"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Bangs and Beyond: THE MUMMY'S CURSE, LOST HIGHWAY









1. Virginia Christine - as Princess Ananka
MUMMY'S CURSE, THE 
(1944) ***

Poor mummy.... Universal never seemed to care much about him.... poor (very) old Kharis. Left out of a lot of the all-star House of Dracula, and Frankenstein films; he had to chase Abbot and Costello all by himself and pad his barely-an-hour running times with flashbacks (been there, bro). Now of course there's that Brendan Fraser series, but that's not the same. So who loves the 40s Mummy sequels at all? By the last in the series, 1944's Curse of the Mummy, the answer was: no one.

Maybe that's why the termites were able to penetrate the final entry, accessing some pulpy core of dream poetry that evokes in its nocturnal contrasts of warmth (the opening scene in Tante Berthe's homey little tavern) and darkness (the ruined abbey climax), Val Lewton's Seventh Victim. The acting isn't great, except Lon Chaney gives a master class in how to act a role with just your eyes and a few physical gestures as Kharis, the Mummy; Peter Coe offers a weirdly silken vacuousness to his incantations as the requisite fez wearing high priest. Then, as a mix of mummified princess and her reincarnation, Amina, there's Virginia Christine. I love her. The role is impossible --a hybrid of so many script glitches there's no way to play it except as hot amnesiac. Amina was a current time period archeological assistant from the previous film in the series, The Mummy's Ghost. In that film, the Kharis carried Amina into the swamp, but rather than be rescued last minute (and staying young and mortal) she's 'turned' somehow by his touch and begins to age into a mummy herself, which seems rather unfair. Why reincarnate if an old flame can just yank you back into dust? The film solves this dilemma by being so boring it's hard to make it to the end without drifting off to sleep, or going back to your reading. 



This time first see Amina/Ananka in this last film, though, we know MUMMY'S CURSE is special. This is her story more than Kharis's. We see her first as a figure emerging from the dried mud at the bottom of a claw loader scoop hole during a swamp drainage: it's as if she's coming out of a claay mould, her face almost like a half-formed clay sculpture come to life. She arises, caked in dirt but clearly loving feel the touch of the sun, like a flower rising from the soil. Occurring right in the middle of the day apparently (though supposedly 'quitting time') there's a bit of a dazed walk-of-shame vibe to this resurrection. The sun high in the sky beams down at her, Ra-like and she staggers ahead. We've been there, we city-folk, pulling ourselves off the floor after what seems like a 25 year black-out, weaving home warmed by the afternoon sun, still in our party clothes, walking through the working men commuters like a phantom. And wait, weren't we in the New England bog last night? How did we wake up down in Louisiana, 25 years later? And why are the workmen saying it's time to quit for the day and go home when the blazing sun is still high in the noonday sky? No wonder the foreman is stressed.


Then begins Amina/Ananka's odyssey of somnambulistic drifting. Cajun Joe, who just left his bulldozer back where she came out of the mud, now spots her while walking home (he must have got lost - again it makes no sense as he should be home by now, considering how clean she's made herself via a small puddle) and takes her to Tante Berthe's cafe. Sweet Berthe puts this amnesiac hottie (with very modern Bettie Page bangs) to bed but almost immediately the mummy bursts in and kills poor Berthe like some jealous stalker, a slow-mo one-armed strangler ex-husband, jealous even of his in-laws. Terrified. Ananka runs off into the swamps again, and the killing and stalking goes on. Each time the mummy gets near she goes into a trance and repeats his name but when he tries to grab her she screams and runs away. Some one tries to protect her and/or impede his progress and they get the one armed strangle. It's sad but one can hardly feel too sorry for a person who can't escape a one-armed shambling strangler who can't even walk at a normal pace.


On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much thought put into Curse at all, yet it manages to use its limitations and stupidity to craft uncanny dream-logic that puts it in the same twilight realms occupied by Carnival of Souls and Dementia. It's unusual to see people basically killed for being good samaritans, something that makes us feel the murders more than usual for these sorts of films (ala Lewton's Leopard Man from the previous year). The first female victim, Berthe, is loved by everyone in her corner of the bayou, so when she's killed for trying to protect Ananka, that really kicks in a sense of tragedy to this saga, with the foreigner Egyptian conspirators giving off an air of domestic terrorism. Why command Kharis to kill indiscriminately if not for some ancient cult zealotry and impersonal hatred against first world capitalism and Christian decency?

What gives the film it its real alchemical magic are the weirdly modern bangs, posh accent, confidence and cat woman litheness of Virginia Christine. A local in the bayou notes "it's been-a 25 years since a mummy drag a girl in the swamp" but what girl? The last film was only made the year before where she was just an archeologist  named Amina and played by a different actress. This time we're compelled to gaze deep onto those modern bangs and wonder: is Amina the reincarnated mummy expert or a mummy herself?

There is no real answer so we're better off trusting that it 'feels right' and that's what dream logic is all about. And Christine is great at splitting the difference ("its like I was two different people... two different worlds.").

Bearing out the split subject aspect is the similarly hair-colored and style of Kay Linaker as the drainage project foreman's understanding assistant. 100% 20th century, she's the 'lucky' girl who winds up with the leaden lead, Dennis Moore. Amina meanwhile reverts to the bandaged dead form Ananka as soon as her head hits the sarcophagus pillow. Why she rapidly ages back into mummy bandages at the end (just as she did in the previous film) is never explained, but by then, like a psychoanalyst session, the hour is up.

That concept of doubling fits Christine's fashion-forward bangs and use of a night dress as swamp wear. I don't generally like those Betty Page bangs, you have to be damn hot, willowy and with the right mix of bad girl, demure kitten, and assertive intellect to pull them off. You also need the right dress. She has all that. Since her character is neither here nor there as far as soul-body-mind-incarnation-century cohesion, her dress is neither nightgown nor formal evening dress, but a sublime hybrid. She could either be lost on her way home after an all-night party or sleepwalking. Christine pulls both options off at once, and looks damned great being carried around by Lon. I love her, so leggy, Her feet almost touch the ground when he's going up hill. 

Naturally the more I see this film the more I have to forget its weaknesses, but amnesia has always been the B-movie lovers' friend. Is that why 'forgettable' and 'dreamlike' go so hand in hand?



2. Patricia Arquette - Renee / Alice
LOST HIGHWAY
(1997)- ***

The other set of great 50s Betty Page bangs on a split-subject woman outside of time appear on the alabaster brow of Patricia Arquette as Renee/Alice, in Lost Highway, the 'If James M. Cain rewrote Godard's Contempt while on enough Valium to drop a rhino' film by David Lynch. It's a forerunner appetizer for Mulholland Drive and pre-post script for Wild at Heart rolled into one... or two... three.

The story involves the predestination-drenched dream noir machinations of Alice, a gangster moll who uses her ripened wiles to hook a two-bit mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty) into not just killing her gangster kingpin sugar daddy Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) but robbing Andy (Michael Massee) some extraneous pornographer in the Hills involved in Mr. Eddy's operation. The killing of Andy (via noir's signature 'freak accident the cops will never believe') is perhaps fueled by the site of Alice being 'taken' from behind on a projected stag reel as Rammstein blares on the soundtrack, evoking the 'cult programming' vibes of the masked party in Eyes Wide Shut.

"You killed him," she says. She points a gun at him, forcing one to think of all the films that end on this very same note (i.e. woman as manipulator/femme fatale - i.e. Lang) then changes her mind and gives it to him, "put it inside your pants." forcing one to think of all the other films that go that way instead (i.e. lovers on the run). We realize we still don't have a bead on which of the genre roads this film is speeding down, it all hinging on which male character she's betraying vs. which ensnaring in an elaborate game to supply her and her real love with a made-to-order patsy. Driving down the titular highway in her car, the mechanic starts to change to match her fluctuating mood and shifting loyalty; he'll be the disillusioned suspicious Fred if that's how she wants to play it. They fool around outside the fence's cabin while deliriously sad music (This Mortal Coil) plays on the radio.


There are two signifying split moments here, and please bear in mind I'm synopsizing backwards, like an armchair. As 'happens to every guy sooner or later,' each of the main masculine psyche splits hinge on sexual performance anxiety issues, the impossibility of true sexual union, of returning to the undifferentiated womb. Even if we're Lulu and Sailor-level innocent, or Pete-Alice level delirious, or Pete-Renee ghostly, we inevitably wind up back in the zone of the primal scream/abandonment issue/erectile dysfunction. Play attention to the order of events in Lynch, for they are not random and characters are always aspects of a single psyche - the split being the oceanic line between the conscious mind and the unconscious anima. Even with the Coil's siren song hanging motionless in mid-air like the mosquitoes in the amber headlights, Pete says he still "wants her" - the wanting gets him worse than nowhere. Anyone who's ever met the beautiful bedridden princess version of the anima in a beautiful dream knows the overwhelming sense of love and completeness she carries, coupled to the impossible longing that comes from wanting to dream your way back into her palace. "You can never have me," she whispers, which to a virgin viewer would make no sense. He just had her or is having her, but he knows it's true. And so do we, sex can be just the final, futile attempt to connect. There's nothing left after that but the despair of eternal isolation.

This line--you can never have me-- is devastating for a man to hear, and she knows it. Her conciliatory pat of Fred's (Bill Pullman) shoulder in the earlier section's joyless black death silk sheets screw could come right after she says it here in this other zone. Both Fred and Pete are crushed back to Earth by that signifier, by the inevitable folding down collapsed tent erection, the clattering shut of cell bards all over again: thinking of the key, as Eliot wrote, each confirms a prison. And when the bitch be sayin' mean shit like that, honey, you may as well be Jimmy Stewart forced onto Midge's stepladder to get over your vertigo. You just ain't ready for the big time ledge. How many guys end up marrying their Midge as a consolation prize, because she got pregnant or the foreign censors demanded it?

The fire goes in reverse, Pete reverse engineers his wanting into loathing, and this disillusionment turns him into Fred, or vice versa. But even if he can go back in time, Alice/Renee can't, or won't.

She was never in one time or the other to begin with.

In literally splitting his subject into different characters and actors, Lynch splits conception of self wide open. His work is a Moebius strip noir, a never-ending story of shifting identity. It's not even necessarily the fall guy/male's identity (Fred/Pete) that splits (from Pullman to Getty and back again), but Renee/Alice's that was never not split. A picture Pete stumbles onto at another man's house reveals Alice and Renee are twin sisters, perhaps involved in alibi forming or 'hot twin action' stag loops. These are common themes of Lynch's, elliptical ouroboros narratives and girls playing double roles, differentiated by hair color: Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer has a brunette cousin is played by the same actress, for example, or the 'twinsies' split in Mulholland Dr.

And like our Ananka in the last film, Renee's evasive somnambulism could be read as concealing a double life. In a sense Renee/Alice is the 'reincarnation' of the split/subject Ananka - both the resurrected ancient femme fatale, leading princes and jazzbos to their doom (and everyone else who's fool enough to help her) with those rockin' bangs. The modern girl that fell into the New England bog back in 1943 (changing to mummy as she sank) is never gone or here. She asks and answers the one question that fits the idea of performance and persona and concealment so central to identity in both eastern religion and western psychology.

You can even compare the moment in Lost Highway when Robert Blake's face is projected onto hers when Fred has sort of a nightmare, to Ananka's final, inexplicable reversion to mummy form (wrapped). His and Alice's apartment looks like no one lives there: lots of empty walls and spaces, like an Urban Outfitters doll house. But even there, in the fantasy Renee/Alice doesn't play the dumb rules of male fantasy/objectification. Even in the fantasy, the orgy is only on screens within the screens. He could go and be in the adult film being shown on the wall, but then she'd be back here, in the other reality, going away with some other guy.


Alice/Renee in short is the classic anima, the unknowable female unconscious of a male ego/consciousness. If it's confusing just imagine all characters in a Lynch movie are aspects of the same psyche. In his case, Lynch's psyche, his archetypal lexicon formed in the signifiers of a 50s suburban childhood, i.e. with conceptions of adults as towering angels or devils alive in a sea of tail fins, bobby socks, Elvis 45s and red velvet curtains. He does away with dream sequences as separate from 'reality' by blurring the lies (sic?) between memory, identity, film, and levels of consciousness, and of course, like with Ananka in The Mummy's Curse, time itself. 

The "DEATH" OF OBJECTIVITY:

This can be borne out by a very telling line early on: Fred tells the detectives he doesn't like video cameras because he likes to remember things subjectively, he wants them to be how he remembers them not the way they were. If there's an explanation to this puzzle of a movie, it lies in this line, and the homicide detectives--with their Kafka-esque inscrutability and 'real person' shapes and ages--recognize it as almost a confession. Standing firmly on the outside of this Lynchian split psyche looking in like abstract keepers at an institution, it's they who Fred and Renee ultimately perform their roles for. Similarly, these two detectives bear witness to Pete's tomcatting, which is part of the reason it is performed in the first place. Physical closeness and genital gratification is one reward of sexual experience, but it's fleeting, the admiration of 'the guys' at your skill with "the ladies" is forever. But their "toilet seat" comment shows just how abject and worthless their admiration is.

Arquette plays this anima unchanging SISTERS-style split part very well, always a little distant and cognizant of her aphrodisiac body. Inscrutable to an extent that would turn lesser actresses narcissistic and neutered, she's always oscillating between dominated sex slave, willing self-debaser, torn lover hoping for an escape, taunting unknowable trickster, succubus, men user, and innocent victim, like an unceasing tide. She seems to change in and out of user and used roles within each breath. We want desperately to believe she wants us. The agonizing "magic moment" when she's calling a cab at the garage is one of the more perfect fractal vignettes of 90s neo-noir: She's slowly but relentlessly preparing to call the cab while Pete stands there, paralyzed with conflicting dread (he's seen her boyfriend Mr. Eddy demolish a guy just for tailgating) and desire; she's so hot, a little busted around the gills, tawdry in spots, but it seems like she really put on the dog to come get him but while a little drunk. There's just no way he can avoid it, he's gonna die from a Mr. Eddy pistol-whipping, but first -- holy shit. We're all but cheering him on, like those cops staking him out, the drag of her hotness makes seduction inevitable, true noir distilled and drowned its own eternal white light. It's "like falling in love with a buzzsaw" - as Jean Arthur puts it in Only Angels Have Wings



--INTERLOGUE--
The Story of the Serpent and the Bartender:
A 20-foot serpent slithers into a bar; he asks the bartender 'have you seen Mr. Big in here tonight? I'm gonna kill him!' The bartender shakes his head no, and the serpent slithers out the back door and continues up the street. The serpent takes awhile for its length to travel through the barroom, from the front entrance to the back door. The serpent is still technically in the bar, but the front of his is long gone (it's a small bar). Finally the tail comes in and orders a drink. It starts talking shit about the serpent who was just in there, not realizing they're the same creature, he's just the other end. The bartender realizes the tail is the one who's been calling itself Mr. Big. The tail and the head are apparently in love with the same girl, played by Partricia Arquette, but since they never meet they don't know it. 

The bartender (Robert Blake) has been dealing with this issue over and over again between the two of them. Each threatens the other but can never seem to be in the same room at the same time. Meanwhile, if the girl is with the tail, the head's jealous, and vice versa. Both ends are jealous, in fact, of her attention to the other. 

Now let's say one night the Serpent pays the bartender to kill Mr. Big when he comes in, so the bartender decides hey, money is money, and shoots the last five feet of the snake off the rest. Death in the form of gangrene and blood loss then starts killing the snake inch by inch, up along up the spine towards the head of the Serpent who then dies before he can pay the bartender. 

Enraged, the bartender goes over to the Serpent's nest to see if he can confiscate any valuables as compensation. Once there he realizes that the Mr. Big/<---->Serpent is bigger than 20 feet. It's really 40 ' long. In fact the top half is still in the nest, warming itself by the sulfur springs under the mansion; it hasn't been seen because it shed its skin and is waiting for its new skin to harden. The dead skin shed is only as far down as the halfway point, so Serpent didn't recognize its top half at all. The name of this other 20' is The Reptile. 

So the Serpent is really the Reptile the way Mr. Big is the Serpent, in other words, the Reptile disavows the immaturity of its lower half. <-----serpent eptile="" nbsp="" p="">The bartender mentions the deal for killing Mr. Big and asks for money. 'I'd like to believe you... it sounds like something he would do,' says The Reptile, "but I've been locked away down here until my new scales come in so haven't heard anything. Do you have any hard evidence?" 

But that's the big existential issue: If Reptile doesn't die from the gangrene, then it proves the bartender didn't kill Mr. Big so shouldn't get paid; if Reptile does die then the bartender still can't collect $$. Don't worry says The Reptile. I can't really die down here, only shed my skin. We'll look at the shed skin together and that should tell the tale, like an arctic core sample.

Reading its length as if a timeline or celluloid strip, Reptile studies his old skin and is agog with wonder. 'I can't believe Mr. Big and Serpent didn't know they were the same!' he says, "and neither knew the truth beyond that: both were not them or each other, but me! Heavy."

The bartender stops trying to get paid at this point, and then of course it dawns on him: the snake is actually 60 feet long, and he himself is the next link after The Reptile.
THE END

BUT But even then.... what, more?

With great humility, The Bartender casts his eye skyward. "Well?" he asks the sky, "I guess I should pay you, then?" God shoots him in the face for being late on the payment, and then goes back in time and leaves a cryptic remark on Mr. Big's answering machine: "the Reptile is dead." Mr. Big has no idea what it means, but thinks it must be that old Serpent shitheel fucking with him again.

So he slithers into a bar, looking for him.

No THE END, story repeats until head of God explodes


ONE LAST REPETITION OF THESE MAGUS MOMENTS:

If we are to 'get' anything out of these two serpent segments of cinema called Mummy's Curse and Lost Highway, we have to let go of the idea we're ever going to get paid anywhere up the snake. Knowing this lets us better enjoy reading the scales on the shed-skin highway. Having to worry about whether or not Patricia Arquette really loves us, on the other hand --that's exhausting. Her character/s, representing the unconscious/anima as it/the does/do, is/are not a serpent at all, but a fixed illusory point, a single scale repeating itself. The anima doesn't 'grow' alongside you, it already IS and you have to BE-come. Her silent derision is an impetus, like a fire under a sluggish kettle. Don't hate the novel you're reading because the letter "R" keeps staring at you like it's trying to start a fight. It's just you're crazy, is all. Have your assistant turn the "r's" into "p's" and your "R's" into "B's" if you want, but then the C is gonna stare at you. You can't win. Just lose gracefully and act the part.


Once we stop expecting the next segment up the chain to essentially pay the debts of its lowest 'self' segment we recognize we were only nagging our own blood turnip for a perceived lack, squoze dry by our fear of being squeezed. 

The timeline of each human incarnation is like a serpent, segmented by sleep, years - events. 

Everyone wonders about life after death, heaven, etc. Ask yourself, which "you" is the one who winds up in heaven? What age, really, is the YOU that lasts? What does the you of today have in common with the you of ten years ago? 

If you saw your younger you on the street would you be nice to him or think he was a little pisher who needs his ass kicked? 

What if you learned the 'you' who goes to heaven is some punk older self, someone you don't even "feel" but who is in your younger self's body, cuz in the future you figured out soul time travel like Wolverine does in X-Men Days of Future Past, or Jack Death does in Trancers-- and you're stuck down here, the dick in the middle, shaking your first at yourself "Why you I outta!" like the Three Stooges rolled up into one self-lacerating stumbler?  Or if, like Catherine Keener, you're in love with Cameron Diaz only when she's inside Malkovich? 

Another analogy is found in film itself: When you're watching the first reels of Lost Highway, the Bill Pullman and brunette wife stuff, you're not watching the later stuff, and vice versa. You can't ever see it 'all at once.' If you could go beyond time and space you might see the movie differently, or project it backwards and forwards with two projectors on the same screen at the same time like someone does The Shining in Room 237, then you see the male protagonist as a winding serpent of stacking images, the way an old school animator might look at his stack of drawings of mylar overlays, so that every phase of Bugs or Mickey's arm movements are visible at once, like Hindu gods and goddesses with their many arms fanning outward, instead of disappearing the same time as the next one appears (a film on a screen being always 50% death after all, via the black shutter). Do this and the variety of male characters we see would  look crazy - two or three faces flickering into competing focus, projected onto one head (Blake over Patricia), while the woman would just look the same except for hair color - even the bangs would be the same. 

Perhaps it is this 'form' - the overlaid self blur that gets to heaven, Reptile rather than Serpent/Mr. Big, so only the higher self, who can perceive all these interconnected selves of past and present at the same time, recognizes "hey, that blur of Moebius strip selves is ME, I guess I made it to heaven after all." At that point, they all merge together, and disappear. 

But our blonde/brunette split objet desire, the Amina / Ananka and Renee/Alice in Mummy's Curse and Lost Highway cannot be in two places at once the way we, the fall guy viewers, are. Their trajectories are not connected - not Frankenstein moment chains, spot-welded like ours are (the weird mystery light that Balthazaar vanishes into before coming around in Fred's cell; the way the Mystery Man can be at the party and at Fred and Renee's house simultaneously). In other words, Renee/Alice cannot exist consecutively. They are just two doors, in a sense, to an unknowable dimension. If the bartender is the Mystery Man, then Alice/Renee is the bar -she is the place Fred and Pete cannot be in at the same time, nor either there, really, ever. She's just a memory, a mocking vision, an absent phallic taunt, the way Fred 'wants to remember it' - sans eyes... 





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