Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

"Men are very fragile. They get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way." notes our love-junky Wiccan Elaine (Samantha Robinson), voiceovering in her vintage convertible down Highway 101, flanked by gorgeous redwoods and crashing surf. We see her stubbing out cigarettes in the car ashtray. (God, it's been so long since I saw anyone do that). This girl, we realize, has magic --whatever that is, she's got it. And she's crazy. Needing love from a man so bad when she's already beyond the ken of the entire accumulated gender. But hey, sane people are boring, and she's very pretty, and her new apartment is popping with magical candy color, and herb jars; the somewhat more flowery and genteel interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell) was told to paint it with the "colors from the Thoth Tarot deck," by the owner, a girl from Elaine's coven. As she's new in town, Trish takes Elaine to the 'Victorian tea room,' where men are not allowed, and a lady harpist plays. We're clearly in some wild alternate reality, or are we just seeing the world through someone's eyes who has already broken off with it? It's a matter of perspective. Elaine seems not only from a 60s-70s time capsule but a timeless fairy bower. Her sisterhood in the coven, the safety of the tea room, she's protected by a magic circle. But the men who stray too close should beware. Her gaze alone--we soon learn--can knock men clear out of their own era.

Trish, by contrast, is rooted in the current era (as betrayed by her modern car and post-'The Rules' sense of female entitlement --the 'demand a lot, give a little' approach to male manipulation. Elaine, on the other hand, is a Love Witch, applying all her accumulated Wiccan powers towards seduction in loneliness-spurred desperation for male contact: "Giving men sex," she counsels Trish, "is a way of unlocking their love potential." Trish is shocked; she can't even tell if Elaine's serious with such--as she puts it--"Stepford Wife" antiquation. But what is Trish offering in sex's stead? A kind of frowny sense of third-wave entitlement? The expectation of blind dotage, with her man expected to be mindlessly obedient like a pet?

Elaine can fuck that shit up with nothing more than a heavy lidded sex magick hypnotic stare. As if to prove it, Trish's handsome (Robert Seely) fiancee barges in expecting to swirl Trish off to lunch, barging into the safe space of the tea room as if female rules don't apply to him (typical male nonsense). Handsome and naive, he's bound to be stolen by Elaine the moment his eyes meet those of this otherworldly new visitor. All Trish has to compete with Elaine's magic is the conventions of social 'reality' (such as her engagement ring), and who gives a shit about that in the movies? Social conventions are not sexy. They do not unlock 'love potential.'

Back at the Thoth Tarot-colored apartment, Ennio Morricone stings come in, slyly, shyly, and this Wicker-Mannered Kenneth Anger x Anton La Vey x Pedro Almodovar x Joe Sarno magickal tale takes slinky wing. Held aloft by a lovingly stilted acting style that approaches (no doubt intentionally) ceremonial ritualistic embodiment of astral bodies during solstice celebrations, The Love Witch gains a kind of magisterial ascendancy. Like some beverage of hitherto uncharted potency, its unique style tastes new yet old, mulled through a kind of high camp soapy-Sirkianism until it becomes no unlike the mind of a person being forced to watch that Taylor-Burton movie BOOM! while being slowly encased in a psychotropic pancake syrup that hardens into amber; as men we become Merlin watching helpless behind colored glass as Morgana le Fey begins her long-belated incestuous revenge against Camelot (ala Excalibur). And this time, we're on her side all the way, even though we're screaming in frozen agony, we love her to death.

Written, produced, and directed by CalArts wunderkind Anna Biller, Witch luxuriates graciously in its own lopsided consciousness, declaring that there is a difference in male and female auteurship and the difference should be celebrated with no shortage of nervous laughter - women are way more dangerous than men think, at least the sort of men who like to applaud women auteurs with condescending 'you go, girl!' enthusiasm. Biller at last makes the "little difference" properly ritualistic and terrifying in its Venus Flytrap beauty. Her work offers a complete analysis of female energy, with even the irrational spikes of derangement celebrated and accepted in a way that should terrify all men. Truly, no maenad madness like Love Witch could ever flow from a man's hands without lapsing into trite leering kink or preachy posturing. Rarely has so cohesive a vision emerged seemingly full-grown from the head of Athena.  This true septuple threat (Biller also did the art design, costumes, and composed several of a the renaissance faire songs) has no qualms about using deliberate artifice towards a ritualistic, almost fetishistic end, the do-it-all auteur who lets no breadth of 'sanity' or patriarchal logocentric reality checks upend the poison apple cart. It's a perfect fit, then, to visit the early-70s 'frustrated suburban housewife finds self in witch coven' subgenre, and the Eurosleaze erotic black widow variation, diligently spinnereted to Jacques Demy-style fairy tale romance with a Satan's School for Girls' annual solstice pageant primitivism that keeps it from being either campy or realistic. It's not even feminist. What the hell is it? It's dangerous, beautiful, and daring in its deliberate artifice. 

Interesting too, is the depiction of magic itself, as a force. Comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between power of suggestion (as in the devil cults of Polanski, Lewton) and fantasy, we can't really tell for sure where power of suggestion and delusional madness divide within the diegetic reality of the film, which is how it should be if you want to resonate with uncanny 70s cracker factory frisson, as this does. In the process she creates such a great piece of retro-vintage art that she seems to have taken lead point for a whole new flock of filmmakers, I've written lovingly about, who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny new vistas, and in some cases--such as Billers'--bring in a whole other level of filmmaking cohesion -- deliberate artifice, ala Shakespeare's plays within plays. Any separation between art /experimental, film, narrative, genre, retro-pastiche, present and past --are all gone in her hands. Maya Deren, Anger, Rollin, Franco, Ira Levin, Polanski, they're all Minor Arcana cards in her elaborate deck with the major being the root chords, like Saturn, Pan, Eros, Dionysus, Archangel Gabriel, and sweet Lucifer.

The story of three or so conquests in the disturbed life of a dangerously powerful and intoxicatingly sexy 'love witch' - Elaine lets us know in the opening that she's leaving San Francisco "after a nervous breakdown" - which she discusses matter-of-factly in a highly mannered theatrical voiceover (reflecting deep neuroses) with flashback images telling a different story than her voiceover, connecting her current story not only to past events (like a possibly murdered husband) but a host of female-driven films from the late 60s-70s, from PLAY IT AS IT LAYS to CIAO! MANHATTAN (1972) and even LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH. When Robinson deepens and draws our her vowels on lines "The day Jerry left me is the day I died" she sounds eerily like Marianna Hill in MESSIAH OF EVIL, and of course there's STEPFORD WIVES, which is even name-checked. But in evoking these films, Biller is also surpassing them on her way towards a more cohesively feminine, unabashedly neurotic look at how one woman's magical thinking can wreak catastrophes in the reality around her, without her ever taking responsibility or even noticing. This works to Elaine's benefit as well as ours. Biller knows it takes lack of moral judgment to get this deep into the mystic; rather than go down a Goodbar rabbit hole of sex and madness, as one might expect--especially if a man was directing--Biller focuses in on Elaine's almost supernatural ability to wreak pastorale renaissance tarot imagery and witchy ritual out of nearly every scene she sashays through. Her ability to, in a sense, turn any man into a sobbing wretch ("Just like a woman," Elaine notes of one of her conquests in her ongoing voiceover narration, while he sobs in the bedroom and she lights a cigarette on the couch. "What a pussy.") It would of course be overkill if any actual magic was added--special effects lightning etc -as she's way too hot to need it, she dazzles the eye with just a little help from herbal psychedelics, lingerie and a rainbow-colored raincoat lining.

Such a spell is dangerous to the average man. If you've ever been seduced and abandoned by a creature so lovely and bewitching that you're instantly addicted to her worse than any heroin, and she abandons you at your first display of such dependency, then you know how easily death might result from that level of sudden wish fulfillment followed immediately by its total absence. Especially if you mix in too many toxic herbal psychedelics, like jimson weed, aka datura root (helpful hint: don't try it at home), the effect--as we learn--can be lethal, and maybe it should be.

Biller's film also explores and takes (relatively) seriously the world of the Wiccans (presumably) and (probably) explains the way young teens tend to get pretty warped when they happen to live near a Renaissance Faire and visit every weekend for a whole summer, and how Elaine's cracked determination to live life as a fairy tale might believably wreck men all up and down the coast. Magic, horses, princes, tarot cards, strange sex rituals, it's all dangerous stuff, as any Jack Chick pamphlet will attest. Never underestimate the power of ritualized intent! And Elaine isn't in the habit of casting lightly, despite the flowers and candy colors. Thing is, she doesn't need it. It's overkill. She's way too hot to need spells.

Are covens just the adult version of a young girls' tea sets and stuffed unicorns?
Disneyland ritualism run amok in a kind of clockwork movement, this film runs counter to what the sweaty dying dad experiences during his tryst with the aging princess in ESCAPE FROM TOMORRROW but the arrival destination is the same (isn't it always?) Elaine has chosen to live in a world of horses, mock marriages, 'girls-only' tea houses replete with beautiful "Victoriana" trappings, but taking them to adult levels (i.e. the 'actual' grim Grimm), i.e. the sacrificial maenad / murder ballad element, which puts her into the same rarefied world as female post-'period' musicians like Rasputina, Josephine Foster, and Dame Darcy). This girly tea set / stuffed rabbit / Wonderland world, brought to menstrual adulthood --is a 'safe space' for women-only (men beware), with girls in long blonde hair playing the harp or--at the burlesque house--twins dancing in unison with feather fans (the reclaiming of burlesque by feminist performance artists--begun in the 90s--ensures this isn't unduly jarring).

Such performance-within-performed artificiality paradoxically only adds to the feeling of ritualistic predestination, as if this movie's linear 'Apollonian' narrative (cop investigating and falling for prey - ala Basic Instinct) is there only to lure the eye into a sticky trap, holding it fast for the sacrificial ceremony of feminine rebirth through seduction and symbolic castration.

Our male gaze checks in, but it won't check out... what exits the trap will be a new sort of looking.

With THE LOVE WITCH, Biller zaps her mark deep in the soft collective unconscious tissue that binds us along our collective Islets of Langerhans (right/left; male/female). She goes so deep we're compelled to realize just how short other female directors come up on the same goal (i.e. ushering in an operational mythopoetic feminine--but commercial--film language). Sofia Coppola came close a few times to Biller's natural magic and might actually nail it at last with her upcoming remake of THE BEGUILED (PS 9/18 - no she didn't) but so far has only done it in the Trip Fonatine-prom segment of VIRGIN SUICIDES; Asia Argento was one of the first to go all the way down into the chthonic basement with SCARLET DIVA in 2000, wading through the septic sludge of the male gaze like a harried plumber; Anna Lily Amirpour approached it in half of A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT but it was a love story, with a real live boy, which threw the language off; Helene Cattet did the amazing AMER (2) with her boyfriend, and together they turned experimental abstraction and the giallo on their respective heads; Catherine Hardwicke did it in the first TWILIGHT, which was so good the terrified money men promptly turned the franchise over to male directors, none of whom matched the druggy electric drag of her original. Xan Cassavettes' ever-so-slinky KISS OF THE DAMNED is another where the men are arm candy in a matriarchal vampire jet set held together by beauty, wealth, and discretion. Along with Linda Hassani's DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, they're highly recommended as examples of women directors appropriating the fantasy/horror genre in ways parallel to--but unique from-- male-driven explorations of similar lines, returning each time to the fairy tale bower where the feminine myths are first heard as children. Sensibly, they know to create this new voice, they have to return to the place they last had one --the realm of childhood.

Bitches may be strong in retro-analog films by Tarantino, Rodriguez; Russo and Ashby of DANGER 5, etc., but are all susceptible to the male drive to action and violence, the 'drive-in' adrenalin rush. None would ever dare to, for example, show their starlet casually noticing a blood spot on her underwear inserting a tampon, and then later taking it out and adding it to a bottle of her own urine + a few wild grown herb (it's a 'witch bottle' we later learn), then placing it on a man's grave, so a "part of her can stay with him forever." If a man directed that kind of thing, they'd underline it as if we should be grossed out, rather than merely add it to the flow, the way Biller does here. Biller slides it right past us. We wouldn't dare flinch.

JW Waterhouse - "Circe" detail
The Rose Bower - Burne-Jones

By contrast and comparison. Let's examine the all-female lepidopterist un-fantasia of Peter Strickland's DUKE OF BURGUNDY, an example of 'faerie bower cinema' wherein chthonic overgrowth ensnares all chances for narrative phallic linearity, leading to a kind of feminine reverie/stasis, mirroring the way deep-rooted sensual desire can hold a person almost in a state of paralysis, tapping into the state of powerless awe we as tiny children once felt towards our gigantic mom and her visiting lady friends (when they, say, come over for tea). If we're at a cute age, they all fuss over us, lavishing attention and expecting no corresponding action from us so finding our every smile and kiss to be the height of rapture. Alas, this fairie bower period doesn't last, and suddenly we're not cute anymore; the lavishing of attention stops and usually by then we're so pissy and self-absorbed we don't even miss it until years later, when we find its correlation at the movies. Once again the women are gigantic compared to us and once again we don't need to do anything sitting there in the dark. We just beam up at Garbo's giant face and know she loves us no matter what, so much she even lets us know here deepest secrets. Her giant silver screen visage then is the consolation prize from the non du pere (Lacan's construct of the forbidding father who welcomes us to the social order on condition of symbolic castration). If we do our chores, dad gives us twenty bucks to go to the movies and we fall for, if it was me, say Sandahl Bergman or Daryl Hannah. If we're in an earlier era, we might get some of that undemanding adoration performed for us at burlesque clubs (where the male acts are all symbolically neutered - baggy pants comics or androgynes like Joel Grey in CABARET - thus posing no threat to our seat of pre-Oedipal spectral omnipotence - even allowing a kind of straw dog catharsis, a chance to boo our own father when he tries to censor our libidinal enjoyment).

However, it's also true (we find out) that when brought into actualized kinky tableaux, ala Jess Franco, sadomasochism and/or stripping often becomes merely tawdry.  We might be aroused and excited if we're seeing a nude woman for the first time, but it gets old quick. The reason why that is doubles as the fundamental proof, perhaps, that Laura Mulvey's male gaze theory is more a female construct of the masculine other than the sad reality. If she was a man, she'd recognize the complete lack of proprietary control that comes as the fine print on every male gaze. The fantasy of harem-construction / female dominance through looking (gathering an imaginary group of devotees ala 8 1/2) is borne of the fantasy of unrestricted access to the feminine, a restriction men must self-impose from a very early age, brought on by the utter powerlessness of being either small, pre-adolescent or a disembodied spectral ghost/viewer. Some cultures, as in fundamentalist muslims, are so wary of their handle on libidinal self-restriction they fear even a stray strand of their woman's hair, or a naked ankle in public might incite a rape riot - again the fear becomes a projection. The man's innate inner libidinal monster is projected outwards and the powerlessness of childhood comes back full circle.
Just as, when children, we're far too powerless to stop any adult from doing anything; as viewers we're like the huntsman, unable to ride through the one-way mirror screen (or out of the baby chair safety straps) to rescue Red Riding Hood from the primal scene awaiting her at grandma's house. The Fundamentalist's plan is to prevent Red from going without a male escort; but his inner wolf still projects out into the woods and his superego defenses buckle and strain with the anxiety of the horror film viewer.

I only refer to Lacan and sadomasochism (Mulvey vs. Studlar) to contrast Biller's style, which exits the bower (and does burlesque rather than stripping - and knows keenly the difference) to pursue the backdoor histrionics of 'suburban swinger' films by Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger, Arthur Marks, and Joe Sarno, instead. These may be male directors but they love strong, proud empowered, sexually voracious females who can and do turn any suburban backyard barbecue into a wild orgy of close-ups: batted eyes, licked lips, adjusting hemlines and sizzling symbolism. These trash auteurs don't judge their heroines, they celebrate their power and recognize their immunity to the petty rules of 'decency.' Lust is vented in this fantasy reflection of the repressed suburban milieu, and done cathartically without misogyny. It's to these auteurs Biller looks for a chalk mark arrow forward, then drags the bower behind her to wipe her tracks.
Not tawdry
Consider when Anna's first conquest in her new town, a naturalist teacher named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) starts bawling and screaming needily for her the morning after, the format is set. Parise is a real find --his breakdown is a high point of the film, acting-wise, as he gives it his all while staying on message. "I have never felt real love like this before! Elaine," he shouts, "I'm scared!!" The sheer magnitude of his lovelorn heartbreak threatens to disrupt Elaine's candy-colored sandman 'magical thinking.' So she has to go smoke in the other room, suddenly it's morning and she's been sleeping on the couch. Wayne is a ruined man.

Usually it's the reverse: consider Yvonne Furneaux in LA DOLCE VITA-tearing herself apart waiting for her errant lover's call or stalking him as he tries to cover a story (above), only to threaten suicide if he doesn't come right home. Though DOLCE's Marcello waddles in guilt, ever the child, WITCH's Elaine's callous man-eating comes with no remorse. Fellini's film is a man's fantasy of a salt-battered surfer ever in the process of being swallowed up by the maternal sea, the clinging woman issuing suicide threats through phone line apron string kraken tentacles, all the women in his life weaving a luxurious seaweed wrap of ardor about him while he chases the next flutter of blonde feathers around the tower stair curve, and wakes up every morning to a beached sea monster. Aware of the closed circuit repetitive shallowness of his life, Marcelo's still powerless to change, or be happy. By contrast, Biller's film is a woman's fantasy, one where her past conquests succumb to acute melancholia, but she feels only contempt for them, all while chasing and pining for a real man to love, someone who can stand her absence without going to pieces. Rather than a surfer, Elaine is the ceaseless surf... and any man desired by another woman is her fair target.

Fans of 60s-80s Eurocult specialty DVD labels like Synapse, Mondo Macabro, and Blue Underground know well the genre Biller is exploring. In particular, the post-Ira Levin 'female empowerment through cult ritual magic' sub-genre (see Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition), the 'modern girl falls under ancient black magic sway and/or has really flipped or passed through the erotic looking glass' films, whose timeless complexity might seem anathema to LOVE WITCH's sunny Tarot card artifice, but like Kubrick or prime-era Argento, Biller offers a fully unified distinctly feminine artifice that's never merely 'cute' or 'twee' or 'precious' but includes all the downs and dysfunction with the same pop art realness. She doesn't star in it, but Biller has starred in other works of hers, and embodies a strong period persona. Just as Lana del Rey embodies a kind of early 60s David Lynch roadhouse hallucination, Biller embodies the female strength and cool of a composite of all three ladies in FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL with some aspects of Lydia Lunch, Edwige Fenech (ALL THE COLORS IN THE DARK) and Argentine 'sinsation' Isabelle Sarli (FUEGO!).

Anna Biller - thou art a badass
I was scoping photos of her for this post, and found an interesting response to a Coffee Coffee review of Biller's previous film, the (also highly recommended) VIVA.  Coffee's writer Peter suggested viewers be better served by BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or Franco's VENUS IN FURS, presuming the intent on Biller's part was a kind of high comic camp, a satire of late 60s decadence. Her response is galvanizing:
Sexploitation films were based on real things, like sexuality between men and women. I would never be interested in critiquing them wholesale, because I don't find them stupid or inferior (you might). They are more for me like fascinating fragments of culture, all the more alluring because of their low status in today's culture. 
So again, you are making many assumptions. Those assumptions come from our need today to look back on history and laugh at it. They also come from a discomfort with the exploitation form because of guilt at male enjoyment of it. I am not critiquing those films, but I am critiquing cultural stereotypes. There is a big difference. 
The intention with VIVA was to make my own version of those films, to rewrite history as it were and place myself and my voice (as a female and an individual) within it. So in that sense it's pure fetishism, and comes much more from the place the original films came from (the desire to make a sexy film using fantasy and displacement). The confusion about my intentions may come from the fact that we have not seen many sexual fantasy films made by women, except by female directors who are working in entirely more "serious" forms.
Damn right, sister! Dig the way she defends her choices and calls Mr. Coffee semi-out on an ideological gender-based point, but does so without any knee-jerk third-wave snippiness. Her pride in wanting to make a "sexy film using fantasy and displacement" is justified. It is a truly honorable ideal, especially as she reaches for a new kind of subgenre, a truly female fantasy. And LOVE WITCH succeeds at this ideal, mixing intentional story book artifice--lots of 'talent show from Summerisle' light/dark macabre counter-Christian pageantry--with genuinely erotic content in ways we don't really see in modern film; the closest we get is perhaps Bergman's MAGIC FLUTE wherein the double negative, if you will, of a play-within-a-play, seems to help induce a mimetic erotic magic that's distinctly feminine (Mother Night) in its timeless (or lunar cycle-based) parallel to the 'normal world' of linearity and men (Sarastro). Biller grasps the deep magic at work in narrative immersion and in the way mythologizing through performance helps uncork one's inner power.

That power, of course, is too much for a shaky patriarchy to handle. Becoming a man's every wish and surprising him with allure beyond what he can stand leaves him a sobbing wreck, and leaves the love witch alone in the other room smoking a cigarette, listening to  his anguished infantile castrated bathtub sobs with the dispassion of Camille Keaton rocking in her chair downstairs (5).

Thinking it over, actually, the closest I can imagine to the first of Elaine's amazing psychedelic seductions is the opening swath of DUNWICH HORROR with smoov Dean Stockwell using that weird crystal to hypnotize Sandra Dee. Or even the way Mae West brings home "That Dallas Man" in I'M NO ANGEL (1933). The other extreme, of course, is more prevalent, especially in the US under the lash of books like The Rules and the ridiculous "perfect" man-vs.-slovenly selfish prick dichotomy rom-coms, that is: the disappointed woman of high expectations stranded in her narcissistic cocoon, unwilling to admit it's stifling her, and being rewarded with some perfect masculine ideal that may exist, but isn't necessarily going to ever pick her in real life just because she waited and demanded he appear. Stay waiting too long in that fairy bower, and you could get swallowed up by the underbrush.

The fairy bower end-of-the-line "woman in her fancy hats broods and pontificates along the rocky coast" kind of jazz is harder to do right than it looks. For example, Angelina Jolie took it for a spin in BY THE SEA, which some people (whose judgment I revere) love but which I felt suffocated by as if being dragged to some expensive boutique by a petit-bourgeois girlfriend and made to stand there for hours trying not to seem bored while she fussed over designer clothes and scowled at me for volunteering to pay for this one adorable Hermes handbag. The story of a couple dissolving and clearly trying to save their relationship by renting out apparently an entire corner of the Riviera, it's the film that helps us realize Brad and Angelina are not doing well as a couple - it's the movie version of them sitting us down on the couch for a special family meeting to let us know dad's moving out for an indefinite period while mom and he work out some issues. While outside in the open air bar, Brad makes a point of connecting with the old locals and picturesquely drinking a sun-illuminated pint of beer while the old men tells a story. The vibe is as faux light and spontaneous as if an Eric Rohmer movie was bronzed, thrown in the sea, and told to swim.  It can't, Brad. Stop pretending to care about these blandly generic locals with their trite pastoralities. You're better than that. Fight Club, Brad! Fight Cluuubbb-glub-glub (Imagine me saying this as i sink below the amber waves). (3)

THE LOVE WITCH on the other hand at least has its own lunar tidal pull. It's alive and snaking ever-forward; it might dilly-over the edge with little moments that evoke Ed Wood and/or Tommy Wiseau in their amateurish strangeness, but baby does it ever float, like a tossed bouquet--a floating iron glove cast in velvet--- to be caught by any future female filmmakers with a touch of madness or moxy. Biller's film is the feminine mystical equivalent of finally blowing a hole through the concrete defensive ring around male cult film Normandy, to seize princess super power without necessarily being a bitch about it. 'This is what turns me on," Biller announces, "and I don't care if it seems immature and I should have grown out of it by now--ponies, princesses, and love-love-love," whatever, I'm going for it, so fuck off." Of course it would still be the empty fantasy if Biller wasn't wise to herself, and to the limits of the bower's protection. LOVE WITCH is like a young girl's tea party crashed by a Jayne Eyre-Wide Sargasso Sea madwoman, who comes rolling down the stairs and under the locked door like little Rosita's blood in THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).

As Elaine masturbates to memories (?) of being shamed by her father as a child or mounted by the hairy coven leader during her coven initiation, we're forced--especially as male spectators--to contemplate just how thorny female sexuality really is. We're put into a position we're totally not comfortable with, and it's about time we were. Biller presents us with the idea that a woman might masturbate thinking about her father, and/or hairy and hobgoblin-esque characters and frankly, we weren't expecting that. As men we're taught to recoil from our own toad-ish aspects, the bloated troll underbelly of our princely visage, but for Elaine (and, by extension, Biller), the repellant frog kiss that prefigures the marriage to the handsome prince is swirled into the erotic potion that gets her off, only in her erotic fantasy, the prince is still part toad.

This aspect of female sexuality has been explored only by wild-eyed surrealists like Bunuel. Most men dare not go near it, troll-like themselves, perhaps, it would smack of wishful thinking and vanity. If they try, they tumble off the path and into the thorny issues that bog down so many films (and even some of my other posts).

Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin
But Biller's every gilded splinter-step is sure. She never falls too far down the whimsical fantasy rabbit hole or up the "psychotic break" vortex of subjectivity. Instead, snaking like a footpad between the high and lowbrow camps, Biller proves an adept guide to the feminine's archetypal root cellar, one who knows how to not get snagged. She excavates the tarot as a bridge between fantasy and the reality of the moment, and the result-- as in all the best examples of the period/genre--leaves us unsure whether the 'magic' being performed is merely ceremonial posturing (meant to focus the will with drugs as a kind of perception enhancing tool), or if it evokes genuine spirit power. It's not even important. That's how you know myth is working - you no longer perceive the illusion of a separation between the real and the vividly imagined.

We're also never sure just what we feel about these couple of disreputable hairy male characters who seem to have inserted themselves into the otherwise hip matriarchal coven, but we trust Biller to know the answer and never falter, to not let patriarchal conditioning kick in and warp her thrust. The fey, hairy warlock named Gahan (Jared Sanford) seems placed at the head of the coven, but it's not--we hope--out of some nod to some deep-seated animus patriarch sub-conditioning (6) but because he's a mentor/executive producer and thus it's a role that fits his role within the film (and her memories of being with him on the dais are folded into her thorny masturbation memories -- it's clear she's disgusted by him but not enough to leave the group- he's endured). That we can trust Biller to not 'cop out' and turn the car over to him and/or some other man, or get all heavy-handed and start saying 'killing is wrong' blah blah I found a boyfriend who loves me for me,' or something--is testament to her strength, her ability to use what we tend to pigeonhole as camp as the palette for a deeply subversive neo-feminist spin on a unique genre from a unique time and place. We can rest easy in her hands. Being able to trust a female auteur with the car keys --so to speak--is the psychotro-poetic equivalent, to a guy like me, of being able to float on a giant amniotic breast cloud into the dissolving rays of a birth-reversing sun. When you trust the girl driving you don't automatically wince when she pumps the brakes, and if she almost hits another car - well she meant to fucking hit it -- the other driver was just too fast or slow, or a man.

Knowing this, the rest is rearview.
Speaking of which, maybe you saw on FB: I happen to have been in the hospital most of last weekend with my first case of the DTs! Shhhh. I'll tell you, and bury it safely on the bottom of a non-related post. Actually, it's related as I had my own anima-projection/ fantasy girl come along when I was twitching in the ER. I hadn't even stepped foot in a hospital in over 16 years, so was amazed at all the progress that had gone on. There was a vision in blue scrubs, a luminous angel, wheeling around a kind of podium pushcart with the glow of a computer screen hovering over it in the dark of the early AM  like a kind of floating alien saucer.(not that there were windows - but they turn out a lot of lights after 10 or so, and it all becomes like a big slumber party). She floated amongst us agonized, zonked sinners like an absolving angel. In my case, shooting a dose of Ativan into my IV tube or passing out Librium in a tiny paper cup. Like on an airplane when everyone is dying for a drink and the stewardess slowly moves up the aisle towards you and all you can do is sit in your chair and watch and wait, and pine - and the slower she goes --every crack and hiss of an opening soda can like a sweet angelic harp chord.

Eventually they had me in an upstairs bed; a different beauty with her alien tray came gliding along (a "hospital medication computer cart" - I looked up its name), its CRT a reassuring UFO nightlight in the darkness, part Valkyre descending down the Valhalla-way with her benzos and opiates, and anti-coagulants, this upper floor girl looked like the eldest Haim sister and became my new feminine ideal. There were also three trainees, all very Haim-like but blonder--vaguely Nordic--traveling in shimmering haze of long blonde hair and white lab coats, led by an old, important looking male doctor, down the rows of sick and suffering. I was amazed. Why, I wondered, am I always presented, one way or the other, with these shimming visions of the 3 Sisters during my darkest hours? Angels exist, man, and they have long Haim hair that shimmers in the light from the blue screen monitors of their floating drug trays during the wee wee hours; and when they pass they leave the souls that had been screaming in forlorn pain, for what seemed at the time like hours, suddenly sighing and silent... as if the pain had never even happened; and then, the snoring.

Of course the shifts change around the clock so I don't think I ever saw the same angel more than once or twice. I could never find them again once they left my little screened off bed. Not that I  could look far. If I was feeling restless, like the drugs had worn off, all I had to do was try and stand up to realize that, no, they hadn't. I'd grab ahold of my wheeled IV drip (they make great combo canes/walkers, like Merlin's staff, anchoring those half in/half out of this reality, preventing us from both falling down and floating away) and slowly make my way out the door and out into the hall, to the quiet amazement and feigned disinterest of the staff and visitors floating around. All zonked and lost and powerless, forced to wait for everything to come my way rather than go find it, I soon learned that the screams and moans of the damned meant little to this super busy staff. I knew I was amongst experts with addicts and DTs (or whatever psychotic weird break I'd had with my huge regimen of SSRI medication reacting to the lack of alcohol) but that would not hasten the next Libirum or Ativan dose one iota.

And believe it or not, there was comfort in that. Total powerlessness is indeed liberating, just like Batailles always said. Here on the whatever floor of NY Presbyterian (Park Slope), I knew true surrender - beyond shame. Just getting out of bed was enough of a challenge, getting up to go to the bathroom as laborious and involved in my delirium as scaling Wudan mountain.

Now I'm back home but God I miss those lovely shimmering goddesses and their glowing late night floating UFO pill dispensary stations, bringing solace and salve to those poor damned miserable sinners, of which I for a time was one. Since I'm reasonably sure they'll never read this, or remember me, let me just say in case they do: ladies, collectively, in my fever brain, you have cohered into my Lady of the Lake, my anima ideal, my goddess, if I could get a photo of you as I saw you in that fucked up hour of total need, I would build a temple around it. Instead, well, there's this silent prayer. Hail and blessings be, oh shimmering Benzo-flection of my Lost Lenore, reflection of the kind nepenthe I know I can never drink again. When next will we three meet --thy cart and thee and my poor polluted streams?  (4)

(my previous sobriety date - 11/17/98; my new sobriety date: 02/15/17)

1. Burlesque has become the go-to for female performance art and cultural/body/image reappropriation - in case you didn't know - Most larger cities have at least one tucked-away venue, even if it just hosts a show once every week, like at some cabaret-style comedy or improv club or bar with a stage.  
2. She did it with boyfriend Burno Forzani- but her presence is more keenly felt as its a woman story
3. I didn't actually get more than 1/4 the way into BY THE SEA, and felt the same way about LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, a film I can only see in one 10 minute dose every five years or so (though I feel like I already have seen it, the version with Candace Hiligoss. Maybe when it's all finally seen, I can forget.
4. My initial hour or whatever in the waiting area of ER was a century of Hell- watching the faces cohere in Pollock-level drop deep through the pattern left by the hot floor waxer that had just been by --leaving too much damp heat emanating upwards. And feeling the emanating waves of slow opiate (or crack) withdrawal emanating from this junkie chick and her sketchy arm support. Now I know what Hell smells like. Shipmates, the smell of hot floor wax has burned deep into the soft spots of my soul, leaving permanent stains that alternate between a ghostly image of Veronica Lake beckoning to me from the deep, as if the floor wax pattern on the tile was the shimmer on the surface of the ocean; my carry-on bag had my Kindle Fire with the voices of Fred Allen and Portland, talking to a ribbon of electric razors, emanating from it --the laughter of their audience activating the paranoia of my fellow ER-mates. The main thing from my alcohol withdrawal, which is why I had to go to the ER, I was too fucked up to get more alcohol to stop my horrible withdrawal / DTs. Most of the last few days I was lying in bed in delusional misery remembering lines from HIGH SOCIETY, which I'd been watching over and over in my drunken excess-tasy - Sinatra blurring "she got pinched in the ASS--ter Bar" (From his duet with Bing, "Yes Indeedy") over and over like a broken record, for hour after hour) after hour) She was Stoned - Frank says, of the girl pinched in the ass / ter bar. Ass-Ter BAR. So now I know - when your hangover gets worse and worse the longer you go without a drink (rather than say clearing up by the evening), that's alcoholism! 
6. My seeing red over random insertions of some kind of overriding pimp to devouring females is well-documented, it was a huge turn-off in both VAMPIRE LOVERS and UNDER THE SKIN, among others (VAMPYRES to its immense credit lacks one, as does--sort of--DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS). It seems to be this fear so deep-seated within the masculine psyche evokes a knee-jerk response for the intermediary (see my 2009 anti-salute to them: "Pimps: the Devil's Subjects")

Why don't we just Go Ask Alice? 
Alice 2.2 - The Looking Glass Dolls
The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA 
A Star-Spangled Salute to America's most Acidemic-Cinematic Women (7/4/10)
13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime.
Desperation and Divinity (Help us, Mae!) BL 09


  1. I've long been an admirer, Mr. Kuersten. We've never met, but I've been a reader here for almost a decade and feel as if I know you a bit. You are one of the most honest, original, generous, and brave writers I've ever had the pleasure to read. I am one of the those who watch in awe, from afar, never commenting here, until now. We love you, Erich. We appreciate you. Please be well.

  2. Thank you - I love you too, oh anonymous long-time reader. It means a lot to hear this, especially at this particular moment. Be well.

  3. Excellent article! I just have one small criticism - the painting "The Rose Bower" that you have noted as being by JW Waterhouse was actually painted by Edward Burne-Jones... That being said - your writing is very erudite! I salute you!

    1. Whoa thanx Dax your totally right - some of them it's hard to tell and I'm a huge fan of both. I'm fixin' it


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