Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grave Diggers of 1933: THE INTRUDER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, BEFORE DAWN, TOMORROW AT SEVEN, SUPERNATURAL


As I've written in the past, 1933 was a magical year for movies, and America: it saw the election of FDR, the repeal of prohibition, and 'ahem' the rise of Hitler into power (that last part, not so magical but the war effort did lift us out of the Great Depression). At any rate -- change was afoot, probably akin to our modern years of Obama, legalization of marijuana, and gay marriage. Or worse, or better. And I myself turn to old dark house movies every May or so, because they understand hay fever, the way allergies imitate the first signs of a cold and make the bright sunny day with the calla lillies in bloom again seem a jeweled scorpion, glistening shiny chitinous flowers on the outside and stinging venom within; and by contrast murky AC darkness an opium den refuge of creaking doors, whistling wind and hands coming out from secret panels behind oblivious heiresses. Maybe it's that May is on the opposite end of the year from Halloween, and as such I can see it clear across the circle. Here's five from '33, with my ratings for both film itself and, since they vary so crazily in quality, the transfers I, at least, have seen.

THE INTRUDER 
1933 - Dir Albert Ray
** (Retromedia DVD- *1/2)

This weird Allied Pictures cheapie is one of those castaway flicks so big in the silent and early sound era, providing as they did an excuse for (partially obscured) nude bathing, reversion to savagery, (inexpensive) beach locations and ye olde gorilla suit. The castaways always include one rich lady unaccustomed to 'roughing it,' a sea dog who does the roughing, a virgin and a party girl who become buddies (ala Mary Anne and Ginger) and a comic relief drunk. Here there's also stolen diamonds, and a murder aboard ship shortly before she goes down. The killer is.... right in this boat. Mischa Auer saves the day as a Ben Gunn type who's been stranded there so long he's started talking to the skeletons in his hut, but he's not a monster! His gorilla buddy keeps an eye on things, but from a distance and howls to keep the girls on edge. Just because he's a crazed castaway with a thick beard is no reason to portray old Mischa as a monster on the poster (below left). He doesn't even do his gorilla impression (seen in My Man Godfrey). Just beats up a skeleton when the communication gap proves too much.

Of the cast, Auer is the only familiar face (to me) but that can be a good thing: The good girl, Lila Lee, seems like the taller, gawkier older sister of Gloria Swanson; Gwen Lee is a Mae West/Pat Kelton-ish gold digger who gets all the best double entendre lines not that there's many. Monte Blue (who got his start with D.W. Griffith) is the nominal hero; William P. Davidson is the numb nuts copper; perennial lush Arthur Housman can barely feign interest in how his girl (or is it his sister?) is being wooed by the square-jawed hero --I think! It's hard to tell who's who when all the heads are cut off either by inept camera work or Retro's frame cropping.

Director Ray does deliver one masterful scene: the morning after the shipwreck, when the lifeboat survivors all wake up and--silently without others noticing--begin to take stock of where they are, remembering what happened, (or coming out of a boozy black-out) and either forging silent eye-alliances, passing notes about the cache, or getting scared, but quietly like you might going through customs with a pocket full of weed, or conflict diamonds. I learned more of the plot in that one silent stretch than in all the malarkey fore and aft.



I like too that the girls sleep in the cave on the beach during the night (the men around the fire) and they wake up to find skeletons of past castaways sitting right near them. And there's a lurid, sexual almost HBO-level roughie vibe when the killer forces the two girls deeper into the woods at gunpoint, and it's wild man Mischa's gorilla and his skeleton crew to the rescue, waiting for direction while the good and bad guys slug it out... and on his tiny island with his old age and his wisdom, cries "Mary!" (that's his skeleton's name). And I like how Housman--who's been slowly and on the sly morphing from tipsy to hungover to competent and alert--like three different people, but all without being grandstanding about it-- is so thrilled to be back in the presence of booze after they're rescued by a French steamer he brings the whole tray, whiskey, seltzer bottle, ice, and all, to the inquest.  Prohibition, thou art repealed! He's a man after my own heart. Hell, it was probably why they were all on that boat to begin with. The old international waters thing (three miles out?) led to lots and lots of three-hour tours and bootleggers hiding behind old ghost legends to keep snooping kids away from their stills...

Mischa and Mary (left)
Retromedia's Forgotten Terrors DVD is shit but hey! Hey! It's a genuine effort to pack in some films you'd never find in a million years on your own, including Tangled Destinies and The 1931 Phantom! They don't look so good but then again, they're at least made available on disc. (P.S. also on on youtube)

SUPERNATURAL
1933 - Dir. Victor Halperin
*** (DVDR- ???)

"Life does continue after death," notes Dr. Carl Houston, the psychologist friend (H.B. Warner) of bereaved heiress Carole Lombard. He wants to experiment on the corpse of soon-to-be-executed murderess/free spirit artist Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a kind of prototype for Catherine Trammell or Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander.  Her dead brother is used as bait by bogus medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), an expert at delivering the old glowing death mask /blackmail/lost loved one's voice giving banking instructions via a long horn floating in the air. His drunken landlady (Beryl Mercer) knows all his tricks but forgot the age old adage for any would-be blackmailer: never threaten to expose a creep right to his face without an exit strategy! But while the seance at Paul's pad seems to go as planned, Lombard stops at Houston's office for a second opinion, right as he's doing life after death electrical experiments on the body of executed murderess and Carole winds up possessed--in one of those 'small world' turns of coincidence--by the very same murderess who swore revenge on Bavian for turning her in.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Boris Karloff played versions of the same scenario about a million times all through the late 30s and 40s, indicating America was obsessed with the electric chair, radio, curses, and soul transference (in that order). Sharp eyed fans will note some of the walls from White Zombie have been reformatted for Paul's seance parlor, with one great touch: the above ground subway runs right past his apartment window, adding just the right amount of tawdriness. The final third of the movie takes place over one long night as the possessed Lombard seduces Paul, ever fighting to refrain from strangling him (for the nonce) while bringing him out on her yacht (easy body disposal) as boyfriend Randolph Scott put-puts to the rescue. Pre-code points should be awarded for the scene when Paul cups Lombard's breast while they get down to business on the divan, and the general air of sleazy heat between them when they sneak into Ruth Rogen's studio apartment (to fool around in front of her creepy life-size self portrait), they recall Marcello and Anouk in the beginning of La Dolce Vita. I froze the projector and did two paintings off the moment they embrace (acrylic on canvas -2003), to capture a kind of post-modern ghost refractionnn-ion-nn.... And Lombard shows her true chops by morphing between killer Rogen and grieving heiress with sensuous conviction.


Minus points for sight of a big dog perennially chained in the psychic's house; I'd have liked to see him getting a nice walk or some affection. Instead the dog conveniently disappears, never to be seen again. I don't have the Universal Vault DVR yet, because I have a pretty solid burn from an old airing, but it's only a matter of time before it too dissolves, warps... wanes.

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM
1933 - Dir Kurt Neumann
** / (DVR - ****)

With its use of Swan Lake over the opening credits (as in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue) you'd think this was going to be a real pre-code Universal horror treat: Lionel Atwill stars as the father of Gloria Stuart, who's celebrating her birthday in a big cozy castle while the whistling wind howls outside in the night. What a lame party it is! Three of her suitors are the only other guests (kind of like Lucy Westenra's house, at least in the book). The creepiest part is that dad Atwill doesn't mind having these three fools fight over her, or to have them all sleep over, and for who knows how long, etc. Again, they are his only house guests. Instead of ordering them out, Atwill tells her to "give us all a nice birthday kiss." Yeeesh, incest she wrote!

The one with the best chance at Stuart's hand, the clear winner alas, among the very sorry lot, is an older foreigner played with by Paul Lukas (at his flattest); the one with no chance at all is the abashed adenoidal pup who grew up moping after her breadcrumbs (Onslow Stevens); the middle guy: William Janney, considers himself a mystery writer. He bunks with Lukas, even though there's like 80 rooms in the castle and no one else stays there but servants.

These strange details are way more fascinating than the titular mystery, which involves each suitor sleeping in the cursed blue room, one by one, to prove their courage. Stevens goes first, and in the morning... he's gone!

If Stuart and Atwill weren't so imbued with classic horror moxy this would be the smallest, saddest mystery film ever. the cast is utterly void of character details or anything else to talk about beyond the titular ---very predictable and inane--"secret." There are no other guests, and no other women characters aside from a maid. Thank heaven Edward Arnold shows up halfway through as the local detective, then, for his character alone seems to have a life beyond this half-baked mystery story, at the very least seems real on some level. The ubiquitous Robert Barrat (Babs' pimp dad in Baby Face the same year) is the butler who keeps signaling at the window in a red herring bit borrowed whole from Hound of the Baskervilles. 

Despite these quibbles, it will still be 'catnip' to Universal pre-code horror fans like me after they've already re-run the gamut (Frankenstein, Old Dark House, Black Cat, Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dracula, Invisible Man, etc.) and crave more, like a junky. Seems a bit like Laemmle was scraping the old dark script barrel even so, and Neumann's direction is as clueless as a June bride. He seems to think the only time to ever cut a scene is when something interesting or at least atmospheric is about to happen. At one point we literally have like a full minute of just Arnold and his cops in a bedroom looking at their watches. It's a remake of Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers from the year before, so blame the Germans! Soon enough, they'd deserve it.

The Universal vault DVR looks great though. So soak it up.

BEFORE DAWN
1933 - Dir Irving Pichel
**3/4 (TCM airings - ***)

Seances were all the upper crust rage in the early 30s (the way Ouija was in the 70s) and while most of the mediums turned out to be phonies, there was a general consensus that ESP was scientifically proven and real mediums did exist, as in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island. Here the true psychic is mellow gamin Dorothy Wilson, who makes up in a naturalistic low key sincerity what she lacks in dramatic range. Her trances tell her nearly everything but even when evidence comes fast and furious the cops don't believe her and consider it a favor not busting her as a phony just because her ruthless swindler of a father (Dudley Digges) refuses to refund three bucks to bunco squad undercover man Stu Erwin. Old Stu takes a shine to Wilson, though, and call me crazy (I dislike Erwin on principle) but the two have a cutely abashed chemistry, with Erwin's cop authority helping to offset his patented aww-shucks everyman awkwardness. He might not have been able to stand the strain of Peggy Hopkins Joyce in International House, and he might make Jackie Oakie seem like Arthur Kennedy but he's at least adequate to the task of breaking down a wall and slugging it out on steep stairs with the murderer, and he's not getting sick. Maybe it's that they're both a little anemic, lost artistic souls in a world of crass profiteers and sneering killers.

The plot is the old Bat Whispers bit with hidden loot in an old spooky mansion and assorted seekers posing as heirs or one another and all that. Here an old dying gangster tells the Viennese Dr. Cornelius where he hid his stolen million in the old lady's house. Soon the old lady is menaced by a floating death mask and draggy second floor footsteps. Her old maid/widow/sister/whatever (the pair have a lesbian vibe ala Cries and [or BatWhispers) winds up tighter than a clam about what she may or may not know so that she won't be next.

I love Irving Pichel as an actor--that otherworldly deep voice really sends me--but his direction here (and in 1935's She) lacks momentum and mood. The bland lighting is a long way from the stark expressionist intensity of the Bat Whispers, for example. Warner Oland is magnificent as Dr. Cornelius though, so almost makes up the difference. His owlish spectacles alight with thoughts of "walking off the loot," he's intoxicated with mischief, trying a wild array of approaches to getting the money out of the old lady to the point we can't tell if he's evil or just a shrink playing a guy able to confess he's evil in order to get the money from the old lady and give it up to the authorities. His advanced level head games remind me of my own strategies in my daily job, i.e. if you want to make your patients (or students) open up to you, act crazier than they are. The problem is, eventually you become crazier then they are; I saw it all the time at Bellevue! We know Oland's a great, fun actor, but this is a whole new side of him, seemingly drunk and alight with mischief behind owlish spectacles. And who would imagine old Daddy Digges could suddenly turn so grave and evil, even bullying, to his daughter? It's a spooky sudden transformation from a flim-flammer with a cute daughter in tow (ala Fields in Poppy) to an obsessed monster (ala Mason in Bigger than Life), letting us know Digges had a range larger than his usual alcoholic colonialist trader (or traitor). With better lighting and/or a stronger comic hero, Dawn might have been a classic. At least there's a great dark secret passage climactic stretch down super cool secret stairs to a giant round abyss! Don't quite before the miracle! 

TOMORROW AT SEVEN
1933 - Dir Ray Enright
*** (Alpha DVR - *)

Just when you thought blurry old Alpha couldn't get worse in their handling of these old independent clunkers, they switch to DVR greymarket format, with blurry color Xerox labels and tracking streaks on the bottom of the blurry image. On the other hand, at least they still put out, making them the old whore of the hoary old dark house houses.

More important is that, for all its blur, Tomorrow at Seven is worth the trouble: Director Enright surprises with some very modern camera moves, especially in the killer POV opening murder, and the banter between two bumbling Chicago detectives (Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins) is rife with slang-filled pre-code discourse early on ("he remembers the guy's a stew, see?"), relating how they got some tips on mysterious villain 'The Black Ace' by cutting lines of "gold dust" (coke) for the nostrils of some initially clammed up twist, see? Whether it's real slang or not it's quite vivid and thrilling in its uncanny savvy (i.e. if you've done a lot of drugs, you'll 'get' it). When the threatened rich old duffer Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) can't understand a word of it, McHugh tells Jenkins; "These guys don't understand these technical toims." Drake's the millionaire threatened with death 'tomorrow at seven.' So they all take his private plane down to his Louisiana mansion to escape the Black Ace. But of course they're playing right into said Ace's hands! If it sounds awfully like The Bat and/or The Gorilla, so what? It's a classic.

There's also some surreal rear projection: on the train where Vivienne Osborne (the maniac killer in Supernatural - above) meets Chester Morris, the rear-projected track seems way too large, resulting in fine Brechtian abstraction; and the plane crash has similarly bizarre touches (as I recall); but on the other hand. Jenkins and McHugh must have been hitting the gold dust en route because their comedic sense gets broader and dumber with each passing page of dialogue. When they're reading the identity of the Ace all slow out of the dead man's pocket, of course the lights go out before they can finish. When the lights. come back on there's no letter, of course, but by then this pair of cops are so dumb they start reading anyway... yikes. Oh well. If only they could have read faster or learned to hold onto evidence when the lights go suddenly out, the movie would be over.

Still, we didn't come down this way expecting originality, as you know, but to savor the '33 mood. And that ya got, blurry Alpha DVR or no: Charles "Ming" Middleton shows up as a mysterious coroner, Virginia Howell is a creepy mute housekeeper (she keeps giving the cops the finger 'in sign language'), and there's the very unusual appearance of a hulking, menacing genuinely African-American butler-henchman (Gus Robinson --his only credited role). So give up waiting for a better version, and just make sure to watch it on the crappiest, smallest TV you can find so you can pretend it's four AM and 1975 and you're pulling it down out of the ether on your UHF rabbit ears... gold dusted stew insomniac that you are.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If I were a guest TCM Programmer 2 - THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, GET CRAZY, FACE BEHIND THE MASK



My last virtual TCM schedule was such an excess they said add another - and I never say no to a menage-a-trois, I just run home to call my sponsor. Or hide in the movies, and no movie hides you better than the three-plus hour opening film chosen here. Which Criterion should release on DVD, but they don't. They haven't. And it's not nor are the other two on DVD at least in North America, not even DVR, and yet all are essential! Let us not forget these brothers in the shadows of the shadows. Alongside my 2012 entry, advocating John Huston's FREUD (1962), Howard Hawks' CEILING ZERO (1936), and two films that have since come out on DVD-R, COBRA WOMAN and DISHONORED.  here she is, my Friday Night Guest Programmer fantasy. May they all come soon, so i can turn over and find a new delusion.


THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE
1973 - dir. Jean Eustache

I haven't seen it since it screened at Lincoln Center back in 1999, but even at 31/2 hours and in grainy black and white it stuck in the hearts, minds, and nostrils of a theater full of foul bourgeoisie; it was pretty great, hilarious, touching, and helped break me up with my then-wife by convincing her I wanted a menage a trois with my hot blonde friend from AA, even though I didn't (just wanted to sip the JVS well of masochistic sexual tension) And so denied it, and made her think she was crazy and didn't even hook up with said AA girl after my wife left (the first time). You think I should have gone for it? It's pointless to regret it now! But I will praise this film to high heaven for its effect on my marriage- it delivered me from still waters. And not just because it made me feel all artsy (since I was covering it on my first-ever critic job) before I even knew who the bourgeois were, but because my first long-term post-marital affair was with a beautiful married Frenchwoman who'd come by my place after work for cinq a sept and bring me bonbons and coffees. As for the film itself, it was 13 years ago I saw it but I know I laughed at least once and only had to move three times to different sections of the theater to get away from bourgeois eaters with their clickety dentures, cheeses, and whispering nannies (this was right before the dawn of cell phones, thank god). Luckily the packed Walter Reade was almost empty by the time the film was over. Even cheese-eating bouregoisie have to get up and read their New York Times on the way 3 train in the morning. But not me. I took the 6, to the C, to the G!


Maybe it's so relatively unknown here because Eustache (left) killed himself shortly after completing it, and his only other credits were some slaughterhouse documentaries, so we don't have a pop culture icon face to go with him like we do for Truffaut or Godard, nor a vast oeuvre like we have for Rohmer, but he belongs in their ranks, for this film encompasses in spots all three of their styles: Rohmer's real time naturalistic three-way, Godard's May 68 brick-throwing and 'pop-bang-wiz!' And Truffaut's Jean Pierre Leaud, impossibly young despite Gauloises. And like all three: obsessed with sex, impotence, class-consciousness, and the kind egocentric humanism only the French can make work.

Leaud stars as Alexandre, a Parisian slacker who's still trading on his high profile in the riots of May 68, and keeping an "open" relationship with live-in girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont). A sexy nurse comes along named Veronika (Francois Lebrun),  even more liberated than either of them. The three of them later try to make it as a menage a trois, but mostly they talk, drink, smoke, look good and play endless records on a cheap turntable on the floor, and 215 minutes of running time goes by faster than any five minutes of Last Year at Marienbad. Isabelle Weingarten is Alex's bemused ex, and Jacques Renard Alexandre's his male chum. The English subtitles were the dirtiest things I'd ever seen... up to that time.


FACE BEHIND THE MASK
1941 - Dir Robert Florey

(POSTSCRIPT: This is showing on TCM - June 20, 2015 -1 AM -EST)

Here’s a classic rarity that used to be shown a lot on UHF TV in the 1970s. If you love weird classic film then you too probably remember the first time you saw and heard Peter Lorre as a kid, it's like he reached across time and the TV with that velvet Siamese purr and starts whispering in your ear with the immediacy of your own wild kid dreams. Rarely did this great actor have a chance to star totally in a film – even as Mr. Moto he had to share to bulk of the screen time with bumbling comic relief, smugglers, and straight-arrow couples meeting cute, so to speak. But for director Robert (BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, MURDER IN THE RUE MORGUE) Florey and a budget of about eight bucks, Lorre gives it his all. Every scene no matter how paltry the set or set-up has a moody jet black pathos that as a kid really resonated with me, and still does.

It’s the classic rise and fall crime story, but the twist is that Lorre starts out just an idealist immigrant excited to seek his fortune through hard work in his new home, New York City. A great early scene is where Lorre's naive friendliness wins over an Irish cop, his immigrant joy as infectious as a dose of Capra concentrate. Instead, his first night in a hotel, he’s horribly burned in a fire and has to wear a thin mask over his face, otherwise he scares and horrifies everyone on the street. The make-up of the mask is ingenious, with Lorre’s face seeming just a little latex stretched over his skin, bunched up at the sides and Lorre's acting so good that in its inexpressiveness his face still says volumes. The deep philosophical and reflexive aspects of this situation seem unlost on either director or actor, who throw away almost everything extraneous, and deliver agonizingly humanistic pathos (with a great turn by George E. Stone as the Ratzo Rizzo type who befriends the shunned pre-mask Lorre). Even with blind girl Evelyn Keyes' love offering a doomed shot at redemption, it's never corny or mawkish (leaving even that Capra concentrate in the dust). Instead, Florey and Lorre take the same low budget of a Sam Katzman or William Beaudine Monogram and turns it into raw poetry, a cross between Sam Fuller punch-and-pathos pulp, Edgar Ulmer dimestore fatalism, and Nicholas Ray underdog dissolution, with Lorre dressed all in black with his hooded eyes, while with the sunny cheerful Keyes he's like Frankenstein by the lake with the girl, or a Bauhaus Weimar Caligari in the suburbs.

And it’s the best Lorre movie. Ever. He makes the most of it. Thanks to his velvety feline vocal delivery and his own weird real life looks keeping him from ever ‘getting the girl’ in films, no matter how many he’s in, Lorre’s scarred ugliness in MASK seems like the next logical extension. Like with Fuller and Ray it's a cinema of polar extremes, the warm moments have value because we know they're doomed, we know the despair of rejection and the joy of finding a friend, someone just as down as you are, but not out. As a kid I saw this movie a dozen times and loved it and yet feared it because it’s kind of a downer, as was another frequent local TV horror movie feature, THE BRUTE MAN, starring real life acromegaly sufferer way cooler because Rondo, God love him, was never much of an actor. It was where I first saw Lorre, as a young child when we got up so early for Saturday cartoons we'd see the second half of the late-late horror movies on local TV. There he was, this little guy with a weird face, tied to an airplane in the middle of the desert, ruefully welcoming the end. It's one of my most vivid and mysterious childhood memories. It's the perfect kid movie because it's all about the importance of being good to the little guy, the ugly kid, the lost immigrant, and raining comeuppance on those who are mean to you.  It's just not something kids would ever see today, anymore, alas, in the age of cable and Netflix. Their loss, just as MASK's digital unavailability is ours.


1983 - Dir Allan Arkush 

One of the greatest crimes of the digital era is the total unavailability of this midnight cult show classic, set during one long crazy New Years Eve at a kind of Fillmore, in a kind of 'everyone shows up to pay their respects to this imperiled classic venue' kind of setting. Allen Garfield is a kind of Bill Graham named Max Wolf, who's ailing and needs a fix of success. Lou Reed is a mercurial recluse rock god who's apartment evokes Dylan's "Bringing it all Back Home" record cover. He sings his "Baby Sister" over the credits, to a transfixed few after driving in a cab all night jamming out and uttering cryptic nonsense.

There's a Muddy Waters-ish blues legend named King Blues (Bill Henderson) who delivers one of the best badass eulogies in the history of funerals and later sings "Mannish Boy" a theme that echoes through the set lists of subsequent performers, like Mick Jagger-Bowie-Jim Morrison lizard king-ish icon Reggie Wanker, played so brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell you want to follow him into the Caligula dawn of drug-fueled moments of transcendental pagan abandon, the wild fury of the mosh pit, and onwards. There's a great Piggy Op-ish animal (Lee Ving) who urges people (including Paul Bartel) to dive off the balcony; a scabby punk rock poetess ala Patti Smith amidst a Runaways style scab band (above); a flooded bathroom with a shark swimming around it; a giant hypodermic; Daniel Stern pausing to inhale some smoke from a $1 hookah hit-sellin' Rastafarian in one of the stalls; a Satanic pimp alien coke dealer shows up when anyone says the magic word; magical LSD winds up in the water cooler; there's a crowd-surfing refrigerator; acid rock hippy freaks and twitchy punks grooving side by side; an uptight fire inspector, and that's just the tip of Malcolm's talking penis. "It's the beginning / of a new age" he notes - and as acid flashback sensory signals turn our saliva electric tangy, we believe him.  Now for gods' sake, solve the dumb licensing issues or whatever's holding this back and let it loose. Ding Dong! The wicked keg is dead!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inescapably Her Iron Age Druid Bog Mummy Telekinetic Alcoholic Hottie Self: THE ETERNAL (1998)













Ireland - birthplace of literary horror and unrepentant alcoholism - full of murky bogs and steamy moors, and dark pubs and hellfire haired hotties within 'em predisposed to take a nip, and tannin in the peat to preserve the sunken shrouded shamanesses across the sodden centuries, and horror author Bram Stoker, Irish as the day as long. Some speculate he contracted a horrifying venereal disease while in a London brothel and it perhaps left him equating sex with death and personifications of archetypal malice incarnating in irresistibly charming high-end stable-building wpimps, leading to Dracula.

I'm one of the 'some' who speculate that, and Ireland, as soggy with Catholic guilt as it is soggy with rain, does all right fusing sex and horror even without that speculation, even without the then-incurable bonus of syphilis adding to its array of seasonal depression-fueled alcoholism.

Stoker wrote more than one horror novel though, and tapped the mummy vein as well as anyone with his "Jewel of the Seven Stars," director Michael Almereyda's uncredited source material for The Eternal (1998), which is a similarly fascinating and classic horror film reference-enriched follow-up his hip downtown NYC vampire movie Nadja (1994)This time Almereyda only starts in NYC, on a roller coaster set to Cat Power music. Then the leads--a boozy couple and their child--are off to Ireland ("When they got there it was raining, or was about to rain, or had just rained" intones the wandering lassie narrator). And while there's none of Stoker's phrenological acumen there are unique and oblique references to horror movie classics stretching from silent Expressionism to Ulmer's Black Cat to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and even Luis Fulci's Manhattan Baby, all done up in a Days of Wine and Roses / Nights of Abel Ferrara patina.

Jared Harris and Alison Elliott star as the two hard drinking, fun-loving, but not entirely bad parents Jim and Nora, who head out from the city to the remote Irish moors to visit Nora's ancestral home, a Baskerville-esque mansion. Of course they stop at a pub for a pint on the way, and one pint turns to many many many pints. "They'd been thrown out of pubs all over the world" notes the wandering Irish girl narrator, aways off down the moor. "Good thing we're not alcoholics" Harris says. Nora's doctor notes her brain problems aren't going to get better until she stops drinking altogether. She doesn't like to hear that, so figures a trip to the ancestral homestead, which she fled, under a cloud, before meeting Jim, will do the trick. "You're going to Ireland to dry out?" The doctor replies, bewildered. (He obviously never saw the 1934 Columbia voodoo movie Black Moon). Once the family gets there though everyone there is either declining a drink with a nervous twitch, accepting one with a sidelong glance or lurching merrily from its effect, which may include super 8mm flashbacks of pretty women old and younger along Nora's matriarchal line, a line that stretches down into the Iron Age peat moss, before there was even silver nitrate stock to burn it out. 

From top: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Eternal, Tomb, Eternal
Stoker's novella had already been adapted once by Hammer in 1971 as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Super sexy in pale skin and black velvet choker, Valerie Leon remains the main and maybe only reason to see it (I've seen it at least six times). Visiting all the exhuming archeologists one by one to kill them for their pieces of the reincarnate puzzle, Leon gets to play three types: archeologist's timid daughter, homicidal swinging mod with telekinetic skills, and ruthless Egyptian queen. And when I see a pale brunette in a black velvet choker offing duffers, well Amazon feels my 'Buy with One click' faster than a styrofoam ankh can bounce off the floor during a climactic tussle. Leon or no, The Eternal is the Stoker mummy movie to beat and sadly Almereyda's last horror feature, so far--he's been making mostly arty documentaries since. A waste, really...


1996 had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male (but punked out) shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket reincarnated as a rabid nymphomaniacal Communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing at the mouth stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right: there's enough druggie acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund and Lewton.  I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer, the English blood and sexy thunder of Hammer and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, or Iron Age moral compromises? 



Here's what happened: 1998 Michael Almeyreda, having had a minor critical hit in 1994 with Nadja (see my post earlier in the month), a black and white downtown NYC vampire film with lots of Portishead and cigarettes, took his winnings and doubled down on a color Irish mummy film with lots of Cat Power and whiskey. It didn't find the art house crowd it might have if he kept the black and white. Instead it went for the easy money and wound up in the cut-out bin looking more or less like everything else therein--at least from the cover. I mean look at that thing (above)! It looks like some direct-to-video Japanese softcore ghost story or hack Skinemax exorcist rip with a Waken walk-on ala The Prophecy IV instead of a druggie downtown-stylized old dark house ode to pre-code Universal and 70s Euro horrors. Well, I whipped up some real nice cover alternatives. Trimark--my gift to you:


i.e. "The Eternal Thirst" - the old booze comic Max and I did in the 80s
Here's the record collection, the wee lass, and Harris:


Debits for the ginger, their son. But he keeps his ugly haircut to the rear most of the time, which is just another thing Almereyda gets right -- these parents are cool, in the old school tradition, in that they don't freak out and/or treat their kid like some precious unboiled egg in a relay race. They're partiers, and they love to horse around with the kid, but the kid doesn't stop them from getting sloshed at the pub. And Harris is no Dustin Hoffman "pacifist" pussy but an ever-dancing freewheeling dude who's maybe a hair less charismatic than he thinks, but what drunk isn't? I admire the way Harris incorporates what is probably some dance background into his drunken twirls and rills. First thing he does to prove his mettle when the Straw Doggie skulking townie ex-boyfriend shows up is punch him, picking a fight by the juke box. It's a great scene not least because they've stopped in there 'for a quick one' after swearing off drinking, and soon its hours later - they're tanked - and the son is falling asleep at the bar from stone boredom. Yikes! Call child services except, god bless it, this is Ireland. They just get ejected from the pub is all. "They'd been kicked out of bars all over the world" notes the narrator, with some veiled admiration. Wait, I said all this already, didn't I? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. Come back here, laddie! I'm still talkin'...


What counts in the meantime is the groovy scenery and how Walken's residing uncle patriarch has a great homicidal record collection (well not great, they make fun of the Joe Dolan but dance funkily to his one hit, "She was a Good-Lookin' Woman"). Meanwhile the girl with the disaffected expression who occasionally interjects some plot points "your mother was a witch as well," has a kind of worldly calm. It's all right there - in the beginning she's a bit like the girl in Don't Look Now (1973) and for awhile she's like the girl in Who Saw Her Die? (1972) with a semi-decent establishing shot matte painting ala Corman's Poe series.


One of the unique subtexts at work here is an undercurrent of pro-drunken anger - as still sick and suffering alcoholic Nora regularly has drinks taken out of her hands by Jim who says "none for us, we're quitting" and makes a big show of enjoying life without it all while nipping from a flask unseen. That kind of balderdash makes me want to retch. And I should know. The way the drinks pass her wide eyes by, or the way she works hard to seem deadpan when getting offered some whiskey down in the basement once Jim's upstairs with the ginger kid --it's the kind of stuff only drunks like myself feel keenly. How nice that there's whole films and wings of Irish literature just for us! No matter how adept his Walken impression, or grace around the dance floor, Jim's refusing drinks on Nora's behalf stings like a slap, and it's meant to. Only Eugene O'Neill really ever wrote scenes that captured the way every offered drink, every vulnerable liquor bottle, warms the alcoholic's blood like a siren call, and every 'no thanks' on their sickly behalf freezes the blood like a gut punch they're not allowed to wince from. And only Hawks and Huston ever understood it well enough to capture it (Wilder doesn't really get it in Lost Weekend); only Hawks and Huston understood how cigarettes and drinks are the currency of cool loyalty, how they bring the world into focus as well as out of it. Almereyda doesn't have time to stretch out on these branches. There's no mariachi band playing the Death Song to steady her nerves like in Rio Bravo; no agony of being denied a desperately needed drink just for 'singing lousy' like in Key Largo. No time; the sub-plot just dries out. Plus, "Why be serious? That's for people in sad countries like Poland or Africa. And anyway, the mummy catches on fire and bursts through the window and gets zapped by electric current just like Hawks' original The Thing. So add the cigarettes (Harris is constantly lighting them and sticking them in his wife's mouth; the young girl does the same for the old woman, keeping one for herself) and drinks (and drink awareness) and that's Hawks enough. We don't need soberin'. We need another round.

Other wry references: Jim offhandedly quotes Six Million Dollar Man while building a fire; crazy old bat Lois Smith's hair makes her resemble the crazy old Baroness Graps in Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), which Eternal resembles for its inter-generational war of the matriarchal sorceresses plot, and the transmigration of souls motif which also ties in with Nadja and its influences like Daughters of Darkness-ness with the dreamy beachside ending.


There's other evidence of Almereyda's artistry and laid back genius for subliminal nodding, as in the way he evokes the idea of a pharaoh's crypt by lighting the cavernous marble foyer with the kind of candle light that evokes a big archeological dig; or the subtle way the cold washrag around Nora's forehead after one of her spells mirrors the head-wrap worn by the mummy (also played by Elliott) Niamh; or how Almereyda uses super 8mm movie footage to nod to home movies for the flashbacks to Niamh's Iron Age tragedy (she let her love for a no-good man weaken her magick power) and the death of Nora's mother, (Sinead Dolan). It might have been a corny touch but Almereyda has been exploring the use of different media within film structures for awhile, as in his Hamlet's intentionally pretentious conscience-of-the-king-catching video art pieces and overwhelmed Blockbuster trips; the Fisher Price Pixelvision in Nadja.  And the old lady (Lois Smith), the dead mom of Nora; the undead mummy shamaness; and the girl narrator provide a multi-generational matriarchal chain in contrasting film stocks (witnessed in Nora's head accompanying her weird flashback nose-bleeds and bird hallucinations) around which the little ginger, the local lads, and Jim are the only men and always seem a hare's breath away from being killed in a Barleycorn sacrifice. "It was the Iron Age, you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by," Walken says in reference to Nora's question about whether Niamh, her bog mummy ancestor, is good or evil. "She was uncontrollably herself." Jim meanwhile jokes around when it turns out the mattress is stuffed with dead snakes and potato-shaped stones: "The ancient druids used Mr. Potato Head as part of their rituals" he tells his owl-eyed ginger. But is the ginger really his? Straw Dogs skulking in the windows with their deux ex machina timely shots conjure wild scenarios ala 'Her Majesty's Coachmen' in Lady Eve. Then again, do they? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. These shards of Jimmy Dolan albums aren't going to just telekinetically slice into townsfolk's necks themselves!

And as for sobriety... Fuck sobriety. No one comes to Ireland to dry out and. besides, good Scotch functions as snake bite remedy. This is the dawning of the Iron Age of Aquarius, sweet ladies, goodnight. Saint Patrick can boast as he likes, Ireland always keeps serpents handy!

Goodnight, ladies, goodnight sweet ladies...

Thursday, April 09, 2015

BabaDOOK! Jennifer Kent's Psychotropic Fairy Tale


Film's aren't always bad just because they're familiar and use overused cliches. Think about it, mate, and you'll see great art sometimes comes in colors so familiar you want to scream like John Waters at the sight of them. For example: soap operas are often trite, cliche'd and overwrought but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Douglas Sirk; costume dramas are often barrenly obsequious but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Jane Campion; fairy tale monster under the bed tropes are often overly whimsical and hackneyed but we can't dismiss The Babadook. A Sheila, a quick Sheila, can take the Gorey-Addams-Grimm signifiers overused by Tim Burton and go deep into their nightmare parable fore, the zone where men (and boys like Burton) dare not go (it's too close to the, um... you know what). It has to be a resourceful and courageous Shelia to go there, but if she's brave and resourceful enough she can slither her scoop down past the popcorn bowl's hard bottom for the black brass kernel at the bottom of the nightmare bucket. Mmmm-hmmm, good on ya, Sheila! Whomever you are. 

Such a Sheila is the newest great lady Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, and The Babadook (2014), out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, but crafts from that Gorey-Addams-Burton cloth a Shining-Repulsion (1) collapse of the consensual real. The story of a mom and her squirrelly, strange son going totally bonkers--she half crazy from lack of sleep and sexual frustration and he from prolonged anxiety about his long-missing father--who create a collectively produced poltergeist-ish manifestation and if--with its magician's hat and bony fingers--the title monster can come off a little This Way the Wicked Kruger Comes Depp-ensian Dr. Caligari Cat in the Hat 'high on mercurochrome- whimsical, it still has more than enough genuine menace to make it closer to Kubrick than Disney... most of the time, anyway. 

Like our daily dreads, the pop-up book Amelia (Essie Davis) finds on the doorstep starts out Gorey-normal but soon evolves into a genuine, disturbing threat, with drawings of Amelia herself, possessed, stabbing her child to death, as crazy as James Mason at the end of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. (1956), making the book half-R.L. Stine, half legitimate death threat, with pull-tabs.


It works because at the core of this archetypal mysterious ghost intruder lurks a great hybrid archetype, and unassimilated animus for mom Amelia (Essie Davis), representing her dark wish fulfillment (to be free of her difficult brat once and for all), and a grim devouring father figure for the boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This nightmare figure, common to sleep paralysis, waits until you're almost asleep, or trying to spend a little me-time, if you know what I mean, then starts thumping on doors or rattling chains, hammering away at your nerves as you try to repress your inner rage, until it breaks off and comes back in poltergeist form and your sense of reality shifts and the border between dreams and reality collapses. 

And Kent gets it--probably better than any filmmaker yet--how gigantic adults seem in the eyes small apprehensive children. I had forgotten it myself, having not been a child in quite awhile, but Kent brings it all back, to ground zero of childhood nightmares, that sense of relative smallness. Even Kubrick never quite dared deal with that monstrously large parent element. The one time Jack Torrance seemed bigger than normal he was looming over a model of the maze and neither mom nor son could see him. But Kent shows how children see themselves as normal size and adults as giants. As her mood gets blacker, Amelia gradually seems to grow to ogre-size; our perspective changes and she's shot from low angles, and her anger at Samuel morphs her (sans CGI or make-up--just great acting) into some dark evil thing. 

When I was very young I used to have nightmares about my mom creeping into my room like a vampire to drink my blood. I can still remember how she moved in those nightmares, like she was simultaneously swimming in slow motion and moving too fast to run away from.  When I was scared in the dead of night I'd run in to her room to wake her so she could stand guard while I went to the bathroom.  This one time though, she sat up slowly and straight like a vampire rising from a coffin and moaned really low... and it was like my nightmare was coming true. I knelt in submission, buried my head in my hands and started crying and screaming, "I'm your son! I'm your son!!" 

We joked about it for years, but at the time I knew true fear. 

Is there anything worse a very young boy can imagine than his mom, his one true protector, turning evil on him? It's easy to forget you ever feared her once you get past the breakwaters of adolescence; the passage of mom from benevolent giantess to a sweet if nagging allowance-payer is a one-way street and we're glad to not have to look back. We modulate our perceptions so that we presume we've always seen from the same height, but a film like The Babadook can remind us, as good horror movies do, of all the terror we grew so hard to forget. 

As I wrote about The Shining, cabin fever is a very hard thing to study, as just showing up to study it rapidly dissipates it. One is either killed like Scatman Crothers or sucked up into the madness, as with the semi-sympathetic father whose poor brain oscillates between giggling sadism and paternal sympathy for Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Those kind of characters are so rare in horror that when they show up we take notice. Like Frederic March becoming Mr. Hyde halfway through the terrorized Miriam Hopkins' plea for help, Amelia in The Babadook or Ray's ogres in Bigger than Life and In A Lonely Place exhume that fear our source of comfort will turn on us. Having very little (adult) experience reading children's books I can't be too scared of the Babadook book in theory. But I have relied on The Thing (1951) for most of my life to save me in times of trouble, and if I put it on during one of my regular dark nights of the soul and the film had changed, if Captain Hendry was now a sadist in league with Dr. Carrington, and tortured people or something, that yawning terror of my mom sitting up in bed and moaning like some beanstalk vampire giant in the dead of night would come roaring back. Films are great in that sense, they can be edited but they can't really change, especially on DVD. 

But the Babadook terror rolls in both directions: The vulnerability and trust involved with familial love hinges on acceptance of uncanny extremes, for a mother must love even the most loathsome of creatures--the beast, the frog, the rat, the touched and wayward Richard--giving them, at the very least, a kiss, an embrace, a bottle and a place to sleep it off in, in order slowly grow them into a princeIf the mother can't provide this, the child snaps and begins to darken into something worse, trying to create for others the terror he feels as a result of his mom's ambivalence. And the mom, via the uncuttable psycho-umbilical root that connects them even past death, that root no machete or pill can sever, comes tumbling down the well after him, barking at him not to put her in the root cellar. 

Coraline
(SPOILERS) But while, for example, the horrors of cloistered, sexually dysmorphic animus shadow-projectors, like Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (or Mrs. Bates in Psycho), ended their isolation with their murders and sins exposed, pinned to the patriarchy-enforced consensual reality cork board like still-twitching wasp wings (and old Jack Torrance never quite made it out of his maze), the mom in Baba passes through the Repulsion needle and out of the Overlook cabin fever, past even Ring 2's child services and suspicious neighbors, into the safe press clippings of the Taxi Driver "hero" fantasia. Developing farther in fact than any psychotropic horror character before, Amelia gets all demons safely integrated rather than merely repressed or succumbed to; she learns that madness, once harnessed, becomes genius. If you're not willing to let go of all self constructs, from surface persona right down to your twitching core, you will not not re-merge with undifferentiated consciousness. Amelia's strength as a mom lies not in Ford tough Magdalene invulnerable cloaking and burning as we might expect, but raw Aussie gumption and the power that comes when you finally get down so low, as the saying goes, you can touch off from the bottom and swim up faster. John Ford had the Depression, war, the harshness of the era, and drink. Spielberg though, had only his childhood, traumatized by schoolyard bully anti-Semitism, but he was saved by the power of fantasy and Ford's westerns. I've got a history with drugs, alcoholism, recovery, decadence, years of undiagnosed depression, spiritual enlightenments and disillusionments, W.C. Fields, Camille Paglia, and Howard Hawks. We all got something to draw on, is my point, the childhood trauma informs the choice of comfort. My mom as a vampire translated to a lifetime love of Dracula.
Admittedly, the children's book / nursery rhythm gimmick, while creepy, is also overly familiar: from Edward Gorey (left) and Charles Addams-ish drawings -to everything Tim Burton ever made. But they're all usually tempered with some degree of levity. "Good fright, pleasant screams," as the creepy narrator of The Inner Sanctum radio show used to say. When the death threat implied is tempered with 'just kidding' bad pun, one misses the macabre tone of unedited nursery rhymes or Grimm's Fairy Tales, which offer little sugar and lots of coldly regarded suffering. I was amused by Gorey as a child but now I look at his stuff and think he's way too disturbing for my adult sensitivity. Maybe it's that as children we know where death is, we were just there not so long ago, and so death can't suddenly surprise us. For very young children the big fear is never death, but of being separated from one's mother (i.e. an unpleasant moment without her is far scarier than eternity with her). But adults have been away from death long enough that they no longer recognize its reflection in the mirror, and so when it shows up out of the blue, that's when the spook moves in. And so Babadook's children's book gimmick would be just cliche if not for its blunt unremitting threat, moving slowly and gingerly from playfully macabre to outright hostile, threatening, malicious, obscene even as it never strays from the psychosexual Lynchian ostrich nasal lampshade Joe Campbell crucible in order to harden into what might be a 'next stage in a woman's life" sequel to coming-of-age myths like Twilight, Maleficent, Frozen, and Snow White and the Huntsman.




Shout's Blu-ray includes Kent's short, Monster, a 16mm black and white short that's basically an early draft of the Babadook. And of course trailers, and a long string of interviews that really stretch out. The Blu-ray brings excellent tactile depth to the powder blues and grays of the walls, a color scheme that I'll confess is not my favorite, but it works to suggest color is draining out of this bizarre family. "I'll make you a bet, the more you deny, the bigger I get!" It's pretty Freudian, especially when the pop-ups begin. And the score emphasizes and distorts Amelia's disintegrating mentality; in one great scene Amelia looks for her son and you hear his calling her, muffled and echoed, hard to pinpoint. We're never sure if it's just a hallucination. While the kid is being terrorized, she's downstairs and the cuts back and forth exhibit a profound grasp of the way the repressed emotions and sexual frustrations of a widowed parent can spontaneously generate autonomous external threats, as in Dr. Morphius' monster "from the Id" in Forbidden Planet or (single mom) Jessica Tandy's Birds.


Kent and Babadook is what Jane Campion and The Piano used to be, a female furie from down under come to wade through chthonic swamps of menstrual blood and societal taboo, dragging her son, daughter, piano, canoe, and civilization behind her, surrendering to and then conquering her darkest shadows. In Kent we maybe have found a female Polanski-esque Nicholas Ray to shake the "Yellow Wallpaper" madness and horror back to its primal core, the childhood fear that one day you'll wake up and your parents will be gone, leaving only their demons, their madness, addictions and dysmorphia to babysit through your slow genetic flowering. You can't run. You can't hide. You can only endure and stand up, unafraid, unbowed, your warrior stance, battle cry, and unflinching courage draining them down to shaking junkie shadows. 

Unconditional love: no monster can survive it. 

NOTES:

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Great Acid Easter Cinema: THE GREEN PASTURES (1936)


This 1936 all-black folk interpretation of the Old Testament draws 'Uncle Tom'-style flak from liberal academia, and maybe they're right (1), but on the other hand, God is portrayed as a black man (Rex Ingram), and He is a God of Wrath and Vengeance. So, while he may talk gentle and folksy, and heaven may be just clouds and an endless singing, fish-fries, five cent ceegars, and cups of firmament-deficient custard, it's still no place for buffoonery. And I personally love the shit out of this movie, and if part of that love comes from a kind or round-about racism, then stone me not lest ye be first stoned, as I was when I had it on a six-hour tape sandwiched between a host of 30s Betty Boop cartoons and Death Takes a Holiday (1934). The tape was labeled "In case of Emergency" - knowing this blog you might guess what kind of emergency I meant. For nary a month or so went by that my weird self-medication regimen wouldn't fail on me, to the point I'd drunkenly and ill-advisedly take too much acid in order to pull myself out of a spiritual tailspin and instead wind up spinning even faster, the yawning chasm of Hell opening up before me. In those dark moments, with Death so close I could see its reflection in the toilet bowl mirror, I'd reach for the Boop-Pastures-Holiday trifecta tape, and lo, I would be healed. "Nothing dies forever," (perhaps) a (mis)quote I heard while in the other room during Expendables 3.  Ain't it apt?


Because for all its folksy drinkin' mammy wine illiterate racist caricature stereotypin', Green Pastures won't stay dead. At its core it's not about the black experience so much as it is about how suffering is the requisite prelude to compassion. In its clear-headed mystical scissor complexity it is a very modernist film, fusing the mythos of the Old Testament to the mythos of the Carl Sandburg/Mark Twain-folksy Old South, with nary a nod to any kind of banal social realism or political correctness along the way. It's darker than blue and wrong as acid rain, but it goes down sweet as whole bottle of vanilla extract, gulped down as a last resort on a blue law Sunday when the shakes are so bad you can't even get off your knees without dry-heaving. Like that extract's effect on a shattered alcoholic system, the Green Pastures' sweetness helps you keep it down even as its potency warms you up. The gentle but properly aligned gravitas of Ingram's God is like a salve to a wound that's bled your soul, mind, and spirit into one raw wound. He's like a draft of Moby Dick's hot blood in a shiny grail fed to a crippled Ahab. He doesn't grow back a new hollow leg, but he just might make it to the kitchen on the one he has. And me, during that brutal Sunday hangover while miserably alone and bereft and it's winter and work looming like the gallows, man, the thought of an entire keg of liquor waiting on a nice rainy ark, with everything from guys in gorilla suits to freshly painted zebras for company, is like a salve that erases the pain from my phantom limb.

To a poor space cowboy fallen so far off his horse he'd already passed the ground three times, dancing as he plummets, like St. Vitus on a string, Ingram is the one lord who makes sense, the only lord you trust.


1930--the year Green Pastures was written (first as a play)--was a year of expanded demographical suffering for this great country. A whole lot of once middle class white folks--many of them decorated war heroes--were suddenly very enlightened in how it felt to be poor as hell, spat on by the cops, forced to sleep in Central Park and to take whatever demeaning job was offered for however insultingly little. The market crashed, the Depression was on, there was no such thing as minimum wage, and you couldn't even drown your sorrows, thanks to Prohibition. FDR was still three years away, but Hitler was rolling slowly but inexorably into view as well. They'd both hit their full power the same year, ushering in respective sweeping reforms (like highway building), but in 1930 only the factors that created the need for them existed. What there was, instead, the manifestation of a need for some kind of faith that white audiences could embrace without feeling  overly churchy. In other words, we could--through the "American Negro Spiritual" get our needed spiritual uplift with just the right sociological distance.

This appreciation for black spirituality--real or imagined--took root in a lot of us who grew up in 70s Middle Class mostly-all White America, I was used to black people more as TV characters than neighbors: Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and What's Happening! and of course radio, where you couldn't tell who was male or female ("Hot Child in the City" was my favorite song 'til I learned it was sung by a man) let alone black or white. Our sense that the racist jokes and cartoons we saw and heard were wrong didn't really sink in until Roots came along, and we--along with the bulk of white America--were all like, holy shit, that really happened?! We quietly threw our joke books away, and watered the seeds of our newly planted collective social guilt like it was a rare orchid.

At the same time, I today regard with suspicion the uber-liberal academe for whom ever single word spoken in popular media on this subject is either vile and racist or safely didactic, flavorless, and dour. A black actor for these lefty liberals has to 'represent' color, one way or another, elevating or denigrating with his or her every step and word. To quote one of Green Pasture's angels as he looks down from the clouds at Jesus carrying the cross, "that's a terrible burden for one man." Performing the opposite of that kind of mono-dimensional liberal strait-jacketing, Green Pastures' modality recognizes the universal man as black via accentuation of the black man as Other rather than a bland mouthpiece for the kind of sanitized PC sermonizing that reinforces stereotypes even as it works so mawkishly to transcend them.

White fans of black culture like myself (and Quentin Tarantino) risk demonization at the hands of the hysteric left for the crime of looking at the vibrant soul of the black performer with vampiric envy. We recognize that vitality, that wellspring of submarine missile-to-stratosphere soul as something we lack, seeing and hearing them we feel it in our bones, we long to absorb that resonance, that heavy frequency. The hard left tries to create equality by denying that resonance, by claiming it's just white nonsense. Spike Lee will tell Tarantino's fans to be ashamed for loving his liberally N-word peppered dialogue, but art flowers in the offal of wrongness; it withers and dies when subjected to 'peer-reviewed journal' correctness. Those journals are either part of--or at the mercy of--political dissent-promoters who just don't 'feel comfortable' with genuine subversion of the status quo. They need iron gates installed around the campus just so they can demand the gates be removed. They feel the common man's plight, but only if they don't have to eat next to him, for truly he lacketh table manners.

And so goes my rambling preface to my telling you that The Green Pastures was written in 1930 by the great white wit Marc Connelly, one of the Algonquin round table, and he based it on Roark Bradford's source text called Ol Adam and his Chillun. And critics are right, it's a mite racist. But let us not forget, in the same era the most popular books were savage satires of white poverty and deviance by eugenics proponents like Erskine Caldwell. Relative to Caldwell's hilarious savagery, Pastures is socially progressive, wise, and gently humorous. If some of the black actors embody exaggerated grotesques, it should be remembered that the source text basically chronicles Eden, the Flood, ancient Egypt, Babylon, and so forth, and puts forth the idea of humanity ever-oscillating between humble reverence and depraved decadence, between higher human idealism and bestial indulgence, that each flood or extinction event God creates wipes out the more animalistic (analog) versions of man to distill a stronger divine (digital) proof. America especially, still struggles with this today, no matter how much 'pruning' and 'weeding' God's done to our collective garden.

We should also remember that the most racist of all biblical films are really those deadly dull ones that cast only white actors, sometimes in black, brown, or yellow face, to play the biblical figures. Based on the relatively small geographic area where most of the Old Testament transpires, characters should all actually be Arab or North African. Where else in popular culture, aside from that Isaac Hayes album Black Moses or on Kwanzaa tapestries, are Old Testament characters black? The black man is the original man, true? So no other race should portray Adam, or Moses for that matter, and that means everyone else in the bible should be played by some mix of Northern African and Middle Eastern heritage, Jews included as part of the Israel / Ishmael divide. (2)

Right
Wrong!
Now, I'm no fan of the bible and its obtuse user-unfriendly 'folk' language, but when it's folksied up even more and in a more homey direction by old man Connelly, the universal mythic archetypal potency blazes outward in ways no old lady Sunday school teacher or droning priest could ever match. It, alone amongst biblical films, works to summarize (and hold accountable) God's actions throughout the Old Testament. God's periodic visitations, His judgements of wickedness, and His dark habit of raining destruction to start anew, over and over, on various decadent sub-strains of humanity, is seen as a bad habit humanity can't help but pick up itself. The film manages to make sense of the huge difference between the Old Testament God and the New way better than any other movie or sermon I've seen or heard.

Toward the end, in the midst of a WWI-style battle, comes a son of Adam named Azrel who runs into God and--like all the other humans but Noah--never recognizes him (even though he's played by the same actor). "Maybe we was tired of that old God," notes Azrel, for he and his people have created a different God for themselves, one way nicer than He is. God is feeling wrathful at this but Azrel lays a trip on God that cuts deep: man needs God to be a god of mercy, not vengeance. If he's to thrive, and to understand the concept of mercy, this means that even God must suffer. Suffering brings an understanding of the power of forgiveness --it can be learned no other way. Azrel won't even acknowledge the wrath of the old God, regardless of the God's intimidation tactics. The new God is merciful and kind, and even God Himself doesn't have a say in the matter.


So in a sense this movie, in its bizarre unheimliche mix of historical fact and mythic 'telephone game' translation and editing, gets at a truth too deep to convey with anything like dull DeMille solemnity.
If all that doesn't mean anything to you, o judger of my love for Pastures as 'benevolent racism' then just this: The Hal Johnson Choir does some great singing as the Heavenly angel congregation, the kind of music we don't hear nowadays when gospel is either Mahalia Jackson style (which is awesome) or classic (which is stodgy and tedious at best). Hal Johnson's choir is more attuned to, say, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, another old trippy favorite of mine. Pastures is not a musical and the songs mostly serve as transitions between scenes, as God meddles with or just visits the folks on his Earth through the centuries, like a botanist checking on his experimental orchids, deciding whether or not to wipe out this latest breed and start splicing again.

And if the language seems outdated, note of the original bible text (which I looked up wondering what the hell firmament was):
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day (GENESIS 1.6-8)
Jeezis that's muddily incoherent speaking on old God's part. I far prefer de Lawd's version:
"Let there be some firmament, and I don't mean no little bit of firmament. I mean a whole mess of firmament, 'cuz I'm sick of running out of it when we need it.".

Like a lot of enduring mythic texts, the Old Testament defies easy interpretation as either truth or fiction, i.e. it is true myth, tall tales in a sense, ala John Henry if crossed with the historical fact of Joe Louis, Leadbelly, and Louis Armstrong. It's a text rife with magical staffs and personifications of elemental forces that were probably never meant to be taken as concretized dogma (3) as there are huge gaps in logic that my Sunday school teacher never could answer for me. For example, who did the children of Adam and Eve go off and marry if there were yet no other people? And later the children of Noah, the same question. Did they mate with some prehuman life form? Or with each other? If with each other--and this goes for the two of each kind of animal Ark system--how, with such a small gene pool are we not all deformed inbred monsters?

My Sunday School teacher was worse than ignorant of the answers, she radiated the smell of elderly skin and rotting old lady teeth, which coupled to fellow student Marilyn's infernal and endless sniffling, further abstracted the meaning we might derive from our reading the bible aloud, around and around the table, the abstract and redundantly worded language of the text devolving further and further into meaninglessness as we kids had neither the education nor the interest to find meaning to the words, so would either rush through the text in a bland monotone (Marilyn), stutter and mispronounce every word (Terry), or make fun of it by emphasizing random words in a hammy voice (me). Green Pastures at least has the gumption to discern the common threads in the text and summarize its events into as a relevant and moving preface to the New Testament.

The moral being, even God sometimes needs to suffer to grow, and the only we God can understand mercy is through suffering, the kind that comes from seeing your son die on a cross. Through acceptance of, through the unmitigated feeling of hangovers, pain and woe comes transmutation into solace--isn't that what the blues is all about?


For first world middle class white kids like myself, with no diseases or ailments or crippling accidents or arrests of any kind, we can really only know true suffering via mental illness, such as depression, or our own drug withdrawal or bad trip overdoses on psychedelics that turn out to be laced with strychnine or formaldehyde, or are just way stronger than we were prepared for, amplifying our sense of loneliness and isolation to the point of existential agony. Failing that, it's my opinion suicide attempts are a last ditch effort to achieve the same grace, because if you survive, suddenly your once stifling woes are dialed back into focus. For suffering is the fire of God the blacksmith, melting down your frying pan soul to hammer it into a mighty sword. Best learn to love the sound of the hammer ringing, because He's never satisfied, not 'til your shiny and pure and sharp as a Hattori Hanzo Bill-killing special. Here's a little song I wrote about it, ready?

The dentist is not punched for his painful probe;
you pay him for the privilege. So it is that the infant is forgiven his filthy diaper,
the old man his soiled bedsheets,
but not the young junky vagrant with no bowel control,
not the drunk, obscene, stumbling reminder
that no pursuit of pleasure escapes its counterbalance misery, and so to vice versa.

But if your crying is not from worry or the dread of dying
Allow it. Aummmmmm
If your crying is not from fear the manna shall soon cease its flow,
Aummmmmm
If your crying is not from thinking about tomorrow, the punishment when dad comes home,
the missed finals, the repetitions whose tedium is feared before it's even started
um...

Where the twig meets the leaf is where the first frames of meshed mom morph.
Then it vibrates outward, the unspooling spiral of the seashell snail shape Aummmmmmm
shuffled downward onto plankton carpets, shamanic rattles caked in baby spittle,
white and shiny glistening like the freshly hatched serpent.
Aummmm, shapes cut from glowing red lantern spin orbit patterns as your crib surrounds.
Aummmmmmmmm, the holy gleaming halo of your last first faint sunset Aummmm.
Each death, night, goodbye, adieu just an outward breath Aummmmmmm.
Mom, that titan, that tower, encircles us no more tonight,
just the slow spinning stars of nontoxic plastic, above us,
out of reach, above the bars of our baby crypt.

The rattle dries into whiskey and drum sets, growing tall brings
girls of equal height, their breasts no longer big as beanbag chairs,
only the forgotten homework now stirs a guilty shiver
only that is the giant crib mom's harrowing equal in absence.

Inward..
Buzzing, the razor stops suddenly, the chair
either dentist of barber, you forgot which,
lurches downward.
The bib comes off.
We're unleashed,
to where, with such a naked neck?

And so we sense that the hangups that befoul our spiritual questing are all beaten and cleared away by the enormous suffering of the Jewish slaves and the black slaves, and the grotesque words, faces, jewelry and actions all speaking to a great evolutionary quality, as the grotesque exaggerations of blackness, the dice game, the koochie dancers, the grim inhumanity and shallow interest in 'tricks' gives way to hard-won dignity as humanity collectively moves from a pagan pantheon of animal gods and graven images (requiring human sacrifices) to the idea of a single, yet jealous god who demands fidelity, and finally to the one God himself changing from a god of wrath and vengeance to a god of love and forgiveness. It's all there in Ingram's face as de Lawd, and also as Adam, and also as Hezrel, a name that appears here and nowhere else.

During my 'here comes the big 12/21/12!' big rapture moment (4)  I understood at last with diamond clarity that all the suffering in the world had only this one purpose, the shaking of the gold prospector's pan - to sift away the dross and mud so God might see what's left to shine, and all the baubles and wealth in the world won't buy you one step onto that golden stair, so don't be sure all that glitters in the Robert Plant's hair has two meanings.

But in losing all that, in tossing possessions away, in enduring centuries of slavery with one's every pain-wracked step (5), one earns it. No expensive wine ever tasted half as sweet as plain water to a man dying of dehydration in the desert. And to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, God made men into desert wanderers, that they might know this awesome vintage. There's no atheist in a foxhole so God made war a constant. And because I'm too pampered to want to wander and die in the desert just for a taste of this golden water nectar, too lazy and grandiose to want a walk-on part in the war, I became a psychedelic surgeon. But when I accidentally sew my ego into my soul via incorrect sutures and stay awake in the dark night of the soul despair, then I got Leadbelly, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Pastures, to raise me clear above it via a transcendental alchemical process of absorption, for their uniquely black pain and triumph comforts me, remindeth me the desert's always waiting, somewhere wrapped in foil in a forgotten college freezer, the 'good work' always ready to be picked up right where you left it. Aummm. And don't let the lord convince you that one keg of liquor on the ark is enough. Better take two kegs, lord.


A final word: 
Ingram also played the devil's son-in-law in Cabin in the Sky, another all-black film that posits the negro culture as being more extreme in its polarity than whites (i.e. a black man is either a decent, God-fearing Christian or a debauched craps-shooting, razor-wielding pimp, nothing in between) gets far less critical dross, but I think is far more racist (7). In Cabin we never see the lord, Ingram is the devil; in Pastures we never see the devil and Ingram is the lord. And he played the genie in Thief of Baghdad! In short he's very good at playing larger than life mythic archetypes that far transcend the generic role of the 'bearer of the burden of blackness.' He genuinely seems to be asking, in that beautifully gentle but forceful purr of a voice, "Have you been baptized?" ("Yes, Lord" the choir responds) Have you been redeemed? ("Yes lord"), etc. He's a complex god because though he judges his creation his main request is that man honors him on Sunday, obeys the commandments, and doesn't go "fussin' and fightin' and bearin' false witness." He brings in the three Hebrew angels in long white beards, and declares "It so happens I love your family, and I delights to honor them." The angels mention their people are in bondage down in Egypt. "I know they is. Who do you think put them there?" The Angels look dismayed "Oh, that's okay, I'm a take 'em out again." The Angels smile - but again there's the nagging suspicion that God is a bit of an insecure egotist. A good parent understands his children are bound to disobey on occasion, that it's essential to good growth of independent thought (as an academic advisor I see the damage done by over-protective parents who work double time to prevent this independent thought in their children, leaving said children woefully unprepared for life outside the nest, and they don't learn even in college thanks to their ubiquitous cell phones).


During my last big awakening I became a ball of light unmoored from my body and 3D space time. I realized I was always either revolving closer to the godhead or farther away - but there was no such thing as true motionlessness, and to merge into the godhead obliterated all separateness, and can be dangerous -- like moths aren't meant to survive hitting the bulb they orbit. In this case it was a ground zero of infancy --the sun being mother's breast, her love, her giant presence.

When you're a baby, your mother is a gigantic icon, more then five times your size. You worship her and need look no farther for true sustenance and comfort and if you hold a good orbit you're okay, but drift too far from her amniotic light and it's total darkness. She becomes just another star as you drift (as seen in Enter the Void). And if you're not working back towards that holy light, the devil's got you in his long reach gravity, convincing you to curse, get drunk, and get more stuff because God doesn't exist anyway. True or not makes no difference: I feel this comforting gravity of the lord when watching Green Pastures. And that is enough. If there is a God, the miseries He creates here on Earth are to aid us in finding a streak of true faith and true mercy, true humility, the nonjudgmental love that unites all dualities back into a healthy radiant whole. There's really nothing else important -- life is just for this. It's all that lasts. Do I bend mighty low? I do. And showers of warm grateful tears are my reward.

Until the drugs wear off.


------
NOTES:
For New Testament Action, see Acidemic's 2011 Great Acid Cinema JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
1. See G.S. Morris's great, even-handed analysis: Thank God for Uncle Tom. Race and Religion Collide in The Green Pastures (Bright Lights, Jan. 2008)
2. I don't know what I'm talking about here, shhhh!
3. Imagine if Aesop's Fables were taken as truth, with vintners making sure their vines are always low enough for foxes to reach, lest the grapes turn sour, etc.)
4. fall 2012 if you're keeping score, check the posts.
5. Giving away all your possessions and $$ gives you a rush of total freedom, if it didn't then cults wouldn't exist. Add to that the idea that a vegan diet is both very holy and right and yet makes you highly suggestible and passive, and drudgery and ceaseless toil give you clarity (i.e. when standing for 24 hours straight, lying down is a sublime ecstasy) then cults have a great rationale for all their exploitive behavior.
6. STP - or DOM - is a Berkeley chemist masterpiece, it's a sports car that comes with no brakes, and no way to de-accelerate, the gas tank just has to run itself out. I didn't know til Erowid that what I'd taken (DOM) was the same as what my doppelganger avatar Dave in Psych-Out (Dean Stockwell) . See: Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT (1968)
7. see one of my very first posts on this site: CABIN IN THE SKY: Co-Dependence and the Lord. (7/07)
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