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.
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)|
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.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."
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.
|Lucifer, where doth I sign?|
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"|
|Any similarity to packing a massive gravity bong is presumably unintentional|
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.
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|
|Faustus, Valdez Cornelius freakin' over a full decanter of the good shit - shhhh - don't let the RA hear|
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.
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"|
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!
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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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?) 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. If he failed, well, who hasn't? His low energy level--the tired, sad, 'too many hats broke the camel's neck' distracted nature of his performance--is hardly new for the type, 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, I 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 I savor the pretty gel lighting and spooky accoutrements, for they alone, for a Bava fan such as I, are worth the price of admission. I may not feel much pity for Faustus's 'last-second desperation' as Hell's gorgon arms drag him down into the flames, but I understand. I've been down there and I've 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.
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.