Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Saturday, October 07, 2017

BOOZE! Rate your drinking problem through these 12 progressively more harrowing movies.












There are fun movies about drunks like Nick Charles and WC Fields (which real drunks love whether or not they're sober) and there are movies ABOUT the reality of being a drunk, which drunks do not love, as they hit just too damn close to home. I'll confess, as an alcoholic ("Hi, Erich"), I've always loathed Jack Lemmon and his overwrought desperation in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. It's devious - director Blake Edwards + Lemmon equals, you'd think, a Billy Wilder-ish farce with Bronx-born babes in negligees staggering down hotel halls with empty ice buckets and bumping into the man from Nantucket, etc., and it's that expectation that makes it DAYS damned uncomfortable. Booze is a complex issue, so essential to higher mammalian social functions that we get positively genocidal without it. And it IS funny, I don't care what anyone says. It just helps to be on the inside of it, i.e. buzzed, to be able to laugh when things get terrifying.

Generally even non-drinkers can all be amused and a little envious of the 'high-functioning alcoholic', the rest of us either quit or die. Addiction is--in the end--a disease brought around by a combination of genetically-endorsed depression, access to alcohol and an acute awareness of its self-medicating properties. We drunks often feel cut off from the world as kids; we don't even know what we were missing until that first drink hits, the clouds part, the sun shines in color, like Dorothy waking up in Oz. How can she go back to sober sepia after that? She can't, Auntie Em. A few days of depressed Oz later and she's knocking back some corn liquor from Zeke's still (that funnel on his head in Oz clearly denotes that inside his hollow chest is fermenting sour mash), so her slippers at least glow red, but when it wears off in the heat of the next morning's chores, not only is the color gone, but the sepia tint looks muddier, the aspect ratio screwed up, the commercials endless and shrill, the evil Mrs. Gulch's dog-hating machinations that much more demoralizing. You better believe Dorothy would be tumbling back o'the shed to that still asap, soon as Auntie Em's back was turned. A few years pass and Dorothy has to go rehab, but Aunty Em can't afford it. So we all know what happens next. Everything's up to date in Kansas City, including the brothels and AA still only four years old in 1939.

Thanks be to whatever higher power you choose, the Wizard, Auntie Em, or just the Emerald City door knocker, AA is everywhere today, there's a meeting that lets out right on my walk to work. It's too early for me, but I pass it and feel jealous of their weird fellowship. Dorothy would love it there; she'd find a whole new kind of half-color Emerald awaiting her in Kansan church basements and coffee and (formerly) cigarettes. Provided the wizard remembers to give her a meeting book and a copy of Living Sober. 

But there's movies that are less metaphorical than OZ, that address booze directly, good or bad, and I've seen them all. During my slow inexorable slide towards the rubber room I've realized every step of my journey is reflected within a series of films that, held end-to-end, just might help me, you, or some sick and suffering, poor bedeviled guy on fire with thirst figure out just where he's at, how he'll know whether he should try and stop on his own, or if it's just too damn late in the game to turn around on the road to either death or the detox ward. Rather than another AA blue book quiz, to where you're at, where you've been, and where you're headed and what it's like now, come with us as we examine the cinematic alcoholic scale:

1-5 EARLY STAGES
(slurring to sodden - the damage is reversible without hospitalization)

LEVEL 1. Scintillating
William Powell as Nick Charles
THE THIN MAN (1934)
Dir. W.S. Van Dyke

He's who we drunks aspire to: he's able to solve crimes while hosting dinner parties and knocking back martinis; he's able to hob nob with the upper crust and knockabout with the lower dregs all in the same night without skipping his groove. Watching the entire series a few years ago on New Years' Eve (see: Notes from the Class and Alcohol Struggle in a THIN MAN Marathon), I was forced to watch even Nicky feel the weight of the world. Laid low by studio censorship-enforced boozing limits, the advent of wartime rationing, changing times, and just plain getting old, Nick was already the older generation by the time of the final entry, SONG OF THE THIN MAN, where he and Nora are regarded with bemusement by the younger beatniks, the harder they endeavored to seem 'with it' the more obvious it was that they, life, society, culture and even music, would never 'scintillate' again.

Telling Moment: SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, Nick hears Nora shake a cocktail from across the busy NYC street where he's reading the race results to Nicky Jr., alerting him it's cocktail hour and time to come home. I can vouch from experience that almost supernatural sensory perception is no exaggeration. 

LEVEL 2 - Hilarious
W.C. Fields in Everything
"Don't think it's hard to swear off drinking. It's easy. I've done it a thousand times."
He'd crack up probably if he ever landed in a dry county but as long as he's within elbow distance of a bar or flask he's functional and fun, seldom slurring and always in control. He's the drunk we dream of being when we're ready to give up on ever being sober again. He never winds up compromised (puking or passing out) in a way that would put his boozing in a bad light. Fields' hands don't shake, in fact his dexterity and eye hand coordination remain almost supernatural. (1)

I modulate  that Fields quote above for AA meetings, as I would say no to a drink a thousand times before breakfast. After the will power involved with swearing it off the thousandth time that morning, the shakes getting exponentially worse all the while, well, who wouldn't deserve a drink? Breakfast is served. The excuse to work hastily made; the shakes abated... for now. But each morning drink is like exponentially accruing interest on a terrible debt. Sooner or later, you'll be out of booze, and excuses.

LEVEL 3: Existentially Debauched
Terence Stamp as Toby Damnit
SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1966)
Dir. Frederico Fellini

This is the beginning of the end, when the dark portent of death first appears, usually as a shadow of your face reflecting in the water of the toilet bowl as you dry heave, or a silent, recurring face at parties, watching you patiently in the crowd like a Poe vision, someone you're never quite able to make it across the room to talk to. They smile and evade when you confront them about it in the parking lot. Meanwhile, you start to look pale and bedraggled, still gorgeous, but moving into the zone of rock stars before they either overdose, get haggard and bloated and start canceling gigs and gradually fade away, or get sober. You can still quit without needing hospitalization, but there's no one within a square mile around you who's not an enabler. Managers, agents, fans, they all make sure you have a tumbler in your hand; they fight over who will get you ice. A horde of young girls all want to sleep with you but their neediness appalls rather than excites. How demonic and ghostly they look through your death mask haze! Ironic too, that the more horrified you become by them, the more alluring the women seem to find you, and the more demonically needy they appear. The whole mating courtship thing becomes stripped of all its magical glamor, leaving only a kind of bleached skull grin of want. 

LEVEL 4: Fallin' Apart
Robert Mitchum as J.T.
In EL DORADO  (1966)
Dir. Howard Hawks

John Wayne returns to the town where friend Robert Mitchum is sheriff when he hears he's been on a nonstop bender for a mere six months because of "a girl." Wayne and "Mississippi" (James Caan) concoct a vile mix of purgatives and stomach coaters that act as a kind of organic Antabuse to sober him up - and after a few days and a bath, old JT's as good as new. He's even ready to drink whiskey again by the coda. Oh, to be this guy again, Erich mused as he gleefully loaded it into this DVD player for the zillionth time. Alas, Erich knew his own drinking problem has advanced much farther down this list. Maybe yours hasn't yet? Quit now so you can drink again later, or drink now and have to stop forever?

Let's not forget that the main difference between all these drinkers on this list might not be self-control and will-power so much as biology and habit. If you're relatively sober most of your adult life and then something happens, like a girl who was "no good", gets off the stage, your first round-the-clock drinking bender might derail you altogether. On the other hand, most of us only get a few dozen benders before we turn into pickles as the analogy goes. And once you're a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again. Though god knows we'll keep trying.

--THE BREAKWATER MEDIAN--

LEVEL 5. The Shakes
Dean Martin as Dude
RIO BRAVO (1959)
Dir. Howard Hawks

With Mitchum's JT in EL DORADO, alcoholism is treated as 'redeemable' even comical, as in it's OK to drink whiskey again once the danger and initial pain of sobriety has passed. But JT's bender lasted only six months. Martin's in RIO lasted--we're told-- two years. Trading on Dino's boozer persona, Dude is seen as a master gunslinger  who was Chance's (John Wayne's) deputy until a no-good woman rode into town on the stage and left him a wreck. We find him, in the opening, creeping into back doors of saloons like a mangy dog, fishing silver dollars out of spittoons to buy enough whiskey to get him safely back into the gutter before the DTs kick in.

Note that while Dude's sobering follows a similar arc to JT's (with a bath scene played for laughs that shows a vulnerable mix of catharsis and rejuvenation), he can't really go back to drinking at the end the way JT can. Now it will take him longer to get back to normal. Maybe a beer or two, but we've all tried to "just drink beer" before. Come on Dude, don't give up. But benzos aren't invented so he has to tough it out. It's not until a sudden shift with a piece of Mexican 'death march' music plays and hips him to the cosmic cool he used to know, that suddenly he "remembers how [he] got into this thing." He's merged back into the tapestry of the Hawksian group, now his shakes are gone because they've moved into the walls, and into the knees of enemies.

LEVEL 6: the 'moment of clarity' 
Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen
CAT BALLOU (1965)

Though played for laughs, there's a very real pain in Marvin's eyes that lets you know just how bad a shape he's in. The similarity in dress to Martin in RIO BRAVO says it all. If there hadn't been a Joe Burdett issue to sober him up for (or who knows, a few weeks after the credits run), Dude might have gone back on the bottle, gone a-roaming and hiring his gun and contributing to his own legend until... there you go.

Let's face it, Marvin won the Oscar that year thanks to one great scene, because all the alcoholics laid end to end in Hollywood and the Academy would be... hilarious. They all got the dry sardonic joke: here might be the best illustration of the joys and perils of genetic alcoholism ever in any movie, comedy or drama, it's when Shelleen arrives at the ranch a hungover bleary mess, but sensing an easy mark hits up the old man for some fire water, eyeing the targets he set up to demonstrate his aim on, and the old guy realizes it, "you'd like a drink more than a kick in the head," wouldn't ya? A huge swig later and he's amazing, a dead shot, brave and true. Filling them with confidence as he fires perfectly, seems to inhabit a cool sober bravado facade (almost like he's back at level one, the Nick Charles charmer) and then finishes the pint, throws it into the air to fire at it, but misses and by the time it lands, he's toast. "I never seen a man run through a day so fast." someone says. This is about right for this dangerous level - the one right before the point of no return. And Marvin, a drinker who was no stranger to black-outs, nails it perfectly. 

LEVEL 7: Sandbags off!
Ray Milland as Don Birnim
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
Dir. Billy Wilder

This number is actually a bit arbitrary as Don's alcoholism runs the gamut, a kind of greatest hits, anchored as it is by two things, one being he starts the film more or less sober albeit in 'white knuckle' city and the other that he's got no money to escape his brother and his girl, who are both conspiring to get him out of the city for a week of fresh air, and know that with a twenty in his pocket he'll sneak off on a spree, and they're right. He has a bottle hanging outside the window by a string so he can pack it in his suitcase when the brother isn't looking. But the brother finds it, so--in a truly heartbreaking moment--Don has to pour it all out. Undaunted, Don fakes them out by sending the pair off on a music concert without him, so he can relax and get his 'head clear' before the train leaves, and then 'luckily,' the maid comes for her week's money, hidden in the sugar bowl. Naturally Don pockets it and tells the maid his brother forgot. And he's off! Run, Don! Run!

Renting this movie with my buddy Max back in 1991, six years before I first quit drinking, was like the creepy herald at the gas station in a horror movie. This baby had my number right down to the neighborhood and walking style. It was almost like an intervention. On the other hand, in its effort to run the gamut it fails to really vividly capture the effects of withdrawal. The theremin score is a good place to start but the dance of the empty raincoats with the bottle of rye in the pocket went on too long, like Wilder really wanted to sneak an operetta into things somewhere. And what kind of idiot drunk wouldn't have brought the rye into the concert with him? That's why pints are all thin like that, stupid!  And the thing with the mouse and bat was fine and freaky but frankly it was too singular. DTs are more fluid. You wouldn't see just one bat and one rat, you'd see hordes inside the walls, deep and spiraled, ala the paredolia amok quality of a bad acid trip That's a common problem with movies trying to duplicate hallucinations in general, though. At least they tried, though I would have loved to see the little turkeys with straw hats the dipsomaniac ward guy Bim's always talking about. And the alcoholic ward was great - nothing's quite as fun as a hospital bed where other patients are already screaming; hell, you may as well scream too! 
When it's good it's pretty good
But when it's bad it's bananas. And it's always bad.
If Don manages to get sober without medical attention it's only through the grace of God and a Good Woman. Though this time he finds the wherewithal to sneak out of Bellevue this time, if he was just one level higher, would be next to impossible. He needs an Ativan drip, but it doesn't exist yet!

Barrymore as--more or less himself--- DINNER AT EIGHT
--POINT OF NO RETURN---
There's no way back now without either convulsing at home and maybe dying from withdrawal, or going to a nice sanitarium, detox, rehab or hospital. But in the meantime, enjoy the calm after the horrendous breakwaters. Now there's no sense struggling against the current. You're so far out to sea you don't know which way to paddle anyway. You're fucked, my friend, but for the moment you're also free. 

LEVEL 8: Scintillating Mach 2
John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew
BARTON FINK (1991)
Dir. Coen Bros.

A southern gentleman clearly modeled on Faulkner, a man who also spent some time puking in the bathrooms of the big movie studios and having writer bungalow DTs. The Coens get all that stuff right and we all wish for (or maybe were lucky enough once to have) a Judy Davis to trail after us like a combination stenographer-nursemaid-drink pourer/enabler. At the same time we see the comfy hell that such a place as Hollywood in its Golden Age really was, a juggernaut machine so vast and ever-moving that as a writer you could be unwittingly working on the script of someone else's dream the next bungalow over and not even know they're there, rewriting each other's work to fit the mercurial mood of hack directors too drunk to tell which end of the camera is up. Then again, when you're this far gone, the space between being too drunk to move and too sober to sit still is ever-shrinking. In other words, this is where most great Hollywood writers and actors orbit. Any farther and they're stuck in the drain's inescapable vortex; here at least they are in orbit, like the doomed vessel in Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" they achieve a fixed orbit around the lip of the whirlpool. It's dependent of the loyalty of their enabling girlfriend--or-assistant-or-both of course, who keeps them spinning like a magic show plate. Sure it will crack when it hits the floor - and it will--but in the meantime, there's a certain tranquility in surrender. It;s the moment of clarity that comes when the horizon line of the shore disappears, and it no longer makes sense to struggle against the current. Just float all the way to China.

LEVEL 9: Existentially Debauched Mach 2
Albert Finney as The Consul
Dir. John Huston

"I must drink desperately to regain my balance."

We can all hope we never get stuck with a houseboy as creepy as callow Hugh, the younger brother and adulterer, patiently plying his rival with 'cures' for alcoholism like a regicidal lover creeping through the royal garden with his poison earwax candle. We're too drunk to resist. We're past those breakwaters now (see level 8), so now on it will be very hard to get along without an enabler or helper, someone to come home from work with 'the shopping' i.e. new bottles (it's not like we can drive, or walk, or even dial a phone, to get some on our own). It might be easier in a place like Mexico, where public drunkenness is so common it's unnoticed, and you can always find a handy beggar child to lean on or to fetch you un cerveza or bottle of tequila while you luxuriate amidst the white chickens. I can't say for sure, but I do have experience with this level, and dig how, when Yvonne, his estranged wife, suddenly appears out of the morning mist, after being gone for years, and he dismisses her as an hallucination, barely making eye contact as he rhapsodizes, on and on to the empty air. Is Yvonne even really there? I am not sure from what I read of the book that she is, but Huston does have his most success in that meter anyway, the interiority of a man with alcohol and ego problems.

If a lot of Yvonne's ephemerality doesn't survive the trip to film, the impossibility of returning to normal, of sobering up and being able to make love to his hot wife again, is made all the more painful by his utter dependency on good old Hugh. Both Yvonne and Huge have to dress him like an infant after he naughtily runs through the shower. It would have probably been more enjoyable had someone like Burton played the part, but Finney certainly does have the breadth and depth and booze seems to emanate from his pores in the hot Mexican sun. Watching him oscillate in a fluid motion between pathetic and absurdist, triumphant and pleading, bitter and humble, celebratory and shitfaced, adventurous and craven, fuming with suicidal self-loathing, constantly turning his conversation into glazed-eyed monologues and rationalizations, boast, defeats, petty hollering, is to feel both a lysergic tang in the saliva gland and a brutal chill to the bones - here but for the grace of god, bitchez. 

LEVEL 10 - Crackin' Up
Jack Lemmon as Joe Clay
THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)
Dir. Blake Edwards

I used to hate this movie on principle, but a recent viewing (in the wake of my February relapse) showed me I was just scared of the neurotic intensity Lemmon brings, and the weird way the combination of Edwards directing and Lemmon seems to indicate this should be a wacky comedy. It is, it's just a terrifying, gut-wrenching, humorless one. Lemmon ably captures the staggering sideways mix of befuddlement and desperation that comes with latter stage alcoholism - when you're too fucked up to walk or talk or think but at the same time are about to go into convulsions from withdrawal - it's a terrible combination. The only way to stop the horror of the moment is to postpone it by more drinking, which since you won't remember it anyway never seems to happen, (you just black out and wake up in an even worse condition). The more booze you have the more blank space, is all it is, like a pause button on the alarm clock in the morning. Sooner or later the booze is gone, the pause goes off automatically, and the pain resumes, only more so. Now you're late. All booze does is make it later and later- and when you wake up screaming it might be the time you're out of booze. Now the only way you can keep going is if you get a loyal servant, spouse or enabler who won't go all Baby Jane on you in your hours of helplessness.

Lemmon does a pretty great stagger through the campsite trying to find some booze. The desperation with which he breaks into the liquor store is a little trite - no good drunk would be that unused to that level of desperation. Or so I thought. There's a window into a real estate office adjacent to my apartment with two bottles of champagne within grabbing distance. Just smashing the glass and grabbing them seemed easier to my shattered brain than going down the street to the grocery store to get beer, a trip that involved so many steps and exchanges I was terrified of falling over, flipping out, passing out in the dairy aisle, or winding up arrested for public intoxication, then cracking up in a holding cell or hospital. But punching my hand through the window of a real estate office? No sweat.

Still, now I avoid DAYS like my life depends on me, because Lemmon's manic desperation is so vivid and intense it chills my blood for days afterwards. I feel the same thing under my crawling skin when I see the shattered eyes of Sinatra in jail in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM as he watches a fellow junky (who's been there longer) enter the throes of withdrawal. If I think about taking a drink now, and follow it through to its logical end, I know the end is here. I hope.

LEVEL 11: Last Call (Scintillating Mach 3)
Nicolas Cage as Ben
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
Dir. Mike Figgis

This is it, last stop on the line. There's no way out from here that doesn't involve the detox ward or the morgue, maybe even both. "I came to Vegas to drink myself to death," notes Ben to his last days lover Sera (Elizabeth Shue). Their doomed love affair is so touching, and Cage's performance is so raw and electric, seeing this in the theater with my girlfriend, I came home and starting pounding whiskey like he did for the next several weeks, my girlfriend no longer trying to stop me, for she got the heroism of the 'non-interference' policy.

At the time Ben's decision seemed very strange to me, but my drinking was still safely at level four, the Toby Dammit stage. But now I get it. Stopping drinking at these advanced stages of boozing is a nightmare. The best way I can describe it is via the hangover. Most of us, even the worst drunks in our beginner phases, we drink a bunch of water, down a bacon egg and cheese on a roll with a coffee when we get to work, and by the end of the day we're more or less back to normal, or at least marginally better. We might still feel like shit, but we're better. At the Ben stage, it's reversed, and there's no limit: if that was Ben, by 5 PM he'd be in convulsions, or at least shaking insanely (St. Vitus dance!). The hangover actually gets exponentially worse the longer he's awake and sober, like some unseen hand is slowly turning up a massive feedback volume knob until his whole body is vibrating apart.

At this stage your life becomes purely a series of black-outs punctuated by miserable stretches between waking up and getting enough fresh alcohol into you to stop the shakes and vomiting. Which after a few days of continual bender is harder than it seems. You wind up so messed up you can't even call for a liquor store delivery, can't even find your pants to go get more and the liquor store is literally right next door or across the street. I guess you would shit your pants if you had any solids in your system. Trying to make it back upstairs without falling down and convulsing on the street, getting hit by a car, or passing out and waking up handcuffed to hospital gurney is as daunting as brain surgery on a galloping horse. Just getting a shoe on can cause all sorts of vertigo and panic. Finding another one to match is like a needle in a field of haystacks.

And what's the reward if you make it to the store and back to your apartment without incident? Bliss, for an hour or so, followed by some period of dead unconsciousness, usually waking up to find your glasses are missing and you've broken at least two things in your fall, including maybe your face, or the coffee table. Sleeping with your head on the cold tile floor, gasping like a dying fish for hour after hour, hangover slowly getting more intense as the days click by. A single bite of toast takes hours of dry heaving.  These interminable epochs of intense misery are what you remember, what stays etched into your soul deeper than a recording stylus made of wolverine claw. The 'good parts' are all just empty black-out - a few dim moments of unconnected bliss.

--DEATH--

LEVEL12:  Destroyer of Worlds
Clint Eastwood as William Munney, i.e. America
UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Dir. Clint Eastwood

Sometimes there's a man gets healed by the love of a good woman or the lord. Sometimes she dies and then some brutalizin' sheriff takes umbrage with your hired gun vengeance, or you just wind up trapped with your drunk brother's drunk girlfriend's drunk family over Xmas and can't find that emergency Xanax - did one of those kids steal it? The nightmare finally swamps your raft and you sink. So William Munny is sober 20 years but is talked into taking on a job killin' some guys what cut up a whore, or something, and when the brutalizin' sheriff beats up Will's buddy to unto death, Munny relapses and it's like Popeye eating some PCP-laced spinach which is what it's like, really, when you relapse. Hell follows with him and he kills everyone in the bar. "I've always been lucky when it comes to killin'" he explains, and Eastwood makes sure we get the US flag waving behind him in the flames, for Munny is, in his 'luck' with killing and his terrible addictions, America. And when I too fell off the wagon after almost 20 years earlier this year, wasn't I, too, America?

This level is, incidentally, not the 'next' in line from the LEAVING LAS VEGAS category above. The next in line is seldom capture in film because there is nothing afterwards except degraded madness..
---

Like Munny I had a 20 year itch moment this past Christmas, trapped like a cat in a sack for hour after hour with a loud drunken family, something I can't abide when not drunk myself. Day after day of misery until the final surrender, watching SUICIDE SQUAD with the boys on Xmas Day and pounding down enough vodka it was like tripping after all these years, the warm fuzzy courage filling my sails like the sudden taste of freedom after 20 years in a 10x10 concrete cell. But six weeks of my progressively more belabored attempts at moderation and sobriety later, boom, there I am, slipping from level 1 all the way down to here in about as many weeks. Who can judge but those who know?

That's why AA is there. Because when you're suffering it, there's nothing fun about it - it's only later, in hindsight, it seems heroic, romantic, even courageous, bitterly hilarious. If you live through it without winding up strapped down to a gurney screaming your head off as the minutes click down to your next Atavan booster, then kudos. If you don't, how will the rest of us know if you're lucky? For those of us on the outside, the long road back to 'normal is long, thorny and often without joy, or hope.

But fear not! There's a meeting near you, or close enough: so check Alcoholics Anonymous online, and don't worry about whether it's a cult or not. Anyone who tries to make it one, or gets culty on you, is not AA-approved, no matter what they say. No one 'represents' AA beyond what's laid out in the literature vis-a-vis the steps. Don't trust the ones who try and go beyond that. Fire pushy sponsors who try to micro-manage your sobriety or take over your life. Just go to meetings and listen, and blah blah, women with the women, Are we not men!? 'Hiccup!' Never let them push you into something you don't want to do, or take advantage of your weakness .'Hiccup!' Never let them push you into something you don't want to do. I just said that. But be sure you're not wanting to do it isn't fear of facing the truth within yourself. It works if you work it, though! The happy ending to this post is only ever granted one day at a time. Ain't we lucky we got 'em, for now?

NOTES:
1. There was a study in Sweden comparing children of alcoholics with those of non-alcoholics - their eye hand coordination was studied both before and after consuming a shot of whiskey. The non-alcoholic kids lost coordination but the alcoholic ones gained it. It was like they switched places. I learned it in class, but can't remember where... you know why :)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

International ScarJo: GHOST IN THE SHELL, LUCY, GHOST WORLD, Black Widow


Turn the cable on at any given time and there she is, chest deep in sci-fi weirdness: Scarlett Johansson as the KGB experimentally-augmented Black Widow in THE AVENGERS and related Marvel-verse franchises, or as a girl who becomes more than human with 100% brain usage in LUCY; or (voice only) as a sexy Siri Mach 2050 in HER, an alien in UNDER THE SKIN, an alienated Tokyo tourist in LOST IN TRANSLATION, an alienated high-school graduate in GHOST WORLD, and on an on she goes, her wry half-smile and husky voice transforming any ludicrous enterprise into something earthy and tangible while still being never quite of this world. Born in the Bronx, inheritor to all the tough chick rasp that implies, ever ready to use seduction or a mixture of the kind of martial arts (Muay Thai, Kali, etc) that involves swinging around people's necks like an ice ballet starlet, she has a great across the thug-filled room saunter, shoulders low and hunched for a sneak attack, and a unique way with sussing potential trouble out of the corner of her eye without breaking stride or cool. ScarJo seems always a notch above her material, yet at the same time she doesn't step on it as she climbs. Gingerly she brings it along behind her. No easy feat, to redeem and solidify shaky CGI realities. It's OK too if she can't quite pull off some of the more encompassing moments of grandeur, for she has the brains to underplay rather than ham it up. Hers is the same cool savvy we find in, say, 80s action stars like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If she lacks their self-deprecating doofus undercarriage, she at least doesn't wink at the audience or start doing funky dances like Cameron Diaz. That shit doesn't age well, but Scarlett's shit is built to last.

Though adept at smaller scale comedies (she loves to dust off her Jersey-Bronx-LI accent), since becoming an A-lister, ScarJo hasn't labored for respectability in prestige pics the way others have (a few exceptions, like Girl with the Pearl Erring aside), becoming instead sci-fi royalty; the poster girl for a Tyrell Corporation-sponsored Time-Image sci-fi future, the first girl to hang glide all the way across the Uncanny Valley, she's part Hawksian 'one of the guys,' part-older sister's one cool friend who's nice to you, when we see strange new sci-fi worlds through her eyes, those worlds seem somehow absolved, their furrowed scalps gently but robustly tousled. Be they Seoul's skyways, the post-riot despair of 3 AM Glasgow, jet-lagged Tokyo, futuristic Tokyo, some other Tokyo, Paris, mall culture America, the empty rose-colored void, or the past of all mankind on the earth, from the first female ape to the last gasp, she can bring humanist warmth; turn on any channel and there she is, making the future seem not only real, but inviting, even survivable. 

Hair like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the manga-esque Scott Pilgrim vs the World

GHOST IN THE SHELL


I'd heard the 'white-washing' accusations (1) before going to (open the Netflix envelope of) Ghost in the Shell but that only helped lower my expectations, which were low to begin with, for it seemed like Aeon Flux meets Ultraviolet x Resident Evil all over again. Maybe that helped in ways I can't foresee, or I'm racist, but I actually think Ghost in the Shell is actually a goddamn great film. For one thing, it's so rich in ambient futuristic detail --from the ingeniously animatronic reptilian geisha girl assassins to the visualized 3-D streams of bit data (they're so cool they make the green columns in The Matrix seem like the dos prompts in War Games --insert snorty nerd laugh)--that all its generic cop vs. corporate corruption clunkiness is forgivable (and certainly no more perfunctory than that in Ghost's most obvious template, Blade Runner).

In a role originally conveyed via an anime pixie, Johansson plays "The Major," an advanced cybernetic cop chick chassis (the shell) housing a Japanese girl's ghost. The point woman fronting an elite group of cops who investigate AI-related crimes, she regularly gets told not to rush into danger by her concerned chief (Takeshi Kitano!), which is almost as tired as M. Emmett Walsh tossing back whiskey and cigars while talking about "beauty and the beast - she's both." As in Blade Runner, some advanced robotics engineers are the target of a splinter group of amok replicants, or something - (shades of Shelley). Their next target seems to be Major's own creator, Juliette Binoche (which is funny if you've seem Clouds of Sils Maria).

The killer, Kuze, SPOILER ALERT turns out to be an evil mastermind earlier version of the Major herself, basically a kind of cyberterrorist robot-human melding 'early edition,' played by another gaijin, Michael Pitt. A marvelously intricate character, Kuze seems to be constantly reconstituting himself from surrounding bit rates, only half alive and half virtual at any given time, his tortured voice is wracked with auto-tune and static, his awareness of his past at odds with the Major's computer generated amnesia. Once they start talking, comparing notes on their mostly-erased human pasts, Major wakes up to her true human origins, eventually 'going rogue' while the evil robotics CEO turns the bullets their way. Luckily, the cool thing about being a robot, she can get shot to shit and still be ready to dive slow-mo backwards off the parapet and come crashing upside down through a skyscraper window with both automatics Woo-style blazing again by the next beat. The future is nothing to fear as long as hangdog toughies like Beat Kitano carry teflon briefcases and can shoot from the hip. It's an unusually update, even tidy resolution but it hardly matters - the greatness is in the details, the startling HD clarity that makes the film seem ready for a VR headset 2020 remastering.

But getting back to the race issue, the casting of Johansson and Pitt as formerly Japanese eco-terrorist twenty-something lovers (arrested and mind-wiped) presumes if any Japanese person could create their own ideal robot shell, they wouldn't look Japanese, or at any rate even if the ghost/soul was Japanese, the white (French) engineer would give her shell a white face, and she'd automatically speak English (the universal corporate language) rather than Japanese. This strange but sadly (if conveniently) conceivable decision reaches a peak subtextual moment in the one at top, when Kuze and Major, remembering their Japanese teenager past, take off each other's facial covers, revealing the circuitry beneath (but not showing the maze of sociopolitical awareness vs. box office second-guessing at work in their mask's lack of epicanthic folds). ENDSPOILERS

In her hirers defense, ScarJo has ample experience for the job, including that of being alienated in Tokyo (as 2003's Lost in Translation); having her face dissolve into bits of digital programming in Tokyo (in Luc Besson's Lucy); disappearing altogether and becoming just a SIRI-style AI (in Spike Jonze's Her); and as a clone raised for its organs in a Logan's Run style enclosed citadel in The Island). We should remember that though white-washing is a long and shameful cinematic practice, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee didn't just play Fu Manchu because they were white, but because they'd played evil megalomaniacs successfully in the past. In the same way, ScarJo has a resume of successfully conveyed artificial intelligences, test tube babies, amnesiacs, assassins, and substantial fight training that keeps the obligatory hair in the face stunt doubling to a minimum. She's global. She's sanded her psyche down for mass appeal, ready to be on the cover of everything from Italian Vogue to Japanese iPhone keypad ads for fragrances based on the novelization of the German manga.

I don't know why I'm sticking up for the casting decision- except that I, like everyone else, needs to prove he's not racist, even if it's only to himself, and the filmmakers clearly went all out to out-imagine both their holy bible Blade Runner and the anime version, combining multiple viewings worth of layered space and evocatively wrought Black Mirror future shockiness, and I'd hate for all that to be lost like tears in rain just because they were scared Maggie Q. wasn't a household name. The level of artistry and detail on display is jaw-dropping, and for once it actually serves a narrative purpose. We're clued into not only the world of the future but the foreign/alien way that future will be perceived. I can hardly wait until it too is on FX or FXX and comes punctuated with commercials for the next word in high-definition television.

As an anime, all Ghost's cyberpunk detail tended to get lost in the overwhelming rush of negative and positive space (ink can't be layered the way blacks shadows in HD can) and--let's face it--the internet was just getting rolling back then. A lot of all that future stuff was still just on the (printed pulp paper) page of Dick and Gibson novels. The anime had a lot of rotoscoping and confusingly conveyed overlap between future, past, reality vs. virtual, and--unless you were an anime devotee familiar with the narrative tics and traits, ahead of the curve on the dawn of AOL--it seemed a kind of over-the-top cartoonish reliance on animation shortcuts rather than segue/linking micro-movement (i.e breathing). That over-the-top literalness in this live action version lives on only in the 'tactical' eye adjustments of Batou (Major's right hand man, he loses his human eyes and opts for two telephoto / infrared lenses that make him look like Little Orphan Annie's jacked uncle). Aside from those eyes, nearly every image is sublime and best of all, at least semi-subtle and subdued. Since the actual actors and lighting provides some measure of corporeal relativity, the VR super-impositions stand out yet are so fully meshed it at times reminded me of last February when I had the DTs, watching Veronica Lake beckon to me from below the shining tiles of the ER waiting room. The slow-mo glass shattering and frozen water diving splashes while the camera careens were cliche minutes after The Matrix but here they actually fit the post-modern future on display; the differences between ancient past and far-flung future are dissolved almost as a side effect to the collapse of 3-D space and linear time.


The ultimate takeaway is that when the virtual world is as valid and 'real' as this one, (and the Uncanny Valley bridged), one of the side effect developments will be time travel, and the ability to replay our sensory recording of a single event, which can then be slowed down until the whole world stops on a fraction of a nanosecond for all eternity, and those watching/reviewing can wander into the middle of your 3D retinal projection display and see around corners and read the names of files left on the dresser. Weirder still, these memories could be hacked, so that around the corner too might be a VR assassin ready to--if not actually stop your heart and kill you--at least steal your mental capacity, leave you a stunned amnesiac while they make off with your internal hard drive. We see bits and pieces of this future in various Black Mirror episodes, but here it all fits together in a blast of subdued overwhelming elegance, like an atomic bomb inside an orchid.

There is one way to watch Ghost in the Machine and avoid any residual guilt over this issue, a way to amp up the subtextual resonance until it rings like freedom's bell: watch it with a Japanese dub language track. Hearing a Japanese actress speaking from inside ScarJo's shell as a Japanese woman trapped in a robot body will likely make all the difference.

If social-racial progress gets knocked back a peg by ScarJo's presence in this film, beauty parameters takes one step forward. ScarJo is a woman, and a warrior. She's no svelte anime pixie, or Vodka ad sexbot, though she's supposed to be the shell of an android, Johansson's body appears as it might an actual trained female fighter, i.e. solid, way heavier than any svelte anime assassin girl where you can tell they'd blow over in a stiff breeze. It's not so noticeable she's unattractive, but her lower center of gravity is solid evidence of her fight training that reminds of Cynthia Rothrock in her earlier films and of Gina Carano in her current ones. Like them, when she walks she has kind of a canny back and forth shoulders movement you see only with actually-trained female fighters, like Bruce Lee, a Thai boxer, and an alley cat melding together in one sultry, deeply present, fearless 'insolent' strut. Watching Rothrock throw down next to Michelle Yeoh for example in Yes Madam! is to see the difference between a dancer, lithe and fast (Yeoh) and a genuine kickass fighter (Rothrock); Johansson is the latter, and a big enough name she can steer the whole of our future's global beauty parameter to meet her changing silhouette.

At the same time, Johansson's modulated low-key acting (as demonstrated first in Lucy) fits both this fighter stance parameter and the role of a soul who's basically had her identity stripped away; her brain has been washed white and enhanced with micro-processors that record and play back memories that can be, as in the Tyrell corporations' most gifted Nexus edition, Rachel (Sean Young) artificially implanted or removed. Her whiteness and blank performance reflect cultural meaning in an era where the digital and analog are no longer separate, where humans can be hacked and turned into weapons just by visiting the wrong sight while doing live action interior chip role playing games. Her daringly 'real woman' body becomes a weird assertion of humanity against the machine its in and her micro-gestures of awakening vulnerability accomplish a gravitas Sean Young never could, while doing half as much business.

What makes Ghost in the Shell work for me, too is that, like Blade Runner it keeps its ambitions and goals for narrative and resolution low-- cliche'd, linear, resolved--to better focus on the visuals, mood, ambience and subtext. Compare with, say, the disastrous Matrix sequels where vast reels trudge across with abstract thesis dissertations on the collapse of space-time vs. the simple Wizard of Oz meets the Pusherman mythos of the first. Macking out between the cop show beats in Ghost are fascinating throwaways, such as a go-nowhere but still interesting scene where she touches the actual flesh(?) of an androgynous, only partially-human 'mixed race' freckled prostitute (above). In a very touching but not quite sexy scene their faces touch close enough the heat is there, but there's no need to go all the way into some gratuitous cyber-lesbianism; instead we have that curiosity with which a human might gaze into an animal's eyes (as in the cliche'd scenes with Batou's stray mutts) or vice versa, each fascinated by the mystery of a separate, never quite-knowable intelligence on the other side, as beautiful, as de LautrĂ©amont's saying goes, as the chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table. For Major it's the unknowability of what makes us human, metered out with the fascination of the machine for the human and vice versa; each enraptured, envious even, of the other: a human with artificial augmentation seen through the eyes of an artificial being with human augmentation. Watching Blade Runner now, on the ultimate edition cut, or whatever, I notice dozens of these little moments, the android equivalent of Hamlet looking into the skull sockets of pure Yorick; which is good because there's not much else to grasp, as the narrative is so wonky (and so ingrained in my consciousness I barely notice any suspense or momentum). But the monster looking for its reflection in the iris pond moments resonate long after the digital bullets and rain machines have sputtered to a stop.
--
As a privileged straight white male of course me sticking up for a movie other people are piggybacking a valid flashpoint off of should be suspect, yet here I am, wading inward. If we were all 100% aware of all our subconscious agendas, one way or another, would we ever say or do anything? Or would we just stand there paralyzed, realizing at last why the veil between unconsciousness and waking is so opaque. Even so, I hear most Japanese citizens think--if those who've read and summarized their tweets can be a reliable consensus--that we're (in the States) overreacting (to the white-washing accusations). So though this might be the 'flesh-colored crayon' du jour over here, in Japan but don't think of Shell as part of the Japanese cultural identity as they also know the whole genre comes via the novels of Phillip K. Dick and William Gibsonthe same authors who indirectly or otherwise spawned Blade Runner, their granddaddy bible, a film full of Asian characters and symbolism (albeit played up for culture shock effect). In other words, the deeper you go into analysis of what that weird divide is, between race difference vs. commonality, the 'we're all the same' vs. 'celebrate diversity' vs. using other cultures for shock effect (to reflect character's alienation vs. promoting distrust), etc, each division only divides again.

And then there's the weirdest, most strangely vivid and human--portion of Ghost in the Shell: Kaori Momoi as her Major's mom. It's clear English is not Momoi's first language but she attacks it with a stunning, raw innocence- as if in forming these strange words she's creating some new kind of polyurethane fiber: even across the divides of language and digital artificial shell recombination, and even race, she recognizes her long lost daughter. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from that. Probably not.

Either way, the net has spoken, public opinion has crashed the white-washing festival's invisible omnipresence. It's almost done. Maybe we can finally learn who are Asians really anyway, beyond being Asian, or what that even is, and if they can ever be anything but foreign to us, or when cultural admiration and adoption and approximation and co-opting begin and end relative to standard racism, and how racism affect non-white racists vs. white racists. Or if everyone sees other races this way relative to their own alienation from themselves, or who the hell coded all our damned genetic racist neural programming. I mean, if it wasn't the admiralty, or the reptilians. Or like, whatever. 1982 called, it wants my wanting to go back to it back, but now it's too late even for wanting. The days of loading computer games into the TI99 from a phone modem via cassette tape, that's when it was real. A true north to set the magnets by, "man."

IRON MAN 2 / AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON / CAPT. AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

A nurturing friend to the Comic-Con geek, ScarJo likes to get right up close to the Hulk and rub his fingers or invade his puny Banner's personal space, or fall on top of him in a sexy silk dress behind the bar, telling him "don't turn green, ok?" She ends up trying to help Capt. America find a girlfriend even while the unfurl a dastardly Fourth Reich Paperclip conspiracy deep within the CIA (I mean HYDRA within SHIELD) and trying the direct approach with Banner, who ends up running away instead. The smart move, that, because Black Widow is single for a reason - Marvel 'gets it' - she's who we, the lovelorn teenage male demographic, imagines for ourself. We know she wouldn't be turned off by our living in mom's basement and spending our disposable income on mint condition action figures. Were Marvel to saddle her up with some dude like Luke Wilson bringing her flowers and making hangdog eyes, that, sir, would be a major miscalculation in how fantasy works to allay and soothe the hormone-tortured adolescent mind. Marvel's too smart for that. DC, on the other hand, gives superheroes sidekicks ('boy wonder') showing a too-literal interpretation of adolescent 'identification' psychology. We don't mind Wonder Woman goes out with Capt. Kirk as he's a badass. It's the smarmy hipsters we hate -- they're too close to us. That's the difference between smart attempts at playing into audience identification and bad. Luke Wilson is too close to us; we need to be able to slot the boyfriend of our love interest into either the 'soon to be arrested' bad guy category or the cool older brother category. 

Marvel gets it, and clearly posits Black Widow (it's in the name) as the girl we can imagine ourselves with (lord knows I did, back in the days of her character's large-size black and white comics). That said, I wonder just how many young boys and lesbians imagine themselves with Scarlett Johansson. Maybe it's her Bronx upbringing, but Scarlett's one weakness is that she can't do 'weakness.' She can never quite tap the accessible vulnerability (emblematic in, say Heather Graham or Patricia Arquette) that brings out the lusty aggressor in a man so essential to his sex drive (and detrimental if he can't control it). Instead, we love her at a respectful distance, and she boosts our ego without having to get awkward about it.

There's a scene early in the first Avengers where she's tied up getting slapped around by a cadre of Russian mobsters in an abandoned warehouse and her cell phone rings, it's Fury who wants her to come in, and she says something like Hold on, I'm almost done interrogating these guys. In the calm collected way she says it, the men realize she's never not been in control of the situation like they thought. She easily escapes her bonds and beats the shit out of them all with pieces of the broken chair, then sashays away. That scene to me illustrates the breadth of Scarlett's range, for she is not the most giving and exhibitionist of actresses, yet this scene she works, and it plays to her strengths, the way Neil Young works his limitations on guitar, i.e into strengths, through a kind of advanced depth primitivism. We can buy her as vulnerable only if it comes packaged with the idea it might be a ruse.

On the other extreme of the acting intensity range, for example, we might consider Noomi Rapace, who acts her pain and anger so vividly in films like Prometheus and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that she leaves any concept of 'fun' far behind her. In her hands, that scene in the Russian warehouse would be a grueling drag. She'd make the pain and trauma of her slapping brutally real - she'd make it our problem, the post-call thrashing would be cathartic but we'd still be left irritable and clammy. She forgets we come to movies to be entertained, especially movies about space monsters and girl avengers. We don't need to feel traumatized, or to hate ourselves worse than we already do. The only thing tempering our pain at her automated C-section in Prometheus is that her character has been such a self-righteous bitch we're happy to see her suffer. She makes her own pregnancy issues everyone else's problem, then gets pissy when the ship's crew don't drop everything they're doing to ram an alien space craft on her command even if it will kill them all. Why she's so good at big international productions is that Scarlett implicitly understands the parameters of a scene in ways beyond mere chops and intensity; she's her generation's Angie Dickinson. 

Dig the way her shoulders hunch and move with her eyesight like a canny
low-center boxer snaking through the crowded disco as the ecstasy kicks in.
In Lucy (2014) there's a great bit where, after spending the first 1/4 of the movie crying and pleading, one of her captors kicks her in the stomach, breaking open the package she's carrying sewed inside, a kilo of high end brain boosting Limitless-style super drugs. Peaking on these blue crystals, she ably escapes, kills an array of bad guys, gets shot, goes to the hospital and--while a doctor removes the bullet at gunpoint--she calls her mom to explain she remembers being in her womb and the taste of her milk and how much she loves her Delivered by Johansson in a flat whispery monotone, Lucy's monologue to mom will bring uncomfortable recognition from anyone who's ever had a mind-opening drug trip / manic high and decided to call their mom out of the blue to 'connect' and show off, and explain they've cracked it wide open, broken the code, that they 'get it now' and can see past the limitations of time and space and realize all the interconnected love etc. etc. I know I've had a few of those back in the 80s-90s, and was always grateful for my mom's sense of denial, for I'd never hear about it later and forgot most of what I said/promised. Even if she did look at me kind of funny for a few weeks. Since then, I've had the experience of younger generations doing the same thing to me or in front of me, and I've been privy to how crazy these sorts of phone calls and explanations sound, both pretentious and deluded, egotistical and full of fragility masked in bravado, as if in convincing me of their discovery their discovery becomes real. It's like they try to etch these fleeting feelings into the consciousness of those around them, rather than where they should go- onto paper, magnetic tape, and hard drives- but just sound crazy--it doesn't translate, just like hearing about someone else's dream never has the same dizzy power as our own.

It's perhaps the sadder truth of enlightenment, especially via the poison path that the more brilliantly the ideas cascade inside your mind, the more the tongue can barely keep pace. Ideas as they flow out into brush strokes on canvas, words on the screen, words from the mouth - but try to talk normal to a friend or parent and--unless you really practice the art of doing it as an act in your down time--you don't quite sound like someone who's cracked it wide open and broke on through to the other side, you sound like an amok egotistical maniac, a frothing lack-of-sleep meth-addled grandiose version of James Mason in Bigger than Life and maybe, a little bit, like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy would if she didn't wisely underplay to such a dry extent. She can back it up with remote controlling all media, gravity, and telekinesis and shit in ways that make her more than a match for Neo in The Matrix, but she does it all without leather and dark glasses.

For Lost in Translation (see A Jet-Lagged Hayride with Dracula)
Ghost World
It was in 2001's Ghost World, Scarlett J. first showed the world a most endearing smirk that set her in a class somewhere off from/ above the hipster anarchy of her self-destructive friend Enid (Thora Birch); Scarlett would look upon Enid with the same kind of bemused indulgence Enid looked upon Steve Buscemi; the kind of halfway grin that can--in the wrong face-can smack of snide dismissal--when hers finally did, turning against Enid and moving in favor of a job and independence, we felt a chill in our guts like mom had just kicked us out of the house. Not that we blamed her, for we'd realized too that Enid's rebellion was a dead end. Sure her options were all soul-sucking drone work, but she needed to knuckle down and do it, to let her soul die just a bit, to reign in her wild mare in basement art, like some John Cheever country husband, instead of being all smarmier than thou straight into the isolated drifter bin. Scarlett J. was right to do dump her. Enid's world view and attitude is in the end, not self-sustaining. There's nowhere to go, and that--I think--was the film's big flaw, it didn't know how to end itself- to find the right note. It should have zapped the title up to a blast of punk anarchy when the old man gets on the bus that wasn't supposed to come and leaves Enid alone on the bench. Bam! She looks out at camera, Bam! Ghost World title card and punk rock credits music. A Winner. They probably tried that ending, but test audience asked what happened to Seymour, so the film checks in with Seymour again, letting us know--not that we cared--he's doing just fine, getting professional help, as if we needed that rather than to experience the zero sum game of his arc and Enid's both in that one bus stop moment. The utter pointlessness of rebelling against life outside the beef jerky and numb chucks of prefab American reality while still living within in it, Scarlett mutes it all down and gets excited about a fold-down ironing board in the apartment she's rending with Enid (if Enid gets the money), and that's really the film's one emotional payoff. The terror that flits across Enid's face as she suddenly realizes she truly is alone in the universe.

Scarlett's never really given us that ironing board moment gaze since, thank goodness, and has become instead a global scale avatar of a kind of mirror reverse nerd gaze - reflecting the geeky adoration of the Comic-Con Cos-play Kid back upon itself, with a wry half-smile that says "I know you would run in terror if I came onto you in real life, and I'm not going to, because then when you saw me onscreen again you'd jut get the sting of shame at the memory of when you ran away, plus I can believably kick your ass, and if that's a turn-off to your male instincts, watch me bat my eyes and feign vulnerability, but if you're not a chump, don't buy into it." This is the gaze that boys want to see mirrored back at them, for it acknowledges their gaze as something other than a toad-like imposition; even as it gently rejects, it flatters; the male gaze is returned without the Medusa stone surcharge so usually associated with 'real' women. The fanboy's gaze is not judged sexist, misogynist, evil, gross or all the other judgments breathing mammalian women make on men who leer way out of their league, nor is it returned with a come-on directness like a prostitute meeting their gaze across an Uncanny Valley casino bar, the type where you look away in fear instantly, before you consciously even realize what just happened. Even if you've never seen a high end prostitute in the wild, you still instinctively don't kick yourself for being chicken: a beautiful girl's sudden reciprocal stare is terrifying anyway, the gaze can't help but flinch if it's not used to being gazed back at the same way. Next time your gaze screenwards is met with an insolent stare, this time maybe you won't flinch like a drugged Sampson in the barber chair, maybe it will be the stare of ScarJo.. The rest of your boty may belong to Sony, but you get to keep your hair. That's the promise in those living human eyes.





Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Death Drivin' America - Part 3: DEATHSPORT, CANNONBALL!


Corman fans like myself are finding--in golden hindsight and reverence for all things 35mm--that many of Roger Corman's New World produced ALIEN / STAR WARS / JAWS-imitations (the one that launched Joe Dante, James Cameron, and Lewis Teague) have held up and improved with age, and even the 'period-period', the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE wave (BLOODY MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, LADY IN RED, BOXCAR BERTHA, etc) still pack a wry punch. But we do ourselves, not the man, a disservice by forgetting Corman too wrote the original FAST AND THE FURIOUS, launched the biker subgenre with THE WILD ANGELS and helped craft the parameters of the wacky outlaw race movie with DEATH RACE 2000 and EAT MY DUST.

In the best of them, like TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, there are sultry glimmers of greatness, and the worst, like SMOKEY BITES THE DUST (1981), there are at least some good crashes. BUT -- remember a few miles back we talked about DEATH RACE 2050 ("the only movie that matters in 2017" - April Wolfe), and talked about how no film could match the original. Well, maybe I missed something - probably not, but there are two movies that explore different aspects of DEATH RACE 2000, a kind of Dougie/Cooper split if you will. Thanks to Shout Factory, whose New World DVD output is one of the great boons to any serious trash collector, we can shuffle back and find out which one has the real juice, if either.

The Paul Bartel-directed 1973 original DEATH RACE hypothesized that in 2000 we'd be living under the thumb of a crazy president (hey!) with a fun old-school (like Roman gladiator) sense of entertainment and population control. In the process all the tenets of 70s life were commented upon: road rage, gas crises, Carter and OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work, Monday Night Football; Detroit demonology, the grease pit grimoire with groovy names like Gran Turino, Corvette, Trans-Am, Mitzy Bishu Gallant, Suzy Bannon the Buick; CB radios (as discussed in the earlier piece on CONVOY)

It's perhaps understandable why one who was a child in that time would return now to the auto wreck bloodsport satire genre as if some rumbling unleaded Rosebud. For our crazy prez, for our crazy country, for the Civil War that turned so cold we grew more Russian the more we tried not to be, and lo! hear the mighty engines roaring for America? Komrade, we need to rev it. Only by blazing fast and furious do we finally not stand stagnant swampish.


CANNONBALL!
(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel
**

There was the drag race juvenile 50s, the biker 60s, and then the New World team jumped lanes and drafted over behind a speeding slew of now semi-forgotten drag racing /moonshiner movies, and cross-country 'rallies,' rooted to actual events, such as the now-forgotten real-life Cannonball Dash, a cross-country race that was set up to protest the 55 mph highway law (set up in 1974) and caught the popular cinematic imagination where it congealed with the once-popular all-star cast ramshackle race-arounds like GUMBALL RALLY, VANISHING POINT and eventually SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. In all of them, the issue of prize money, a bet, the importance of an honor system and all in the game camaraderie is easier to understand (a gum ball machine, for example, is a relatively worthless prize; a truckload of beer doesn't seem worth risking jail and doing all sorts of public damage, etc.). For $100,000. prize in CANNONBALL!, well, that's real money, and it's just too damn easy to cheat if all you need is an LA parking lot stamp at the NYC finish line.  One canny little guy flies his car in a big jumbo jet across country; others sabotage rival cars (with racers too dumb to watch their vehicle or check under the hood); and so forth.

These things bother me; and the film is choked up with actors too much alike to tell apart with your glasses off, all made even similar-er-er for no real reason. Rather than tweak cliches to archetypal amok wresling-style comic book lunacy, here Bartel just delivers them, flat: A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couples car to NY for them (we know they're deserving of a smashed caddy because they tell him not to drive at night or faster than 55 mph); Gerrit Graham (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's 'Meat') is wasted as a cowboy singer riding with his mobbed-up manager Mr. Redmond, who's hoping this event will boost his profile (how, exactly?) David Carradine is a 'legend' named Cannonball (so original!) whose breaking parole by driving out of California-- one speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away!--is the height of folly, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is his navigator/lover. But if you remember her from HILL STREET BLUES than it may not be so lucky for you: her character there was far too professional and competent in that show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot, and so though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys (while Cannonball watches from the sidelines), it's sad that she also seems dubbed... from far away. Faring better in our esteem is the great Mary Woronov who pilots a van carrying two horny blondes in the back (Diane Lee Hart, Glynn Rubin) and David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski as young newlyweds. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness).

In short, ladies, the 'Trans-America Grand Prix Auto Race" is on! Just ignore the obvious nagging questions about logic and practicality (like how gas guzzling town cars are bad at cross country races, running out of gas way more often out in the cornfields at night), the contradictory rules (does Bartel [and his co-writer Don TOP GUN Simpson] even know how races or gambling work?), and the idiocy of "Cannonball", hiss sycophantic copycat (so annoying), and Dick Miller as his bookmaking older brother, who sabotages other fast cars in the race but then, confusingly, seems to be out to sabotage his brother too (did he become someone else's brother in one of Simpson's rewrites?). He needn't bother in any case, for Cannonball is an easy mark. Never thinking to follow his enemies when they walk or crawl past his car on their way out of the parking lot, he's stunned when his jack later turns up missing or his lights don't work or his gas tanks been ice-picked. When he finally falls asleep at the wheel, you're like fuck, I'm rooting for the wrong guy.

I've barely scratched the surface with how purely stupid and incompetent Carradine's Cannonball (the driver) is, I can only presume crafty Bartel was going somewhere with the idea, some black comic joke between the 'lines' done with Simpson... lost in the nasal cavity of time.

If you can ignore all that, well, go for it: the car stunts are amazing (there's also an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes - all from back in the day they did that shit for real) and there's a plethora of insider cameos: Corman himself is the Los Angeles D.A.; Don Simpson is his assistant DA; Bartel is a shady fey mobster in the then-popular fey mobster vein (the type who play piano while their thugs (here Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone) kick the shit out of someone (Dick Miller) for not holding up their this or betraying their that. Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust him with my Big Wheel).


That's okay though, we decided we would let that all go, man. Remember? What matters is that the good guys win, even if the good guys aren't always who you think, or something. And there's a great, grim gruesome freeway pile-up so out of step with what came before it chokes off even the most jadedly sardonic of laughter. Despite the whole sexy van thing there's no puerile snickering or silicone (Fred Olen Ray was still too young, thank god), and there's a big charnel house freeway pile-up that's not to be missed. Bloody, savage, out of place, it's like if Burt Reynolds wound up decapitating some old lady in his effort to Yee-Haw over the sheriff's patrol car and the bouncy harmonica just kept a-boinging. The ever reliable Tak Fujimoto does a good job capturing the stonewashed pink of Cannonball's open shirt and the haze of the open road. In short, America.

Even so, Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move. He died in 1996 and Bartel died in 2000, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...

DEATHSPORT
(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor
**1/2

A film for the dirt bike-riding 16 year-old arsonist in all of us, DEATHSPORT was meant to be a DEATH RACE 2000 sequel but instead gives us moody crypto-poetry, blazing fireballs, matte paintings of futuristic dystopian cities, and that old LA desert scrub being ground underfoot by tricked-out dirt bikes and hosses. So many dirt bikes blow up in this film it's almost a pyrotechnic's demo reel. The game, like the Statham DEATH RACE remake or THE RUNNING MAN, helps prisoners win freedom via  motor cross / Rollerball / gladiator mash-up, with no sense of humor about its own absurdity. So you get tired of shots wherein a row of three to five tricked-out 'death bikes' whizz past the camera in single file to a 'zzzzzzzap' sound effect (that's just the same effect loop over and over) but I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents; and the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes is never short of astounding. The dirt bikes are all tricked up with white paint and shoot lots of fireballs. I'm glad the film never bothers to explain rules. We're too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil. Just blow shit up! Hell yeah, all the teachers and short Italian burnouts who wronged you in middle school can get theirs by flaming proxy. And girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious. Girls kind of half-heartedly pretending to get mind-probed by red gel lights is always fun. I never understood this habit some movies have of making the pain and fear of a woman so vivid and realistic it leaves you with a traumatic stomach for weeks, it's why I can't stand Noomi Rapace. Corman and company get the way fake violence is cathartic, a release, a transfigurative way of making the unconscious desires and fears visible and absurdist so they lose their power and we can breathe again. So the electro-lightshow shock treatments given to Claudia Jennings don't leave a scar on our psyche but harken the whole mess back a few years to AIP's DUNWICH HORROR (1971) and Hazel Court's initiation scene in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1968). The weird lighting and enigmatic presence of David McLean's 'Lord Zirpola' as the sick spectator / torturer gives these scenes a weird vibe reminiscent of the conditioning scenes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the performances in CAFE FLESH. In this future it's hard to tell where the reality and the diegetic performances separate. Even in their weird cells, Carradine and Jennings are on display, the all-seeing eye of Zirpola a combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.


So the evil empire catches two wandering warriors called in this post-whatever-scape, the 'range guides' (because they lead wagon-train-style herds through the wilderness); they bike their way to freedom through the indomitable skills and have some great soul meld sort of spirit sex even separated by a door so badly drippy white-washed you worry Carradine will get white paint on his chest hair. Later on there's bargain mutants with yellow ping-pong-ball-eyes and camouflage-netting dashikis. It all works because the cast is led by three New World champions: David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000 (he must have had a multi-picture contract with New World, like Vincent Price had with AIP); feral playmate Claudia Jennings (similar contract; see THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and able as any of the men - and prettier too, without being trashy or even overtly feminine). Real-life burn survivor Richard Lynch (GOD TOLD ME TO) is the bad guy but he's cool because he's not afraid of death and seeks only the field of honor for a final sword fight.


And it's always amazing the way Lynch seems to wind up in films full of fire effects, considering his history (3). In fact, I'm literally in awe of his fearlessness (2). Burn scars cover almost entire body, yet there he is, striding amidst the fireballs like it's no big deal. I'm in awe. I guess, in the words of the Hephaestus-like blacksmith in MOBY DICK, "thou canst not scorch a scar." (1) And great as Jennings and Carradine are at keeping straight faces, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal?" he declares, "after all I tried to do to make you feel at peace?" Whatever his fall from grace, he's openly admirable towards the memory of Carradine's warrior mother (whom he killed in battle), giving Carradine the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me"



Andrew Stein's score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sound, endless 'zap' effects as dirt bikes speed past the camera in single file and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebe's FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. When he gets down to melodic refrains on keyboard proper, however Stein can get downright terrible. Jerry Garcia even noodles forth, emerging at the darndest times in and around in the mix, and as anyone who ever sat through a Dead Show more than thrice can tell you, depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling and you're going to be in there a long while. That said, all encores end at last eventually and at times the Jerry gets damned surreal as does the comically sloppy (or obnoxiously arty -like with Godard, it can be hard to tell the difference) editing.

Some of the writing is interesting with the whole samurai aspect folded into the stilted dialogue like stealing someone else's clean underwear at the laundromat; the narrator stresses the sacredness of combat, noting the range guides "ow(e) allegiance only to their foes," whom are called "statesmen." And that the greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." In other words it's Groucho's "Hello, I must be going" all over again, but siphoned of all but the deadest deadpan winks. Another keeper, delivered with the solmemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids via TV's KUNG FU: "No one can touch myself," oh man, how true. I wanted to write them all down, but they got away from me. I could no more capture their fleeting beauty without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.

In case you can't tell, despite my staggering levels of artsy cosmopolitan breeding and literacy, I got mad love for this terrible movie and all the deadpan jokes Carradine, editor Larry Bock, and replacement director Arkush sneak little into the crevasses, like the way Carradine every so often casts a wry glance at the camera, or the non-sequitur editing. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping boll eyes and the way camouflage netting that is both their clothes and their mutations (their shame over being mutated covers the shame of the make-up dept). I love how Jenning's unusual fox-like features are complimented by her white fur collar. I'm not a fan of the grating replaying of the same sound effect over and over as the pursuing bikers whizz past the camera in line along the dirt paths, but hey. Our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.

The Shout DVD includes the fun Bock and Arkush commentary. a kid fresh out of UCLA Nicholas Niciphor, whose THX13 style sci-fi short senior project won enough acclaim to get Corman's attention. Whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; he wasn't asked back, and Arkush was called in to direct new footage, with fireballs, nudity and enough action to make the high concept artsy parts less obtuse and stilted, which he did in spades. Perhaps the best in the world at capturing the giddy anarchic spirit of a truly great rock concert on film Arkush pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism like the Ramones crashing Vince Lombardi High in his ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. (that Arkush's gonzo masterpiece GET CRAZY isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century). DEATHSPORT is like the cool dude who hands you a one-hit of kind bud right right before you go into juvenile court. Maybe you would have been better off without it, your bloodshot eyes won't impress the judge, but on the other hand joke 'em if they can't take a fuck - rock and roll! Pickle Rick! Meep-Morp.

With the scorched featured and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and grounded yet gutsy, literally foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling Carradine, the copious fireballs sending tricked-out bikes flying into the air, and the Arkush commentary, you're guaranteed a good time with the Shout DVD,  as long as you don't watch the second feature, BATTLETRUCK, even if it does have Swan (Michael Beck) from THE WARRIORS in the Mad Max role. He's a long way from XANADU...  Aren't we all? Sandahl Bergman played one of the dancing disco muses in XANADU. We couldn't have known then who she'd inspire next... one newly licensed car-driving Cimmerian who can rent XXX movies at the video store, but still needs mom to buy him R-rated movie tickets, because the Somerville Circle Cinema lady is a total bitch. Mom, Salut! 


SEE ALSO
NOTES:
1. Lynch also played a cult leader who encourages his flock to burn themselves up in BAD DREAMS, and an alien hybrid cult leader who burns himself up in a tenement basement in GOD TOLD ME TO. 
2-3. The scarred skin of Lynch's face is real --he poured gas on himself and lit a match while under the influence of too much LSD in the 1960s. I think youtube has some clips of him talking about it.

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