Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 fleet to protect it. God hates buzzkills, Phillip! And that God-sanctioned exploration of the druggy British psyche's been a flourishing that's never wavered up through the centuries: the metaphysical poets, 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 Inquisitor equivalent upon 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, which is perhaps that's why today's shroomer is seldom as full of fiery oratory as his forebears. Trained by pop culture to think he's 'just high' he never considers trying to transcribe his all-cylinders firing psychedelic madness or recording 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 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, 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, laden with 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 it poked up through on EPIX the other day. How did I forget? And why didn't I see the shroom connection back in the 90s when I taped it and watched it around the clock? I was too drunk, too young, and 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. For some reason the bios

Ironically Mad Max Mel Gibson in the lead was the main reason I watched it so often back then, and 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 Hamlet? 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 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 it 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 tripped out 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"--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, at least that of some people when face to face with great classical Italian art, the Stendahl syndrome.

Mel Gibson's great genius in the lead is to use all his star wattage and '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 emergency room, 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. Most people fear letting go to that extent. They stammer excuses that they read LSD damages chromosomes and they want to have children; 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, which no one has around anymore. That's why any good and responsible dealer in the more extreme of psychedelics 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, which is the one you try to profit by and so lose your fortune (like Robert Shaw in The Sting) or your life, is fascinating for suggesting that cognizance of this kind night-tripping trickster was not uncommon, a form of demonic possession or cult brainwash. 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. Freedom from Catholic church (or modern scientific) oppression in Elizabethan England apparently allowed for the discussion of supernatural beings, both as poetic truth and a form of ideological propaganda against the Inquisitorial Spanish. In fact, America's own draconian drug laws make a fine analogy to their persecution of witches and pre-Christian herbology. The caution against believing witches or ghost dads the same as cautioning against a charming dealer who lures you in with tasty free weed, and moves you slowly up to inescapable and expensive heroin. Like that ever happens, you evil anti-drug czar Phillip II of Spain!

Actually, black magic is all over Hamlet, as if Elsinore was Page's/Crowley's castle or NASA, i.e. the deep 'rottenness' in Denmark. 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 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 bad karma trickster live for (the way cops scare a kid you sold doses to into toting a wire for two tie-dyed undercover cops (Rosenkrantz and officer Guildenstern) who speak to you with falsely jocund familiarity. We'd let those narcs know that we were drunken high-as-hell decadents only north by northwest; when the wind blows southerly we knew a righteous high brother hawk from a narc handsaw. Or at any rate, we'd tell them "Dave's not here, man." And if they didn't get the reference, we knew they were narcs.

Lost track, man. Anyway -- 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, for just like Mel plays a great crazy person because he really is crazy, so he performs Hamlet performing his madness as a way to hide his true insanity by conveying it openly (the way to negatives make a positive) a trick most seasoned trippers practice when forced to deal with (alive, sober) parents. 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, hallucinating dad wherever he looks but paralyzed with dread--as we all would be at the thought of killing our uncle in cold blood--and going genuinely insane from the acting of it. 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 dow. And then rather than stand firm against his 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 cheeks and eyes. So 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, passing a monologue across the proscenium arch as if kicking it against the wind, 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, '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, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh or Olivier or Leigh could (1). That said, the more classically modulated the player-- as far as the people who go to Shakespeare plays in America (i.e. the bourgeoisie) are concerned--the better, for to them classical 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.

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. The best moments in Olivier's Hamlet 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, he's like a bad shroom hallucination, not 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 at the same time, the passer of the torch of 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 to a 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, 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.


In order for this all to become psychedelic though, it can't be told by the British, by the Royal Shakespeare Company who are too established and respectful. Neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be at all pious with the 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, bra?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkin cinematography uses natural light streaks sparkling with floating castle dust. Then, at first unrecognizable, Ennio Morricone comes laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) 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. Despite the tightness of her hippy braids, Glenn Close is subtly unhinged as the queen, following Ophelia following 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 shroomed so much 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 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/afternnon 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 film 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.

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 her endless letters. Only decades later did I realize how easy true love is when so one-sided and far away. On Facebook now 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, 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; 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, worried I was a drunk. The dad though, was delighted as well, to have an excuse to drink so much. His father had a problem too, and when he'd 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 this why? This all went 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 blonde bangs.



As for the recent anti-Semitic deep end of Mel; well one can't fake crazy as well as he does unless one is a bit 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, Gibson seems overwhelmed and weakened by the flowery language, but then the deep end beckons, 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.

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, then wound up. We will speak further... or finally in the past.









NOTES
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. 

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's so edgy and America's so lamely safe, even when it's trying to be naughty cheeky. But if I think about KILL LIST my paranoia leads me straight to the Illuminati and mind control, ala EYES WIDE SHUT meets MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and then I got to write about the alleged 'entrance fee' into the inner circle: child sacrifice or violation, which 'binds' one to the devil and subject the victim (if they survive) to the dissociative traumas used in brainwashing. The big question of course being which is reality? Are the 'buried' memories 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, and dissociative cover memories induced by severe trauma? (That last one of course being the most devious double bind in the Satanic Ritual Abuse canon.)

I'll tell you the gist: Wheatley and his longtime collaborator and co-writer Amy Jump create a mood of cheery kitchen sink naturalism that makes the subsequent descent into ceremonial strangeness all the more disturbing. (By comparison, the more Kubrick tries to depict 'chummy' and 'cheery' the eerier he gets). Neil Maskell stars as Jay, the laziest hitman in town. Jay prefers to loaf around with wife and son than kill. 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. Fine. Then Gal comes by for dinner and lots of drinks with a strange new bird, Fiona (Emma Fryer) who marks the back of his 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 continual 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 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.

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 just vividly imagining a 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.


There's no word for this kind of ambient rage I feel thinking about those rapey frat guys, but it's potent, a justified 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, 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 the weak is innate, I think, in all good men. Our blood boils and hands ball into fists at the thought of a child molestor. 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.

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 in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.

Bad Day at Black Rock 
I'm no racist, but would probably string up some of these rapists and molesters if I had the chance, and the safety of numbers, and was properly drunk, 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. 


That's why there's KILL LIST, which twists the collective 'good' male inner killer straw til its raining the jet black sperm of vengeance, until all that's left is an empty sac under the igneous strata. Is that 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 Plainview milkshake straw twisting like clockwork until we're as fired up as Hotspur in HENRY V. 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, 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.

Other sources, like SIN CITY, are almost anti-misogynistic porn; women-hating creeps and pedophiles set up like nine pins to be disemboweled in vivid high contrast black and white. It's cathartic, but it also trades on our rage to a glaringly obvious degree. One of the reasons I love old TV like CHARLIE'S ANGELS is that total absence of that sort of thing. If rape or child abuse cropped up on TV in anything made before the 70s it did so in 'special episodes' with much forewarning and the violence was abstracted (such as the candle being dropped in THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE). Now just watching LAW AND ORDER SVU is enough to give me an ashen sense of being brutalized by the system as well as men in general, for weeks. In CHARLIE'S ANGELS a girl might be tied up and kidnapped but she's never sexually abused. HBO programming like GAME OF THRONES and SOPRANOS meanwhile is so rapey I can't watch it at all. For example: In Season three of SOPRANOS, Lorraine Bracco's character is brutally raped in the stairwell just so the rapist can get off on a technicality and she can be presented with the option of telling Tony Soprano about it so he can kill the guy. She decides not to tell him, thinking herself some great hero I'm sure, but of course leaving the rapist free to continue brutalizing women who don't have the mob recourse. Naturally--it being HBO--the rape is brutally graphic and well acted--and exists solely to create this moral quandary, to challenge our response--is she the weak one (protecting her attacker like an abused wife) or the strong? (not giving way to the thought of revenge?)


In 70s films on the other hand, this kind of shit happened to your wife and child and the vengeful vigilante as hero was born, guiltless and unbroken. The legal systems presented in these films preferred to trample on the weak and innocent rather than risk even offending the sleazy murderers who walks off scot-free every time due to some minor technicality. As in the SOPRANOS, the 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 was DEATH WISH, a vile yet 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 his 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, raping a '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 rape 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 man who 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, as so many of my friends in college were raped their freshman year at frat parties --and when we men wanted names so we could go bash them--the girls all refused, wanted to protect them and what's done is done blah blach backhh... And so many decades later, and having become a total recluse in my off hours, my comfort zone has narrowed down into a tight strangling shroud. Besieged and eaten away by death, money, and employment all changing and shifting, riding the lifeboat of the televisual, these unresolved issues really stir my hackles with rage.

And yet... when in the throes of sexual excitement, what is the fantasy (either spoken or read or performed) that works time and again to bring both parties to orgasm? That's right. I don't even want to say it, so I'll just quote Camille Paglia, who helped me first make peace with this terrible dichotomy:
"Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. … My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence. … The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure."
In other words, as women become more forceful as a workplace presence, their penchant for masochism rises (just as many top CEOs are often into being dominated at BSDM parlors... it's the freedom of total capitulation - of not having all decisions taken away, if only for an hour). There's no safe word on a roller coaster.... no getting off halfway. It's to the end of the line...

As Skeet says in SCREAM: "Life is a movie, Sid, you don't get to pick your genre." One's life (if you're me) starts out a warm hearted family film, becomes a high school alienation saga, a tragedy, a college-set sex and drugs concert film, and then a young couple comedy, then a break-up drama, a comedy, a drama, a romance again and again and finally the narrative shrinks all together into one of pure and unending horror, and then it winds up either LEAVING LAS VEGAS (death) or DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (AA).  Yeah but talking to God as you understand it, and getting the lord in your heart, can lure you right into a nice family movie again. Then younger people slowly accrue, ever younger, pushing you right on out of the door of your own house and into a nice pine box or crematorium. You're part of them, and of all life, and all is one big comfortable white cloud with heavenly Tami Briggs harp music, all without having to actually spawn oneself or shun those who do. Surely your unborn children are grateful to be spared the inexorable SOYLENT GREEN future. Right? Maybe?



Now, sober and vulnerable, I personally go out of my way to have never seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, IRREVERSIBLE, or any of the TAKENs, any white slavery documentaries, THE HUNT WITH JOHN WALSH on CNN, any of the ID programs not DEADLY WOMEN or WIVES WITH KNIVES and so forth. We watch a lot of DEADLY WOMEN. 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.

Luckily I live in an age where it's easy to cocoon oneself in a unique 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?

And now... demons.

The goal of demons is beyond just possession, but to create in general a backlash against all spirituality. When priests or beloved childhood figures like Michael Jackson, Cosby, etc. are revealed to be sex offenders, our sense of trust in our fellow man dwindles. The devil takes steps to rob us of the ability to enjoy God's grace. Overpopulation makes even the beauty of childbirth seem selfish. The animals we love to eat are given soulful sad eyes all the better to haunt us with--all various components of the devil's plan to shrink our soul from wispy stratus clouds into contracted dense purpose cumulonimbus so when it rains (i.e. you die) the soul falls, and the water is collected for Hell's steam engines that run the THEY LIVE mind control force field. The agony of collected souls is trapped in its own isolated battery cell, then slowly burned into nonexistence to fuel the steam engine that keeps them in dominion over us.


Human sacrifice involves the idea of throwing another soul under the bus to escape being ground up oneself in the steam engine, being able to hold onto one's evil self, the liquid condensation of the evil ego making all sorts of harmful deals rather than surrendering.

 But there is in the end, on the macro level needed to dig where I'm coming from, one soul, so every victory of the demons is another square mile of our precious rainforest lost. That's why we, when our souls are rising and almost up and out of the wheel of woe, so often turn around and go back to help others along. I've done it three times already!

And once I'm back down, buried under the mystery misery I always kind of regret that decision, or rather the ego, which returns, inevitably, convinces 'me' to regret it. The 'Me' who regrets isn't the me who made the choice to stay, it's the difference between a terrified kid on his first day of school and a graduate with a million friends, or the difference between a selfish thug and the benevolent social worker trying to reach him. You can't get to heaven without becoming a selfless love thug. The trouble is that once you're that selfless, you hesitate to go to heaven when so many of your denser soul fellows are still suffering. The rich man can't enter the kingdom of heaven anymore than a camel can go through the needle, etc. Once unburdened by wealth, the needle threader pauses and looks back. Is this wisdom, compassion, or another devil sucker play? Is there a difference?

Who am I to judge ya / on what you say or do? Deep breath. And so it is I run... I run so far away.... all the way to QUEEN KONG.


QUEEN KONG
(1976) Dir. Frank Agrama 
**

God bless British women, British Actresses... for they are in inspiration to men the US over in the hopes that their own girlfriends, actresses, wives, and mothers might be assertive, witty and capable without needing to drag a man down to get there, without becoming a bitch (or c-word) in the process, without mistaking the voice of assertive self-resolve for the voice of browbeating and joyless aggrieved harangue. There's very few shrill Annette Bening types in Britain (or at least British actresses - and the Brit women I've met and partied with). American women (again, this is all in films, mind you) are mired in an either/or dichotomy, between GI JANE/Ripley in ALIENS butch and tough or 'normal' vulnerable softies. But in England, with its rich history of S&M (borne perhaps of their brutalizing school system), women are badass and still sexy -- they smoke and drink and don't sweat their carbs in shallow pools of gossip, and while our women are browbeating their husband for having a faint odor of cigarettes on his clothes, Brit women are saying ah fuck-off and give me one. 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. 






Its young hot female cast is sublime -- barely a man in the whole thing, but QK has two slight problems: 1) its bawdy 'Carry On' brand of cheeky humor doesn't translate well upon leaping across pond and decade; 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, movies with reversed genders (where women are strong leaders and men all fey weak objects) are few and far between, we must cherish every single one. The whole men in drag thing (to me anyway) gets old fast and seems more and more sexist as time goes on (if done for comedic effect rather than as a lifestyle choice and because the male comics don't want to share the stage). Movies and TV shows where sexy broads are the dominant strong class and men just objects of beauty are rare and precious. I think of Shakespeare's TAMING OF THE SHREW and Kate praising the youthful maiden faire bloom of the old man on the road to Padua, and realize it's still too controversial to even imagine something similar in a movie made today, and that's cuz 90% of men are weak-ass pussies afraid of a aggressive tall broads with cigarette holders and razor wits, like there are in QUEEN KONG.

It's telling too that QUEEN gets abysmal ratings (3.4 on imdb), when shittier films get as much as 3.5 or 3.6. It can stand with the utterly unavailable anywhere 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 depiction of alternate realities where women were stronger than men. And all three examples are either unavailable or despised, tellingly, for our sexist world is clearly slow to change its patriarchal mindset, scared to even imagine an alternative. So when we stumble onto something like QUEEN KONG, it's a blessed relief. Some of that terrible KILL LIST Plainview straw rage melts away when delivered into the hands of assertive British women. Valerie Leon, so imperious and sexy in BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, is a favorite in this regard. So when I learned she was in QUEEN KONG, I had to see for myself. That said, she's almost unrecognizable from that film. 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 it's a good film for all that. The plot offers some nice high views of the Portobello Street Fair and we have the cheeky Ray Fay ("eat your heart out, Elton John") and great snatches of diva dialogue between Ray and the local girls prepping him for sacrifice:

"Why does she want me?"
Leon in PREHISTORIC WOMEN
"She wants you to because you look like Doris Day." 
"Who's he?"
The leading lady is Luce Habit (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, but all that's in the future. Here we learn she's a grand comedian if nothing else. The Carl Denham of the narrative, Habit offers loving protection to her shanghaied boy (she drugs him after catching him stealing a KING KONG poster in the Fair, slings him over her shoulder in a sack, and makes for her tugboat party vessel). She even carries some joints for him, like Ketamine. In short, Lenska's Luce Habit is a great camp diva delight as "the biggest producer (of B-films)... with love interest... in the business." In fact, her wry delivery of intentionally terrible lines reminds me a little bit of my own in

Of course QUEEN eventually out the schtick, at least for me. I liked the JAWS dance but when a lame shark shows up with lipstick and breasts and a big sign around her neck 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 battles in the jungle section of QUEEN. And there was one too many leering Benny Hill ass shots and just too damn much of that damn moth-eaten 'lady' apesuit. But how often do we get a movie that's nearly all female - just a few baggy pants weirdos on the island and the rest either 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 once we're just forced to reckon with this truly wretched ape suit and papier mache monsters; 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... get us all riled up to go stomping frat boys, sex offenders, or 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 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, the connection is there. One salves the other, for unless I'm about to charge into battle or office and need a speech about how the enemy or immigrants are raping our women and children, I don't need or care to have that Plainview milkshake straw tapped and manipulated. It doesn't do me a bit of good. I'm for the kind of killing where the dead person gets up a moment later and takes a bow.  It helps avoid trauma to see the fakery of death. The genius of actors like Arnold is we never really take him seriously. We can't distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined, but in keeping everything fake and weird, 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 Yeat, 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' explains war's entire existence.

And when we take off our masks at the end of our film, we receive His indulgent applause. He plays the patient father, 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, singing "Tous les garçons et les filles." 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. CUT!

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.

ANTICHRIST, THE 
(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. But her Ippolita is the whole show and it's 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 Rosemary red short hair and manly countenance though it fits perfectly that when she's possessed she sounds like a dirty old Italian man and seems for the first time comfortable in her own skin. Sounding like the arch villain in a spaghetti western, the 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 to luxuriate in our movements, 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 toad head and severed body 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 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 scene originally--unless I'm delusional--was seen first in the silent 1921 opus, HAXAN) and her susbequent penetration by Satan, is so bravely, fiercely acted that we feel every emotion, pleasure and joy of surrender as well as 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 sees as established scientific fact that traumatic past life events (namely unnatural, violent deaths) can carry over into subsequent incarnations. 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 (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?

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 hitterl, and the cool climax, running all over Rome under multi-colored rain, including around the Coliseum, is truly haunting.

Audrey Rose (1977)
TIMES SQUARE
(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 lead girls (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 convey their immunity from pimps, rapists, and other exploiters of runaway girls, though then again--being so young it's not quite clear what could have been shown in that regard.

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 belonging/initiation. It told them we had the same reaction seeing THE WARRIORS for the first time back in the early 80s, having read about all the gang violence it caused in theaters. And the film traded on that scariness, transmuted our anxiety that we were scared for the 'good' gang 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. 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.


TIMES SQUARE's 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 to pursue new adventures (a fledgling riot grrl fanbase for Nicky; Virgin Mary statue for Satan-- 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. Recognizing that scene, so buried under a hoarder's cavalcade of other films and repression, 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.

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--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 on video (and 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 (the macho 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 judgmental (male) punk on her tour played by Ray Winstone (who's backed by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols).

Even the imdb.com 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'reall wearing red and New Wave make-up authorized by the band's monetizing manager) thus sending them all home to, presumably get married and chain themselves to kitchens, as Ray--in his rebel wisdom--feels is proper for a punk rock grrl. I don't blame Ray Winstone for being pissed when Diane Lane steals his song (the terrible, draggy, endlessly-repetitive, droning, godawful "The Professionals")  but for a girl empowerment movie this gets awfully chiding. Independent-minded American wannabe rebel girls letting a teddy boy tell them they're not real rock-and-roll is almost as offensive a climax in its last minute patriarchal second-guessing as 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 crowd, while Louise drove off the cliff alone, the good straight folks throwing beer cans at her tail fins.


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 Xena-Gabrielle chaste but unwavering affection.

That's okay - could be worse. There are no boyfriends thrown in as a last minute cop-out, 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, so I'll cut him slack. He reminds me of myself, in fact. 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--before slinking away into the safe anonymity of the Deuce.

This 'radio DJ chorus-messenger mythologizer' aspect was a staple of the time, as seen/hard in VANISHING POINT (1971), THE HARDER THEY COME (1972), THE WARRIORS ("hey, boppers").... and... uh... at any rate, the exchanges between LaGuardia and Pamela's concerned, progressively humbler, father (Peter Coffield) are hilarious and sad, with Curry's fearless goading and the father's progressive fury and desperation 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 while under psychiatric observation at a NYC 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 weren't considered anything but fallible and damaged kids were encouraged to find outlets wherever they could, 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 EDGE) that the saner minds like Pamela and Claude (or Keitel in MEAN STREETS, 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 burn up rather than fade away, some of us just singe ourselves by their crazy flames, then make careers chronicling the moment this friend's crazy fire saved our lives and then blazed out of control, so we had to save our own lives by walking (or running) away from them.


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 ultra calm and sexy 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, 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 too precious for any building to stand too long condemned, now, of course. They 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's 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 vice, in our living room. Back in 1985, with 'Wings Hauser and his coat hanger stalking the Season Hubely' (5) cable, 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, your living room is now the world. 



NOTES:
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 showThe Ghost Inside my Child.
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 fitss before devolving into incoherence, 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 and sponge off his rich dance partner in Manhattan, still the paint can 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 life-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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