Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Long Arm of Coincidence: SCARED TO DEATH (1947)

Bela Lugosi's only color film, and maybe the only horror film period from 1947, surreal poverty row quickie SCARED TO DEATH makes no concessions to atmosphere or tone. Why should it? It has no competition. Instead, along its zippy charge to the finish line, this unique poverty row original rounds an array of weird bases all its own, making it at true deadpan termite wonder, one that doesn't deign to even tag the usual bases as it rounds the diamond lest it lose the go-for-broke fuck-it momentum of someone stealing home on a loping base hit, then running off the field and into the parking lot after a referee in a green mask announces you've been "out" since second.

Director Christy (don't get excited - it's a guy) Cabanne's 162nd feature (it's also writer Walter Abbott's first, and Golden Gate Picture's last), Scared to Death doesn't really give a shit if it makes any sense but we in the Lugosi chat rooms don't care. Plenty of his poverty row films don't make any sense, but more than in some others we forgive the incoherence as it's never dull and--more importantly--it's surreal in that half-intentional (but which half?) zone where Bunuel meets Beaudine. It has the sort of deadpan irreverence we usually see only in international new wave breakthroughs that, if done independently, ala Godard's Alphaville, earn auteur acclaim, and if done for a major studio, like Suzuki's Branded to Kill, get their auteur fired. 

Watched in this light, Scared to Death alchemically transcends its lowly state as a B-mystery Lugosi vehicle, and that's important because, on that level, it fails miserable. Seen the other way though, as a nonsensical exercise in Marx Bros/Beckett noir post-structuralism, it begins to loom wobbly and large 

Set all in and around a single house, one that doubles as a clinic (though there's only one patient), ever-stumbling briskly through an ornate distinctly post-war plot full of gaslighting, shady pasts (what went on in Europe doesn't stay in Europe, even though you thought you left it to die in a concentration camp), lame comedy, exits and entrances, and signification-free fury, Scared to Death might seem incomprehensible the first dozen times you doze through it, but--and this is how you know it's a masterpiece-- the more times you see it, the weirder and more incomprehensible it gets, and the more you start to love it for resisting all analysis so vigorously. As Michael Weldon lovingly wondered in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: "Were the people who made this on some strange, mind-bending drug?" [1] 

Maybe we'll never know, but one thing we do, and that's that you should be on some strange, mind-bending drug when watching. It won't help, but then again, it can't hurt. Then again, the film itself might be enough. Maybe it's already bent your mind, made you strange. Maybe it made you afraid so your mind started to crack.

Set in a former (that was 'before the war') mental institution, now the office and home, of Dr. Van Ee (George Zucco), the film seems haunted by the WW2 in much the same way The Black Cat (1934) was haunted by WWI. Van Ee harbors strange secrets about his past, i.e. during or before the war, secrets the film never does deign delve into. We never learn why, for example, he needs a private duty policeman around (Nat Pendleton). As with the hiring of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla (1939), the answer may lie not in that Van Ee hired a private detective but whom he chose. Someone is going to murdered? But whom? Surely not the wife of Van Ee's son Ward (Roland Varno), the paranoid Laura (Molly Lamont), who claims she's being kept a virtual prisoner in her room, though Dr. van Ee and Ward both wish she'd leave (or so they see). Why, is she so anxious to stay in this gloom-less house if she knows whomever is after her has arrived and is somewhere in its walls right now? The  suspicious way Van Ee acts, the weird double meanings and cryptic assurances in the initial scene where he's examining Laura (why would her fear of blindfolds even come up during a routine examination) do nothing to clarify anything. One could almost think one was in that post-structuralist Blow-Up blast radius, next to Elio Petri's A Quiet Day in the Country

Though Zucco probably gets more screen time, Lugosi gets top-billing as 'wanted' magician-hypnotist Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi) who shows up at the door with his mute assistant Ingo (Angelo Rossitto), "one of the little men." They invite themselves to stay a few days (Van Ee says "I can't very well refuse." "How true, cousin Joseph. How... true"). Leonide and Ingo spend most of the film creeping in and out of secret panels in search of some other unseen person or gesticulating at the moon. At one point Leonide watches Laura depart his presence, snarling a weird poetry chant: "Laurette... Laurette, I'll make a bet, the green masked man will get you yet."  

Meanwhile, a scowling green mask regularly looks in from outside the window, but no one sees it. (Though Laura, from beyond the grave, somehow knows it was there in her narration). Bodies appear in one room and wind up downstairs, covered in a sheet on the doctor's examination table, as if by magic. Heads--delivered in boxes left at the door--doth literally roll. 

Its blithe inconsistency of tone might all be a passive-aggressive attempt by Cabanne and Abbott to do as bad a job as possible to get out of a contract with Golden Gate, but I like to think they knew they had to get it done quick and cheap, and so just 'went for it,' throwing continuity to the wind and writing the whole script over one long whiskey and benzadrine bender. Sometimes a kind of loose deadpan Mad magazine irreverence takes over when freedom and speed make 'art' almost by the not wanting of it.  This is why Plan Nine from Outer Space is endlessly rewatchable, while 'better' films appall with their mediocre consistency. This being decades before Antonioni let us see through the cracks of cinema's symbolic code, we have to find these Brechtian post-modern 'see around the sets'-y kernels where we may, and--all through the 40s--poverty row Lugosi films were giving us instances thereto. One could view them as an expression of the producer's contempt for the subject matter, or as harbingers for the post-structuralist landscape to come:

 From top: The Voodoo Man's script is written after the 'real' events happen, the writer/hero even
suggests Bela Lugosi to star; The Ape Man's author peers through windows all through the film,
a kind of 'WTF' through-thread. As a kid, seeing these films on afternoonTV a lot, these kinds of moments
were like insider winks. We didn't understand 90% of the dialogue, but these moments let us know we really
weren't naive. We got post-modernism (We read Mad). That same kind of enshrined ambiguity of inference
would become key European art cinema language, but until we learned it, only children and audiences
seeing movies in languages they don't understand, in un-subtitled prints, could share our sweet mise-en-scene
theory forming aesthetic arrest.  
And I make an Ed Wood association not lightly, and not just because there's a cross dressing surprise (SPOILER!) at the end. Lugosi's long downward slide really begins here, his leanest year. All he'd done in the last three years before Scared were some small roles in RKO B-movies, and one lead villain role, in the Val Lewton spoof-- Zombies on Broadway (1945). [2] Aside from Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein the year after Scared, times were only going to get leaner until Ed Wood came calling, like Bela's personal morphine-hallucinated cross-dressing angel of death. And though this isn't really a Lugosi showcase he does get star billing and it holds up today as a great example of how one might handle being handed a question mark of a role, with murky ambiguous motivations not even known to the writer, and turn it into a plum.

The unique things about Scared would go on to pepper later films, like Billy Wilder's 1950 show biz horror-drama, Sunset Boulevard -right), which is narrated, not from a face-up lady in the morgue but a face-down a man in a pool. Other than that, the same, though if you had to guess which film was set in an old dark house holding an ape funeral, how could you ever guess it wouldn't be the poverty row 40s Lugosi chiller, but an A-list Billy Wilder classic? This Lugosi chiller doesn't even have a single dark corner, or ominous statue: it's all light and normal decor, peppered with some heads and masks. But it doesn't matter. Sunset is brilliant even as it veers ever towards a kind of razzing ageist misogyny, while Scared to Death is brilliant because doesn't have enough of anything to be anti-something else. It stays constantly fluid, as if Holden, Von Stroheim, and Swanson, and Wilder couldn't decide if they were making Salome, a making-of documentary playing themselves playing roles, or the roles of Norma, Max and Joe amidst the haunted waxworks and--being clever--decided to keep events, dialogue and performance cryptic enough each line could serve all three or four different readings.

The dialing back and forth to Laurette on the slab, for example, becomes almost comically nonsensical and redundant, as if the editor is venting some irritation with having to spread the length to over an hour. Even with the all-knowing perspective of the unmoored soul, she couldn't possibly know a lot of the details she shows us. Not only that, her comments are often unrelated to the scenes we see. "I became afraid and my mind started to crack" for example, dials back out to Bill the cop (Pendleton) hang-doggedly hitting on the brassy maid Lilybeth (Gladys Blake), calling her his "melancholy baby," his "wild Irish rose." Then we dial back to Laurette on the slab: "Then came a sinister pair!" We see Indigo and Leonide enter through the front door, like a pair of trick-or-treating funeral attendants. 

"then came a sinister pair' (centered)
The paradoxical conundrums and obvious discrepancies continue to accrue. Regularly using big words and then wondering what they mean, Pendleton starts hamming it up to an WB cartoon-level height, even to the extent of saying "which way did they go? Which way did they go?" while waving his fists around. Dr. Van Ee calls the operator and asks for  police but then is conked on the head before he can talk to them; the cops don't come but but reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley - the guy who "likes 'em stupid" in Cat Women of the Moon) shows up anyway, and brings his fiancee, the operator who clued him in on the phone call, Jane Cornell (Joyce Compton). What clue he has that something newsworthy is going on seems vague, but he remembers all the headlines about the weird marriage between Laura and Van Ee's son (she got him drunk and married him on dare) and maybe more besides. Meanwhile a green death mask keeps 'looking' through the window (it has no eye holes), causing girls who see it to faint. And yet - if no one sees it but us, and it cannot see--for it has no eyeholes--how can a dead woman know it was there? Is this mask the embodiment of Laura's post-death all-seeing eye that allows her to comment on action she was upstairs for?  

Maybe not, but this sort of thing, and fine paradoxical examples of Ed Woodian ouroboros dialogue, go looping around in lopsided orbit: Van Ee assures a mysterious lady in green that there are no abnormal things going on in his house, "nor will there ever be." She replies "Nevertheless, the way you were described to me, and the way your place was described to me, I am certain that I am in the right place!" Bull says to Laura he was hoping she'd get murdered so he could solve it and redeem himself with the homicide bureau ("who paid you to say these things to me?" she asks). He vows to cook and slave and buy Lilybeth furs and jewels, which leaves her cold ("I'd hate to hang by my neck until you got me those things...") Professor Leonide refuses to announce himself before coming in since "if I allowed myself to be announced I doubt I would be received anywhere" Van Ee lets us know Leonide (his cousin) helped pepper the house with secret panels when he was a "patient" there before the war. It was ostensibly so the guards could spy on the inmates, yet Leonide used one of the panels to escape! Who'd have thought!? Lilybeth drops dead after trying to blindfold Laura (her big phobia!) while in a hypnotic trance. She is then is revived by Leonide only because he can see that Bull "truly loves... this girl." Which is itself hilarious, and Lugosi knows it. Throughout his observations re: the women in the scene are bronzed in iron: he wryly calls Jane "delightful" and advises Lee "take good care... of her" and when Van Ee tells him Leonide he'll be staying in the room right next to Laura's, Van Ee adds, "I know you'll like that." Why or how is never elaborated. Alas!

And what does Lilybeth know, that she taunts Laura about the man in the green mask ("I let him in! Maybe he's here right now, Miss Lavalle!")

These crazy quotes are just off the top of my head, but I could write you out the whole script and get the same surreal buzz transcribing Joyce, Beckett, or Nat Perrin. That's why my heart always sinks when I hear strange canned/echo-drenched French accented voice for the first time that announces Renee is ready to perform the magic act that acts as the film's climax. Hidden in some secret passage while speaking to the gathered players, he sounds not unlike Mel Welles' crab consciousness in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). There's no real build-up for this 'climax' and Laurette's past betrayal, odious thought it may be. In that weird sense, it's hard to find something genuinely scary or punishable. Past crimes don't resonate as well as seeing her kill someone new. Had post-war audiences seen enough murder?

No. Film noir was fading out, 50s drive in sci-fi was about to fade in. In between there was only Scared to Death, the missing link in a chain that connects Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired wartime 'horror-comedy' (ala the underrated Boogeyman will Get You) with the psychosexual Freud/Kinsey flood of the late 50s-60s ala Suddenly Last Summer, Lilith, Three Faces of Eve, Psycho, Repulsion and Robert Bloch's semi-remake of Cabinet of Caligari (1962) starring Glynnis Johns (below).

Actually Scared and the 1962 Caligari would make a fine double bill, allowing us to consider the 15 year gap between them just how readily the population flux in the wake of the Second World War led to the frustrations of the 50s housewife, forced to give up her riveting job and stay home with the kids. If unable to find recourse in satisfying sex lives or a posse of hyper-active children, she turned to murder and madness. Electro-shock and lobotomies, hysterectomies and, if all else failed, they may well escape, to a place where birth control and liberation from the confines of male 'protection' might be feasible, i.e. Maine.

This is all just beginning to happen in 1947, where we find Laura in Scared to Death. Her Paris-under-occupation hypnotist act is in the past and now she has no role other than scheming bitch wife. So she hides in hr room, freaks out over branches at the window, stands up to cryptic threats from her father-in-law, and harasses the household staff. AND YET! Laurette/Laura is, a trailblazer -- her paranoia and madness, like a slowly gathering storm, will move across the warm ocean to the Freudian 50s, the bra-burning 60s, and finally blossom into a full on 70s women's lib typhoon!



What makes Scared resonate as indoor-child beloved art is its ability to be seen again and again, each new viewing doing little to shed light on the cryptic allusions to war crimes never fully elaborated on. I recently saw Dinner at Eight (1933) for the zillionth time and this time what I noticed was how the good old days before the Crash are recalled so glowingly it illuminates the desperate straits of the present, of aging and death in general --as if remembering bright lights helping ease the descent into darkness. Scared to Death could almost be Dinner's deadpan satirical inverse. For Scared to Death  it's the reverse, focusing on the bright present to avoid the murky past, trying not to look back to the darkness of the Second World War, to--at least between Leonide and cousin Joseph--let bygones be bygones, and trade the self-destructive intellectual gamesmanship of old Europe for the mire of grinning middle class American New World idiocy. But, they spend their time itching for something to happen, trying to generate tension with screams and faints, almost grateful that Rene with his green mask and back from Europe for revenge motif has come to leaven the small town sameness. Instead of Dinner at Eight-style monologues about the good old days, everyone plays their pasts as cards close to the vest and then, the big reveal as collaborators are ferreted out by presumed-dead concentration camp escapees, i.e. dinner is cancelled. But Desert is served.


If yer scared of a little Caligari semi-remake, you should also see on a double bill with The Awful Truth (with which it shares two actresses- above - each playing a Cary Grant rebound (hint: Joyce Compton sings "Gone with the Wind"). Like Scared to Death, Awful Truth gets better and better as the layers of cool little termite moments are shuckered loose from their deceptively shallow shells. As I point in my award-skipping 2003 film The Lacan Hour there are so many "Momento Mori" skulls, masks, and head effigies in Scared one can't help but read the obvious meaning behind them, and the meaning is that obvious meaning itself has no meaning. The quick dick pic sketched and pocketed by Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski is the ultimate in phallic signifiers when using this yardstick to measure. 

Of course in order to 'get' this truth, you need to have seen Scared to Death so many times it ceases to make sense at all. Is staying indoors, strung out on allergy medicine, watching this film obsessively, over and over, a kind of secret pathway to post-structuralist enlightenment? Or is it  a living death which, nonetheless, like the lowering of the shroud, may bring air conditioned peace? (3) See it on a triple bill with the 1962 Caligari and Antonioi's Red Desert  -in that order, while comfortable and, ideally, alone and strung out... See if I'm wrong! 

I know I'm not alone in loving this cockeyed caravan of a film: shout outs to renowned raconteur d'horreur classique David Del Valle (though even he admits it's "not Voodo Man") and a thanks and RIP to my old Scarlet Street mentor, Ken Hanke, who steered me to the best available transfer of this often-crappy PD title back in 2000 (PS, it's the 1999 Sling Shot DVD w/ Devil Bat "The Bela Lugosi Collection - Vol. 1" - worth getting, as the colors are upgraded and the detail is sharp. I think you can get it for $8 on Amazon -- yer welcome. )

and many the Woodisan gems from:

1. Weldon, Michael Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983)
2. See: At Long Last Lost Lewtons
3. Allergy sufferers know that 'air conditioning season' usually signals the end of allergy trouble. What pollen remains is filtered out of the air during the AC process and for those of us with Nordic blood and allergies who hate humidity and heat, air conditioning + Bela Lugosi = nirvana.  

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Suki in the Salton Sea (Escape from Burning Man): THE BAD BATCH, FUTURE WORLD

British model-turned-capable actress Suki Waterhouse has become indie cinema's de-facto psychedelic-sampling post-Burning Man desert wasteland wanderer thanks to two very similar post-apocalyptic films from this and last year, each with a hip pedigree and interesting touches that seem to stem from some writer's mind-blowing but alienating experiences from when Burning Man was still cool --Future World and The Bad Batch. I may be wrong but the comparison between Burning Man's metallic desert sun-gleaming fire effect neopagan artsy-gritty subculture and the aesthetic of the Mad Max series is so apparent it's hard not to wonder--after being sufficiently dosed/altered/mind-blown via whatever substance you happen upon (sources tell me toad secretions are 'in' again), wonder if Mel Gibson might tied up inside the big burning man, like Nic Cage in the Wicka Wicka Man. Apparently, filmmakers be going to the Burning Man and be going, man, I see Suki Waterhouse in the shimmer.

And let us not forget 90s trip-hop! Portishead shalt never die. Thus, Suki Waterhouse, once cast, shall look slowly around in slow motion to some really low end fuzzy bass, man--all deep deep deep down in the spinning world void man--lots of hair billowing in slow motion and colored lights flashing and a sense of unity with the night or the groove. Or wait, man - the night and the groove are one. I star see, I mean I see far... stars.. star-see... I see stars I mean seen sea and seen stars sea.

Dig it. Max would never be able to stay Mad with all that weird kinetic lysergic hydration in the wind. On the other hand, without the druggy raves, the vibe of these two recent apocalyptic world movies can seem more Fyre Festival than Burning Man, albeit after the richer kids have finagled a ride out and only the scrabble survivors are left, de facto homeless seen in low tracking shots. Nodding off on busted spring, legless outdoor couches and piles of trash, filth-encrusted wanderers stopping to either accept or offer single flowers to urchins; zonked cult leaders DJ-ing or coordinating fights to the death in an empty pool; stray acts of cannibalism and kindness; hardscrabble civilization reduced to a Dead show parking lot barter system; and whomever holds the water rights being in the band, and whomever has gas for a dirt bike shall run the equivalent of roughshod over the devil's yellow umber kingdom. Each film makes fine use of the peculiar desolation and meth-pocked tracts of the Salton Sea. Burned-out dispirit infects both films like a case of crabs, until hot Suki gambols into town to restore a sense of high fashion. Let the lamp affix its beam! 

In FUTURE WORLD (2018) the ever-sketchy James Franco serves as co-director and producer/star, giving himself the dirt bag / dirt-bike-riding bad guy villain role of "Warlord" (which comes with godawful yellow-brown veneers he never gets tired of showing off). Leader of a marauding gang of bikers and outlaws, he controls the only robot left in the world, Ash (Waterhouse), a foxy, high-fashion killer android mix of Angelina Jolie in Cyborg 2, Pris in Blade Runner, Eva in The Machine, and SIRI (Warlord gives her commands by speaking into his remote). Once killer Ash is up and running, and dressed (in perfectly-fitted and stressed haute couture fatigues), Warlord shows her off by first ordering her to snog with, then strangle, one of his drooling gang. It's kind of self-defeating, he needs every warrior he can get, and rather slimy--but Suki's contented focus as she chokes the life out of a snickering misogynist type is, of course, satisfying to all concerned.

While Warlord and his gang roam the wasteland on their dirt bikes, far away at a spa-like desert oasis all is a sunny paradise... just waiting to be despoiled... by a well-armed biker gang. Fisher queen (Lucy Liu) is dying, and her dangerously naive son, "the prince" (Jeffrey Wahlberg - Mark and Donnie's nephew) decides to ride his own dirt bike off into the wasteland. He's seeking "Paradise," a rest stop that's supposed to have a cure for her ailment. Of course he's bound to lose his bike, his cash, his gun, and everything once he ill-advisedly stops off at the Snoop Dogg-operated, shock-collar sex worker-staffed 'Love World' to ask directions. Betrayed, tricked, suckered, beaten up, stretched over and over by the neck until he finally gives Warlord directions back to that cushy Oasis (apparently no well-organized desert outpost can stand up to six dudes on motorbikes). Luckily for the story, during pretty cool tracking shot ride through the desert, with Suki actually on a real bike, she switches to the prince's side and attacks the gang. It's then that the real action begins. Then is over.

Like a lot of the film, her defection skips over the how and why involved. This is a film that assumes you've seen 'the canon' of both AI and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It fills in what those other films lacked and doesn't bother covering any familiar ground. 

The scene stealer of the film is Milla Jovovich as the queen of Paradise. She does the manic speed freak psycho nutter trip better than most I've seen and her big slap-down with Franco once Warlord and his boys catch up to Ash and Prince is pretty unforgettable. On the other hand, Milla's 'World' (above) seems to be just a blown-out old Salton Sea-sided health club, now just a concrete foundation, some beams, an empty pool, some window frames (most glass long gone) and some "rooms," one of which operates as a kind of meth/heroin/MDMA lab (?) with all sorts of cures and remedies somehow churned out of a few test tubes in a lab so bare it would shame Dr. Eric Vornoff's in Bride of the Monster. There's also an under-directed and lifeless cage match inside the empty pool, wherein a few denizens of the place stand silently around, forgetting they're supposed to be cheering or banging on pots. Hey Franco, I know y'all have seen Escape from New York and Beyond Thunderdome or we wouldn't be here. Was the shoot too hard for you to maintain enthusiasm? Only Milla seems alive; her eyes alone make the film worth a late night nod.

Even so, at times I was ready to write this FUTURE off as a waste of talent with a few shine-through performances and moments. But, then, Ash finds love, not with the Prince but SPOILER - with another girl! Lei (Margarita Levieva) is the lonely cool lesbian tech who patches Ash up and they're the ones who come together. Their love is the future worth fighting for. They even stop by Snoop's on their way back through 'town' to separate him from his shock button so the girls can kick the shit out of him (so be sure and watch to the end of the credits).

If the cliches and the ugliness of Franco's teeth are to be overcome, it's going to be through this surprise coupling and, something that may be just as valuable: there's the idea Ash and the prince can have a strong bond, beyond loyalty or even siblinghood, where sex doesn't enter into it (i.e. he's not sulky or heartbroken he doesn't score with his hot model robot friend). The straight girl / gay boy friendship in cinema is by now so lionized and holy it is beyond reproach, but the straight boy / lesbian version has been oft-maligned (and as a past sponsor of lesbian AA-ers, it always irked me).  

Finally, maybe, our time has come... in the future!  (END SPOILER)

SUPER SUKI MOMENT: Near the 1 hour 18 min 30 sec mark--during the climactic chase--Suki dismounts a spinning out motorbike by corkscrewing herself into a vertical position via a reverse twirl as the bike spins beneath her, done with such ease of serpentine hip movements--keeping her neck and back fluid and long the whole way--it's like this former top model is strutting the catwalk. From the start of her sharp turn /skid-out on through to walking back towards her quarry there's not a moment when she's not H2T fierce. This girl is so cool and graceful the camera barely knows how to capture her. Did the director even notice how damned cool she was in this moment?

FORMATIVE BURNING MAN CONVEYANCE: I visualize the idea for this film coming while someone was zipping around the outskirts on a noisy dirt bike, high on mushrooms, imagining being a marauding Viking from the future coming in to pillage.

THE BAD BATCH (2017) is the second feature from Iranian skateboarder Anna Lily Amirpour, and marks a return to all the things that made Girl Walks Home Alone so unique: genuinely trippy rave scenes; fingers in mouths (Amirpour's choice form of erotic contact); skateboards (her choice mode of transport); and White Lines (her choice of 80s bands), and the way falling in love means sticking by someone even when they eat you (Batch) or drink your father (Girl). Suki Waterhouse is Arlen, an unsmiling southern-accented girl in smiley face yellow shorts who finds herself exiled to a vast and semi-hostile desert that serves as a hybrid of Manhattan in Escape from New York (or LA) and Trump-era Mexico. Immigrants, crooks, radicals, hippies, i.e. America's 'bad batch,' are thrown across the fence into the zone. The desert seems to have enough sources of water (not sure where) to keep things going and there are copious drugs and free acid, but then cannibals and free-roaming marauders on the outskirts of some cool welcoming oasis. Almost everyone she meets seems more interested in foxy Arlen as a source of food rather than sex. She goes from being kept alive only as so much livestock, slowly dismembered for irregular meals by a loose cadre of taciturn desert families, to escaping while lying on back of her skateboard (one leg and one arm already gone), to rescued by an unrecognizable Jim Carrey and delivered to Comfort (the hydrating druggie enclave), to kidnapping of one of the cannibal's children and killing his wife, to becoming an incumbent sister wife to 'the Dream' (Keanu Reeves) in a mansion with AC, a pool, cocktails, and endless drugs, and onwards. We never learn where she got the artificial leg, or how it just happened to fit her. Or where she gets a gun. But she seems to do all right for herself in Comfort in the space of a single dissolve. Hey, it's her business how she came by all these goodies or how it happens that drugs flow plentiful everywhere (the cannibals even shoot Arlen up to ease the pain before cutting off her limbs). Maybe that's a gift from the America that rejects them? Did Amirpour think any of these things through.

The film kicks into weird gear when Arlen wanders out into the desert on LSD and bumps into one of her cannibal assailants, Miami Man (Momoa) who's looking for the daughter, not knowing Arlen stole her and shot his wife, or maybe he figures it's fair since his family ate half her limbs. 

It doesn't make any sense, but hey - Arlen likes those muscles, leading to an ending that's straight-up Morocco, if you get the thirsty drift.

Suki receives lysergic communion

Luckily, Suki again hits the ground running: her uneducated southern yokel accent is usually spot on; her terror, trippy wonder, and courage are all vividly etched on her perfect features. She's the kind of model-turned-actress where you don't get the feeling--as you kind of do with the hot warlord wives in Mad Max: Fury Road--that they just flew in from Belize and haven't had a real post-apocalyptic day in their lives. She may be gorgeous but she also looks like she's present.  Jim Carrey is also good ass the saintly old mute hermit, his skin blackened to leather by the sun, wearing cardboard slit glasses to reduce the glare, shuffling slowly from one lone piece of shade to the next, never seeming to die of dehydration. As the cult leader, Keanu Reeves, one of those few sterling actors who seem cumulatively saintly nowadays, gives us a rare side of himself too: slightly soft around the edges, big black mustache and tinted shades and evoking a touch of Jason Molina in Boogie Nights albeit if he was flanked like Manson with armed female harem (flash forward 10 years, and he could be Fury Road's War Daddy).

Caveats and irregularities aside, the flea market art direction is sublime: the dwellings really do look like junk, the dumps look truly toxic. It can't possibly smell good there. Amirpour nails the way language vanishes in the haze when people bargain human captive meat supplies for gasoline cans. 

And after all that suffering in the first half, just seeing Arlen with a cool blue drink in her hand and an enraptured look on her face, brings tears to one's eyes. With her Iranian outsider's eye cast towards America's consumer society--the divide between the rich and the poor, young and pretty, hungry and fed, showered and filthy, old and withered--I'm sure it's tempting to just be relentlessly downbeat and judgmental, but Amirpour's film is full of stray grace notes. She's like Claire Denis balanced by Agnes Varda. Still, the cannibalism as capitalism metaphor is mighty weary, even for the French!

But as with Future World's 'big' desert dance party, the highlight is the editor's intensive use of delay-trail imagery for drug trips. Between these two films and Mandy the year of 2018 seems to have arrived at the place I used to dream of around the start of this site back in 2003. I dreamt that one day psychedelics would be seamlessly integrated into film and therefore society. I dreamt of a time they would be not demonized or glorified, but accepted as both a heightening of and escape from reality. I dreamt of a time they would make a path for film to unmoor from our stodgy structuralist signifier chains and see the world anew, all labels and reductivist shortcuts temporarily lifted, making us, in a sense, children (or schizophrenics), or Godard, that drugs would make post-structuralist cinema in the mainstream in ways it hadn't been in this country since 1968. Alas, the devil's bargain of the poison path is that the sudden drive and vision to change the world quickly succumbs the torpor and derangement that keeps us from doing anything about it. Thus the vision for a post-structuralist cinema usually becomes yet another psychedelic rave scene that goes nowhere but to the inevitable hangover and disorientation of the following day.

Even Armirpour's vivid depiction of rave-desert sky freedom is undercut in BATCH when Arlen is given a silly voiceover inner dialogue narration while wandering the starry desert high on a Comfort tab. "Wow, it's so big... is that what it always looks like?" Oy vey!

In fact, this creates in a way a kind of opposite reaction to any sense of proxy wonder in the viewer. Prior to it, we're kind of an Antonioni/Jess Franco amnesiac cinema headspace. Signifiers are gone. When a drifter materializes out of the horizon heat shimmer, we don't know if they are friend or foe, whether they are going to eat Arlen, help her, or ignore her. As I discuss in Amnesiac Cinema, this taps into the European language gap, which inadvertently makes Europe more susceptible to emerging trends in art. American viewers aren't used to this sort of thing, they need orchestral cues and ominous foreshadowing to tell them who is who, unless they're cool, as in broad-minded, psychedelically 'experienced' or globally inclined. As in the best parts of Amirpour's previous film, A Girl Walks Home Alone, a blessed unknowingness overtakes us watching The Bad Batch. But with the acid voiceover, however, we're suddenly situated in language's prison..

Waterhouse really brings the knowing tripping-at-Burning-Man starry desert night sway to it all though, which helps. When she finds herself gyrating against the heaving muscles of Somoa, that she would forgive him for eating half her limbs makes sense. A lot of us would give it all up to follow Suki into the desert, even after she eats our hearts. That's death is for a purpose - ex fictione verum. 

In the meantime, we can always dance. It's the ones who never stop dancing in Climax, after all, that don't get into any self-immolating mischief. Until the hungry ghosts swoop in. And unless you hide even farther out past the fences, they always do.

Holding a gun to the belly of one of the pregnant sister wives in order to rescue Miami Man's daughter, all without changing her deadpan expression (above).

Zipping around the festival perimeter on a golf cart while zonked on martinis and LSD, winding up getting lost in the desert at night, driving around in circles, looking up at the stars, wishing her skateboard could roll on sand.

Sorry if this trip proved meaningless, man. By the 100th trip, no matter how much toad secretion and shrooms and MDMA we guzzle, or how cool and slyly gorgeous is our navigator, it's just not the same Burning Man. Just the name "Burning Man" used to pack a Summerisle-ish cult edge that if you were tripping hard enough gave you an uneasy chill. If you went, you worried the man being burnt alive that night might well be you. If you were high enough, it became a certainty. The paranoia was good for you, as the burning man was you- your old self- in effigy, leaving you free, soul cleaned of barnacles. 

This year, the man might not be a man at all - why not a woman? And can she be holding a Sprite can?

And then, just Ash wondering if there'll even be a wind left for her dust.

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