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. 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, impressed, 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 mope around, we're bad at sports and dating --we may even avoid a chance to drink since alcohol tastes so horrible. But then, for some blessed reason, we're convinced to drink enough to get our first buzz: the clouds part, the sun shines in color for the first time, that flood of warmth fills our sails, and we're suddenly good at sports, more assertive, comfortable in our own skin, able to think clearly; we actually feel happy!

A few drinks in and we're like Dorothy waking up in Technicolor Oz.

How can she go back to sober sepia after that? She can't, Auntie Em. A few days of depressing Kansas (that sepia tint like a twisting dagger of ennui), the wet hay and offal tinging the nostrils like an accusatory finger. Her one source of solace--Toto--is sentenced to the gas house (they never show Mrs. Gultch cycling back to grab Toto all over again). She can't take another minute of this hungover black-and-white grimness! If she can't wear ruby slippers, she's going barefoot! She kicks off her sepia shoes and sneaks to the back of the shed and finds Zeke's moonshine jug (that funnel on his head in Oz clearly denotes that inside his hollow chest is fermenting sour mash). A few swigs later and once again Technicolor gushes into the world; she can see the miasma of OZ superimposed over the drab flatlands! This time she's gonna stay in Oz, forever!

But... always a 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 evil Mrs. Gulch's dog-hating machinations continue. You better believe Dorothy's tumbling back o'the shed to Zeke's jug asap, before the shakes start. This time though, Oz has some sepia showing through. She can't drink the Technicolor back to full brightness -- the jug is empty. Now even Oz looks faded.

A few more 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 state asylum's eletroshock 'cure', a job in the brothels and... damn, AA is still only an Ohio thing.. but it's coming, Dorothy! Hold on!

Thanks be to whatever higher power you choose, the Wizard, Auntie Em, or just the Emerald City door knocker, AA is everywhere today. Dorothy can find a whole new kind of half-color Emerald awaiting her in Kansan church basements and coffee and (once upon a time) cigarettes, provided the wizard remembers to give her a meeting book and a copy of Living Sober. 

OZ isn't really about alcohol, but as a universal myth--maybe 'the' myth of our age--it can't be beat for analogy.

The ARE movies about alcohol addiction 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 or girl on fire with thirst figure out just where they're at.. So take a seat and find out  just how much lower you can go before you hit bottom. Rather than lying through another AA Blue Book quiz, come along with us as we examine the cinematic alcoholic scale:

(slurring to sodden - but reversible without hospitalization)

LEVEL 1. Scintillating (First Plateau)
William Powell as Nick Charles
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 hobnob 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 as--over the course of the six films--Nick slowly succumbs to the weight of the world. Laid low by studio censorship-enforced boozing limits, wartime rationing, changing times, and just plain getting old, by the time of the final entry, SONG OF THE THIN MAN, he and Nora are regarded with little more than bemusement by the younger beatniks. The harder the couple endeavor to seem 'with it' the more obvious it was that their style of life, society, culture and even music, would never 'scintillate' again. Still, in the first movies, we get the portrait of the ideal drunk, higher functioning than us when straight, nice to all, where even the guys he sent up the river like him.

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. But it is hilarious!

LEVEL 2 - Hilarious
W.C. Fields in Everything
"Don't labor under the misconception that 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, or Bill Fields is 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 an alarming (no longer amusing) light. Fields' hands don't shake, in fact his dexterity and eye hand coordination remain almost supernatural (1), making him the ultimate in rationalization totems.

I used to modulate that Fields quote above for AA meetings, for when I was on a bender near the end, I would say no to a morning 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 morning snort? The shakes instantly abated once I surrendered, but each morning drink is like exponentially accruing interest on a terrible debt. Sooner or later, you'll be out of booze, and excuses, and saying yes to a drink a million times still won't get you one, because just putting on shoes and finding your wallet and getting to the liquor store is an impossible dream.

LEVEL 3: Existentially Debauched
Terence Stamp as Toby Dammit
Dir. Frederico Fellini

This is the beginning of the end, when the dark portent of death first appears, usually as a shadow reflecting in the water of the toilet bowl as you dry heave, or in silent, recurring faces at parties. Watching you enigmatically across the crowded room is someone you're never quite able to make it over to confront. They smile and evade when you do finally confront them about it in the parking lot, if you can even get to them, for every two steps someone jams a camera in your face or tries to get you to read their book or discuss your feelings on some philosopher, anything to get your attention, a selfie together, whatever. That you're in terrible wild-eyed distress, or nearly hysterical with that mix of boozy euphoria and horror that is the daily seesaw of the semi-functional alcoholic, only means you might be more vulnerable, might need a friend, a glomming remora eel crutch. No matter how rude you are to them, they keep coming. They cease to be people at all, or demons, but cut-out images, or dead frozen tableaux.

Meanwhile, you start to look ever-paler and more bedraggled, still gorgeous, but moving into the zone of rock stars before they either overdose, get haggard, bald and bloated and start canceling gigs  or get sober and fade away. 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. 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 in their supportiveness. The whole mating courtship as second motherhood (with you as the booze-hobbled infant) thing becomes stripped of all its magical glamor, leaving only a kind of bleached skull grin of want. The only thing left for you is speed... go on, bet the devil your head!

LEVEL 4: Fallin' Apart
Robert Mitchum as J.T.
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. After a few days, a fistfight, 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 is much farther down this list. Maybe yours is still safely here at level 4? Quit now so you can drink again later, or drink now and have to stop forever later? Brother, that's some choice.

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. If you're depressed and SSRI meds haven't been invented yet, booze might be your only solace. You might be 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 JT-like benders before we turn into pickles. And once you're a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again (old AA proverb).

 Though god knows we'll keep trying.


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

With Mitchum's JT in EL DORADO, alcoholism is treated as 'redeemable' --even comical. Once the dangers facing the McClouds, and initial pain of sobriety, have passed, it's OK for JT to drink whiskey again. But his bender lasted only six months. Martin's in RIO lasted--we're told-- two years. It's rare to see this meridian level of alcoholism so succinctly played, and to comprise such a major part of a major classic, rather than just either Ford-level comical or Wilder-level simplistic --for example we never actually see him take a drink in the whole film, not even beer, which is used as a smart way to ease down from the cliff of whiskey shakes ("there's nothing better for sobering up than beer" as Geoffrey Firmin says in a later film on this lise). It's clear the authors of Rio Bravo know the misery of sobering up from a bender, and what makes this portrayal so rare is how it's a side plot rather than the main thing in some social polemic ("I've been there," Chance notes, with the perfect mix of empathy without enabling.) It's used instead as an action plot device, a kind of medical condition that makes his gunfighting skill compromised while he recovers, but can he recover before the big shootout looming on the horizon.

Trading on Dino's boozer persona, Dude is seen as a master gunslinger who was Chance's (John Wayne's) deputy. A girl rode into town on the stage, Chance told him she was no good. He left with her anyway, and came back a bit later and it had left him a bitter wreck. That's how 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 solace of the gutter before the DTs kick in. Dude! I've never been that broke, but I've been so low I would have gladly done fished a spittoon for a drink, as it would be easier than going downstairs to the liquor store even though I had cash in my pocket and literally lived right next door to one!. God help you if you need to drive to get your refills, or are left dry on a Sunday morning in NY state. Even Denny's can't serve you wine until noon, seven AM on a Sunday and the all-night mart can't sell you a six pack! As Don Birnim says in a later film on this list "bars don't open til noon on Sundays! Why? Why, Nat?"

Note that--while Dude's sobering follows a similar arc to JT's (with a bath scene) in EL DORADO--Dude can't really go back to drinking at the end the way JT does. He can still maybe have a beer or two, but we've all tried to "just drink beer" before having to. quit permanently and completely and "it didn't do any good." It never does. But, come on, Dude, don't give up. Librium isn't invented yet, so he has to tough it out, shivering in the hot Texas sun. It's not until a piece of Mexican 'death march' music plays from down the street at Joe Burdett's saloon and hips him to the cosmic cool he used to know, that suddenly he "remembers how [he] got into this thing in the first place." He's merged back into the tapestry of the Hawksian group; his shakes are gone because they've moved into the walls, and into the knees of enemies, and into the electric crackle of his guns and finally into Stumpy's tossed dynamite.

LEVEL 6: the 'moment of clarity' 
Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen

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 of character, costume and disease to Martin in RIO BRAVO says it all. If there hadn't been a Joe Burdett to sober him up, Dude might still be on the bottle, or gone a-roaming and hiring his gun and contributing to his own legend until... there you go. Joe Burdett is the savior that stops a Dude from becoming a Kid.

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 would be... hilarious. The drunks of the Academy 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: Shelleen arrives at Jane Fonda's ranch a hungover bleary mess, starts painedly eyeing the targets laid out for him across the yard, he hasn't even a gun. The old guy sympathizes: "you'd like a drink more than a kick in the head, wouldn't ya?" A huge swig later and suddenly the Kid's amazing: confident, stoic, a dead shot, brave and true. Filling them with hope as he fires perfectly, he seems to inhabit a cool sober bravado facade (almost like he's back at level one, the Nick Charles charmer); he then finishes the pint, throws it into the air to fire at it, but misses and by the time it lands, he's toast again. "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
Dir. Billy Wilder

This number is actually a bit arbitrary as Don's alcoholism runs the gamut, a kind of drinker's greatest hits, anchored as it is by two things: one, he starts the film more or less sober --albeit in 'white knuckle' city-- and, the other, that he's got no money to go on a bender with. His brother and his girl, are both conspiring to get him out of the city for a week of fresh air. They 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. Nice try, Don! But the brother finds it, so--in a truly heartbreaking moment--makes Don pour it all out (grown men are know to weep at this tragic waste). Undaunted, Don fakes his interveners 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 by for her week's salary; she tells him the brother leaves it in the sugar bowl. Naturally Don pockets it and tells the maid his bro must have forgot. Sorry. Door slams. And he's off! Run, Don! Run!

When Max and I rented it one LBI summer in 1991, six years before I first quit drinking, Lost Weekend was like the creepy herald at the gas station in a horror movie. This baby had my number right down to the neighborhood (NYC) 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, that he'd grab any excuse to shoehorn in a little Austrian high culture. 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 and why suit jackets have inside pockets! 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 out, ala the paredolia amok quality of a bad acid trip. 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 yeah, that 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! Let 'er rip!

When it's good it's pretty good
But when it's bad its really bad, and for far, far longer
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 in the dead of night, if he was just one level farther down this list, would be next to impossible. He needs an Ativan drip, he would have gladly stayed if he had one, but it didn't exist yet!

Barrymore as--more or less himself--- DINNER AT EIGHT
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. The serenity of the irrevocably damned cannot be measured. 

LEVEL 8: Literary / Kafka High (Second Plateau)
John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew
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, Mahoney gets 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 pet project 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 and producers so busy spouting contradicting messages that they barely notice you're in the room. 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 suspended. 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 on the girlfriend--or-assistant--or-both, of course, to keep them spinning like a magic show plate. Sure this driunk will crack when he hits the floor, 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 here, the younger brother and adulterer, patiently plying his rival/sibling with 'cures' for alcoholism like a regicidal lover creeping through the royal garden with his poison earwax candle. We're too drunk to resist him, except for the occasional passive-aggressive jab. We're past those breakwaters, 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 very far) hopefully of something other than strychnine. It might be easier to be publicly intoxicated in a place like Mexico, where--as WC Fields would say--drunkenness is so common it's unnoticed, and where 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 of goneness, and I 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 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, as he did in Night of the Iguana (which finds Shannon at Existentially Debauched Mach 1 - the Toby Dammit level (#3, above).

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, making it hard for old Geoffrey to assert any alpha dominance. It would have probably been more enjoyable had someone like Burton played the part, but Finney certainly does have the breadth; booze seems to emanate from his pores in the hot Mexican sun. He is, in short, colossal. 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 and rhapsodizing with a love for the world, constantly turning his conversations into glazed-eyed monologues and rationalizations, boasts, defeats, petty hollering, is to feel both a lysergic tang in the saliva glands and a brutal chill to the bones.

LEVEL 10 - Crackin' Up
Jack Lemmon as Joe Clay
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 and Lemmon indicates this should be a wacky comedy. It is, it's just also terrifying, gut-wrenching, humorless and dark-as-pitch. 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 so are compelled to go staggering out into the public sphere, hoping you find something ope. 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 there is between agonized withdrawal periods -- like a pause button on the alarm clock in the morning of your torture-filled death. Sooner or later the booze is gone, the pause goes off automatically, and the pain resumes, only more so. All booze does is make it later and later, which makes the pain worse and worse, and when you wake up screaming and are also out of booze, well, you're truly fucked. Now the only way you can keep going is if you have 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 here, and it's that stagger that turned me around on the film. 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. Once. But this last relapse, I remember --there's a window into a real estate office adjacent to my apartment with two bottles of champagne within grabbing distance behind the ground floor window. 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, the need for entering a building with overhead lights, and money exchanges I was terrified of falling over, flipping out, passing out in the dairy aisle, letting the cashier see my shakes, 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 early withdrawal Yeeesh.

LEVEL 11: Last Call (Third Plateau)
Nicolas Cage as Ben
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, or both. "I came to Vegas to drink myself to death," notes Ben to his last-days lover Sera (Elizabeth Shue). Their doomed 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 Ben for the next several weeks, my girlfriend no longer trying to stop me, for she got the tragic romance of the 'non-interference' policy.

At the time I saw it, 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, can 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 than we were that morning. At the Ben stage, it's reversed, and there's no limit: if that was Ben going to work, 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. I guess you would shit your pants if you had any solids in your system. Trying to make it back up or down stairs, to avoid getting hit by a car crossing the street, or just appearing in public without winding 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. It can take hours. Finding another one to match is like a needle in a field of haystacks. Socks, forgot socks - an hour finding a pair and getting them on, and they're still inside out and mismatched.

And what's the reward if you manage to procure and down enough booze to stop the pain? Bliss, for a few hours or so, maybe some writing, followed by some period of dead unconsciousness, usually waking up to find your glasses are missing or smashed against your face, and you've broken at least two things, including maybe the coffee table. Sleeping with your head on the cold tile floor (the best!), 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 to keep down.  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 dim moments of glowing, transcendental love/bliss/joy - a sense of warmth ebbing into your soul like cosmic jacuzzi. Ideally you did some writing in that time - as you won't remember you even felt it otherwise. (2)


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

Sometimes there's a man gets healed by the love of a good woman, the lord, or the people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sometimes the meeting is canceled or isn't fun anymore, or the lord leaves for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back, or the good woman 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 her 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 Will's buddy to death, Munny relapses and it's like Popeye eating some PCP-laced spinach, which is what it's like when you relapse after a long, long time off the bottle. Hell follows with Munny and he kills everyone in the bar. "I've always been lucky when it comes to killin'" he explains, and Eastwood makes sure we see the US flag waving behind him in the flames, for Munny's 'luck' with killing, and his terrible addictions, are America's. 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 captured in film because there is nothing afterwards except degraded madness, which is not cinematic. Or it's death, which is the same, unless one becomes it, and that's what Munny becomes, like Shiva, or Opie at Los Alamos.

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 - apparently. 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? I wonder what channel I would have requested for my sober cell back under Viola Davis' wing (the lizard guy got BET)- but I don't wonder long, of course it's TCM. I blame their Wine Club for contributing to my downfall - as it's like someone set up a bar in the middle of your AA homegroup.
Final Note:

I've tried to keep this post light, but 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. They have no real power beyond that which they try and co-pt. Just go to meetings and listen, and blah blah. 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 your not wanting to do it isn't fear of facing the truth within yourself. It works if you work it! The happy ending to this post is only ever granted one day at a time. Ain't we lucky we got 'em... for now? May God help us all... in the future. 

I think He will. If we let 'im. 

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 :)
2. I haven't had any alcohol during the whole life of this blog except for a short period - in early 2017 (between 12/25/15- 2/15/16) if you want to see an example of this euphoric writing see Dipsomaniac Amore, most of which was written during that time)


  1. Wonderful piece. I guess I need to add, for the record, that I'm not a drinker.

  2. I'm glad to hear that you were able to get back off the horse. Been there, Pal. Reading this entry, I was thinking how these archetypes and characters would line up with chess pieces. But then, even the Kings are pawns. I appreciate the inner demon's instructional monologue, Break the window, steal the champagne... It's just so much easier than walking down there and dealing with people... I think my alcoholism/addiction is indeed a separate, schizophrenic shadow of my well intentioned self, acting all helpful and then reeling me in, telling me to tell myself how worthless I am - and maybe I am, but I will make those evaluations with a clear head, thank you. Nine years for me, but it's not a nine year victory or accomplishment, it's a daily tic mark on my cell walls. Thing is, I'd still be in the cell if I didn't have anything to make tic marks about, only it would not be as airy as the one I'm in. (beaten metaphor, anyone?) Wondering if you saw Kingsman 2? Those movies are so subversive. The villains in both have good long term intentions, and they are only villains because they seize their skills to save the world. Then the Secret Governments have to spoil it. They never want to own the world, they want to free it.


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