Wednesday, June 15, 2016

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

1. Virginia Christine - as Ananka / Amina
(1944) ***

Poor mummy.... Universal never seemed to care much about him.... Left out of a lot of the all-star Houses of Dracula, and Frankenstein films, the bandaged one even 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--all action packed with lumbering derring-do, but that's not the same. So who's left to love the 40s Mummy sequels, even amongst Universal classic horror devotees?

By the last in the series, 1944's Curse of the Mummy, the answer was: almost no one.

Maybe that's why the termites were able to penetrate to some hitherto absent pulpy core of dream poetry? The previous films were so dull that Curse's qualities can go unnoticed if watching them all back-to-back. But, as a stand alone film, its narrative inconsistencies don't matter so much. And if we can dig the weird 'you're never going to get an answer' narrative of a woman being two ages at once, we can appreciate the nocturnal contrasts between cheery warmth (the opening scene in Tante Berthe's homey little tavern) and stygian darkness (the desperation of the ruined church on the hill) the film does so well. In this it's not unlike Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, with its contrast of Dante's, the Italian restaurant beaming with ethnic life (represented in a big-hearted, life yes saying, restaurant-owning Italian mama) vs. the chilly water-denying, relapse-courting Satanist salon. Unlike that film , the acting isn't great, except by a weird few, again almost by accident: Lon Chaney gives a small master class in how to act a role with just your eyes and one free (if bandaged) arm; Peter Coe's weirdly silken vacuousness as the requisite fez wearing high priest would be bad in a normal film but here serves the hypnotics fairly well (all great hypnotists must be able to be very, very, boring). That great sinister German "B-list Veidt" emigre Martin Kolseck doesn't have much to do, but still kills and dies memorably. And then there's Virginia Christine in a dual role (kind of): the mummified Princess Ananka and her own (later?) reincarnation, Amina. I love her as both. Rise, Amina, I mean Ananka, rise!

Granted, her acting is uneven, how could it not be when the role is impossible --a hybrid of so many contrasting script glitches there's no way to serve the material except as hot amnesiac. Surely any David Lynch fan can get behind that, especially if they love Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

Just a refresher. The original Amina was a "current" time period archeological assistant from the The Mummy's Ghost. In that film's climax, Kharis carried Amina into the swamp as he recognized her as the reincarnation of his lost Ananka, but rather than be rescued last minute (and staying young and mortal) she's 'turned' somehow by his touch (and/or the power of Amon-Ra!) and begins to age into a mummy herself. What was previously just a Mrs. Munster style shock of white hair now spreads so she becomes platinum blonde, then as Kharis carries her down to the mine car tracks and down into the New England swamp (!), her skin withers and wrinkles due to either the power of the ancient ones or a total misunderstanding of reincarnation. Why reincarnate at all if an old flame can just yank you back into your old mummy form the minute some skinny dude in a fez throws some old leaves in a teapot? Granted, the Egyptian ideas of the soul were a bit weird but the idea that if someone tries to reanimate Ananka's mummy after she's reincarnated already (because her body was moved out of Egypt), her body will vanish and leave just the wrappings and then.... etc. It would make even Imhotep's all-knowing head spin off on its dusty hinges. 

Still, is it any weirder than Rita disappearing into a blue box? The last in the series, The Mummy's Curse is is Ananka's more than Kharis's story, and so it's a herald to the girl mummy films to come. This time, instead of being Amina who turns into Ananka because her very old boyfriend is in town, here she's Ananka who, due to amnesia, decides to call herself Amina, and is stalked by her very much older ex-boyrfiend Kharis. And that makes all the difference. Once again, she doesn't get to stay young very long. These fez-wearing magicians seem determined to reduce her to her shriveled original form. Since she starts out that way, kind of, this time, it's not quite as much of a bummer. and besides, she's taller and hotter, with a Patricia Arquette aura, and her bangs rock.

We see her first as a figure emerging from the dried Louisiana mud at the bottom of a claw loader scoop hole after the work stops for the day (even though the sun is high in the sky), during a 'haunted' swamp drainage project. It's a magical moment - as if she's Galatea coming out of a clay mould, her face almost like a half-formed sculpture. She arises, caked in dirt but clearly loving feel the touch of the sun, like a flower rising from the soil. The sun high in the sky beams down at her, Ra-like and she staggers along down the loader tracks, looking for some water to wash the shit off.

Man, we've been there, we city-folk, pulling ourselves off the floor the afternoon out of a drunken black-out, weaving home from the party of the night before, warmed by the afternoon sun, still in our party clothes, walking through the morning commuters like a phantom. And wait, weren't we up in New England 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.

Yup, been there, man.
So 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 as she will know what to do (she's probably a midwife as well as saloonkeeper). Sweet Berthe puts this amnesiac hottie with the either very modern (Bettie Page) or very old (Cleopatra) bangs, to bed but almost immediately the mummy bursts in and kills poor Berthe like some slow-mo one-armed strangler ex-husband, jealous even of the older woman caregiver. Terrified. Ananka runs off into the swamps again, and the killing and stalking goes on. Each time the mummy gets near Amina/Ananka goes into a trance and repeats his name but when he tries to grab her she screams and runs away. Someone 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. It's just Darwin at work, baby. All you got to do is throw a lit match at him, or step gingerly out of his reach.

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 bangs, posh accent, confidence and tall cat woman litheness of Virginia Christine as Ananka. A colorful Italian 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? Or can she be both? Why does she leave her bandages back in her sarcophagus but Kharis can't even free his left arm from his?

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 coiffed and tempered 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 Ananka as soon as her head hits the sarcophagus pillow, helpfully imported by the ever-sinister Martin Kosleck. Why she rapidly ages back into a white haired old corpse 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.

The brief tragedy of her plight luckily is offset by her fashion-forward bangs and use of a night dress as evening 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.  I can't stand them on Jean Brooks in Seventh Victim, where they fit her as poorly as her frumpy black mink coat. Christine rocks a form-fitting white dressing gown that accentuates her long, willowy form, perfection! 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. When Kharis is carrying her uphill, her feet almost touch the ground.

Naturally the more I see this film the more I 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
(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 two...

The story involves the predestination-drenched dream noir machinations of Alice, a sultry moll who uses her ripened wiles to hook a two-bit mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty) into not just killing her gangster sugar daddy Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) but robbing Andy (Michael Massee), some extraneous pornographer in the Hills involved in Mr. Eddy's operation. Pete accidentally kills Andy (via noir's signature 'freak accident the cops will never believe'), his vehemence 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. But that film's still two years away! Then again, the Monarch-7 sex cult programming is far older, should it choose to exist.

Instead, the awry detail of a dead Andy changes her tune, so she instantly 'puts it all on him' in grand Double Idemnity style. "You killed him," she says, pointing a gun at him, forcing one to think of all the films that end on this very same note. Then she changes her mind and surrenders the gat to him ("put it inside your pants"), forcing one to think of all the other films that go that way instead too (i.e. lovers on the run). We realize we still don't have a bead on which of the myriad subgenre offshoots this lost highway-driving film is going to take. Only the Lacanians might realize it's splitting and doing all of them same time, while simultaneously smashed up on the divider rail.

As the road unfurls, Pete's fate starts to hinge on whether Alice is betraying him to be with someone else, someone else to to be with him, or both, and this is all an elaborate game to supply her and her real lover with a made-to-order fall guy for Mr. Eddy's murder. Driving down the titular highway in her car, the mechanic's face 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 on the desert floor outside the fence's cabin while deliriously sad music (This Mortal Coil) plays on the radio --it's swooningly intense, but there's no sense of connection, only mournful loss.

There are two signifying split-producing epiphanies in this sex scene: as 'happens to every guy sooner or later' (cracks in the masculine psyche being, generally, the result of performance anxiety stresses): the first is the realization of the impossibility of true sexual union (of returning to the undifferentiated womb); the second that having sex guarantees nothing as far as true intimacy and connection. 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 anxiety/erectile dysfunction. Note that even when she's on top of him, grinding away, Pete says he still "wants her" - a wanting that gets him worse than nowhere. Any man  or boy who's ever met the beautiful bedridden princess version of his anima (1) knows the overwhelming sense of love and completeness she carries, coupled to the impossible longing that comes from wanting to dream your way back to her bedside but never finding her again. The Alice in the headlights grinding to the song is the demon form of that other anima, able to assume the endangered female in the bed but then also gloat over you falling into their gooey trap. "You can never have me," she whispers, which to an inexperienced sexual virgin would make no sense. But those who have had enough of it know the devastation that line causes. Sex, once experienced, offers little permanent reward; its ability to restore a lost sense of self-worth is fleeting at best and often leaves you twice as achey as before. Sex can be just the final, futile attempt to connect. 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 bars. 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 Scotty Ferguson forced onto Midge's stepladder since the big Carmilla climbs are just too much for him. 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. She never had to change because she was already two.

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. 


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

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.

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


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... 

1. (always in a beautiful dream he aches to get back to, promising to return soon but then the door to her room is gone) 

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