Stonehenge-tower battlements, shit gets real. When Mel comes back down he's like Moses glowing from his mountaintop. It's then Mel's genius madness kicks in, and it remains for the rest of his film. Just like Mel plays a great crazy person because he really is crazy, he performs Hamlet performing his madness as a way to hide his true insanity by conveying it openly (the way two negatives make a positive) a trick most seasoned trippers practice when forced to deal with (alive, sober) parents unexpectedly. Because after seeing his dead dad's ghost, Hamlet's already past the point of no return, no Thorazine will bring him back: arguing with himself, stalling, procrastinating, hallucinating dad wherever he looks, paralyzed with dread, he acts as we all would (hopefully) when compelled to kill our uncle in cold blood. 

Ophelia (her "young woman's wits mortal as an old man's life") follows in his lysergic wake; she's the girlfriend you convince to shroom with you but it's soon clear she's not going to handle it well at all, and you're too far gone yourself to talk her down. Soon she's taking them nonstop and babbling to herself, singing and dancing up and down the parapets. And then, rather than stand firm against her son's spittle-flecked lunacy, soon his mom, too, going mad--as if it's a contagious disease spread by Pontypool-style oratory.  

And as that dame of Denmark, a 23 year-old Helena Bonham Carter, is the most dosed of all Ophelias: super duper young and fetching, able to oscillate brilliantly between innocent, confused, thrilled, blessed, sexually aroused, distracted, crushed, and round-the-bend wavelengths, all in a single bounding wave of a chicken bone she thinks is a flower (but could even more easily be a thick psilocybe cubensis stem), Carter's game for whatever. Like all the best young saucy acting natural blue bloods of England (she's related to baronesses and prime ministers), she's got the kind of class that goes so deep she doesn't ever deign to be merely ladylike. Architecture of the era was designed to compliment her inherited genes, the rarefied poeticism of her cheeks and eyes. Unlike American actors who, alas, get stuck in the white elephant tar pits of bourgeois loftiness when doing Shakespeare, their bodies and tongues forced into all manner of unnatural poses, Carter swims in the language like an undulating fish. It's like that Hawks line: she's so good she doesn't feel she needs to prove it.

A lifetime of decadence and recovery has left me with a sharp eye for who's "been to the mountaintop," i.e. who's ever been 'experienced' in the Hendrixian sense. Gibson, Zeffirelli and Bonham Carter have all been up there, clearly, so when they plunge into heedless madness they do it way better than, say, the sober classical-minded Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh or Olivier or Leigh could (1).

That said, as far as the people who go to Shakespeare plays in America (i.e. the bourgeoisie) are concerned, the more classically highbrow the player, the better, for to them Shakespearean acting must at all times strive for white elephant underlined 'importance' and lofty carriage.

But Shakespeare doesn't need their protection; his work spits openly on such lionization and in doing so elevates itself higher than its forebears --as long as the actors and directors have been to that mountaintop, of course. It can also be as deadly dull as dusty death when that highbrow approach embraces the stilted and draggy as what the 'swells' came to see.

In 1948, mountaintop-been-to madman Welles' termite art Macbeth came to artier theaters but was overshadowed by Olivier's white elephant Hamlet the same year. Olivier's was how Shakespeare should be done, so the bourgeois critical body proclaimed. For Welles, 'done' was the key word. His Shakespeare writhed and pulsed but was never done, as eternal as madness itself. There was the feeling the stage-bound world he created was continuing after the credits rolled, that the next viewing might show a whole different film. Much as I revere Olivier's Hamlet, the best moments are with the ghost dad, who looms in full and weird armor enshrouded by fog and speaking in an echoing boom whisper, a ghost seeming to be flowing right out of Hamlet's fog machine brain. But Welles' entire film flows that way. (See Hallowed be thy Shakes).

Pssst, those stones in the moonlight look like me in about 20 years, i.e. rock, star-crossed, stoned dead - but an experienced space cowboy would just eye this specter and presume it's a hallucination... even if it's real, isn't it safer? 
Zeffirelli's dad ghost (Paul Scofield) flows farther than them all. Hamlet's woeful shattered superego, Scofield is like a bad shroom hallucination. Neither showy or surreal, he's allowed to blend into the darkness so that he may be the moonlight reflected on the mineral veins in the stone of the battlements. Up to the challenge of embodying that most horrified of souls, forbidden by some unseen master specter from spilling the secrets of just how fucked the other side is, Scofield makes the father both horrifying and horrified, the passer of the torch of mortality's great horror - the Medusa shield reflection of the fires of stonework hell.

And when Hamlet comes down from the parapet he's alight like that annoying kid who comes back from Burning Man or the Rainbow Gathering with dreadlocks, a dour but smokin' hot activist girl's phone number, and the feeling he's been chosen to keep the world green. For one semester's stretch he doth berate unreceptive ears with facts gleaned from phone calls with his allegedly corporeal Greenpeace girlfriend. Mel's Hamlet, crying "like a whore" and unpacking his heart with words (and pamphlets) rather than direct and violent action (blowing up a factory), is the woeful midnight tantrum of a lad who realizes no amount of feeling-- poured into his angry young poetry slam soliloquy notebook even unto whiskey stained margin--will undo the catastrophic damage his already crumbling American white male legacy hath wrought upon the whales of the world. Even if he pounds his plodding pen to plastique it would explode no illusion beyond popping the proud bubble of his own inchoate solipsism.

And in this analogy: the college drug dealer, drinking his way towards some chimera self-assurance, his each whiskey shot a fleeting but blessed deliverance from the dead father's terrible injunction, onus comes at a terrible price. He can't even make out with his mother in her bed for a hot sec before ghost dad's ghost pops up, dismayed at this halting of his son's bloody path. But dad, it's smokey!

In order for this all to become psychedelic though, it can't be told by the British, for the Royal Shakespeare Compan are too established and respectful (albeit not quite as drab or 'experimental' as America). Having nothing to prove, neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be at all pious and restrained with this material. Their Hamlet is a raving but hyper-eloquent lunatic, the type to smash phones in hotel lobbies, leave anti-Semitic rants on answering machines, and trash hotel rooms in fits of manic pique, stabbing at the rats he sees in the walls and behind the paisley tapestries of his college dorm (but what about the Poloniuses hiding inside your skin, broh?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkin cinematography uses natural light streaks sparkling with floating castle dust in real, dusky straw and stone locations.

Then, even better, maybe best of all, the at-first-unrecognizable, Ennio Morricone comes laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) only in mom's boudoir, which makes sense as it's such a giallo miasma of murder (stabbing through works of art), Freudian Oedipal insanity, vows of secrecy, maternal guilt, ghostly accusing, and existential alienation. It's a great scene: Glenn Close--despite the tightness of her hippy braids--makes a subtly unhinged queen, following her son's madness like a light off a cliff in the dark, her voice dropping octaves as the horror of the thought her dead husband is in the room, or that her son is about to kill her, or make out with her. Like Ophelia, she follows Hamlet into that blessedly cracked and melted mirror which--through the totality of its warp--undoes sanity's merciful blurring and throws the horror of the real into unyielding focus.

Author at left -Oakwood Cmty, Syracuse NY 1986


The graveyard, Syracuse's Oakwood Cemetery, is where I and my clique of fellow SU sophomores first shroomed (and then shroomed regularly) as college kids in the late 80s, and where we too found a skull, but it wasn't of poor Yorik, but H.B. Crouse one of the trustees of one of the lecture halls... and later on that week we read that some idiot freshman took it back to his dorm and started boiling the skin off (in the communal Flint Hall kitchen) so he could use the skull in an art project. Yeah man, eerie similarities. The morning/afternoon after we first hooked up (me still high on shrooms, natch), me and this gorgeous Italian-American crystal blue-eyed girl who shall be nameless (though I talk about her endlessly on this blog) saw the broken-in tomb and HB Crouse's skull sticking out, and I thought about climbing through the bars to get it (which the more limber of us could do and regularly did, that mausoleum being on the hill we all hung out on). but then she stopped me... and a day later we read about this idiot (above) getting kicked out of school.  I had thought the same thing, get in there, get the skull, boil the parchment skin and long thin gray hair (for hair really does keep growing after death) off in a big pot, and have the coolest of all skull tchotchkes. I was glad I'd listened to her though, then. For it would have no doubt cooled our budding love if naught else.

Man, that nameless crystal blue-eyed girl really did a number on me... so hot, so cool, ultimately so dumb... she could kill a big swinging group conversation stone dead with a single interjection. I didn't realize at the time how really pretty women are often damaged from excessive male attention, that they act like idiots almost as an unconscious passive aggressive dude repellant. And since they never need to develop the wits (frail as an old man's life) by which the lesser mortals up their appeal, they don't. It wasn't a stretch for me to realize her attraction to me, then in my the first flower of my alcoholism, paunchy and bloated, was part and parcel of this idiocy. Her beauty was such I could barely look at her without it hurting. Those clear light blue eyes with flawless white skin and wild jet black hair, I still feel my electric blood up its voltage just in thinking about her. She and I went westward after graduation to seek our fortunes, to Seattle. Shrooms told us we were broken up on afternoon at the Seattle aquarium after about a year. I moved back east to my rotten Jersey Denmark basement, my parents shaking their heads over my erratic drunken unemployment. And only then (as you know from my incessant mentioning) I realized I loved her. If it wasn't for Night of the Iguana who knows where i might be today?

And when this version of Hamlet came out, the same year, I taped it and watched it over and over, though at first it wrankled, for it was painful seeing Max Max so hampered by conscience against a foe so worthy of his usual unthinking vengeance. He should have chained Claudius's foot to a car about to explode and left him with a hacksaw and five minutes on the clock, like he done did to the Toecutter!

In between TV access (my dad watched a lot of golf, baseball, and football), I smoked and drank in my parents' dark cellar and wrote this girl endless letters. Only decades later did I realize how easy true love is when so one-sided and far away. On Facebook, I see she's married, she's old, her hair gone wild gray; she's dowdy like an Anna Magnani. But in 1990--ah, she was still so hot--I wrote her such letters from my boomerang ensconcement down in that troll king basement as would wilt the most iron rose to mulch. I got a phone call one afternoon whilst half asleep in a dopey drunkard funk--twas her new husband! He promised to kill me should I ere I write again. I was furious and hurt, but obeyed, my love wounded gravely until my own insanely jealous wife, ten years later, forced me to make a similar call, to a girl in Seattle-- a different one--ah, and then I had my first and only 'white-hot rage' moment - which is like you literally go blind - it's like your eyes become a TV that goes to popcorn static. I felt myself lunge towards her as if to strangle her, and then snapped out of it. Funny how you hear these phrases 'temporary insanity', 'white-out', 'white-hot rage' and just think they're prosaic.

Ah life, like Shakespeare, never offers one absurd staged scene-within-a-scene lest its dark twin later appear, warped and ill-woven as if to mock the first, hence the conscience of the king-catching drama Hamlet writes (the artist's version of vengeance?) mirrors the scene Ophelia is forced to play to lure Hamlet into confessing his love and intent while their fathers watch from without. Polonius's strategy here is eerily similar to when I first had dinner with the aforementioned hot girl's Italian-American parents in Carmel, NY; after dinner the dad plied me with wine, drinking along as I downed a giant bottle and got more and more wasted. I thought we were bonding, but they were testing me, the mom counting my drinks on a note pad. They worried I was a drunk... or rather, they 'found out'. The dad though, was delighted as well, to have an excuse to drink so much. His father had a problem too, and when that old man would do shots with me later at our graduation party, I'd catch shade about it, as grandma had to clean the sheets the next morning, for his bladder was not strong as a young man's wits.

I mention all this, why? For it all climaxed in 1990 --a magical year - the big hair 80s disappearing into the past. As if a herald, Zeffirelli's Hamlet arrived, and symbolizing the death of the home perm, Gibson's hair was legions better than Olivier's super short and creepy uber-short blonde bangs. Mel has bangs too, but they fit cuzza the beard, and his wild man eyes.

As for the recent anti-Semitic deep end of Mel; well one can't play crazy as well as he does unless one is crazy to start with, which is the problem with so many British interpretations--Brits ain't crazy like Australians, even those born, like Mel, in the U.S. As if the role's too much for him, normal Gibson--early Mel--seems overwhelmed and weakened by the flowery language, but then the deep end beckons, when it's time to go big, Mel dives in. Splash. His Hamlet's obnoxious, the type you never want to go out and see movies in the theater with, because he's always shouting "this is the part where..." But he's brilliant and legit crazy, and a man who can be legit crazy onscreen is worth a thousand spoilers off it.

And there it ends... I refuse to give away the ending, or influence your findings. I will say that all enduring works tend to be universal, organizing one's own history like a transparent overlay, and so it has done the same to mine. See it on an ergot-encrusted rye cracker and peanut butter and think of me as I used to be in our old rooms at Allen Street, pacing to and fro with my bong and bass, and driving the neighbors to the point of sad distraction. Oh wait, that's Sherlock Holmes, not susceptible to the gibbering unspeakable elder god things in heaven and earth, more ghosts and machine elves, and absinthe demons-- than are dreamt of in fairy photography! Watson, the needle... is dusty. The charm's unwound, so wind it up, and patch thy wounds with wondrous strange sounds. We will speak further... in the past.

1, I rag on Olivier a lot - BUT he does deliver a great termite Shakespeare on film//video performance, and that's, strangely enough, while in disguise of blackface and a voice lowered a full octave as OTHELLO (1965). Though shot on video, it pulses with an off-the-cuff energy that makes it feel like it's all happening in real time, with a great 'go on forever' settting sun orange sky and a superlative Iago in Frank Finlay; though Welles' OTHELLO finally looks good on a remaster which will be on Blu-ray hopefully soon, he's almost out-Wellesed by Olivier here, acting-wise.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Avenger of Whatever: KILL LIST, QUEEN KONG

I started to write about Ben Wheatley's disturbing KILL LIST (2011) and how British cinema is so edgy and America's genre equivalents so lamely safe- but- if I think about KILL LIST too deeply my paranoia leads me past its jolly surface, to the depths of its SRA Illuminati-CIA mind-control symbolism, ala EYES WIDE SHUT meets MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Then I got to write about the alleged 'entrance fee' into the inner circle (according to the paranoid fringe): child sacrifice or violation, which 'binds' one to the devil and subjects the victim to the dissociative traumas that necessitate split personality coping mechanisms. In other words, you join the 'elite' when you plant the seed of the Manchurian Candidacy in your own child through ritual Satanic abuse (SRA), which the kids--at least--forget... for awhile (until they read about it online or get hypnotized to help them overcome their bizarre nightmares and missing time). If you match the the outline of paranoid schizophrenic delusion to this tangent of conspiracy theory you get a perfect match, which isn't to say it's not true. If a shadowy sect really is out to control you via subconscious programming, what better place to hide their mechanizations from you from then within the fabric of your own certified paranoid psychosis?

The big question still nags (especially if you've encountered (alleged?) SRA survivors in real life. Are the 'buried' memories they uncovered in hypnotic regression merely glimpses into the collective subconscious, reaching up like Satan's hoof through the thin ice created by the removal of the conscious mind's rational obstruction, the way, say, it does via fever hallucinations, sleep paralysis, the afternoon nap, childhood nightmares, or actual dissociative cover memories induced by severe trauma? (That last one of course being the most devious double bind in the Satanic Ritual Abuse canon.) If anyone knows for sure which is which, it's probably not the victim.  If they do know, the programming clearly didn't work well.

The LIST gist: Wheatley and his longtime collaborator and co-writer Amy Jump start with a mood of cheery beer-and-chips kitchen sink naturalism re-the friendship between two working class hitmen. Neil Maskell stars as Jay, the laziest hitman in town. He prefers to loaf around with wife and son rather than kill people, to the point he even dodges a lucrative job coming his way via his partner Gal (Michael Smiley), but Nordic alien hybrid wife Myanna Buring (THE DESCENT) wants him out of the house and back in the saddle. Then Gal comes by for dinner and lots of drinks with a strange new bird, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who marks the back of Jay's bathroom mirror with an arcane symbol... That's all I can say, except the super eerie drone score by Jim Williams gives even a simple torture murder a nightmarish edge far ungodlier than just seeing brains bulge out of a cracked skull!

Meanwhile, I've been having a series of mild panic attacks watching ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Season 3. No one escapes the trauma of self-realization on that show, and it's too well-acted and written for my own good. If I watch too many episodes in a row it gets that I can't distinguish fantasy from reality anymore. I have to go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and make sure I'm not a woman in a woman's prison. And then I go to my Park Slope grocery store and see someone from the cast in there, shopping (they occasionally shoot in my neighborhood) or wait, do I? Am I being prejudiced or easily-influenced to think that? It's one thing to spot a celebrity at the coffee shop and another to think you recognize a minor bit player from a movie you just watched. And that brings me around to KILL LIST again, because that's what indoctrination is all about -- breaking down a person's mind and distancing them from the collective 'concrete' reality so they're receptive to programming in order to activate the inner automaton killer.

Not to jump tangents, but: Ever since being dragged to a dry frat rush as a freshman at SU I've harbored a streak of horror and hatred towards the baser elements of the masculine species. And when a man like me is all hopped up on depositions or depictions of rape and sexualized misogyny, I'm ready to go stomp anyone with Greek letters on his sweatshirt. Amp it up a little more, dissociate me so that I think I'm acting out th heroic role in a vigilante rape-revenge picture, and I'm ready to kill... ready and set and waiting for the starter pistol.

Where am I going with this? Movies, man, are dangerous mind control tools. Just look at the rash of Charlie Bronson Cannon movies in the 70s-80s. So much Bronson.

There's no word for this kind of ambient rage I feel thinking about those rapey frat guys. Its so intense it becomes a kind of TAKEN-esque homicidal fury that heightens the senses. It's instinct. A good male populace patrols itself, and if a pedophile or frat boy violates a woman or child it's the job of 'any man that's around' to destroy him, to make sure he burns, right there on the spot, rather than hope the law can successfully complete its myriad incarcerating hurtles before the victim is immolated on the pyre of humiliating defense lawyer cross-examination. 

This instinct to protect women and children is innate, I think, in all good men. Our blood boils and hands ball into fists at the thought of a child molester in our neighborhood. But then, only a few 'pushes' more and it approaches the same mindset as the lynching, the fascist rally, and the riot. The biological urge to protect women and children, and even animals,  taps or primordial homicidal well like a Plainview milkshake straw. 

How easily that straw can itself be tapped by sinister forces! 

Of course if it turns out the victim is lying, or the story is misreported for ratings, then we may have murdered an innocent man... Then it's no longer a drive-in trash spectacle but a self-important Stanley Kramer vehicle. We cut the rope, slink home, and wait for the inexorable hoot-hoot of Spencer Tracy's approaching train.

Bad Day at Black Rock 
I'm one of those guys who hate misogynists to the point of judicial blindness; I'd probably string up some of these rapists and molesters if I had the chance, and the safety of numbers, and was properly drunk. And so I need to recuse myself from writing about the Illuminati or Cosby, Polanski, and Allen. It gets me just too damn mad, for I have no target to vent this hostile rage upon, or the wherewithal. It just makes my blood pressure rise and my hands tremble with fury. 

Is that not the whole point, perhaps, of all this evil in the first place? To provoke a response that will enable us to kill people on command (via post-hypnotic trigger word activated false accusation)? In movies like TAKEN, the filmmakers tap that sac knowing we'll instantly be deeply focused on the narrative, that milkshake straw twisting like clockwork. Ideally there's some cathartic killing of bad guys onscreen, but it's never enough.

Only occasionally, as in MYSTIC RIVER or GONE BABY GONE, is the full futility of that fiery male vengeance truly exposed, the ease with which it can blind you to the truth of a given scene. The girl who casually admits she was lying after you've already done the retaliatory assault, the abduction that turns out to be a benevolent rescue from the real source of abuse --though surely rarer than the coked-up alternative, it all forces us to confront the ugly truth of that primal response.

In GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO on the other hand, we're so on the side of Lisbeth Salander that her liberal reporter friend's law-abiding humanistic hesitance at her full measure of retaliatory violence is seen by us with disgust, emblematic of how following society's rules is like being in a cult for some people, making them blind to their own self-preservation. And the result: we grow upset with mankind as a whole. Lisbeth is our redeemer, killing the men who need killing (usually) and then letting the anger go, teaching us what it is to be a man, the same way TOOTSIE did in reverse.

In 70s films on the other hand, this kind of shit happened to our wife and child and the vengeful vigilante as hero was born, guiltless and unbroken, while the liberal D.A. would rather harangue Dirty Harry for his off-book mauling rather than try to get the Zodiac off the streets. The biggest, meanest, most New York of all the 70s urban vigilante movies (for a few months anyway) DEATH WISH, a huge hit that led to a score of imitators, the best of which is Abel Ferrara's MS. 45. (above). On the other hand, that female avenger's sin is then 'absolved' and dissolved through her nun's habit into the raped nun in Ferara's BAD LIEUTENANT (below), where she forgives her two rapist attackers while everyone in the city fantasizes about catching them and beating them to death. Once again, brutalizing 'good' woman ensures you're not only forgiven and go unpunished, but that she'll consider herself a saint for not getting even (her other option is to go insane, and find God through Joan of Arc-style bloodshed).

In a way, the victim in these films is bound to get revenge on one group or another, either on the attacker/s through violence--direct and personal (since cops are useless due to liberal legal restraints)--or on all the men who hear her tale and go insane with unfocused rage, or all the other innocent girls that will also be destroyed by these creeps in nights to come as they pillage their way around the neighborhood, unchallenged.

Sorry to go off like that. This kind of shit really gets my goat. Besieged and eaten away by death, money, and employment, all elements ever-changing and shifting, riding the lifeboat of the televisual, these unresolved issues really stir my hackles with rage for reasons I have just now edited out of this post (there were about ten embittered paragraphs I just spared you- you're welcome) Today, aware of my raging sensitivity, I still have never seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, IRREVERSIBLE, FUNNY GAMES, TAKEN, any white slavery documentaries, THE HUNT WITH JOHN WALSH on CNN, etc. My girl and I watch a lot of DEADLY WOMEN, though. One thing I've noticed... these women con dumb bleeding hearts like me into killing husbands and fathers all the time, via, what else? Fabricated stories of systematic abuse. Man oh man...

Luckily I live in an age where it's easy to cocoon oneself in a unique televisual patchwork quilt of one's own curation. The result is, I watch a lot of El Rey channel and TCM, avoid all button-pushing true crime abuse-of-the-innocent sagas, and listen to mixes I create that never end and can't tell one ninety-pound chalk-white dude in suspenders and tiny fedora or Children of the Corn hat playing a standup bass or mandolin from the other.

A guy in my day would have been beaten soundly for being such a wuss as those guys, and as a result nerds like me became manly... because that's what men do--we patrol ourselves--stomping out the sign of weakness in our kind (and preying on women and children is the worst weakness of all). Now that it's such a serious crime to harass these dudes--and there's no cigarettes around to make them cool or deepen their voices--these high-voiced needle-legged hipsters are just long keystroke or guitar poke fingers, ears with little white 'ear buds' in them, and clunky glasses reflecting some glowing screen or other. Where is their goddamn crippling anxiety and self-loathing? Why did Courtney Love even bother getting sober?

Oh I must not judge. And so I run... I run so far away.... all the way to QUEEN KONG.

(1976) Dir. Frank Agrama 

God bless British women, British Actresses... for they are an inspiration to men across the USA that not all women are either passive-aggressive bores or dysfunctional harridans. There are very few shrill Annette Bening types in Britain (at least in films). American women (again, this is all in films, mind you) are mired in an either/or dichotomy. In England, with its rich history of sadomasochism, women are badass and still sexy -- they smoke and drink and don't sweat their carbs in shallow pools of gossip. While American woman is browbeating her husband for having a faint odor of cigarettes on his clothes, Brit women are saying ah fuck-off ya wanker and light me one before I break this bottle over your head.

Didn't we know all this as kids when we first beheld the toothsome Emma Peele in THE AVENGERS? And now, rather late in the game (De Laurentiis sued to hold it up), is QUEEN KONG. Let it happen. Judge not! 

Its young hot female cast is sublime -- barely a man in the whole thing - which is such a relief. BUT QK has two slight problems: 1) its bawdy brand of cheeky humor doesn't translate well upon leaping across pond and decades; 2) it may have the lamest ape suit in all movies --like it's just a bunch of fake fur throw rugs stapled together.

I don't care. Damn it, this movie is just what the world needs now.

Movies with reversed gender types were big for a few minutes in the mid-70s, but then got the kabosh and now those reverse gender fantasies are almost impossible to find anywhere, even on faded VHS dupes. We must cherish them no matter how bad they are.

The reverse gender fantasy I should point out is different than the whole men in drag thing, which gets old fast and seems more and more sexist as time goes on (with their idea that women need men disguised as women to teach them how to stand up for themselves). Movies and TV shows where sexy broads are the dominant strong class and men just objects of beauty to be protected and objectified are, on the other hand, rare and precious and need to be rediscovered. Chances are, you have never even seen one. There were only ever a few: ALL THAT GLITTERS (Norman Lear's ill-fated 1977 soap opera imagining this same women-in-charge world) and the British-West German co-production STAR MAIDENS (1976 - same year, tellingly, as the QUEEN). Clearly 1976-7 was a high watermark in the exploration of realities where women were the dominant gender. All three examples are either unavailable or despised. That's quite telling. Our sexist world is clearly slow to change its patriarchal mindset, scared to even imagine an alternative. None of the three are on DVD or even VHS. QUEEN is on Prime almost by accident, as if at any moment someone might notice it and take it down.


As far as imperious, but available: Valerie Leon--so imperious and sexy in BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB--appears in QUEEN as the leader of the Amazons! Hardly recognizable, she's lost some weight and is wearing disco-level make-up, spouting offensive ooga booga lingo, and the print on Amazon Prime is royally messed up.

But hey, better quality would probably make it worse. At least the plot allows for some nice views of the Portobello Street Fair and we have the cheeky Ray Fay ("eat your heart out, Elton John") as the love interest, and great snatches of diva dialogue between Ray and the local girls prepping him for sacrifice: "Why does she want me?" asks Ray.
"She wants you to because you look like Doris Day." 
"Who's he?"
The Carl Denham character is named Luce Habit ("the biggest producer.. of B-films.. with "love interest"... in the business") and played by Rula Lenska, Britain's answer to Zsa Zsa Gabor or Peggy Hopkins Joyce. At least that's what we figured back in the 70s when she got off a plane like we were supposed to know who she was in an Alberta V0-5 ad. Our not knowing set a chain reaction to the point she was canned by her agent or fired him first. Here we learn she's a grand comedian if nothing else,  drugging Ray after catching him stealing a KING KONG poster in the Fair, slinging him over her shoulder in a sack, and making for her tugboat party vessel like she just scored a bushel of temporary legal psilocybe mushrooms [10]). She even carries some joints for him, like Denham's Ketamine bombs.

In short, Lenska's Luce Habit--"-is a great camp diva delight. In fact, her wry delivery of intentionally terrible lines reminds me a little bit of my own! Shhhh.

Of course QUEEN eventually wears out even adoring viewers like me after awhile, thanks to its unrelenting cheekiness I liked the JAWS dance but when a lame shark shows up with lipstick and breasts it's a good sign this shitshow's going to collapse long before it's officially over. I confess that I stopped watching after two tiresome monster battles after Ray is abducted by the Queen and carried into the 'jungle (the scene with her wrestling a pterodactyl seems more like she's trying to open an overly taped-up Amazon package). And there was one too many leering Benny Hill ass shots and just too damn much of that damn moth-eaten 'lady' ape suit (the suit in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is pure chinchilla by comparison).

and yet - how often do we get a movie that's nearly all female - just a few baggy pants weirdos aside in a cast that's all Luce's chorus of leggy bikini models or the all girl Nabonga tribe.... it might be gayer than John Waters and campier than 60s BATMAN but it's got strong British females up the gooma humma barooga.

Still, I just couldn't let it go on. I had to stop and take a nap. That's show biz.

But the point is, thanks to the QUEEN I was delivered from brooding about the diabolical paranoia-fueling brutality of KILL LIST and its all-knowing savvy about mind control, and how maybe that's what all this shit like A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, is for... MK-ULTRA programming of male assassins... to get us all riled up to go stomping whomever we're conditioned to think is raping and abusing our innocents. (And we all know who's next on the kill list... if you saw the Trump speech in Atlanta).

And hey, both QUEEN KONG and KILL LIST are British so it all ties together. I wouldn't go so far as to say its tied "wonderfully" but because my brain is always making connections to random unrelated events, and its susceptible as hell to the mad loop of conspiracy theory... but it's tied, of that I am certain, so let's just... relax. One salves the other, for unless I'm about to charge into battle I prefer the death where the dead person gets up a moment later and takes a bow.  It helps avoid trauma to see the fakery of death. And no monster needs more than a simple mask with some fangs to serve it's purpose. In keeping the film world looking our narrative immersion dissolves and we're symbolically freed from the drama of our lifetime movie.

When we decide our movie's a comedy, any grim circumstance is just the jet black ink on the page. Past Buñuel and Kubrick, the sans-eyes darkness devours all but your whistling, so make the tune brave, lads. Something from Joyce or Yeats, mayhap. Oh I was a day in Portlairge, there was wine and punch on the table. God hears our complaints and can only roll His one red eye and hope none of the other mothers at the supermarket judge Him for having such brats as we. Our complaints that it's not fair and we didn't ask to be born--and all the evil, suffering and destruction in the world--is all heard by Him as whining about an early bed time or booster shoot, or ye auld yucky Brussels sprout.

As far as God's concerned: the phrase 'no atheists in a foxhole' justifies war's entire existence.

And when we take off our straw demon masks at the end of our shitty elementary school play, we receive His indulgent applause. He plays the patient mother, with only the merest of notes. Godard would know how to save QUEEN KONG: Have Kong slap the pterodactyl's head off (above), or rather the headpiece, to show a saucy human girl inside (ala Ms. Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS) but THEN --have the fight still go on. The girl rampages through the jungle, as if still gigantic. She slings Ray over her shoulder and hauls him up into the sound stage catwalk. Queen Kong looks up as they disappear into the shadows, shrugs, sits down on a screaming native and starts smoking a cigarette, pausing to smash a miniature tank which explodes in a ball of fire. All meaning is meaningless once exposed to the meta. Through this alone, salvation. Don't believe the man behind the curtain is real or fake. It's in the ambiguity alone that we finally get to CUT!

1. Shrooms were briefly legal at the Street Fair due to loophole that was soon closed - I nearly fainted when I saw all these massive purple stems right out in the open at one of the booths, but I was only a few years sober and very AA (c. 2004) so I didn't get any; but that image, straight out of Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH, of those fat purple stems on that black tablecloth right out in the street like that, still haunts me. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hauntologic Roxy: TIMES SQUARE (1980), THE ANTICHRIST (1974),

I consider myself pretty familiar with the myriad weaves and offshoots of the EXORCIST-ripped corners of the 70s Italian cinema tapestry, but THE ANTICHRIST (1974) slipped past me... until now. That's not entirely true, Father. I lied it turns out for, when I was watching it last week, during its memorable Satanic induction ceremony I had a flashback to a memory so foul and monstrous it tore loose a swath of my soul. In that grisly instance returned to my nostrils a charnel stench-filled Times Square grindhouse whose cursed name brings a knowing shudder to those who've been there.... The Roxy.

It was a hot summer afternoon around 1985 or 86. We were three 17 year-olds seeking lurid thrills and regarding, as most tourists still do, the area around 42nd St. and Broadway as the extent of NYC. Tourists today of course will find no trace of the grindhouse district it was then - a sleazy mecca punctuated by mainstream Broadway theaters and overpriced family restaurants like Beefsteak Charlie's, but the rest of the are was X-rated theaters, adult bookstores, and grindhouses showing Kung Fu and lurid horror films. If we were smarter we'd have been scared, but we felt invulnerable in our suburban teenage disaffection. No matter what we saw or heard, we'd be okay. We chose the Roxy, based on its proximity to a different theater we thought it was connected to, I think. We were ready for anything either way.

But what about smell? That was one thing I wasn't prepared for.

After navigating treacherous halls that seemed to lead us blocks away into some byzantine literal tourist trap, we entered a world that filched the jadedness right off our masks, punctured our naive armor and left us paralyzed. It was a hot hellish box of with about forty plastic seats, mostly full, people all seemingly smoking crack or cigarettes right in their seats, the screen pulsing with a lurid Satanic ceremony already in progress, replete with naked woman ass licking a real goat, the sound blaring, speaker crackling insanely with screams, demonic laughter, sexual moaning, and infernal chants, the air conditioning blasting arctic intense. All this at once was such a sensory overload we nearly started running back along our rat trap path and out of there.

But worse than all that o holy God --that smell. It was so troubling it's even memorialized in Bill Landis' and Michelle Clifford's indispensable NYC grindhouse history Sleazoid Express, who dub the place "one of the Deuce's grungiest, most pungent smelling, and most dangerous adult houses... People smoked everything openly in the audience, from nauseating Kools to cheap psychotic crack, those scary angel dust smokers puffing along with the weedheads." (285)

I had forgotten about the full horror of the moment in the ensuing years, certainly never knew the name of the place at the time-we only stayed 40 minutes or so, long enough to see the last ten minutes of RUBY and the first 20 of some Bruce Lee impersonator film (Bruce Li?) - but it took me years to get that smell out of my nose, it tainted my nightmares, brought color and tone to my teenage depression. And then I forgot it all when I started drinking and found pot, and then it all came back to me in a rush watching THE ANTICHRIST on DVD, recognizing that scene, and then remembering reading Landis and Clifford's book, running to look up which theater was "mine." Their description of the Roxy was so on point I knew instantly that was the one I had been to back in '85.
"To walk into one of Roxy's mini-theaters meant walking into any number of crazy scenes or violent outbursts.[...] You never knew what movie you were walking into. You'd have to stand there for a few minutes to figure it out.
"If you stood long enough though, people would start to surround you, thinking you were looking for a possible sex partner or just stupid and asking to be robbed. So it was wise to take one of the ass numbing seats anyway if you weren't sure, then figure it out. But before you sat down, you'd have to flick a lighter at the seat to make sure there was no weird mess on it." (285)
It wasn't just the ones smoking at the time, of course, that caused the smell, or the unwashed bodies and soiled underwear but the stale uncirculated air that kept every last stale 'wet' joint (1) alive in layers of stale 'cigar urinal' despair, the insanity in the trapped air circulating through the vents. That same year we went it had, according to Landis and Clifford, been converted from adult to a multi-leveled fourplex that showed exploitation double bills on video projectors, which is what we saw, which made us feel doubly ripped off, since they don't tell you it's video (this being long before HD) when you buy your ticket. We were pretty annoyed, but not about to try and get our money back - we were strictly of the cut and run mind - this was an "experience" like going, with your adventurous friends--giggling and drunk--to your first adult bookstore). As Landis and Clifford note, even after the switch, the Roxy "remained void of fresh air, retaining both its BO aroma and super-sleazy vibe..."

And even without that smell (which took decades of smoking, drinking, and bellowing like a great inelegant walrus to expunge from my delicate le nez âme), even without the unwashed derelicts, the sleazy aura, the stale "wet" million other fucked-up and foul-smelling druggy smoke residues, both from that day and all the days before, without al the PCP turning unshowered scumbags--all safely hidden in the dark--into gibbering shit-where-they-stand psychopaths, even without all that, to enter a dark room and be instantly confronted with a full-wall projection of a a girl on a dais rimming a goat, that was enough to 'satisfy' our morbid suburban curiosity--we could have just run for the exit, left the city, and spent the next week showering with Lava and a wire brush.

Instead, we spent a full minute standing there, in total shock, debating our next move. The horror of the smell, the deafening distorted crackle of unholy noise of the film on those speakers, and the cramped unfamiliarity of the boxy theater short-circuiting our brain's natural fight of flight objectivity. I was still only 17, and sober, straight-edge, a virgin to weed, booze, and all other things, except--barely--sex. So this scene affected me in ways I'd have been immune to had I gone in just a year later, numbed by whiskeys, weed, shrooms, and despair. My photographic plate was virginal, in short, and this moment in time burned it deep.

Now on DVD, in the safety of my triple bolt apartment, sober again, but in full control of my environment, I can appreciate Ippolita's (Carla Gravina - left) induction ceremony with the goat as in an alternate dimension, running concurrently - and it's to director Sergio Martino's skill at narrative that it's always clear that the damned and devout can always be two places at once--that her murderous debasements are not just a dream nor is she a passive victim under mind control cover memories ala Rosemary. We don't really judge her for giving in -- we might do the same in her shoes. It fits my argument that when you're too prohibitive and micro-managing on your kids (never allowing them a locked bedroom to masturbate in, etc.) you give the first shady louche swinger who comes along more control over them than you'll ever have. And by the time your kids realize they've been misled by this false prophet, it's too late. Take it from one of the louche, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith of Anytown USA! You better familiarize them with their horizons, or I will!

Simultaneously back at the Roxy, back before I ruined anyone, nor was myself yet ruined, my fellow faux-jaded suburbanite teens and I turned immediately to leave this godawful shoebox of the damned to find a different screen. The Roxy had numerous nonstop running double features playing on video projection in two (?) separate boxes, with stairs stretching between condemned buildings and along the exteriors of the outside, kind of like a haunted house ride where instead of papier mache ghouls there's derelict muggers crouched in corners ready to stick you with their hep-C encrusted needle.

(AKA The Tempter, L'Anticristo)
(1974) Dir. Alberto de Martino

If I had to do it all over again, well, we should have suffered through the stench, for ANTICHRIST  is a great great gonzo film. It makes great use of ancient Roman architecture, and to tie in other trend-cresting films. The lead girl, Carla Gravina, has Rosemary Woodhouse short red hair for some ungodly reason (we can guess why) though it gives her a very manly countenance which works weird new crevasses in the Satanic panic mythos, helping her deliver what is easily the most deranged, inspiring raw performance of the entirety of the 70s Italian EXORCIST rip micro-genre.

Crippled as a child by a car accident (dad was driving, mom is dead) Ippolita is a 40 year-old virgin, on the cusp of becoming an old maid, and terrified her dad (Mel Ferrer) is going to leave her for another woman (giallo regular Anita Strindberg). The niece of a priest, she turns to God for guidance, but how's a priest going to her advise her on coping with sexual frustration, especially since he's played by the perennially browbeaten Arthur Kennedy? He's probably responsible for her torment in the first place, filling her mind from childhood with the evils of masturbation and the female orgasm as the devil's tool. With her short red hair and manly countenance and lack of connection with her animus, it's no wonder that, when she's possessed, her voice changes to (instead of Mercedes McCambridge for Linda Blair) that of a sadistic old Italian patriarch don on his third pack of cigarettes; and for the first time also she seems for the first time comfortable in her own skin. The confident way she sprawls out in her chair, rocking back and forth and smiling is truly disturbing to ex-drugglies like me because it's so familiar, the way one acts when some drug (especially shrooms) lifts us free and clear of our old insecurity and discomfort and depression so we feel alive and thrilled and at last to luxuriate in our movements, a 'good' Mr. Hyde coupled to a Ken Kesey prankster. In one of the cooler sequences, with her Satanic awakening giving her sudden gift of being able to walk, she goes to visit an old church and seduces a pretty German tourist boy - then kills him- leaving the body sprawled out in the catacombs (she also leaves a decapitated toad in the communion wafter cache).

But then she comes out of it and is sprawled out only a few feet from her car -unable to walk again and needing help into her vehicle. Did she just imagine it all? Again, it's to the credit of this full-blooded possession film that both answers seem to be occurring simultaneously. There's never a question that these happenings are both real and vividly imagined. Which is truer no one can say.

What is it with the Italians and red hair, though? Especially in the horror films of the 70s-80s, they are utterly obsessed. Luckily, we get to see Gravina in her past life / current alternate reality / sabbath surrender in alabaster skin an a flowing blonde wig, and she looks plenty hot, which makes her that much sexier in the modern age, because the shameless gusto with which she pantomimes her rimming of a goat's devilish arse-hole (a practice originally--unless I'm delusional--was seen first in the silent 1921 opus, HAXAN) and her subsequent penetration by Satan is so fiercely acted that we feel every emotion in the arsenal: pleasure and the joy of surrender coupled to the sleazy countercurrent of shame, pain, and horror. As with the Roxy itself, if you want to be free of the burden of self-consciousness, you must prepare to let that consciousness be mortified to the point of disintegration.

I also dig that, as this film occurring in the hauntological 70s, her shrink considers it an established scientific fact that traumatic past life events (namely unnatural, violent deaths) can carry over into a patient's subsequent incarnations, leading to neurosis and terrible nightmares. Nowadays these kinds of films feel obligated to have at least one scientific dogma mouthpiece dismissing it all as a bunch of hocus pocus mumbo jumbo, but here it's simply not that big a deal that past life trauma carries over to the current one (2), with the shrink noting that the only risk in freeing the current self from past self trauma is that a possession can occur, especially if that past self was a Satanic witch - (and even the devil follows her, via flames ala AUDREY ROSE, which we forget now but was huge in 1977).

Strange then that the shrink feels he can't approve of the Catholic exorcism that's eventually called forth. What the hell? Stop kibbitzing, doctor. You're either in or out, for keeps!

Ah well, Kennedy is pretty funny as the impotent priest, and Father Mittner (George Coulouris) is way more badass than Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) as the pinch hitter exorcist, and the cool climax, running all over Rome under multi-colored rain, including around the Coliseum, is truly haunting.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(1980) Dir. Alan Moyle

But there's another Times Square - I almost wrote "it ain't your parents' Times Square" -but that's the thing, man --it is. And your parents' childhood should never be more edgy and badass than their your own, but there it is... but also isn't. For in TIMES SQUARE (1980), the two leads (13 year old and 16 year old actresses) keep their innocence while living as mental hospital escapees amidst the Times Square squalor, floating above the cesspool like lighter-than-air street angels. It's perhaps their [excised] lesbian scenes that explain their immunity from the area's thick haze of pimps, rapists, and other exploiters of runaway girls, though then again -- they're being so young it's not quite clear what could have been shown in that regard, legally, I mean, but for those of us who watched XENA all through the 90s, it won't be too hard to figure out.

Dude, I got the last one of the TIMES SQUARE DVDs before they went OOP, based solely on a professor at Pratt's recommendation after I gave a lecture on what 42nd Street used to look like (before the kids I was speaking to were even born, I shudder to say), when squalor and vice were the order of the day... I showed them about 30 minutes of a '42nd Street Forever' trailer compilation (replete with an old Jewish couple raving about some Andy Milligan debacle or other at the Lyric), and then, torn between showing them ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK or THE WARRIORS, I went with the latter. The kids loved it! Afterwards they even said those magic words, indicating the very reaction I was looking for: "After your lecture I was all worried it would be super gory and sadistic - I was expecting to be traumatized, but it was just great fun."

That was the key of course, to the whole thing. Without that initial trepidation and fear, no relief, no sense of the belonging/initiation an initially frightening film like THE WARRIORS can deliver. I told them we had the same reaction seeing THE WARRIORS for the first time back in the early 80s (on rented VHS as 13 year-olds), having read about all the gang violence it caused in theaters. And the film traded on that scariness, transmuted our anxiety so that we went from being scared of all gangs to being scared for the 'good' gang --just kids themselves-- bopping all the way back to Coney past the 'scary' gangs, which made those glorious fights so much more electric. The courage to face the gritty horror of the city made you a part of it rather than its victim. The ultimate in dour mythic self-created daemons, the Baseball Furies pursue until you stop running. Turn and face your NYC Koch-era demons (threaten to shove a bat up their asses and turn them into popsicles), bust some heads maybe, and now you're a bopper, a Sleez Sister (as the pair call themselves in TIMES SQUARE). Now you get to prowl around scaring the tourists, too. When the upper realms of the social order fail you, a descent into the maelstrom of this Sleez-y power, can restore you to self-reliant wholeness. You just have to be unafraid long enough to acclimate to the very scary trappings of 70s NYC, the whole place like a giant hazing ceremony.

TIMES SQUARE's rich innocent Pamela (Trinie Alvarado) is--like ANTICHRIST's Ippolita--the fucked up (several suicide attempts) only-child daughter of a widowed father who's wealthy, important and influential. Like Ippolita, Pamela finds liberation and strength via what might be considered a bad influence friend, certainly a social outcast (Satan for Ippolia; Nicky [Robin Johnson] for Pamela)... and both need to figure out how to escape that friend when said friend's own issues come to the core (green vomit and sexist telekinetic possession; alcoholism and possessive insanity respectively). Both films end with the daughter now returning to dad a better, wiser person, while the bad influence friend goes off into the night to pursue new adventures (a fledgling riot grrl fanbase for Nicky; Virgin Mary statue pick-up station -- each a kind of dispossessed demon hang-out).

And, on a metatextual level, my own early experience at the Roxy, entering that one room with the druggy stench exactly at the heavy Satanic ceremony moment, perhaps inducted me in an all-at-once ass-bat-popcicle kind of iboga flash transdimensional moment, to both the pleasures and horrors of grindhouse cinema. Recognizing that scene, that Satanic sex ceremony I saw in the Roxy back in the early 80s, long-since buried under a hoarder's cavalcade of other films (even with Satanic rites in them) decades later, in the coziness of my own home and on an HD TV (looking better probably than it did on that old analog Roxy video projector) I felt a weird flash like I too was remembering past lives or buried trauma under hypnosis, but from the HD safety of time and incense, a safe and delivered kind of freedom at last. Thanks god for one thing - that smell did not return - I can't even remember it now.

Meanwhile, in TIMES SQUARE, the original lesbian aspects between Pamela and Nicky were jettisoned to make a 'bigger' statement, with Nicky's big final concert on the roof after her on-air drunken breakdown seemingly added for rock catharsis. Also added: hot songs to pack a double album of relevant tracks in the producers' hopes of duplicating SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER album sales (3).

The film's producer also took advantage of star Robin Johnson--who got a lot of deserved cult praise in the film's aftermath for her warm, raspy super-real ferocity--signing her to a three year exclusive contract, and then failing to cast her in anything, because no one wanted to work with him. "Johnson took a job as a bank teller whilst waiting for her RSO contract to expire, and by the time it did, there were no offers for work. Johnson did some minor film and TV roles, but by the late 1980s, she gave up on acting and got a job as a traffic reporter on a Los Angeles radio station."

I don't know what I would have made of TIME SQUARE back in 1980. Nowadays I can't compare it to anything but LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS, which came out two years later and was better distributed (and seen on USA's Night Flight).

The problem with STAINS (see my early BL post The Frauds and the Fabulous) was that it was directed by a (male) music producer, the legendary Lou Adler; and written by Nancy Dowd (who wrote SLAP SHOT), under a drag pseudonym, as if hiding her gender rather than trumpeting it (telling detail) and that it's marred by the spoiled bratty girlish character played by a super young Diane Lane, who promptly confuses her own grrl-power message by shacking up with the more experienced, sexist, jealous and judgmental (male) lead punk singer on her tour played by Ray Winstone (who's backed by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols).

Even the blurb is sexist and condescending:
"The media and disaffected teens mistake the acerbic rants of an obnoxious teenage punk rocker as a rallying cry for the women of America, launching her and her talentless group to national stardom."
Jeeze! "obnoxious... talentless" - pretty harsh. Well good thing that--for the big concert climax--'punk' Ray Winstone takes the time to berate the gathered girls for being dumb conformists (they're all wearing red and New Wave make-up authorized by the band's monetizing manager) thus sending them all home to, presumably, get married and have kids, as Ray--in his rebel wisdom--feels is only proper for a real punk rock grrl. I don't blame Ray Winstone for being pissed when Diane Lane steals his only song (the terrible, draggy, endlessly-repetitive, droning, godawful "The Professionals") but for a girl empowerment movie this gets awfully chiding. A rock theater packed with rebellious, feminist, independent-minded rebel girls letting a teddy boy wearing boutique leather tell them they're not real rock-and-roll--and them believing him--is almost as offensive a climax in its last minute patriarchal second-guessing as the one in KISSING JESSICA STEIN. It would be like if the douchebag husband found Thelma (in THELMA AND LOUISE), pulled her out of the car, bitch slapped her around and then dragged her home to the cheers of the gathered crowd, while Louise drove off the cliff alone, the good straight folks throwing beer cans at her tail fins. Boo!

Well, there's none of that crap in TIMES SQUARE, the uniform of the Sleez sisters is a no-frills (no marketing) trash bag and eyeliner pencil-drawn thief mask (two things every girl can find already at home) to reflect their condemnation of the cast-off anonymity fostered on them by their heedless parents, who'd rather lock them away in rehabs than listen to them (all this added after lesbian overtones taken out: in other words 'okay, honey, we'll give you money to record your demo, but you can't bring your girlfriend home for Xmas'). So we're left with another secret gay subtext --the girls' soul mate status is conveyed as a kind of chaste but unwavering affection.

That's okay - could be worse. There are no boyfriends thrown in as last minute cop-outs, to me, that's what's most important. The girls always sleep in the same bed and its their loving friendship that holds the film together; there's not a single straight boy in the cast to even come close to coming between them. Local radio DJ and 'voice of Times Square' Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) maybe has some oblique move planned but he doesn't seem too conscious of it, he has no endgame he's aware of, aside from real rock anarchy (not Winstone's paternalistic rubbish) so I'll cut him slack.. Acting as their fairy godfather, he catches wind of the outcry launched by Pamela's mayoral aide dad and decides to use it to bring attention to the mayor's 'clean up Times Square' campaign which bodes ill for the homeless runaway squatter contingent living there. Johnny makes the girls local stars via his radio show, even acting as a kind of post office letter exchange between worried dad and the girls who dub themselves the Sleez Sisters and start tagging passing busses, dropping TVs off roofs, and recording spontaneous and declarative tracks live at the radio station ("Your Daughter is One")--each sublimely performed to seem made up on the spot, though they were co-written in advance by people like Billy Mernit--and then slinking away into the safe anonymity of the Deuce before their dad can send the cops to find them.

This 'local station DJ instant grassroots mythologizing' aspect was a staple of the time, as in VANISHING POINT (1971), THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), THE WARRIORS ("hey, boppers") and belatedly CONVOY (1978) but none match the emotional complexity of the exchanges between LaGuardia and Pamela's concerned, progressively humbler, father (Peter Coffield). Curry's fearless goading and the father's progressive fury and desperation eventually counter each other towards a kind of detente compassion, creating a situation that, especially in today's post-sleaze Times Square present (where an open container or lit cigarette is considered akin to a terrorist violation), is uniquely real and promising. The idea that freedom of speech could somehow protect a DJ from reckless conspiracy towards endangerment of a minor laws, etc., warms the cockles.

In this fantasia, patriarchy can't beat the all-consuming yet protective 'the zone takes care of its own' chaos of the Deuce. We all wish a braver cut existed, lesbian-wise, but that's actually interesting in a way as the whole film becomes less about sex or drugs (or even rock and roll) and more about how two fucked-up loners can be brought together by chance while sharing a room at a NYC psychiatric hospital, then bond over poetry and the Pretenders, and heal each other, kinda (making its closest companion, more than anything, KAMIKAZE GIRLS).

As for the girls' electric music, their climactic rooftoop concert, whereas Nicky Marotta's initial declarative punk song devotional to Pamela, "I'm a damn dog now" has a great arc (she starts kind of wobbly onstage at the storefront strip club with her new wave backing band, but ends up crushing it, then dragging it on too long). I'd be pissed too if I was one of the Blondells and had to lug my amp up to the roof, risk arrest, risk electrocution by tapping into some Con-Ed power cable, and hook up a PA, all so Nicky can sing half a song, apologize to her girlfriend, and dive into the crowd, leaving her saner Sleez compatriot to reconnect with her by-now-fairly-cool father (we hope he no longer feels so harshly about Times square after this). But that's just part of the weird fairy tale aspect of this film, helping to lend it some of the elements that, say, the relentlessly depressing actuality of the film SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER lacked (4)

What I especially like is that, of all the 'evil' things we see the Sleez Sisters start doing, smoking (and both girls are very young let's not forget) isn't even considered a vice, their punk rock destructiveness never considered anything but positive. Along with the genuine rebelliousness of the then-shelved OVER THE EDGE (1979), TIMES SQUARE marks a time when parents were all fallible, self-absorbed people with their own agendas, and not judged for it,  anymore than the damaged kids they raised were judged, for being left to their own devices encouraged these kids to resist authority at a level unheard of in today's cinematic youth films. The movies cheered as kids rebelled and revelled even in squalor and destruction. There's a point, such as when Nicky gets obsessed with dropping TVs off of roofs, (or the gang starts blowing up cop cars in OVER THE EDGE) that the saner minds like Pamela, and EDGE's Claude (or Winona in GIRL INTERRUPTED) step back, get a little pale, and start thinking of exit strategies to get away from their crazy liberator friends, but that's natural. Some of us have to burn up rather than fade away, some of us just singe ourselves by those friends' crazy fires, then make careers chronicling the moment this friend's blazing warmth saved us from freezing to death, but then their fire got out of control, so we had to save our own lives by walking (or running) away from them. But they gave us the courage to do that, and we salute them no matter what.

It's a great shame that Robin Johnson never got to have a huge career, for she is one hell of a unique character, a throaty resonant New Yoahka street poet mix of Patti Smith and Kristy McNichol crossed with an androgynous David Johansen-esque rock star, exotic faux-30s dyke, eye-liner dripping, emotional wreck / scrappy street urchin. And as their DJ champion, Tim Curry--their Kim Fowley, if you will--is sublime. A British actor in the Bowie-esque gender-bent (he played Frank N. Furter in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), Curry, perfectly captures the Brooklyn accent gone nasal and the ultra calm sexuality that can only come from amphetamines or listening close to the Bowie-produced Lou Reed's Transformer album. And as the "Voice of Times Square," his championing of the two girls isn't as cut and dry, as didactically exploitive as the local newscaster's exploitation of Diane Lane's posturing in STAINS. LaGuardia is too complicated to be either exploiter or underdog champion. He's neither all shady manipulator nor all saint, neither profit-minded self-promoter nor true champion of the scene. He's a little all of those things and none. In short, he's a true trickster, like Kim Fowley in THE RUNAAWAYS, and just what NYC is all about.

A favorite of Kathleen Hanna (whose sing-in-her-underwear sexy self-appropriation approach also harkens to Diane Lane's big moment in STAINS), TIMES SQUARE has stood the test of time even as, in its way, it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In imagining Times Square as a place safe for young girls to squat in, it made it so. The real estate is now too precious for any building to stand too long condemned. Squats still exist while legalities drag and architects argue, but the grit is gone, replaced by a stream of tourism so rapid and incessant I personally can no longer even go anywhere near it without having a panic attack. 

I never panicked at the Roxy. Though god knows it left me traumatized.

But on a positive note, since 1980, gayness has gone out of the closet and off the editing room floor and into the open. There have been legions of mainstream lesbian coming-of-age tales and, even if the vile Roxy has been razed, the movies remain --free of stench and meta-vice, in our living room. Back in 1985, with 'Wings Hauser and his coat hanger stalking the Season Hubely' (5) crawling around, we never would have predicted this smokeless clarity and tolerance... Miracles, man, are all around. So what if we lost our map through the Bog of Stench? We still have the Goblin King. Is there life on Mars? No, my dear Hoggle... but we can be heroes, even if our song never travels farther than a five block radius on some local AM DJ's show. 

Smoke 'em if you got 'em, ladies. Your living room is now the world. 

1. 'Wet' being the NYC slang for the dried formaldehyde sprayed-on-cheap weed smoked by the truly deranged so well known in Bellevue where the users so often wind up, raving about demons following them with microphones, etc.
2. If you doubt this kind of thing is true, check out the book Life after Life and the TV show The Ghost Inside my Child. Don't believe it if it scares you, clearly we're not necessarily supposed to remember them anyway. My theory - nothing survives the journey except PTSD from the moment of the past life death if it was sudden and violent.
3. The end of the 70s marked a time when, as punk/new wave was going mainstream, the NYC godfathers like Johnny Thunders and Lou Reed were reaching wretched pinnacles of near-death dissociative speed/heroin junkie mania, where jaded fans, high on Lester Bangs' prose, crowded in to venues to goad their idols into ranting incoherent fits - ala Lou's Take No Prisoners LP
4. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER ended, as I recall, with the gang deb being gang banged in some big car while Travolta sulks, and then later one of his annoying mob kills himself by jumping off a bridge, and so finally Tony decides to go try escaping the life in order to sponge off his rich dance partner in Manhattan. Once a paint-lugging scrub.... Damn but I was disgusted by this movie... and I was only around thirteen and seeing it at the drive-in with my mom and brother - and man it was way too depressing and tawdry for a thirteen year old expecting GREASE style affirmation. And don't get me started about how, also at thirteen,  I got permanently scarred after stumbling the last half hour of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR one afternoon on Movie Channel (which showed R-rated movies during the day), thinking it was ANNIE HALL. (See: Blades in the Apple)
5. See: VICE SQUAD (1982)
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