Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

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), 'tis a film with issues: it tries to respectful Art in its retelling of the classic devil's bargain myth while at the same time, but like a bunch of twitchy-legged hippy undergrads waiting for class to end, it's got a sensationalist, existential, trippy drug fantasia in its margins.

Oh but the trepidation of taking one's first trip, one's first big lysergic weekend step into the Summer of Love. Whether intentionally or not, Burton finds the commonality between Faust's devil bargain and the surrender to the void, the flower people singing in the street both hell's prettified lure (sunflower petals glowing like flames in the dilated pupils of the dosed), and between that and his own alcoholism and habit of disappearing into a fog with Liz (drunken bender weekends), the ship that lost a thousand lips, hic' I mean lips, his own personal Helen.

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 being one side (the good trip), but the thousand rending talons of self-centered fear will shred your psyche to ribbons' cornfields of the mind (the bad) being the much more cinematic other.


Filmed in Italy and England, there's a lot of painterly craftsmanship at work, evoking Bava's Black Sabbath in its stunning use of colored gel spots turning cobwebs and walls all sorts of ghoulish but cozy colors; it also evoke Bava's fellow AIP director 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) and their sidpa bardo-aping hallucinations: 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.
Though it's never so stated in the film, it doesn't matter. Burton can't escape the tenor of the times, and drunks fit right in with acidheads, for both--sooner or later--get the honor of taking a Dante-style tour through the depths of hell. Both the high art of Burton and Marlowe and the drive-in sensationalism of Corman is centered around this savvy of the well of woe waiting right outside the blinders of our world. We would know more, like Faust, like Fonda in The Trip or Prospero in Masque or Xavier in X, we seek to attain enlightenment, not through aeons of meditation and work with a guru, but the fast way.

But if you disregard the warning label on Medusa's chintzy veil, 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! That's the devil's bargain - he gives you endless inspiration but then--oops--no ink for your pen. The stores are closed, your car doesn't work, everyone else is asleep, and there's no way to write down your flights of genius. How the devil doth laugh and laugh!

The Trip
In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, comes the devil's check, and the check must be paid by screaming, psych wards, and suicide. Even in the case of The Trip there is 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. More than governmental censure, I'm wagering James Nicholson was worried about lawsuits, suing AIP for endorsing a drug that convinced little Timmy he could fly out a sixth-story window.

In Faustus, however it's even more bleak and final than a cracked head or a splat on the concrete:  the voyage to Hell being paved with eternal DTs, represented by an evil Liz Taylor in green body paint, her hair a bed of snakes, laughing evilly.

Dude, I've 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... Closing yur eyes does nothing to dispel the visions, and time ceases to a crawl. Your hangover doesn't get better as the next day wears on, it gets only worse, exponentially, higher and higher.

"Heyyy, Swamp! Hey Swampyyy!")
It's ironic then 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 mask his doleful hangover and eye on the clock waiting for cocktail hour (1).

That's not to say great genius couldn't be wrung from such sad states! 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. They were on their career-defining roll, making up for their inert chemistry in Cleopatra with a vengeance. 

But it's all gone for Faust  - and it's clear right away what the problem is: Burton needs a playmate of equal stature, someone to provoke and challenge him, 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 miscast. 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 raising your hand to 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-buy-clearly-aging force of nature posited as the ultimate silent objet-d'art of youthful beauty, especially when she's competing with an array of young, sexy British models, all bravely clad in nothing but the glow from the OS hellfire.


Every straight male in the world knows this scene (above) from their fantasies and nightmares, the odalisques lounging in the flames of the fever / bad trip / vision of fear/desire/hell/heaven rolled together. They're always there, deep in our DNA, 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 girls above are the maenads from the sidpa bardo. One wrong move, one flinch of fear and they change from seducing you to rending you to pieces and devouring the remains. They are the demon reflections of our anima, who can be one or many - but not Liz Taylor. She's simply not a blank enough screen for our inner woman to project on.

Another particular flaw with the film is the mythic-reference-choked language of the text, recited by Burton with great oratory declarations unto heaven but without much fire or oomph. I'm sure Marlowe is a genius but he's no Shakespeare and in the end the words resonate far less cosmically than the smaller more personal oratory in Shrew and Woof. It has something, perhaps, to do with dramatic direction experience. Nichols and Zeffirelli both know that true mythic grandeur comes from sharply observed small moments, not big declarations. Awareness of this paradox (specifics are universal) 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 a mythic figure shouting at the 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, and 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"
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 the director/actors 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 with Burton's performance (he was a vibrant earthy Petruchio, but that was under Zeffirelli's direction). By contrast, Welles would give himself permission to 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 rebelling 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 who fritters his time away doing tons of drugs up in his apartment, alone but getting periodic visits only from his drug dealer and jonesers hoping he'll get them high. The rest of the time he's either lost in a whirl of phantom anima dream imagery when he takes too much, or suffering insane tortures of sobriety and withdrawal when he takes too little. If he's in the Goldilocks zone he can patter around whipping up alchemical formulas and writing or painting or reading as his whims dictate. We may relate (or have lived it) but we'll never understand why he's so keen to worship Lucifer and denounce god, to sign away his soul, rather than just doing drugs and writing poetry all day, nor do we understand why we should sympathize with his latter bratty deal welshing (he's like a Satanic narc) and second-guess antipathy.

If you've 'been there' (it's called college), you can relate when his occasional visitors find him lying 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, unable to distinguish his corporeal guests from the phantoms. But as Bill Lee says to his visiting buddies who visit him in similar circumstances (Naked Lunch) "the Zone takes care of its own." None of that is any excuse to sign away your soul, though, idiot. That's just overkill, like getting a huge Led Zeppelin tattoo just because you saw god while listening to Houses of the Holy at a girlfriend's house. Dude, you haven't even read Hammer of the Gods yet, don't be hasty.

On the plus side: even 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 Masque of the Red Death and he wants to use some of their aesthetic tricks. The popping rich spectrum of dusky deep ochres, blues, purples, and cherry reds, glow as if Mario Bava himself were doing the gel lighting, giving many scenes (restored to glowing HD for Amazon streaming) a highly evocative atmospheric surreal glow that, for me, as a 70s monster kid, reminded me of old Key comic book covers. Walks through 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 still-standing 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). 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 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, twice as vile for its hypocrisy in one so allegedly open-minded and well-researched.

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 in which to further broaden his academic acumen, which tome to grace with owlish eye, Faustus is buffeted by a sudden search of boyish ego and curiosity. He feels the wave knock his soul up against the sandbreak of the known, made all the more pathetic and indulgent by his speaking aloud at us, as though his imaginary class: "To live and die in Aristotle," seems wise and--to him--oddly sexy, or to study medicine BUT--as as he notes, "the end of physic: our body's health." So from what new field shall his alchemist's brain next turn? Why not to the occult!

In other words, Faustus is bored, antsy, and doesn't feel like studying.

Drinking buddies Valdez (Ram Chopra) and Cornelius (Robert Carawadine)--as sketchy a pair of Satanic drug dealers as one is likely to find in all medieval Europe-- drop by to regale him with tales of all that my be granted a man who summons demons. Soon trundles the trio graveyard-ways to raise hanged sinners and summon devils! It's all a little too convenient...

But--you expect the heavens to shout, or at least whisper--to explore the black arts is blasphemy, Faustus! Turn to the church and repent. This sort of disclaimer seems only fair -- due diligence to ward off those who are better off not venturing beyond the No Trespassing sign. A parallel can be found in the case of The Trip with the prologue disclaimer scrawl forced on Corman by the nervous producers at the last minute. Though wrong-headed, it is actually as it should be, for the fear of the unknown, the dread, helps the trip go well - taken in ease and stride, the power of the dose tends to get vindictive. It wants respect, even trepidation.

And it's no idle threat, either. In all the tales of those who'd ignore caution to sound the depth of that they would profess, the price of enlightenment is dear. And as anyone 'called' to try these things will tell you, even your hardcore hippy friends may warn you off. People you thought were cool declare 'you'll damage your chromosomes, Faustus!"

In Faustus, however it's more bleak and final, the damage permanent.  Hell is only a feeling for one having a bad trip. 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. He may be beyond time/space but a part of him knows 'eternity is temporary.' By contrast, 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 are never seen again and indeed one wonders about his social skills, for here is a man not literally cut off from the society like, 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.

In hindsight, it would be great if Valdez and Cornelius return, for Burton came to life in their presence; he plays well against their relish in demonic control; like the bulk of the cast, they're students and teachers from Oxford's 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 weasel out. He assures Valdez and Cornelius he'll stick the course. 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 or brings to our table.

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, this skeevy slutty availability and the terror of sexual merging with someone who you barely know supplant your lustful reveries. 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 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 Monroe's movies 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 are to the ego what the ego is to the soul, the distraction from the terror of eternity. When tripping the distractions collapse into the real: 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? Is the ego's itself?

Supposedly immortal, the soul is paradoxically comforted by the ephemeral nature of all things. The space-time order allows us the comfort of the ephemeral, allows us to dwell under the protective illusion of impermanence. 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 the trial of the cave crypt hallucination in The Trip, ("I don't want to die, man"). This is the 'bad trip' every psychonaut sooner or later must endure, the wave that sucks 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.  Our way our brain is hard-wired to veil the ever-looming specter of our inevitable death so we can go about our day without being paralyzed with fear. But to function in its correct aperture (as a veil rather than a window), this veil needs death near enough to cover successfully, to know where it is at all times. 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. Eventually we need to go seek out death so the veil can find something its actually supposed to cover, freeing us to see around its corners at last.

Hell, then, is 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 itself 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 dudes who can't shake their ego's sticky grip, and foolishly believe all the fear mongering their ego incites 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 even need to go in the plane. With their ego as their co-pilot, these lightweights inevitably panic, and demand to be taken to the ER because they are sure they're dying. Ugh what a drag.

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 back in the 90s was Lacan, and then SSRI meds in 2003. 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 initially stopped drinking. 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. Is that in its way, not Hell, but it's okay since it's always there, the way depressives sometimes keep nooses or guns hidden in their closet, as a kind of assurance. The Hell in Faust's world is the hell of knowing you can never get back to that closet or the beer aisle. You're 86-ed for life... and beyond/ 

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 that key moment arrives: waking up completely out of alcohol, and unable to get to the store or bar to get some more due to intense shaking and hyperventilating. 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 seconds 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 hell's momentary absence.

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 ecstasies are 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.  Sandwiched between black-outs, benders, waking up in strange positions on strange floors, and suffering all the tortures of being departed from on-highness, 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.

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-long spree. Ah but the fine print, Faustus: the longer thy deserved measure of despair stays conquered by sweet pleasure, the higher 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 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 paintless 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, 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 the bartender, and eventually a whole room of hoi poloi. 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 and 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 flair,
an admirable sense of pacing and the sort of keen eye for psychedelic vistas that only acidheads, schizophrenics, or alcoholics who've experienced the DTs can really know. He taps into the core iconography of the then-burgeoning psychedelic drug 1967 culture via the same graveyard root Corman used for The Trip and X-the Man with X-ray Eye. Emphasizing the commonality between camp Gothic horror and countercultural psychedelia. If his 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 then anything that six-degrees them all together, be it 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? 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, didja?) than Marlowe and I relate to Burton's pained hangover more than most; I appreciate that he so gallantly tried to alchemically transubstantiate his weariness into the context of the Faust myth. If he failed, well, who hasn't? His low energy level as Faustus--the tired, sad, 'too many hats broke the camel's neck' distracted nature of his performance--is hardly new, 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 (we can't all be Orson Welles, or Mel Gibson). Burton's eyes may betray insoluble weariness, but his heart was in the right place and today we can still savor many aspects: 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; the eerie Bava-esque gel lighting and horror movie accoutrements; and the druggy college sophomore connotations. I find comfort in the idea that, once upon a time, even professors could continue experimenting with drugs and sorcery up in their attic apartments without losing status. 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 how he got there. It's like hearing the 'before' of an AA qualification. And I've found out a lot of things from my own experience of hell's thirsty flames: eternity is only as long as you think, Faustus! Let go of regret for Heaven's memory, for what else is Heaven but Hell, once its fully 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.



(PS - 12/12/18 - I had a major spiritual ass-kicking this past weekend, when I felt all my recent debauchery sins come up and grab me (though they didn't used to feel like sins, #metoo and my own advancing age have combined to make me a born again prude) and felt suddenly the absence of the holy god light that used to be there automatically all the time, like so constant I never thought it could go out. It is as chilling. Being alone while sick with a bad cold making it hard to breathe and already with COPD and other things and realizing how easily I could just die, with no one to notice, etc. I was so wigged out even putting on my DVD of Twentieth Century didn't help - I understood with a chill everything Mephistopheles talks about in this film, and the whole textual tenet of Flatliners (which was on during my last big scare like this) thatwanted to instantly become a Catholic so I could go to confession, or find a new sponsor to do a fifth step with - chilling. That lovelight has come back on, somewhat, since then, thank god, thank god I never signed anything)

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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