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

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Horse is the White of the Eyes" - TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN: Meaninglessness as Higher Meaning


Lynch's recent pro-Trump comments (1) outraged the left, then-- when he specified he wasn't being being pro-Trump at all, he outraged the right. But I dig that attitude, as it fits his subtextual themes. (there's a reason I haven't published my CinemArchetype 28: 'Der Trumpen' yet - I'm waiting until I can edit it wihout flying into a rage; to be enraged is to lose the fight). As we say in AA, "it's an inside job." We need to meditate, to love without limit, to find within ourselves the higher I AM that waits beyond all duality, until all opposites are gone, even the gulf between "them" and "us" (sounds almost un-American doesn't it?)

Lynch gets it. The cinemarchetype of Trump is all right there in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, an understanding that we can't just impeach our dark Cronus devouring fathers and escape them - they are US, locked in a split between limpid, affectless and passive Las Vegas Cooper, and the evil waxy faced monster Cooper. One cannot live without the other. Cast thy evil self into the void and you go tumbling after, unaware of the chain. All monsters invariably return... again and again. The void is only a bridge another walled-in somewhere. It's better we keep our evil Cronus in chains, down in the unconscious basement where he can only hurt us in dreams. We need to keep him underground and restrained. By the same token, if we do, we still have to let him out into the exercise yard once in awhile. We need to embody our demons in ritual performance and ceremonial dance, so they do not get so angry that soon they bust up from below and take over, picking a moment when we're too sad and tired to resist. They grab the wheel. They manifest for real. Our eyes get shark-like in the mirror. As we say in AA "you're off to the races."

In Lynch's films, this ceremonial dance, this poking air holes in the floor, is done at a speed and dimension outside our own. The atomic bomb test happened to strike sooty desert wanderers who now shamble through the wasteland, asking for lights. Someone show that wandering poet a light to curse his darkness!

 At any rate, it all provides an excellent excuse to delve back into THE RETURN, and what is either a big meaningless atmospheric exercise in frustration, or a masterpiece, with maybe one too many close-ups of aging, craggy faces. Who am I, craggy faced surrealist of the sweltering Brooklyn attic, to judge? Nonetheless, I can't look at people who remind me of my age. They are proof that age has stolen nearly every liter of hotness from the world. Only the wonder of the screen can preserve it. In seeing how old the original hotties have become, depression sets in. Our escape is blocked.

But I admire Lynch's brilliant soundscapes--the best part of The Return, and I admire and the nonchalance with which nearly a whole episode goes off into the experimental avant garde deep end. But overall it seems like Lynch's lack of "meaning", the "no there there, so don't look for it, and in not looking for it you find nirvana" thing quickly turns the whole thing into, well Inland Empire, which I still haven't been able to finish, and using Showtime money to indulge in his infantile (perilously close to Woody Allen-esque) male fantasies, the kind generated from being a normal healthy boy in the 1950s, watching American Bandstand on the floor in front of the TV, and gazing up close at his babysitters bobby socks in agog rapture. Then, growing up, ogling cocktail waitresses and Playboy club hostesses, all here in second childhood as 'supporting' roles, vacant, quiet (no speaking unless spoken to)...

Anyway I got bored quick and stopped watching five episodes in.

When it was done and all started marathoning on Showtime, well, I knew what to expect, and I started backwards.

Watching the episodes 'on demand' in reverse order proved the right move
for the wise man does not face their enemy when the wind is against him.

Speaking of, trying to write about this - I accidentally published this a few days or weeks ago, funny, it's still dead linking around the web  - as I accidentally published too early Twin Peaks rant years back in this blog - and since one never quite 'un'-publishes it, one is tempted to--as Lynch would do--think outside the box, go for the deep fish. Finish it quick! Make it weird so no one spots the typos. I did them all on Freudian poor pis.

Is that the reason?

Hey, did you read this last thing I did on the original season for: The Primal Scenesters? It's better, at least the first half (and parts in the second); or am I talking about the series itself?

One wonders - no one knows - that by benefit of being a true artist--and even his moderate detractors won't argue Lynch is--if even he thinks 'but what does it mean?" True art like Lynch's continually evolves as its beholder does - each decade it means something different, something maybe even antithetical to its last meaning. If Lynch had a meaning in mind, well, it might be tawdry. Like Orson Welles, his genius might come at a cost to his sexual maturity - a kind of emotional permanent midlife crisis that keeps his female characters ever mired in madonna-whore / bitch-doormat dichotomies.

The only reason it works is that it's possible that what he's getting at is more transcendental - that meaninglessness itself forms the higher meaning. Then again, even master yogis are not immune to sexual immaturity, ala Sexy Sadie. I'll say no more.

If either meaning is there intentionally one may be inclined to roll one's eyes, not necessarily over Lynch himself, but over his gushing fans, always willing to interpret everything he does as genius:
"When you get there, you’ll already be there.” One of the most haunting lines of television, ever - Aliza Ma - Film Comment
But fan bases too have a habit of being conservative, snarky. The last of the old school sexist unabashed genius straight what male surrealists, Lynch gets away with a kind of old man surrounding himself with young girls offering him pens, cigarettes, cocktails, donuts, and--'ahem'-- coffee as needed - and what man or boy of any age doesn't like that idea? Sex drives may wane, but the eye for youth and beauty never does, so just keeping them in eyeshot helps make the grave loom less impendingly. That said, I kept hoping the young FBI agent Tammy (Lynch's recording ingenue Chrysta Bell--this decade's Julee Cruse  or Rebeka del Rio if you will) who works as Gordon's (Lynch) assistant would occasionally say something other than perfunctory dialogue. Instead her job seems mainly to be looking kind of amazed at the level of weirdness involved in a 'Blue Rose case' but hot, walking with a delicious wiggle, and keeping her neck giraffe model long, taking notes and phone calls.

Elsewhere, the bad girls are beaten up or murdered, luridly... sometimes by older men, too -- darker versions of our Lynch old man paragon.

Naturally a few feminist critics have mentioned this, with some sadness. For example, Ally Hirschlag points out that "even when they’re not being murdered or abused, the ladies of Twin Peaks: The Return are thinly written." Indeed, the series does a great disservice to its female characters, placing them more or less as either alternating exasperated wife / adoring sex partner (Naomi Watts as Dougie's wife) or--if older--as insane wives, victims of past molestations or explosions (such as Audrey - who does a pretty good job of being bi-polar or even slightly schizophrenic --a result of the explosion at the end of season 2?): Only a few scattered souls like the Log Lady and Nadine seem beyond it all.

the aging male fantasies, and maybe a parody of what a paranoiac might think
the inner rooms of heavy power looks like (ala Monarch 7)
On the other hand, by virtue of them all being original cast members, Lynch has probably more middle-aged broads in this cast than in all the other shows on Showtime combined. Even if most are all deranged harridans, Bechdel-ishly speaking, it's a genuinely odd thing to see so many middle-aged women in one show. We just don't get that in shows anymore, especially actresses that have not had work done or been holding onto careers in the spotlight. They at least don't look grotesque from Botox and collagen and eye bag remover, like the ones holding on too hard, but--and this is the problem with '25 years later'-- not everyone ages well. The men especially haven't aged like Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Like moldy time-ravaged goblins, their craggy faces are no longer able to support the uniform sea of curly black toupees they wore in the first seasons. It's just odd that there's so many, so old, so sudden. Even Laura Palmer, once safely dead, ain't safe from time's merciless savagery.

Luckily there's Grace Zabriskie as Laura's mom, now turned alcoholic and deranged (hurrah! She's my favorite!) She's aged past fine wine and into some beautiful 100-proof madness.

PORTRAIT OF MRS. PALMER (by EK)
ADDICTION IS THE COLOR OF STATIC

What really lingers, my takeaway, is the sharp savvy in depicting the use of drugs and ravages of addiction. I could really relate to the totally batshit insane alcoholism of Grace Zabriskie, now spending most of her time drinking at home in front of the TV. During a rare visit to a bar we see her bite the throat out of a giant malignant trucker, much to all our delight. I especially love the bargain basement video effects as she peels off her mask to expose-- what? TV static and a giant forked tongue? The rest of the time she tries to stay out of interpersonal encounters (like any good drunk), yet can't help occasionally freaking out liquor store clerks by losing her shit over moved-around Slim Jims behind the counter.

And I love the presence of TV shows. There's not nearly enough TVs on in the living rooms of the modern TV/movie landscape, making home life always seem barren and too quiet. But Lynch knows TVs are a part of the national land/soundscape. Like Nicholas Roeg, Alex Cox, Thomas Pynchon (in lit and adaptations) and almost no one else, he makes weird TV shows to play in the background of scenes, to run weird counterpoint to the action. He gets it.

Not to say these TV and living room counterbalances are not done as randomly as possible - to divulge new meanings where none or different or the same may have been before, because Lynch knows that if the meaning is 'on the nose' it's trite. There can be no meaning, no objective, in triteness. Only in meaningless does the truth unfold as it isn't.

Any objective is merely "evitcejbo ynA" in a mirror.

Just one smile, Coop? Even a cold one?
CRONUS

Through the looking glass--in dreams--you'll find him there, the devouring Cronus father, the 'owner' of all the women, He is the anal/primal father archetype. the devouring monster father, eating the gods and the world like a Babeless Bunyan, eating his own children rather than look for food outside his shit-caked cave. As for making more meals, he'll fuck anything that moves! He must be killed through unanimous son decision, so that they too can enjoy the pleasures of women. The last one to own 'all' the women (as in animal packs, like lions), the last to enjoy libidinal dominance and display of obscene enjoyment, his death comes at a great cost. In display of guilt and to prevent the same thing happening again, the murdering sons renounce all polygamy and all displays of obscene enjoyment. Each takes but one wife, and they hide themselves away from the other when fornicating. The curtain is drawn forever over procreation, lest murder appear in sibling eyes once more.

The simple horrors of the Oedipus complex though aren't nearly as bad since a wife is allowed, and the promise of enjoyment is deferred but not denied. One doesn't have to kill one's father if they want to get married and have children themselves. When compared to the paralysis, the deep primordial dread, represented by the days of Cronus, hiding one's obscene enjoyment isn't much of a sacrifice.
---

In writer terms this sense of sacrifice is called 'editing.' ("Kill your babies" is a common writing workshop slogan). But Lynch is at that age and level when there is no one who can really 'edit' his work for him -- it's too weird, and he doesn't explain it, how does anyone know what is extraneous. And the long dead pauses are there for the audience's meditational benefit - the slowing of their attention span increasing their prana. It's all very well BUT if there's no 'there' there, how would we know what's meditative and just 'bad' or pointless?

We're taking a lot on faith, such as the 'Frank / Bob/ whatever' of Bob-possessed Cooper being menacing. Consider the scene another with the girl who he just learned betrayed him (through yet another magical shortcut). I mean look deep at McLachlan's face, really look: it's got kind of a half-melted oven-bronzed female Buddha neutered quality to it (not helped by that wig of pulled back long black hair), whatever weird work he's had 'done' helping to give him an effeminate air. Meanwhile, that babe in his arms is dynamite, all leggy and pale in that redhaired kind of sexy way.... we're getting the Cronus vibe, but only if Cronus was played by some New Mexican grandma.
Also, I've met Kyle McLachlan in person and he's a little fella - one of those stars that seems to come from some alternate reality of wee folk. And that girl with him is colossal; she could trounce him if she put in half a mind, and she has a gun - she could shoot him when he walks in. Instead it's like Red Riding Hood getting eaten by Grandma - and not even the grandma with the wolf in her, just plain old grandma- though of course that's what we're supposed to believe. That there's a wolf therein. We have to take it on faith.

I don't blame poor McLachlan, it's not his fault he got old - it's just we spend a great many hours with this dislikable cipher he's playing, and an equal amount meanwhile with his other role, the bafflingly out-of-touch 'other Cooper' - a double named Dougie. The 'good' Cooper has spent the last 25 years in 'the Lodge' but that excuse only gets you so far. It's exacerbating being with either one, for the same reason as the show is frustrating: there is no 'there' there. Peter Sellers in BEING THERE could at least form a sentence and weed a garden. This is more BEING NOT THERE. Dougie never 'grows' out of his simpleton repetitive phrasing; evil Cooper never smiles or laughs or enjoys himself, which would have made his character so much more menacing.

In other words, there's not much to either 'part' of Cooper - nor any of that wild giggling mania we saw at the season two cliffhanger, or the way there was in the deep tissue insanity conjured up by the great--and who I feel was the stealth gravitational center of the first one and a half seasons--Ray Wise (above). Bob doesn't even get amped when he beats a girl's head in with his fists, or nothin! When Leland Palmer killed Laura, he howled in a mix of sadistic glee and fatherly anguish, all swirled together in a fifth dimensional reptilian Tequila shot. Whooo! Cooper - robotics; Dougie - nothing - together they're not even 1/4 of the old Cooper.

The big tease of the show is that we spend the whole season hoping to see these halves unite - for the evil Bob to go back as he promised, or was promised, but Bob keeps bouncing back with the help of his homeless old derelict poet contingents or assassins who neglect to put a ring on his finger. We figure we'll get real Cooper back but we don't - aside from maybe 20 minutes towards the end. He goes to bed screwing with Diane, waking up alone as someone else - a slightly more cold, dead Cooper - one who finally is just a little bit terrifying. The there we were led to hope for is--it seems--long gone... again. Does a sadist run this universe?
Twin Peaks: The Return is set in the time of waiting. (...) As has become Lynch’s trademark over the intervening years, long takes and pregnant silence, really all manner of visual and aural static, escalate to near-unbearable intensity on account of a viewer’s excessive interestedness. Nothing becomes something before one’s eyes, and ears, only to recede once more into the doubtful terrain of moot detailing. (....) we endure a feeling of emptiness in repletion, or the opposite: detail signifying lack. Silence doesn’t exist except in relation to stimulation, and Lynch befuddles typically exclusive regimes of formal austerity and sensuous aestheticism by a kind of catalytic juxtaposition that is not, it seems important to insist, not dialectical. (Metaphysical Detectives - Sonder Manchester)
"....despite its many surface departures from the original Twin Peaks, is actually, if you think about it, a perfectly seamless continuation of the deeper themes Lynch was originally exploring. Compulsion. Obsession. Existential dread. Nostalgia. The ever-thwarted desire for things to work out and the ineffability of good and evil, which can be entirely human, or perhaps something trans-human and totally un-killable. For me, the most harrowing moment wasn’t the Return to Sparkwood and 21, or the shrieking Laura in a drug-addled date with death—it was the moment in the final segment of “Part XVII” where Can-Do, Super-Positive Cooper’s face faltered for just a minute as though he’d seen into an abyss of infinite sorrow and realized no one was going to save anyone, and that image of his face was superimposed over the rest of the scene as it unfolded. " -Amy Glynn, Paste
I could insert some cryptic tie-in with some looming national dystopia, i.e. what happens when the tiny little thread tugged by Monica L. in the early 90s at last undoes the sweater of patriarchal authority and the incestuous ogre below the power tie facade comes tumbling out like the guts of a rotted pumpkin, and yet the pumpkin still holds office.

Let at least one older white guy, then, namely ME, refrain (and it ain't easy) from 'validating' the movement through his paternal approval (let me be seen, oh lord, to be on the 'winning' side) or vainly trying to stem the tide with some warning of overreach (let the tide stop, oh lord, before it reaches my house). It's not my fight anymore.

From the center of a shooting range target crossfire
lambs and lunatics spread votes like rose petals before the Big White Straight Dude
who splashes and raves as his pen is shortened to make all the other pens the same size as his,
all still a world too small, like a plane losing first class to give the masses back their leg room.
Maybe Lynch alone understands--amidst all his fellow first class grumblers,
and hopes you will too:
He knows that we older straight white guys cannot escape the future
so we must assume our villain role with the secret grace and good humor of bad guy-playing professional wrestlers.

The real standout element of Lynch though is that his demon fathers go way darker; his films always have some dark venomous monster at their center, a malignant low gravity that is too deep to ever be fully conscious...  in most of us. In dreams you'll find him there, and sometimes you'll find him in positions of unassailable public trust.

Let us pray Lynch isn't one of them.

I don't think he is, because, like Shaw's Mr. Underschaft, the external debauched demon often glows with a secret sweet soul, so naturally the incalculable evil in Lynch's world reflects a well-exorcised spirit. (his demons are on film; their steam pressure vented).

====


Is this perhaps the core of the American nightmare? The only way to not be a monster is to make them? The more you try to rise above the Cronus dance, the deeper and darker it becomes, the Weinsteined serpent slithers below like a reptilian overlord of lower chakra desire and menace -- we need never even ask ourselves if we're capable of his crimes; we can't submit our dreams and nightmares to the feminist censorial scissor and have them still be 'resonant'.
+++




THE POPPY IS THE RED OF THE EYE

The farther I get in years, the more I'm drawn to writing about the highs and lows of the drug and alcohol experience rather than the psychedelic, especially during this alleged epidemic of opiate addiction. For withdrawal opens up, I know firsthand, swaths to the agonies of hell in a time-stopped sludge of horror that anyone may experience in the comfort of their own middle class existence. As I move forward in life, it's this hell, more than the giddy rush of first timers and the profound spiritual tour book of psychedelia, that intrigues me. And deconstructing 'The Return' as a portrait of this kind of drug psychosis, it clicks into place real nice.

For one who so succinctly captures the dreamy extremities of the drug experience -- from giddy highs to terrifying hell-like lows -- it's fascinating that Lynch points out those same experiences can be attained naturally (through deep mediation):
"When your consciousness starts expanding, those experiences are there. All those things can be seen. It's just a matter of expanding that ball of consciousness. And the ball of consciousness can expand to be infinite and unbounded. It's totality. You can have totality. So all those experiences are there for you, without the side effects of drugs.”

For example, more than anything else, Lynch nails the relentless chain of manipulation for money for the day's fix that occurs inevitably across generations. To be close friends with a junky is inevitably to be borrowed or stolen from, to be romantically attached to one is to watch one's finances drain to debt. To be a parent or close relative of the girlfriend of a junky is to similarly watch one's finances drain. The scenes at the diner seem there basically there to purely show Shelly (Madchen Amick's) daughter (Amanda Seyfried) begging money from her (which she in turn begs from Peggy Lipton's Nadine) to give to her angry dope addict husband (a totally unhinged episode-stealing Caleb Landry Jones). In scenes of him going more or less crazy--flying around their trailer in a vicious rage (the same trailer park, incidentally, operated by Harry Dean Stanton from Fire Walk with Me) or with his other girlfriend out in the woods (before, presumably, shooting himself)---this ferociously 'present' actor gives us one of the more harrowing pictures of drug withdrawal I've seen in years. Anyone addicted to opiates or benzos whose run out and been forced to suffer prolonged withdrawal, to the point of homicidal desperation, will relate.  The idea that his habit is being paid for by the three sweet-souled women at the diner is infuriating, but is supposed to be; at the same time, Lynch gives Seyfried's character the chance to see and feel the glories of life while super high - her dilated eyes wide and astounded grin as she looks up at the sky from her man's convertible, are worth all the hell of heaven. The highs and lows of 'the life' all come apparent. In junkie-dom the middle ground between heaven and hell is all stripped away. When you're an alcoholic the effect is similar - just not being in pain from withdrawal is such a relief it becomes heaven; add the heavenly rush of the needed hit, and it's like heaven gets squared. Naturally hell is squared too. And on and on.

I mention that because -- as readers of this blog know -- I use drug analogies for almost everything, but that's just shorthand, based on my own distant past experiences, for unusual states of mind that are both recreated and analyzed in various films I delve into. The thing with Lynch's experiences is they are so unique to himself, and maybe a few other 'naturally high' surrealists like Lynch and Bunuel, that they survive an array of personal experience lenses. I too can access them now via meditation (I've started up again!) but also from memory, because I've been up there. So when I see David Patrick Kelly screaming in the middle of the woods because his foot is talking to him, I know that--by his Guatemalan Burning Man-sun faded attire--he's probably on a lot of shrooms or acid  (I'd say mescaline, he seems like the type -- but no one does mescaline anymore, do they?)


I can relate, but gone is the tang in my saliva I used to get watching The Trip or any of the other psychedelic classics I've delved into over the years on this site. I no longer pine for the local fame of my Syracuse acid rock band, I don't even remember the rush of it all, nor do I pitifully crave the giddy euphoria of my first big ecstasy experience. Now I remember also the mornings after, the feeling of adult-sized hangovers and the kind of depression that used to overtake me after a wild upstate weekend of drugs, sex, and rock, coming home to my parent's house in NJ, and another week of my crappy temp job. The more I think and write about it, the more balanced my memory; it's no longer garbles kind of idealized melancholy (though that might be all the --prescribed!--anti-depressants I'm on.

Similarly --seeing a pretty girl on the street doesn't drive me insane with irrational possessive insecurity, but just a fleeting sense of reverie, like remembering the girl in the white dress on the ferry ala Bernstein in Citizen Kane. I could be projecting or Lynch is in the same pleasant boat, thus the third season lacks that same eye for gorgeous youth - the young girls now tend towards the damaged, so while supermodel/rock star Sky Ferreira shows up in a few scenes for some pointless dialogue, the emphasis is on her character's scabby meth-addict teeth and skin -- the telltale signs of a lift on the street that are hard to get just right but which Lynch always manages (ala the briefly seen streetwalker in Mulholland Drive).



A BOMB

But a bit of magic occurred - halfway through the show:

The now legendary stretch of space between the A-bomb detonation and the arrival of Laura Palmer's soul on the TV screen earth, when what we were watching was nothing less than an hour-long piece of avant garde video art expressionism, the kind of thing we'd otherwise find only in college art history film classes or underground film festivals.

What can one even say about it! Aside from it's ballsy great to see such a thing on actual Showtime.

The Origin of Starbucks - the End of age-appropriate carnal relations

FRAGMENTS: CHANCE AS MEANING GENERATOR:

I've long since wanted to build a random meaning machine - not unlike the I Ching - wherein any two items might be entered with any one theme and a meaning gleaned within three steps- one was to be a film that is continually playing - 500 various unrelated scenes, and soundtrack snippets of various lengths, all continually playing on random shuffle.

Some might call that a ruthless attack on meaning - but it's the reverse. "Meaning" can handle it.

A gambler will tell you if you doubt it. Don't do Mistress Random Chance the discourtesy of presuming there's no method to her madness (gamblers are often deliberately unlucky in love just to be lucky at cards - the only times I was ever lucky at cards was when I was heartbroken etc.)

PARANOIA:

Check out this thread, guaranteed to remind you of all the paranoid narcissist neurotics in your life, as real people try to glean numerological messages from flickers of light in the end tag of Lynch-Frost productions, or in flickering airplane windows!

I enjoy this kind of insanity as it's not contagious the way some of the Monarch 7  / Satanic panic is - which-- as I've written--Twin Peaks compares to, for--just as the atomic bomb opens the portal between the lodges and our plane of reality (?)--so too does catastrophic damage wrought on the developing female psyche by incest and other Satanic abuses unleash a kind of demonic force (whihc might be the whole reason it's done, rather than merely male desire), ripping open the space-time continuum via a kind of mirror reverse gaze splitting of the subject / splitting the psyche along the personal and collective level.

In other words, just as the Manhattan Project splits the atom, the incest of Laura Palmer splits the collective psyche, opening a gateway between reality and dreams that evil spirits use to get a foothold. And it's for this purpose, in fact, that such horrors are generally performed! The demon, wanting to manifest on this plane, seduces a susceptible human into welcoming it in through traumatic violence, the demon grants power in exchange for a human sacrifice: corrupt the virtues of your own child, and thou shalt be master of the universe! But really the demon wants you to do it not for your soul to be lost, but so the trauma creates a rupture in 3-D space time (or maybe both)-- it makes a slight hole in the wall between the worlds (which is why hauntings occur around the scenes of murders and atrocities).

Torture a person long enough, they'll 'remember' the witches sabbaths they attended, they will name for you the persons there and who did or kissed the arse of Lucifer. Hypnotize a kid and go deep enough, they'll remember some kind of occult basement ritual involving all sorts of sexually depraved initiations, sex with parents and neighbors and demonic chanting robes. Hynotize an adult, they'll remember going aboard a space craft and being probed by aliens. The question arises: is it all the same memory/dream? Does prolonged hypnosis or torture trigger either FMS (False Memory Syndrome) or does it kick loose the barriers put there around our minds, the way a sandcastle hems in a piece of the ocean suddenly kicked open by a bored child so the captured water can roll back to the tide.

Hold that "thought" for a moment dear listener... but you can't. It's already gone, until lifetimes from now someone tortures or hypnotizes it out of you.

Trauma creates black-outs so in undergoing trauma people lose memory and in this act can people be programmed to kill. I had a blackout just listening to frat guys talking about how much sex they 'get' at a dry rush. I came to running up to see my friend Amy, to cry on her bed. But I can't remember what was said! What was said was so misogynistic and vile I blocked it out. Could this not be a tool? But also might that not be what trauma is as far as initiation ceremony? The initiates of ancient tribes had to undergo terrifying purification rituals, was this torture not a kind of blackout mind control, or boot camp 'hazing'?  Even just a hard slap when you're in hysterics can work. We so demonize abuse and violence it never occurs to us (maybe to Lynch, Polanski and to Kubrick) the extent to which it structures our entire consciousness. We refuse to examine the 'service' it does. It's too vile a truth to face.

Fitting that in our century of collage and retro-revival, 25 years later, as this season is playing, the capitalist Cronuses are in power again, the revolution goes underground.  We may need to repeat all the mistakes our Nazi grandparents made standing idly by while maniacs ran amok.

Condemned to repeat all the same shiite, remakes and retreads,
and all the while the tiny little thread tugged by Monica L.
has slowly unknit the sweater of patriarchal authority and now
the incestuous ogre below the power tie facade comes tumbling out
like the guts of a rotted pumpkin... again.

David Lynch saw it come forward through the goalposts of the past.
Jung's schizophrenics and Freud's neurotics and conspiracy theories writ incessant
But we didn't listen or
couldn't remember what we listened to.

For the primal dad is so deep in our collective consciousness we never even know he's there,
no matter how often Lynch depicts him.
He's too deep to see, and thank god,
for what if there's nothing underneath his grave, but nostalgia,
and benign sexism?

What if the only monster here is me?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Brecht and the Single Girl: PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT (1973)


If you're confused about why Italy continually undoes the soundness of the Euro, Elio Petri's PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT, a nihilistic anti-capitalist Brechtian satire from 1973, can surely clarify for you toute suite. Short answer: too many commies --and they got a funny idea about money.

The "plot" follows neurotic bank teller Total (Flavio Bucci - the blind pianist in Suspiria) as he tries to escape his meager 9-5 barely-make-ends-meet lot, doling out cash to flush titans of industry who drop in proudly boasting of their scams to avoid taxes. Total becomes obsessed with stealing the signifiers of a rich, corrupt butcher's (Ugo Tognazzi) identity. Hat, prized butcher knife, car, even mistress: Total steals it all, launching himself on an absurdist Harpo-cum-Karl Marxist Quixote odyssey into the out-of-bounds yardage around capitalism's fixed court. We know we're in some weird zone right off when Total quits his bank teller job by burning a lire note in his boss's office ("that's sacrilege!") then justifies his crazy crime spree by not stealing any actual cash: "I'm a Mandrakian Marxist," he announces. "I only steal what I need."

Daria Nicolodi is Anita, the butcher's mistress, who at first welcomes Total as a sexually intriguing diversion, then pins hope as a possible escape from her wearying if comfortable life, but she's too smart to believe there's anywhere to run that wouldn't just be 'here' all over again. Salvo Randone plays Total's shell-shocked dad, who's in total denial of his son's proclivities (by refusing to believe his son's a thief, he's able to enjoy the caviar guilt-free).

Rome: Open City - a cop on duty outside a bakery laments
he's in uniform, so can't grab any bread for himself -due to ethics
The title is a satiric riff on old anarchist slogan, a common enough refrain in European genre movies of the late 60s, when commie ideology was snuck into movie dialogue by leftist filmmakers like Fernando di Leo and Giuliu Questi.

But why!? Why did Italy allow Marxism to muddle their post-war reconstruction and keep them a wealth-redistribution obsessed economy nigh these 70 years?

 Stealing in time of necessity has long been a no-brainer to the Italians, as seen in the 'bread riots' of the 1940s - as seen in Rossellini's Rome: Open City (above). Italian and French pop culture long celebrates master thieves like Diabolik and crime--if done on an upward angle (rob from the richer)--was depicted as a kind financial vigilanteism. You might call that kind of behavior a lot of things: a kind of laissez-faire communism, for example, but it makes sense to not starve while rich people stuff themselves on sweets the other side of the shop window (as in Dickens). Eventually, even the noble father in Bicycle Thief does it, after frittering away his remaining money on a meal (after passing up numerous free ones), and the wife spends the rest on a psychic to find out how long they'll be poor. Thus looting the bakery is both immoral and the highest kind of sanity for a people so locked into provincial pride and thinking due to Catholic guilt trips they can't see tomorrow for the nose on their face (i.e. the bakery won't open tomorrow or any day as they can't afford more flour due to not having made any $$).

Property is No Longer a Theft is a child of that mindset, in more ways than one. It's on Blu-ray from Arrow, and looks and sounds great, but--if you don't believe in money but do have a Prime subscription, you can pretend you're stealing it by watching it 'free'. Just don't wonder if Arrow suddenly doesn't have any money for new restorations. It's your fault.


What drew me to it initially (aside from being enthralled by Petri's earlier masterpiece A Quiet Place in the Country) was a recommendation from horror film historian Tim Lucas on Facebook, who pointed out its near-giallo greatness. There may not be a crazed killer on the loose, but Total does threaten people with a knife; Ennio Morricone delivers one of his most surreal breathy scores; Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveller twists the frame with portentous shadows and expressionist angles (lots of doors within doors), and longtime Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi (1) looms tall and ungainly-albeit-sexy as Anita, the butcher's mistress. When she lets loose a deep throaty laugh during one of her Brechtian fourth wall addresses, you might get an instant chill as you recognize her voice's deep masculine depths from so many Argento classics (it's the same laugh from Phenomena, when daring Jennifer Connelly to call her insects, or the mocking, snarling demoness at the climax of Suspiria). Since Bucci looks more than a little like Dario Argento himself (with a Dog-eared dash of a young Pacino around the eyes) it would be easy to see Proerty as a kind of deranged reflection of the Argento-Nicolodi collaborative canon (1), with the Butcher representing typical 'red telephone' Italian filmmaking at the time, and Total the Argento who steers Daria free.


This all helps the film keep its odd mix of police corruption satire (the flow of $$ from insurance claims agent-inventory-taking cops-rich policy holders-thief selling back to insurance company, is like some giant financial food chain), from getting too mired in either didactic dissertation (In standard Brechtian practice, characters break the narrative flow to speak directly to the camera / audience) or Polanski-style young man-vs.-older-man-for-his woman triangle power trip.

Weird characters pop up to keep you guessing: the droop-eyed chief of detective (Orazio Orlando) who seems like he's either fishing for a bribe or trying to trap the butcher into a confession with a sense of conspiratorial camaraderie ("If you're not afraid of having it stolen," he notes, during the insurance tally, "you can't enjoy your wealth"); a cross-dressing master thief Albertone (Mario Scaccia) who teaches Total the trade (and Total in exchange, does nothing but taxes his mentor's weak, albeit big-as-all-outdoors queer heart with his irrational Ledger Joker-x-Harpo Marxist nonsense), and a dyke fence played in a kind of Lotte Lenya's character in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-style resonant post-glam fashion by Cecillia Pollizi. And there's even Diabolik in a blink-and-miss cameo (below):

Diabolik dies in a posion gas-filled car at a security expo in Property is No Longer a Theft
It's not all surreal Brechtian digressions though. A real unhappy, even if trenchant, thread in the film is the treatment of both men towards Anita, and her feeling of being a sexual object (neither offers her any kind of human compassion). It's a rather sad in a reflection of the same objectifying dread animosity towards the opposite sex we see in a lot of neorealist and nouvelle vague works of the time wherein a dash of meta-awareness tries to offset the leering (i.e. make sure her legs are crossed coquettishly and her breasts are heaving while she tallies the day's profits in the window a butcher shop display). Naming her various succulent sweet meat body parts while addressing the camera, Petri might be referencing the first part of Godard's Contempt (the scene in the beginning, added on by producer Levine's insistence that the film include some Bardot nudity), or --the theme that clouded the mind of Nero's artist in A Quiet Place in the Country --one of the classic devil's bargains of European film in the 50s-70s, the relationship of the sex-hungry producer to the idealistic auteur.



By 1973, though, this was all just a bit didactic. On the the other hand, it's nice she can enjoy sex enough to get her rocks off without losing clout in her plea for gender equality. Petri does leave space for Nicolodi to--as he did for Redgrave did for Quiet Place in the Country--to quietly fill up her character's margins with traits that divulge themselves--Farber termite-style--subtly, on repeat viewing. Watching her face, for example, after the butcher instructs her to cry over the 'stolen' items from Total's first robbery, when Pierelli is there helping calculate the total for the insurance (the butcher actually claims Total stole way more than he really did, to up the ante, hiding the booty in a suitcase in the basement). Facing close to the camera in close-up we see her crying increase and decrease based on Pirelli's proximity; when it starts to grate on the butcher's nerves, she stops abruptly and cuts into a vague smile, barely able to reign in her delight at the thought of 'earning more expensive and useless stuff.


Neither happy nor totally miserable in the life of basically a contracted--albeit relatively well-treated--sex-worker, Nicolodi doesn't have to play second fiddle to some harridan wife - the pair live together without any tinge of Catholic guilt, with a housekeeper; she has a nice job as the cashier at the butcher shop, showing he trusts her, and he buys her expensive things like nice, presumably real, pearls. She can put up with his macho abuse, aware that, in her own words to the audience, if she wasn't here she'd still be somewhere else. She doesn't consider the rest of us, addressed directly, there in some imagined air-conditioned little Italian cinema, to be any less trapped. At least she's free to enjoy her trap as best she can, rather than just banging her head against the bars in an inevitably-doomed attempt to impress some far-away feminist studies professor.

The chamelonic sexual personae of Daria: with long black hair as passive mistress (PROPERTY 1973); as can-do, sexually assertive reporter (DEEP RED 1975)
Bearing the meta-textuality still further, we find the butcher and Anita going to the adult movie show where he threatens to "send her back to work at the bar" if she doesn't obediently go down on him. He also hits her when frustrated, which doesn't seem to foster any resentment on her part, beyond a fleeting feeling of shock. On the other hand, he does go down on her --which we know is a sad rarity, especially from this country, and especially from this era, especially from this era. In a way, his slapping her around, and her whining to the camera almost seem like they were thrown in last minute efforts to taint what is essentially the film's only coherent human relationship. Everyone else treats each other the way they might treat vending machines or food products, Total--for all his commie bellyaching--worst of all. This is the world of backwards men, Total, his rationalizing father, the crazy cop, the drag queen gang of fur thieves, etc.

Say what you want about Anita and the butcher - they both work. They hold a legit business in the black, and after hours they share a certain post-coital simpatico that captures the way long-term casual sexual relationships sometimes are. When she abruptly stops him from going down on her while she counts the days tallies, by announcing she's hungry and wants a steak; he agrees and gets up and there's a moment they share of simpatico alignment, a relationship without the need for little bambinos and sacred mother-in-law masses. We admire the way the trappings of love and family are avoided in favor of a long term desire entrainment, the languid way two lovers disengage and prepare to go get something to eat, not really looking at each other but totally aligned free of all other worries, since pleasure, wealth and convenience are the focus, and not God or family or some other phony idolatry.

When you see these names in the credits, pounce! 
It may not add up to much, but what really makes this a keeper--and this is so true of so many otherwise merely mediocre Italian films--is the touch of gold that is an Ennio Morricone score. Why more composers don't endeavor to follow his lead--the use of antithetical counterpoint and surreal minimalism--is one of cinema's great tragic mysteries. Most composers try to show off all the stuff they learned in music school with a lot of mickey mousing orchestral pomp when one jew's harp and a lady whispering urgently but incoherently over discordant guitar stings would work so much better. Has Ennio ever done a bad score? Certainly this is one of his weirdest and most memorable (and it's on Spotify!) especially during the strange opening credits, which play over overlapped densely colored pencils sketches of all the principle players on paper that resembles marble (but with lire notes for veins) while heavy breathing repetitions of "I.... have" ("avere! av-ere!") pulse over whooshing timpani undercurrents.  Elsewhere little two-note jabs highlight ominous electric bass lines, stabby little mountain king strings and cycling piano riffs foreshadow similar pulsing passages in the Morricone's score for Tarantino's recent Oscar-winning Hateful Eight! (Hey, we all steal from ourselves - and it suits the subject matter)

Ultimately, the main problem with Theft is a not uncommon one for anti-establishment movies of the period, which get so busy critiquing the current system, and rebelling against it, that they run out of room to find an alternative meaning. Do communist intellectuals seriously think they'll ever weed the Stalin reality out of their Trotskyist idealism by attacking capitalism's status quo?

Sellers takes aim at bourgeois values - The Magic Christian (1969)
MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL PRINTED-GREEN PAPER

An example of this same problem can be found in 1969's The Magic Christian (above)--a satire of consumer culture not unlike Property-- which finds bored millionaire Peter Sellers and his nephew Ringo learning about the world through staging of some very elaborate (and presumably overpriced) 'freak outs' of standard bowler-and-brolly London-suburb train commuters. You can all but trace the thought lines of these little gags back to a time when access to a flood of freely available, semi-legal high-quality LSD woke artists up to the handrails and structure of society, so the sudden awareness of the absurdity of money and other social mores --as aesthetic things in and of themselves-- were made absurd.

When you're tripping, the whole idea of money starts to become too abstract to handle: it's no longer 'invisible' as a symbol for goods and services but a pocketful of green portraits of old men in weird wigs. These strange knotty faces seem to be smiling and winking at you, struggling to move; en verso, the eye in the pyramid follows you around the room, pulling you in towards it like a tractor beam. The fact that 'normal' people don't notice these things is even funnier. "Living is easy with eyes closed" - so the tripper becomes interested in opening people's eyes to the world's absurdity, even if only for a few flash moments, like one of Jerry Garcia's onstage backflips: pranksters like Ken Kesey and his magic bus pulling over on some random small town main street to run amok for five minutes, then disappear - leaving the sleepy town to wonder if it was all just something they ate.

BUT all that stuff had a bad ending in the States - it spun out of control too fast - too many idiots taking too much too often, then clogging up the ER the minute they think they're dying (i.e. the 'only fools rush in' preliminary bad trip bardos); the logistics of the endless stream of runaway kids turning Golden Gate Park into a giant toilet. It was a revolution with nowhere to go.

Take that, my little corrupt Italian capitalist system!
But in Europe, there was a movement of intellectuals ready to absorb the psychedelic culture shocks with deadpan bemusement: Antonioni, whose earlier work like Red Desert explored, in a much more abstract, intellectual way, the collapse of structuralism (in other words, even sober he and Monica were hip to the abstract aesthetic absurdity of bank notes) connected with the turned-on generation in such a way as to help form it (via Blow-up), leading to the idea that by keeping your behavior totally random and embracing a kind of abstract chaos magic approach to life you can shimmy down from the symbolic ledge and run 'free' without having to run naked, screaming, down 5th Ave with question marks written all over your body in Day-Glo paint.

Even so, some symbols - like 'Stop' signs are better left heeded for their symbolic message rather than regarded purely as red octagons. Failure to do do so could lead to your death by car. Similarly, give your money away like it's a disease and you can drift so far off the grid you can't get back. It's fine if you want to live your life that way, but you screw with your own life at your own risk, and you better take that risk seriously. Vanessa Redgrave isn't playing around.

(see also: Through a Dark Symbol).

Pull the string!
That's the core of what's missing in Petri's Theft - which shows the all-importance of having a good star at the center of a work like this: the closest thing we have to a person to root for is either Albertone, the beloved cross-dressing leader of a queer gang of jewel robbers who-- their identity as maligned subculture perhaps leading them towards a group loyalty--are truly grieved by his passing. (though he only shows up in the last third). This being a time when queerness was portrayed in giallos as a sign of freaky transgression - the conflicted self, expressed literally in a common enough drag sight back in the day--the half-man/half-woman literal split (above)--this reserving of our bulk sympathy for the drag performer shows that Petri's film has a genuine heart and respect for humanity and artistic perception.

If you can admit your confusion, you earn a pass.

But the price of true post-structuralist realization--of stepping free of the bullshit-- is complete paralysis. Hemmings with the ghost tennis ball in his hand, frozen in contemplation like a monkey with a human skull sitting on a stack of books. Without real money, and real balls - the void stretches past even new life and new civilizations - it boldly goes where no man has gone before... but leaves you standing there, just a focal point for the endless nada.

One happy little family, pre-Total
You know where I'm going with this: America got around this anti-money issue with a show called Star Trek where private property no longer needs to exist. Maybe one day we'd grow into it, but only if we didn't rush things. America couldn't afford to be nihilistic about money at this particular point in now. Things were bad enough. We had used up all our nihilism cards on our all-consuming hobby, Vietnam. But, at least the Cold War helped externalize the red menace so we didn't have to fight it in the mirror, unlike some people. ahem-Italy. And we had own problems with crime too. 1973 New York City was as bad as Rome, albeit with less motor-scooter purse snatching (ciao, Scippatori!).

Funny, but hardly surprising, that we took the opposite approach of Italy, who tended to idolize the crooks. For us, it was the reverse, we decided to invoke our second amendment rights and make a stand. So... Diabolik, Total, whatever your dumb names are, you and your commie prevert friends may run riot in Italy, but if you try to pull any of that shit in NYC, well, we gotta guy comin' next year, he knows just how to deal with punks like you.

See you soon, pally!
(Charles Bronson Death Wish - 1974)
FURTHER READING:

1. See 'Woman is the Father of Horror' - which I argue that a lot of the success of the great horror auteurs comes from their female writing/producing partners - i.e. Debra Hill, Daria Nicolodi, Gale Ann Hurd.
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