Thursday, March 31, 2016

5 Awesomely Psychotronic films on Amazon Prime can Prepare YOU for the coming of TRUMPMERICA!


Even casual Americans will soon be called to bear witness to what promises to be the most bizarre election in the history of our frail democracy: the battle between the mighty Donald, his hair Reichstag-fiery as he struts and curses before his bloodthirsty throng, and a woman. How did America get to this?

Only the drive-in knows for sure. That's where it all started, whatever it is, and it's been slithering up from those tawdry mosquito-covered screens, across the abandoned strip mall Blockbusters and up through Amazon Prime, waiting, for you! Presuming you have the Prime (and if not, you should): walk tall, sit proud, and keep watching the skies for his shiny wings. The Russians are here; the werewolves are coming; the rats are leaving in droves.

Switch it off and turn to STONE!
Whiter your conscience allows you to vote for him or not, Prime has five films avail. to stream that might prepare you for his coming. At the very least, these grandiose offerings may remind us of headier days, a time when feminism was called women's lib and didn't preclude casual, unsafe sex; diversity was called black power and didn't preclude pimp strutting; and liberal caterwauling was called just a lot of radical hippie nonsense.

NOTE TO THE WISE: Prime is stocked with loads of cool niche pyschotronic cast-offs but 95% of it is crap, cropped, or corny. What you need, my friend, is the right guide, some madman who likes to sink his hand into the muddy mire, but has a jeweler's eye for hidden sparkle and would only recommend things in a correct anamorphic ratio, things shot on 35mm film! Donald wouldn't have it any other way. He can afford film, "people." Besides being more expensive and tactile, it's shinier, like the head of the Donald.... like the Donald... (you) like the Donald....

(PS - All screenshots on this post taken directly from Amazon Streaming for quality assurance)


1. THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE
(1967) Dir. Roger Corman
****
Never one to miss a chance for collateral production value, Corman utilized Fox's still-standing Hello Dolly! 1920s street sets, and added lots of comic book vibrancy and deadpan Paul Frees narration to tell the story of the last 24 hours in the lives of all the key Chicago players for the titular massacre: Jason Robards is too tall to be Capone and terribly hammy, especially when he chokes up his voice in Italian language curses, but seems to be having a blast and frankly, deserves it.  Ralph Meeker makes a good-natured, beery Bugs Mroan; George Segal turns on the smilingly sadism as a key North Side provocateur; for the nameless thugs there's Alex Rocco, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, and Bruce Dern mix with venerable greats like John Agar and Studs "Lloyd the bartender" Turkel - all cleaning their guns and waiting by the phone for the signal. Sexy Jean Hale (below) provides the perfect mid-film breather from all the toxic masculinity as Segal's sexy girlfriend. Her way-too-expensive new fur coat triggers an extended, lamp-bashing brawl that's a joy to behold. The print Amazon's been streaming is HD perfection. Sure it leaves you kind of 'so-whatting' once it's all over, but what a rush getting there! Isn't that kind of like the presidential run itself?

Trump FactorCheck Robards' eyes (above) as he prepares to 'fire an apprentice.'





2. GAS-S-S-S
(1971) Dir Roger Corman
***
Corman's final film as a director, this countercultural comedy (written by George MIAMI BLUES Armitage) functions as a kind of DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) meets WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), imagining a near future that a lot of hippies were hoping for, one where the army accidentally releases a poison gas that kills everyone over thirty, lifting the world out of the button-down conservative repression of the establishment and into some kind of San Francisco guerrilla theater troupe / Firesign Theater post-apocalyptic wild west.

Turns out though, man, that not all young folks are groovy, man. What about rapey jocks and bikers? Well, we'll find out soon enough, as across dune-buggy deserts and down tumbleweedy main streets comes a ragtag group of sensible peace-loving (straight) couples, regularly forced to escape the clutches of various agitprop start-ups and desperadoes. Even worse, they wind up at a Country Joe and the Fish show. God Himself narrates with a hammy Jewish accent, and--just so you know it's a Corman film--Poe, raven and Lenore at his side, rides up on a chopper to make worldly comments,

Poe and Lenore on the open road (you can hear Johnny Depp stirring in his 
day care center nap room.)
As with similar odysseys (CANDY, BARBARELLA, WEEKEND, BLACK MOON)--moments of brilliant sociopolitical satire run episodic counterpoint to tiresome stretches of draggy, dated, sexist puerility. Luckily, as with CANDY, the best segments have an air of violent desperation and historical savvy which ages far better than the tedious post-HAIR backseat fumbling. For GASS the best stretch occurs about  a half hour or so in, when our gang is ensnared by a deranged college football quarterback and his marauding band of teammates and cheerleaders. His rousing pep talk--a fusion of big game college football cliche with plans for rape-and-pillage marauding--brilliantly bends all the smug hippy criticisms and evasions back into itself), Like the violence in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the football rape and loot practice sequences are genuinely anarchic, far more so than, say, the doctors endlessly shouting "Kill! Kill!" during their football game in the much more favorably reviewed (but in my opinion inferior) M*A*S*H (1970).

The next great chapter finds the heroes ensnared by an outlaw biker gang who've taken over a Palm Spring-ish golf course/country club. Their biker leader assigns them groundskeeper duties, and takes them on long stern golf cart ride-length talks about lifting themselves up by their bootstraps. Armitage's sociological double-entendre dialogue really takes flight with these savagely American moments. I think Paddy Chayefsky or Terry Southern couldn't do it half as well.

 If GAS-S-S-S stayed at that dark comic level, it could have been a great absurdist assault on the cinematic conventions of bourgeois patriarchy. Taken as a whole, while it might be blind to its own male chauvinism, at least it's also realistic about the difficulty of staying peaceful and nonviolent when your community is threatened by an invading malevolent force. That it actually finds a solution without a deux ex machina or other compromise is far more radical than just hoping for the arrival of some enigmatic drifter (In case you forgot, BILLY JACK had made a tidy bundle that same year).

Alas, the next dune buggy montage is always just around the corner. Ach! So many dune buggies, so many strobe light show 'sex' scenes, so much Country Joe.

Not helping matters any is that the lead of the hearty band of straight lovers (Bob Corff) is a wan little long-haired ginger with a high little voice and no discernible charm. Clearly cast because THE GRADUATE had made so much money everyone wanted a blank nebbish as their Candide, Corff might well be a nice person, but for free love to not seem skeevy we have to believe the guy getting it is charming enough he could succeed without it, otherwise he's just a carpetbagger. That's why they do screen tests! An when there are so much spry future stars playing along the sidelines-- Ben Vereen, Talia Shire, Elaine Giftos, Cindy Williams, Bud Cort --one wants answers why we don't see more of them instead of this irritatingly smug little pisher. Oy Vey! God, vot were you thinking?

'Whew', glad I got that off my chest. Living in smarmy Park Slope with all its anemic hipsters clearly has really gotten to me.

Trump Factor: You can't get more Trump than those bikers on the country club links!  The "free-spirited independents trying to make peace with those still clinging to the crumbling hetero-white-Christian-male authority illusion is-- based on all those Trump rally disruptions--an important lesson I hope we remember soon.



3. UNHOLY ROLLERS
(1972) Starring: Claudia Jennings. 
**1/2
An early capitalizer on the 70s' lady roller derby craze (Raquel Welch's KANSAS CITY BOMBER came out the same year) this is a fine example of what I've just now termed 'libsploitation,' i.e. a film about a bloodsport hottie who feels outraged at all the sexual harassment she has to endure on and off the track, all while the camera ogles her undressing in the locker room before and after games. Luckily the late, great super brawler and Playboy superstar Claudia Jennings is the star of both film and team, and she tears into both the sex and loathing with admirable relish, becoming the bloodiest, most combative female roller derby player in town. The team owners would shut her down except the fans go nuts for it, goading her on to ever wilder displays of violence that eventually leave the track and erupt in the crowds. And when the PR hypocrisy finally gets to be too much, she just bashes the team owner over the head with her trophy and goes on a parking lot rampage, rolling down the rink parking lot and onto Main Street like she's three stories tall, ready to roll over the cars rather than the other way around.

It probably sounded better on paper, but even though it seems kind of ridiculous, it works because Jennings really lets it rip, taking full advantage of the opportunity to lunge for banal consumer-driven bile-spewing mainstream America's jugular like a rabid but very sexy monster. We wouldn't see such a batshit go-for-broke attempt to punch a hole through the wall of first-world consumer society hell until 2002, with Mickey Roarke rampaging through the grocery aisles in THE WRESTLER.

What a cast! Victor Argo is the team's trainer! Roberta Collins Jennings' nearly-as-fierce teammate. It could have been a classic in the hands of Jack Hill, or good in the hands of Steve Carver--but it's in the hands of hilariously amateurish Vernon Zimmerman (who only made one more feature after this, the portentously-titled FADE TO BLACK).

But, hell, anyone who was a kid in the 70s has a 'soft' spot for this type of film, for it's the kind of thing you can follow even when you're too drunk or young to understand half the dialogue. Often we can't tell who's supposed to have punched who, for fights are not well choreographed and shot. But they still rock.

Side Note: In case you don't remember, under the inter-sibling play fighting accord of 1971, all slow-mo fake punches are created equal. No matter how much smaller they are than you, or how widely they missed, you have to react like they really nailed you, falling down or staggering backwards etc. It's a rule that kept our childhood aggression always on the surface, where it could be quickly expelled and evaporated the moment it bubbled up.

I'd forgotten about that great rule until I saw UNHOLY ROLLERS. Fuckin' A. Claudia Jennings brings the same glint of genuine madness she brought to the insane and divine GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE (and TRUCK STOP WOMEN). As she brawls her way around the great rotating roller rink of heaven, let us pray for her soon return -- to kick more ass in whatever form she chooses to occupy!

TRUMP-Factor. - Turning a public event into a shouting match for the sake of ratings and whipping up the blood frenzy in rowdy audiences? Here Jennnigs says and does anything she feels like and her managers can't argue since her outrageous behavior gets her more and more fans, i.e. no such thing as bad publicity. As her momentum builds, her rivals become more and more abusive to try and keep up, and the crowds grow more and more infused with bloodlust, until even her handlers wonder if they've created an uncontrollable monster. Sound familiar, CNN?



4. TERRORVISION
(1986) Dir. Ted Nicolau
***
Good natured mid-80s MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci fi comedy in the vein of EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, NIGHT OF THE COMET, REPO MAN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and BUCKAROO BANZAI, this Charles Band joint is the story of an ugly but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via a then state-of-the-art satellite TV of swinging Malibu parents Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham. Diane Franklin their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen plays the younger kid, a tow-head young gun nut under the tutelage of his crackpot survivalist war vet grandfather (Bert Remsen) who lives in the adjoining bomb shelter. TV horror hostess Madame Medusa (Jennifer Richards), a pair of fellow swingers (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks) and Jonathan Gries as the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!") drop by to round out the stellar cult-ready cast of dinner. They're all on the same page, sitcom-from-Hell overacting-wise, which makes it all click together deliriously. With its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor it might be a nightmare under the influence of household solvents, but underneath the gross-outs and decadence lurks a loving spirit that triangulates its genial signal somewhere between 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman (I kept expecting Dick Miller to show up as a door-to-door salesman or disgruntled neighbor). 

Trump Factor: 
I could make some parallel with the all-devouring monster coming out of the TV and Fox News (and Hillary as the other--benevolent---alien trying to clean up the mess and get the family's attention but not being heard over the din), but I'd rather just consider it a pleasing reminder that the extended American nouveau riche families of the 80s weren't all insufferably materialistic or rabidly conservative. Some still wanted to swing, baby. And they made good parents - there, I said it! Zeroing in on the macabre heightened reality in the cracks of mall culture (rather than just being 'quirky'), TERRORVISION brings back memories of the early days of VHS when whole families would get together to watch the X-rated movies mom had rented from the back room of the local appliance store, all rather curious and innocent. 

It didn't last of course, we never watched more than one or even a half as a family before turning it off kind of ashamed, to never speak of it again, the shame net of the early 80s closing around us like a shroud. The word 'inappropriate' began to swirl in the back of our minds for the first time. I'm always wondering if it was this sudden access to excessive sex and violence after so many decades of variety show pap that helped turn once-swinging free-spirited middle America into the panicky prudes we still are today, or whether we're just trying to reclaim our lost innocence so we can have fun re-losing it (i.e. the highs are higher when you've been sober for awhile). Maybe Trump doesn't drink or do drugs (neither did Hitler, or Osama bin Laden) but he'd fit right in at the Caligula-like marble jacuzzi room of this crazy family, despite his half-assed nods to the conservative Christian sect. 

Because right or wrong, this is America, baby, and no matter how virulently we shout across the lines tomorrow, we can still party together tonight. 

If we sometimes forget how hard we rock, it's only 'cuz we rock so hard. 


5. THE VISITOR 
(1979) Dir. Giulio Paradisis 
***
The crowning plume on Italy's many-feathered Omen / Close Encounters imitation helmet, this tale of a telekinetic devil child named Kaity (Paige Connor), caught in a bidding war between ancient alien forces of good and evil, has nearly everything that made the 70s great: devil spawn children (ala Omen, Exorcist) peregrine falcons (we kids all dreamt of owning one), mall ice rinks (malls were a new thing), NBA basketball (Wilt Chamberlin or someone like that has a brief staring contest with the evil Kaity in the front row before missing a 3-pointer), 'pong' (the herald of something brand new called 'video games'), gymnastics (Nadia Com─âneci rocked the world in the '76 Olympics); giant old school projector TVs (with the three primary color orbs) and big casts of aging former-A-list stars (always with Shelly Winters and/or John Huston, or both) mixing with young up-and-comers, here Joanne Nail from Switchblade Sisters as the mom with the cosmic devil womb;  Lance Henriksen as her rich team-owning lover / pawn of a Satanic board of directors (headed by Mel Ferrer) demanding a male child (the antichrist still can't be a girl, Satani is sexist) from Nail's womb (but she's not into it, terrified already of Kaity). Glen Ford is a suspicious detective killed by Katy's peregrine familiar; Shelly Winters is the astrology-guided housekeeper; Sam Peckinpah (!) is Barbara's abortionist ex-husband, called upon in secret after she wakes up pregnant (the board of directors, tired of waiting for Henriksen to get 'er done, abduct her off the highway in a UFO style impregnating surgery vehicle); John Huston is God or Lord Enki, or the substitute babysitter, gone to Earth after Jesus (Franco Nero) alerts him to Kaity's presence. When not babysitting, Huston spends a lot of time walking up stairs with legions of bald guys in robes, lighting up cosmic landing strips on building rooftops while Franco Micalizzi's funk-galactic score effectively conjures memories of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as re-imagined by Meco. Man oh man! Nick Redfern should love this movie!

If all that wasn't 70s enough, there are car crashes, bird attacks, ferns, escalators, kids using curse words (Kaity tells Ford to go fuck himself, but haltingly, like a real kid would in the 70s when foul language still had some mystical power), and--in Omen-honoring tradition, pushing a wheelchair bound Nail headfirst through the wall-size aquarium. 


Most 70s of all: the script fuses ancient alien theory, with Gnosticism and Buddhism to underwrite its cosmology (showing the filmmakers much more disposed towards Erich von Daniken than William Peter Blatty). If you've read my 'other' blog, Divinorum Psychonauticus, you know I support that decision. In his electric yellow hippie wig, Nero makes a helluva great Jesus, and! 

Trump Factor: As a scheming CEO pressured into a virulently pro-life position by Satanic illuminati benefactors, Raymond lacks only Trump's ambivalenza vulgare to grease his polls. Still, no matter how persistent and bluntly the devil woos us, even if he arranges 'accidents' (ala the Reichstag burning) to make us feel desperately dependent on him, we needn't vote his way. God, aka Lord Enki (alias Jerzy aka The Visitor) is clearly pro-choice, but also insists that, before he takes you to his heavenly realm, your selfish malice (and hair) must be ripped from your soul by cleansing bird swarms aka paying higher income tax. 

Have you paid yours yet, dear reader? Capone didn't. Does he look worried?  Salut!

Friday, March 25, 2016

The whores in hors d'oeuvres: A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY


Bring on the multitudes with a multitude of fishes:
feed them with the fishes for liver oil to nourish the Artist!
Stretch their skin upon an easel to give him canvas.
Crush their bones into a paste that he might mold them.
Let them die, and by
their miserable deaths become the clay within his hands,
that he might form an ashtray...
or an ark.
  -- Maxwell J. Brock (A Bucket of Blood)
INTRO:
Italian art house cinema of the late 60s, she could be-a both dangerous and-a dull. European critics and American intellectual art critics alone could--their Herculean pens dripping with post-structuralist antivenin--confront its many hydra heads without passing out from the wounds of monotonous languor. Mainstream American audiences scattered to the four winds like frightened goatherds at the first sign of subtitles... unless they heard there was nudity. Just as Ingmar Bergman broke into America on the body of of Harriet Andersson in SUMMER WITH MONIKA; Italian neorealist sentimentalism of the late 50s/early-60s needed Sophia Loren; The French New Wave was launched on the backside of Brigitte Bardot and needed the loveliness of Jeanne Moreau keep it afloat towards American screens. But it worked! 'Subtitles' became a kind of in-the-know shorthand connotative code, like French postcards. And slowly, bathing scene by bathing scene, American 'adult' cinemas--those rundown houses in the disreputable parts of town in showing nudie cuties (under the arbiter of 'documentary importance') while self-appointed champions of morality snarled from the overgrowth--became art houses, birthed into co-ed respectability in the fertile wombs of Ekberg, Persson, Loren, Andersson, and Bardot.

But then--in 1966--came Antonioni's BLOW-UP. There was no putting European cinema back together again after that. As EASY RIDER would soon do to Hollywood, BLOW-UP handed European cinema's head to it on a Matisse bowler-bedecked Salome special platter. All the dime store Marxists now masqueraded as disaffected wunderkind beats to win the tourist distributor's fickle coin. All the best corpses, models, and stoop-shouldered socialist toothed birds a casting call could couch were then shipped wholesale to Rome and thrown into all sorts of art gallery-set situations. Producers started grinding up their red telephones into pigment to redden the canvas of the artist. Warhol, Lichtenstein, LSD, Vietnam, radicalism, labor strikes, women's lib --all were hanging around and kicking the bomb-blasted corpses of neorealist prostitute madonnas and pinball-and-cigarette pimps to capture the pen of the now fully-awakened critics.

But... paralyzed with the realization any step taken outside BLOW-UP's immediate blast radius would harden them into mock-ups of their plastic avenue parents--the dilated Now generation and the lecherous old Commie intellectuals in disguise (or, for the first time, out of one), now hired by bonanza-minded distributors to make wild art films that reached the signifier-trashing post-modern epiphanies of Antonioni (with a little sex in it)-- stood frozen on the spot, paralyzed through fear of paralysis. Trapped inside the mess of neorealism-splattered tiles and smoldering post-war blackened labor pamphlets, they waited, wondering, trying to decide how they were going to rewrite the history they'd just collectively admitted had been erased.

Finally, they began to rummage through the blast-darkened detritus, for old world survivors, images from the Weimar era, from gay 20s jazz Paris, and ancient, ancient Rome. What they found was a wounded Fellini, hiding under the ruins of a mawkish life-is-a-carnival-metaphor merry-go-round. They strung him up by his heels to finish the job, But when it came to slitting his throat, they were suddenly afraid of committing too far in that dark direction, of stumbling on their dad's mothballed attic-stashed Fascist Party parade sash in search of a sacrificial dagger. Finally, Dario Argento grabbed s jagged piece of glass and made the cut, for real, right across the screen. And from that gaudy rococo throat gushed a dishwasher ocean of red, followed by the rush of razor wire phoenix feathers. BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1968) soared aloft, like an own from the forehead of Athena.. and immediately everyone who had been so reticent to do more than pretend to strangle their mistress or their husbands for a party game fake-out (ala Death Laid an Egg) changed their minds and went scrambling through the ruins for their own giallo shard.

Suddenly breasts and fab clothes and kinky psycho art shows weren't enough. While Ennio mocked you from the playground with deft slide whistle and tra-la-las, you had to kill 'em, fabulously, ironically, brutally--but not tastelessly. The Money urged you on and you had to be an idiot if you let your feeling of virginal castration angst hang you up instead of the other way around. The Money commands a sacrifice, and then another, as thirsty as an Aztec god on a hot summer day.

Anyway it wasn't blood that flowed so free, but red -- pigment for the artist. BIRD was a horror film the way 1966's BLOW-UP was a conspiracy thriller, or PERFORMANCE a British mobster film, or PSYCHO film noir. The father along the imitations trail, the less the post-modern art meta/artist trimmings framed the violence. That was the compromise: the finger points to the moon; Argento cuts off the finger as a tribute to Dali and Bunuel's LA CHIEN ANDALOU; the next generation just film bloody stumps pulsing red; the moon long forgotten. Have you forgotten Balzac too?

When you film a girl in her underwear looking at tawdry X-rated photo books, thou has committed post-modernism AND made the distributor happy,

And that's where 
A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) comes in, for it is one of the weirder, more vaguely satirical contemporaries of Argento's definitive Italian post-BLOW-UP giallo; it's the brother, not the son, the cool uncle the Argento generation never sees anymore except on rare holidays when they can get away to visit him at the 'funny' farm. The kids would never know from his address how cool he is, I mean what is up with that title? A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY sounds like a Squaresville Merchant Ivory bucolic reverie about "love, laughter, and a little bit of heart," the kind of film only a half-asleep grandmother with her old lady book club would love. It doesn't even have a poster, for gods' sake (PS - this has been solved, and now there's a nice Blu-ray - 5/18). Is it deliberately trying to be lost to time?  That's why I made one (above) poster, changing the name to u3prufj]gi]42go[ggr=gr.

Whatever it's called, the line between artistic genius and psychotic mania has seldom before been so succinctly erased, and that deserves at the very least a more evocative title!

Not only is psychotic mania succinctly erased but there's also the by-far best performance of a young Franco Nero (dubbing his own voice in the English track), as an unhinged modern art painter named Leonardo. The way he tears around the crumbling estate, happy as a lark, reminds me of that old children's song by Napoleon XIV they used to play us in elementary school. Apparently he was shacking up with Vanessa Redgrave at the time, and they both really loved making this movie together, and it really shows, especially with him; he's alight with joy. If you're used to his terse inexpressive deadpan cool from DJANGO or THE FIFTH CORD, it might be a pleasant shock to see how opened and giddy and light on his feet he is. Whether he's chasing the ghost of a nymphomaniac countess, skipping barefoot around his crumbling country mansion, or being chased by his needy art gallery owner girlfriend (Redgrave), he's gorgeous, magnetic, manic, and free.

Redgrave, on the other hand, is his agent / gallery owner girlfriend, whose visits to the mansion often expose her to brutal pranks perpetrated by the previous inhabitant's maybe-ghost.  Redgrave is painfully convincing as the bewildered needy clueless type, familiar to any 'experienced' traveler, the one you kind of leave in the dust after your first big acid or shroom trip opens you all the way up, the one who won't or can't follow you over the edge, so hangs on the void's lip looking down, trying to lure you up by babbling about vacations and other prizes that until a few moments or hours ago you would have salivated over but now seem inane. When that doesn't work, she tries sex, then crying and stamping her foot but that suddenly seems so childish and manipulative to your open senses that you sneer instead of getting all paternal and supportive like you used to. 'Awake' to the world of the villa, like his own private wonderland, he has no time for such triviality. Consider the episode where he takes flowers from the place where Wanda was killed and then throws them to Vanessa but she's too busy moving 'civilized' stuff in for him, like a dishwasher, to care. With his unkempt haircut and  "alive to the wildflowers that the plastic fantastic types cannot see" vibe, he resembles Assisi's "Brother Sun", leaving comfortable bourgeois textiles family to go chant and dally in a half-restored stone church in the middle of nowhere, if his mom showed up after a week to move in a washer and dryer to keep his burlap rags clean. Francis of Assisi's legacy might not even exist if he hadn't picked a church way far away from his mom's apron tentacles, and kept the surrounding fields kee-deep in mud and offal so no cart carrying a major appliances might e'er trespass. (Consider too Violet Venable following Sebastian to the Buddhist monastery in Suddenly Last Summer).

For a male artist struggling with the usual individuation issues, the worst thing a woman can do is try curtail or control his madness. The second worst is to try and cajole their way into being part of it unless it's a totally natural fit, in which you're able to represent the the anima (the way say Pallenberg and Faithfull were animas for Richards and Jagger) rather than the devouring mother (like Redgrave here). It's the difference between a parent actually able to enter their kids' imagined world, seeing things through their eyes (very rare and precious), the parent who just shrugs and says "oh you kids" and goes back to reading the paper, but with one eye on them to keep their madness from spinning out of orbit (the average 'good' parent response) and the worst option: the parent who tries to enter the imaginary world but ruins the mood (the average 'anal' parent response), and the one who makes the kid stop imagining things altogether out of a kind of buzzkill jealousy or misplaced piousness (the worst response).

What's interesting is that in art the genders are often reversed, with the father able to enter the imaginary world easier than the woman who gets roped into playing authority figure the way the father is outside of the imaginary realm. Even the photographer Vanessa's PR agent brings on a studio visit to the crumbling mansion has more of a grasp of the method to Leonardo's madness than Vanessa. He alone notices the flowers, Nero has thrown on the ground for Vanessa to notice, or at least snaps a photo of them - recognizing that a photo of this tossed-off natural bouquet might constitute his own art--in a future photography exhibition (outside his PR job).

This photographer's snapping the flowers enrages Franco, as if the photographer is stealing his wildflowers' soul! This young turk, setting himself up like an Eve Kendall, building his own art off the madness of Leonardo, who-- rather than lighting a cigarette and talking about Marxist aesthetics through opaque Armani shades during this PR visit--reaches out to grab the photographer from inside his canvas hideout like an old dark house gorilla reaching through a secret panel in the wall above Paulette Goddard.

As for other, non-Vanessa girls, there is only one who understands him, who doesn't try to nail Leonardo down to sensible hours, clean dishes, and regular meals, and that's the ghost of the nymphomaniac countess, an obscene combination of obscene nymphette and ghost anima (ala Rebecca. In order to find a similar ghost we have to hop genders to examine the ever-corrupting Quint in The Innocents. In covering both roles, she both sucks the film deeper into Poe's mournful quagmire while simultaneously dragging to dangerously close to the purely obscene/pornographic (his obsession with dirty magazines is defiantly not MOMA-ready). As consumes the photographer in Blow-Up, Leonardo winds up on a kind of scavenger hunt/detective thriller hole climb, solving her possible murder (initially written off as WW2 collateral damage) as he collects old photos and memories of her - but he's not a cop, just an insane voyeur, thrilled to hear all the old men reminisce about losing their virginity to her during the war. Is this just his distraction from doing any work or is this somehow mirroring his work? Or leading his work astray? Is the genius of art hinged at the edge of smut? Is the madness caused by obsessive voyeurism really in the same league with conventional investigative journalism?

Antonioni's madmen tended to be women, driven insane through lack of an artistic outlet while men turn their bodies into temples to be worshipped or defiled; by contrast, Redgrave is a warm sane human who structures and profits by her male artist's madness. Her love is based on his resistance and absence (expressed even to the point of his anima/the nympho ghost attacking her at odd moments). He's the cracked one, and he's full of outlets but resists making any actual conventional art. When Redgrave shows up, the whole house conspires to kill her via roof cave-ins and falling shelves and exploding pipes while Nero stalks her like a combination Italian spy and house cat stalking a mouse-shaped felt toy - that becomes his art. Stifled by her suffocating sanity, her pedestrian conceptions of art, showing him her collection of electric knife sharpeners as if begging him to cut her apart  (it's never been this easy, especially with our patented three speed process!) pleading with him to touch her and make her relevant, to shave off her consumerist edges, Nero can only channel his misogynistic kinkiness through mock strangling or Poe-like fits of Morella-Ligeia possession. That's how the film gets to be both horror and not, because it fits both quite well without committing to one side or the other.

To avoid a feeling of being cheated or that the film is copping out on a satisfying ending, murders within a mise-en-scene can only turn out to be just dreams and hallucinations instead of 'reality' if it's unclear enough whether or not the 'all a dream' ending is itself the dream, that either way, reality is severely jarred (as in, say, De Palma or Bergman) and will never quite be distinguishable from fantasy ever again. It takes a true surrealist (like Lynch, Cocteau, Argento or Bunuel) to recognize there doesn't ever need to be an 'it was all a dream' denouement in movies-at all-no matter how illogical things get. We can tell when things get 'dream-like' that we're in a special in-between place.

The feeling of cheating and disappointment comes when there's a lack of trust in the audience, the producer or writer doesn't think we're mature enough to handle surrealism, that without a solid reality to go home with society itself may crumble. Even the most masterful of visionaries feel often feel obligated to bring things back to Squaresville at the end, remembering logic and linearity like the dutiful spouses waiting at home to chide them for not wanting to be patiently chided. But if they let go and trust in their audience, then the film can be all dream, all the time, and logic, truth, and reality can go to the devil. We'll be fine, mom!  You and your Fellini carnival megaphone can go end some other film. We already know life is a carnival, it's been drummed into us like a prenatal hearbeat. Now sashay... away.

So why is Quiet Place not more widely seen and praised? Critics pee their pants praising other surrealist portraits of Italian male artist egocentric sex addict dysfunction like 8 1/2, but Quiet Place makes Fellini look like that insecure childhood friend who tries to keep you reading comic books and playing D&D past the date it's 'normal'. Part of TCM's Creepy Art and Artists series, the film was preceded by Mystery at the Wax Museum (the original) and Corman's Bucket of Blood. They're two favorites of mine, so the TV was still on afterwards, me, folding laundry in the other room, half-listening, when I heard Ennio Morricone's unmistakable cacophonic counterpoint cut through my deep focus like a knife. I never in a million years would have found this film otherwise. What kind of giallo is called A Quiet Place in the Country!? I had already forwarded past it on the TV menu scroll a dozen times, kind of a priori dismissing it from my attention's channel surfing filter, where I note and dismiss things I deduce to be turgid British costume dramas or saccharine musicals.

TCM's entry on the film mentions it kind of disappeared off the radar and never came to the States at all, and the "only reason it probably received distribution in an English-dubbed version in the U.S. in 1970 was due to the tabloid notoriety of Redgrave and Nero, who were living together openly and had a child." Which is interesting since Performance was also filmed in 1968 and only released here in 1970. Were they both considered too dangerous for the time? Too likely to spark a revolution, a riot, or a surge in mental hospital self check-ins? Even for a town that saw the receipts for Easy Rider?

Regardless even in 1970, nothing you could say on the poster could would lure anyone under 40 to a movie called A Quiet Place in the Country. Good god... I know, because I never in a million years would have seen it nor be writing this even at 50, if not for that Morricone muted trumpet recognition while in the other room. After all, what kind of film has that bland name and then this is the first image you see:



You might look at this kind of self-reflexive student film self-indulgence and groan, thinking about incoherent image stringers like Baba Yaga or even annoying 'visualization of mental states' one man show quirkiness like Caro Diario but hey, fellow, relax. Director Elio Petri is no whimsy-merchant, ego tripper,sooty  or softcore hack anymore than he is giallo / gangster journeyman, a white elephant 'alienation' technician, nor some Marxist snot filming pinball and polemics through cafe windows. He's a bonafide pop art post-Marxist artist whose Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is on Criterion with all the hearty handclasps that implieth. So-- even if Quiet is such a down and dirty mindfuck it would make David Hemmings cry like little Chester in The Fatal Glass of Beer--and even if the fantasy visualization bits are done so that we can't tell which is which--well, it's still Art, baby, Capital A small R, small T.

In other words, we can wonder in this weird overly-symbolic opener if: Nero is tied up as part of some contemporary art gallery show she's curating; is himself a performance art installation; or if this is just an abstracted sex scene, and not worry anything so crass as clarification on this point will deign to be offered. We can wonder if Leonardo is being haunted by a real ghost at the villa; whether he is just a paranoid schizophrenic sex addict; whether he's genuinely dangerous or just 'playful;' whether this is little window of tied-up hairiness is meant to be: a dream or an art gallery show; a critique of modern living, the pair-bond social system, or a couple hanging out in their apartment, with him feeling trapped in a tied-up situationist strait-jacket and she faux-enthralled by all the wonders of the electric age (demonstrating them with pleading eyes as he stares emptily, she's the height of bourgeois neediness. He must go insane if only to escape her).

Again - we don't need to worry we got the wrong answer--the only answer is the only answer isn't.


To repay this favor of no wrong/right answer duality, let's talk about this film and why it's not getting more love from the fringe contingent. I think it's first the title then the way it is defiantly not any one genre. It defies expectations for a giallo while riffing on them in a deadpan absurdist abstraction that puts it more aligned with Spasmo and nothing else.

I've only read one review in English that gets it, on Electric Sheep (from the UK, naturally):
Petri’s foray into experimental horror. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the intricacies of the delirious plot. Once you know how this flamboyantly elusive tale of a troubled abstract painter obsessed with the ghost of a nymphomaniac young countess pans out, you appreciate all the more how brilliantly it is all set up. Blending sex, love, madness, identity crisis, alienation, death, art, consumerism and social commentary in a hypnotic, dazzling visual swirl of bold colours, powerful emotions and artistic expression, it is a feast of experimental visual imagery, but not without Petri’s typically dry, caustic touch. - Pamela Jahn
One of the legendary Situationist ad campaigns hushed up by A.O Range
All the Candide clowns you crayon can't compete with a single electrically-sharpened switchblade slash from the sandman's blood-blackened brush!
In dreams I'll find
who's there?
'Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies"
Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies who?
One electric guitar sting instead of a whole tedious orchestra equals Da Vinci.

Insanity pays dividends (done ideally without real violence), regardless of the severity of the strait-jacket's initial application. Art thrives on censorship the way muscles thrive on free weights. The trick is to be successful enough in the market that they wheel you to the nicer home, the funnier of farms, the satin strait-jacket, with pretty views and indulgent staff, and access to paint and brush. An attendant who brings you whatever obscene magazines you want in exchange for obscene art works he can immediately sell. If Pollock had been medicated and under house arrest, with an alcohol-detecting bracelet, he might still be alive. If you care. Would his work even be so fawned over? I've looked at those drios of his on all sorts of different drugs, after reading all sorts of how-to theorists, and I still think it's shiite. I do love his pre-drip work though (below) where there are enough perceptible forms that my pareidolia is engaged, just barely, to allow the abstraction to have something to work with. Without the visible forms to start the eye rolling, his drips seem to me like a wood chipper without any wood, or even the chipper, it's just the roar of the engine and grinding of the blades, divorced of all else.


I mention Pollock too because his Ed Harris biopic is a classic example of trying to white elephant a termite (see here), again and again, visionary (i.e. mentally ill), as excited corny orchestras pump artist's in-progress painting with pomp and import - only slightly less misguided as showing someone's fingers at a typewriter while they pound out a future classic. Minnelli got around it in Lust for Life by turning the whole film into a Van Gogh, with glowing light. And here, Petri gets around it by bouncing it all up against the tropes of a ghost story (just as Antonioni sprang off Hitchcock with Blow-Up).  The problem in this case is that his aesthetically rip-roaring child's eye view of the world, where size is a matter of dilating and contracting perspective, like Alice eating mushroom stems in order to match the height of each new character she encounters, he runs into people who stay the same dull size, always.

Maybe you've been there (brother, you know I have), the place where spittle-flecked speedy mania, spiritual enlightenment, and madness intersect and liberate consciousness from the old self's locked parameters. But your old lady, man, up for the weekend, a little concerned to find you in such a state, stays locked up in her old self's parameters. She wants to keep you the same size, like a dwarf star albatross anchor of bore-o-drome. She can't follow you into that zone of play, so she can only try to lure you back out of it by showing you products she's brought for the house, or her own personal adornment. You being a character written by a communist, her consumer mindset seems suddenly small, shallow, pathetic, and irritating--in ways impossible to alter via the aforementioned spatial perception flux.


It's like if Hemmings' photographer had his elderly accountant interrupting constantly his 'flow' of jazzy image-chasing in Blow-Up, nagging him why he won't sit down and do his taxes, trying to steer the whole movie out of this kinetic signifier-melting 'Now'-ness and into fiduciary logocentric absolutes. (A three can never be a four in accounting, but in Blow-Up the only difference between those two numbers is that four has no curves and three no lines, other than that they are identical). Flavia can understand this as his agent--she's been cultivating his mystique to make them both richer--but as his lover she hungers for some kind of traditional pair bond, and that demands valuation.

Never afraid to seem manly or ghoulish, like some monstrous lesbian from an Aldrich hag movie one minute and a sexy carefree bird the next, trying on thing after another to reach him, Redgrave is achingly sad, funny - almost painfully human yet still full of British fire -seemingly beyond the confines of Britain's class system but nonetheless hung up on Leonardo. We're invited to see her from his side, her crying in a deep manly choke, in ways only Fellini would probably be moved by.

Wanda, the ghost nymph, is not moved, and scalds Flavia in the bathroom. We would cheer...

if we were able to close our agape mouths.

EPILOGUE

If you're still lost in the Italian 60s art house morass after this movie, still need to understand the bizarro world Joycean dialectic at play here, hey, I relate. Watch the newsstand scene where he orders all these dry political news magazines, calling their names loudly while whispering the names of the dirty ones below, alternating back and forth like a kind of crazy counterpoint jazz, building and building in mania while Ennio Morricone's score chides him like a gang of rock-throwing Catholic school truants. Got it? Now watch Bird with Crystal Plumage (with its sing-song chiding chorus) and then you will maybe not even or finally never know that any confusion on your part is the correct modernist response. Even Antonioni wasn't able to handle that level of all-consuming cinematic signifier meltdown. He followed his own clown's candy-colored exhaust trail to the American Southwest for Zabriskie Point in 1970 but within that confining vastness even he, the titan of lostness, was lost. Here the threes meant threes and love meant love and red state bullets meant the same as they always did--freedom, man --and too late, it's gone. So written history was blown in slow motion to Pink Floyd but there was only so many angles you could film the explosion in, so many speeds, to hide that fact that without the old world's effigy to throw rocks at there was nothing in the air to knock one out.


"I can hear him saying it now," the writer says at the end of Crystal Plumage, "it's a peaceful country, nothing ever happens there." Argento knew that art was the time travel portal where the demented past comes slithering out across the galleria floor like the molasses lava flood tide of the living dead. No need for Dario to chase hippies around, he'd chase the artists themselves. He'd chase Antonioni as the effigy of the curious artist, fit to be gutted or at least scared; the photographer voyeur suddenly face-to-face with the killer he's been chasing; the painting reaching out from the frame to stab the artist in his disaffected eyeball, to-- at the very least-- affect its own final image. Blow up as many post-neorealism hacks and paint as many graveyard hussies as you can find, dear Petri, but Wanda will never be sated, not 'til it's your soul dripping from her sexy gorgon fangs, and every Redgrave is dug deep for her departure.


NOTES
1. You can argue Bava was the first to mix fashion and gory murder --in 1964's Blood and Black Lace, but that movie was a failure at the time, never released to the States, so Bava turned back to the traditional genre forms. Argento's '68 film was on the other hand an influential success and explores a far wider post-modern field than just fashion and soapy backstabbing.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Jet-lagged Hayride with Dracula: LOST IN TRANSLATION, THIS GUN FOR HIRE










"As for fidelity, should one not be faithful to all those whom one loves?" - Robin Wood  
Watching the weird nocturne noir chemistry cohere like a ghost from the black and white celluloid mist of This Gun for Hire (1942) for the zillionth time, I'm still trying to nail down the lovesick ache I get from Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's mystical lost ghost frequency. Blonde, small (ten feet between them) and only flickeringly emotional, they're like a separated-from-birth version of Sharon Tate and David Hemmings in Eye of the Devil, or two alien-human hybrids who recognize each other from a past off-world life.

Neither fraternal nor sexual (as critic David Shipman notes, Ladd "never flirted nor even seemed interested, which is one of the reasons he and Lake were so effective together." [2]), their muted chemistry is so elusive, so void of frills and posturing, it resonates today as strongly as it resonated with wartime audiences. It's the "speak-softly-because-you-don't-know-who's-listening" wartime caution ("loose [or loud] lips sink ships"), the same shadowy skull reflection death drive cool low-key whispery savvy we find in Val Lewton's horror films and Sinatra's ghostly radio crooning from the same period (1941-45). There's a stealthy 'shhhhh don't wake the parents or the baby or the sleeping regiment' emotional intimacy that reaches out to include the listener/viewer like a warm blanket.

This was the era when every healthy able-bodied man was overseas facing death, and the women were expected to go into a kind of sexual deep freeze, working in munitions plants or driving cabs, and waiting for letters from the front, terrified of the arrival of an officer with an ominous telegram in the middle of the night. In the B movies from Monogram, Bela Lugosi abducted and froze the virgin brides and while men died powerless in their foxholes and idiot heroes missed obvious clues. John Carradine brushed their baby's zombie hair while they moaned powerless from their seats in the canteen.

But for all that, their woman's chastity was intact, somehow. We knew it would be all right as long as we kept our voices low. Sinatra's crooning soft from the radio protected them all like the giant wing of a feathery evening. Ladd and Lake's chemistry was perfect for this deep freeze moment. They pulled themselves from the gravity of their respective slumbering arcs and fully noticed each other, falling, with us, into a new kind of subtle dream.

That kind of subtlety is never popular for long however. Sleazy studio heads--perhaps used to a steady supply of eager would-be starlets ("Mr. Smearcase!" as per Lake's ingenue in Sturges' Sullivan's Travels) parading their wares-- were like John Travolta's snickering entourage in Grease, they want to know 'did they or didn't they?' Sympathetic wavelength entrainment and platonic pair bonding were to these slavering troglodytes just synonyms for cowardice in the face of zong zong zip zowie awooga!

Such men are a blight on Hollywood and human genomes. They're stuck there. But you! Oy, you can-a-dance-in-a-Manhattan, Vinny. All fornication will get you is VD or a kid, Vinnie. One broken condom at the drive-in ("feelin' like a fool / wonderin' what the kids will say / next day at school") and your career is over: child support, and diapers. Diapers, Vinnie! Or just whispers, shadows, cigarettes, and insouciant gazes. 4-ever.

Note: subliminal similarity to a multi-armed Hindu deity
That's the trick to staying cool in wartime: honoring the homefront sexual deep-freeze, the core of platonic alien jet-lagged love. To relish the anguish of sexual longing and sublimate it into art and friendship rather than materialize its carnal shadow and therefore obliterate it, this is the highest form of fraternal love. As I've written before on this site, in Visconti's The Leopard, Burt says "marriage is six months of fire, forty years of ashes," but with platonic love / friendship it's ten-to-twenty of slow-burning coal. Isn't that better, and way harder to find? Whether he's dead Fred from Night of the Iguana, an old wise film critic whose Cialis prescription ran out, a savvy Lacanian, or a sixty foot tall gorilla, the adroit, awakened lover is transported by beauty past the breakwaters of horniness and into accidental chivalry, into honor, the Hawksian code.

After all, she's got a boyfriend... over there... somewhere... it would be a kind of like Nazi sabotage to take advantage of his absence.

The first scene of This Gun For Hire tells it all: Raven (Ladd) rips the sultry boarding house maid's dress, not to ravish her but because she was mean to his kitten. Raven makes only two 'moves' on Ellen (Lake), the first to steal five dollars from her purse and next to march her into an abandoned building, not for vile molesting, but to shoot her dead as a witness, as someone he thinks is in cahoots with Laird Cregar. She gets away only by the timely return of two construction workers back from their lunch break. Her friend later tells her she looks like she's been on a "hayride with Dracula," an analogy which works well, as Drac's motives aren't carnally impure either. He's just in it for the blood.

The few times Ladd and Lake did hook up in a movie, their kiss happened only at the end, or after fade-out. We seldom saw the actual kiss. The Blue Dahlia (1946) for example, fades out on William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont looking over at Ladd and Lake, offscreen, who are by then presumably kissing. We've been longing for them to get together all through the film but now that there's nothing standing between them... well, who likes seeing their parents kiss, even if they're little blonde aliens? 


Aliens... I don't only mean extraterrestrial but also alienated. Foreigners in a strange land, unable to shake their dreamy disconnected jet lag ennui. When they finally meet a fellow traveler as alienated as themselves, like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation (2003) after so many lonely alienated hours, well, it's a special magic. Both unable to sleep in their ritzy Tokyo hotel, not speaking Japanese at all, or any other language, their initial reason for being there not taking up much of their time, their gaijin height and features contrasting them from the rest of the city as distinctly as giant Nephilim Nordic Vikings, they can either hang out together or with no one. They connect, but it's more about their sharing loneliness, as opposed to merging into couplehood --with all the associative baggage that implies.

I remember when I saw Translation at a Chelsea theater during its initial run on Thanksgiving in 2003 at with a cadre of AA people. I was in the throes of something so similar to the doomed bonding of Bob and Charlotte, I felt like the film was a continuation of my own life, with Manhattan doubling for Tokyo and Brooklyn for the States. I recognized too the dangers of this intense bond leading anywhere other than disaster, largely from the cautionary example of Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch in Ghost World (left), in which Johansson also co-starred just two years earlier.  We all in that AA posse recognized the same lost soul magnetism between Murray and Johansson in our own love for each other, the gorgeous ephemeral lost soul union known only to we who have heard the chimes at midnight fade into sirens and muffled EMT voices muffled across hurricanes of silence far over our heads as we leaned back against the flat bumpy pillow of the numb sidewalk and felt with our eyes half-open like we were standing, sitting up and lying down all at the same time: "Sir? Sir? Can you hear my voice? Have you had anything to drink or taken anything tonight?"

"Taken anything".. what a dumb expression, you think. No ossifer, everything's right where I found it.


Isolated in our space, cut off and adrift, our precious alcohol on the other side of a dangerous highway, when someone else comes along who gets that, someone also on that level--a sympathetic cute chick EMT rather than a suspicious cop eyeing your bulging gym bag--well, she's too precious to throw away by busting even some advanced playa move. You might rear back and think that's being scaredy-cat, but I know the follow-through too well. If it works, you have to make out for hours and blah blah, and if it doesn't and she leave, you die on the street, the average folks stepping over you like you're just another vagrant, and aren't you?

People say men and women don't know how to be friends but what they mean is they don't know how. Love can flourish more profoundly in a platonic friendship, irregardless of genders, or numbers. You needn't be monogamous or cockblock or judge or restrict or allow those things to be done to you. But first you need to have achieved a few of your life's most cherished desires, like crawling through the parched sand for days, finally making it to the far off mirage of a water fountain and seeing at last it's just a rock. Or in love's case, a goddamned diaper. Is anything more revolting than when love leads to a family? What's the use of being a hit man at all if they're just going to keep coming?

There needs to be some peace, a population evening-out, otherwise no one even has a chance to experience the grand crushing emptiness of making it to the water fountain and finding out it's just a fountain-shaped rock. To paraphrase Jim Morrison--no earth-shattering orgasm or greaser high-five will forgive you for the dawn you just wasted.


Breeder San Francisco homicide detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston - above) for example, wants to waste the dawn that is Lake's shimmering hair in This Gun for Hire by turning her into "a cop's wife," "I don't understand it," notes one of her fellow showgirls to him, "that girl is nuts about you," We don't understand it either.

Robert Preston? Whaaaat? Whyy? We can feel all the disembodied souls swarming around Lake like masked figures at a sold-out Sleep No More consider, at this news, breaking off to haunt some other gorgeous blonde. No point jostling with those other souls in the dark if you have to grow up with half the gene pool of this dunderheaded straight-edge who expects your gorgeous mom to cease chanteuse-ing, to perform instead for an audience of one, "darning his socks and cooking his (and eventually your) corned beef and cabbage." I love This Gun for Hire but when I hear that line I wince and want to shout, "all that horrid smelling steam will ruin her heavenly hair!"

No offense meant to Preston, he's great as the uber-gay promoter in Victor/Victoria, his winning performance did wonders for easing America's collective homophobia, but his detective is a safety-first putz fit to warm the Catholic Legion of Decency's heart, but annoy everyone else. When he sees lovely Lake slink onto the stage and do her number, this future fey Music Man can only imagine getting her out of that shimmery gown and into an apron; he sees her gorgeous hair and imagines how much better it will look wilted from the steam, leaning over a pot of fucking boiled cabbage all day. As Bugs Bunny would say, what a maroon. And is she any better?

I can only presume we're supposed to feel that way. In the shadowy option of the other side, Lacan's primal (or anal) father, is Laird Cregar, nimbly seeming both gayer and straighter than Preston, referring to his main vice as "backing leg shows" and by acknowledging the job's essential tawdriness, he brings it some counterintuitive class and legitimacy. He might be a lech, but at least he wants Ellen looking glamorous for everyone rather than Crane's super-menial "cabbage-cooker for one" alternative.


Oh well, even if she didn't wind up as a blue collar cop's wife role in her subsequent films and even if Gun would be the last time we have to have a square boyfriend for her (just noble dimwits or blustery gangsters from now on), we know her real love is always that lost cause with a broken wrist who claws at everyone but her. She looks at sweaty little crumb bums like Ladd's Raven or amateur mendicant-disguised Sullivan with compassion of the same sort Raven has for the stray boarding house kitten, not with disgust or judgment the way the rest of the world does, just one right guy to another, take it or leave it. The compassion in her eyes when she looks at Raven, especially on the train and when they're hiding out at the train yard, provides one of the great transcendental healing gifts of the movies. Hers is a look beyond sentiment, sympathy or some covertly judgmental altruism. It's a real feeling of empathy--it's lifted me out of many a post-bender shame spiral and made me, like Raven, her loyal champion. She's the dream girl for all us broken mugs who need a friend--her beauty acts like a healing opiated salve on our souls, and she's glad to radiate as long as we don't get Smearcase touchy-feely, which we're too shaky to try, anyway. 


"You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don't have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I'd be staring into your bridgework saying 'Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that's my knee!' - Veronica Lake's character, a struggling actress who spends her last dime on who she thinks is a bum but is a slumming director who knows Lubitsch - Sullivan's Travels 1941
The same beauty Ladd and Lake capture in Gun is here in this diner between Lake and McCrea, the Hawksian self-awareness that keeps one so aloof from the shallow world finally being rewarded in a union of equals, and she's free from Mr. Smearcase and his grabby hands (in 1951's The Thing, Margaret tells Pat how much she likes him only when his hands are safely tied - Hawks knew, too, the two are connected).

And then there's that hair. Gun for Hire is considered her big hair breakout, but if she owes her career to anyone it's not her hairdresser or Ladd or Raymond Chandler but Preston Sturges, for throwing her into a pool in Sullivan's Travels (1941), leading to the scene where she brushes her long hair out by the pool in her sexy white robe. A complex post-modern masterpiece on the bourgeois need to tell the story of 'the little guy' to the little guy who'd rather not hear about it. (3)  

There's only one problem: there are only a few Lake-Ladd noirs, and only a few other films that know how to situate Lake's rare gifts --and once you watch 'em all, where are you? A shivering alcoholic in the cold again, sifting through your stacks of DVDs like they're a bunch of empty bottles, wondering if there's anything left, anywhere, for that sense of Hawksian bonding or Lake-Ladd alien frequency, that golden healing opiated salve. Can Ramrod fit the bill? No. Her hair never leaves those western coiffs.


"It's really the repression of sex (think of old stories like Brief Encounter and Love Affair) and the acceptance of a carnal boundary that can't be crossed that becomes, in their eloquent silence-filled rapport, a form of love more life-altering than the sexual contortions now monotonously de rigu eur." - Molly Haskell (4) 
The tragedy with the couple in platonic love orbit in Lost in Translation, is that each party has already 'settled' for an approximation of what they considered 'normal' - the cop boyfriend or the star-chasing photographer, some banal 'normie.' Luckily, it's not a tragedy, as that obligation to be faithful to an undeserving other frees them from needing to drag the carnal along into their love affair. Courtly love was never about breaking up the marriage, which was usually arranged at the time. Sex was what triggered your disillusionment, not the other way around. It's the hesitant but undeniable attraction of doomed lovers in the lost moment, sharing the pain of remembering that loving bond, that matters. Anyone who's fallen in love from a distance--something all too common in the internet age where the lack of earthly parameters frees one to write acres of poetry and longing prose letters--vast forests of stanzas--that never need to be printed or even saved, anymore than their yearning urgency needs to be concretized in the carnal sack. The lover in your mind isn't usually even close to the actual person anyway. When you finally meet up, there's that awkward first few hours as you adjust your expectations.

In AA we say 'think the drink through.' Instead of just thinking of the drink and the sweet sudden feeling of completeness, of joy and fearless brio, the surge of coherence, confidence, inspiration, and jubilant love it brings, think it through to the need for the next one, twice as strong as the need for the first, but with only half the joy and completeness, and then the sodden depression when we're too drunk to do anything but drink more, and gradually we're too fucked up to do anything else but pour. And then... it's all gone, and we're too fucked up to get any more. We can't even find our goddamned pants, or even the phone to order delivery, let alone drive or stagger to the liquor store.

But it's the same for Bob as he's being drawn to Charlotte in Translation, that rapturous connection too delicate to risk with clumsy fumbling. In AA we also say "drink all you want, just don't drink the first one," i.e. if you don't have the first drink, you're free, and that's not a lot to ask, considering all the other drinks waiting. It's a trick, but it works. Same thing in the Bob-Charlotte or Lake-Ladd connections: if you don't make a first move you'll never lose her. Maybe she'll sleep with every single one of your friends while making eyes at you, but in 20 years you will be the only guy she remembers without anger and remorse when she's making her qualification in Sex Addicts Anonymous. And if you doubt your love is stronger without it, just check how peevish Scarlett is at Bill for hooking up with that lounge singer. Here they're both married, but the real devotion is to each other, and sex with other people is an affront, almost too close to the real thing.

It's a Catch-22. It's like death, in fact, and like death you are officially permitted to laugh it off, to stand pat, sound in your Lacanian ideal and self knowledge, using her loveliness to fuel your art. Forever. There's no greater bond. If Death chooses you, if Death makes the first move, then okay. But you don't have to make it easy for her. Death loves a good challenge! Pedro, did you put the girl on the stage or not??

No! she did not go!

It's that death drive as a platonic ideal that is why Johansson was so well cast in Lost and later in Her and the underrated Lucy and why it was so important she wanted to fool around with Captain America in Winter Soldier and later Bruce Banner/Hulk in Age of Ultron, but they were the ones who held back. Natasha Romanov, sexy seductress super spy: it's great that she wants to fool around with you, it's bad if you allow it, because this is a girl so used to having men she wants, of using sex as a weapon, of being constantly ogled, seducing and destroying, that the only way to win her respect is to not be one of her countless conquests. You can't risk the Hulk coming out when she dumps you, or sleeps with some KGB shithead as part of her job. In this way art thou noble, chivalrous, and tortured enough that your soul is forge-hot, ready to be hammered by God or the Devil into brave new shapes.



And if you love her, you want her respect more than the crushing pain of thwarted desire; if she doesn't call you back some rainy Sunday night, it won't be for anything you did wrong. Brits have this shit down with the relationship between Dr. Who and his companions, for them--with tons of platonic pair bonds--it's no big deal. Only America, where sex is such an obsession it's stifled in its cradle, does such steamy self-sabotage keep everyone lonely in that susceptible-to-advertising way so intrinsic to first world domination.

Take it from me, the pain's the same, either way. Things are only valuable once they're lost. So lose yourself and watch your price shoot up until you're smack center of the comic store window. So what if you're not in Near Mint condition? You're still Very Fine.

On the other hand, if she moves in, goes for that first kiss, you may as well go along because it's even better if you help. And it's rude to refuse a beautiful woman. And then that's probably going to be it, onscreen, so make it count. Censors, man. What you do after the fade out, or whether or not we pan to your buddies walking down the street, passing below the window, wondering if they'll ever get to be sheriff or mind their own business, or pull away from your conversation on the Tokyo street so we can't hear it ---that has to be your affair, private, for this all to work. There's only one solution to the bind Charlotte and Bob find themselves in at the end of Lost in Translation, for their final words together --Bob's whispering in the Tokyo throng while his car service sits in traffic--to be unheard by our corrupting microphone ears.

Anyway, we'll always have Facebook.

Here's looking at you/r kid/s.

NOTES
1. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics in Narrative Cinema, (p. 82)
2. Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York: Hill & Wang, 1979.
3. I wish had a making-of documentary extra, so we could see all these rich characters with expensive filmmaking machinery filming a bunch of extras as hobos hopping a freight train in a movie about how dumb it is for rich guys to film hobos running onto a train instead of Ants in Your Plants.
4. Molly Haskell "Melancholy Males or Movies about Men Turning 50" (The Guardian, Oct. 10 2003)
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