Thursday, December 20, 2018

Best of 2018 (Movies and TV)

Here's the list and if this intro is shorter than usual, just note that there's less and less to write about as far as unity of direction and theme in cinema as a whole, the line is so spread out thanks to streaming there's almost no way to get the whole picture. Titles proliferate faster than any one critic may see. The working professional (i.e. currently paid) critics get the screeners for the Oscar bids or go to press screenings, but for the rest of us, if we're no longer getting paid to see them, why would we even want to? Those of us with the right Hendrixian 'experience' prefer films that take the trappings of genre and twist them all up in to groovy, psychedelic tie-dye twists that then become a steep Eisentstein-Rosencrantz bridge deep into the heavy mystic. As Jim once sang, blowsy and belting: "tell all the people that you see: follow me.... follow me down!" OK Nation, world, let's goooo.

#1: (a Nic Cage Tie): 
Dir Panos Cosmatos

Saturated in a druggy wash of deep reds and dark blacks there's so much beauty in every composition of this sludge rock vengeance masterpiece as to deserve a painted mirror you might win on the Seaside Heights boardwalk back in 1983, when you're an impressionable 14 year-old so every Frazetta cover blazes with aliveness. 1983 is also when this set, and deep in some magical forest deep in the Shadow Mountains... Cage is a lumberjack living in a very groovy pad with his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Happy as could be, they live as any of us might, eating dinner while agog in front of the TV, telling weird Erik Estrada knock-knock jokes, and rowing out to the center of the glassy lake out back --perfectly in tune and in trippy love, all captured in dreamy dissolves. Naturally a bunch of crazy acidhead Manson-esque Jesus freaks show up and... well... soon enough Nic has plenty of reason to go on a bizarro drug-fueled killing spree.

Throughout Cosmatos detours into sludgy canvasses of deep red and black, which if it's your favorite color combination as it is mine, you will love this sludgy film. In one of countless great choices, Cosmatos foregoes the usual heavy metal or hard rock classic soundtrack, aside from an unforgettable opening title set to "Starless and Bible Black" by King Crimson. The great, dearly departed Johan Johannson score lays a deep abstract Carpenter carpet underneath the wildness, occasionally going over the deep end as when Red (Cage) samples the jar of Black Rider grey jelly, a kind of super psycho-meth that hits him as instantly and crazily as any ever. As with Cosmatos' iconic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, your familiarity with 70s-80s Canadian horror and sci-fi films, novels and heavy metal album covers, and mind-bending drugs isn't needed, but it sure helps. Add Cage at his wildest, and badass behavior from both him and Mandy in the face of pure evil and this movie leaps right over the... two moons?! This movie, I tell ya. The whole revenge of one simple man with chainsaw skills on a one-man druggie vendetta against Manson-esque Jesus freaks (and their demon allies) may not be terribly new, but what Cosmatos does is far more ballsy than just adding dour self-importance of social messaging, he brings in the supernatural in a way more holistic and connected than, say, Lynch does in Twin Peaks; The Return. And best of all, does the slow weird meaning-tentacled abstraction of strong psychedelic drugs better than any other working director today, x 2
(see full review: Acid-Etched Damascus)

Dir. Brian Taylor

There's an ingeniously simple, savage, disturbing premise to this wild satire that basically sends a cold shot of Drano-laced meth up the IV tube that's been keeping suburban tract home 2.5 children family bliss/stasis stabilized with cheap corn sugar glucose nigh these 70 odd years (since the dawn of the suburbs at the close of WW2). Tapping into a kind of unspoken universal American rage but reversing the flow (instead of protecting children from harm, etc.) Nicolas Cage is letter perfect as the weirdo dad, and Selma Blair is a whole extra book of revelations as the spin class nervous breakdown mom and it's always nice when Lance Henriksen shows up, giving everyone--even crazy Cage--a lesson in balls-out crazy lunge-for-the-jug style acting. Best is the real-time single 24-hour time frame of events, the way--as in  the roots of what's going on are never overtly spelled out (beginning with the super weird early and confusing evacuation of school). I haven't enjoyed a movie this much since, well, ever. Mr. Bill's unruly industrial clatter/whoosh score keeps everything rolling with seven layers of ominous adrenalin. Director Brian Taylor is the nutcase who gave us Crank and Crank 2: High-Voltage in case you're wondering how he got so good at lunatic real-time mayhem and blacker-than-the-anti-sun comedy. He and Nic Cage were made for each other, as they already proved in the 2012 guilty pleasure Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance!   I mean, just look at Cage in the pic there, have you ever seen a man crazier? He's right up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as far as new high water mark level of nuts, which, in our Trumpian post-wasteland, I think more than sums up the tenor of the time.

Dir. Ari Aster

Successfully goes where others of this decade have only tried, namely to the whole "is there a difference between inherited bi-polar manic depression, and literal matriarchal conspiracies of witches?" split. There's room for both answers in all the best films on the subject, like Rosemary's Baby, and even the ones that are only partly successful (House of the Devil, The WitchLords of Salem). The subject--when examined right--treads so close to the line where acute perception--reality stripped of its facade--becomes paranoid schizophrenic insanity that it's very easy to forget which side of it you're on at any given times.  Living with a person suffering from such a problem, always teetering over the edge, is truly unnerving. Thanks to a terrifyingly vivid performance by Toni Collette (the most tragically scary mother in a horror film since Essie Davis in The Babadook) we get just how tragic and extra-deep that rabbit hole vortex goes.

It's funny to read all the backlash from critics, after hearing it compared it to The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby (I think it's actually better than the former). The other backlash, from the public, is based on how traumatized they are by seeing certain people of certain ages having certain bad things happen to them onscreen. The set-up for Hereditary's big early-inning shock is so subtle and deflective we feel the way audiences must have felt the first time seeing Psycho.

The weird thing is that none of this stuff seems at all gratuitous or even sadistic - it's all leading to a certain place and every chill is earned. This is no 90 minute thrill ride but a solid legitimately rich character study that marks the crossroads between mental illness's effects on families and the way paranoia about witchcraft and life after death exacerbates these effects. Is devil worship a system created out of our brain's compulsive need to find hidden systems and motivations that explain away the random events of nature and our tiny place in it? Or has a life of being manipulated by Satanic forces have permanently warped even our most mundane collective conceptions of reality? Rosemary's Baby explored these same questions but, as that film's dream sequence reminded us, it left a whole ocean unexplored, with enough unsounded depth to make a dozen such voyages as full of terrifying epiphany and 'take-away' madness as the first.

Best of all is the ways Aster clearly gets what's wrong with modern horror films--the overly detailed horror make-ups and unearned shocks with bombastic mickey mouse music cues--and eliminates it all. Watching Halloween again for the first time in a few years I especially noticed that, during the whole extended climax, the single note ominous repeating 'dun... dun.... dun..." during the closet upstairs sequence is preceded by a whole downstairs thing with no music whatsoever! The silence is more terrifying than any movie could be, and I wondered how overbearing a modern orchestral score would have made that sequence, feeling all our fear for us like a micro-managing den mother. The climax of Hereditary is right up there and a reminder of the effectiveness of silence as well as music: Colin Stetson's score underlies this with weird eerie drones, sparing but unremitting --other horror film composers should take a mighty heed. (see also: Hereditary Witchcraft Reader)

Dir. Orson Welles (w/ Peter Bogdanovich)

Thanks to the more decisive, less debilitatingly brilliant mind of long-time Welles' friend and biographer, director Peter Bogdanovich, and state-of-the-art digital remastering, the last unfinished Welles film about the last day in the life of a Wellesian director working on his last, unfinished film is finally.... well, finished. What makes it even more meta is that Peter Bogdanovich plays such a key character in the film, as more or less himself, and he finished it, with John Huston filling in for Orson. Together they seem to be working through the angles of male friendship, biographer-subject, father-son, remora-shark, fan-hero, and apostle-Christ --which suits the unique nature of the finished product so well it seems like fate--like the ultimate metatextual Welles flourish, as if he knew the film couldn't be finished until long enough after he died that Bogdanovich could use digital means to clean-up the film stock and have the chutzpah to tackle such a mammoth project. It may be Bogdanovich's best film as well as one of Welles's, with film quality and sound are so good it's hard to imagine this wasn't all filmed a few months ago -it's actually better than new, even, since it's on film - and every frame is lovingly color-saturated or otherwise cleaned up to the point it all shines better than any new dime. As the Welles-like director, Huston is another great meta-choice, for he--like Welles--was a raconteur genius working outside/inside the system. And when he discusses having boxed with Hemingway etc we know we're getting a fair dose of himself (for Welles never boxed, obviously). And it's no easy feat to play a high-functioning alcoholic at a party surrounded by sycophants and needy technicians wondering what they're getting paid for and when they will be, over years and years when it's all set in one night. So fractured it's set to the rhythms of a crowded moveable feast party like few I've seen, sustaining itself at a glib raconteur height Altman only reached a few times in his whole oeuvre. Especially as Huston gets progressively drunker and more belligerent, it transcends narrative and dating in a way that makes similar films--8 1/2 for example, seem horribly mawkish and antiquated.

As in that film, we realize much of a director's life is spent being hounded by underlings--writers, make-up artists, personal assistants, young girl intern/eye candy/drink getters, and sycophants galore, all wanting to either get on or stay on his good side and/or payroll. Swirling in and around a 70th birthday party that involves screening the director's unfinished, very artsy and psychedelic late 60s hippie movie (the kind of thing neither Welles nor Huston would ever do, presumably) on the one hand, and the movie itself on the other (and for the end, a fatal intersection of the two), The Other Side is a relentless attention grabber, full of blink-and-miss clever edits, guns, mannequins, and retorts zippy enough that by the time you untangle their genius, three more have passed you by.

The film-within-the-film is harder to peg. Certainly it's definitive Welles--with deep focus Dali-esque compositions reminiscent of passages in Welles' Othello but--especially during the psychedelic stretch of film that finds the heroine in a deserted train station in the desert, then a rainy street at night, a psychedelic rock club bathroom, and subsequent getting it on in a car in the rain with no music but the sound of the wipers and the clack of her bead neckless against her breasts as she gyrated atop this beautiful but similarly mute boy. With all the brilliant, lovingly restored colors, the sequence, lasting well over 15 minutes, is a marvel all its own evoking, of all things, Amer's co-directors Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani with its intelligently arranged sequence of open-ended surrealist imagery.ich in rich Suspiria colors. With its tail of a beautiful blank looking boy feebly following a Cher-like Native American woman--unsmiling and dead-eyed throughout--the dour mood of dream-like student film art-for-art's sake seems to be almost mocking Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, yet is so rife with Welles' signature expressionist style it kind of takes off anyway. We certainly can't blame Welles for wanting 'in' on this new type of Age of Aquarius expressionism, since he invented some of it.

Taken all in all, Wind is one of the biggest, best surprises of the decade. It fulfills the promise so many 'last films' never seem to do, ala Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again . Since Welles isn't around to second guess and overthink it into endless abstraction, it's a real gift to cinema that someone who 'gets' Welles and knew him and respected his notes almost slavishly, yet is a talent in his own right, was there to pick up the million pieces and finish what may be one of the best 70s movies of the 21st century. Though again, not unlike most of Welles' work, the overall effect seldom transcends its maker's larger-than-life male ego. The hall of mirrors climax of Lady from Shanghai is again the definitive Welles' image, albeit with him firing at himself firing at himself, self-love and epiphanic realization of that love's hollowness revolving in an endless reverse ouroboros. Doesn't matter, though - his gun never misses and his puking bite is never totally fatal. He even lets a few female characters make their comments. A bitchy lady critic (played with gusto by Susan Strasberg) get in some cruel barbs before someone punches her out. Auteurs will be boys, after all. Hey, speaking of boys...

(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico

Surreal and strange in ways that evoke erotic deconstructions like Batailles' Story of the Eye and Angela Carter's Passion of a New Eve, but in an homage to a kind of Haynes-Jarman rough trade queerness with a dash of Maddin and, and of course, Clockwork Orange,  this surreal fable concerns a gang of unruly violent boys (all played by girls in drag) forced into a Captains Courageous kind of youth rehabilitation program cure after they brutalize their literature teacher (once a voodoo-like spirit of violent destruction overtakes them during a masked drunken performance art version of the opening three witches scene of  Macbeth). After a brutal period at sea, collared to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the captain's whim, they wind up on a  mysterious island with sexually active vegetation, the ever-present smell of oysters ("the whole island is an oyster") that has strange hormonal magic, including the ability to make boys grow breasts, and watch as their penises fall off into the relentless surf. Drinking milky manna from phallic tubers and screwing flytrap style flower monsters, everything from Naked Lunch to Matango may well and goodly be conjured here, with the overall effect transcending anything so mundane as tawdriness, or morality.

And while they may be girls, these kids are still badasses, though, soon joining forces with a mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Elina Löwensohn [Nadja]), sexually devouring and killing randy sailors. Or something. Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Blue Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, this is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies and volcano penises erupting into bubbling crevasses. What does it all mean? You know damned well: when surrealism sets sail, the wind that blows the ship forward is the gas bag exhalation of meaning dying in its conformist straitjacket back on shore. When French women put on male drag, they swagger and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, it's really something. Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal 16mm color, this exercise in gender bending psychosexual surrealism is a breath of fresh island air, salty with sex, oysters, and horny vegetation, the sequences at sea are great too - not sure how they did it, but its some of the best stormy ocean, (non-CGI) floundering ship work I've seen in a long time. (in French with English subtitles) - See full review: Isles of Lowensohn

Dir. Boots Riley

A fresh new African American voice, pitched somewhere between the social surrealism of Michel Gondry, the urban agency of Spike Lee, and the savage middle class satire of Jody Hill, Boots Riley announces "I am here" with a truly weird and engaging feature debut. In some weird alternate LA, slacker Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) intends to pay rent on his uncle's garage apt. as soon as he gets a job. He's got a cute girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson)-- an artist/activist who works spinning a sign on the street, but who aims at something better, so Cassius better pull himself out of his slacker spiral before she moves on. Working largely on commission as a telemarketer, Cassius flounders until he's counseled by a wise cubicle neighbor (Danny Glover) on finding his 'white boy voice' - which means he's soon dubbed by David Cross and moving up the ladder, selling arms and slave labor but making so much money he can't complain, even as he sells out his former co-workers, now unionizing. Meanwhile there's a controversial work camp arrangement heavily advertised as an options to the struggle, one where all bills are paid, needs are met, and you live where you work, eat and sleep all in the same place - though apparently once the Wal-Mart-ish sheen is stripped off, it's slavery. From there it only gets weirder including a WTF moment so insane I can't spoil it (it wasn't spoiled for me, I won't do it for you). You're bound to laugh at least once, nervously, and come away with new ways of asking the right questions so wrongly they don't even need an answer.

Dir. Lucretia Martel
As serenely brutal and sexually hostile as an Ilsa film stretched to slow motion (sans Dyanne Thorne), Martel's adaption of a popular Argentine historical novel stars Daniel Jiminez Cacho as the sexually-frustrated magistrate of a sweltering Spanish outpost in South America in the late 1600s. Desperate to return to civilization and his family but needing the approval of an almost entirely absent governor/treasurer, Zama spends his day hearing complaints that underly the horrifying systemic brutality and oppression of the enslaved caste of natives, trying to keep his libido under control (he refuses to 'lower' himself with one of the eminently available local native girls), and inevitably feeling himself dragged as if by magnetic force towards the horny wife of the treasurer, said treasurer being one of the few men whose good word might get him transferred. Better go careful, Zama! Enterprising slaves are ever watching and listening at keyholes as the only racially acceptable woman in town trots out heady bottles of rum, her crooked powdered wig and corseted bosom wobbling with boozy heat. Meanwhile rumors of a rapist bandit sneaking into the village during the afternoons finally drives Zama to form a posse and head into the jungles.

Borrowing elements of Herzog's kind of deep focus documentary-style canvas approach to the ambivalence of the jungle while ladling on her own masterful ability to index an array of characters moving and parrying at cross-purposes inside a frame, Martel takes on gorgeous tracking shots through room after room of fascinating, heat-ravaged tableaus. Ever trying and failing to conquer the natural world and their own inner urges, the 'civilized' Spaniards literally fall to pieces. Tarkovsky-esque--disoriented sound design amps the paranoia, thrusting us up against Zama's nose as he navigates clustered hallways where tall powdered wings wave like unsteady ship prows atop heat-drunk heads, native slaves stand around in silent opprobrium, the in-between caste does their chores, and by the time one's decoded the meaning of what's going on, the chance to do anything about it is long past. Brilliant, but withering, and without any of the maternal comfort offered by some Martel's previous films, Zama is a dish as potent and pungent as a punch in the head with an soaked sock full of sea-slimed emeralds. (in Spanish with English subtitles)

Dir Alfonso Cuaron

Clearly a letter of love and gratitude to Cuaron's maid/nanny while growing up, a reverie of life in a big family in Mexico City circa 1971 actually functions together with Zama as an almost sequel (even the names are familiar, neither has any music --relying instead on a tapestry of diegetic sound--and Martel made a similar film to Roma in her feature debut, La Cienega) - showing the result of all that Spanish colonization in the 1600s. Here it is a mere 180 or so years later, Native South Americans aren't enslaved anymore, but rather work as servants to the more European-blooded upper middle class or else scrabble around in the outskirt slum areas. The mostly silent maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is much loved by the children and the mom even though she seldom cleans up after the dog (it clearly needs to be walked more often), so there's piles of shit all over the driveway. She winds up pregnant (the boyfriend disappears as soon as he hears) and eventually finds a sort of peace in the arms of a household where the men run off and abandon and their women and children. Told mostly in long slow pans, the shots are amazing. The standout: an extended sequence of the grandmother and maid trying to buy a crib at a furniture store while a full-blown bloodbath riot goes on outside (ala the car attack in his Children of Men), leading to her water breaking; their attempt to get to the hospital in the thick of tear gas and traffic and climaxing in a genius over-crowded public hospital (where the deadbeat husband happens to work as a doctor). It's topped later in an amazing glide shot that follows Cleo from the beach out into the deep deep water to rescue the kids nearly swept out to sea in rough tides over the holiday. From far up the beach all the way out to the whirling depths without the slightest tremor in the camera, there's not even salt spray on the lens. It's beyond amazing. Every inch of the screen is used for masterful compositions, the incredible extended sequences, and invisible acting, make this one a real winner despite the 'have your cake and critique the power structure that made someone else bake it for you' subtext. (in Spanish with English subtitles)

Dir Bo Burnham 

Lots of angst and pain in this torturously awkward film. Set in the last days of junior high school as experienced by a typically awkward girl, it posits the terrors we all felt as children in the horrible 'body changes' portion of childhood (that we tend to block from our memories as if some brutal assault). With this film they come flooding back, and we learn since we escaped the self-consciousness has been amped to eleven thanks to the proliferation of smartphone technology. Now, every awkward attempt at socialization shall be preserved and disseminated amidst a teen's peers faster than you can even regret what you just said. The one advantage: even with no hits you can pretend you're sort-of famous. First-time feature director Bo Burnham (see his comedy specials on Netflix, please!) keeps the acne-ridden face of our frumpy heroine front and center, forcing us into a kind of aesthetic corner, a self-conscious nightmare prison. It all climaxes in a horrifyingly tense backseat seduction attempt that will be truly illuminating to a lot of men. It's all illuminating, but in the end all it perhaps does is remind us why we blocked those memories out, making us wonder if Bo's a sadist or just trying for a unique catharsis. It succeeds in both counts, but I never want to see it again.

Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo

Speaking of unaccountable dread, this WAR was so epic it gave me an anxiety attack and I had to stop watching (on Blu-ray) and go to bed, where I dreamt of it. The idea that a power could come along and beat all the superheroes in a massive fight was too much to bear in my sensitive state. And yet, as a proponent of population control I couldn't argue with the logic of the ruthless intergalactic monster played so well by the great Josh Brolin as the villainous Thanos. Our world especially could use a good 'halving' to the overpopulation levels we had during the time of Soylent Green, when we were only at 3 1/2 billion and worried that, if left unchecked, our population growth would kill the planet. Now, of course, it's already too late. So no one--Thanos aside--even brings it up. Leave it to Marvel and their sympathetic villains, to point out the elephants choking up every available free space in the room. But that's not even the reason this rocks so hard. On earth and in space, the wit and energy flow nonstop, the battles so ingeniously staged, the mood so dire, so much at stake, that it's hard to find a single dead spot, I mean aside from the soapy, tiresome Vision and Scarlet Witch romance (just writing that sentence I hear Juliette Binoche laughing derisively behind me) and the buzzkilling Pepper Potts-Stark inter-helmet 'be careful' moments. The rest of the time, the action and wit overlap in genius doses -- the superheroes all working as such a quick, focused team that it's jaw-dropping. The pick for most critics as the best Marvel this year was Black Panther, and while it was great and with a potent social message, it it got a little too 'real' and some of the banter seemed a tad too chipper. No, I think the best one was actually Ant Man and the Wasp. Call me crazy, but they're all winners! They'll stand the test of time, and constant reruns. Unlike the depressing Eighth Grade, I'm looking forward to seeing this one again, albeit in bits and pieces, safely broken up by commercials on FX, and FXX, especially after the second part is released so I can rest, presumably, and get down from the stark, terrifying cliff we're left hanging from.

Dir. John Cameron Mitchell

Philophile director John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) turns Neil Gaiman's graphic novella into a punk rock sci-fi odyssey about the healing glory of love and music (surprise!). Alex Sharp stars as Enn, an insecure punk rock fanzine artist growing up in 70s Thatcher-period England. Brave when it come to plastering ugly stickers around his drab Coyden hometown, he's shy as hell when it comes to girls. "They're not from another planet!" counsels the more confident alpha in his little posse of mates. When the lads crash the wrong post-gig house party, they find themselves partying with a color-coded latex-wearing hive mind collective that pretty much proves that adage wrong. Self-organized according to a chakra-style energy scale, engaged in super weird dances and ceremonies, they'd weird the boys in Enn's crew out, except this is the 70s, mate, and this may be some new wave fad. Meanwhile, upstairs, doe-eyed Zann (Elle Fanning) wants to get out and actually explore something of this grotty new world that the rest of them are only passing by on a worlds tour. She wants to get off the bus and go native, so she runs off with Enn into the Croyden night. Thanks to Mitchell's gifts with setting mood, and the stars' own chemistry, we feel their connection. Their time together is magical... even in Croyden!

After Zann catches the eye of local punk den mother Bodacia (Nicole Kidman in a silver wig) things get even more intense. Played with her Aussie badass roots exposed to the core, Nicole Kidman gives us a throaty ferocity we haven't seen from her in years. She'd make it worth seeing all by herself but other highlights come raining down like stardust: The song Enn and Zann sing on her club stage evolves and leads them to a full blown mystical encounter replete with swirling cosmic forces. And if you've kind of hated yourself for being reduced to tears by Hedwig's "Origin of Love" back in the 90s, you'll be glad that this one ("Eat Me Alive") just gives us deep punk rock chills, with a foray into Ziggy cosmic wonderment instead - with the blazing energy so well visualized you'll feel like you're getting off on good ecstasy at the best punk rock show of your teenage life. And like ecstasy and punk, its sense of love transcends dichotomies like sex/death, fear/desire: it's the love that has no opposite, and Mitchell--like few others--knows where the sweet spot it.

That's Mitchell's big gift to the world, but he has another too, music (or are they the same?): his you-are-there camera and sound mixes really capture the live punk rock basement club event momentum. You can hear the instruments echoing off the low cavernous ceiling of the club, yet it's all vivid and electric and immediate. It's maybe the best-mixed live punk music I've ever heard --raw and immediate, powerful and yet low-fi, both celestial and punk rock earth. I'm not sure, but I think Mitchell may have just redeemed the entirety of the long-sold-out punk rock movement with this one film, and I think Ziggy would like it as much as Iggy  - and isn't that the whole Mitchell mission? Accomplished. 


Created by Vernon Chatman
(Adult Swim)

Adult Swim continues their descent into the void with this mind-bending claymation spectacular from the demented mind of Vernon Chatman (Wonder Showzen). Following a kind of Rod Serling-meets-the "in a world" movie trailer voiceover narrator, we go on a bizarre free associative trip into the looking glass with the result being like the entire run of The Twilight Zone all compressed into 15 minute windows, liberally dosed with weird sex, violence, and Cronenbergian new flesh appendage removal, the "yes -and" improv-style relentless compounding lunacy of it all has reduced me to rolling on the ground convulsing with laughter like I haven't done sober ever. There's no going back after this. It's so out there it makes pretenders to the throne of strange wilt and fold. Accept it.

Created by Tom Twyker, et al

Germany's big budget TV series revolves around the "first female police detective" in Weimar Berlin, a time between the two world wars, when Berlin, mired in economic depression, became an art, sex and crime mecca. Prostitution, homosexuality, drug addiction, pornography (silent era), and a decadent cross-dressing night club chanteuse master criminal white Russian equals the dusky TV series equivalent of a great, trashy, page-turning massive paperback of sexy historical fiction. If it eventually runs out of time without winding up in any profound way, well, is history any different? I like that the male-female crime-solving team of prostitute/party girl (Liv Lisa Fries) and drug-addicted police detective (Volker Bruch) become close without sex, and that the National Socialist party is only--at the very end--just starting make a brownshirt ruckus. The plot concerns, among other things, the planned assassination of a Treaty of Versailles-adhering politician and a train car full of gold fought over by an array of sordid but fascinating characters, commies, and causes, but the take-aways are the details along the way, like the rollicking song ("Zu aush, Zu Staub") that acts as the club's big theme. It's all done with great style and atmosphere, complex, hearty performances, and excellence all around. Acidemically, it's great to see a girl whose love of champagne and dabbling in prostitution doesn't mar her self-esteem and lead to tired self-sacrifice like it would in the states even during pre-code times, and a genuinely complex (neither good nor all-the-way) villain in the portly red-faced corrupt cop Bruno (Peter Kurth) partner. (in German with English subtitles)


Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga / Created by Patric Somerville

One of the first shows since Rick and Morty to seamlessly integrate psychotherapy into science fiction, this alternate reality sci-fi dramedy (?) stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as participants in a looney drug-AI trial, meeting and becoming good friends during deep dream realities managed by an artificial intelligence that takes their hang-ups and repressions and builds scenarios that will help them process and move on. Or something. As with the above Sorry to Bother You, it's set in an alternate reality and occurs largely at a big retrofuturist pharmaceutical corporation during a week-long drug trial / sleep over. They together or alternately move through adventures ranging from LOTR elvin sojurns, mobster dramas, white trash lemur reclamation, and high end through-the-looking glass bending of the light between dreams and virtual reality.

With great lighting and deep human insight as well as tapping into that great sleep-over feel (as participants are in this cool 70s-modular deep bunker within a giant pharmaceutical corporation for an entire week) it evokes 60s-70s vintage sci-fi films (and modern retrofuturist wonders like Beyond the Black Rainbow). The only wrong notes are the terrible name (there's already a downbeat 1980 horror movie by the same name, its remake, and at least one other movie or TV show also called Maniac!) and Dan Romer's opportunity-squandering score, for he passes over the modular synths and analog Moogs (imagine the seat-rumbling analog insanity Sionoa Caves or Tom Raybould could have brought to this!) in favor of the same alterna-twee folksy nonsense that's been warning men away from rom-coms since Garden State. Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizumo are a great team as the brainy scientists who put the whole thing together, and try to fix it when it all falls apart. Sally Field is Theroux's Dr. Phil-like daytime TV therapist mom, called in to relate to the AI when it starts to go rogue. Considering the rumor that the show itself got its start through a computer program reading and assembling elements of the most watched Netflix shows, it's mad meta. Don't even worry about where it's headed or why, just note the similarity to films like John Dies at the End and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and know that's a good thing.

Created/developed: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Aided by a stunning cast this gorgeously wicked show is one of the first to make full use of the modern HD widescreen TV as its primary frame, filling every corner of the screen with sumptuous dark detail. The story is one of the ubiquitous teen fantasies --the 'there's a magical society operating right under our townie mortal noses and if we meet the right friends or hit the right birthday--we'll get to join and leave suburban tedium behind' trip. I spent the season hoping Sabrina would sign the book of the devil and be damned forever yet bestowed with countless evil powers since her smarmy mortal half was a drag. Unfortunately she lets herself be dragged down, as so many girls in real life are who are destined for bigger and better things, by love for some doomed luddite townie named Harvey--the fantasy equivalent of not going to college because your dumb boyfriend didn't get accepted. Still, it all works because though aimed at younger viewings there are ample killings and exclamations like "Thank Satan you're all right!" by worried aunts. As for the adults, all very fine with a real full-blooded stand-out in the evil Michelle Gomez (aka "The Master" in later seasons of Dr. Who) as Satan's henchwoman, so relishes her own wickedness we practically are inhaled through the screen in her torrent of marvelous evil.

by Nick Krohl and John Mulaney
(season 2 - Netflix)
Amazingly instructive as well as relentlessly horrifying, there's abundant wit and compassion in this hilarious animated examination of those 'special changes' that demarcate puberty. Nick Krohl and John Mulaney once again star, with Jordan Peele doing the voice of the irrepressible ghost of Duke Ellington. This time there's a special "Planned Parenthood" episode, a drug episode and great new characters like the Depression Kitty and, most memorably, the Shame Wizard makes his debut and never leaves. Voiced with real slippery charm by David Thewlis, his undermining all the children with deep age-appropriate insecurity becomes the runaway scene stealer of the season. The snippy gay aesthete kid also finds a bit of a guide in a chance encounter with a Fierstein-ish neighbor at an bachelor apartment complex (Broh! He even vapes). All the good stuff more than makes up for the sleazier aspects like the eternally horny Jay and his talking sex pillow's rivalry with a downstairs couch cushion.

Yeesh, is that how I'm going to end this year round-up, talking about Jay's cushions?

Change of Subject: How about a shout-out to:

(History Channel)

The best reality series on TV, a re-exhumation of the Iron John power that men sorely need and women inherently gravitate to (host Will Willis is the mancrush of his era). It fills a starved-for-positive male images nation with hope. Tapping into the riddle of steel has never seemed more accessible and vital. Even if no one is going to move into metalsmithing after watching it, we need this show's wild man archetypal power. Hurrah. We may be saved, after all. If you're listening guys: more ballistics dummies and fewer animal carcasses, please!



BEST OF 2017

Friday, December 14, 2018


Funny that after decades of seeing her only hither or yon, I find Elina Löwensohn in two new movies (en français), which I happened to watch, back-to-back on two consecutive nights. Both films are European, made by surreal detour-taking auteurs; in each film she plays a semi-insane ruler of a gorgeous but remote location wherein she presides like some kind of perverted Mr. Roarke over Fantasy Islands gone horribly wrong. Owning her masculine side with a cigar chomping swagger. In THE WILD BOYS and LET THEIR CORPSES TAN alike, this Romanian-American actress (just one year older than me and she's handling it way better) sure can swing a wild dick, if you'll pardon my French. Both films just arrived in the US via streaming; both are shot in blazing Super-16mm celluloid. Coincidence?

What are they, these odds, that I'd see these movies back-to-back, not knowing Löwensohn was in either one? The last time I saw her was The Forbidden Room (and before that, Nadja), and she looked, frankly, like a different person in those. She was gamin-esque. Gone is that gamin! Löwensoh has surrendered even late-inning Delpy/Huppert-style mature Parisian hotness in favor of a stogie and a laugh throaty enough to choke the communism out of Lionel Stander. Wagging her sun-browned body around like a Bowery-born scrapper general bounding over piles of enemy corpses, breasts bared with the 'who cares?' haughtiness that marks European women as the superior to all other genders and continents. Rocking punk rock bangs and a stare that could freeze the blood of a drowsy sun-basking kitten, Löwensohn poses and shifts around on the rocks and beaches with the short guy beatnik cool of Dick Miller and the existential steeliness of Warner Herzog. 

Yet those breasts are young and full-still, as if eternal. Shall you not try to swing the same?

(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico

Seen in color as a glittery jewel-studded skull on a prowling dog, Trevor is god of chaos and id-indulgence ever lurking in the fourth dimension, waiting for the smallest opening... He's alive in these boys. And something must be done.

Gender-bending a Clockwork Orange / Captains Courageous bad boy rehab adventure into erotic surrealist shapes no unlike like Batailles' Story of the Eye and Angela Carter's Passion of a New Eve,  comes Mandico's Les garçons sauvages. Five over-privileged punks are pressed aboard a rough trade reform school rehab fishing boat after Trevor incites them to violence against their indulgent lit teacher during a masked drunken Macbeth performance. A kind of scared straight at sea adventure helmed by a very salty sadistic captain with a map tattooed on his penis--one of many we'll see, though they all seem rough, uncircumcised, woven from burlap--results. Collared and tied to the ship and regularly choked to within an inch of their lives at the salty captain's whim, (most of) the boys gradually become submissive, the rough living snapping them out of their entitled sadistic funk...

But that's just the beginning of this bizarro odyssey. The destination of the ship is a mysterious island with sexually active vegetation (which the boys take relentless advantage of). The ever-present smell of oysters, and the sap, pollen and other juices of the island leave a strange hormonal magic in the air, enough to slowly turn these rough trade specimens into girls (their penises drop off and are swept away in the uncaring surf, suddenly no more relevant than land crabs). Meanwhile trees and rocks become giant asses and mocking breasts. "Luckily," a mysterious lady (formerly male) doctor (Löwensohn) arrives to take them under her wing; together they start sexually devouring and killing randy sailors, committing high seas mutiny, and surrendering to the intoxicating touch and taste of the local plant life. For the captain and the doctor, it's a living. 

Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Pink Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, our Les garçons sauvages is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies, drinking manna-jaculate from phallic tubers, screwing between leafy legs, sleeping deep in the shrubbery. Echoes of other unclassifiable movies, everything from Naked Lunch to Matango in its hallucinatory amok Robinson Crusoe wandering (and even Valhalla Rising if you're keeping score) seem to come and go across its unfeeling features. 

 The great twist though is that these boys are all played by girls, to start with, and the freedom accorded these already free French actresses allows them to swagger and strut in ways that do a heart good to see. For the French woman, sexual aggression in men isn't, apparently, the existential threat it is here in the US. In the French system, it's merely recognized as performance, one the girls-as-boys are all keen to embody, strutting and making lewd gestures and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, their fair feminine features actually make them perfect as teenage boys. While their burlap members fall off, they behold their new breasts like they just got their team colors. It's quite revealing when deconstructing the postures and posing of the Paris is Burning houses (with which it would make a wild double feature), all swivel-hipped sailors and grabby crotch-forward surrender --the way letting your unconscious anima/animus stretch out in drag brings all sorts of in-the-moment awareness and mojo. It's twice as sexy as it should be, really, no  matter what your persuasion.

What does it all mean? Why don't you read some Batailles, Huysmanns and Angela Carter and learn something about just how precarious your own sexuality is. Words on a page can reorganize the molecular structure of your private parts! Read the wrong book and get aroused in places you didn't even know were there, and maybe weren't before you read it. Suddenly buried infant memories sweep up onto the rocks as gender's social constructs are surrendered to the lapping oyster-rich waves.

Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal color, The Wild Boys proves the spirit of experimental expressionism and psychosexual weirdness is alive and well in France. Bertrand Mandico. Remember that name! It's the name that says: hey Bunuel, Jarman, Anger, Cocteau, you can rest in peace at last (yes, Kenneth, I know you're still alive, but rest... rest your head on the breast of Trevor).


(Laissez bronzer les cadavres)
Dirs. Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani

My expectations ran mighty high for this, Belgian couple Helene Cattet's and Bruno Forzani's third feature, being such a gigantic fan of their 2009 debut, Amer, and such a fervent admirer of their sophomore effort, The Strange Color of Her Body's Tears. Turns out, while this third feature is still suffused with their signature style (gorgeous 35mm photography, tastefully-recycled Ennio Morricone, lots of feverish close-ups of eyes, hands, knives, guns, mouths, wild clothing, associative editing) there's no room in a traditional crime thriller (adopted from a potboiler French novel) for the kind of psychosexual or post-structuralist departures that made their earlier work so delectably artsy. They make some anyway, but the result is that neither element quite gels.

The terrain though is lovely. Shot almost all outdoors, in and out of old church ruins being run as an artist enclave high on a hill overlooking the crashing Mediterranean surf: clear deep blue sky, blazing sun --you can feel how hot the stones are where the sun hits them; you can feel how cold it is in the shade. Run by a crazy artist (Elina Löwensohn, still smoking those stogies) and her has-been writer lover played by the indefatigable Marc Barbé (they were last paired together as killer and final girl/lady in Sombre). Stephane Ferrara is a guy named Rhino, but he's not the big bald bruiser you'd think was named Rhino --that guy's in the cold storage cave, screwing the roast lamb hanging there (that lamb gets pretty gross and shot up by the end of the film). At least I think that's true. Who can keep all these craggy old man faces straight?

Anyway, it's a perfect location. Who wouldn't want to shoot a movie there, or hide out after a crime, even without air conditioning, phone or electricity? Even the writer's wife comes there, uninvited, with her kid (stolen from her ex-husband who has sole custody) and brings a cute young maid. Complications! The crooks will have to kill everyone. And then two motorcycle cops show up. Oy, it's going to be a long afternoon. With its gradual existential dwindling and the idea of a remote location occupied solely by armed men and women angling after loot, comes visions of everything from Point Blank, For a Few Dollars More, and a recent surreal discovery lurking nonchalantly in the ocean of Prime streaming Italian westerns, Matalo!.  And as long as we focus on the sublime compositions and gorgeous cinematography, well why not let the sunshine and the night perpetrate their daily crimes? Even a cliche'd close-ups of ants crawling on an arial photo of the ruins may pass with only mild groans. Ask not when deconstructed homage becomes cliche!

Alas, sometimes Forzani and Cattet have such devotion to their startling compositions and deep colors that the big picture falls away. They cram in surreal details like afterthoughts that take away rather than add: when one man is shot the gold he's carrying is hit and explodes as if liquid, splashing all over him (art!), but aside from a very cool skull-headed hobby horse, and a painting Elina makes in the beginning by shooting paint pellets at a canvas and burning holes in it with her cigar, there's not much art on the scene. It all has to be made up on the spot by the filmmakers, leading to weirdly sexual or death driven tableaux (below) that may not add up to much beyond their own ephemerality. 

In what are either fantasies or flashbacks, a young silhouetted anima figure (presumably Löwensohn's character in her younger artist muse days), stands over a group of men and pees on them as the Morricone guitar stings bray. In another she's tied to a cross; cruel tight ropes over her breasts cause them to lactate in great rivers down her body (evoking similar imagery with the lit teacher in the early portion of The Wild Boys! What's up with Lowenson and rope-forced lactation?). Later still she jams her heel into the mouth of one of the men  intercut with the use of a gun in a similar orifice, ala the 'dying primal scene reverie' images in Argento's Tenebrae. And yet, the synergy that made Amer so magnificently Antonioni-meets-Argento-esque (dialoguing with Lucretia Martel's paranoia and Claire Denis' butch sexuality as well as Argento's psychosexual post-modernism) is missing. Aside from the snarky obviousness of "gold"-en showering, or the commerce/art compromise when gold coins become liquid gold paint, the twin voices--the feminine avant garde experimental non-narrative and the masculine/Apollonian narrative so indicative of the Cattet/Forzani union in the past--don't connect like one would hope. We end up admiring the lovely location, the photography, the range of styles, the great use of classic Italian film music, but eventually we lose any idea of who's who or why we should care whether any of them get the gold or not.

The reason those new wave crime movies worked back in the day was their pro-crime attack on cultural norms of the time. Censorship and big budgets made mainstream fare so tedious and conventional that unusual angles, splurges of sex and giddy violence, the bad getting off free from their crimes, was fresh and new. The usual plots were subverted, even rendered meaningless; the crime was the style. Outlaw culture was born, leading directly from Breathless to Badlands. I'll definitely see Corpses again and hope my feelings change but as of now, I'm just left confused by the plot and 'too many craggy old male actors to keep straight' crosscutting and disappointed by the mismatched Franco-esque asides.

Another weird connection: seeing this film the same year as the release of Other Side of the Wind, for Welles' artsy film-within-the-film is the Cattet-Forzani film I was hoping for. Welles keeps all the surrealism connecting properly - you know what it all means even if what it means isn't clear. He keeps it simple, allowing the style and symbolism to directly link. He taps into the myth. He was doing psychedelic modernism back in the goddamned 40s. He doesn't need to underline Big Messages (his message is always the same: having a massive ego and the confidence to flim-flam people eventually may backfire. But along the way, he points to the eternal truths as they pass by in parade like an excited kid at the reptile house

So to find what's missing maybe look at past classics by this Belgian couple: Amer worked because it had form and unity of modern and post-modern in a tale of one girl's evolving relationship to her parents and animus. Three-vignettes of sexual awakening in a girl's life are told in three distinct retro styles, allowing for true new wave energy, giving us the modernist frisson of slip-sliding signifiers we find in the best of Antonioni. We didn't need a narrative in Amer because we saw the common thread through it all, as if all the movies made in Europe about woman's sexuality suddenly rearranged themselves into a completed puzzle. Amer didn't have to make sense, it was sense. Forzani and Cattet's sophomore effort, Strange Color of Her Body's Tear, on the other hand, was more like an exercise in bravura style, but with enough enticingly lovely actors and such a gorgeous art nouveau hotel setting it didn't matter if the story got monotonous and incoherent. With Corpses though, what do we have? Bronzed Mediterranean fifty-somethings lounging amidst the cloudless blazing blue sky and groovy ruins? Up close shots of eyes, guns and gross mouths stuffed with food and bad teeth? Is that the best you can do? One is tempted to recall Hitchcock's line about how some directors make slices of life, while he mades slices of cake. What is Corpses a slice of? Can one really make slice of a slice?

I know for sure there was enough resonant material lying around unused that it could have worked. Imagine the archetypal mythic resonance Tennessee Williams could do with a location like this --this crumbling Mount Olympus, this Catholic Ozymandias. Imagine the metatextual connections a Suzuki, Godard, Rivette, Powell, or Petri would make, packing the artist colony with weird metatextual art. Instead, what we come away with is a beautiful postcard that, if you stare at it long enough, starts to seem dirty.

Anyway, it's worth the trip, just for the view.

And the balls.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

All the Missed Mystics: Nicolas Roeg's GLASTONBURY FAYRE (1972)

While Filmstruck is still with us, let's chance upon the few small good things we have before they leave forever (to become expensive DVDs or unavailable). The recently also departed Nicolas Roeg is featured in one of their mini-title collections, and for the intrepid explorer there be his 1972 concert film, Glastonbury Fayre. If you've e'er loved a Roeg (Performance, Track 29) then don't miss it. And if e'er loved thee the psychedelic music festival movies of the late 60s-early 70s, and wondered if the movement e'er survived its American Altamont apocalypse, seek this film and say to yourself, ah there it is! The mystics did not burn out or fade away, they just snuck back to England and just didn't tell their boorish American cousins. Thus, here in Glastonbury 1971, while the wreckage of the husk of Age of Aquarius was still being picked over by Manson biographers across the pond, the cool kids quietly gathered, by a big pyramid stage, correctly situated along the Stonehenge ley line for maximum magnetic current, at the solstice, between two hills...

Shot by Roeg as one of his mystical odysseys, the focus is less on the packaging the hits (there's only one, at the end, via Traffic, at night, the climax of the movie, with a whole mass of dancers in the crowd, reveling, each with enough space to swing their arms if they choose, Roeg's camera straining to find them in the swirl of night) and more on the mystical currents of the landscape, the joining of friendly locals and open-hearted visitors, the ease and beauty with which it all comes together. There's little of the Pennebaker's Monterey Pop chick habit (i.e. showing a distinct sexual gaze by focusing on all the lovely girls, their painted-faces and limbs in fringed sashay, nor the acid-drenched face clawers and drunken bikers of the Maysles' Speedway. Instead of looking for a Big Encapsulation of a Generation, it's enough, more than enough, to feel the solstice, the moon, and mystical movements of planets past the pyramid. These things the camera of Roeg senses and captures, the way the builders of nearby Stonhenge captured earth energy. Hardly surprising from the man behind Walkabout and Performance, there's a truly mystical power at work here - and the camera itself seems tied to the magnetic waves in electric union.

Roeg films the throngs arriving from low angle gliding shots, as if he's a child looking up at some kind of ethereal parents. This is a time when parents were cool, unworried and free, but mere hedonists wallowing in Roman orgy or idealist hippies passing out Marxist pamphlets at anti-Vietnam rallies. This is more some mass impromptu tribal coven; the druidic roots of Stonehenge breathes through them; the Green Man is coming out of a long sleep, shaking off the Roman occupying sloth like a flaky outer crust, like the last 2,000 years never happened; and communicating through the grass and sky and vibrations in the air rather than placards and megaphones. Here festivalgoers form shapes like moving temporary crop circles in some ephemeral alphabet that transcends any one meaning. Similarly, the film offers no words onscreen or introductions to let us know who any of the musicians are; there are no signs and markers we associate with concert festival films--no indication of drugs or overdoses; no backstage chatter; no overloaded bathrooms and crowded freeway helicopter shots. If the guy with the stars in his eyes and the world in his beard is the promoter, his talk of getting a vision of his partner, pulling the car over, calling him and hearing "We have the farm" is delightful, his giddy shrooms-and-lovelight laugh, manic yet rooted. We don't need the backstory behind it, i.e. which farm, etc. The laugh is the thing, the inspiration to pull over and call. The Green Man is at work, sifting the clouds and conjuring images in minds as needed to get this revelry underfoot, putting glowing embers in the minds of initially reluctant farmer neighbors, and this wild eyed bearded guy is in the circuit. He could tell the land was with them, just as those who till it also could. We see young dudes all draped on ominous framework metal bars erecting a giant pyramid stage, wondering how roadies manage to do their dangerous intense work while literally and figuratively high, or how that all works. But work it does, the Green Man acts as a reverse gremlin, causing guys to look again after initially passing an un-tightened screw, or sending a tuft of wind to right a wobbling climber. 

In short, nature decrees it all be perfect, so it might perhaps drink what auric energy it may from the celebration. There is hyst the right number of people (7,000-ish), the right weather (for England), the right acts (including lots of insane howling and warbling and babble), the right time (solstice), all of it humming with love and the power of abandonment. The acts range in intensity and weirdness  from the gentle twee of Fairport Convention, to the open-shirted madness of Gong (?), from flute-noodlin' Hawkwind to the northern soul of Terry Reid or whatever, nothing terribly sticks out, or clashes no one band or pale fiddler is distinguishable from another- there are no stage introductions aside from some concern about the corn fields - but the big moments come in the sense of group dynamics at sunset...

 right before Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come (I looked 'em up).

This is where it all gels:

The place gets eerie quiet. As the sun sets between two hills and the pyramid stands shadowed, a small procession of ominous robed figures enter the frame, silhouetted against the sky. 

They light three crosses on the side of the hill. We think of Jesus, I guess, and the Romans again - but whatever, like those crop circles that form in the area, these symbols are universal, transcending any one meaning.

Roeg is the right man for the job. As with his Walkabout and Don't Look Now we're so subsumed by the land and sky it's as if we disappear; our illusory ego and locus of perceptual identity within the film is unraveled back to basic elements - fire, air, earth... water.

As the solstice light disappears behind the hills and the pyramid stage lights up. It's the climax of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, the cumulative gut punch of understanding initiatory mysticism via the Golden Bough or Henry James' Varieites of Religious Experience. The profound feeling you had while breaking the 'bread', sweeping away of the sticks and seeds, in the Houses of the Holy gatefold in high school suddenly makes sense. Shrooming in the graveyard in 1987 I/We felt the pull of the earth and moon in balance, and I/We feel it here, again, now. The band starts: Arthur Brown emerges: a tall strange figure in warped KISS make-up (1), a fusion of the dream cabaret performance rock madness of Alice Cooper, the rooted bluesy grip and star of Zappa, soul of Captain Beefheart, the modulated ominousness of Nick Cave, the paradoxically zany steeliness and falsetto of Foxy Shazam.

Who the hell? How'd I miss this guy? (I think I mixed him up in my mind with Arthur Lee). I looked him up: A frequent opener and collaborator with Hawkwind, The Who, Hendrix, etc., Brown seems to be one of Britain's best-kept secrets. I could swear he wasn't there before, in the counterculture. I read loads about Hendrix and remember nothing of him. Is he me from the future, who went back in the past to save Jimi Hendrix, but then forgot, and wound up here, at Glastonbury, a message to me, here, now? If so, the message is: mission accomplished. Tall, crazy, beautiful in a masculine deep sense, alive with light and lightning, his Spotify roster may be sparse and inelegant, but hey- somehow he stayed pure, beyond big American label signings, maybe be avoiding America's obscene corrupting love (to bend a phrase from the great Nanno Jelkes). I'd never heard of him before, but there he is, somehow seeming to conduct his band and the moon and the crowd and the fire at the same time, ranting and holding wild weird notes. He's what I strived to be in a younger man's dreams and open mics: semi-pretentious/theatrical but genuinely eccentric and fierce with loving Iron John wild man archetypal fire. 
It's so fitting then, on a personal level (what else do any of us know, Jedediah, except love on our terms?) that I saw Roeg's Glastonbury Fayre  the night before Thanksgiving, while packing to leave on the early morning train, wondering if it would be the last film I saw on Filmstruck, wondering why the Time-Warner bigwigs in charge of so much of our cinematic heritage hate artistic film, the art house crowd, and anything small enough to only draw a small profit or debit, as if they're just dying to mow down the last museum in town, to undo the historic monument housing protection, to make room for yet another skyscraper housing development or Target - advertised as 'so close to museums and parks,' but then the parks go away for more apartments. After all, the real estate value has gone up due to the presence of all the parks! Ugh! 

Ommm! Center myself... bring it back... t
A moment I marked down in my first viewing: Brown is sitting on the side of the stage while the band jams on, takes a pull of some can (can't see the label) and burps --he clearly doesn't know the camera is watching -but he looks calmly over at the drummer and burps suddenly, at firsts unconsciously--as burps are--but as it's about to come he transforms it to the art, he burps fiercely, full of 'walrus through the ice'-roaring joy (5), but not conspicuously, loudly, boorishly, but a man whose warrior soul is calm and in the moment, turning even the smallest, usually unconscious gestures (unseen by the audience) into fierce warrior accents. He's not worrying about if he felt enough in his singing or the is high enough or how he looks, he's not trying to get higher or to recover from a hangover or all the other things that hung up America at the time. He's just in the zone.

Another stand-out is the also-better-known-in-Britain folk singer Melanie (below), whose teary, raspy voice and urgent guitar deliver a strong, moving, dynamic tune ("Peace Will Come") that seems to encompass the beauty of the oceanic moment, tempered with the foreknowledge of its inevitable passing. Triumphant, sad, and hopeful: after the perfect oceanic union passes, our sadness will be tempered by the foreknowledge that such perfect moments--having come once--will come again. I love how it all--audience, nature, band-- quiets to a hush when Melanie starts to play. Everyone seems to be in the same sleeping bag, hushed and reverent, all 7,000 like a single listening being. Even the asleep nod their heads and smile. America's folk singers come off as a bit too protest agenda-ridden, or corny (aiming for  pop appeal or to stop the war), but Melanie cuts through it all, her hair flying in her pretty face, howling beautifully; her music looks beyond all wars and all peace to come. As with Arthur Brown, she made me an instant fan realizing all that American AOR promotion quietly kept out of reach as it didn't fit the pigeonholes. She made me long for a second chance, to go to Britain in 1971, or just 71 AD, for that matter, to find the people that carried the psychedelic torch far past Altamont and Manson (and personal level American demons like mine), and may have it burning somewhere still. Melanie, playing back in time, too, seemed to understand my longing all these decades in the future, the rasp in her voice cutting through time, assuring me as beautifully and strangely as these peaceful moments came before, they'll come again. Trying to stop them only increases the force with which they eventually break through. 
I've enough of a continental mind that I've been to one or two literally magical weekend parties, the best of which was held one autumn solstice (c. 1991) at my cool rich hippie friend's Vermont cabin for a weekend of tripping and drinking Jaeger shots after blustery hikes. My ugly Americanism yielded willingly to the older alchemical ways of a huge bearded Brit with huge hair and a pungency of patchouli, a weird girlfriend, and--most vitally--a vial of pure delicious liquid LSD around his neck, dispensing drops into the eyes of the willing (everyone, me included). It was 'the good stuff,' pure gorgeous chemical perfection sending us all into wild dances that became -- due to surrender to the movements--elaborate ceremonial snowflake Pollack morphings I could never duplicate (or probably even notice) their magic in a 'down' state. I left him, and his posse, after coffee on Sunday, the steam from the cups like Monument Valley smoke signals across the vast expanse of the wooden coffee table, as the music of Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blue" played on his expensive perfectly modulated stereo system. I would have stayed forever, but the friends I came with had work Monday. I drove back home (to suburban NJ) without a whimper, realizing--as was my kick at the time--that sacrificing great things in the name of love was tragically beautiful. Leaving the best time of your life for another week at the Ortho mailroom was just part of the game. I kept my holy aura for weeks til it faded. I even started going to yoga, which was hard to find in suburban NJ in 1990. In short, I kept the flame... for weeks... but.... hey...

And when the same solstice party was held again in the spring we were all excited - I went with such high expectations! Naturally, it turned on me and I had the terrible bad trip. I felt the sort of cursed emptiness, the 'unable to enjoy the party no matter how high and drunk I got' alcoholic depression Jack Kerouac describes so vividly in the second half of Big Sur. (6) The same people were there, same acid, same everything, but meh. Maybe I didn't bring enough whiskey, nor did I horde what I did bring. (For I was sure I wouldn't need it, so free would I feel). My bottle was all gone in minutes, and the stores all closed and far away and me too high to drive. The weather was vile. But more noticeably, no amount of whiskey, ecstasy, shrooms, acid, and hash brownies could alleviate that terrible want - the expectations of greatness dashed the moment. Instead of bringing the party down the hill to the Ortho mailroom, I'd brought the Ortho mailroom to the party. 

Isn't that what's happening to Filmstruck? The Mailroom --seeing the party as a distraction of its workers -- has squashed it due perhaps to not exceeding high expectations. 

Here goes my stress again - the rage against the --
Focus back to me, Erich - Ommmmmm
The people here at Glastonbury are beyond wanting or expecting anything, as is--in most of his films (until the arrival of his beloved Theresa Russell)--Roeg himself.  We see some couples canoodling, but Roeg films them mainly for the the wine glass shaped background behind their bobbing profiles. The men don't seem sex-obsessed like they do in Psych-Out and The Trip (though there they had to bow to the drive-in's licentious demands). The "I Need" of American hippiedom becomes the "I am" of Britain at Glastonbury, becomes the "Aummm" of the eternal, as even that is transcended for the oceanic experience. that which is beyond opposites. The one without a second. 

With an attendance of only 7,000, it's easy to see Glastonbury as one of those rare parties where just the right amount of folks showed up, all able to move into an eerie group mind perfection and not step on each other's towels. Roeg captures it all, or some of it. It's okay if he misses important stuff. He notices the way a simple rhythm brought in to the camp site by a travellin' group of friends on a drum gradually, casually, builds (but not ostentatiously) into a little percussion circle kind of scene happening, aways in the middle ground. Roeg's camera (6) feels no need to pick up his tripod and get closer to the group - he's no amateur - not about to chase the willow the wisp, and maybe miss the next one. With his patient eye he never misses a solar flare or bead rattle that comes his way. Soon a bottomless freak is dancing on stage wailing and screaming, but to a slowly increasing beat, looking out into the crowd their not gawking or video-phoning but clapping along- the rhythm and the spirit overtaking them like a gentle liberation, naked people roll around in the mud in strange childlike joy--as if the adult hang-ups stem from mom stopping us from wallowing in the mud naked as children, and now- we're finally doing it, and there's no mom to shame us, and all hang-ups are liberated. We crosscut to the black priest visitor who notes he didn't feel awkward at all, or sense anything pornographic or wrong about it "I was amazed at myself," he says. 

Nature and crowd and performers merge - The flutter of recorders imitate a flock of hysterical geese sitting joining in with Ornette Coleman and it's no longer possible to tell who is in the band, a performer in the crowd, a flock passing east, or just a reveler caught up in the moment. People cover a rolling naked man in mud, and you feel him surrender to the moment' in his eyes you get the sense he's barely believing he's letting this happen and that it's all okay, and it's surrender to the Green Man's caress. It's not the kind of crazed desperate, froth-at-the-mouth zonked nudity of that big would-be crowd-surfer lady during the Stones' Altamont show in Gimme Shelter or the preachy agrarian bathing of Woodstock, but a genuinely altered druidic freak-out, (10) audience and then reuniting them into muddy mass; the Green Man stirs in the moss. This ground, this mud, is sanctified and rich with history - the same mud the ancients' blood was spilled in, the oxide still in there. Some weird American gets onstage with a chicken on his shoulder to babble about freaks and animals or something --he's a sore thumb. America: this need to elaborate and personify and annoy and turn into a schtick, to somehow commodify and personify, it shows just how young we are. Cosmically immature. 

Upper left is "the Maharishi," but it's not the Maharishi of the Beatles, but a different one- who with his white suit and entourage seems like a kind of Jim Jones but whose borderline incomprehensible English rant fills us not with light and love but suspicion. He seems the most uptight in the bunch - needing to show he's got a limo, his way paved forward in flowers and white runners, dressed like he's about to rescue Scarface from the gallows with a heavy bribe and a last-minute reprieve. Maybe he's holy, who can tell from this distance? 

Shorn of the loud American throng, the ugly tourists, the consumerist mindset, the big swath of the pie, here are people who don't seem to be 'consuming' but being. Chickens are not killed but sung to. This is Burning Man before it became a scene, before seagulls on the charred remains of Police Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward). (3) This is Joni Mitchell's dream of getting back to the garden. And she's not there, and maybe that's why. It's British, it's a thing America (and maybe or maybe not even Canada) would need to shucker loose from half its population to embrace. By the time we got there, it would be over, if it was lucky. When it comes to treading lightly, we're bad news. We bring liquor. We love it. We will destroy you with our boozy woozy love. Your corn will be demolished. Boiled down to grease the pen of the artist.

And yet, maybe I'm just talking about me -I was part of that part that's left behind. I failed the America in the 60s class I took sophomore year. And why? Because my friends and I loved getting high and listening to the music of the 60s too much. We made a video for our final project but remember to list our sources. What we gave the teacher was just a video of our band playing "Purple Haze," "Evil Ways," and "Viola Lee Blues,: spiked with talking head inserts pondering "how the 60s will remember the 80s," (oh shit! I just noticed). And also, Dave's and my guitars were out of tune. And also... mainly we all just talked about how drugs don't make you stupid, and yet, we did not--I now realize--sound very smart... not at all.  It pains me to admit it now - to wonder about the shady character of drugs. If a drug is valuable when used correctly (as they seem to be here at Glastonbury) means any sensible American must immediately overuse them, for we seldom turn our back on the idea that if ten is great, taking twenty is twice as great.

But hey, you can't help being a middle class American white boy with enough alcoholism in your genes that you don't consider it a party unless you can't remember it. You blew it, Billy. Altamont is you (by which I mean me). That's why I found Fayre so reassuring. What's stressed here things that American filmmakers would shy away from: God, magic, pagan symbolism, the transpersonal energies that connect all things. When you or I plummet to earth in pain, strapped to a gurney or shaking uncontrollably alone on our couches for days on end, these are the things that reassure us. Prayer aligns our thinking to a higher power, for some reason why just never seem to remember that until we get really low. Now matter how small, if we stop waving our microscopic cillia against the current, we can expand to ocean size in the celestial current. 

That's why it makes holy sense that I'm seeing Glastonbury Fayre on now on the vanishing Filmstruck as part of the Nicolas Roeg package. How fitting. Bye Nicolas Roeg, RIP... RIP Filmstruck... bye bye. It's a hard world for little streaming services as Lillian Gish says in Night of the Hunter might say. Small profit margins are eradicated the way a giant bank-owned tractor eradicates a dustbowl Okie.

But hey, the art goes on and the past isn't going anywhere. No one is going to come take our DVDs away.... yet.  But we can't take 'em with us, after all. Why have the moon when we can have the stars?

The weirdest part: the inclusion a protestant minister holding a small service in a corner of the parking lot area, a sad-eyed gaggle of older folks (nurses, bakers) and some devoted youth, wearily but peacefully stand around him, which Roeg snarkily intercuts with ecstatic krishna dancing and chanting going on elsewhere in the festval. "The meaning of Christ is very simple isn't it?" notes the minister in his cloudiness / cut to the dancers basking in the sun./ back to the flatline priest: "If we want to live, we must die."

It's a cheap shot, which along with the cross burnings the night before seem to indicate some swirling dark current of Antichristian sediment stirring in the mind as a counter-reaction, which considering the eastern understanding of transcending duality, the rapture that lies beyond the separation of this and that, seems far too short-sighted a mind-set for anyone with any real enlightenment in their souls.  The promoters here are glowing like auric kliegs, so why pick on the easy marks. One can't rightly argue against the priest's prayer for "one whole community" even if it is waterlogged with seminary tradition. Crosscut as you will, the man is there. He showed up, right into the lion's den, the fiery furnace, with no pay check or choir to preach to. 

Alas, it ended. We--the hungover Americans (the ones, 'sigh' I came with, I apologize again for Jason's behavior)--just walked/staggered home, draped in our Glastonbury 71 bootleg shirts, declaring "we did it." We "did" the festival scene. Time to curl up with a good book... on tape, and leave the --what is it called now--raves?--to other people's children. Stay hydrated, kids! Peace will come. As for us, Hendrix is dead, man. Altamont was a mess. But it's done. They (the onslaught of bums, pervs, freeloaders, skeeves, speed freaks, psychos, poseurs, dipshits, murfs, horndogs, frat boy rapists, snickering sexually frustrated raincoat brigades, wannabes, and wallies that swarmed the free love buffet once the word got out) ruined any chance for real transformation. We--the cool ones who 'did' the festival scene and supped full at said buffet--drink at home now with the TV on / and all the houselights left up bright, (9). We prefer our community in abstract, via the safety of the screen. 


We only come up for air during the credits. And commercials. But now on other streaming services, there are no commercials, and episodes of our current binged series link up with a 'click to skip credits altogether. So... We do not come up for air anymore--

Not until the season is demolished. Turn Turn. 

But hey, that's later - seasons go as fast as they come. Now, other things than us are going, one by one, a reverse ark, so... one more time. So glad you made it.

Just watch the end again of Glastonbury Fayre if nothing else, before midnight this Thursday... - all that hair shaking through the night, thousands of people bopping up and down to Traffic jamming "Gimme Some Lovin,'" happy as larks, beautiful, free, with room to swing a cat, and all the cats swingin'. Steve Winwood, tall and majestic with cigarette; drummers and keyboardist rapt with the groove-beatific focused smiles. I'd forgotten all about that perfect rapture. I'm so glad it lasted as long as it did, if not forever. Then again, nothing is, not even its absence. The trashy sadness of our present is but a bathroom break in the scheme of the cosmic binge watch. Somewhere too ancient to be totally silenced, I'd wager the Green Man is planning something, but this time less friendly. Ask not who stands within the wicker man's hollow head... Next time, we're all burning. 

PS - 7/19 - Well, good news - Glastonbury is now on Prime; and the Criterion Channel is pretty awesome. So once again, the Lord, in whatever prog rock form you salute Him, cometh thru)

1. We've ascribed that black and white devil clown make-up forever to KISS, which is very American of us, but there you are, it's KISS even if you don't really like KISS.
2. I can't judge man, for I too went this way, from that first glorious rush. They only today announced conclusive proof shrooms treat depression, man I could tell you the stories, that black and white Kansas misery finally opening up into Technicolor OZ in Cinerama. It was my freshman year of college, waking up to joy only to inevitably succumb to the shuddering bad trip misery of not being able to stay there; chasing hit after hit with whiskey after whiskey just trying to feel less like I was in self-conscious hell, never mind about good, while being pawed at by girlfriends and jonesers or, maybe,worse, left alone. Home and stranded, to be terrified by the TV showing Flatliners, tuning in halfway through while having a shroom anxiety attack, thinking death had overtaken me and this movie was like a gateway pamphlet announcing to me, gently, I was about to die. Or was dead.
3. ref. The Wicker Man 
5. That was my power animal mantra during some intense shroom trips in 1987 -the warrior roar, the lone bull walrus breaking through the ice mantle in the Arctic sea, the only living thing for miles in all directions of snowy wasteland, but roaring - wild and proud and free - I am alive! Without fear or loneliness or panic, the warrior roar that makes life your bitch no matter what may come. 
6. The biggest nightmare a drunk can have is when the 'click' never comes (as per Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) no matter how drunk you get - you could be so sloshed you feel it coming up into your eyeballs but are still sober as a judge, and beyond miserable. It's remembering those experiences that help keep up drunks sober through the tempting times. That and the impossibility of stopping once we start, without going into withdrawal (i.e. the DTs) and needing hospitalization. 
9. "The Last Time I saw Richard" - Joni Mitchell 
10. Voodoo is actually part Celtic, part African ritual - as Celts and African slaves were mixed together on Caribbean islands in ancient maritimes. (Hence the similarity too between Irish and Jamaican accents.) 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...