Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or at least 16:9

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Til Human Voices Wake Us: THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978)


Hurricane Dorian spiraled over the Bahamas over Labor Day as I watched the ABC Friday Night Movie THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (from 1978) via Warner Archive DVD-R. Its crystal blue skies and clear crystal water, lovely reefs full of vibrant life, normal sea levels, white sands, giant turtle rising like Moby Dick x Gamera to bump his head on an unconvincing helicopter perfect beaches and beautiful young lovers, and climate still fecund with life, all made nice contrast with the wide-eyed barometrically-hip denizens of 'Weather Underground' on The Weather Channel (on cable). The world is dying; the Great Turtle is gone, a myth, its innards a ghost museum, but in the meantime, one thing I remember from back in 1978 was that the whole nation was "that way" about the Bermuda Triangle. We loved thinking about that triangle and what might be hoovering up half the ships and planes that dared traverse it. The name alone had a sexy sea spray currency, right up there with Spencer's Gifts, Chariots of the Gods, and Playboy Magazine. Bermuda --the name alone had magic, like some strange expensive boutique water that promotes male potency. It's quite a film, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, especially, regularly contrasted with flips back to the Weather Channel, back in 9/19, the best time for 1978 to open up like a vortex ark to lift you clear of Waterworld 2020. 

The meteorologists, standing before giant maps, caressing the predicted motion lines of swirling energy, pressure, precipitation, electric with the anticipation, repeating themselves and their predictions, like a coven of witches chanting national scientific barometric incantations, trying in their way to guide and shape a thousand Moby Dicks worth of water and air, full of impersonal fury. 



When I saw The Bermuda Depths over Labor Day, Dorian was circling around the Bahamas, twirling and twirling as if to bring it to some monstrous extinction level vaginal vortex orgasm, a Cenobite maenad rending apocalyptic event, smashing of the prison of psyche. The linked necklace of basic comforts that chokes us in the trap of civilized leisure, the orgasm that drowns and destroys and leaves drowning souls clamoring at Noah's moss-slick sides, pairs of serpents coupled in the portholes to nip the toes and fingers of the damned as they try and climb - until they drown, growing Satanic tails themselves, squiggling towards a giant moon/egg/eye in the center of the center of the rift. The weather people cut over to B-roll of Floridians busy buying out the bottled water by the Price Club forklift-load. I cut hit play on the DVD player at the commercial, back ... to The Bermuda Depths and to.... her. 

I was mostly alone that weekend, couched in that special warm glow only watching hurricane coverage on a cloudy weekend can bring. But The Bermuda Depths was something else, harnessing the electricity of the storm and the WU's giddiness to a myth so deeply lodged in my equatorial trench of Self I could feel my whole soul vibrate apart like my psyche's tectonic plates were dropped on one of those old electric football game boards. 

Today its weeks later --I just caught on my way to work that hurricane Humberto, the next in the chain, was heading for Bermuda, but chickened out, skirting up and around the "Triangle" rather than daring to go through and take its chances. Poor Humberto, just a lot of colder air on warm water after all. But more are always coming. It's hurrican season, announces Dr. Knabb will protect it, through my ardent love of Connie Sellecca as Depth's mysterious sea nymph Jennie Hanniver.

Have I only imagined her?
I still the feel the warmth from kissing her
I'll spend my whole life missing her 
Jenny....
Jenny....
When she appears, at first like a distant black flame, framed in the picture window of a rocky outcrop; walking closer through the eye of the island where Michael Pitt-lipped wanderer Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) naps, she brings her own theme song--the indelible guitar of Vivaldi's"Concerto in D major for Lute and Strings" RV:93 Largo" and gazes down at him with loving eyes, evoking a stirring flashback of their time raising a giant sea turtle and her eventual swimming off on its back, without a word, and he almost drowning trying to swim after her. And then, the night his marine biologist dad decided to conduct some ominous experiment in a grotto under their house, some unseen monster knocks half the foundation on top of him. So many questions, but save them. Slow it down, baby... we got commercials coming and anyway, the music is gorgeous, there are no clumsy voiceovers or scrawls, and no words spoken or read at all for the first 12 minutes of the film- only Vivaldi, and that achingly lyrical folksy theme song (a signature of production team Rankin/Bass)... already burrowing into our souls and leaving us with a plaintive spiritual ache for our own lost ocean loves... Jenny....

Note similarity in outline of the rock to his hatted head as he sleeps,
Jenny emerging from his pineal gland, or where land meets ocean;
(female/dream/ocean vs. conscious/man/sky.
The folksy wide-eyed black housekeeper (Ruth Attaway) tells our brooding (grown-up) Magnus that Jennie was so vain and beautiful back in the early days of colonial Bermuda that all the men on the island loved her. When her ship was caught in a storm in the Triangle and about to go down she made a deal with "the other god", the "one who swims below" to stay beautiful and young forever, in exchange for an eternity of 'service' to the leviathan's murky aims. She lives "out there" in the sea, "what you folks call... the Triangle" If Magnus is comparing notes, he keeps them under his hat. He refuses to believe his Jennie could be a ghost (until that is she reminisces about when her father used to host 'quadrilles' and invites him to dance to her ever-present Vivaldi).... but she's connected (the same as) that turtle. And is it the same turtle that crushed his dad and house? NOoooo! 

ABC Friday Night TV movies like Depths made deep and lasting impressions on us who were children at the time --a movie so weird and wondrous those who hadn't seen it wouldn't believe the wild stories of those who had. It lay dormant for decades, unseen and gradually considered to be a folk myth. But through the giant claw machine of the Warner Archive, it is exhumed, and it is a treasure. Bermuda has never seemed so beautiful, Jerry Sopanen's brilliant cinematography plus a color restoration (?) results in a blue sky, clear water, white sand, tanned limb clarity that leaves a hole in the heart, evoking among other things, Dali's magical paintings of magical Costa Brava. 

A kind of oceanic ghost story it sails the same currents as Night Tide and even Beach Blanket Bingo and the unforgettable romance between Bonehead and Lorelei. Maybe it's because I'm a Pisces, but I'm even haunted by the theme song. I was dissatisfied with the end but, after I switched back to the Weather Channel watched the twirling storm still just hovering over the Bahamas, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and her--Jennie-- with her raven hair, perfect olive tan, waterproof no-smudge eyeliner and the ability to reflect light from her eyes so they glow like an inhuman creature.

With perfect blank naturalism, Sellecca gives room for anima projections (contrast other actrresses
too self-aware to be enigmatic; the anima can find no screen in such a one.
Their screens are already too full.... of themselves
It's not an easy role to pull off well, as one needs to be--in a sense--a blank screen, to nudge the viewer's anima into using the coiled energy of the far-off hurricane to fire up its projector and WACK! focus right in on Jennie, to get the pining ache that comes from one of the male psyche's all-too-rare reunions with our ever undersea/seen animas. How could I blame the film for being true to the anima's nature, and all too quickly shutting the projector off again? Dreams where the anima appears operate on the same principle. One can only pine for her to come again. And this is--alas--the relationship at its purest. The anima appears so that her absence may be felt. For she does read our letters, even if she doesn't answer. In a way, she even helps us write them - for we're a projection of her unconscious as well.

It doesn't matter anymore. I am glad I bought this on DVD, and that the image is so gorgeously clear I can count the water rivulets down Connie Sellecca's luxuriant gamin limbs. I applaud the way the giant turtle is used so sparingly - appearing mainly at the climax, and fading away with an unforgettable dive into the depths and all the ensuing Tarot-card ready references that connect The Bermuda Depths with the arcane language of the collective unconscious.

My early childhood anima - the mermaid girl from the old Marine Boy 
anime, that used to be on when I was around 3-4. I was so
enthralled I think I cried when the show stopped airing. I still
remember her vividly, though not her name.
Though this dream girl aspect ("have I only imagined her?") often irritates me in other films, it works here as there's plenty of evidence she's more than just a male fantasy or a psychotic hallucination. The men who don't believe she's real are--after all--trying to catch a turtle the size of a Victorian mansion on a boat barely the size of one of its flippers. And besides, she's real to Magnus, and to us, watching. We never see him through other people's eyes talking to the air, for example. She's never seen by anyone else - she only comes out when he's alone. Eric (Carl Weathers) and Poulis (Burl Ives) have no doubt about the turtle, but don't believe Jennie is real. If the Jennie thing was all done as some kind of Harvey-Walter Mitty style fantasy we wouldn't even be having this conversation because, ugh. If there was some big reveal where a mad scientist is behind it all and/or it's a scam and the scammer would have got away with it if not for those rascally kids, or really if it relied on any rational or even metaphysical 'explanation' it would undo the spell, and be cheap, I'd be out. But the way it's all filmed, the way the story goes down, it never loses its Jungian "one-the-one" beat, where the film itself is a dream within a dream, and there is no waking, only a renouncement of one layer of the dream, which may or may not be a transition to adulthood.

The problem is, his buddies--the Apollonian 'group' to the Dionysian pair-bond-- won't leave Magnus alone - they find him wherever Jennie brings him, even to a secret, gorgeous grotto (his dad, whom he learns was 'eaten' by marine life, was washed out to sea; his mom--we learn--was lost at sea earlier). Why did he not hide, not heed Weathers' manly call, as if a friendly but nonetheless cockblocking Captain Bligh rousting Christian from his languid island hammock. Without a second thought, presuming she'll be waiting when and where he deigns to look, Magnus leaves his ghostly love to go fishing with Eric and Dr. Poulis, as they set about trying to catch a creature so massive that there is no boat big enough to do anything but be grateful the thing stays down below.

Earning his masters in marine biology while spending the summer with Poulis, Weathers' Eric mispronounces "coelacanth" but he's letter perfect as the kind of guy whose energy is like a magnet for lost boy souls like Magnus, after pointing out he and his father used to laugh at Magnus as a boy with his imaginary friend, he then shrugs it off "you're all right, you're home," with a brusque masculine kind of fraternal protectiveness that Magnus is clearly drawn to or he wouldn't be on the boat. Weathers is clearly having a great time here in Bermuda on this shoot, and improvs feely (it seems), cracking open beers and filling in Magnus on how he and his father would laugh at his talking to the air. The idea that Jennie is all in Magnus' mind though never quite washes since there clearly is a giant turtle, and when Magnus mentions carving the initials on its back it's enough to wipe the smiles from both Eric's and Poulis' faces. For all their talk of biology, this pair are clearly monster hunters, a kind of logocentric Appolonian analyst couch. As Poulis tells Magnus over dinner: "Even in this space age we have yet to explore the real depths!" Those depths are both the ocean and the unconscious. They carry monsters, sure, but also Jenny... where she comes, "the other god" follows.

Like Tera (Valerie Leon - left) in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb via gloomy Andrew Kier, his daughter (also Leon), my own anima (1) was arranging the vision of herself, using the crackling energy of Dorian to start the projector to life again, beaming herself onto Jennie. I longed for her as Magnus does (he spends his time with the boys brooding over her, talking about her to them even as they shrug her off as a figment of his imagination, which is a very rude way of mentioning it). She commands you, in your fibrous core, to choose her or over your salty sailor brethren. Do so and there will be no need for words --thoughts are told in currents, shifts in oceanic temperature, and a kind of perpetual mix of whale cries muted through waves that seems to light up the soundtrack the way sunlight lights the waves in the film's many day-for-night shots. 

Is my anima the dreamed or the dreamer who dreams herself real through dreaming up a dreamer to dream her? James Villers in Blood would probably purr that we already know the answer to that one, don't we? (CinemArchetype #2)

It doesn't make any sense--that Poulis and Eric would dismiss Jennie but think they can catch a deep sea leviathan with a tug boat and a little net, but that's part of the dreamlike unease to the film is the idea though that Dr. Poulis and Eric believe they have a chance in hell of single-handedly capturing the beast heightens the dream suspense, the futile cockblocking element that always crops up in ur-otic dreams involving the anima. She will always be ours forever but first you have to just go do one little thing. Don't go away! Wait here and I'll be back. But of course she's never there, or you never make it back. Not for years.


Magnus, too, is an archetype, he is the young fisher king, the Parsifal (and McCloskey does a great job with this vague role --imagine Tom Cruise or, say Jason Patric as Magnus, and shudder); Burl Ives is once again the fisher king (see #12 of CinemArchetype 24) and he does it so well. There's also the hanged man (literally, in a tarot sense, as man is dragged to the depths by his foot - those are pearls that were his eyes, etc.); the anima, her monstrous familiar (in a Gamera-logical sense) and even a wild/wise woman (Attaway's amazing one scene as the black housekeeper / conjure woman / folksy exposition provider).

This choice, to run off and go fishing rather than roll in the ripped ruined mansion's depths, or sleep with the fish, is one typical of a certain stage of adolescence, at least it was for me, actually right around 1978, when I was 12. Having to choose between your girlfriend/s and the boys, trying to drag you off to do guys things while she waits and gets pissed-off and/or you never see her again. BUT it's because he does go that this becomes myth. If he didn't, he'd be snared in the faerie bower of amor, of eros (1), Aphrodite's scallop shell closing down on them like a submersible honeymoon coffin (ala that thing Bond and Barbara Bach end up in at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me where it eventually turns all Corman Poe). In the dream the dreaming ego always goes off with the guys - he always has-otherwise there is no myth, only an enchanted knight slowly dying of hunger under the poppy trees, ministered to by a dozen doting fairies with no idea what humans eat but a refusal to let him crawl away.


Some call him Kurma
The production team behind the Depths are Rankin-Bass, names familiar to kids all over the world for the puppet-animated catchy tune-spattered Xmas specials we all saw every December, like Rudolph and The Year without a Santa Claus; and the first two animated catchy tune-spattered Tolkien specials - The Hobbit and Return of the King), so they clearly knew a few things about how to tap into the deep strain of Jungian archetypal myth that can structure kids' merging into the adult sphere. With the same Japanese crew and director: Tsugunobo Kotani, with whom they'd teamed up with for the more-conventional The Last Dinosaur TV movie from the year before. But while that movie stayed a 'boy's life' Hemingway meets Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of macho affair, The Bermuda Depths is infinitely more even-handed and light in its touch. Trying to talk about it, as Tyrone Power says in Nightmare Alley, "is like trying to put the ocean into bottles."  Like the waves going in and out on those beautiful white sand Bermuda beaches, all things are momentary. These are opportunities to practice the fine art of letting go, for one must let go. The sea nymph must return to the depths, lest she melt into a skull ala Sandra Knight in THE TERROR (1963) and the Vivaldi concerto end, replaced by... Diamanda Galas...


As with all great anima-scapes, when there are so many great elements it's almost better that they don't add up. After all, dreams never do. Too often these affairs get hung up on small details of logic, which your anima, the artist designer of your dreams, realizes rightly are the soul-killing logistics that make daytime so much less wild and thingee than the night. The best TV movies of the era took advantage of the fact that there was no videotape, or reruns, no chance to rewind and go "did that even happen?" so they could do as the dreams did, and leave out whole chunks of logic, presuming we could fill in the blanks while we refilled our glasses and ran to the bathroom, much as the dreams themselves try to fill in what's missing in our day-to-day thinking. We made our own connections over the commercial breaks, and the TV movie relied on that relationship, and as a result were primed to deliver long-lasting myth. By the next morning at school, our own telephone game embellishments might already be added, and no way to prove them wrong - so any holes in its mythic sail were already patched. Decades later and once grim myths / rites of passage like Suspiria and Carrie are known by heart, no embroidering possible. But things like Bad Ronald, The House that Would Not Die and Bermuda Depths became the "I'll have to take your word for it" living myths, more scary and strange with every re-telling... gradually peeling away from the land where any normal film made of celluloid and blood could ever do it full justice. 

SPOILER -

Depths may, it's true, lean a lot on that unsaid commercial break dream logic for its power; lot unsaid in this far from perfect film, but that's its weird charm. The main part: the lack of any clear villain or negative emotion. We root for the turtle of course - it's not like it creeps up on land to kill people - oh.. aside from early on killing Magnus's dad, but he started it by tampering in the forbidden... Bermuda Depths --oh yeah, I see. Far more interesting is the unusuual and barely relevant fact that the cast is perfectly balanced along racial and gender lines, and how in the end, the only one with a clue to the events transpiring is the housekeeper for Burl: she knows enough to see the skull behind Magnus's eyes, and to realize he's the bad guy, because he gives up on the love of his life just because her turtle familiar wipes out every other male in the cast in its stubborn effort to stay alive. That he didn't die himself should be cause for his to not be such a shit about turning his back on the ocean, and throwing his shell necklace back into the sea. He turns his back on her, and the sea, to get even with it, for what, not giving up its secrets? Is Dorothy to be shunned by the scarecrow, lion and tin man for refusing to let them dissect Toto, transplanting his brain, heart and spleen to these needy training wheel animuses (see CinemArchetype #3, stage 2)?

--END SPOILER

Enter 3 meteorologists, tracing their batons back and forth around the barometric reading map like junkies combing the carpet after the last grain is licked off the table, or conjure wives summoning demons from the depths of their cooking pots, roiling like the sky, the steam from the stew like the coiling clouds from her wooden spoon. Gesturing at the mimetic map as if to move the vortex.

Is Bermuda's cosmic bill paid or will the hammer come down? No amount of blowing or fanning will change its mind. The world ends and the giant turtle comes up for air. This is in revelations. This is coming. Up at Niagara, the Native American art museum is shaped like a turtle... they know the score. It's been vacant for 22 years. I was there in 1989 with my girlfriend when it was open and full of Iroquois turtle imagery, the turtle carrying the world on its back, the incessant Falls, the force from which it gains its mighty roar...... my girl, her raven hair and crystal blue eyes... the turtle with the world on its... am I still there? Am I ghost wandering that stricken empty shell?

Life was always going to be fleeting. We're all just waves that crash on the shore and leave only children, maybe, and photos of ourselves and mentions on the web that are only really 'there' if someone reads them. 
see: Godasiyo, the Woman Chief

We were more used to that in the 70s, because TV shows came and went, irretrievably, forcing us to accept the fleeting nature of things. The only way to record was to put your cassette tape recorder by the speaker and hope for the best. You'd at least have the audio. My first mix tape was made this way, holding my tape player up against the radio as favorite songs came on: Fleetwood Mac and Abba mostly, missing the first few seconds of each. Never did I tape the Eagles  --they were, frankly, terrifying. "Hotel California" chilled me deeper than my spine could reach. So did the words "Bermuda Triangle" - it was if the words themselves could suck you under.
The Bermuda Depths' theme song knows that horror, yet is sweet as any Rankin/Bass folksy theme. It might be friendly but it knows the power music had in the age of holding tape recorders up to TV speakers, how we are so anxious to capture these fleeting images of our beloved we take photos of the TV, to somehow 'own' a reflection, knowing how futile that is. The sadness in the song "only imagined her" knows the almost religious importance we placed on things like 8x10 glossies, trading cards, pictures cut out of magazines, and paperback novelizations. Now, in this age, she's harder to find for being so available. We are flooded with potential anima screens now, like the parade of hurricanes rolling out from Africa and around the and up the Florida coast before peeling out east  towards Bermuda or Nova Scotia, the Weather Channel crew tracing and commenting and gesturing, but there is no making her come, only letting her go... when she's ready... until then, she just sits there off the coast, in the deep, twirling in place... 

 It's only in her absence that she stays with you forever. That's the anima. 22 years later and the Niagarara Great Turtle museum still stands. If you see her, say hello, but do not linger, lest your consciousness, your 9-5 and button-down bumming, be dissolved in the saline solution of the sea, and then bubbled up, devoured, and forgotten---an echo in its empty shell hull hall--as she makes way for the next drowning man. But isn't that you, too? You try to answer but your voice is only clacking keys...
I still the feel the warmth from kissing her
I'll spend my whole life missing her 
Jennie...


NOTES:

Relevant Archetypes:
2. The Anima
4. The Hanged Man
5. The Human Sacrifice
6. The Intimidating Nymph
10. The Wild Man
11. The Wild-Wise Woman
15. The Animal Familiar
25. The Fisher King


(Note: the key to this power is the image - Keep the old tactile 'real' photos of her on the beach or in front of the Falls from when you were young. Never look up her virtual pixel image on Facebook decades later, she will not look the same. No empty turtle shell still immortal just absent this time -your anima will shriek as if you caught it in the morning bathroom before it put its 'face' on. The true Jennie Hanniver at last.. Now your old photos just seem 'dead' - the anima has gone from this screen forever. That's Hollywood, and it's your problem. You looked back. And now your gaze itself is salt. 

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