Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dipsomaniac Amore: FALSTAFF (aka CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT)

We fans of Welles and of Macbeth dreamt long and loudly of one day seeing a CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT Criterion Blu-ray. Orson Welles' culling of Falstaff bits from several Shakespeare plays, put in a larger English history (circa early 1400s) context via Hollinshed's Chronicles, it was damned hard to appreciate on the old grey dupes that for decades were our only option - and tough to find. The one critic who'd seen it on the big screen assured us it was a masterpiece. But if saw clips or dupes we couldn't get past things like the terrible dubbing, annoying music, muddy transfer, and a pace too rapid and over-edited for our attention to rest upon. It looked from this vantage as if Welles had been editing it over and over to please himself until the only way to full appreciate it was to have edited it, to be so familiar with its rhythms and the story. Enough forgotten words and slang phrases were used that you needed subtitles and a period English dictionary to unscramble it). That you could one day know enough of what was going on in the story to relax and focus on the arrestingly grotesque woodcut- expressionistic deep focus frames, discordant distorted perspective gags, and ramshackle post-slapstick was but a dream of more patient scholars. Certainly the cast seemed to get it, laughing uproariously at every little movement of old Jack Falstaff, played by the big man, Orson, as large as a house. Disconcerting, in a way, to see Welles so ballooned, as if he might bust or drop a sandbag out of his purse and float away.

I tried to watch the whole thing once or twice, but gave up decreeing, I'd wait for the Criterion. Maybe if the full scope and glory of the cinematography could be appreciated, this mountains of icy qualms would unto flattened puddles melt. Well, the Criterion has come. No more excuses. Dive in! Sure it's taken me months to get to it, and to find at last the right mindset for it's odious savors sweet.

To figure out where amidst the din we may plant our flag of comprehension and bemusement, or for other reasons, I relapsed over Xmas. Yea, for other reasons. So I pray thee --judge me not.

I'd learned from my last relapse (1998), watching an old tape of Welles' Macbeth (1948) that Orson ranting under gloomy painted skies as old Bill Shakespeare fit a lost weekend bender quite well. Shakespeare's language comes into delirious focus and the world's weight of guilt and dread for the coming work week find a perfect mirror in Macbeth's ghostly floating dagger. I still have the pages of almost illegible hand-written notes to the effect from that lost week to the effect it was the ideal relapse play, the fall from sober workaday Eden and into the opiate-womb where three meals a day and a job as Thane of Cawdor are as unattainable as even getting up off your knees to add ice to your highball. (see: Hallowed be thy Shakes: Three Macbeths). Into that morass, Welles' deep booming voice, his mastery of Shakespeare's poetry, came a-rolling like a harmonizing deep bass chord. All that emotion the alcohol loosened, coupled to the dread one might feel alone on a rudderless raft being swept out to sea and looking back at the receding shore (knowing the only way back to sobriety is acute alcohol withdrawal, which can be fatal without hospitalization and/or benzos of one's own), becomes so sublimely coordinated when entraining to Welles, his thunderous oratory filling the sail of Shakespeare's words like a westerly gale into the canvas sail of one's no longer-becalmed heart, that a whole new plateau of ecstasy emerges - not on the horizon as some shimmering mirage but as one's current fix. Watching as Welles staggered around the Republic cowboy sets, the feeling of guilt and remorse as my life up to that point seemed to dissolve in tatters behind me like a Cawdor pennant in the gore and discarded branches of Birnam Wood on the fields of Dunsinane. The full measure of Welles' resonant voice and the poetry of the dialogue cohering across moody Expressionist compositions that made all of Scotland feel like one gloomy haunted house; the marching figures with their tall flags and hanging corpses; ghosts and Welles staggering around in his papier-mâché crown and furs like some drunken glorious fool at a masquerade while the court in attendance eye him with concern and suspicion the way my own friend coterie was eyeing me and preparing for another intervention.

So this time, after 19 years of not drinking... wine...  later, after running through my usual suspects (including, because it was on TCM, High Society which stuck in my head like a broken record), I found Chimes and remembering how Macbeth had so grounded me in its repeatable coil of brilliance, I did hope Chimes might at last make sense. 

And all was well for the first 2/3 - that warm bath of Welles + Shakespeare claimed me as if some night-tripping fairy plucking me from my pet bed pillow and dropping me into his hearth-warmed amniotic purse. For to comprehend why Shakespeare is easier to appreciate when drunk is to need to first be drunk oneself. I remember as a kid a German translator friend of my dad's told me once that all Europeans have a drink before a language class for this very reason; it's a bit like running a stuck jar lid under hot water. Staggering into my 8:30 AM French class still drunk from the night before back in my freshman year of college, hiding my stamp-covered hand from the disproving teacher as I once again displayed my lack of studying, I realized alcohol alone may not have been enough. I got a D-, but at least I scared the shit (or "merde") out of her. Vive la France! (un petit mort aussi).

But that was because I didn't study or really care (language was required), but when just dealing with Shakespeare's semi-olde, pun-filled English poetry, it's close enough to our own the loosening of the deeply-whetted brain's linear grip enables a kind of twisty tongue-tripping free-fall that his eloquence catches in mid-air and swings around as if a glowing orange between two high-wire acrobats, and Welles' resonant voice reaches into the bones and harmonizes them like so many low note xylophone bars.

That's good because all the while Chimes is harmonizing and filling thy sails, you're still out on that raft with no paddle being sucked out to the open ocean without a soul around to notice (if you're lucky enough to live alone), realizing you really need to jump off the raft and start swimming towards shore before it's too late to even try- but you're tired and the current is against you, and sharks and the undertow and you'll jump in a minute you're just trying to get ready; and then, presto, it's too late. The shore is just a thin black line against the sun setting in the west (you think). Then you can't remember which way the shore is at all.

When you wake up and it's 6 o-clock on your VCR you can't tell if its AM or PM by the thin gray light outside. If it's AM you're fucked - the liquor store wont be open for hours. If its PM on a weekday you're fucked, as you forgot to call in sick to work... again. You'd try to call now, or sit up, or make coffee, but just turning the channel to the weather/time is hard enough you get the dry heaves without finishing the rest of your warm foamy highball. The more you keep drinking the worse the recovery is going to be.

The convulsions of withdrawal, the sheer human misery awaiting you is going to immense but while you're drinking - ooh lah lah, hallucinations and sheer ecstasy, laughing with joy as Hal and Falstaff trade off on their impressions of Gielgud's dry air oratory as the king. His officers hammer from without like Monday morning's rail-thin skeleton, phone calls from concerned co-workers that go straight to voice-mail. Away to the wars, they probably say. Being unable to even the find the phone, you declare pacifism to the empty air. This must be what heroin addiction is like you think; you're floating in delirious freedom. To go from such degradation and misery of not being able to stand up without retching, to such narcotized bliss is worth all the suffering. The swimmer pushing off from the bottom swims faster upwards, enough to breach the water like a porpoise. Hitting "bottom" is just the Phoenician sailor corpse's word for "a whole new worrrrld."

So... hit play. It's only 6PM on a Saturday. You have all the time in the world to get straight. Feeling good enough to mix another drink, to steady your wobbly raft as it were, you sit down with newly-minted drink for Chimes of Midnight. Ah yes, it barely matters that you've seen it three times in a row now, because you forgot those times, aside from that it now feels warmly familiar.

This is because really, in a sense, like the demon in the whiskey that unites with the demon in your soul, it's the ultimate bad influence friend both diegetic and meta-ly. Sir John Falstaff has got to go, but what are the options? Go home? Though Sir John is a poster child for charm and wit in the service of base dissolution, John Gielgud's sober King is such a square and so ignobly come to crown that his road there carries its own sort of Macbathean guilt -- considering the bad boy behavior of his princely son as the shimmering accusatory finger of his own private Banquo ghost. He'd rather wish that some night tripping fairy would go into the past and trade louche Harry with noble Hotspur than try to understand his own culpable odium in the equation.

That's why, for all its robust glory and rich language, Chimes is really a kind of Adam Sandler movie. Half the film is just compilations of elaborate insults, pranks, bad boy behavior, and real job shirking, and then---finally and with much trumpetfare--kicking the jonesers, townies and mooches out of your life. The sun shines and the clouds part. Adam Sandler grows up, gets a job and a nice girl; Hal gets a crown; you get "some help." Master Shallow goes back to his own ruddy taverns to boast of knowing the man who knew you when, and then they forget you - for more naive and hitherto-sheltered freshmen are coming into town every fall.


It might have been pitched like that and done well at the box office--the violence of the battle and the lusty sex of the tavern with Jeanne Moreau's Doll Tearsheet played up, but instead, alas, Falstaff AKA Chimes at Midnight was paradoxically too old-fashioned and too sophomoric-- for swingin' '66. It proved yet another of Welles' art house flops, the equivalent of Oscar Jaffe's canceled Joan of Arc. The art crowd were flocking to see stuff like Blow-Up and Repulsion. A Shakespeare film starring a grotesquely fat windbag, with loads of overdubbing and complicated history, overlapping ornate dialogue that would be difficult enough to understand if read, let alone spaken in a rush over rapidfire grotesqueries and complexly interwoven fields of bawdy, profound, and historically-specific action.

The first row is an array of successful art films from 1965-66 (for releases traveled slowly across country in a few prints) one might see in a row displayed before the local art house cinema.  Looking at the top row and imagining seeing all those posters in a row outside the theater, any promoter can see the subliminal issue why the lower row wouldn't fill many seats. Falstaff is the tubby brainiac nerd no one wants to invite to the prom. Seeing it instead of, say, Persona is like admitting your some wobbling bookish unlaid square with elbow patches on your tweed jacket and ink stains on your fingers from years of note-taking and running from the giddy, druggy thrill of svelte or buxom babes in shimmering mod clothes frugging to the latest psych rock jam or grooving down at the coffee shop to some bongo and guitar folk poetry until the (acid was still legal) drugs kick in. In other words, you're stuck home babysitting your portly step brother instead of running amok with the hot mess blondes of your inner clique. Oh! How wrong they were/are!
As you can see, there's no Janet Leigh or Rita Hayworth to put on the poster. No Edie or Catherine Deneuve or Jane Fonda or Raquel Welch. There's no 'sizzle' the way concurrent releases of similar length and film stock, like Fellini's La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 had.  Audiences would line up for Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg or Sophia Loren, and if they got a little art with their cleavage, hey, sounds great but they didn't have to admit that was why they came - like being able to say you read Playboy for the articles. Not to say it's always needed but (to paraphrase Lorelei Lee) my goodness, doesn't it help?

All Chimes could promise was Welles deep into his fake noses and rotund grotesquery and some passing glances at Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet. A few wives on the opposing side (like Hotspur's lady, played by Marina Vlady), whores and seamstresses in the rafters else (one or two--being hot--I'd faith see further, but never do), we come to rely on the random shots of Moreau's face for beauty. She is so intoxicating--her every strand of wild hair brilliantly captured in Edmond Richard's dusky Haxan-ish photography; her face wreathed in spiderweb lines like a cracked painting--that she seems to pull out some doting delight from deep within Sir John's sack-and-gout plagued corpulence. One shudders to think the abysmal state of his 'bait and tackle' after this long and bulbous life --though Shakespeare's bawdy double entendres on STDs, cleanliness of drawers, and full chamber pots ("empty the jason")--makes sure we do.

For a long time this was the only picture we could find of Chimes at Midnight
and it raised a lot of questions as to the age/relationship here, especially since, when I saw it first,
Welles' was in the news for allegedly bathing Pia Zadora (who was having her
Bardot-80s / Brooke Shields-70s x Zsa Zsa Gabor 60s / Charro- 70s  moment) in Butterfly (1982)
But great as she is, it's not enough nouvelle vague sizzle, nor is there the kind of violence or psychedelic "Euro" progressive mind-bending that was just getting started. Instead of some kind of Ennio Morricone experimental there's a merry olde score by Francesco Lavagnino, that's far too repetitive and jaunty in its main theme, as if he was so enthralled with Nino Rota's work on La Dolce Vita (1960) he forgot to bring in an actual mood of his own.

On the other hand, there's that battle scene, justly celebrated, which Lavagnino scores with wordless female chanting and military drums, so that it becomes an ominous liturgy heralding the giallo eeriness to come in following years. Falling deservedly at the top of cinema's best battle scenes (fitting perfectly between Potemkin's and Duck Soup's), the sequence is a whirlwind of Eisensteinian movement-based editing: horse's stabbed, clangs of metal on metal, bodies in armor falling, charging lances and waving morning stars, waves of soldiers riding in and archers letting fly, from organized symbolic nationality and cavalry card shuffling to pain and muddy brawl-- as if starting out a Riefenstahl equestrian Olympiad montage and ending a muddy massive post-game on-field soccer riot. With its rapid-fire abstract shots there's almost no gore, just a gradual erosion of imagery--there's not even any judgment or polemic - just a real-time example of how men like to get dirty and deadly. It's also a master class is making a hundred extras seem like thousands, and of staging battle without condemnation or celebration but something far nobler-- an in-between recognition of war's necessity for man's esteem and to sate a the eternal masculine need to aggress, and a sad realizing of mortal frailty. In other words, it's not a head-shaking "what a waste" dove polemic or a chest-thumping hawk call, but something far nobler, for it's a nobility achieved through mud, crying widows, and grievous wounds. Only Conan and Patton have maybe come close since.

And naturally, I most adore that--after the field is won-- Falstaff turns his section of the fray into a massive tailgate by pulling his rotund girth up to a big keg on the field of victory, and pouring out a measure of sherri-sack, chilling around it with a coterie of the unkempt countrymen he pricked earlier. This being clearly a modus operandi for battles he's experienced before, declaring his love of sherri-sack for having such an ability to thicken the blood and he would otherwise be a coward, for it makes the brain "apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of fiery, nimble shapes, which delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue... becomes excellent wit." Adding, that sobriety thins men's blood which is why Hotspur fell, and that "if I had a thousand sons, I would make them foreswear thin potations and addict themselves... to sack!" At that point of course, being drunk and feeling guilty, thou mayest cheer. In Falstaff's sanctioned view, your addiction is a noble endeavor to make any Fagin-esque father proud.

That's the rub of the nutshell: we all wish it could go on forever, but war/the bender must end. A wild free-for-all, it's over in a flash, followed by months of recovery and doctor probing. Drinking speeds up time and the hang-over slows it, so eventually--as in The Lost Weekend--the only 'conscious' part of drinking is the pain of withdrawal, as that's the only thing we remember, the only time we're painfully, horribly conscious, aware of time's passage, plagued by saucy doubts and fears. The joy of the plentiful glass may have been quite wondrous, but our takeaway is but a dim blur, a black space on the tape, by shame and dread's grips book-ended. We only have the evidence we must have a blast, left around like cryptic clues--the vacuum cleaner roaring the hours away, inches from our head on the carpet (true story), or the stove left on, a pot of pasta reduced to scorched resin, a smoldering cigarette consuming half the couch, or merely the patient DVD menu, black bruises and missing or bent eyeglasses, the bodies of the moaning wounded like unfinished meals left to rot at table 'til the stench stops on its own accord. Sooner or later, the bodies and the empties must be cleared from the field for the next big show; the booze gone, the wounded too messed up to even call downstairs for delivery, or for an ambulance.

Me, I could only quietly convulse on the floor, as Sinatra's slightly buzzed-flat reading of the line "She got pinched in the Ass- / tor Bar" from "Yes, Indeedy" kept repeating over and over in my head like a skipped record. That part was not fun. I'll never be able to watch High Society again. That is my grievous battle scar. I have the shimmering soundstage poolside Apollonian temple to lovely Grace Kelly (who seems rail-thin) and the big central foyer outside "Carousel" in another TCM picture from the height of my cups, Logan's Run, blurred together like a fusion of the mall (where I spent my formative years' depression) and the hospital (where I'd be shortly). I can't watch that one again either.

But old Jack Falstaff, as with Macbeth before him in 1998, him I can still abide. Getting past the first chunk is hardest, for it plunges in and doesn't endear us to anyone: the voices seem mismatched, the words a muddle, and Hal and Poins laugh and cavort through and around interwoven camea movements with such hearty dubbed relish at Falstaff's cumbersome knavery before we even see him, that we're automatically alienated and thinking we made a mistake - after all, that far drunk it's no easy thing getting up, finding a disc, opening the machine, taking the current one out and putting the new one in, all without falling over, smashing the tray, breaking or dropping or losing either disc, and putting the old one away before it's scratched. The whole operation requires a finesse ill-served by a bender. We're putting a lot of hope on old Jack Falstaff, but before he even has a chance to stir from his mountainous slumber, Poins and Hal are rolling around on the ground, laughing both with him and at him, planning all sorts of teasing jests and bringing up older ones, that they--at least-find side-splitting, but leave a bad taste in our mouths (Hal being royalty who thinks he's being a rebel by robbing from the middle class).

At the same time we're thrown into the political intrigue with Henry's father King Henry VI, who's sort of held onto a temporary king appointment and left the rightful ruler (by his brothers' decree - or something) rotting in some faraway French jail, refusing to pay the ransom. In this sense, Welles keeps our alliance divided -- we actually do like Hotspur more than Hal on some level, as he at least has a young wife he loves and a sense of fun in honor rather than reveling in juvenile vulgarity. The best Hal can do as far as restoring honor to his name is the kind of half-hearted declaration of the prodigal son, who promises to straighten up after his dad bails him out on his second offense. And is this not the claim made by addicts and slumming socialites, that this rough company is an example of the sun permitting "the base, contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world," so that when he pleases can shine be "all the more wondered at"? For if "all the year were playing holiday to sport would be as tedious as work" (and therefore vice versa). Hotspur, clearly, finds time for both on and has grown a far healthier landscape. Harry's not wrong to want some night-tripping fairy to proclaim which whelp is rightfully his own. And it's Hal's killing of Harry in the duel that makes this truth all the more painful.

"The day is wasted if you're not" - La Greco
But really, the most offensive thing, perhaps, is that Falstaff is supposed to be so endearing that makes his going too far painful, like when he takes credit for the death of Hotspur and since he's part of Hal's base company it doesn't matter if the king even believes him. He's gone too far - and if not now to suffer, soon will. My favorite Welles characters--Quinlan, Macbeth, Harry Lime, Will Varner aren't supposed to be o'er lovable. They aren't kept in the company of guffaws and loving looks, so we can suddenly take them as our own. In fact it's only at the moment of his profound realization that his thing with Hal is kaput, that he's out in the cold and that he deserves it and it's the way of the world, and he wouldn't fit in anyway and Hal's doing him a favor, and so forth - that Welles' Falstaff actually seems to become warmly human - it's a powerful, haunting moment and Welles carries it sublimely. It's one of those so far out-of-character moments that major stars perform in films, that are all the more valuable for their rarity--Cary Grant's breakdown before the child services director in Pennies from Heaven, Robert Redford at the end of The Way We Were. If we get this far in, we're already hooked of course. We've figured out Welles' unique rhythm and can comfortably let the words we don't know slide clear away.

Each new viewing then becomes all the clearer and the Criterion commentary track by James Naremore is good at keeping the historical background front and center rather than getting too lost in production history (which comes out more in the great extras). This is essential for understanding as is (I found this very useful), the English subtitles, since so many of the words are forgotten slang anyway (which most adaptations would subtly modernize) and so casually tossed off. Also, the more we watch the less the dubbing aspect becomes noticeable. Especially as the film goes on it seems to all but disappear as a problem. In short, if ever a disc was worth owning and studying and watching obsessively while drunk, this is it. Welles' Macbeth for your first big relapse; Falstaff for your last.

my alternative poster (so it seems almost nouvelle vague noir)

The last, for we have heard the chimes, man. All things must end - and if we're lucky they end in an Ativan IV and Librium dispensed by beautiful young nurses in powder blue scrubs bathed in the nighttime glow of their mobile medicine tray computer screens like shimmering valkyrie. Let no man stand alone in that dark and dingy hour. With no Welles art thy cups abused but though his mud-and-blood besotted gravity swallows up thy trapped trapped unwary shoes, in his boozy expressionistic poetry art thou art lifted, shoeless... through.

 Bright Lights -'Welles plays Macbeth like someone just waking up in the drunk tank after a three-day blackout. .."
1. Corman imported so many of these and one wonders just how much his genius with marketing had to do with the entirety of the art house movement. Sex sells the first ticket and art keeps the word of mouth high. 

Shrooms, for Remembrance: Mel Gibson's HAMLET (1990) in Psychedelic Context

Friday, June 09, 2017


If you have Netflix and three-ish hours on your hands, why not bow your cowboy mouth down below your skies-are-not-cloudy and ride along in the buggy with "the Cowboy" to a double-feature shivaree fit to bust a low-hangin' cumulonimbus: the Netflix-produced meta-crime-mentary CASTING JONBENET (2017) and Lynch's recently-upgraded post-affect-noir, MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)?  Cowgirl pageant darlings cast and into the coffin cradled; non-starter starlets on the Hollywood bungalow bed, dead --sometimes there's a buggy, all right.

Like that ALL ABOUT EVE chick bowing to herself in the mirrors while cradling Eve Harrington's theater guild award (left) in an infinite cascade of cinematic split-subject no hay banda hauntologic dead media mimesis reality vs. fantasmatic / feminine split psyche, this proposed double feature combo would scare the glasses right off that young kid in the morgue in PERSONA. If a real spooked identity crisis uneasiness happens while you're within this three-hour tour through the tumblin' tumbleweeds, just click your heels five times, and whisper the word "silencio" as you draw a functional pentagram with a sacrificial dagger upon the flesh floor. You may not know hear his rustlin', but the devil will come.. already came... and you're long, long dead, waking never from the dream of cinema. As the fella said, sometimes you eat the bar, sometimes the bar eats you. 

A Netflix original directed by young Australian fox auteur Kitty Green, CASTING JONBENET is a true story, on both levels, and even beyond. Rather than just recreate the infamous events, Green kept the interviews and auditions for the main parts of "Lifetime"-style movie about the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case. Using local actors recruited from the Ramsey family's Colorado hometown who knew the people involved, the story unfolds: the weirdly specific three-page suicide note written on the family's stationary, the discovery of JonBenet's body in an anteroom of the cellar; the unconvincing grief displayed by the mother--did she kill her daughter in a fit of rage? By all accounts, JonBenet was a brat at times, forced into the child pageant circuit by a failed beauty queen mom, etc. The mystery of her involvement is profoundly reproduced during montage of auditions re-enacting her initial phone call to the police: with a script in one hand, the phone in the other, the actresses carefully modulating the tremor or anxiety and desperation in her voice as they read from the script. Green trusts us to unpack the massive electric charge inherent in watching an actress auditioning by performing the mother's real life phone call, the mother's call herself being possibly a performance, one that didn't entirely convince the outraged nation she wasn't guilty or complicit in her daughter's death. The mission of the actress then is to not either be too convincing nor too false in her performance, and seeing more than one actress try it is to realize an even broader canvas, the mutability of the truth along a mythological axis. Even if we've never heard the actual Ramsey phone call we know the 'type,' and the child kidnapping/murder is a tabloid boilerplate fastened with adamantine bolts to the mediated public consciousness.

Kitty/ Kitty/ Kitty Green

Casual viewers may be confused by the layers, but the interviews with the auditioned actors and non-acting locals delves deep into issues such as how to play a someone who keeps their cards so close to the vest you yourself don't know what the cards are. So these actors don't know anymore than we do: was the father molesting her at night? Did mom know and is helping her cover it up; or is it that JonBenet's then-nine year-old older brother killed her, as older brothers occasionally try to do if jealous or neglected, and the parents are covering it up by making it look like a kidnapping so they don't lose their son too?

The cast interviewed is fairly evenly divided between suspecting the mother, father, and brother as either guilty or in collusion and NOT, as some thought initially, the mall Santa the mom tries to finger or the skeevy pederast John Mark Karr who confesses to the murder but who's proven to be nowhere near the scene (the actor cast in this role--Dixon White (below)--gives the creepiest most memorable performance in some time; hearing how he prepares, entering this guy's mindset is to realize the true fearlessness of method acting, to essentially access one's inner creepy pedophile sociopath just for an audition is something I'd never in a million years do, but this guy plunges in and the film buckles a little bit under his intense stare once he goes into character.)

Cagily, Green never shows any actual footage of the family or their testimonies and press conferences, that might drag the documentary too far over the line into the land of reality --allowing us to judge the actors more on basis of their ability to deliver impressions rather than intensity or--far more valuable--the complexity to allow for doubt -to be a good actor as a character who is not as good an actor. It becomes Brechtian in constantly bringing us back to the surface, only for the whodunnit aspect to lure our attention back to analytical mode, and again back into conjecture and the dawning of myth. Like Kabuki theater, the events become mutable and irrevocably abstract by heightening their artificiality. By the time we get to the weird, not entirely successful, all-in climax, we're left amazed that we ever had a concrete sense of reality at all, with so much acting and mask-wearing in our weird, kinky world, we realize we're on a sinking ship and the only thing keeping us afloat is a movie about hot air balloons. We cling to its sticky strings even knowing we shall not be lifted, because the mark it leaves in the end tells us something new about death. Scenes of the actress cast as JonBenet enduring endless make-up proddings, painful hair extension inserts and flowers and cowboy hat pinned to her scalp, in order to essentially play a dead girl in a coffin carry a morose but powerful charge that heightens the reality the only such double-artificiality can bring.

By contrast, the much-hyped NEON DEMON tried to deliver it with its obsession with models playing dead but it couldn't shake its overly familiar misogyny and dead-horse-beating message about the shallow vanity of the modeling industry. CASTING JONBENET, on the other hand, goes far deeper than cultural critique, which is why it belongs in the same double feature as another Netflix must, MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Lynch's masterpiece was originally supposed to be a TV series, but the network passed on it, so the pilot was melded with new footage to 'close it' (there was a similar thing done with the pilot of TWIN PEAKS, for markets where it was shown theatrically - see here). If you can find this addition footage ending you can see a midnight call bring Cooper to the boiler room and a confrontation with Bob himself, here in a weird human form, hence killable --followed by a telling "25 Years Later" Black Lodge coda that's remarkably prescient to the new series, albeit unsatisfying as a whole. When this MULHOLLAND DRIVE came out we figured it would be more of the same, and it kind of is, to a point --Robert Forster's homicide detective gets only a single scene, as does (thankfully for I find him a most unsightly character), the dreamer in the Winkie's (his name I refuse to disclose) and the sleazy hitman guy also seems like he was to have a more involved arc. But, the deep end the film went down, with the tiny elderly tourists trickling from the monster's paper bag and so forth, brought the events full circle and tightened the noose so fast we were left breathless; no one was quite ready for the reflexive meltdown critique of Hollywood and the psyche of the actress, this ALL ABOUT ACID PERSONA meta-miracle. With each passing year it gets more relevant, daisy-younger. In the recent BBC Culture poll of the 100 greatest films of the new century, it comes in at #1. 

Even if you have the old DVD, it's worth seeing on Netflix for the HD restoration with glowing flesh colors and a much greater depth of field to the many surreal shots of nighttime LA. Lynch's LA ain't yer La-la Land; it's deeper --it's the LA of dreams where once you get off that plane, take your first script to hand, you're never quire sure what reality is, or if it's even still there. When someone says "Cut" while you're sitting in a restaurant do you automatically stop eating and look around for your director, only to slowly realize you really ARE just in a restaurant and whoever shouted it probably shuffling cards? This idea was explored more in-depth for Lynch's follow-up, INLAND EMPIRE.

Performance is always a reliable subtext for art cinema: it instantly layers the meaning--and the more you let the seams show, the artsier (not sloppier!) you're being. Instead of an actor playing a role you have an actor playing an actor playing a role and somehow all those quadruple negatives become a super positive, achieving a level of truth impossible even in the relatively artifice-free realm of mundane daily life. If you're in the hands of an post-Brechtian like Charlie Kaufman you may even have an actor playing an actor playing an actor playing another actor, so many layers that the actor himself winds up trapped inside them and it becomes just that two headed coin of narcissism and insecurity. Kaufman's sexually frustrated self-conscious prick schtick has been a stone drag ever since we all first tried to like ADAPTATION. But for regular Joes like David Lynch, performance has a more fixed singular function - and if there's sex to be had, it's had and not all this 'piece of shit at the center of the universe' moping. Lynch meditates - his ego is "right-sized." For him, the pretty young ingenue is essentially a split character, not an object for self-laceration or fear/desire, but an anima - beyond duality - the dual lipstick pair-bond narcissistic template addends an Apollonian ideal as old as western culture itself. ("No woman should have a memory," notes Lord Illingworth in An Ideal Husband. "Memory in a woman is the beginning of dowdiness.")

We never see, for example, Laura Palmer doing charity work but we hear all the raves from the elderly lives she touched via Meals on Wheels, reading to the blind, etc. (and romance with doe-eyed 'good' biker, James) are the opposite of the bad girl self, whom follow the thread of her drug use, her running with the bad crowd (wild-eyed Bobby, Leo) and eventually the trauma that caused the split (her incestuous Bob-possessed father coming to her bed "since she was seven"). We can well imagine the Kaufman avatars being amongst the dysfunctional rubes simmering with desire for Laura on one side of that divide or other, trapped in the mind of a powerless infant unable to speak to a hot girl without spitting up on his bib, fuming with unspoken jealousy while she goes out on the porch to talk with some guy in a leather jacket who just pulled up in his Harley. Lynch's idea of these druggy parties at remote cabins has the surreal prepubescent nightmare current to them -- drugs and sex mixed in the mind of someone who's experienced neither, depicted in a hyper-surreal nightmare fashion, what McGowan calls Lynch's fantasmatic dimension. 

To study the making of films in Hollywood (and the world) and the on-set drama that goes on, is to be faced with tales of these jealous infants left behind; viewers/husbands/lovers fuming in the sidelines as their ideal gets it on in full nude scenes with some despicable monster she or he barely knows while eight gaffers heavy breathe behind the kliegs. In that torrid audition scene in Mason Adams' office (it made Watts a star) we have the makings of a master thesis on the proximity of acting and prostitution. As I wrote in 03: prostitution is itself "acting" as in to not just engage in sex for money but also (presumably) to seem to enjoy it. Indeed, a prostitute may actually enjoy herself during the contracted sexual act as long as she pretends it's pretend enjoyment (if she is seen to be too into it, he may expect his money back - who's servicing who?) Within her domain (the boudoir), the prostitute may be--more so than outside in the 'real' world-- completely "herself," - she may be experiencing that moment of complete subsumption into character which is at the heart of good acting. When "cut" rings out (or whatever the mutually agreed-upon safe word happens to be), she can resume the waking dream of societal expectations. (In DRIVE we have no inkling of Betty's capacity to get super quiet-erotic at the audition - does she?)

Of course that can lead to a kind of karmic celluloid looping (the actor who plays the same role onstage the same way, for a three-year Broadway run) that's escapable only if the script is deviated from, without warning, like Camilla's journey  in the beginning of MULHOLLAND DRIVE ("we don't stop here" - as if they've made the journey a thousand times - and they have, more or less beginning and ending the film with it). The crash that forces us to wonder if it's the hit taken out by Diane against Camilla, or if there's a more sinister reason besides the treacherous curves and idiot teens combination of the titular drive. The deviation that sends Camilla down the hill to Aunty Em's house can be read as both the deal with the devil/mob hit that her ex-lover-cum-rival Diane took out on her (she's taken out of the car at gunpoint but then whatever was planned is interrupted by the crazy kids/concussion) and her own deal / deliverance - escape into a new identity.

We think we want to find out who we really are, to chase down the clues, but we don't, really. For in finding out we also realize our entire life is merely a distraction, an elaborate puppet show for the kids, to distract them from their real surroundings ---the dirty trick their parents played on them, leaving them chained to time's abattoir assembly line like sacrifices to some sawmill Molloch, left with barely enough time to repeat the dirty trick on the next generation, and if we're artists, to maybe sew together some new puppets. The search for the meaning of the self always leads to the morgue; the trail of who post-accident Rita ends with their discovery of Diane Selwyn's dead body, a bit like Candice Hilligoss if she saw her own body being recovered from the river even in the Salt Lake Samara she fled to; or Jimmy the sax man in the surf at the shocking conclusion of Jess Franco's VENUS IN FURS.

The Ingenue/Mistress to the Mob

Just as in Lynch the women are all the aspects of the same woman who is an aspect of a single psyche (the collective unconscious celluloid through Lynch's projector), so too the dark chthonic 'devouring father' is as aspect of that woman; if say, Betty/Diane is the unconscious ego the male conscious ego (i.e. Lynch's dream other) then the unconscious's ego in turn has an inner male, a dark force of conspicuous enjoyment, the terrible father (ala Mr. Big in LOST HIGHWAY, and Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET), the one who separates the child from his mother, and who 'enjoys' all the women and pleasures while the boys sulk and bide their time; in MULHOLLAND he's a very shadowy nebulous figure in a wheelchair behind thick glass (the locked door to the ulterior basement of the unconscious mind, i.e the basement's basement) who sends his own agents and provocateurs out into the workaday world to inflict his seemingly unknowable bidding (we're never permitted to learn why he is so insistent that Camilla Rhodes is "the girl.")

The mob, linked on some obscene fantasmatic level to the 'cowboy' (both a deep river 'big fish' childhood totem and Howard Hughes) of course have-long time Hollywood tentacles in the casting industry, ala THE GODFATHER's Tom getting godson Johnny Fontaine into Jack Woltz's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY-ish prestige pic (Theroux's frozen bank accounts the equivalent of finding Khartoum's severed head under your sheets). Camilla Rhodes (alternately Laura Ann Haring and Melissa George) connection with them remains a mystery. It almost seems like they're doing it more for the benefit of procuring the hit from Diane Selwyn, to drive her to a deal with the devil, i.e. just as god creates war for the foxhole's power to wrest prayer from atheists, so too the devil creates surplus enjoyment to wrest souls from grace. Or that famous line from Kafka's Before the Law: the gate was here solely for you, and now I'm going to close it.

(A Sleepy Viewer is the Most Awake)

One of the most sublime fusions of venue, screening time and film occurred for me seeing MD in a now long-gone family-owned cinema on 1st Ave UES, at the midnight showing opening weekend, the place was rundown but still clinging to the trappings of some long-since fallen into disrepair prefab maroon upgrade it got in the 80s. Operated by a large extended Indian family, the men in turbans and flowing saris mixed with jeans and sandals; the grandmother with her long braid of white hair ran the ticket booth; the children frolicking silently in the shadows around the snack bar, run by the mom, her long braid beaming black, the red dot in the center of hr forehead--gave the vibe an international vibe without going overboard. There was no Indian cooking smells or incense, just the usual popcorn but that was briefly overwhelmed by a stinking drunk homeless woman of enormous size who'd somehow gotten in and camped out a middle aisle seat. She was eventually loudly ejected by the older Indian lady no less, who  shooed her out with a broom, to our muted cheers in the approx. time of the Winkie's episode; later, right around the time they were climbing into Diane Selwyn's apartment, I went to bathroom, which was right around the dead of night and when the picture was starting to get super weird and somewhat boring enough to put me half asleep --it was a long mystical journey underneath the theater, past various detours, piles of old chairs, puddles, and closed-off partitions until I came to the men's bathroom that looked like it belonged to a much older theater a block away, and old Indian man I can only assume was the grandfather was sweeping up, but making no noise his aura blazing there in the dark like a whole different kind of lantern, yet he barely moved.

There was something quite reassuring about all this combined with the film; it made it seem like we were all sleeping over at their inn during some New Delhi storm; it made sense. I fell asleep halfway through the (around the time Naomi climbs in the window of the dead girl); and yet was somehow still following events; it became clearer actually, I even remarked to myself--the way one will when they realize they're asleep yet still self-aware--that through some weird force I was dreaming while watching- third eye-open and trained on the screen; it like watching a movie in 3D and finally realizing I was wearing the glasses backwards. The theater was one of the old type where the ceiling was low and the slope downwards small or almost nonexistent and the projector beam seemed to shoot right over head, the light making a visible beam in the air where a tall man would have blocked a lower portion of the screen; also we could hear the loud whirr of the projector in the quieter passages, or which there were a lot - considering the post-modern meta cinema qualities of the film, that all fit is so perfectly. I know I myself was falling asleep to that soothing projector whirr, the blue light it cast especially matching the Club Silencio and when Rita -- sings her a capella "Llorando" and the pair of lovers cry from her passion, I could hear sobbing too in our own theater, as if our natural defenses had been lowered by the comination of being sleepy at a midnight show, the hour and the quiet nature of the film and the whirr of the projector all lowering our big city defenses so we had no ability to shut out the torrent of emotion the song + the response of thse two women (after their steamy hook-up) engendered.

When we all were released after the film it felt like we'd all had a marvelous weird dream together - bonded; and outside was this weird warm mist. Everyone else on the NYC street was gone - the streets were dead empty - odd for NYC even on a weeknight no matter how late it was. And we all parted from each other hesitantly, almost like we would say goodbye to people we knew; we walked together as long as possible, barely speaking - the magic of the film following us home. As if to up the weirdness, I read a Voice piece (that I can't find) mentioning the magic of their own screening and--from the description--the same theater, maybe even the same showing.

I mention all this for a reason - to show the way meta can make the rest of the world - the world you're avoiding by seeing this film, the world you're escaping, come into deeper focus - so deep it resembles a dream and you realize reality is way more of an escape than we knew - we just weren't seeing it correctly. I later found an article (I think in The Voice) that described this same experience, the author was clearly at the same showing, but I can't find it.

any similarities to a TV screen strictly sublimacidental (my guess is a formative sexual-musical moment in Lynch's life occurred in front of a 50s-early 60s TV set, when some facsimile of this group came on Ed Sullivan or Bandstand or whatever
Lynch's films can engender the sort that sometimes requires a little boredom to appreciate, the stillness of images, the playing of expectations, works to put us into a state of active contemplation, the sort Lynch is familiar with, having a background in art, still photography, experimental shorts, etc. I've only ever encountered that kind of meta-aesthetic arrest a few times before, the most profound was in a room created by Bill Viola for a Guggenheim video/art exhibit and the most contemplative a rainy night showing of GOODBYE DRAGON INN (4)  at the Quad. After all, boredom isn't made by reality but by the limitations of language and iconography, the metonymic delimitation by which things cease to be complicated and are reduced to a few easily categorizable elements. Good metatexuality opens the real back up from its stifling layers of notation. The initial boredom is like the breakwater for the restless egoic conscience; finding nothing to engage it, it fumes and fusses like an infant, and gradually subsides to allow the subconscious to edge forward and help the onscreen image obtain an extra dream-like dimension. In other words, it's slow so we fall half-asleep, and the film we're half-watching and the half-asleep dream we're having click into a larger aesthetic horizon.


In seeing Naomi Watts get all sexy in her audition we realize the extent to which her whole wide-eyed newcomer schtick as Betty has been a pose - as if poured into a mold as old as Vaudeville (the "Gotta dance!" Gene Kelly in SINGING IN THE RAIN. Her ability to shift from wide-eyed newbie to sultry libertine made Naomi Watts a star (in the 'real' world); in the film she performs for a crowded room that includes cheery old wholesome seniors like Mason Adams, and an older soap star doing his best Clark Gable impression. Not expecting Watts/Betty to become so... open and sexual--we feel the intensity of her actually hooking up with  us - it's like she's seducing the whole room into a collective swoon. This is the miracle of Bertolt Brecht - the more the seams show the more endearing; if we can bring real acting power to bear in these artificial situations they wrest us free from the rut of narrative immersion.

This audition scene is hot enough to give wood to the dead, but it's also very odd-what is the difference between this kind of focused sexual heat, turned on and off in the moment, with an escalation of lines (and an imaginary knife), but performance veering very close to targeted seduction, she could very easily plunge down a rating into the seedy world of X-rated movies and then, who knows, bumming scabby cigarettes from gross scumbags before getting it on with them (presumably) in the back of a van in exchange for--presumably--money for crack and the promise to keep her eyes open for any new girls that might come staggering down from the Hills.

We can perhaps understand more about MULHOLLAND if viewed as a sequel to LOST HIGHWAY, the "hers", BLACK SWAN  / to LOST's "his", WRESTLER. LOST saw a man (Bill Pullman) literally split in two along his Moebius strip tape splice. The Barry Gifford murder mystery noir plot he's embroiled in finds him jailed for murdering his brunette wife--something he has no memory of doing but which is on tape--but then transforming into his younger alternate incarnation, Pete (Balthazar Getty). Betty similarly becomes Diane Selwyn, that hardbitten mediocre talent who brings her cute giriflriend on an audition and finds herself eclipsed. Soon the director has signed her lover, Camilla to a contract and she becomes a young mob ingenue (maybe one of their daughters or mistresses?) or devil's subject (she sold her soul for the part, and the mobsters and cowboy act as agents to fulfill her dreams before they claim her soul).

There's even a Midge, so speak, Diane's ex-lover (presumably?) moved out as a kind of Midge / Anne Hayworth type - the also-ran still in the peripherals making a weary to-do of coming by to get the last of her stuff - in effect positing Diane in the attraction change of the endless upwards spiraling triangle of desire, everyone chased by an old lover who still wants to be in the picture even as a friend or peripheral and the one who's recently thrown us over and we stalk or try to avoid or drink at; who we cry while masturbating to, and eventually put a hit on, sign a deal with the devil so to speak, the way Bill Pullman did with Robert Blake's devil man (below), who can be two places at once.

From a paranoid mind control Illuminati angle we can also connect the steamy audition Betty nails for a room full of people to the striptease Alice is forced to do at gunpoint for Mr. Eddy and his contingent in the LOST HIGHWAY flashback. The split subject then is explained through the elaborate mind control rituals, of which the connection between both HIGHWAY and DRIVE audition scenes connecting to conspiracy theories about Monarch 7 (1) or the collective subconscious and its tendency to arrange its repressed libidinal desires around pentagrams and black candles in some hidden room of one's parents' basement - with parents, grandparents, strange carnally-attuned neighbors with pointy glasses (like Nicki [Michele Hicks] below as the assistant to the casting director). Note the odd, knowing, carnal, paranoia-engendering gazes into camera below.

Ready to bring you "over the rainbow" (2)
The genius of the Illuminati/CIA/reptilian sex slave mind control basement ritual conspiracy theory is that it so suspiciously reflect/matches our primal unconscious dread/desire matrix, the basement as collective subconscious repository for every forbidden desire since the dawn of one's separation anxiety as an infant. In fact, this conspiracy theory in particular matches exactly parameters of the deeply buried subconscious incestuous impulse (as buried as Cronos under the bowels of the Earth). This might be intentional on the Illuminati's side of things, as it makes those under its power sound crazy when they try to report it (a kind of ur-gaslighting), and also creates split personality through the trauma; the idea being one is already a split personality as soon as they begin to repress base id impulses (locking in the basement the side of you who considers potty training and social mores to be an infringement on its ego-made rebellious incestuous polymorphously perverse freedom). This split of the self makes us effective assassins if exploited for such things, but also makes actors of us all, in more ways that we'll ever consciously know. Lynch knows, though. He's caught the big fishes.
Second Floor
(Controlled by the Flow of True Events)
Abstract thinking / super-ego / higher reasoning / artistic /: TRUTH OF (FILMED) EVENT
Laundry chute to basement--> creative function /  film (i.e. hearing down from the depths and translating to narrative for the upper floors
steps - transitional - performance/ duty / expression, from effort to finished film.

First Floor
(Controlled by the Ego)
Waking Consciousness: (pay checks / paint brush cleaning  / disclaimers / jail-time)


steps down - transitional from awake to asleep'

(controlled by the Anima)
Incestuous desire or childhood repressed fantasized sexuality depository (imagined spanking/ child is being beaten/ desire for neighbors, fellow classmates, friends, etc.)
Ulterior door/ barricade: Cover memory / split personality
Laundry Chute 2
(Whatever lies beyond our conscious/unconscious' control/will)
Ulterior basement
(controlled by the Anima's Animus OR Illuminati/Reptillians)
Any actual (real physical space-time) incest / abuse -TRUTH OF (Traumatic) EVENT (repression depository for memories of actual incest, satanic abduction) 

By the above Lynchian hierarchy of consciousness we can pinpoint the problem with False Memory Syndrome - actual horrors endured are hidden below the sub basement level of merely repressed libidinal desires and fears, colored through lenses upon lenses warps upon warps etc.  The traumatic real event from the basement (Mrs. Bates' actual withered skeleton in the dress) reaches up like a hand through the sock pocket of repressed unconscious desires (the frock and wig and Norman's mind), the hand reaching up through the laundry chute to kill women who arouse him (there's no lock on any of the doors between the floors of the psychotic, schizophrenic, or--alas--bad tripper). The falseness of some recovered memories under hypnosis involves reverse-direction sock puppeteering that doesn't go far enough down, mistaking the sub/libidinal fantasy basement for the ulterior basement of actual truth. During the 80s Satanic panic it took the feds actually going down there and physically digging where all the bodies were supposed to be, under the foundation to where the ulterior rooms are, to realize there was nothing substantial there; the police were believing in empty sock puppets. 

For Lynch, a figure like the cowboy is a herald from one floor of consciousness to another, a sock puppet sent up from coming from the lower basement, the agent of his own dark undersoul; the conveyer of actions dictated by the unseen monsters of power (seen here in big dark empty rooms --with nervous supplicants speaking to them from behind clear glass walls, a metaphor for the divider between unconscious and conscious, the way ideas and decisions are passed across a slot in the wall from the depths of psyche into action or art). The levels of heavy power invested in these characters is impossible to understand until one translates their meaning across three spectrum - the meta outer spectrum (the blue-haired 'ultimate viewer / voyeur' at Club Silencio; the inner viewer (Camera POV) and innermost (character 'identification'); that a childhood icon (a popular plastic toy) like a cowboy to deliver these ultimatums is no accident: he's outmoded but recognizable, an ageless archetype as fitting in its proud anachronism as Sam Elliot in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. 

Similarly JONBENET the film operates with multiple layers - with the innermost core being the mystery of 'whodunnit' the unknown story that no one could successfully descramble and so has fostered endless speculation; the outer--the narrative recreation; and the outermost - the casting and personal interviews - the telling difference which separates this from fiction of MULHOLLAND DRIVE is that the truth has a habit of doubling back around on itself while fiction tends to just reverberate out into the wilderness, the difference between bloating in a bathtub and dissolving in the ocean. So here the actors auditioning for the roles turn out to be friends and neighbors of the Ramseys, each with their own piece of the mosaic as precious yet macabre as a handkerchief with some of Dillinger's blood. 

In Lynch's film, of course, there's no real blood, and all the handkerchief's have the same initials. The guy in the wheelchair is really one aspect of the same self that includes the cowboy, the mobsters, and both women; the fictive world of the film is as a universe exploded from the same ball of psyche. On the other hand, saying it's all one man's psyche, and the various archetypes within that psyche's unconscious, doesn't mean its cast of voices is smaller than the Ramsey case's 'real' people cast. Events are rooted in time, relationships of cause and effect mutable only in the varying vantage points from which they are witnessed and remembered or performed, as if some endlessly variable mythic template (the way, say Pagans perform the roles of sun and moon during solstice). The world soul and the individual psyche are linked in ways that are beyond limitless. The brain might look like a ball of gray oatmeal but it's bigger than all the oceans combined and, if you try and get too close, will take a broken shard of mirror and fuck you up real pretty. But in the end, you will understand the most important truth--that there was nothing to understand at all.

1. I'd rather not go down this lane, as I'm as susceptible to hot button outrage and paranoia as the next man, and reading this stuff disturbs me. The result of getting too far into it is clear via the ridiculousness of armed civilians crashing the Bohemian Grove or Pizza Gate. Regardless of if it's true or not I personally can't believe it, for my own peace of mind, but the very hot button of it all is what fascinates me, the way our paranoid collective subconscious so mirrors the reports of actual programming that one can only assume it's intentional - either they imitate our dreams or our dreams imitate them. 
2. Read the copious conspiracy theories Monarch 7 program's use of the Wizard of Oz as a hypnotic/programming tool (as seen in EYES WIDE SHUT)
4. Read my work-assigned synopsis/review here ("course description" at bottom)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


TWIN PEAKS is happening again; Agent Cooper has returned in different places as different selves; DANGER 5 is no longer on Netflix, but THE LOVE WITCH is. Things from the past come back yet nothing from the moment leaves--the selection is so vast picking something is impossible. So we go back in time to when--if we wanted to see weird shit, sex or gore--we had to go the R-rated movie, or... in the 80s, we had to rent it, and were limited by what wasn't checked out, and by circumstance. Now we miss that simplicity, the narrowness of options. So we make movies that evoke those golden years. If you want to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made 20 years ago then you might be a retro-metatextual, but I won't judge you. I'd have to pick a version of me to do that anyway, and I'll leave that to the professionals serenely rooted in space and time. Just know STRANGER THINGS and IT FOLLOWS helped kickstart a batch of young or semi-young filmmakers seizing the opportune landscape to make a film they wanted to see back in the days of standing in front of shelves filled with empty clamshell boxes, the perfect 80s or late 70s rental to watch after trick-or-treating as a 12 year-old in the 70s - early 80s, the idealized film forms in your horror-lovin' mind. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy washes over things to free us all from the terrible burden of the overslick CGI present --wherein STAR WARS films look like video games and video games look like neo-realist crime dramas.

Neither feature film discussed below is specifically great (which is why I added a short at the end that is). In fact I'd love to sit them down with each other and have them grasp each others' faults and learn: for THE VOID, patience, tick-tocaklity and focus; BEYOND THE GATES action and surprise, the strength of convictions --willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

The bashed-in brainchild of an art director and make-up artist in their directorial co-debut, VOID heralds a nice showcase for analog/latex effects as they depict a magical night at a closing-down hospital deep in the meth belt, wherein people start to give birth to or change into tentacled Lovecraftian behemoths. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is when he shoots a patient in the head after bringing in a twitchy, wounded freak from the woods, who was shot by some guys. The guys chasing him arrive, chased themselves by a cadre of cultists in white robes with black triangles on the hoods. Hell breaks loose literally everyone shouting and waving guns, and about four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movies come crashing together as the cult surrounding the cut-off hospital echoes an ASSAULT PRECINCT 13, the icky transformations evoke THE THING, the philosophy evokes the New England town beyond the shuttered bridge in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the church in Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, and Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND and the Solaris-from-Hell space ship in EVENT HORIZON, there's probably others.

That may sound great, I know it did to me. But this Gillespie and Kostanski clearly have a lot to learn about the rest of what makes a good film, like when to use dialogue and when not to, where to put the camera, and how to set up an ominous mood. They go for a Carpenter vibe but don't have the patience for Hawksian cool or the slow-building relentless dread that are amongst Carpenter's best auteur traits. Instead there are way too many balls in the air at once. Screaming "c-c-calm down!" over and over doesn't count as plot development. And when it focuses on just one or two and allows itself to get quiet, the film has a fightin' chance. But the more is less approach eludes them, as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so congested the film will burst.

That's not to say it's all that bad. As one of the nurses--Kathleen Munroe (above right) is a real stand-out, a gorgeous blue-cat-eyed creature in the Famke Janssen x Franka Poetente mold who stole a lot of hearts as a wild Irish lassie equestrian zombie in Romero's unjustly ignored SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (see my comparison of with PET SEMETERY + the RNC National Conveniton); here --all coy in her green scrubs--she reminded me of the cute nurses who gave me Ativan and Librium when I was flipping out in Feb. She exudes actorly grace and sultry depth and strength and indeed might have saved the movie had the writers allowed her to be a cool Hawksian heroine in the vein of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. But that would perhaps take cigarettes and balls instead of yelling and hamming. After the first chunk she's whisked down the rabbit hole to become just another imperiled Pauline and our trusty rattled sheriff's rescue attempt proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the hall in search of drugs (They also shoehorn a kind of tired 'dead child' subplot [the grief broke her marriage with the sheriff], i.e. the kind of lazy screenwriter's shorthand for 'character development' that Carpenter studiously avoids).

Another thing missing that would have helped here is a source drug for all the craziness: meth is name-checked but there's no evidence of it. The source of all this strangeness turns out to be bizarre rituals carried out in this lonesome meth lab cabin. But where is the meth, damn it? Seems to me the meth is the key to Lovecraftian horror evocation and \Gillespie and Kostanski would be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done meth --write what you know, bro. (sniffle) I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs. I would have loved to see all sorts of directions it could have gone - fostering the connection between drugs and this hell dimension, for example. The high of meth opening their pineal glands the way FROM BEYOND's tuning forks do or my own Salvia Divinorum + Robitussin + light-sound machine + Mingus "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" journey to Balloon machine elf time-space mandible-weaving adventures.

Gillespie and Kostanski have interesting imagination, there's some superb sequences near the climax and it's inspiring that they demonstrate the chops to create their tentacled visions in real analog time but the problem is perhaps real life experience. The blurry frenzy of action in THE VOID has the air of fear and doubt, so they just throw it all on the screen at once and run. A huge tentacled thing erupting out of a dead man's stomach would be plenty on its own, but here it's got to go down with a flickering overhead light gone to strobe, crazy camera movements, cross-cuts to a screaming pregnant woman about to get a C-section with no anesthesia and a hysterical pre-med intern whining and crying, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs as people shoot and swing axes at it. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it, like a nervous spectator with one eye on the door, not helping, making Carpenter's genius all the more remarkable and precious. Like Hawks, Carpenter took his time to make sure we got properly creeped out by the slow evolution of the THE THING. It was creepy because it was legitimately fucked-up movie trying to pass as 'everything's cool' normal. At the end of, say, the intense autopsy arm-chomping scene, for example, there's a kind of a joke (the king crab head of the dead man) and Kurt's exclamation 'Jesus Fucking Christ." It's funny and all the more terrifying for keeping it 'real' like that. Carpenter knows horror takes time to react. It's like making out with someone the first time, the going in for more kissing, and coming back out, the teasing and languor of leaning in and teasing vs. tongue; if you just lunge at the person with tongue extended and don't give them a second to breathe, well, honey, it's called 'suffocation.'

That's the deal here, with so much going on, nothing ever has time to happen. Carpenter's movies seduce you into bed, VOID just runs up and starts humping your leg. ASSAULT gained suspense from the camaraderie between the cops and outlaws in the face of a common enemy and the cool Hawksian focus of Zimmer; the quiet omnipresence of the nonspeaking gang members. Instead of the eerie silence of the gangs we're forced to listen to the head bad guys' rambling overly theatrical 'stage-voiced' dissertation on the new flesh through what sounds like the PA system for way too many minutes. The bulk of the characters are all annoyingly one-note, between the screaming pre-med intern who panics and lets the pregnant woman almost die while she hams it up like a little brat and the two rough townies (the good one's mute, the bad one never shuts up), there's so much negative energy that well, I had to go back to ASSAULT afterwards and be reminded Hawksian cool exists. It got a bad rap, but SUICIDE SQUAD knew how to pace itself (that great bar interlude) and create some genuine rapport. David Ayers (FURY) writes some great pre-battle bonding/drinking scenes.

As for the score, a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably. Another missed opportunity. There's four different composers used and none can hold a candle to Disasterpiece or Umberto. Next time, boys, instead of watching just emulating JC movies, watch the movies he emulates. Watch RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and THE 1951 THING. Soak 'em up, buttercup. Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks about the ban.

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is an effective melange of Goblin-esqe analog synths by the great up-and-comer retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. The film's chosen 80s milieu excuses its occasional sleaziness and a grasp of why analog synths are so great that seems to have eluded the four different source artists for THE VOID. Like that film, it's not set in the 80s so much as set within a universe clearly delineated by 80s horror films, specifically with GATE those old VHS rentals that used to come in big clamshells and cost just under a hundred bucks each (priced to rent, not buy). I never saw the commercials nor the game, but there was also a weird play-along video board game called NIGHTMARE which I'd never heard of it before this film--but it's clearly the inspiration. The story has a pair of semi-estranged brothers getting together years after the video rental store owner father vanished. The 'dead' video store is a great subject for a horror film (as in SOUTH PARK, where Stan's dad buys a Blockbuster for $1 and ends up holing them up in it during a snowstorm and getting all Jack Torrance), though it's seen only in the first reel and only to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching, the videotape in the 'video board game' (the title) hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, easily stealing the show.

Unlike THE VOID this has a compulsive watchability due to taking time with its characters and always making us think some dreadful thing is waiting around the next corner. That said, the pair of brothers don't make too much sense. I can understand that they're opposites in style and temperament but they seem to share no memories in common and of all the time they must have spent in and around this video store they never mention a single film. Also, though one is kind of cool it's a bit odd that they're such pussies that they have to stop playing the game every two seconds, and when the game master mentions they need to find their father, the first thing they do is call their cop friend, like there's anything he can do about it. Fucking narcs, man. Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too?  Also, if any movie seemed to invite some SCREAM-style meta commentary it would be this one, dealing with two brothers working at a video store, where one would presume they've seen a few films. They haven't. Nary a single reference or reverie doth pass between them. One is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges. Son, that's all my brother and I ever talk about. It's a way to connect across our gravitation reverse polarity, but there's no connection or even a shared joke with these two, nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why for some reason one brother seems to have inherited the house and store with the other a kind of stumble bum (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END).

You da man, Chase

My main issue though lies with the dour lack of any sort of pulse on behalf of the square brother (Graham Skipper - unpictured), a character so unlikeable it makes it impossible to tell why anyone would want anything to do with him (imagining being his girlfriend is a singularly unsavory). I wanted to smack the glasses off his head and make him do whiskey shots to pick this picture up a smidgeon, but instead he's supposed to be sober and that's another thing,  There's always dorks in AA whom it's clear are just tourists and morons, not drunks. They go on one binge or get busted by their parents and sent to rehab boarding school after they find a bag of weed in his room. And that becomes their whole identity. Good lord but they're annoying - because they're always the type who are only interesting and fun to be around when they're a little drunk, and so are you, of course.  It was heartening to see this square finally get around to killing and stabbing alongside his cooler brother, but there needed to be more of a character change to believably get there -- a kind of change a slug of whiskey would have brought out like Popeye's spinach or like Nick Frost in THE WORLD'S END.

Instead, what does he do? He pours his dad's liquor down the sink and there's still a whole film to go. I may be back to being sober, but my thought was still to kill him! KILL! In AA we hate hearing about people who commit to that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers. Give it away to some needy friend off the wagon, like that tweaker at the local pub (go-to dirtbag Justin Welborn), who--incidentally--is right to want to deck you and steal your horny girlfriend (Bea Grant). Urgh.

I wish these girls (from the NIGHTMARE-esque viral trailer
actually were in the movie, they'd have made it a lot better
Still, much more so than THE VOID, GATES managed to hold my and my co-viewer's attention all the way through, helped no end by Barbara Cramtpon as the master of" the game." She looks terrific and seems to be having a pretty good time --more so than anyone else, in fact, in front of the camera anyway. Luckily, Brian Sowell's elegant low-budget video cinematography finds new roads within GATES' suburban 70s track house milieu and purple/red/blue video game weird color scheme (like an Easter SUSPIRIA), Golczewski's groovy score keeps burbling and buzzing, and Chase has a fucking beer once in awhile, thank fucking god for fucking that.

(2014) Dir. L. Gabriel Gonda

If you want to see something really funny after these self-serious retro yarns, check out DARK DUNGEONS a 40 minute adaptation of Jack Chick's infamous Christian tract denouncing role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons as well as books like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings gateways to Satanic/witchcraft cult-joining. Here two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the darkside during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) rush; Debbie (Alyssa Kay) turns out to be a natural spellcaster (with real magic?) rising under Mistress Frost's (Tracy Hyland) dark red room tutelage to a level 8 sorceress, while her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush Marcie (Anastassia Higham) hangs herself because she's left behind at level seven (she can't seem to take it seriously enough, she's a tourist). But the suicide, and being sent on a mission into the tunnels to other dimensions makes Debbie realize her soul is in jeopardy. Will God's love find her in time?

Shot on the cuff, DD has a great zero budget courage of its convictions gonzo spirit, a deadpan reverence for the Chick source material and a rich mostly-female and very cute cast and a great embrace Jesus ending. If you've even been out on a deep limb end and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' lullaby then you'll relate. I don't know the extent to which the whole Christian pamphlet ending with the cathartic book and DD module-burning bonfire is meant satirically or not. If not, it's way more genius than I gave the Christians credit for. I'm glad I don't know for sure, it's funnier that way, and that the spiritual solution is at least treated with some modicum of decorum and real love. Jesus wouldn't be offended either way, methinks. The filmmaking team behind the crowdfunded (but which crowd? the hipsters or the Christians?) little miracle are perhaps the Ron and Suzy Ormond of their time! Know what else can now be found on Prime? the Ormonds' own MESA OF LOST WOMEN.  (On Amazon Prime):

See original tract here

PS: Let me also point you towards the following retro-nouveau gems, all of whom get Acidemic's highest recommendations:


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