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

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 of the ever-in-style bad boy auteur Harmony Korine. His stoned-ass hour has come! All three films herald a popular un/conscious effort to capture the highs and lows of the psychedelic experience on film, in an array of settings and sets (Climax being the worst trip ever; Bum being the best, and Midsommar moving between both like Jacob's ladder angels). These film don't 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, 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 Breakers, Korine begins to show his age. He's too old to party with the club kids by now - so he's put himself in the headspace of an old stoner, who- like the Breakers folks, works the Flow Rider scene, albeit sans guns, unless you count poetry as violence, and if you think the occasional cold cocking a cripple with a beer bottle is somehow deserving of legal repercussion. Moondoggie (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't and if Harmony disagrees, he ain't 'breakin''. He and the 'doggie are sailing with the ocean wind at full speed and damned the too torpedoed to keep up with the headlong momentum of a poetic madman high on an everything that comes his way, and the guy filming him. Swapping out Breakers' Saint Pete for the party-hearty Key West - a 24/7 raging town where everyone knows and loves the Moondog (no relation to the famous NYC street musician - except perhaps subliminally), the mood is strictly amniotic and delusional. Here's a guy famous--in Florida no less--for being a poet. If that doesn't let you know Korine is fuckin' with you, nothing will.

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 to the couch if and when he passes out on the kitchen floor. Shidappens, bra. Welcome to drop in on any party, make out with anyone's girlfriend, or rush anyone's stage, Moondog keeps his buzz going by never bringing 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), the kind when the idea of a "you" starts to vanish and you be-come the world (scratching a tree or a neighbor instead of yourself when you have an itch, for example).

Alas, these kind of good vibrations are 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 only he knows he's dreaming. Shhhhh. A fantasy of drunken acceptance, this is life as a continuous surfing wave, powered and maintained by fame.

Maybe Moondog is dreaming (no one gets rich on 'poetry'), maybe we're seeing people's reactions to his behavior through his own rose-colored shades. There might be a different movie to be made if his antics were seen through the eyes of a sober, weary soul who just wants to drink in peace, a guy who views Moondog as just a tiresome reminder of how much less 'fun' such behavior actually is to those around. We see a bit of it in the way he judges 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, the Bum as a film seems like a dryly self-aware fantasy for delusional poets, those of us who surrendered the dream of being the next Bukowski or Ginsberg 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 to five bored housewives, only two of which buy the book. 

In real life, there's simply no more room in the pantheon of greats for the living rockstar poets of today, 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 'dog's 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; I'd end up with / strep throat or a massive flu / impossible to avoid up at SU / where the snow never melts but turns gray / and the heaters carry molds stretching back / to the oldest days. But I talked the talk and walked the walk, and I knew the Moondogs of Westcott Nation, and I loved the drugs--even the Mexican dirt weed which is all we could gt unless we knew a grower down in Cortland (and the only one I knew was the ex of a sometimes girlfriend)-- and sometimes I could even stand listening the Grateful Dead or reading Wallace Stevens, and I was always game to pretend. 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. He's A real outlaw!

Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as Moondog, but y'all knew that. 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), here he's also tapped into the same divine source that made him so deft at pulling the tachyon potentiality strings that alerted his adult daughter to his presence behind the bookshelf in Interstellar (see 'Space is the Place: Sun Ra vs. Mathew McConaughey). 

In a way, the Dog 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 couple of semesters/ All that went away of course, when the band broke up as the last members graduated, 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."

It may be a fantasy to imagine anyone could make enough money on a book of poetry, let alone enough to be able to please a cash-guzzling southern "literary agent" but if Harmony and Matt know this, they're keeping it to themselves (no doubt poetry here is 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). It's also unrealistic to presume you can bust out of a court-mandated rehab, steal a boat and go on a wild crime and auto theft bender spree with a vaping felon (a thugged-out Zac Effron), break a bottle over a crippled man's head as he steers home in his electric wheelchair and rob him, without it affecting your pristine beach karma. Maybe you're so filthy rich and famous it's an honor to be cold-cocked by you, 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! Norma Desmond on her 50th honeymoon-level sublime) makes 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. Reality is annihilated. No one is complaining. 

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; broken glass and invisible jelly fish lurk without the music on the score alerting you by changing from happy beach jams to ominous strings. Getting cut and stung is part of the Harmony experience. 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 other people's actions as right or wrong even if they affect them personally. Harmony dares us to not go on a crime spree after seeing the film's ostensible heroes commit crimes and get away with them. It's an answer to a question nagging Joeseph Breen's ghost since 1934. The answer is, go fuck yourself, Joe! You lose! 


There's a brilliant druggy breathy moment between spring breakin' college students Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson (who funded their trip south by robbing an all-night cafe), and James Franco as 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. Gasp! 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. The girls and we know, this is a match made in heaven, on a cloud a-fluff with 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. 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, finger-thick Gauloises, and endless wine. God knows the drugs Korine's been doing in these past seven years; they probably don't even have a name yet, just a molecular number via some dilated Berkley chemistry major. 

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, carried 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 finally laughing at his jokes again; his cash is even released and presented to him in a giant slab.

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 to share. They seldom do; they're too generous with whatever they do get, so it's gone very fast (Jesus with the loaves and fishes they ain't). They're happy to help you consume whatever you have though. Despite that freeloading spirit, 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. 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 further down his magical road. He ends up never having to pry a glommer off of his leg, which alas happens quite often in real life in the drug scene; everyone is understanding of the cosmic forces which draw him thither (or they're just happy to see him go).

In real life, for every one of the charming Dogs in the world, there are about 100 mooches. Magically, Moondog never attracts such needy barnacles. After I graduated I'd drift back to that SU scene on weekends and there was a would-be Moondog 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 we associate with townie burnouts). 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 the Moondog from doing just as he pleases, whether that includes leading a chorus of the homeless in the  trashing of his own living room (shades of 2017's Mother!) or celebrating freedom from attachments by a kind of ritualistic self-immolation (and Korine loves to film outsider derelicts smashing rich people furniture and other symbols, a tribute to his beloved Werner Herzog, and perhaps Bunuel).

I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall during this shoot to see if they were actually smoking that much weed and if so how many years did it take to film. 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. 

Maybe I speak only for myself. Couple guys I know... they could. But they sure ain't about to write poetry afterwards. The biggest weed smoker I know did 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 and writing about it.

Where will the crabs go,
when there's no more crotches like his?

A key element of Korine's success, if any, is an obsessive need for speed, for sharply observed moments tumbling after each other in a blithely stumble-forward cinematic momentum. Without this, Spring Breakers would wind 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 maybe but 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 as soon as she's out of frae. 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. 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; he doesn't recognize his part in this choice; that boring reliable dolts are often sought out 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 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? Take for an example of the other side of it all - Johnny Depp in the awful same-year (2019) The Professor. Depp plays a literature dude setting the people straight while coasting into a middle aged white man oblivion cock wave. See The Professor, and you see just how great Korine is at his job. Unlike Professsor's director Wayne Rogers, Korine would never have the Dog make grand, insufferably bourgeois self-congratulatory demands to "seize your f--cking existence, folks!" He'd rather show than tell. Rather smoke than berate. And if in the process we see just how unsightly it all may look if you don't have rose-tinted star-shaped shades on, that's just how it is, baby. You'll come around, and anyway the Dog'll be off on another adventure and you can start cleaning up and soon he'll be just a funny anecdote.

---

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 -you had to read between the lines but there it was). Alcohol, the book said 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 dope and all your brain cells would grow back. Alcohol, on the other hand, was brain damage. One step up from glue sniffing

In this health class the teacher also showed a movie on the dangers of booze in which we see a thing those of us with alcoholic parents might be rather used to already: in the story, there's girl acting in a high school play and she's a big success. On opening night, during the curtain call, down the center aisle of the crowded PTA-packed assembly room comes drunk mom, in her bathrobe, staggering onstage to bring her embarrassed daughter a tattered flower bouquet, babbling to the gasping throng about what a great daughter she is, before crawling off to sleep in the wings. Ugh! God only knows how well that must have come off in her head.

We might also think of Norman Maine's (above left) 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 not unlike lifting the rock off a bug nest, for we see the externals not the camaraderie and hilarity we'd see were we as drunk as he is, or that stage mom, or Moondog is high. I know 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. You only find out how un-all that is years later, when you see it parade before you in the next generation, while you are painfully sober - aware of all the problems, rippling through time, your 'merriment' has wrought upon the world.

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 direct-to-video male version of 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).

Cigarette smoke helped obscure how unattractive that all looks from far enough away. Now in bars you can see all the way across the room, which is not fun, and you can 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 combination doctor's office and dept. store cologne counter. Luckily, we have Korine here to remind us how wondrous the scene can be on the inside looking out. From Moondog shaking off his jealousy before it can blossom (when he sees wife and Lingerie making out on the dock), swimming around in the fountain 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), the amniotic sense of inevitable cool keeps flowing.

It even ends in such a way as we expect movies to end, with millions of dollars wasted 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 out from under you.


And in the end we are spared trite 'third road' solutions like in Depp's awful The Professor, because the Dog doesn't pretentiously demand you to 'shepherd your own life' or stand on your Dead Poets desk. The Dog doesn't want anything, not even millions of dollars. The dog just wants a blunt. And a kitty.


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 'magic' gems from Chilean director, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus. 
The other two psychedelic hits of the year: CLIMAX, and MIDSOMMAR
And MEDISTATION

And for more on debauched middle-aged SWMs giving the crowd one last finger before turning the mic over to... you know, everyone else:

Now bleed for Me: THE WRESTLER (2008)
An American Rohmer: Clint Eastwood's BREEZY (1973)
Men who Are Frozen: FOREVER YOUNG, CAPTAIN AMERICA, MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Beards of Bleak: THE ROAD, WINTER'S BONE
The Foxy, the Dead, and the Foxier: DEATH-PROOF (BL 1/08)
Fantasy Phallus Fallacy: SATURN 3 (1980)
Quixote Ugly: THE SWIMMER (1968)
The Flower People Screaming: DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)
You rolled, you really rolled: ROLLERBALL and a 70s Bloodsport Overview
Where's the Love, Man? THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Paters Horribilis: Hookers, Harvey, and a Man called Pollack: EYES WIDE SHUT
Totaled Recall: THE HANGOVER, WHO IS HARRY NILSSON? 
The Narcissistic Male Gaze: It's not you it's Me because I am You
Great Old Drunk Writers and their Big Black Death (12/07)
Charge of the White Elephant: POLLOCK (2010)
Bride of Bogartstein: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
Mendacity A-Go-Go: Liz vs. the Little Monsters (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF)
All Hail the New Flesh Keychain: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Born to be Childless (WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?)
The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANTE C'EST D'AMIER
Mid-Life Crisis Superstar: Humbert, LOLITA and the Bait/Switch Cycle
Butler of Orbs: THE MASTER, THE (2012)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Chop Wood, Carry Sponsors - The MAD MEN - Finale
Touched by a Locust: EXORCIST II, MANHATTAN BABY
A Great Hook: ROLLING THUNDER (1977 - Blu-ray review - BL 7/7/13)
Out HUD (New Years 2008)
Forgotten Men with Steam
All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives: Kubrick's LOLITA (BL)
In the Oui, Paul Hours: SOME CAME RUNNING, CONTEMPT
Procedurama!: PUBLIC ENEMIES (BL)
Reflections in a Golden Nyah; THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
I Aims to Scan your Big Bald Head: HITMAN and the New Male Chastity (07)
CinemArchetype 25: The Fisher King
Thrower of Tantrums: LA BELLE NOISEUSE; THE ROCKER
Terms of Endangerment: NIGHT AND DAY, HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE

                                                     NOTES:
1. Astute readers will analyze my loathing for Doug E. Fresh as a kind of projected self-loathing anxiety (that 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. 

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