Thursday, July 07, 2016

CinemArchetype 27: Androgyne/Alien

I'll confess, it's not the horror in Florida a few weeks ago, the Pride Parade this past Sunday, or the passing of the great collective of chameleonic trickster personae, artistic incarnations, and unobtrusive music genius known as David Bowie that has compelled me to re-open my CinemArchetype files once more. They could have been considered complete. Certainly the basic core archetypes have all been accounted for, aside from the obvious ones (i.e. the hero, the terrorist, rabbit, the frickin' idiot) but Jung's access to pop culture was limited by the times. If he'd have seen Ziggy Stardust he'd have a whole treatise by now. No, the reason I print this now is that I'm confused and overwhelmed by the heat, unable to finish things that hit closer to home.

So the query is, are aliens all one gender, or beyond gender, or have cross-dressers and fabulous gay culture icons conscripted the alien look to help us contextualize their gender flexibility within our known parameters? Insecure men don't beat up aliens to prove their Earth heredity, and we don't fire aliens from school jobs. We wouldn't believe they were aliens even if they told us (just like you could be totally fey in the 70s and no one would guess you were actually 'one of them' - just expresssive, artistic, which was encouraged back when I was a kid, thank god). Oh well, we gained some things in some places, lost some in other. Ask not what color the elephant is in the room, for he's electric pink. And if you can't handle it, honey, go back to Janice!

1. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter
It took me a long time to see this movie after being turned off by just how lockstep all the 'call and response' stuff was at the show they had outside my dorm in college. Where if you didn't know exactly what you were doing you were glowered at mercilessly. Yeah, said I, that's real "free" of y'all. But lately I saw it at home free of liens and was so blown away by Tim Curry's wry swagger and fey gonzo cool that I clean forgot about all that. A true demonstration of the force and strutting seductive sensual freedom that's to be had when tapping into the source voltage of both genders at once, he's a walking ad for flaming bisexual transvestism, and his inevitable return to his home planet (or death) feels like our loss even more than his. We've not seen his like since, try as John Cameron Mitchell might--god knows we don't see it here on campus, where androgyny and transvestitism carries a rather noble and saintly joyless stamp, as if the PC lockstep of the post-grad young faculty and tolerance committees will turn against you just as quick as they turn on anyone who uses the wrong gender pronoun to describe you in a letter (as happened to me when I didn't address a student in their preferred plural). No matter, I don't hold it against the student 'themselves' or the lockstep Horror crowd at the RHPS, terrified to throw their rice a beat too late or soon, or even the lockstep professor nervously parroting the latest PC dogma --I'm just an old reprobate iconoclast realizing that when the old white guy old guard has collapsed and the freaks have won, I shall instantly realize those old guys were right to be alarmed, and-- like fuckin' Robert Ryan in THE WILD BUNCH-- I'll wish to god I was with 'em. Or--to slide gently back down into topic-- Dr. Frank N. Furter, who gleefully punks out Janice and Brad in the first half but-- once they're on his side and 'loosened' up--regards them with jealous suspicion.

Notes Jean Kim - 
"The moment of reckoning is the entrance of Tim Curry’s seminal character: the camera languorously showing his glamorous heels, bustier and Cheshire grin. Even as a straight female, I have to admit my breath was taken away at Dr. Frank N. Furter’s grand arrival. He oozes sensuality from every pore: raw, unadulterated, glitter-honey charisma. The teasing, rolling rhymes, the “an—ticipation” dragging you to the cliff’s edge. It’s one of those star-making movie moments where you know, as the viewer, that cinema won’t ever be quite the same... 
"Curry’s confidence riffs off similar gender-bending antics from that other fairly young, rebellious artistic arena, rock n’ roll, particularly the glam rock scene. David Bowie, Lou Reed & Velvet Underground, Mick Jagger: the rigidity of gender identities matter less than the braggadocio, the impertinence, the sass, the sexual chocolate. It is the power of the human artistic spirit: the inner fire is king and queen at once. There is power in both genders and their aesthetic wonderment to draw on, to create, to mix, to inspire." 

2. David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton
The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)
Dir Nicolas Roeg

Coulda done Ziggy for this list but that's more a concert film, and a short-lived concept, though that is my favorite album of old DB's, listened to constantly my freshman year of college (til I learned all my punk friends were gay and hadn't told me). For this purpose though, the alien aspect fits more perfectly, especially in his home planet flashbacks, though there his wife and kids are clearly gender-specified, rather than some cloned gender neutral tribe. I like Bowie in the film, and Candy Clark, and love Roeg in general (because of Performance and Masque of the Red Death) but to me the movie never really comes together, though I do relate with becoming a TV-addicted alcoholic hermit.
Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s had a staggering influence on me. I had been writing about androgyny in literature and art in my term papers in college and grad school, so Bowie’s daring experiments seemed like the living embodiment of everything I had been thinking about. It’s hard to believe now, but when I submitted the prospectus for Sexual Personae in 1971, it was the only dissertation about sex in the entire Yale Graduate School. I completed it in 1974, while I was teaching at my first job at Bennington College in Vermont. One of the supreme moments of my life as a student of culture occurred in October 1973, as I was watching NBC’s “Midnight Special” in my apartment in Bennington. It was a taping from London of “The 1980 Floor Show,” Bowie’s last appearance as Ziggy Stardust—a program oddly never broadcast in the U.K. Bowie looked absolutely ravishing! A bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female wearing a bewitching costume straight out of the Surrealist art shows of the Parisian 1930s: a seductive black fish-net body suit with attached glittery plaster mannequin’s hands (with black nail polish) lewdly functioning as a brassiere. I instantly realized that Bowie had absorbed the gender games of Andy Warhol’s early short films, above all “Harlot,” with its glamorous, sultry drag queen (Mario Montez). Hence I viewed Bowie, who became one of the foundational creators of performance art, as having taken the next major step past Warhol in art history. I never dreamed that someday I would see that brilliant fish-net costume inches away in a display case at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where I was lucky enough to catch the V&A’s Bowie costume show two years ago. It was a sacred epiphany, like seeing a splinter from the True Cross. - Camille Paglia, Salon
Probably the key figure in helping gay teens to--if not come out--at least get flashier, more expressive, amidst my generation in particular, Bowie showed a way to stay chameleonic, undefinable --we didn't have to declare our sexual preference like some college major. More than gay, Bowie that made it OK to be an alien, beyond all dualities set by society, beyond sex yet sooo sexy. This confident, gorgeous, stylish, intelligent alien accepted us! Bowie didn't worry about us accepting him, her, whatever, because he accepted himself, and so could see us with love and without judgment. And through the example of that unprecedented generosity, the merely gay or bi or trans amongst us became easier to accept, and become. 

3. Jaye Davidson as Ra
Dir Roland Emmerich

Though he speaks in a deep otherworldly long-dead language, The mighty Ra is quite the fey little aesthete, keeping his weaponry, ships, and entourage decked out in a unified and very chic combination of HR Giger-style anthropomorphism and the ancient Egypt we all know. The art direction is so superior to the actual narrative the film becomes like a museum. But hey, it's fun to imagine the entirety of ancient Egyptian iconography as one crazy fashionista alien's own unique Hugo Boss meets Erich von Daniken haute couture. Davidson's Ra is a beyond-duality Apollonian super androgyne to make Camille Paglia proud. If Paglia ever does write goddamned volume two of Sexual Personae, I imagine she'll find time to mention Davidson, who alas wasn't in too many films aside from this and Crying Game, his big 'breakout.' Supposedly he found filmmaking and stardom particularly stressful - and so would you, in all likelihood. But he was the first actor we thought was a girl until the 'reveal' and as such Crying Game was a sensation. He broke the ice.

4. Slavitza Jovan as Gozer (the Gozarian)
Dir Ivan Reitman
An 80s film to its giant marshmallow craw, naturally GHOSTBUSTERS' exterior dimensional villain, Gozer, is going to look like a butch hyper-glam Sheena Easton and appear in front of a giant all-seeing eye pyramid projection screen, flanked by two mighty slors. Confusing even downtown New York performance artists as to his/her gender, Gozer the Gozarian's face and demeanor are the epitome of the then-in-full effect MTV fabulous of the moment --and as such are a bold and brilliant 'distinctly 80s Manhattan club scene' choice. S/he doesn't get too many lines but when s/he does s/he speaks in an old lady Pazuzu-homage voice. "Then dieeeee!" - that's fierce, Gozer! Lavender lightning is always haute!! 

5. John Rhys Davies - 
Dir Todd Haynes 
Haynes' film unfolds in some half-awake reverie set to some great T. Rex, Stooges, Eno covers and glamsy originals, and offers a rare stunning performance by the uneven Ewan McGregor as an Iggy Pop-type, but it's the gorgeous eyes and face of Davies that lingers in even the straightest dude's locket memory. In fabulous outfits like the one above, Davies plays a kind of a Bowie/Jobriath glam alien pop meteor who fakes his own assassination, but why? That's the whole question but you know as well as I: to dodge the Thatcher-era British taxman and because fans were making life wearisome. Showing up once in awhile at the druggier glam shows, under Bowie MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH-style wide-brim slouch hats (to pout that there's still a music scene without him?), only a terribly miscast Christian Bale (clip-on costume earring and oily pancake make-up presumably lifted from mum's drawer) as a bisexual rock journalist seems to notice him. Oh Bale, you're such a square rock journalist you might as well be written by Cameron Crowe! Not only that, but when McGregor acts circles around you, like a shark coming to life at the smell of your blood, that's a sad crazy night.

My problem with Todd Haynes has always been his devotion to a kind of sickly housewife 50s color scheme, which I personally abhor (maybe it's from being very bored as a kid at the homes of various grandparents?), and his weakness for Eisenstein fetish editing collapses any kind of narrative cohesiveness or drive, If it wasn't for the ceaseless parade of songs to anchor them, Haynes' films would leave time behind altogether, and become just a particularly gay episode of MTV's 120 Minutes. While that kind of associative reverie stuff is fun to edit, it's often frustrating to watch, especially if you're not enthralled by a certain era of suburban decor and Haynes' unique 'one step out of the closet looking in' dourness. His gay pop odysseys are like a less flashy or raunchy or druggy version of Greg Araki's, which means nothing to anyone unless they've endured an Araki movie all the way to the end, a fate which I have so far been lucky enough to escape.

See also HEDWIG and THE ANGRY INCH - god knows I did - at the Jane Theater and on the screen. I still cry to "The Origin of Love." I'm oily human - it was the 90s man. Damn right that was me at Wigstock 98. Gimme danger, widdle stwanger

6. Richard Lynch (as God?)
Dir Larry Cohen 
He's an artificially transplanted alien-human hybrid who can turn people homicidal with a glance, and he has a woman's sex organs built into this burn victim chest, sort of, and he's, well I can't spoil it, let's just say he's Richard Lynch.

I'm fascinated by the life imitates art trajectory of self-inflicted burn victim Lynch... who (intentionally) doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze during a strong acid trip in the 60s--and yet works steadily, nearly always playing roles that have him dying in fire, or having something to do with fire. I mean I would never be able to get within a mile of match if I were him! Man, that's gutsy. I don't buy him as a cult leader either here or in BAD DREAMS, but I'm in awe of him anyway. A living example that some of those old LSD wives tales could very well be true (the babysitter who put the turkey in the crib and the baby in the oven, for example). Not to get off topic but let me go on record and say that LSD should be strictly monitored by the government with agent 'guides' being consigned to sell it and provide a kind of communal garden / arts and crafts room which to monitor dosage and provide a chill-out tent -kindergarten teacher- therapist - shaman - counsellor safe space. Lord knows I'm qualified from years of experience in the late 80s and would love that as a job. Instead you got people like Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern in THE TRIP.... or worse, doctors who keep you in a hospital gown in a busy ward with overhead neon lighting and intercom announcements and industrial solvents... on the other hand a kid in the throes of a depression or dared by his friends could take 100x too much practically as easy as taking the right amount - especially if it's liquid. God knows the strength of the dosage the CIA used in their unethical experiments, or Lynch was on when he set himself ablaze.

All in all, it's another fine example of Larry Cohen's unique ability to steal shots on busy city streets, full of unusual casting (Andy Kaufman, probably the only guy brave enough to march with the cops in the St. Patrick's Day parade in full dress uniform while Cohen and company filmed him guerrilla style as he prepared to pull out a gun and start shooting blanks at random people) and good tough acting with characters who all look like people instead of actors and mixing his high concept weirdness and social messages alongside it - straddling a zone between Cronenberg body horror and Scorsese urban grit poetry-- with streaks of humanism and wit all his own.

There's also a 1985 sci fi film I haven't seen called ENEMY MINE with a similar child bearing but male-ish alien played by Louis Gossett Jr. It bombed because no one wanted to imagine themselves being marooned with Dennis Quaid, least of all stuck in one of those 'a soldier from each camp during a war are marooned together and must find their common blah blah to survive' plots. I wouldn't even have known the alien wasn't a regularly defined 'male' if the film wasn't added to an El Rey Mother's Day marathon.

7.a. John "Bunny" Breckinridge - The Ruler - 
7.b. Bill Murray as Bunny 
ED WOOD (1994)  
As Imdb notes: "A serious auto accident prevented Breckinridge from getting a longed-for sex-change operation in Mexico." Is his last name, "Breckinridge" linked to Myra? It is, apparently... and makes sense - they certainly ran in the same decadent glitterati circles. And then we can follow these threads outward into the universe..
"Charisma is the radiance produced by the interaction of male and female elements in a gifted personality. The charismatic woman has a masculine force and severity. The charismatic man has an entrancing female beauty. Both are hot and cold, glowing with presexual self-love." - Paglia, 521
8. Grey Aliens

Just why do we associate greys with dudes, when they're quite clearly beyond such things as gender? Reagan famously told Spielberg he didn't know "how close to the truth this really is," after a White House screening, one thing I'm reasonably sure didn't happen at the first US-alien conference (in 1954) was the musical communication, because fuck that hack John Williams to think UFOs communicate with bassoons and known musical scales. I know a filmmaker needs visualization and audio for such things, but everyone knows communication with greys is always telepathic. You've probably picked up their signal in your sleep a dozen times, or via the galactic cell phones that drifted into our damper climates millennia ago, the psilocybe cubensis mushroom, or via Salvia Divinorum, DMT, or dying, or a bad flu, or any psychic ability not hopelessly intertwined with schizophrenia--your brain has to be clear enough you can recognize the external-internal voice in your head--and the way you feel a connection with them is very yin/yang - like their female energy courses through you as if speaking through your unconscious ego. They are facets of our constitution, like Voldemort's soul within Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows 2 is on behind me). The most important facility we have, that ESP, is denigrated by mainstream science for the same reason the church used to. That what it cannot control or measure or monetize, mustn't interfere with that which can until that position become untenable. It's not the 'see no evil / hear no evil' concept, but the refusal to consider any other form of input, that makes us blind and deaf to the alien's screaming for our attention.

9. Patricia Laffan as Nyah
Dir David MacDonald

Leave it to the Brits (pre-Hammer) to drain the sexy potential out of the old "Martian women need Earth men to mate with" set-up (originated the year before, 1953, in the classic Cat Women of the Moon). Tall, imperious, with a voice like Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I, (and a dashing black cowl hood combo), Laffan's Martian Nyah is, in her unsexy way, damned sexy, but it’s all too clear that the makers of this film are missing the point: alien women here to get 'specimens' shouldn't look like disciplinarian schoolmarm androgynes if they want to get recruits. If her planet's desperate enough to want to mate with men from the paltry cross-section of tavern guests, she's got my sympathy (I'd go in a heartbeat!)

10. Tilda Swinton -
ORLANDO (1992)
Dir Sally Potter 
Not every transitional or non-binary character made this list, they are maybe not alien enough, still lacking that 'alien' aspect, i.e. not adding to something more than the sum of both, but Tilda Swinton has it and rocks it, the female non-musical version of the David Bowie alien archetype in the film that put director Sally Potter on the map, and Swinton--hitherto a Derek Jarman figure--as 'the' mainstream androgyne to beat ever since. Starting as a young nobleman blessed (or cursed) with immortality by Queen Elizabeth, Orlando changes in dress, gender, class and demeanor like a snake sheds its skin, all the while navigating the social climbing/falling spheres within a surreal ever-evolving England. Speaking directly to camera, she transcends any notion of objectification or subject-as-spectacle. Through her we see how going from male to female is not a castration (a 'loss' of essence) but a remembrance of being all-encompassing, like wood rejoining fire and air rather than disintegration.

11. Brigitte Lin - Asia the Invincible
SWORDMAN 2 (1992)
Dir Tsui Hark
Lin really shines in the chance to play a role where she starts out as a guy but in her supernatural fighting ability leads to a softening of the skin and feminization of self, a side effect of mastering a rare martial arts manual that demands auto-castration, which I've heard mention in a few other films --as eunuchs were once a ruling class of immortal warriors. Without knowing both the yin and yang, male and female power centers, one can't enter the top spheres of martial arts. Once changed s/he keeps her maid lover but falls in love with Jet Li (and has them sleep together later while she's off killing his brothers). Why, Jet? Because he makes her laugh with his philosophical simplicity and deep love of alcohol (naturally I relate), preferring wine to the follies of man and his continual struggle for power and rule; Lin's sacrificed his/her balls to have ultimate power while Li's sacrificed all interest in the world (or is trying to) in favor of a continual buzz and settlement on Ox Mountain (if he ever gets there). It's really beautifully played between them, as Jet Li has such an innocent semi-bewildered look in his eyes, like he's imagining a cheery childhood moment at all times. Together they're a flutter of robes like two butterflies right before she kills them with his/her choice weapon: sewing needles.

 Anne Carlisle - as Margaret / Jimmy + Alien POV
(1982) Dir. Slava Tsukerman

O, those androgynous women and mildly manly men who spend their 70s-early 80s nights milling around tiny black box combo art gallery / fashion studio storefronts downtown, engaging in never ending private fashion shows in vain attempts to stand out from a stable of similarly face-painted and ennui-and-opiate-withdrawal-driven clotheshorses! This is what the East Village NYC in the late 70s-early 80s was all about, before Giuliani and the internet fucked it all up. Meanwhile a German scientist named Johann (Otto Von Wernher) has followed a George Foreman grill-sized spacecraft to the roof above the East Village penthouse flat Margaret shares with her knife wielding Valerie Solanis-style performance artist heroin dealer lesbian girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Shepherd). The alien is represented by a giant solarized color style eye POV, observing all the action through a color-twisted prism and killing those who dare reach anything so jejune as an orgasm. It maybe hides behind the white mask in the center of the weird neon hula hooped painting in the center of the apartment. When Margaret's lovers 'climax,' a cigarette burn in the celluloid behind their head sucks them right out of the film, leaving her free to resume her high fashion Fassbinder-ish moping. Her own inability to have an orgasm (due to either drugs, ennui or some combination) saves her neck, and even allows her to notice her little alien guardian with mild affection rather than distaste. Though she never sees it (them?), they form a bond as touching as that between the disembodied Virginia Leith and her similarly unseen closet monster in The Brain that Wouldn't Die!  

If this was a guy playing both roles it might just be the usual camp drag theatricality but Carlisle brings a depth of wry deadpan wit and existential sad resolve that's Weimar Cabaret-level decadent without ever descending to camp, belying her tender age of 26 with a sophistication worthy of Dietrich and an androgynous punk edge worthy of Tim Curry. When she announces she's from Connecticut ("Pilgrim stock!") in one of the film's key and classic scenes, we realize Connecticut is America's Valhalla-gone-Gomorrah and Carlisle is the persona we all hoped Edie Sedgwick would be in Ciao! Manhattan. She takes both her male and female roles over the edge, even going down on herself while fashionistas (before there was such a phrase) jeer jadedly. (more)

12. Voice of Billy Boyd as Glen/Glenda
Dir. Don Mancini

I'll never forget my ex-almost lover's wife driving me to the train after a weekend at Woodstock and her kid in the back, maybe ten or nine, announcing "I'm going to practice my box stitch," with a kind of randomness that was quite moving. When I was his age neither I nor any living boy I would dare make such a statement with such casual disregard for gender norms, especially in front of a male stranger. I knew then that we might be going to hell in a handbasket as a globe, but at least things were getting better on some levels, and kids today were growing up free and clear of those old straitjackets, at least in tony Woodstock. Practice your box stitch, kid, I thought, and sew our nation whole again.

So more and more there are 'out' kids of all ages, unable or unwilling to commit to old gender confines as they mature. It's all good, of course, as those kids grow free and beautiful while the repressed children wither on the vine.Then there's Glen/Glenda in CHILD'S PLAY. The toymaker forgot to give him/her genitals and his short hair could just be Mia Farrow-esque. Maybe the future will show him/her to be a trailblazer, too. I reviewed the film back in the day but can't remember much about it, except of course that Don Mancini's love of the genre shows in every frame and that Jennifer Tilly (as herself!) has a field day. I've never been a fan of Chucky's whole blue collar balding ginger whiny voiced giggling sadism, but I respect it, and dig that Glen/Glenda has more of a sophisto twang. 

Honorable Mention: Denver Pyle as "Uncle" Bene 
Dir. John Hough

Speaking of weird kids, this Disney classic was one of the few of their live action films I liked when mom took my brother and I to see it at the theater when I was a mere eight yars-old. That said, the brother and sister alien's long-awaited guardian, Uncle Bene--our first glimpse of these humanoid aliens as adults--proved one of my first true WTF moments at the cinema. All through the movie, we kids in the audience are imagining an array of badass alien features. The plucky orphan alien kids have been trying to reach him the whole movie long and now--as the kids stand by their good samaritan curmudgeon's trusty camper and look up yonder hill--suddenly here he comes, lumbering cheerfully over the green rolling mountain like some denim-wrapped Hoppity Hop. With a shock of blinding white hair, his male breasts and belly jiggling merrily within his tucked-in pale farmer robin's egg blue workshirt, he's as nonthreatening an adult figure as the 70s could provide. 

There was no intention, perhaps, consciously, on Disney's part, to make him seem androgynous, but time and social progress has made him so. Age and weight contribute to a male's levels of estrogen, and there's nothing wrong with an alien having plenty of both. What makes him so weirdly gender neutral is, were he to talk to the camera and wave us on in for a very special tour of the old farm, like old Mr. Green Jeans on a Captain Kangaroo vignette, we wouldn't blink twice. But as an alien we're suddenly put in that classic Freudian uncanny seat where the familiar and harmless is made strange and conspicuous by context. It works perfectly because it doesn't work at all. We expected a silver lame jumpsuit and black eyes, not this friendly fresh-shaved Saint Nick, ready to lead the kids by the hand off to their alien secret agrarian commune. By his late arrival and cheerful grin he becomes something unreal, maybe not dangerous but certainly highly strange, like Billy Gilbert with his reprieve in His Girl Friday (1941) or Matthew J. Clark with his "Repent" stickers in Twentieth Century (1934)

Even stranger is how we sigh in relief anyway to see his friendly face. After the Dickensian strife and struggling with shady millionaire Ray Milland, all the evil henchmen and callous scientists, seeing such a nonthreatening adult character come rolling along to lead us away into a bright telekinetic tomorrow is cause for merry relief. How this character can keep the kids and their community free of meddlers like Ray Milland one doesn't need to know, not anymore. As adults their powers must surely keep them as safe and off the grid as they'd want. With his big belly laugh joyousness, Pyle is a Buddha with white hair and a country and western smile that says I'll see you next Christmas... 

But you won't see me.

1 comment:

  1. great post. thrilled to see cinemarchetypes back. keep going.


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