Monday, August 12, 2019
Air Auda Beya Lah: THE BEACH BUM (2019)
One of a trio of neo-'head' movies (along with CLIMAX and MIDSOMMAR) that marks 2019 as the year psychedelics became the new weed and weed became a nootropic, THE BEACH BUM signals the return to the ever-in-style bad boy auteur Harmony Korine, his stoned-ass hour has come! All three films make a successful conscious effort to capture the highs and lows of the psychedelic experience, in an array of settings (Climax being the worst trip ever; BUM being the best, MIDSOMMAR moving between both like Jacob's ladder angels), to not just use drugs to tell a story but to make the viewer feel like they are on those drugs, either via remembrance of one's own experience or -- well, I can't imagine the other way, would people watching these films who've never done drugs 'get off' from them or would it just seem like a bunch of idiots cavorting around in loud circles?
Furthering the sunglasses and turquoise Florida ecstasy-dilated forward kinetic momentum of his 2012 masterpiece Spring Breaker, Korine also shows his age. He's too old to party with college kids by now - so rather than oversexed coke dealers with pianos on verandas he's put himself in the headspace of an old stoner, sans guns, unless you count poetry as violence, and the occasional cold cocking a cripple with a beer bottle as somehow deserving of legal repercussion. Moondoggie doesn't. Sailing with the ocean wind at full speed, damn the too torpedoed to keep up with the headlong momentum of a poetic madman on an everything that comes his way binge, swapping out Saint Pete for the party-hearty Key West. Which is a 24/7 raging town where everyone knows and loves the Moondog (no relation to the famous NYC street musician - except perhaps subliminally). Once a literary lion, now a sun-trippin' chronic-bong-rippin' alleycat, Moon spends his days fishing on his crazy Rube Goldberg-does-gravity-bong-hits houseboat with a few naked girls, and at home with an understanding maid who helps him up when he passes out on the floor. Welcome to drop in on any party, make out with anyone's girlfriend, or rush anyone's stage, Moondog's wise enough to never bring bad vibes to his transgressive personal space invasions. He makes 'the Dude' seem uptight and reminds me of my previous parlay with enlightenment (see my 2012 Galactic Awakening and its ensuing poetry here). It's the kind of good vibrations awfully hard to maintain once reality sniffs you out like a police dog and sinks its judgy-wudgy fangs into your tender fetlock. Fame sure helps keep that dog leashed though, allowing the Moondog to sashay through life as if it's his own private dream where he only he knows he's dreaming.
Maybe he is, maybe we're seeing people's reactions to his antics through his own rose-colored shades, and there might be a different movie, through the eyes of a sober, weary soul who just wants to drink in peace, for whom Moondoggies' antics are just tiresome reminders of how much less 'fun' such behavior actually is (forcing the witness to re-evaluate how charming booze actually makes him). We see a bit of it in the way he does judge his daughter for marrying a straight-edge dillweed, but it should be clear enough to him why his daughter is so hungry for structure.
And indeed, it seems like a dryly self-aware fantasy for delusional poets, those of us who surrendered the dream of being the next Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson shortly after realizing the real world had no space for such people anymore, except as small chapbook distributing visiting professors who spend half the year traveling the country giving readings at tiny bookstores. In real lifethere's simply no more room in the pantheon of greats for us - the living rockstar poets of today, man. Times have changed, man. The idea that anyone could be famous for poetry in a party town like Key West is itself a fantasy, like going platinum for your self-produced album of mostly in-key acid rock jams.
In case you can't tell by my veiled bitterness, I had a mild taste of 'the' life back in Syracuse back in the late-80s and NYC in the early-90s, when I was doing radio and TV voiceovers; a time when someone like Maggie Estep could still get on MTV (so there was hope/ for us all / to rise / like dough / on flour-strewn boards / the rolling pin and the proving / the open mic salted but not too soured / over thyme, etc.), but I needed far too much chemical enhancement to stay that positive for more than a few months straight without winding up getting strep throat or a massive flu (impossible to avoid up in Syracuse where the snow never melts and the heaters carry molds stretching back to the dawn of time). But I talked the talk and walked the walk, and I knew the Moondogs, and loved the drugs and sometimes could even stand listening the Grateful Dead or reading Wallace Stevens, But that's the genius of Moondog, he sails through life irregardless of the clammy claws of the social order. Even stripped of his riches, he finds wealth in an endless assortment of local color with which to run wild, never judging the violent anymore than the righteous. Even forced into rehab, he finds a way to handle it - to just break out at the first opportunity and go deep underground. A real outlaw.
Matthew McConaughey is brilliant in the lead, playing an extension of the character he'd already perfected to the point of godliness 26 years ago in 1993's Dazed and Confused, the Zen floater on currents of non-focalized amorphous fraternal love and bliss that make him able to pull down complex poetically-phrased thoughts that stun and reduce his pot-struck cronies to near tears. We see how he's tapped into the same divine hedonistic source that made him so deft at pulling the tachyon potentiality strings that alerted his daughter to his presence behind the bookshelf in Interstellar (see 'Space is the Place: Sun Ra vs. Mathew McConaughey). He's a high brother. He reminds me of me in college, of course, thanks to the band I was in; I too had a rep where I never had to pay for drinks or covers, and would sell xeroxed copies of my chapbook for $1 each, and was welcome on any stage, to improv poetry over jams from my fellow bands, at least for a few years. All that went away of course, and its absence crushed me like an empty can, almost sending me on that long swim until Night of the Iguana saved my life. But I would have loved to show my dad this movie as if to say "see dad! You can get rich on poetry and unemployment."
Still, in the end it's a fantasy to imagine anyone could make enough money on a book of poetry to be able to please a cash-guzzling southern "literary agent." Coupled to this willfully fantasy-tinged view of the lucrative world of publishing (no doubt a beard for filmmaking itself, and the agent and friends' needling to finish his book being the rub that it's been so many years since party animal Korine's last movie), is the idea that with enough weed you can float past the consequences of busting out of a court-mandated rehab, stealing a boat and going on a wild crime and auto theft bender spree with a vaping felon (a thugged-out Zac Effron), breaking a bottle over a crippled man's head as he steers home in his electric wheelchair and robbing him, all without it affecting your pristine beach karma, because you're so filthy rich and famous it's an honor to be cold-cocked, like how it was once considered 'in fashion' to be robbed by Jean Genet. So though the cops are after him, the Dog never serves time or is caught - putting on women's clothes for the rest of the film (and what clothes, like he's Gloria Swanson on her 50th honeymoon) seems too make him invisible to cop eyes. Fleeing to his house in the Keys seems to wipe clean his slate. As with the ending of Taxi Driver, or the little 'ride to jail' escape dream shard by Edward Norton in Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, we've, somewhere along the line, crossed over into wish fulfillment fantasy.
One aspect of the brilliance of Korine's work, stretching back to his script for Larry Clark's seminal Kids (1995), is that he trusts his audience to navigate this kind of deceptive murk as it were the clear water of a tropical beach, that hides broken glass and invisible jelly fish -- which sting you without the music on the score changing from happy beach jams. He gives us in The Beach Bum, as he did in Spring Breakers, a morally bankrupt antihero on a truly endless summer, encouraging us to identify without emulation, to get a feel for the kinetic freedom of those willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the bliss of the moment, unattached to possessions so much as seeking intoxicants and never saying no to weird opportunities, nor even judging people's actions as right or wrong, to not go on a crime spree after seeing the film's ostensible heroes commit crimes and get away with them.
There's a brilliant druggy breathy moment between college students Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson (who funded their trip south by robbing an all-night cafe), and James Franco (the drug kingpin of "Saint Pete", who bailed them out when they got busted for drugs in their hotel room during their initial massive coked-out orgy) - the three are all twisted up in a weeklong naked threesome on beds of money, guns, and drugs, when suddenly the girls grab a gun and stick right in Franco's face, as if to say, sucker, we got you now, and are going to take all his cash and split. Franco is we're expecting to either get pissed off or panic, but he quickly brings himself back into the moment and starts fellating the gun. Is this something they improvised? Either way, it's brilliant - all with repetitive whisper ASMR whispery drug/sex talk. It's that kind of kinetic in-the-moment response that earns our admiration and makes both Breakers and Bum work as twin masterpieces of duplicating the best highs of the drug experience, they are the corbeille américaine nouvelle vague - as accomplished in their heedless momentum as Truffaut's one-two punch of 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player at the dawn of the swingin' early 60s. Of course those weren't separated by seven years in which Truffaut only managed to make two music videos. But there were so fewer drugs floating around then. The best one could do was expired US Army amphetamines and endless wine. God knows the shit Korine's been doing, it probably doesn't even have a name yet, just a molecular number.
There is a moment early on when, to inherit his share of his late wife's millions, Moondog must first publish his long-delayed new book of poetry. To motivate him, he's totally cut off, and even kicked out of their Miami mansion, essentially forced to look for hand-outs as he bums around with his typewriter in a pillowcase. Then, he's arrested and forced into a 12-month rehab but he escapes after a few days and never looks back, nor does he have to! Between that and the way his rather dubious poetry is so highly regarded that he can stagger up to the podium at the Pulitzer Prize award dinner and babble about his cock and be embraced like a scruffy saint, his daughter now laughing at his jokes again, his cash released and presented to him in a giant slab, lets you know this is the kind of fame imagined by a stoned poetry class freshmen ranting at his school's open mike nights, but he rants / to no avail.
To no avail.
But I know these Moondog types, I partied with them, and it's certainly true that they liven up their corner of the scene. As long as you don't expect coherence or to be your own center of attention, you're bound to have a good time when they're around. Certainly they're no mooches, unless they don't happen to have anything, which they seldom do as they're too generous with it so it's gone very fast (Jesus with the loaves and fishes they ain't). Still, we understand why Snoopp would give him a plane, a massive wad of cash, and a wheelbarrow full of weed, to make his getaway when the law closes in on Snoop's pleasure palace. At the same time, none of his new friends ever proves hard for the Dog to leave when he gets the least bit bored or called off on his magical road. He end up never having to shoehorn a glommer off of his leg, which alas happens quite often in real life. Everyone is as welcoming as they are understanding of the cosmic forces which draw him thither (or they're just happy to see him go).
On the other hand, for every one of the charming Dogs there are about 100 mooches. Magically, Moondog never attracts such needy barnacles. After I graduated I'd drift back to that scene and there was a would-be Moondog (but really just a joneser townie) named Doug E. Fresh (who actually looks a lot like MM does here, as far as facial hair, but with that angular, starving dog face so familiar to those of us whose parents could afford braces or complex proteins). He didn't do poetry but he did have raps, which were the nu-poetry in 1991, and he'd never stop reciting them. You'd hear him recite the same lame rhyme flow over and over through the night as he hit on each new girl at the party. I'm sure, in his mind, he thought he was as irresistible as Moondog, but that's the genius of having McConaughey in the role. Swap him out with, say, Robert Wuhl, Ethan Hawke, or Eric Schaeffer and see if he gets the same howda ya do without it feeling like someone is buying him friends. (1)
I can't spoil the ending, nor do I want to give up many plot points since there are so few of them - let's just say that he walks it likes he talks it, and no amount of challenges in his late wife's will can prevent him from doing just as he pleases, whether that includes leading a chorus of homeless inside his wife's and his pearly gates, to go swimming and then trash his own living room (shades of 2017's Mother!) or celebrating... something by a kind of ritualistic self-immolation (and Korine loves to film outsider derelicts smashing rich people furniture, a tribute to his beloved Werner Herzog, and perhaps Bunuel).
It's all just a dream anyway, so why not do as thou wilt? Jonah Hill's accent as the super rich literary agent lets you know just how much of a fantasy this is, especially in this day and age. The only literary agent living that high on the hog today is JK Rowling's.
As I get older and older, the kind of in-the-moment hedonism, McConaughey displays here leaves me feeling both assured and slightly lost, not that I didn't get enough of a taste for that kind of life in my prime, but that I could never sustain it for long. Other people in my group could ride it all the way, and in some ways that wave is only now beginning to break. I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall during this shoot to see just what they were all smoking, if they actually smoked that much. Like Nick Charles with his drinking, one can really only smoke so much pot without hitting a kind of plateau and either crawling over to the TV to waste the rest of the day, crashing onto the beach, or going into a paranoid heart-racing tailspin. Nick's drinking consumption would probably kill a normal human being but it's a kind of fantasy of excess. Especially in this day and age, weed has become so strong most of us can barely handle more than a single hit or two before reaching that breaking point wherein it's no longer fun.
I'm sure that's not true for all of us. Couple guys I know... they could. But they sure ain't about to write poetry. The biggest weed smoker I know did get one to write memoirs, with my encouragement, when he was in jail, and he was a natural with lots of sharply-observed details. But he didn't have access to weed then, I assume. He stopped writing once he resumed smoking.
Thank god then, there's a man like Moondog, out there smokin' and livin' a dream.
Where will the crabs go,
when there's no more crotches like his?
A key element of Korine's mise-en-scene here is pace. For all its momentum, Spring Breakers would up in plenty of circular eddies, with sound bytes repeated over and over, like a breathy, coke shiver mantra, and dead ends like jail and the wearisome Catholic reticence of Selena Gomez. There's none of that here, just a forward march move of the Dog, so that even rehab seems like it's part of an incredible outlaw journey undertaken while stumbling genially forward. There's never a dead stop. We seldom, if ever, see Moondog either eat or sleep --he's never shown as starving, dizzy from lack of a decent meal, looking for a place to shit or pee, or throwing up from too much booze; he passes out once on the floor once early on, and his loving housekeeper rescues him but as soon as he's back on his feet he's off and rolling away the doobs.
Korine captures a very rare and difficult to do right interiority in his mastery of this style. Just as he did with Breakers, we're given the 'inside' view of a very high man. We don't get a 'true' external but we do sense that, with just a slight shift in the POV, Dog's antics might seem the height of uncool tragedy. We get glimpses of the underside to Moondog's shenanigans in the corners of frames sometimes, like the poor old lady in the wheelchair he sends flying across the veranda into wall while bounding into his daughter' wedding ceremony. It's okay because she's not really his mother, or something - and she's forgotten. We don't even see if anyone helps her back into her chair. Indeed, the way the other person in a chair we see is cold-cocked and robbed, we wonder if the Dog and/or Korine has an unconscious resentment against the physically impaired, which is uncool. On the other hand, there's his erstwhile dissing on the loathsome banality of his daughter's choice in husband, which he does right there on the wedding floor. On the other hand, he doesn't recognize him as the kind of straight edge type of spouse sought after by adult children of flaky drug-addled partying celebrity parents (ala Saffie in Absolutely Fabulous or Christian Bale in Laurel Canyon). In other words, her choosing a doofus is partially his fault.
What makes Korine's view unique, is that the Moondog gets away with it. Is it because he's a celebrity or because he's Matthew McConaughey?
A few years before I had my first drink there was a chapter on alcoholism in my middle school health class. Actually it was that textbook that inspired me to try and smoke weed for the first time, being up til then a depressive punk rock straight edge: on the very last page at the end they point out they quietly mention pot has no long-term negative effects and indeed might promote immunity health and that psychedelics have immeasurable therapeutic value when done in the right circumstances. Alcohol on the other hand was a poison en par with heroin as far as detrimental health value and erosion of competency. We learned on the other hand that, though weed made you stupid if done to excess, it was reversible. Quit smoking and all your brain cells would grow back.
In this health class was shown a movie on the dangers of booze we see is a girl in a high school play and she's a big success. On opening night and then during the curtain call, down the center aisle of the crowded assembly room comes drunk mom, in her bathrobe, staggering onstage to bring her embarrassed daughter a tattered flower bouquet, babbling into the mic about what a great daughter she is before crawling off to sleep in the wings. Ugh! We might also think of Norman Maine's drunken crashing of his wife's award speech (either at the Oscars or Grammys) in any of the Star is Borns). Seeing such naked sloppy attention grabbing is--in those films--not unlike lifting the rock off a bug nest, for the disease thrives in hiding, the alcoholic ideally (if they have stock on hand) seldom gets out of bed, unless it's to pee, throw up, or find the TV remote. Like a cat, most of an alcoholic's life is spent sleeping, as the digestive system (liver, pancreas, kidneys) tries to get some food value out of the onslaught of toxins thrown its way in lieu of regular meals.
My point is a fine one, as one who knows both the inside and outside of those sprees (for once I got sober, my dad's behavior--for he was a steady drinker--neither as drunk nor as sober as me--went back to being rather hard to take at times. Repetitive- he had a period of about 1-2 hours - from cocktail hour (4 PM) to maybe 8 or 9 PM, when his sparkle would wear off and the scintillating wit would kind of run out and go back to the same old stories, like a TV channel that runs out of new programming so just replays the shows from earlier in the evening. He'd laugh --in the same spots in the same way--at the same jokes (even the same enunciations!) he'd made the night before, and even the night before that. Whether it was waxing rhapsodically over the tenor of Montgomery Clift's work in Judgment at Nuremberg or extolling the virtues of Frost/Nixon, laughing in the exact spots time and again. I learned I could never be a movie usher, with the same film again and again on in the background. Good lord, I can't even imagine.
Dialing it back, anyway, my dad ceased to be annoying once I too was drinking. I know too the cushy inside of that - I know what it's like to be all warm with whiskey mixing heroic grandeur and emotional sweep into the blood, so that every flourish of your hands in time with the sweep of some Bernard Hermann passage feels as if you're conducting the whole of Odessa across the steppes, a one man Dr. Zhivago of emotion and scope all encapsulated into your every head turn. What's genius about Korine's and McConaughey's excellent work on the Bum is that it captures that rush of genius feeling without the need to either back it up with genuine brilliant diegetic poetry or anything like actual consequences. We're so conditioned to presume that with the wife's dying will edict about getting his act together coupled with the judge (who even confesses she "used to be a fan") remanding him to rehab, that he'll emerge with a haircut and a suit and we'll have the other polarity, which is what--if Korine was a 19 year-old screenwriting student at some generic writing workshop, he'd be told is important for character arc (I can just see the teacher drawing a big half-circle on the white board and gazing hopefully at Harmony like he's a precious little five year-old), workshopping it all down until it's another 28 Days (2000).
Clearly, Moondog needs no lessons in learning boundaries or how to open up to people, he can just do it while getting lit with Snoop Dogg (Here called 'Lingerie' so we don't get our 'dogs' mixed).
Cigarettes helped obscure how unattractive that all looks from far enough away. Now in bars you can see all the way across the room, and smell the way proximity in a small space while drinking and being flushed with drink leads to a boozy mist in the air that smells like a tang. Luckily, we have Korine here to remind us how wondrous it all looks from close enough we're on the inside looking out, and everything sure is beautiful. The jokes keep coming, from Moondog shaking off his jealousy before it can blossom (when he sees wife and Lingerie making out on the dock) and goes deep into the fountain, swimming around while masterfully keeping his drink always above the waterline; or his temporary affiliation with Martin Lawrence's hilarious 'swim with the dolphins' boat guide, who winds up leaping in to a pool of sharks by mistake and has his foot bit off (which Moondog helpfully tosses into the ambulance before ambling onwards).
In the end, bro. It's all good. It looks great. And it even ends in such a way as we expect movies to end, with millions caught up in empty explosions and a cat in jeopardy. And along the way, Matt McConaughey is so very much his stoner self he all but smokes the film right in front of you.
And the cat lives!
(Visit my own site of trippy poetry here)
For a nice chaser to the Moondog's shaggy antics, check out the paralyzing bad trip energy of Michael Cera in two underseen little gems from Chilean director, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus.
The other two psychedelic hits of the year: CLIMAX, and MIDSOMMAR
1. Astute readers will analyze my loathing for Doug E. Fresh as a kind of projected self-loathing anxiety (that I was the Doug E. Fresh, and not an erudite, occasionally coherent mix of Mick Jagger and Zoot (from the Electric Mayem). Just having to write all that judgy stuff up there kind of shows I still worry about that.
Ride on, Moondog - you never worry, or project, right down to your core of cores.