Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Friday, March 23, 2018

Vanishing Caloric Density: QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE



Before her there was only Peggy Hopkins Joyce. After her came all of cable TV. And today she has merged with politics -- they can never more extricated. And thus our first lady is a Communist 'handler' for a mole Raymond Shawhshank sleeper agent blah blah, but who cares? She looks marvelous, darling. That bitch can wear a dress. Has a first lady ever been this glam?

In such an age as this, can we really afford to forget about Zsa Zsa Gabor?

Barely two years dead, seldom seen outside a scarce handful of cult movies (and a few forgettable 'good ones' like We're Not Married) it's easy to forget that her unique brand of 'empty' celebrity was once unique in pop culture. We forget her at our own risk: she's the preface chapter to all of trash TV today. But she was not trashy. Along with her sisters and mother, she was Hungarian and a socialite and she got rich divorcing rich old men husbands and got famous for being famous without having anything to be famous about, which has been such a constant for so long now it's not even a novelty. But it was once, by jiminy.

And yet, there's no one remotely like her today because she had that high-toned class that usually was seen in society pages rather than heard on game shows. She came from a time when TV was campier but less shrill, with relatively little of our current reality show 'loudest voice wins' 'diamonds-that-shine-like-rhinestone' ugliness. Instead, the blurriness of analog color TV signal and the Vaseline on the lens catching her every diamond sparkle, Zsa Zsa drifted along the talk show airwaves like a fabulous pillow feather caught in a cold Nordic draft. Witty enough to be engaging, beautiful enough to be beguiling, but nothing else, we jokingly imagined her as the harbinger of the TV future, the equivalent of what the food industry calls vanishing caloric density, her melt-in-your-mouth hungry ghost illusion left us with nothing, not even the illusion of fullness - only the vague epiphany that fullness itself was an illusion. She knew to play herself dead-on straight, like she didn't get the joke; she was able to be that paragon of social high-toned class that Joan Rivers, in her acres of furs, was a sly riff on. But Zsa Zsa knew she was playing a 'type' as stereoed-in as Charles Nelson Riley or Rip Taylor, yet it worked because she pretended she didn't know it. We were left to fathom what percentage of her schtick was pretense, and it's that which made her interesting. We could keep it up as long as she could. The epitome of composed class and elegance: gowns and lashes for the ladies and gays; impressive cleavage for the straight boys, she was the sort of lady you bring to Vegas on your arm and know she won't embarrass you by getting hammered and pestering you to go upstairs, and if she has any 'needs', she'll make sure they're met, in austere Eastern European style (via some dashing parking attendant from Brazil who conveniently speaks no English). Her vanity and insecurity over her leggy competition might drive you to a nervous breakdown (as it did to the director of the film we're discussing today) but you don't have to worry about her mental health: you could bounce a truck off her old world European composure and worry only about the truck.


Television today has set the bar for glamor is so low it's down in the sub-basement. Reality stars sip Napoleon brandy mixed with Mountain Dew and end up splashing it on each other to signify a fight that will keep us watching past the next add for butt augmentation --but that's inevitable. That's science. It's lonely at the top, and smart Upper West Side bourgeois intellectuals never notice that their sense of being all alone at their level of smart might seem, from below, to look appetizing. You'd have to be pretty dumb to think feeling like other people are dumb makes you feel smart. While it's annoying being surrounded by idiots, maybe it's worse being an idiot surrounded by smart people. Reality TV can make any idiot know what it's like to feel smarter than someone else, and that may be the only way they realize it doesn't make anything better. It's just depressing. Happy now, smart person, knowing the success of Honey Boo-Boo and the election of Trump is partly y'all's fault? 

Problem is, those shows about dumb yokels are made by smart people, and the contempt they feel for their subjects is hard to hide, and contagious, and addictive. Brainy Harvard snob writers eventually need to up the dose; they start to show their contempt too broadly, like the smirky New York intellectual Walter Matthau in 1957's A Face in the Crowd (left), writing the corn pone slop in Lonesome Rhodes' show like he's doing anyone a favor when in reality his cynicism is what's dragging the world down around his ears. Watching that movie you start to think yeah, Lonesome Rhodes is a monster, but I don't want to punch him in the face as bad as I want to punch Matthau. The type of character, so common in the late 50s-early 60s, that thinks a pipe, white skin, glasses, a suit, college education gives them dominion over women, children, the 'working class,' and dogs. They don't respect the savvy craftiness of street smart 'hicks' or the intuitive 'soft touch' of women. They presume their lascivious attention is always welcome, and that since their father can help get them any job they want, they presume they deserve them. These privileged 'wits' end up enforcing a straight white male intelligence on their non-white, non-straight, non-male and non-college educated subjects, who naturally suffer in strait-jackets of passive aggressive 'dumbing down' dialogue, the sort that used to be so common it was a kind of invisible normal that might make you slowly go insane but you were never sure why. 

It's cuzz city slicker douchebags with them pipes keeping us thinking each other is super dumb by writing our thoughts for us on TV, is why! Fight the real enemy. This asshole:


Slap the pipe out!
(from top: Matthau, A Face in the Crowd; Anthony Eisley, Wasp Woman
Another example: Anthony Eisley of 1959's The Wasp Woman who continually treats his boss--the CEO of his company--Janet Starlin, like a child who needs constant supervision lest she sell the empire for a magic bean. With his unlit pipe and bougie bow-tie it's only natural we pray a certain wasp stings him rotten or that she'll fire him, or make him lick her boots.

Think I'm just free-associating? Our current shitty national situation, Zsa Zsa Gabor, empty fame, snobby Harvard writers --what do they have in common? QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958).

This is CinemaScope
As a fan of bad 50s horror and sci-fi movies (especially Mesa of the Lost Women and Plan Nine) as well as the wry work of Ben Hecht (who wrote the story, not that it's very original) and Charles Beaumont (who adapted it), I am supposed to automatically love this Queen, this presumptive sci-fi shaggy dog classic, this veritable remake of the story filmed first in 1953 (as the far 'superior', Cat Women of the Moon) then also in the same year (1958!) but in black-and-white, as Missile to the Moon. 

 (from top) the heavenly beatnik jazz dancer troupe of CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON; the celestial moon goddesses of MISSILE TO THE MOON; the tired front line of broads from QUEEN 
I love Cat and like Missile but loathe Queen. Indeed, I want to slap the pipe out of its smug Walter Mathau Face in the Crowd-mouth. It's weird since I like both its writers and love the film from which Queen 'borrowed' its wardrobe (the uniforms and a sparkly minidress from MGM's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet) and it's got babes and a giant spider (there's also a giant spider in Missile and in Cat Women and even Mesa) but most of the time it's just Cinemascope-length assemblages of under-directed actors standing around on opposite ends of a crumbling high school theater stage, ever ready for either a attendance roll call or old-school rumble that never happens. The film plays like a box of cake mix, unopened, with an egg broken over it, left it a cold oven by a director who's too busy hiding in his trailer to avoid one of Zsa Zsa's on-set rages to light the pilot. Instead he lets the soundstage fill with gas, like Monty Clift under a Place in the Sun canoe.

The plot you know even if you don't: a shipload of smirking virile Earthmen head to a planet of all women where they help the good leader (Zsa Zsa) overthrow the bad one (Laurie Mitchell [who played a similar role in Missile to the Moon]) whose mask is even uglier than her ugly face. Va-Voom! Lots of girls in terrible MGM costume drama hand-me-downs getting freaky, guys makin' moves, and the captain tackling the biggest lay of his life.

sharp eyed fans may recognize Davis in Alta's 'decent' frock from F. Planet
Sounds like I'd love this film if it let me. But it loves its smirky self too much to let me in. Some of the girls are great (like Lisa Davis (right; below left) who rocks great lipstick and smoldering Gillian Anderson eyes) and the writing seems a decent framework for a more straight-faced mature approach (which would allow the magic of camp to cohere better). The problem is in the misogynistic direction and frat boy acting by the men, that pipe puffing smug-snark where actors and director think themselves too smart for their material. They think adding some bawdy audience winking will help put it over, which shows how wrong they are. The smirky douche bag vibe of SWM male superiority has doomed the film to never be a true cult favorite except in the smirkiest, douchiest, winkiest, most patriarchally self-important of ways. 


What makes the 'good' bad versions of this same plot (Cat Women of the Moon in particular) work so well as enduring 'camp' classics on the other hand, is the intent to do something straight and good but without the know-how or budget or the talent to make it, but with a genuine love of strong women. When these films are good we get the genuine eccentricity of lower rung Hollywood really trying to make nothing into something and of genuinely liking women. Unknowns and outsider artists mix with actors shunned or forgotten by the Hollywood elite and up and comers ready to try. They all take this last or first chance grab and nobly fight to stay in character as the set collapses around them. These oddballs and has-beens and non-starters are--to we classic horror / sci-fi fans--our family. They're the equivalent of the Bad News Bears, or the bar full of flea-bitten drunks in The Iceman Cometh, they're waiting us for us to come watch them again with Hicky eyes anew, to buy them drinks so they can live through the alcohol that is our eyes. They get that it's all over in well under 90 minutes, win or lose but so is the effect of an average double highball. Only the drunks survive, because thirst never dies. And neither does DVD. 



Maybe this is why (white male) barflies and has-beens tend to have more respect for women and minorities, since the men in these Z-grade films are as disenfranchised and thus less afraid they'll lose anything by portraying women as the badass goddesses they are. I know for myself, alcoholism humbled me down to the roots, made me forever grateful and in awe of the women who rescued me. And that's why we drunks, drag queens, punks, and other outsiders that make up the bad film-lover community aren't going to be drawn to such puerile contempt for either women or the sci-fi and horror genres. And thus no character in Plan Nine leers at Vampira and says some inane shit like "my coffin or yours, baby." No one in that cantina says to Tarantella in Mesa of Lost Women, "I bet you got a real sticky web." If there were such quips these films would be as ignobly remembered as this Queen. It's the celebration, the worship, of female strength, that makes them endure with stoic grace in the face of incompetence. It's there in John Waters, it's there in Russ Meyer, it's there in Roger Corman. It's not there in Queen of Outer Space. 

The 'space women need men' subgenre always has a giant spider - Analyze its symbolic meaning, right down your answer,
then look at the oeuvre of artist Louise Bourgeois to see if you're right!
Only a few elements in Queen from Outer Space take the outsider/sublime approach vs. the Matthau-in-Face in the Crowd attitude, and one of them---believe it or not--is Zsa Zsa Gabor.



No matter what happens, she plays it dead straight. She should have been the evil queen- as the title and billing suggests, with her beauty being the mask and the ugly scarred face appearing after the face cracks off because she's too busy making out with the captain to moisturize. Instead, as the chief scientist and leader of the resistance, she brings that same feathery class to bear she'd bring to any 'real' social event only here it looks like the event happened five years ago and no janitor has stirred therein to sweep up. And the event was an afternoon ladies-only coffee clatch fashion show with a vague Robin Hood theme.

If it's not going to offer anything else, the casting of Zsa Zsa was brilliant touch just for marquee value alone, making Queen of Outer Space live in high camp infamy, a touchstone name easily recognized by programmers who know nothing of the genre. But it's not worth the camp adulation, for it is the kind of self-hating sci-fi that feels the need to leer and roll its eyes every five minutes.  They don't get that it's not 'fun' to presume a planet of all women is going to roll over the minute some douchebag puts on a moth-eaten blue powder and struts in like the kingdom can now relax - a man is here to take charge. It's offensive, man. You can't put women in masks deformed enough to scare Picasso out of the brothel (left) and expect them to thank you for it. You can't think some young captain bucko can topple an empire just by toying with the affections of a mask-wearing broad on Venus and have it not be so misogynist I could just scream! You can't!

Grandma, what uneven eyeholes you got
Real camp would go the opposite way - it heaps a dozen dead male spacemen at the feet of its evil goddess. Great camp celebrates strong, badass broads. It loves them. It even gives them a magical beatnik free jazz dance to quietly haunting Elmer Bernstein flute music. For Queen the contempt is so thick they don't even have the decency to put some ornamental Vishnu statuary around the place, nor to even make the eyeholes symmetrical on the masks. A Hollywood movie lacking the kind of basic papier-mache 101 most of us mastered before we graduated first grade? Unforgivable! Zoot alors!

Well, either way - if we don't like it- we have two others just like it for solace, each worse than the other and far better in their worseness as a result. Times change - we've been to the moon. We know there's no babes there. Or if there are, they're fast aslep (or as Rutledge says "condition - not dead, not alive"). Alien women are here, instead, and their masks are human, but just barely. Sometimes I pass one on the street - they have deep light blue dazzling eyes and blonde hair, impossibly elfin. And I send them a telepathic message. They don't answer me. But that's show business. Maybe I'm not smart enough to be worth 'sending' to. My genes aren't worth harvesting so no cool sexy abductions. I am not mad or jealous and I'm not out to topple any kingdom, certainly not a matriarchy, even if it's run by a puppet doofus via his hot Russian handler. I'll write whatever I have to in order to earn my sanity, to feel observant enough about the shit I watch that I somehow contribute to the collective evolution of dude-kind. Pass me my pipe and let's get the show started, and then cancelled! And take me with you when you go back to space, long as I can bring a DVD player, and CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON! 

It's because I know you won't bring me that I don't want to go. Hail Alpha! 

Greetings from the Bilderberg Jamboree
See also:
CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)
MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)
--
Acidemic #8 The Brecht / Godard / Wood issue

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Old Dark Capsules IV: NIGHT OF TERROR, THE CROOKED CIRCLE, THE UNHOLY NIGHT, THE 13TH CHAIR, A STUDY IN SCARLET


Black and white old dark house films are the perfect balm for miserable rainy days like this, or the advent of spring (pollen/allergies) contesting grey winter's turgid encore as the sky clears. Cobwebs, shadows, candelabras, sudden black-outs, howling winds, shifty-eyed conspirators, pouring rain, sheet metal thunder, suits of armor that fall at odd times, cats, clocks striking midnight, readings of the will punctuated by lightning strikes, daggers in backs, spooky seances, fog-enshrouded stalking, spying through keyholes, secret passages, hidden laboratories, gorilla suits, disembodied death masks floating in the darkness - it's all manna. If you grew up at all in the 60s-70s then you remember too the ghosting of the UHF antenna signal (highly susceptible to cloud cover) when these movies showed on local TV Saturday afternoons; how a spooky old film was almost always, somewhere to be found out in the white noise wilderness, deep in those films that were deep in the white noise wilderness, Bela Lugosi waited like a UHF Kurtz, hamming it up in whatever role he got, be it a brooding vampire or just another enigmatic butler.

Back in the 70s, before the advent of VCR, one's ability to see old movies was tied to the whims of TV programmers and the the cloud systems of a fickle God. With only a circular antennae and rabbit ears to move around in vain, atop the set, every second of one of these films that was visible became a sacred text written on the snapchat wind. At any moment a cloud might pass and wipe out the signal, which had bounced in off a storm cloud from Wilmington Philadelphia or wherever, and leave you stranded, so you basked in the hoary atmosphere while you could, read your Famous Monsters of Filmland like a holy writ, imagining that, one day, you'd be able to watch the movies those photos were from right there on the page of the magazine, as if a screen could one day be as flat and light and book-sized. On long drives I'd tape a picture of Bela Lugosi or Charlie's Angels on the back of my dad's seat so I could stare at it and wish-wish-wish it was a TV screen.

Those days are a memory of course - thanks to iPads, that dark birthday wish come true ( I spent a recent jury duty in the waiting room watching Invisible Ghost, The Ghoul and The Black Raven on my Kindle) and when it's too pollen-saturated or soaking wet and freezing to go outside without sneezing like a machine gun, what can you do now but watch thy old dark house collection from the sanctity of your germ-free bubble, and remember how precious every signal-reception moment used to feel when it was all so ephemeral.

If you don't know what I mean by all that, yet you still love old dark house movies, then you know their narcotizing effect transcends mere pre-sci-fi nostalgia. Nothing makes you gladder to live in a small apartment than the thought of being expected to stay the night in a huge, mysterious, dark house that could be hiding a whole army of killers with ease. Nothing makes you feel dryer than a raging storm onscreen. Nothing makes you happier to be honest and poor than the sight of the murdered rich and evil. And if you're a Lugosi fan, then you know why.

NIGHT OF TERROR 
(1933)
*** / Amaon Prime Image - B

A long-unavailable old dark house swirl of a thriller melding in some pre-slasher movie signatures, the Bela Lugosi-starring NIGHT OF TERROR is violent pre-code melodrama that more than lives up to its lively reputation. Highlighted by an unusually lurid string of murders by a knife-wielding madman, who grins impishly from the bushes in and around a rolling, fog-enshrouded estate, then creeps in on his unsuspecting victims, stabbing them, then leaving his calling card - a headline of one of his killings - pinned to the back of each new body. From the opening scene of him crawling into a lover's lane convertible to stab a pair of necking lovers (top) it's clear this ain't your average 30s old dark house film, more like a 70s-80s slasher movie. Inside, a dotty scientist (George Meeker) plans to test his new 'suspended animation' death-duplicating drug by burying himself alive for two days--mixing Houdini and medical science together under the watchful eye of an eminently murderable board of directors. His fiancee (Sally Blaine) is too 'animus-dominated' to argue with her gullible dad (Tully Marshall) who encourages the marriage and bankrolls the experiments. She's so passive about it, she even tolerates social climbing reporter Wallace Ford's pushy come-ons. She'd probably get into a car with the killer too, if he had a bag of candy. She might even vote Republican.

The dad is, thankfully, murdered. Heirs gather for the reading of the will; the killer offs them by the dozen; Ford and the cops need to figure out if he's working for one of them (the will's split between heirs, so the fewer the inheritors the more $$) or if it's just a mad killer 'coincidence.' A no-good brother and his cash-hungry wife arrive out of nowhere and try to push everyone else out. The mysterious Hindu servant Degar (Lugosi) and his spirit medium-housekeeper wife (Mary Frey) are also in for a share, though the scheming brother and wife don't think belong in the will and plan to contest it - better hurry up, schemers!

Playing the very first of his long line of red herring butlers, Lugosi's role is pretty central to the action (he's more than just a comic relief macabre sidebar) and--considering what a lean year 1933 was for him (in the doghouse at Universal for refusing to do Frankenstein)--he seems glad to be working and manages some real malevolent around-the-corner stares through doorway cracks. Meanwhile the mad killer's body count rises and the black chauffeur (Oscar Smith) alone is smart enough to want to skedaddle. Naturally there's a mysterious climactic seance (always turn out all the lights in a big first floor open window and ajar door-filled room when a maniac who's already killed four people that night is still at large in the house) and a final act escape down a secret panel to a scary basement.

This rare Columbia B-movie gem was one I'd been looking for since forever - so when it recently surfaced online (I think it's on youtube) and on Prime after never being on VHS, DVD or shown on TV. That I'm actually not disappointed after all that expectation (35+ years of waiting) says a lot. What sets this apart from so many other old dark houses is the wild pace and the abundance of little macabre touches. Man, that lunatic really racks 'em up. I think he even makes it to double digits. I love the blackly comic way no one seems able to alter their schedules, beef up security, turn on some lights, or lock their doors even knowing the killer is right in the same block radius - it's the sort of suicidal eloi passivity--that immunity bubble--that causes so many car fatalities due to people's inability to stop texting.


In a very strange cool ending the killer threatens the audience with death upon divulging the trick ending. It's weird how often that must have happened at the time - because we see that same thing at the end of The Bat Whispers, and so many others. SPOILERS - believe it or not, underneath that weird make-up, the killer is gravel-voiced Edwin Maxwell (Dr. Emile Egelhoffer in His Girl Friday). 
--
20. A STUDY IN SCARLET
(1933) Dir. Edward Marin
*** / Amazon Image: D

My favorite early 30s Sherlock Holmes (pre-Rathbone) films, this has a lot going for it, including Anna May Wong and plenty of Limehouse fog. Some purists decry Reginald Owen's Holmes as too bulky and slow (he played Watson opposite Collin Clive the year before)-- but he's more forceful and less dotty than, say, Arthur Wotner who played him--rather too self-satisfied and cozily in British films from the same period. Even Rathbone tended to play up Holmes' nervous coke-head feyness, gamboling down the London streets, Watson lagging along behind; here the energy is a bit reversed: Watson is bouncing off the terrarium walls while Holmes sits motionless like a gecko perched above a watchful cricket, and then--- zap! the cricket has disappeared in a slight blur of pink tongue. He's cool rather than fey.  This is Holmes with more than just a keen mind, he has gravitas. 

When, for example, his study of a crime scene leads him from the murdered man's desk out to the front yard, Watson and Lestrade stand there watching him on the sidelines as the scene plays out - they both seem resigned, reverent even - they're not doing the usual dimwitted jumping to conclusions, they aren't about to break his concentration.I like that he doesn't bother to explain all his 'elementary' observations to Watson like the first-grade show-off. When for example, Watson points out the resemblance of Thaddeus Merrydew's shoe size and cigar brand to those of the murderer they're hunting, Holmes just looks at him like a patient teacher guiding a student towards an already established insight: "Is that all you observed?" Holmes points out there were a hundred more details Watson missed, but then doesn't go into them. Still waters run deep with this Holmes and we come to appreciate the carefulness with which Owen keeps the water clear enough to see all the way into his character's purple depths but doesn't reveal the depths until it's time to strike. These give those gecko tongue movements that extra snap, like when he counters Merrydew's feigning of ignorance over the withholding of a widow's trust, with a simple smile: "it won't do" that chills the blood.

Another highlight is a local tavern out in the country, wherein a nice old Col. Blimp-style officer strolls in, buys a bottle, and beguiles the local carriage driver with tons of whiskey before hiring him for a trip out to a for-sale mansion. Owen is so thoroughly buried in his role that we're not quite sure which of the two men is Holmes or if either man is at all, we just enjoy the idea of being kind of hard up and having a friendly stranger come and bring over a whole bottle. We watch in awe as Holmes deftly avoids drinking his share while plying the driver, and how expertly he soon starts searching all over the mansion, locating secret panels, sending the maid out of the room after feigning a heart attack, and so forth. It's genius.


As in all the best Rathbone Holmes' (The Scarlet Claw in particular) there's a rich foggy night atmosphere especially in and outside the gang's Limehouse hideout, where many a chase, spy, shot and a skulking suspicious walk occurs. The always worthwhile Anna May Wong has a small but memorable part one of the inheritors of the bloody tontine (based on some sequestered jointly stolen jewels) along with innocent daughter of a dead conspirator June Clyde and  J.M. Kerrigan (the guy toasting "King Jippo" in The Informant). Alan Mowbray is a tolerant Lestrade; Alan Dinehart the odious Merrydew; Warburton Gamble a stalwart Watson. There are secret passages, killings, and some good tough talk showdowns. An invigorating climax finds Holmes, Lestrade and a gang of detectives show up at the same county pub for a quick one to bolster the blood before trundling off through the moors for the big climax. Hail Britannia! We wouldn't see a 'quick stop at the local before the showdown' scene again until Straw Dogs! 

 Clearly a labor of love for Owen, he produced and co-wrote the script with Robert Florey. It doesn't have anything to do with original Conan Doyle novel of the same name, but that's because Owen had optioned the title only, not the actual story! To be honest, you'd never know it as he did a bang-up job whipping something together that feels proper and correct in its Holmes-ishness and as I say, and Owen makes (in my opinion at least) a vital, grounded Holmes and that British atmosphere is so thick you may be forgiven for presuming it came from Gaumont rather than a long-lost poverty row indie Tiffany.

THE CROOKED CIRCLE
(1932) Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone 
*** / Alpha Image - **

This 'campy mystery' was the first film ever broadcast over TV airwaves, back in 1933, when it was still in theaters and there were only about six TVs in all of Los Angeles, but the ball needed to get rolling and what better choice? Old dark house films sorts of films thrive with a fuzzy picture -- combined with the inherent staginess you may get the delicious impression you're somehow not meant to see it at all- that the atmospheric conditions were good enough you picked up a strange channel from Illuminati-style closed-circut crime organization from far away. Just watching it makes you subject to be next on their tarot card hit list.  Consisting of several men and one woman, they meet wearing black hoods to conceal their identities from each other, and end each meeting with a secret chant, "the traitors to the knife and the knife to the hilt!" The way the circle draws cards to see who does each murder "in a manner already prescribed" evokes Robert Louis Stevenson's "Suicide Club." H. Bruce Humberstone, the man behind all the best Charlie Chan movies, directed it, which may explain why it pops so effectively.

The story centers around 'Melody Manner', an abandoned, creepy split-level haunted-ish mansion inherited by Ben Lyon. Way more developed as a set than most, squatted in by a rogues gallery of kooks, squatters, mysterious violin sounds (gh-gh-gh-ghosts!), and killers hang out amidst its labyrinth of secret passageways, spooky attics, and backyard graveyards with coffin chutes down to basement trap doors.  There are some genius touches of the sort I haven't seen until the more recent Good Time (like a burglar forcing the homeowner he's holding at gunpoint to change clothes with him, before the cops arrive); and t
The Secret Circle don't show up much once the ball is in play (or do they?), we spend a lot of time with their opposing numbers, 'the Crime Club' a band of amateur criminologists who tackle complex crimes for sport. (Never mind the class barrier reinforcement inherent in that arrangement, good sir). Irene Purcell--those bare alabaster Norma Shearer-esque arms as lovely as ever--is the heroine. The eminently forgettable Ben Lyon is her nominal fiancee. Stealing the movie with some elegant 'against-type' aplomb is C. Henry Gordon in a rare good guy turn, sporting a turban as the enigmatic foreign detective Yoganda; as a drinky crow-esque crime clubber, Roscoe Karns nibbles on whatever comedy relief isn't chewed down to the nub by mugging Zasu Pitts as a terrified gal Friday and James Gleeson's rattled traffic cop ("oh, a wise guy, eh?"); Robert Frazer, Christian Rub, and Spencer Charters are various spooky eccentric flittering in and out of frame to menace Purcel. Before you know it, the Crooked Circle are being unmasked and/or killing the lights for the final escape, but hey - do what I do and just press 'play from beginning' at the first sign of credits, because I guarantee you didn't remember a goddamned wonderful word of it even if you watch it twice, back-to-back, in the same evening. It's just that good!


THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR
(1929) Dir. Todd Browning
**1/4 / (TCM image - ***)

Often remade, to no real effect, this is one of those bunco squad seance exposes, that was first--as with so many old dark house vehicles-- a barnstorming stage melodrama. A medium hired for a party amongst British diplomats and swanky ex-pats in India, Madame LaGrange (with her spirit familiar, "Laughing Eyes") demonstrates the secrets all sorts of bizarre seance tricks, like spirit raps and table raising, demystifying the art and bumming everyone out in the service of finding out who killed a friend at a party the previous year. Summoned on the anniversary of the friend's death, Margaret Wycherly cranks up her slow-talking sentimental schtick to the hilt (she played Sgt. York's mom, if the name doesn't ring a bell) while making a half-hearted attempt to access real magic for the climax, making MGM seems less to blame for their veto on fantasy (i.e. the end of Mark of the Vampire - the silent era's fear the public won't 'buy' supernatural explanations) and putting the blame squarely on hardened carnies like director Todd Browning, whose eagerness to expose the seamy underbelly of the seance racket seems mean-spirited (maybe he did it to impress Houdini -dead only three years at the time - or was he?). Until Dracula two years later, Browning shied away from straight-up fantasy thinking the public preferred his sentimental Chaney 'deformed sideshow contortionist loves circus waif' masochism vehicles. So in this case, the old dark moody billing is a cheat as the medium's calling on her fake familiar for real help seems quite absurd and eventually her dated sentimental schtick plus the elaborate disclaimers combine to kind of swamp the picture.

Ah well, you can always fall in love with Leila Hyams in her seductively diaphanous art nouveau Adrian gown, the jagged ruffles of her flapper-y skirt alone are as unforgettable in their way as the windows on the abandoned house in Deep Red. You don't blame mopey Conrad Nagel for mooning over her (though eventually you will want to slap him). The Calcutta setting lets art director Cedric Gibbons enhance the tony parlors with luxurious exotica trimmings and Bela Lugosi is great as the local Indian police inspector, masterfully using his aristocratic bearing to boss around the snotty British, and the big surprise climax is not without its spooky charm.

Nonetheless... as with other mysteries from the period that get too hung up on their big 'twists' (like Secret of the Blue Room), once you know the ending it all seems so hopelessly contrived, and oh man does Wycherly's schtick stick in the craw. It's clear Browning is as taken with her as Hitchcock was with Lila Kedrove in Torn Curtain, or Anderson with Peter Ustinov in Logan's Run. Browning should know: you can't just let old character actors run away with a scene, because they will, and it will be all viewers remember, and we'll never want see it again, anymore than we want to go to the old lady's home and visit granny. She's a swell old girl, but... just the thought kind of gives us a claustrophobic, buried-alive feeling.


On the other hand, twenty years later Wycherly would turn her saintly homespun mom schtick on its head as Cagney's terrifying mother in White Heat, and don't say 1929 mysteries don't age well, because there's one old dark house movie from 1929 with all the same ingredients as this, and it rocks, and it's up next on the hit parade:
THE UNHOLY NIGHT 
(1929) Dir. Lionel Barrymore
**** / unavailable 

This MGM old dark house thriller gets a bad rap for being--like most early sound films--awash in crackles, hisses, stiff acting, and literal and figurative static. That's all actually plusses for an old dark house fan, for it gives the impression the air of the early sound era was something we could hear and see, like a special alternate form of liquid perfect for late night/early morning dipping. And The Unholy Night may offer the coziest example: everything seems to be taking place underwater seen through some magical submarine window as, under the protective anonymity of London fog, a killer is strangling unwary ex-British military officers. They're dropping like flies in a wild opening montage. Lord Montague (Roland Young) is nearly strangled too, but he manages to get rescued and at Scotland Yard proceeds to start pouring the brandy and sodas to steady his nerves, and he doesn't stop 'til the whole mystery's wrapped up (announcing each new glass is "my first, today"). Turns out he and the dead men all served together at Gallipoli in the Great War in the same regiment so Scotland Yard suggests they round them up at Montague's mansion for a an impromptu reunion and their own safety and thus protect them with some plain clothes guards and get to the bottom of things. What with all the drinking and WWI existentialist undercurrents you can bet it was written by Ben Hecht, and there are so many creepy seances, ghosts, mass murder tableaux, walking corpses, and British army buddies singing drinking songs that it becomes the perfect film to watch as the sun comes up after a wild night of revels.

The cast is rich with strange faces: Montague's sister (Natalie Moorhead) goes in for seances in a big way, and seems a harmless enough pastime to her doctor fiancee (Ernest Torrance) but is it? Hardworking character actor George Cooper is Montague's loyal servant from the war - he's sure happy to see the regiment back together for a weekend, happier than he can say, and knows just what kind of drinks to serve and when to bring another round (which is immediately); Boris Karloff is a foreign lawyer with shady motives and a strange will; Polly Moran is kept on a short leash as the maid (she can really ham it up... if... if encouraged); the disfigured Major Mallory from their old regiment dies in the other room while the gang are mixing up "a bowl of wine" - a concoction of everything but wine, let aflame and carried around while singing "drink it down / drink it down."



Things really shift into high gear with the dramatic arrival of the Turkish-British Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian -above, center), the daughter of a traitor officer previously drummed the bounder out for cheating at chards, she might be in town because she knows about the will (a tontine-style affair where the fortune is divided up equally amongst "surviving" members of the regiment, set up as some byzantine revenge plot) or she has her own plot in mind probably via 'tricks of the ancient orient' - like hypnosis, sex and suggestion (ala Thirteen Women, another personal favorite). Naturally the news leads to some hammy moments of alibi-challenging, confession of being broke or in debt, and going "crazy" from the strain, but brotherhood prevails and some pretty rounds of "Auld Lange Syne" put it all back in place. The doctor boyfriend slips the nervous Efra some tranquilizers upstairs as asks if she can identify the voice she heard conspiring with Karloff the night before.

Yeah, I love this movie to death. I've only seen it a few dozen times but always late at night, drunk, or sick, all the better to not remember it for the next time. (It is key, really, to enjoying these old murder mysteries over and over again- make sure you forget who the killer is as soon as it's over). I do recall that the men are all stepping over themselves to be the last man mooning over her at her bedroom door, which considering her possible yen for killing them doesn't seem at all wise. And I remember  Karloff's weird mix of abashed lovelorn discomfort and silken sinister motives but not exactly where he fits in to anything (he's not even in the credits). There's a great grisly morning tracking shot past numerous strangled victims, lots of hamming, and my favorite moment--the one I remember most--occurs earlier, when Lord Montague, leading Scotland Yard into his mansion, opens the parlor door to investigate a scream, and finds the lights out and his sister and a gang of folks mid-seance, spooking maid Moran. It's total darkness while the disembodied head of SĂ´jin Kamiyama whirls around the room, chanting in a hideous deep voice! Oops! Oh well, nothing to worry about. As a viewer it's such a great WTF moment it stays in the unconscious like an eclipse stays on the retina. Well, gentlemen, let's to the study and have another round. Gentlemen, and another regimental drinking song if you please and another brace of brandy and sodas. Our first today! "Well, you know what I mean."


PS - Good luck finding it - it's not on any DVD or VHS.  TCM occasionally shows it - usually very late at night. Could you please demand they make a DVD, maybe part of a pre-code old dark house five movie DVR set? Suggest they add Murder by the ClockNight of Terror, Supernatural, and a decent print of Crooked Circle! I'd appreciate it.

See also:
Old Dark Capsules: THE GHOUL, CAT AND THE CANARY, THE MONSTER WALKS, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE BLACK RAVEN


Friday, March 02, 2018

The Flower People Screaming: DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)

Richard Burton's semi-forgotten directorial debut (and swan song), DOCTOR FAUSTUS came out in swingin' 1967 and it's too bad it didn't know there was a whole summer of love going on around it, because, thanks to all its Satanic, illuminati, 'interiority-hallucination' and horror film iconography, it's plenty psychedelic. An adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan play, made by Burton to raise funds for his alma mater, the Oxford Dramatic Society (and cast with pretty boys from thar), it's got issues with trying to be respectful Art in its retelling of the classic devil's bargain myth, but like a bunch of twitchy-legged hippy undergrads waiting for class to end, it's got a sensationalist, existential, trippy drug fantasia waiting for it down at the pub. Oh but the trepidation of taking one's first big lysergic weekend step into the Summer of Love. Mods and rockers giving way to Carnaby dandies, Blow-Out winning hearts and minds. Shit was in the wind, troop! And like Roger Corman in the US, Burton the director was realizing how how easily the already-available props and sets from the recent glut of Gothic horror films could carry over as hallucinational markers through the Jungian birth/rebirth Hell-initiation / the 'relax and float downstream to nirvana, or the thousand rending talons of self-centered fear will shred your psyche to ribbons' cornfields of the mind.


Though shot in Italy and England using creative crews from both lands bringing deep colored gel flavors of Mario Bava and slinky psychedelic scoring, it nonetheless as a very strong AIP Corman Poe flavor, and would make a great double feature with Corman's very California The Trip (from the same year, 1967 - above) and Corman's earlier, yet still highly-psychedelic horror films Masque of the Red Death (1964) and X-The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963). Which since I've written about all three as part of the someday-celebrated Acid's Greatest series, you know I'm implying Doctor Faustus portents the steep tolls along the 'poison path'. To attain enlightenment--the fast way--means disregarding the warning label on Medusa's chintzy veil, so don't whine when you're too stoned to write anything down, even though you dropped all that acid to improve your poetry - how ironic!

Be it the black arts or forbidden scientific experimentation in the form of eye drops or pills, the result in the Corman canon--and so here with Burton's Faustus--is approximately the same, and so is it cinematic depiction of power: kaleidoscopic images of painted women writhing in delight, lenses smeared on all sides by vaseline for trippy distortions, time lapse dissolves, crypts, dungeons, caves, cobwebbed skulls under cozy purple gel spots, sudden strange juxtapositional overlap dissolves, and copious occult symbolism.

The Trip
In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, comes the check, and the check must be paid by screaming. Even in the case of The Trip there are the disclaimer in the beginning and 'cracked glass' ending, both forced on the film by the nervous producers who wanted to make sure the psychedelic experience was portrayed, ultimately, as causing calamitous long-term brain damage, lest the film be seen as green light to a curious nation (more than governmental censure, I'm wagering James Nicholson was worried about lawsuits, suing AIP for endorsing a drug that convinced Timmy he could fly out a sixth-story window).

In Faustus, however it's more bleak and final - the voyage to Hell being  eternal DTs, represented by an evil Liz Taylor in green body paint, her hair a bed of snakes, laughing evilly.

Dude, so been there. It's like you can't find your last Librium, or secret whiskey stash, and the visions and shakes consume you so bad all you can do is scream, a scream without end...

"Heyyy, Swamp! Hey Swampyyy!" (Dr Faustus)
It's ironic that--as the star and muse--Burton and Taylor--then married and still tabloid gold-are the weakest parts of the film. Like many towering drunk titans of the stage and screen, each could rely on a bag of tricks to mask their various hangover and bloated periods for only so long. Burton, especially, as he'd later prove in nearly every role he took, uses tortured booming depth of voice and harrowed stare of beady eye into the ether just past the camera to masking his doleful hangover and likely existential longing for four PM cocktail hour (1).

That's not to say great genius couldn't be wrung! Burton and Taylor had just made their two--by far--best films--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Taming of the Shrew--right before doing Faustus. And it's clear right away what the problem is. Burton needs a playmate of equal stature or he loses his energetic madness X-factor. He needs to plays off Liz's energy, making full use of their Pisces-Scorpio dynamic. BUT, as her character in Doctor Faustus never speaks, or appears as anything but a Ligeia/Rebecca-style anima (with an initially haunting but eventually tiresome Yma Sumac-ish leitmotif following her around like a herald), she is simply not right for the part. She is too tremendous. She overflows the boundaries of a mute object role/phantom role. It's like casting Bette Davis as Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie or Anna Magnani as Lolita. And Liz is, simply put, way too old, too regal, too grand, to play a cipher. When Faustus beholds her beauty and asks "is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" you feel like you want to Oooh! Ooh! Raise your hand and give the obvious answer. If you loved the brawling Liz in Shrew and Woolf, and were hoping for more of the same, you too might be inevitably weirded-out to see that same sexy old force of nature posited as the ultimate silent objet-d'art beauty, especially when she's standing before an array of young, sexy British models, all bravely clad in nothing but the glow from the OS hellfire.

Lucifer, where doth I sign?
Every hetero male in the world knows this scene (above), the odalisques lounging at the intersection of fantasy and nightmare. They're always there, judging all we see and do with scathing insolence - their silence speaks volumes to our frenzied bloodstream.  Liz's silence speaks only to our vague ' Tracy Lord on a pedestal' sense of post-madonna worship. (2) She's neither terrifying or beguiling, the way the above scene is both. These are the maenads from the sidpa bardo. One wrong move, one flinch of fear and they rend you to pieces and devour the remains. Before you know it your soul is shorn of all your traits and memories, your deeds and hopes, and when you reincarnate, your psyche is as fresh and blank as a brand new diary. On the other hand, in the darkness that consumes you, theirs is a mighty inviting light.

Another particular problem, a flaw that keeps it ever at arm's length, is the mythic-reference-choked language of the text, recited by Burton with great oratory declarations unto heaven that in the end resonate far less cosmically than the smaller gestures made in Shrew and Woof. Director Nichols and Zeffirelli, know that true mythic grandeur comes from sharply observed small moments, not big declarations. Awareness of this paradox, separates windbags from geniuses: When Burton is playing a middle-aged history professor shouting at his wife, he's as vivid and mythic as the cosmos; when he's playing a mythic figure shouting at the literal cosmos, he's as dull as a middle-aged history professor. When he kisses Liz as Helen and talks about her kiss sending his soul flying around the room, it's hard not to roll your eyes and think of that old adage of acting class, "you're telling us not showing us - we don't believe it."

He should have pretended he was saying that to a bottle of Scotch and an ice bucket. We'd be able to feel that passion in our toe tips! Burton comes alive!

"the fruits of lunacy"
By contrast, consider how how both Welles in his self-directed Macbeth and Olivier in his self-directed Hamlet (both 1948) give you the impression they love every minute of their character's tortured guilt and suffering. No matter what dour calamity their characters wallow in, they revel in the poetry and mythic undertones, capturing the essence of art in small perfect little gestures. When Burton can't even revel during Faustus' moments of revelry, one must wonder if the demands of directing and marriage and paparazzi-ducking--and staying sober long enough each day to keep under budget-- tanked his energy. Maybe he let his brown-nosing reverence for 'the classics' undo his natural crazy Wagnerian oomph. Unlike Olivier and Welles, who both swim in Shakespeare like it's the literary equivalent of 100 proof whiskey (which it is), there's a 'mustn't spook the dean of letters' kind of respectfulness taking over with Burton. Vibrant auteurs like Welles would heedlessly go for a more reckless 'give the dean a heart attack' approach that, paradoxically, would be more faithful to the material at hand. If you films a respectful staid depiction of a prankster thumbing his nose at staid authority figures, then you become the very thing you're against, and that kind of feedback squall is so exhausting it may takes years of painless deconstructive art history to recover any semblance of wit therefrom.

Any similarity to packing a massive gravity bong is presumably unintentional
As a result, the play's dense intertextually-lined language unpacks rather flatly, especially since there is --essentially-- so little at stake. This is, after all, the tale of an aged recent (he must have been on the 30 year plan) college graduate doing tons of drugs up in his study / man cave and getting periodic visits only from his drug dealer and fellow students looking to get high. Alone in his room, getting lost in phantom anima dream imagery when he takes too much of--whatever mushroom or drug he's doing---or suffering insane tortures of sobriety and withdrawal when he takes too little, we may relate--maybe we've even been there-- but we never understand why he's so keen to worship Lucifer and denounce god, to sign away his soul, nor do we understand why we should sympathize with his bratty deal welshing (he's like a Satanic narc) and second-guess antipathy.

If you've 'been there' (maybe all sophomore year), you can relate when his occasional visitors find him on the floor, staring at some unseen phantom, or writhing in the grip of a fine, frothy madness, clothes and brain in a state of disarray, barely aware anyone's even there. But as Bill Lee says to his visiting buddies in similar circumstances (Naked Lunch) "the Zone takes care of its own." None of that is any excuse to sign away your soul. That's just overkill, like getting a huge Led Zeppelin tattoo just because you saw god while listening to side two of Houses of the Holy. 

Lucky for us then that, though Burton the actor seems to be suffering from boozy stress, Burton the director is able to use that same boozy stress as a subtext for a richly familiar and welcome streak of Gothic horror and illuminati in-jokes, showing he learned some important things from his drinking buddy Tennessee Williams, and showing too he harbors a secret love of horror. You can tell he's seen Black Sabbath and he's seen Masque of the Red Death and he wants to use some of their aesthetic tricks. The popping rich tapestry of colors--lots of dusky deep ochres, blues, purples, cherry reds- glow as if Mario Bava himself were doing the gel lighting, giving many scenes, such as the graveyard a highly evocative atmospheric quality reminiscent of Black Sabbath, or what one might see on an Aurora monster model box, horror board game, or Key comic book.  (Presumably still standing from some other production, anachronistic/period sets and costumes evoke various surrealistic historical tableaux (the Garden of Earthly Delights, the Vatican, a king's reception hall, a crypt) as well as the various movies and genres associated thereto (and why not, might well be the same props and sets from those movies, the way Masque used Beckett sets) creating a sense of stripping away of time's linearity, allowing a stage-like but very psychedelic rapid scene-changing (there's similar bits of Gothic horror call-back in Head, and Psych-Out as well as The Trip, reviving all those Poe props and sets for quick visits to the archaic subconscious).

I lose myself in my texts. Let's just say this: Copious tripped-out occult magic (nice use of made of a haunted mirror), cobwebs, skeletons, candles, alchemical test tubes and conjuring crucibles, volumes of forgotten lore, and astral charts-bedeck the torture chamber-cum-Illuminati arcane alchemist sanctuary that will be home base for Faustus' solitary drug experiments. Boldly then treads our Faustus, going where one might hallucinate yearning naked women inside the flames of a candle or the eye of a skull, or fall victim to the kaleidoscope effects and blurred edges, time laps flowers and occult symbolism, to see the effects of time and age upon desire's ripe fruit. 


Like its contemporaries in the Elizabethan dream theater era, Faustus gambols freely amidst the arcane iconography of spirits and demons that would previously (or then-currently in Spain) be charge enough for heresy. As it is, thanks to the rise of sane Protestantism, even making fun of the pope is not frowned upon, so long as the knave who dares winds up trapped in the arms of burning hellfire by drama's close. Thus Burton's Faustus makes fart noises behind the rows of bishops, and pelts the pope with a fancy cake, finally flogging a bunch of empty robes in a moment that seems straight out of Jodorowsky, while the psychedelic college kid experimentation aspect continues with the slow downward slide from seeking truths to questions that lie far past the known parameters of life and death to just getting massively hammered. The ultimate in devil's bargains is, as I can tell you from direct experience, the alcoholic's: only by staying drunk can one forget the horrible shakes, DTs and misery that compounds with interest for every day one doesn't pay it - eventually one morning you come to and there's not a drop left in the house, and you're physically unable to move without it, so unless someone comes by with a bottle to save you, it's time. The terror of the cold turkey addict tied to a bed table in a hospital, screaming his guts out like Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Top: Hopper schools in TRIP; FAUSTUS
In the beginning of Faustus we find Burton as an aging scholar in round owlish glasses and long gray hair -freshly graduated, advised by one of his druggie friends to "sound the depths of that they would profess."- In other words, don't just say no to drugs, try them first! Condemnation prior to experimentation is not wisdom, but its own sort of vice.

Faustus, Valdez Cornelius freakin' over a full decanter of the good shit - shhhh - don't let the RA hear
Later, alone in his study, not quite sure which field to expend his academic energies next, Faustus is buffeted by ego and curiosity up against the fences of the known.  "To live and die in Aristotle," seems wise and--to him--oddly sexy, or to study medicine but--as he notes, "the end of physic our body's health." From what new field shall his alchemist's brain next turn? Why not to the occult, with his friends Valdez (Ram Chopra) and Cornelius (Robert Carawadine) as sketchy a pair of Satanic drug dealers as one is likely to find, but alas--his closest things to contemporaries. They regale him with tales of all that my be granted a man who summons demons, via footage reflected from mirrors and soon the three trundle off with their summoning gear to the graveyard to raise hanged sinners and summon devils.

But to explore the black arts is blasphemy, Faustus! Turn to the church and repent. This finding parallel in the case of The Trip with all the disclaimers forced on the film by the nervous producers who wanted to make sure the psychedelic experience was portrayed, ultimately, as causing calamitous long-term brain damage. In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, comes the terrible price of enlightenment, one way or another. (And as anyone 'called' to try these things, even your hardcore hippy friends may warn you off, 'you'll damage your chromosomes, Faustus!") In Faustus, however it's more bleak and final - while in bad trip country it only 'feels' that way and one--if they're smart--knows eventually after timeless aeons of distress, everything will wear off. On some level, as many a scholar has noted, the only difference between a schizophrenic and an LSD user is that the latter knows he's just 'visiting' the mystical realms beyond space/time via medication and he's actually safely rooted in linear reality, while the schizophrenic knows he is just 'visiting' reality via medication and is actually in the void, like a phantom signal forever caught between neighboring TV channels. But whither Faustus? Which reality will be his final resting place?



But it all starts innocent, if sin can be so called. The three head to the graveyard like a trio of errant hippie sophomore knaves shrooming behind Sadler in Syracuse University, circa 1986, finding all sorts of universal truths and froth-at-the-mouth delights there (big rolling graveyards being the perfect place in which to trip, both emblematic of the experience you're on as far as death/rebirth awareness, and the way egoic fear keeps the lightweights away). These pleasures, indeed, are the first reward of daring, to buffet manly against the current and enjoy the rarefied air above the superstitious public's boorish din.

No sooner has Faustus found his spot for conjuring though, then he bids his friends depart him so he may work alone. They're never seen again and indeed one wonders about his social skills, for here is a man not literally cut off from the society around him the way, say, Prospero is in The Tempest, and yet he prefers only the company of his own unconscious projections, vis-a-vis the devil, and his anima.

Would, in hindsight, Valdez and Cornelius return, for Burton came to life in their presence; he played well against their relish in demonic control and would have perhaps ably benefitted from their energy (like the bulk of the cast, they're students and teachers from the Dramatic Society and Burton often flickers to life in their company- too often to turn dour again when sidelined through lengthy solo dark rants that we know in but a second he will deny having said. He chides Mephistpholis' sadness over his failing soul, urging him to take a lesson from his resolute bravery and "scorn those joys thou never shalt possess." While a dissolve later he's letting a statue of St. Sebastian urge him turn to God, then to let a skull on the desk encourage him back to Lucifer. All he needs is a hard push one way or the other and he not just hesitates but thoroughly changes his mind. He's wishy-washy!


it's hard to get involved in the plight of a man so unmotivated in his flight to Lucifer that its very reason defies credibility. He's a dude burning out his brain for pure onanistic thrill-seeking"magic" and only realizing it's not some dumb heavy metal pastime when it's too late to back down. He assures Valdez and Cornelius he won't back out, he says, "magic enravishes me!" but we're never really sure what his end game is beyond pleasure and sport, to revel in the folly of others. The presence of these two enablers might have made it clearer (peer pressure) but without them, it's hard to fathom why he sticks to it. Whatever he once sought to know, being known, he'd rather forget fast, so turns to drink - which makes days flow faster especially with a devilish enabler servant at your side to make sure you never wake up without a stiff drink at your bedside.

"Glad tidings from great Lucifer"
Drunk writers and artists who sequester themselves for long periods of micro-tripping in service of their art can--with proper blocking--drift into just the drinking part quite seamlessly, as Faustus does here. But as he's not a writer or artist why we should care? Beyond the realization that all pleasure is fleeting and he shouldn't have signed the contract, there's not much he learns.

Reveling by proxy too proves a challenge. Whether flatly chanting along with the bell, book-and-candle monks who try to exorcise his spirit or belligerently chanting "he wants his money!" to an aggrieved bartender, we're not amused or thrilled (like we were in Woolf or Shrew) but rather embarrassed by this base schadenfreude and tone deaf infantile prankishness. Here is a man who freely takes more than would befit a man, then tries to weasel out of paying - drinking vainly against the passing of time (his ever-present hourglass) ticking down to his Hell journey. He's a 'bad' drunk!

THOU ART FULL OF HOLLOWNESS:

In his groovy man cave, doth Faustus have the alchemical tools to astral travel the world over and have his heart's desire granted time and again, the only caveat being it brings him no real joy, since there's no strife or earning of the goal, there's none but the shadow of gratification. And as anyone who suffers from depression knows, getting all you want in life might make you more miserable than just wanting, which at least gives you the hope you will be happy once said desire is attained. To attain it and still be unhappy is to be faced with the reality of a no-escape misery, a room without an exit. The gorgeous women you coveted as a geek in high school clamor all over you now that you're in a band, but their affection creeps you out, as it's so counter to what you expected in a girlfriend, this skeevy slutty availability compiling upon you, and the terror of sexual merging with someone who you barely know. For Faustus, his wish for 'a wife' is ridiculed by the devil with an open flower of beautiful women who turn into men or aged crones on contact. This is the Sidpa bardo in Buddhism at play (ala the woman in room 237). Women never stay lovely, and so outside of space/time, beyond the illusion of permanence, sexual allure beckons like a sticky web of flame that evaporates on contact but leaves you just as stuck. Beauty and youth fade faster than the speed of light, leaving us only with withered crones where once were massive babes.

It's in this aspect, the terrors of the DTs, where Burton brings his alcoholic and priapic issues into the subtext: the realization that, when given a chance to be endlessly indulged, the ego flattery resultant from sexual magnetism--being irresistible to women--is an addiction as destructive as alcohol or cocaine and brings with it no joy. And the desire to possess beauty is one of foolish vanity --that not even the most gorgeous of souls possess beauty for long - it's power is in its ephemeral nature. You can argue that movie stars are the exception - Marilyn still looks alluring in Niagara, but imagine you wished you could share a bed with her, and then wake up trapped in her coffin with her rotting corpse for all eternity!


That's what the DTs are like, vs. watching the movie over and over in a state of benumbed boozy grace. You don't get to actually sleep with Marilyn, but isn't watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for a hundred straight times (even with Elliot Reid in it) better than even a single night with the actual Marilyn in her actual current underground boudoir? Movies and distractions then are to the ego what the ego is to the soul, the distraction from the terror of eternity. The lungs, understanding at last their slavery to the body, the awful duty they have, almost collapse from the weary shock. Luckily, the quickly forget again. If they stayed aware, they wouldn't last a single week. No drunk can imagine never drinking again, it's too awful to contemplate. But one day at a time, we can not drink just for
today. Sure, it's a trick to make the abstinence endurable, but is booze's trick any less devious?

Supposedly immortal in itself, a soul is paradoxically threatened when the ephemeral nature of all things is revealed. The space-time order allows the comfort of the ephemeral, allows us to dwell under the protective illusion of permanence. That all things die, that life is rounded with a sleep, wounds heal, flowers wither, traumas are buried in the repressed unconscious, seasons change, nights and days alternate ---these are comforts that deliver us from the terror of continuity. Hell, then, as realized by Marlowe's Faustus, is the waking up from this illusion of impermanence so that the terrifying eternity of existence is revealed and is inescapable. This is trial of the cave crypt hallucination in The Trip, ("I don't want to die, man"), the 'bad trip' every tripper sooner or later must endure, the wave that suck us under for an eternal night, the giant eye at the center of the universe gazing pitilessly through our X-Ray Eyes. This is Hell as inescapable awareness of, as Mephistophilis puts it, "all that isn't heaven", the great flaming void that is left "when all else dissolves."

"The depths of all that thy would profess" i.e. all therein that may be explored
As Faustus will soon learn, the double-edged gift of heaven is the gift of illusion and forgetfulness. It's a mechanism easily frozen into place when we avoid danger for too long. Our way our brain is hard-wired to veil the ever-looming specter of our inevitable death, but to function in its correct aperture (as a veil rather than a window), this veil needs death near enough to cover successfully. If we death moves too far away from our vision, the veil covers everything and anything it can. Soon we can't appreciate life due to this veil creating a thin filmy wall between us and the world. As writers and artists this results in a block and we need to regularly descend to the limits of sanity and traverse beyond, just to feel the appreciation for life's impermanence, for the veil to find something its actually supposed to cover, freeing us to see around its corners at last.

The further paradox is that Hell is a level beyond, the eternity of just the veil, the terror of eternity that makes us long for the illusion of impermanence. When faced with extinction, life at last becomes unbearably precious -- so that each miserable second is clung to like one clutches a piece of floating bed frame in the midst of a tidal flood current. Yet, as he clings, Faust has no love of the life he's led, only fear for what is to come. Not knowing that his fear of eternity is already hell, he indulges full force. These are the types of lightweights you need to avoid when culling a 'set and setting' for your 'voyages' - as they're invariably the ones who can't shake their ego's sticky grip, and foolishly believe all the fear mongering it spreads to keep itself in power. Knowing how to ignore ego's panicky horse-in-the-stall bucking is one of they key skills for successful inter-astral navigation. When God is your co-pilot, you don't need yourself even in the plane.

LAST STASH LOST

Early in their meeting, Faustus asks Mephistophilis where Hell is and why he's not there. "Why, this is Hell," notes Mephistophilis. "Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joys of heaven am not tormented with ten thousand Hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?" 

Such a junky thing to say, bro. If you're living as--or have ever lived--as a drug addict or alcoholic, or known the bliss of a 'perfect' peak ecstasy experience, you may have tried unsuccessfully to recapture that high for years, eventually realizing you can never return to it. That is its own kind of Hell. The only thing that saved me from it was Lacan, and then SSRI meds. Since my relapse last Feb, I now get that same magnetic tug from the sight of all the IPA beers, the various small batch brews in the grocery store, none of which existed in 1998, when I stopped. It was worth it to relapse just to sample those delicious brands. Except now when I pass them on display my heart breaks, my mouth waters, and the yearning increases exponentially the longer I linger. 

If any of that sounds familiar, maybe you too might find a special love for Burton's Faustus or if not love, at least unnerved understanding. For to be in the throes of a serious addiction is to know the joys of hell and heaven are as a coin ever flipping, and one may become the other just through the other's absence, and so sooner or later heaven always flips back to hell. Hell is the constant. It's a question of numbers, of days, of time. For every day the horrible shakes/convulsions/DTs of detox are staved off, the worse they will be when it finally gets to that key moment of waking up completely out of alcohol, and unable to get to the store or bar to get some more, due to being totally messed up from the night before. But until then, there's that moment in the morning (if you don't have to go to work) where you decide to try and wait until 4 PM cocktail hour, and after about a half hour your hands are shaking and your vision is getting weak and your heart feels as if will explode. Hell gradually comes into focus. You relent and crack open that first delicious IPA, and within minutes, Heaven appears instead. The only place, it seems, you can't exist, is anywhere between those two extremes. Mephisto's version of hell ("everywhere that isn't heaven") is almost identical with the advanced stage alcoholic or addict, whose heaven is mere absence of Hell (withdrawal), i.e. just not being in the agony of hell is heaven.



By contrast what delight then, to up the ante still further, for heaven may yet become euphoric than just not-hell, with the one caveat that any new plateau of ecstasy may become the new baseline, so that anything less than that same euphoria becomes the next Hell. Eventually Hell is anywhere that isn't euphoria and euphoria is just breaking even.

The irony of Faustus's deal with the devil--which holds true to for any addict's postponement of withdrawal--is that the decades of decadence he gets (24 years, as in hours of the day) are all elapsed by the end of the film-- they flit by. If there is any enjoying to be had, we don't really get the impression Burton's Faustus has done so, for his heaven is in this case wasted worrying about Hell. That's the terrible bargain, the sacrifice of memory: most of a drunk's happy time is either not remembered due to black-outs or slept through. A drunk can tell if he had fun the night before only by how messed up his apartment is the next time he wakes up. It could take hours for him to figure out how long he's been asleep, what day it is, or what AM or PM on the clock means. Time is 'missing' in the good parts and slows to eternity in the bad. Sandwiched between black-outs, benders, waking up in strange positions on strange floors, and suffering all the tortures of being departed from on-highness.

For a would-be escapee into booze's warm clutches, how unappealing Faustus' tavern-carousing, ugly life suddenly looks. Burton, an actual drunk, seems just mean and juvenile rather than the monstrous wit he was in Woolf. Burton the director spares us nothing of the scene's wild guffawing Breugel-esque peasant squalor --yet it's strangely beautiful too, as in the way the walls are painted to resemble both cracks, dirt and trees. Isn't that what it's all about, man, finding the trees in the bar wall filth rather than the other way around?


"Sweet pleasure conquers deep despair," counsels the demonic voices that guide Faustus towards his decades on a spree. Ah but the fine print, Faustus: the longer thy just measure of despair stays conquered by sweet pleasure, the deeper the accrual of its depth, the compounding interest on the loan against future joy, and the weaker the sweetness. Finally, the sweetness has grown too stale to conquer anything. The despair's is now so deep that water line has risen to the ceiling. Thou art thus asphyxiated by woe, Faustus, swallowed up into Hell eternal, all for postponing your deep despair, whose fair judgement and scathing portion - felt in full at the time of payment, might have done more for your artistic vision than all the demonic libations in all of 1967 Berkley.

The Adulation of Future Masses:

Sooner or later if we keep drinking, we die; sooner or later if we keep writing we live forever. The caveat: we're not there to enjoy whatever benefits that immortality may bring. We make a deal with the fates -we get to keep our souls by agreeing to labor in obscurity now, for the promise that 20 years after our death we'll be revered as geniuses. We won't feel the lionizing because we'll be dead, but the idea it's coming is enough to keep us working. Lost in the process of creation, our whole life flits by in a painless brush.

Drinking on the other hand, brings us the adulation of the future masses in advance - hence it's a kind of reverse direction time line of reward from writing, tapping into an ego gratification time machine. Whatever Akashic record crystal teraflop transfiguring time/space device they're accessing to read your work in the future and send payment of their love back through the past, it's as tactile and sweet in our third eye's ear as god's own indulgent applause.

One thinks too of this time travel authorship with writer Jack Torrance saying "I'd sell my soul for a drink," and thus summoning Lloyd. And while he lives forever via his life's work, it's not that repetitive work about being a dull boy, but the real life murder of a black cook and an epic fail of the mission to kill his wife and child - so there you go.


The devil's bargain - Jack would sell his soul for a drink, as if that wasn't the price to begin with, it's like going to the cashier of the liquor store with a $20 bottle of bourbon and announcing "I'd pay twenty dollars for this!"

And beyond all that is the feeling of control that only surrendering control can bring. To have the ability to postpone the anguish of hell and prolong the joy of heaven available to you is surely worth any price even if that price is that sooner or later, you use up your heaven and can no longer avoid hell's ever-increasing tab. It is due.


"Hell hath no limits"

A special high point is saved for that final act: Faustus's being swallowed up by Hell is effectively done with just a trap door in the floor opening and hands pulling him below, to the depths, at which point the whole production--set backdrops, actors, all--wheels backwards and outwards, as if Hell the Ghastly Furnace was there the whole time, its flames flickering at the other side of the clapboard walls confining Faustus's pained charade. Now, the set is pulled back, the furnace erupts from reality's cracks the way it does on intense DMT or salvia. Burton's Faustus--surrounded by red/orange glowing embers and a fully green demonic Taylor--is sort of twirled in a bad ballet slow-motion spin deep inside a kinky Rube Goldberg-meets-Brueghel haunted house tour Hell. Overlapping layers of Faustus, yelling and pleading; demonic figures writhing; reds and orange layers contrasting with Liz/Meduas's greed demonic body paint--her mouth frozen in a Norma Desmond grimace. At last her stoic silent treatment and the obedient kissing and many guises she assumed to please him all make sense. She finally roars to life with a macabre flaring of the eyes that's thrilling all the more being so late to arrive (like Tura Satana erupting from a mannequin) Here is the green absinthe fairy showing her true size, shape and spirit. She is, in every way, tremendous!

Her laugh is in the same beguiling voice that--for example, lured me last year around this time into buying a 15 pack of 'All Day IPA' at the grocery store (how it would whisper to me on my walk home from work, "what a great thing it would be to have that around, have one or two once in awhile") and the way that same voice laughed and sneered a month later when I was shaking and convulsing on the floor from alcohol withdrawal. That was the same laugh!


In her fathomless patience and malevolence, that demonic anima gets us all, sooner or later. And Taylor--who seemed so frozen in this burlesque of statuesque refinement in her earlier Helenic incarnations--now, as Medusa, finally lets loose. Look at her eyes (above)! Now that's a she-demon! In her eyes I see shades of Madeline Usher, Ligeia, Morella, and all those other ghostly/mad women in Corman's Poe films, the ones who come back from the dead, laughing and throttling an ever-terrified Price while flames consume them both, utterly.

But through it all Burton the director sucks the wind out of Burton the actor, leaving him too deflated to project any Woolf-level gusto into his hamming. I can't help but wonder how much more energetic this would all be with a less wearily portentous Faustus, someone who could inject some camp vitality, like Vincent Price, with Burton as Mephistopheles instead, a role better in league with his direction. He shows a welcomely macabre eye, with an admirable sense of pacing and with his ability to tap into the then-burgeoning psychedelic drug 1967 culture in a way that--like Corman himself--proves truly mythic, emphasizing the commonality between camp Gothic horror and countercultural psychedelia by getting down to their shared graveyard roots.

And if their acting isn't all there this time around, we'll always have Liz and Dick in Padua and "New Carthage" and sometimes we'll even watch them in Big Sur and Heathrow and if we're also the same persons who love Bava's Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill and AIP psychedelic 1967 freak scenes like The Trip, and Maqsue of the Red Death, then anything that six-degrees them, problematic and stilted or not, is going to get us right in the Jeffrey Cordovas.

Have I gone off the deep end with my alcoholism metaphor and Trip comparisons again, Hannah? Sure I have. But so what? I'm no more repetitive, belligerent and self-indulgent in my fancy (did you get the Band Wagon reference in that last paragraph?) than Marlowe and in a way I relate to Burton's pained hangover more than most; I appreciate that he so gallantly tried to alchemically transubstantiate it into the context of the Faust myth. I've given old Dick a hard time tonight for his low energy levels--the tired, sad, 'too many hats broke the camel's neck' distracted nature of his performance-- but I'm probably projecting, for I too have tried to direct and act, while hungover/drunk, at the same time - and the results were even more tepid. So, though his eyes may betray insoluble weariness, let us savor nonetheless that beguiling mellifluent booming voice, the way Marlowe's velvet language rolls trippingly off his tongue as if to its fleshy whiskey-soaked manor borne; and let us savor the pretty gel lighting and spooky accoutrements, for they alone are worth the price of admission. We may not feel much pity for Faustus's 'last-second desperation' as Hell's gorgon arms drag him down into the flames, but we understand. We've been down there ourselves, and we found out a lot of things from the flames: eternity is only as long as you think, Faustus! You'll get out, if you just let go of heaven's memory, for what else is heaven but hell accepted? The great rule of eternity is that only nothing is forever...  except thirst. So drinks, now... let each vicious circle be a signature on our natural habitat's cocktail napkin contract.

Whatever the cost, it's already worth it.




NOTES:
1. That last part seems quite sexist today, presuming a kind of condoned satyriasis is packed kit and caboodle over the hump of spiritual awakening - not no more!
2.  That's a reference to Philadelphia Story, cuz this blog is high-class.
1. I'm guessing, based on my own experience doing the same thing - I may be projecting but, on the other hand, as they say in AA, you can't shit a shitter - not one of AA's best phrases, I'll grant you. 
5. Technically the Hell might not 'be' eternal in the space-time sense, but in Hell, space/time ceases to exist. One comes out the other side of a cold turkey detox--which may seem to have taken less than a weekend to those around you and to the calendar--as if one had been away for centuries of endless torment. Yet you barely remember it, for the brain which records such things was so badly burned. All you remember is that it was an eternity, and eternity is over.
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