Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ride the Snake: Boris Karloff's HEART OF DARKNESS (1958)

Recently discovered hiding deep in the Amazon Prime--an interior so vast and tangled one never knows what serpent jewel is coiled below the most innocent flower thumbnail cover: a 1958 TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS starring Boris Karloff as Kurtz. For a fan of both the actor and the tale, it's quite a find: Archetypal, potent, pungent, primitive in every definition of the word (picture quality as savage as the setting), acted in a kind of beatnik cafe dream poetry shorthand, following streams far indeed from Conrad's estuary, it nonetheless sings the masculine psyche electric, turning the journey of Marlow upriver to Kurtz into a kind gone-rogue Boy's Life anti-colonialist/pro-incest version of Alice in Wonderland as performed by the residents of some remote mental institution. Some might consider it unwatchable due to terrible image quality and stagy overacting, but for those of us "in the know," one look into Boris Karloff's wild eyes as he dances  shirtless in a jungle leaf crown while a circle of cannibals thump on drums, shake skull rattles, stab goats, and wiggle long feather or vine skirts that look up close in the unshaded video quality like fire (or radar-jamming window), and we know we're home. Add a shirtless wild-eyed Roddy McDowell as Marlow, demanding the whip and being branded with a hot "K", feeding off Karloff's crazy energy, matching his performance art hysteria beat-for-beat, like if Page and Plant dueling high notes in "Dazed and Confused" was mixed with a family trying to be heard on the tarmac of a busy airport. "I celebrate my cruelty!," they shout. "I celebrate my hatred!"

Been there, bro. I hereby claim this HEART as wild and true. "I celebrate my lust!"

I celebrate the generosity of Amazon Prime and this great deal they seem to have made with 'Sprockets,' a vast library of long-neglected (unrestored) exploitation movies from the 50s-70s, many of them too damaged to even be on a Something Weird compilation. I celebrate the genius of mixing the potted plant jungle lurid sadism and miscegenation fantasy of Kongo, and White Woman with O'Neill's folk play existentialism (Emperor Jones), undergraduate avant garde theatricality (ala the old Pratt Institutionalized Theater, here) and Greek-myth analyst-couch bird-swarm beach-boy maenad rending ala Tennessee Williams / Hitchcock. I celebrate this Heart's mix of Shavian satire, Kafka-esque double talk, Maugham 'Victorian morality dissolving in the jungle heat'-ism, and expressionist dream poem segues. This isn't the Congo of Conrad, with its firsthand observed landscape and anthropological detail, but an inner Oz/Wonderland for sexually repressed British sailors desperately praying away their incestuous desires. And no matter how intense things get, the magic coins in Marlow's pocket can whisk him home as fast as ruby slipper Thorazine.

I'll confess, growing up watching Shelly Duvall's Fairy Tale Theater with my parents, then studying Jung in college, (and finding my own magic doorways to weird worlds, if you know what I mean), have perhaps left me predisposed to love something as woebegone as this old Heart. It's similar to the way I love The Love Witch or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, or Lemorra: A child's Tale of the Supernatural. as much for the flaws and seams as their sense of wonder and mythic resonance. I love the Disney fairy tales too, but they're so well done we don't get the ceremonial magick element, the Brechtian disconnect that lets you think, hmm next solstice maybe I'll get asked to play the Wicked Son, or white witch, or the God of spring harvest. In these films' crude staginess comes the surreal element of dreams, which often appear slightly 'off' as if your unconscious couldn't afford a real art director.

Unlike those feminine-based myths, reflecting anxiety about marriage and sex, this is the repressed hammy male version, reflecting going off to college and having your first acid trip and orgiastic sex experience in the same night and feeling like you just opened up from a black and white cocoon to a prismatic Technicolor butterfly. That said, this stays black and white, down in the basement mythic landscape of the 1933 Paramount live action Alice (see: Reeling and Writhing) rather than Disney. It's about going off on safari and expecting to find the good father (maybe even dead), and finding instead the primal father, the jungle devolving him along a mythic reverse axis, from Zeus back to Cronus, from color back to black, from HD to fuzzy primordial analog fuzziness, bounced across the arial dupes of time like a leaden skipping stone.

Subtle, pretty color shit wouldn't work in this jungle --dreams are often in black and white anyway, and of poor quality image-wise, as your third eye antenna can't always get a good picture. I can handle poor quality black and white much better than poor quality color, which tends to be washed out and depressing. In this case the rough signal works: there's an Everclear-smudge stained charcoal sketch madness at play, brought out by the ancient tape artifacts (the grayscale has become... unsound). The weird distortions and deep black outlining give it all a ghostly inked-in appearance as if from some spy camera left in a cavern on the moon crossed with a smudgy courtroom sketch witnessed by a drunk in the throes of DTs. The result: neither 50s TV playhouse drama nor beatnik theater improv, but a mix of both, as if witnessed by another planet who don't quite get that we're only 'pretending' and really aren't this savage. Maybe far-away aliens are viewing this from sixty odd light years away (it was broadcast in 1958 as part of Playhouse 90). Their enthralled anthropologists will wonder whether this is some ritualistic indigenous ceremony, a filmed inauguration, live, like an Olympics ceremony re-enacting of ancient rites, on ancient video equipment, as valuable a relic as a cave drawing or Sumerian tablet. 

The late-80s men's movement, ala Iron John, pointed out that initiation rites, from boy to man, such a key part of all indigenous tribe mythologies, being so absent from our own (outside of the military and frat hazing) has contributed greatly to our national crisis of arrested male development. We don't televise wild initiations into the terrors of the unconscious self, but Heart of Darkness suggests maybe we should. After all, like any other televised event, the trials of the masculine initiation rite are mostly all show. We only get to find that out, if we put on the masks and do the dance, and face the idea that immanent torture via antler piercing, beer chugging, paddling, or soap-pillow case midnight beating, might soon be upon us.

As in the Off-Off Broadway dream poetry tradition, scenes in this Heart of Darkness are connected by childhood nursery rhymes ("Bobby Shafto's / gone to sea"), further making this all seem like a long LSD trip back in the day when it was legal and done on a psychiatrist's couch surrounded by giant potted African fronds. Maybe the sound of children playing outside the shrink's window became like tribal chanting reflecting the ebb and flow of inner psychosis, the old neuroses dissolving off the patient's soul like a serpent's old skin. It that skin isn't shed, a very bad trip can result, as it does for Marlow, for quite a spell. McDowell's repressed and unhinged character, in refusing to open himself to his (adopted!) sister's carnal desire, becomes a hurricane eye around which scenes revolve in ever tighter loops of madness. Each new encounter is with a stranger than the last, until Marlow slowly peels his 'false Buddhist' monk robe skin off until all that's left is a wild overacting, shirtless, bug-eyed loon, cracking a whip to keep time.

Starting with a ship's hold wherein he's forced to crush a rat in his bare hands (like salty shipmates always be making faux-Buddhists do), through to his returning home alive and reborn to his lady love/sister Maria (Inga Swenson), McDowell's acting is either terrible or brilliant or both, holding the whole thing together with a kind of magical foot-to-the-gas madness, reminding me how deft, charismatic and hilarious he was as Tuesday Weld's manager in Lord Love a Duck (there, as here, never stealing a scene but rather using and reflecting the energy of the actors around him, then mirroring it back and raising it again, forming a slow burn duel of ham mania).

Inga Swenson's Nordic alien DNA captured via early TV signal
being non-receptive to the alien cover signal (as seen in THEY LIVE)

Indeed in addition to the Conrad text (we do get some of the original dialogue, including "the horror, the horror") there's almost a greatest hits of dissolving theatrical sanity going on. For example, when we first meet Maria, she's running drunk and barefoot through the snow trying to join a throng of passing holiday carolers, conjuring an array of booze and/or loneliness-wracked Tennessee Williams heroines ranging from those of the Glass Menagerie all the way up to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone ("I have to keep reminding myself you're my brother," she purrs after a long welcome home kiss on Marlow's neck). Though he's clearly into it, Marlow feels compelled to run off and find Kurtz (her dad / his guardian) before he winds up in bed with his own adopted sister. She gives him some coins for the bus home, and they become his magical talisman, the breadcrumb trail ruby slipper. It seems rather forced but it does reflect the realization pulsing through the production that this is mythic freestyle, not a faithful adaptation of the text. There's a parallel in the coins too with the 'parachute' of the psychedelic trip, i.e. a handy Thorazine or--failing that--a Xanax, or--failing that--lots of alcohol or Nyquil. "Pull the string!" The rip cord, the umbilical deep sea diver oxygen line.

The rest of the film is a progression of weird archetypal energies: a 'Before the Law'-esque wife of a disappeared trading company envoy; a blind 'crone' (Cathleen Nesbitt - left) in Queen Victoria /Virgin Mary headdress, signs Marlow up while loudly encouraging him to also join "The Society for the Repression of Savage Custom"; the company doctor (Oscar Homolka - below) measures Marlow's skull against those of previous trading company representatives for comparison (he thinks head size changes after "you go out there to that frenzy, that solitude, that swamp of obscene temptation where there's no policeman, where no voice of a kind neighbor can whisper a public opinion, (ala "don't touch the B in room 237").

The transitions are telling in capturing the beatnik theatricality at the heart of darkness and psychedelic transfiguration: the doctor pushes Marlow through a door into what seems like a storage closet but is actually the jungle, so that he and the old woman seem to be looking down at Marlow from the safety of a small window in a tree, like parents dumping their freshman son out of a passing car onto the campus lawn at the start of fall semester, then speeding off.

Now, in the jungle, things devolve quick: cannibals almost eat him alive before he's saved by the estimable Mr. Robertson (Richard Haydn), the Trading Company 'accountant.' The complete opposite of repressed Marlow, and without a shred of the humanity left, Robertson has embraced the moral twilight and encourages Marlow to do the same: "I don't judge anything, so I don't suffer." He offers Marlow a chance to get out his aggression with a proffered whip, and notes that he'll have to whip the native slaves all the way back inland to Kurtz's compound anyway, that he should give into the madness of the place, but Marlow--his resolve ever weakening--cannot, refusing even a Pim's cup with homegrown cucumber. We can feel the ghost of W.S. Burroughs stir sluggishly like an opium ghost in our bloodstream with the appearance of this Benway-esque character: "No drinking, no violence - you're really quite an example of something or other aren't you?" Robertson says. Assuring Marlow he has nothing but admiration for Kurtz's methods in dealing with his cannibal slaves ("he sends them off all fat and saucy with a meal of two-legged pig, which I think is a charming way of describing what they eat. [1]"), Robertson is our first example of a man who's kept his British detachment by surrendering fully to madness. Marlow cannot, he'd rather hang the chain on himself and beg to be whipped like an anguished penitent.  He's combusting from the inside out, being devoured by the Congo, while Robertson isn't even bothered by flies. 

Eartha Kitt (left) shows up as Kurtz's silken feline queen, Maria, as (we learn) all Kurtz's women are named, reflecting his own incestuous obsession, she's ordered to get the coins from him, as if a holy grail relic that might free him from his own trap. Give me those slippers!

Of course in this surrealism-on-the sleeve riffing, it's not necessary to glean whether or not there's actual incest or desire between Kurtz and his daughter --this is pure psychosexual dream theater, laying its surrealistic tells far more bluntly than Conrad (in the jungle there's no time for subtlety). Writer Stewart Stern clearly uses the source text as diving board rather than a podium, he's interested in accessing certain deep Medea / devouring mothers, diving for coins tossed in by long ago Phoenician sailors, swallowed by the depths of the Kali-tentacled maternal behemoth. It's Conrad the way Coltrane's "Favorite Things" is Rogers and Hammerstein.

As we get closer and closer upriver to Kurtz the mythic resonance gets more and more abstract, the acting hammier, the jungle blurred, static-outlined by the primitive video which makes people's eyes and teeth seemed outlined in thick magic marker. When we finally do get to Karloff's Kurtz, his eyes are wild - sticking through the sludge of the image, fitting perfectly the madness of his character, hideously distorted and blurred, like the final freeze frame of James Caan victorious and subhuman in Rollerball, or a Francis Bacon portrait that's been left out in the rain. He looks like he's been brushing with charcoal, eyes bugging on acid, flesh dissolving into the skin-shedding aura only the very high can see. Flanked by leopard skins doubling as shotgun holes through copper plates, he's a scarier children's book monster than Maurice Sendak could e'er imagine. Following him to the sacred circle for a wild man dance seems akin to jumping through a giant thresher machine. 

Putting other Kurtz's to shame (Welles' radio show version included, Brando of course being the worst), Karloff seizes the chance to really ham it to the rafters and thank god he did, for anything less would have been lost in the splotchy Bacon/rain smudginess of the distorted video image. As it is, both his and Roddy's eyes--seemingly outlined in black magic marker--really pop out, like mad scientists in the peak of a DOM trip, that bold 13-hour mouth at the froth from which no traveler returns sanely without a jingling secret pocket coin, Xanax, or a ("welcome to Annexia") silver bullet for the Emperor Jones' William Tell routine.

It's worth comparing this unique Heart alongside two other mythopoetically dense Stern screenplays: Rebel without a Cause (for Nicholas Ray) and The Last Movie (for Ray's friend Dennis Hopper). Each has a special fascination with ancient tribal initiation rites finding root in the modern era. There's the Rebel 'chickee run', or the way the Bolivian natives in Movie actually hurt each other and jump off roofs in literalized imitation of movie stuntmen; and the terror conjured by a sexually voracious female on the male psyche (Natalie Wood's daddy issues; Julia Adams' cougar in Last Movie). 

That last theme is turned into a fairy tale magic talisman for both Kurtz in Marlow, both the impetus for their escape to the Congo and the magic key for their return. The yearning of voracious, unbalanced Maria reaches out to both men at all times, holding them in a loose orbit around her via symbolic totems: her coins for Marlow, her portrait medallion for Kurtz (like a pagan charm -her image becomes the yin in the center of all this frantic performance art yang). Both men are driven to flee home to escape her, only to find representatives with her same name (the queen). Their pronouncement "I celebrate my lust!"-- in conjunction with the talk of 'cutting loose' in a land far from the prying eyes of puritanical neighbors--serves as a reminder that the 'repression of savage instincts abroad' (as in the Puritans, Rev. Davison in Rain) always fail, the heat and lack of options devolve the men into sex tourists: "Behold my surrender! Behold my marriage with abomination!" Marlow snaps the whip;  Kurtz leads the chant; the drums pound; the flames heating the "K" brand and the wiggling feather/taffeta skirts and headdresses all overlap and become one blurry rain of braided energy. The way the natives clatter their homemade percussion instruments and wave their crude knives evokes Suddenly Last Summer (released the same year) and anticipates The Birds,  which attack as per Mrs. Brenner's unconscious bidding, just as Suddenly's beach boys as per Violet Venable's (rather than their sons slip out from under their wings). Kurtz represents the male equivalent of this Madea/ devouring mother, he's the primal father writ large- mirroring our modern cult leaders like David Koresh or Jim Jones, preferring to wipe out his flock rather than be taken back to civilization, ruling with violence and keeping all the women to himself, like a lion.

I should note that, as with the source text, there's a rampant racism at work here: all the African natives--except the queen--are depicted as savage childlike cannibals who respect only brute force (the whip). At the same time, we should always remember that this jungle is in the mind of a repressed virgin white man who's never been, and so projected his id onto its exotic natives. Well, isn't that what racism is, you say? True, I retort, but it's even a theme of this weird adaptation that only by expressing it can we exorcise it. Openly celebrating his racist evil and insane lust frees Marlow from its toxic grip. Once made conscious and expressed--as in art therapy--the repressed desire evaporates, the way lust evaporates in the minutes after orgasm. Finally, he can give himself a hug (above) and look, through his dilated pupils, towards the finally-revealed heaven. The repressive force within him is spent, the vile racist worldview can dissolve with a ruby slipper heel-tap.

At the same time, it wouldn't suit Marlow's character is to get all preachy and self-righteously racial activist now that he's seen some sort of light. What can even the most liberal of white authors know of blackness? To try and Stanley Kramer it up would kill the larger-than-life messiness of myth. Myth needs to be neither believable nor logical, true or safe, (nor -as here - even in focus or frame), PC or un-PC, what it needs to do is resonate below the line of consciousness, go deeper than mere truth can reach, provide a kind of trapdoor access to the basement of the mind, to open up the vents and allow for temperature equilibrium. Just as the African tribesmen surrounding Kurtz use ceremonial masks to express their demons rather than bury them, this primitive TV broadcast of Heart of Darkness spews forth an admission of racist evil and in the process exorcises it, temporarily at least, even though it can't really do anything with its liberated outlook.

That's why it helps in a way too that this production is so poor and overwrought --the totemic demon mask need not seem real, but almost something to laugh at, a cathartic confession rather than denial, the head of Medusa reflected in the Perseus shield of satire. So let us celebrate our evil and above all celebrate the ability to revisit weird-ass shit like Playhouse 60's Heart of Darkness, celebrate a humanity that would allow this dark plumbing of its darkest depths. It exhibits bravery in going--as my friends and I used to say--"for distance" rather than polish, decorum or clarity, for "riding the snake" rather than scorching it in terror, or containing it a terrarium. By contrast to its messy brilliance, our live TV events today are tepid musicals, toothless as a long-caged rheumy lion. We won't see the like of rough unhinged dream theater 'interpretations' like this Heart again, outside perhaps of "Le Bad Theater" on SNL reruns (2) and we will continue to suffer for its absence, just as the lack of male initiation trauma (3) it so resonantly depicts inevitably outs in everything from school shootings to alt-right trolling, and all the other sad last ditch gasps of boys who never found their hideous dark father's compound, and so never saw the sad end game of their own dark hypocrisy, or tasted the ecstasy of feeling their anxious flesh rendered by a thousand little beaks, until all that's left is skybound.

"even the jungle wanted him dead"
It's also on youtube!

1. "two-legged pig" also known as "long pig" =  human flesh. 
2.  though there was a TV movie version in 1993 with John Malkovich and Tim Roth,  it was faithful to the text to the point of sterility.
3. Initiation rites do exist in some modern organizations (frats, etc.) but outside of, say, the Navy Seals, they lack sufficient prolonged traumatic endurance for the facilitation of a true psychic change. The agony of child birth makes a mother of a woman, the agony of the initiation rite 'second' birth makes a boy a man. "No pain, no gain" is no mere gym mantra but a sad underwriter of all human maturity. Would it were otherwise!!


  1. A GOOD adaptation of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE as well...

  2. That was really thought-provoking and is going to send me to take a look at this ASAP. Thanks!


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