Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Suki of the Wasteland (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 desert-set films from this and last year, each with a hip pedigree and each with a lot of 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--after being sufficiently dosed/altered/mind-blown via whatever substance you happen upon (sources tell me toad secretions are 'in' again)--that you don't wonder if the big burning effigy might have Mel Gibson tied up inside it.

He's not. Sooner or later, it all devolves back down to 90s trip-hop. Even these two movies Suki is in.  Portishead, thou shalt never die. And Suki Waterhouse shalt looks slowly around in slow motion to some really low end fuzzy bass, man--whew 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 - the rest become 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, with whomever holds the water rights being the band, and whomever has gas for a dirt bike running the equivalent of roughshod over the devil's yellow umber kingdom. Each makes fine use of the peculiar desolation and meth-pocked tracts of the Salton Sea. Burned-out dispirit infects the films like a case of crabs, until the club pedigree is renewed, and hot Suki gambols into town to restore hot model beauty. 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 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 by ordering her to first snog with, then strangle, one of his drooling gang. It's kind of self-defeating and--in the first part, 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, far away at a desert oasis, all is a sunny paradise... just waiting to be despoiled. Fisher queen (Lucy Liu) is dying, and her dangerously naive son, "the prince" (Jeffrey Wahlberg - Mark and Donnie's nephew) decides to ride his dirt bike off into the wasteland seeking "Paradise", a stop that's supposed to have a cure. 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 by Ash, stretched over and over by the neck until he finally gives Warlord directions back to that cushy Oasis (and in this reality, no well-organized outpost can stand up to six dirty 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 sides, then the real action begins. Then is over.

Like a lot of the film, it 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. You've seen the best, now take a rest!

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 blown-out old Salton-sided health club foundation, with an empty pool, some window frames (most glass long gone) and some "rooms," operating 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 Ed Wood. There's an under-directed and lifeless cage match, 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 remote 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 maybe 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 moving dirtbike. As it spins to a halt in the sand, she kind of corkscrews herself into a vertical position via a reverse twirl, 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 the whole way, from the start of her skid on through to walking forward 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 zipping around the outskirts on a noisy dirt bike, high on mushrooms, imagining being a marauding Viking from the future coming in to pillage (shrooms also acting to short-circuit socially conditioned empathy and increase a sense of moral freedom - take it from me, if you want to feel fearless and ready for a battle, take a few shrooms!)

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); the 80s band White Lines (here playing over the end credits), 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 Mexico in the era of Trump. Immigrants, crooks, radicals, hippies, i.e. America's 'bad batch,' its problem children--anyone not willing to get with the neo-conservative paradigm--are thrown across the fence into the zone. The desert seems to have enough sources of water to keep things going, there are copious drugs and free acid, but then cannibals and free-roaming marauders, all 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), rescue and delivery to Comfort (the hydrating druggie enclave), to kidnapper of one of the cannibal's children and killing his wife, to an incumbent sister wife to 'the Dream' (Keanu Reeves) in a mansion with AC, a pool, cocktails, and endless drugs. We never learn where she got the artificial leg, or how it just happened to fit her. 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 a gun and artificial leg so easily or how it happens that drugs flow plentiful everywhere (the cannibals even shoot Arlen up to ease the pain before cutting off her limbs).

When Arlen wanders out into the desert on LSD, bumping into one of her cannibal assailants, Miami Man (Momoa) who's looking for his daughter. Even though she abducted her and shot his wife, he either doesn't know or 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 task running: her uneducated southern yokel accent usually spot on, her terror, trippy wonder, and courage 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. She may be gorgeous but she also looks like she's there. The most there thous is Jim Carrey as 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. 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 the War Daddy in Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Speaking of there, all throughout, the flea market art direction is sublime: the dwellings really do look like junk, the dumps look truly toxic. Amirpour nails the way language vanishes in the haze with people bargaining human captive meat supplies for gasoline cans. And, after all that suffering, just seeing Arlen with a cool blue drink in her hand and a face enraptured by drugs, almost brings tears to one's eyes. With a critique of American consumer society and the divide between the rich and the poor, young and pretty, hungry and fed, showered and filthy, old and withered, it's tempting to just be relentlessly downbeat but Amirpour's film is full of stray grace notes, 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, that one day psychedelics would be seamlessly integrated into film and therefore society, not demonized or glorified, but accepted as both a heightening of and escape from reality, a chance 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) and all via emerging post-structuralist cinema. Alas, the devil's bargain of the poison path is that with the vision to change the world comes the torpor and derangement that keeps us from doing anything about it. The vision for a post-structuralist cinema 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 what they want, if they're friend or foe, going to eat Arlen, help her, or ignore her. As I discuss in Amnesiac Cinema, this taps into the European language gap (which helps make the 'Tower of Babel' style countries and environments more susceptible to emerging trends in art) but American viewers aren't used to it, unless they're cool, as in broad-minded, psychedelically 'experienced' or globally inclined. As in the best parts of Amirpour's previous film, a blessed unknowingness overtakes us. 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. For some of us, the ones who love the glint of madness in a foxy lady's eye and don't need much else, beyond a beat, it would just be quite a party. Until the hungry ghosts swooped 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).

FORMATIVE BURNING MAN CONVEYANCE: 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. It's not the same as it was. 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 maybe this year, there'll even be a wind for her dust.

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