Thursday, May 25, 2023

All-Seeing Blindness: THE BIRDS' Omniscient POV and the Oedipal "Gaze"

Today we're using a single shot in Hitchcock's 1963 classic THE BIRDS as a jumping off point for a fusion of Freud, Jung, Paglia, Wood, and Zizek that will catch HALLOWEEN, FORBIDDEN PLANET,  PSYCHO, even SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER in its devouring maternal phallus beak / knife / impossible tree sloth claw maw. Have you done your homework and seen all five? More than once? 

Good, then together we will FIGURE out the connection between the weird domestic drama and the bird attacks. Turns out, it's Lydia's fault! I take it you've met Lydia? 

I saw the BIRDS after a long walk in the trees, just cuz it was on Showtime when I got home. This bit of info is important. Like a 'random' spread of tarot cards, the unconscious sometimes finds a functional mythic common language in the images the conscious mind takes in, life finding figures and faces in clouds or rock formations. 

This symbiosis betwixt the personal subconscious (i.e. the viewer) and the collective consciousness (i.e. the film)  might otherwise be denied when the conscious mind 'picks' the film. I wouldn't have chosen THE BIRDS on after getting home, all exercised and starved for TV, it was just on. That's the collective unconscious at work, alive in the randomness of chance, the feeling god or something is always communicating with you through some medium or image, be it a random bird call, the passing cop car siren, the dog food commercial, your unconscious is always watching you somewhere in the field of your vision. Can you spot him/ her / it? That's (the) UNCANNY, bro!

Nowhere is this more vivid than THE BIRDS (1964); its icebergs go so deep their edges cut through the outer hulls of waking sanity. Like any enduring classic, it continues to make more and more sense the longer you watch it (i.e. for me, 40 years of seeing it regularly at least once every couple of years). As a kid I was just irritated waiting for birds to finally attack -then it rocked. Now as an adult whose read Paglia's indispensable BFI book on it, as well as the writing of Robin Wood, Zizek, etc. - it's Lydia's parts that rock me. The bird attacks can get indulgent, but Lydia is always watching.... us 

As the unrelated (or so I thought as a child) connection between the human drama and the bird attacks becomes clearer and clearer until a certain awareness of nature as a reflection of the human unconscious (or vice versa) takes shape. We don't see the link until the link sees us first. Watching Birds as a child with my own parents, we used to bemoan the boring subplots of Melanie and her facile would-be screwball flirtation. ("Get to the birds already!" my dad would shout). If there's a direct link between the domestic drama part- the strange love quadrangle going on between Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia of Bodega Bay--and the birds attacking, it eludes most casual monster-craving viewers, maybe for good reason. And for the first dozen viewings I didn't see it either; I still felt it was all more akin to the obligatory qua-romantic sidebars of things like It Came from Beneath the SeaBeast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Tarantula, rather than the deep dish Id dive of Forbidden Planet.  

That's the connection so key to this post: When you remember woman shares her elemental subconscious with nature itself, and that Lydia is a quintessential devouring mother archetype, suddenly the bird attacks make perfect connection with the drama.

If you know classic cinema of the late 50s-early 60s you have probably gleaned just how big a cocktail party talking point was our Dr. Freud. He was mainstream in a way that is impossible to understand in our streamlined 'talking down' artless popular cinema. Maybe it's because without censorship, sexual repression and open homophobia, there's less 'sub' to rise up like a monster in the popular consciousness. The last monster who took off with nearly everyone in this way was Hannibal Lecter. But now even Hannibal has been homogenized. Censorship no longer represses sex; instead it represses repression itself.   As we're clearly learning in our modern age, it's nowhere near as fun. Rather than gaining pressure like a clogged whiskey still and then exploding, modern repression kind of implodes on itself, finally realizing just how empty niceness can be. Also, we're more stupid. The idea of the middle class reading Freud on their own time, as entertainment, is totally absurd, Yet when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago, Freud was everywhere. Everyone was talking about him. He was once on the bookshelf staple of every liberated couple, alongside the Kinsey Report, The Joy of Sex and Erma Bombeck's Life is a Bowl of Cherries so what am I doing in the Pits. Today even the academics have dismissed him. All his ideas are out, purely because they are sexist. Sensitivity and tolerance, rather than genius, is what we want in our cinema. People who don't know anything about his work proudly sneer at him as being outdated, parroting the en vogue academic posture. 

But in the 50s, Freud was even handed to us children on a PSYCH 101 platter, via Psycho and Forbidden Planet

The latter offers the explanation of the monster from the id in a way that makes sense no matter what your age. Kids are amateurs at repression, their hormonal desires seeping through the fabric of society and into the natural world. We can imagine our own monster tearing up our grade school, mean teachers, bullies, and even some girl for no reason we yet understand, while we sleep, sort of glad we never have to take responsibility for our desires coming true the way Morbius does. But if we woke up to find everyone all ripped limb-from-limb, we might get a guilty feeling without knowing quite why we should. We didn't have anything to do with it, and that's true in a way. Should Jekyll be punished for Hyde's crimes? When we realizae that the crux of the ego and its centered 'consciousness' is just the loudest voice in the room, and when it finally quiets, strange beings living downstairs in our brain basement creep up the stairs, all drenched in the vile shit you've been dumping down the laundry chute, the bathroom pipes, and under the floor. 

And there's someone else down in there too, even below the basement selves, boy, and they resent being locked down in the fruit cellar. 

Do you think they're fruity, boy?  


No matter how many times we get that oft-belittled Freudian epilogue lecture in PSYCHO, for example, the implications of Norman and his mother complex stay mysterious. The elemental subconscious doesn't suddenly become 'solved' just because we're given a first-rate cinematic example, explained patiently by a learned psychiatrist.  The idea of "mother" transcends our own psyche, envelops and devours us, and if we don't hack our way out of the apron string morass, we drown. Mother fills in for us. 

The psychiatrist shows us the ladder down into the hole but only guides us far down as the censor will allow. There's still an endless abyss waiting below even the fruit cellar. And even there, mother is. And she's clawing her way... up through your own morass of macho boys' club sexual boasting and posturing, refusing to stay down, yelling its your bed time in your ear of ears, right as you're on--as we say in hooking up terms--the ten yard line. 

If she can reach...up... and hijack our unconscious id monster, maybe she can hijack the natural world's as well... The birds can become her own id monster/ She's connected to the turnings of nature the way  men can never be, consciously.

As with Morbius' Id monster, Lydia can't be blamed for the bird attacks. It wouldn't / couldn't be a conscious connection. She wouldn't even be aware she's causing it. There's no one to tell her either. No PSYCHO psychiatrist inhabits Bodega Bay to explain the link. There's  no Krell brain boost equivalent that would allow Mitch to guess the origin of the bird attacks (i.e. paraphrasing Forbidden Planet: "Mitch, the birds are your mother's fear! Tell her you don't love this girl! Tell her you'll never leave home!").  No one in Bodega Bay understands poltergeist activity, nor do they know of animal familiars, elemental manifestations of unconscious drives, or the dangers when the wise old woman's natural magic is misappropriated by the her jealous savage devouring mother unconscious (inside every Athena is a Medusa trying to get out). Lydia can't quite control her powers--or even be fully aware of them--any more than could Morbius, or Norman. Each kills--or tries to kill--all younger rivals, be they Leslie Nielsen or Melanie or Marion. to keep their child at home, to foil attempts to empty their recessive egomaniac remote planet / small town kingdom. Empty nest syndrome has its roots in some vile pre-Promethean mire of incest and human sacrifice, Cronus eating his own young, and all that shit. 

Autonomous Oedipal Expressions - Bob (Twin Peaks) Morbius' Id (Forbidden Planet) ,

After a few dozen viewings of each of the three films, after age and insight and the human mind's need to find meaning even in random coincidence, it all makes sense as if some GRE series of associative thinking questions:

Norman <--> Mother  --> Knife--> Janet Leigh

Alta < --> Morbius--> Monster --> Leslie Nielsen

Mitch <---> Lydia --> Birds-->-Tippi Hedren

For Psycho, the mother in Norman's mind is a horribly blurred version of the superego's harnessing the Id to manifest the phallus of the mother (the knife) before the phallus of the Norman gets to experience enough pleasure/power to escape the poisonous incestuous bond. Norman killed the mother and her lover the way Lydia tries to stuff Mitch, like some ornithological specimen, in her living room and keep any interested females in Bodega Bay blinded by her flying monkey gulls and kept where she can keep an 'eye' on them. When Melanie devolves into a child after her bird attack, her voice gets a note of hysteria, all high and whispery in a kind of super demented child kind of way, indicating she's regressed and is no longer a threat; Lydia instantly relaxes her grip (note that the birds don't attack after that). 

The borderline between Norman and his mother and the (phallic) knife; Mitch and Lydia and her birds, (or the opposite version, Morbius, Alta and the Id) all become startlingly clear once they're all compared and filtered through your Penguin Freud. How could we have ever missed them? 

It's no idle accident the kids are watching Forbidden Planet on TV in Halloween. The equation is one slightly altered since there's no strong parental figure therefore, aside from Dr. Loomis and the sheriff. Here the instigator is biology and the forceful peer pressure of Jame Lee's friends.   

Jamie lee Curtis <----> virginity // Michael -->sex

FORBIDDEN PLANET on TV (left) in HALLOWEEN at left: The approaching (invisible) id monster's footprints onscreen go unnoticed by Nancy Loomis and her babysitting charge; heightening subliminal associative chills. 

Let's take a deep look at one very telling shot that makes the Halloween parallel clear:

Part II:


 "an anthill at the foot of a bridge" 

It's an extraordinarily eerie moment, giddy and exciting: we go from the noise of the cafe--the doubting ornithologist with her dry, chirpy lecturing; the hysterical mother frightening her own children (a clear case of maternal projection in microcosm to lend a shadow to the larger one outside); the old drunk repeating "it's the end of the world!" - it all instantly stops with the cry of "LOOK!" and a rush to the window. 

Outside, the gas station attendant is hit by a gull and falls over, dropping the gas nozzle; the gas leaks in a fast downhill pool towards the feet of the traveler trying to understand the panicked noise from inside the cafe. He drops his cigar match... BOOM

Halloween (1978) Killer POV
It's like the explosion knocks our POV into the sky. After all the noise and action below, up here in the sky it's quiet and peaceful. We feel strangely safe for a moment. It's as if we just joined the winning side so all our worries are over

But something is off. The camera isn't floating or swaying in the air currents. The POV camera is just standing still up there. It's not a bird's eye view. Birds don't usually stand stock still, neither do helicopters, usually. And weirder still, we hear a muffled but heavy breathing, as if through a thick heavy mask, or from inside a snorkel.

 Seeing it this time, after the walk, by chance, I was reminded of Halloween's opening tracking shot with POV clown mask as young Michael mounts the stairs. Here it's the same sense that we're wearing the mask. This arial god's eye / bird's eye view comes with breathing that sounds like we're a kid in a snorkel looking down hundreds of feet through clear turquoise water/sky to the ocean floor/fire, people scrambling like tiny crabs in the sand below. 

Even then we wouldn't be able to hang suspended in place, not this Steadicam smooth. 

This shot in The Birds though, this high up, the person whose eyes we're looking through seems to have his feet firmly planted on some invisible ground. Can it be Lydia, up there, like Marcello Mastroanni in the beginning dream of 8 1/2? while asleep back at home, shuddering from the sight of her eyeless neighbor Fred, her elemental unconscious soaring skywards above the damage her id is causing, but connected to her death driving instinct while asleep, forced to look down through her rending harpy bird of prey eyes at the carnage below, like Faye Dunaway forced to see the killer's POV in Eyes of Laura Mars? But she's not bobbing in the wind as she's also grounded in her bed? 

At the time, the first viewings, we may not even notice how odd that is, that weird breathing and sense of motionlessness, such odd choices go unnoticed in the chaos of the scene. We're too busy enjoying what we assume is the 'bird's eye view.' The change in shot helps us even out our sympathies. Rather than the sense of eerie dislocation and unwilling complicity we get from a killer POV in a good slasher film, we're allowed a kind of lordly relaxation. Now we're running with the flock, so we can size up our own target for the dive bombing. The killer POV implicates us and scares us with its 'too close for comfort' mortality. The bird / Lydia POV is so abstract it frees us from responsibility.

Dozens of viewings over the years later, and the odd details start to accrue in our minds but this motionless, heavy breathing arial shot refuses familiarization. The sound of muffled breathing is eerie. This is certainly not meant to be a bird's eye view in the traditional sense, Hitchcock would not miss even one key detail of this sort by accident. He brings us somewhere way outside normal space, some giant deer-stand or motionless Ferris wheel from which to peer down on all those scurrying, burning ants.

 How did Hitch get such a still shot? It's not a photo, (maybe a process shot) as we can see the flames burning below; even as the birds gradually circle down around and into the frame in front of it, there is no movement from the camera. The birds come in on all sides of the camera but the camera doesn't even flinch, as if it is representing some out of body experiencer, ordering her minions down into the scene like the wicked witch directing her monkeys from a bomb sight in the belly of a frozen in time B-17 while lying in bed at the same time.... Lydia... is that you?.


In grand Oedipal style, wherever Lydia's goes with her animus bird force, she leaves only blinded reflections, henpecked children, and symbolically neutered adults in her wake--the anti-sighted. The male gaze, the female gaze, all gazes are snuffed out, the bird claws and beaks act as the censoring scissors; Medusa, turning men from gazers into inanimate portraits or pajama wearing eyeless corpses. Amok maternal instinct creates a legion of blind, hobbled, castrated men, ala the men who crash the matriarchal corn king crowning in The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, or the remake of The Wicker Man. 

But as the snapping biting birds rage out of control, children too are symbolically violated, like an out of control once-benign victorious army "looting and pillaging" a defenseless civilian population, one that poses no threat at all to Lydia's maternal empire; and finally spilling over and threatening even Lydia herself (just as Morbius is threatened by his own id).

Even Melanie is guilty of this, noting proudly of her nonprofit: "We're sending a little Korean Boy Through School." sounds almost like their keel-hauling him through the sky somehow, or floating through the belly of a whale: "After that we're sending a German girl through a jet engine."

Even the daughter, Cathy is guilty of this: she has the two imprisoned love birds, as trapped in their cage as Lydia wants to make Mitch and Cathy in Bodega Bay. The two imprisoned birdies, forced to shelter in one spot while all around the fellow creatures are flying loose and free, attacking their former oppressors and jailers (one can see them flying up to SF to blind the pet shop owner from the first scene  on her way home from work). 

By the presence of the blinded father (above) in the upper left portrait (the darkened eyes is no coincidence), we realize the return of the blinding agent (the maternal phallus - beaks, knife, etc) is inherent in this dynasty. Note the arrangement of the scene: Lydia, sitting, cuddled with Cathy, denotes her new place as another child of the Lydia, or at any rate, subservient. Mitch seated below the portrait, uncomfortable on a bench, as if waiting in line for an Oedipal "haircut" (his eyes darkened beneath his heavy brow) and Lydia, centered, organizing the table as if arranging a tea party for her stuffed animals. The father's expression in the painting is one of bland eyeless contentment - death has allowed him to escape the predicament the others are in; being dead and blind means he's paid for his escape already --he's out of Lydia's reach. This is the aspiration of Mitch - an escape from Lydia's clutches, from the rending scissor talons of the enucleating barber.

But the father's blindness is more than just a symbolic castration in the Lacanian sense. In joining the social order, submitting to symbolic castration, one gains a third eye vision not limited to any one POV. In a way it's like the privileged position of the viewer. We have no visible representation in the film, so can move our sympathies everywhere and nowhere. Most of the time our action is squarely centered on Melanie, but then Lydia goes by herself to Dan's farm; we even get the omnipotent POV the master of the birds. We're free.

And we still have our eyes.

(above: X, Halloween, The Birds (dad's painting), Jaws, Psycho)

It's not just that Michael never speaks in Halloween that makes him scary, it's that you can't see his eyes. The black socket effect we get from Mrs. Bates or Dan with his broken tea cups, may be 'actual' rather than merely hidden, but the omnipresent aura is the same. Note that Michael's eyes are not hidden by, say, sunglasses or even a more recognizable mask, something that would bring a distinct symbolic identity - i.e. sunglasses, an Italian giallo killer ski mask, a rapist-style nylon over head, a motorcycle helmet, a clown mask etc.) The features or identifiable marks of the mask of Myers are stripped away, even the skin pigment of the original (William Shatner) mask is removed. The lack of identification of those images by which we detect a soul's presence, is what creates the uncanny chill - the blinded person is made tragic yet free- the movie can't 'get' them now. They see no evil. Forever.

Of all the imitators that came after Halloween, only Jason --the first Jason, with the sack cloth mask-- in Part 2, understands the importance of the banal / nondescript in a facial covering, something to drain every last possible attachable symbolic reference from our pareidolia lexicon. Our egoic consciousness is revealed as a desperation--to the point of panic-- to label and therefore dismiss the as yet unidentified possible threat. Any attempt at humanization therefore comes via the 'window to the soul.' Michael is rendered at least 50% less terrifying in the original Halloween once his mask is torn off and we briefly see a vaguely mongoloid young man with glazed-eyes and a slack-jaw. Jane Addams is terrified by a savage cry in the jungle night is terrifying until smarmy David points out it's a "guarana monkey" (in Creature from the Black Lagoon). A photo of a strange beast in the water is freaky and exciting--is it the Loch Ness monster!!?!!-- until someone points out it's an 'Irrawaddy dolphin.' Hey, stop ruining this for us, science!

The dolphin, is still the same uncanny monster but now it's suddenly 'friendly.' as someone calls it a dolphin. The cry is still the same bit rendered banal by knowing it's a monkey. The mask of Michael cannot be quantified or safely ensconced in the symbolic rolodex however. We can know it's a Capt. Kirk mask, but it's at best an uncanny variation. The lack of features helps it resist personification.

Acid trippers know this too well. Staring into the bathroom mirror to check your pupil dilation (proof your dose has 'kicked in') is a time-honored tripping tradition. You lean in to check your pupils for the tell-tale in-out dilation, but then you're pulled through into the inky void inside your own pupils. You too, in your deepest core - the black hole in your being-- are a shark, or a killer, or a doll--emptiness finally recognizing its total lack of distinguishing features. At your core you are the black pool deep inside the electric well from which all perception flows. To have perfect vision would be for the whole eye - and beyond-- to encompass the black of the pupil... an eternal stare in the mirror void. All is else is transitory, shadows and light. The blackness of the pupil, beholding its own darkness, the void staring into the void, this is our eternal truth --it cannot be qualified or labelled. The self and the emptiness of space are one; suddenly you are like a cloud finally realizing you were only ever water and air; you've never been permanent - just a sudden locus of perception through which the I AM tries to understand its own black vastness. The dark of the dark is technically blindness - but it is all-seeing. You are seeing through its porthole right now.

The concept of 'all-seeing blindness' can expand to the merely limited rather than blind outright: a killer in a full head latex mask has their vision and hearing substantially curtailed, making them easy to evade in real life; but in the case of Michael Myers, he crosses past human associations and into the god/dead zone (the lofty arial perch we 'see' from above Bodega Bay). Even with obscured eyes, this chthonic devouring god 'sees' the total picture, i.e. Oedipus' full realization of who killed his father and just who Jocasta really is (or Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, seeing "the fact of God" by watching the sky fill with hungry black birds swarming down on baby sea turtles).

Even Dan, the neighbor friend of Lydia's, who is the first killed by the birds is granted a kind of lewd all-seeing power in the jagged jump cut close-ups as Lydia sees him (top), as if he's sitting up in bed to receive an early morning lap dance.

Or as Ray Milland originally said in X-the Man with X-ray Eyes after he had blinded himself, "I can still see!" - a line considered too horrible for mid-60s audiences to contemplate so was edited out of the final cut.

Our unconscious selves--the monsters from the id included--after all, see without benefit of our open eyes (i.e. we're usually asleep when they come) and they see and know way more than us. And its their job to process things we've seen that are so shocking our conscious selves can't even admit they happened. We black it out. But something in us still has to have seen it, the thing that has no eyes of its own, only the plates, the films, it reviews and stores after our eyes finally go dark.

Violet Venable (Devouring Mom #3)

IV: "With all due respect to Oedipus"

All of the Birds' id-generated carnage is Mitch Brenner's fault. 

If he was stronger--less a mama's boy--he would have shacked up with Annie Hayworth regardless of his mother's machinations, and they would have escaped Bodega Bay, Lydia's fledgeling bird volleys crashing harmlessy against their windshield. 

Now it's too late: the combination of Lydia's grief over her husband, plus the supportive presence of Annie Hayworth ensures a kind of continued arrested development for Mitch (does he sneak over to Annie's house for booty call quickies after Lydia and the censors go to bed? If so, does Lydia sense it, and is that part of why the birds eventually kill her?)

Coded Sex references abound in The Birds. They "strike, disappear, then start massing again" not unlike an erection during an extended sexual bout, 

Lydia does some massing herself, gradually working herself into panicked frenzy worrying about what will happen if the birds--her own monsters from the id--get into her house--or consciousness--penetrating her Krell steel shutters, so to speak, "like tissue paper."

"And now this, too? Harm my own daughter??" - Morbius and Lydia realize their amok unconscious drives are breaking into the real world, threatening their own children (ala Bob in Twin Peaks). Gulp! It's the end of the world!

Now that we're so deeply engaged in the Freudian reading of the film, I think the ending, having a radio announcement that the birds have risen up all across the west coast, maybe even the world, is unneeded and undoes the psychiatric relevance by 'making a federal case out of it' so to speak. The radio announcer says "the reason for this does not seem clear as yet" - but if Hitch is going to go there, the psychiatrist treating Lydia should phone in and explain the reason originated with a domineering mother on Bodega Bay. The shrink Psycho explains how Norman became his own mother, for The Birds it would be the reverse. In The Birds the mother becomes her dead husband in a weird attempt to become the non du père and thus keep Mitch from achieving maturity. She wants to become a good 'pack leader' (to use the Dog Whisperer vernacular), but she is too scared and full of self-doubt, so a demonic air elemental (ala Ariel in The Tempest) from her repressed chthonic unconscious (repressed even by her own animus, locked into the form of her dead husband) takes over the job. And, like Morbius's monster from the id, makes Lydia's most perverse unconscious desires, her repressed-libidinal paternal phallus burlesque-- come true, like some base incestuous desire, long buried under the floorboards of consciousness, spilling out into the real in a furious harpy whirlwind of claws, beaks, blood, and fire, trying to blind everyone around at the time (or lobotomize them ala Suddenly Last Summer), lest they bear it witness.

Once Melanie is 'broken' like a wild mustang by Lydia's rending avian animus, she too is no longer a threat, and the mother assumes matriarchal dominance. Mark her relieved smile as she cradles Melanie's head once Lydia is reduced to a state traumatized childlike dependence. The birds are calm. Lydia has what she wants. She's gained a child rather than lost one. We can only assume now that Melanie will need to stay monosyllabic traumatized PTSD sufferer, dependent on Lydia's care, if the birds shall disperse, the maternal panic that overwhelmed their avian drives now dissipating, their baseline orientation restored, they can go back to peaceful living there in the Bay. 

Similarly, if the captain had decided to stay on the Forbidden Planet to marry Alta and start a family, giving Morbius some grandchildren, it's likely that monster from the id would gradually dissolve in force, going down to maybe some poltergeist dish rattling when Morbius felt too ignored or unappreciated. The couple will know by the broken coffee cups they need to spend more time with him. The planet, no longer forbidden, shall become only Altair-IV. Until he dies - then... hmmm will the Krell boost ensure his total consciousness lives on with all electric power at his command?

No one Can Argue with a Dead Father.

 Probably always a bit controlling to begin with, the death of Lydia's husband triggers the demonic bird version of the Krell brain boost from Forbidden Planet. Lydia lies there for "a night and a day" (grieving her husband) and then emerges from her cocoon with a psychic power too harpy/chthonic for her consciousness to handle, but not her repressed shadow, which sends massive wild signals into the ether, tuned to the same frequency the birds use to relay migration and approaching hurricane or earthquake but the psionic equivalent. In order to clear the airwaves and stop the buzzing in their brains they need to attack the source of Lydia's anxiety. Granted almost unlimited signal strength by her unconscious psychic energy, the range of her unconscious fear and rage signal spreads farther and farther out from the Bodega Bay center. And it won't stop until Lydia and Annie both are safely blinded, bled, and still.

Consciously neither Morbius nor Lydia can't recognize this force as their other self, the sustainability of their overdeveloped egos hinge on not being able to recognize their complicity in anything evil. In fact, like Oedipus, their dominating egotism us what causes the 'hysterical symptom' in the first place- a build up of repressed psychic energy that the Id sees you're not using, so it steals it all before you even know it's there, so you can go back to your little ego fiefdom, (3). If either Lydia or Morbius--king and queen of their respective islands, so to speak--were able to recognize their complicity--the murders wouldn't happen in the first place! This is one of the reasons therapy is so effective. The therapist is able to hold a mirror up to the ego and show it all the things it cannot or will not see about itself (i.e. the ugly back of its own beautiful head). The ego may lash out, announce they're blind and that's it, no matter how hard the therapist pries their clamped-shut eyelids, BUT if the patient is worn down enough to interrogate that knee-jerk response within themselves, they finally realize that, as I once said to my own therapist, "I know you're right because what you just said makes me want to yell at you and run out of the room and never come back."  With confession, and self-acceptance, the ability to recognize and resist one's own egoic panic, the bottle repressive energies that have been fueling the outbreaks of beaks or claws and (hysteric or not) blindness dissipates like opening a well-shook soda bottle only tiny tiny bit, so the air can gradually leak harmlessly out rather than explode all over your lap and the cinema floor. 

In short, if Lydia had a therapist, there wouldn't be a bird problem in Bodega Bay. This is the miracle of our modern age, and a perfect place to stop. Until next week then, and here's your bill. Just a dab. And if the rage returns, remember to just crack the bottle top a teensy bit.... 



1) If you read certain passages of the Old Testament, you know which god I mean. It's the god that puts the Jews through hell with painful prolonged rituals, and animals with endless sacrifice (each new member must bring 20 doves and a sheep, letting their blood washes over the altar before they're nailed to the church door, etc. It's the god of the Aztecs and Mayans and maybe the Picts and Romans, a god recognizably bloodthirsty, who spares you his wrath when you throw him someone or something else's soul torment, their life energy. 
3. i.e. like Poltergeists!!


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

It's Only an Apricot. It's Only an Apricot: "MANOS" & Myth

"Trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art" -                                                          ---    Douglas Sirk
Some of us love 'bad' or trash or outsider movies for different reasons than the hooting at it with an audience at midnight, or snarking over brewskis. We find joy in the aesthetic arrest of true myth. We love the vast gaps between normally filled brickwork that let us look into the depths of our own unconscious, where archetypal myth and drive-in movies collide. We get some of that with the appeal of Drunk History on Comedy Central. But mostly we get it in very intellectual Brechtian exercises (Godard, Resnais) or very agog accidental geniuses (Ed Wood, Luigi Cozzi). Motly Would you rather be told a story by an excited ten year-old delinquent, so enthusiastic he can't keep his words straight, or some boring, well-rehearsed little mama's boy who delivers every line with emphases calculated for various emotional end points?

Yo, f--k those end points, man. In case you can't tell which side of that I fall under, rest assured I love the bad films, mainly the older ones, of course. I can't connect with the recent yen for vanity projects by people like Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen. They're too sad, and maybe hit a bit too close to home as far as Quixote-level amok egotism. Even the thing Gen-Y has for 80s VHS that makes fans of things like Miami Connection and Deadly Prey is lost to me - the 80s weren't an easy time for me as a sullen teen so the associations are of a depressive funk from watching too many movies, spending too much time mulling through rental aisles, instead of going outside to play or having a girlfriend. That's why I go for the stuff I saw on TV at 5 AM as a kid waiting for Saturday morning cartoons to start, sneaking around to not wake my parents, and finding my Rosebud in something awesome like Plan Nine from Outer Space, a film I could understand every word of, even at five years old, finally - an adult film that made sense!! I didn't care if it had mismatched shots or unconvincing doubles, I just loved it gave me both the classic horror pantheon (vampires staggering around pitch-black graveyards) and science fiction (UFOs and deflector guns, a strange UFO that's shiny and round from afar and black and square up close.) And no way to get lost as there's the trilling wonderment of Criswell's narration ("death the proud brother...")

It tapped into why I loved monster movies, and I still hunt that thrill, I find it mostly in little moments peppered throughout (older, from 30s-70s) bad movies, where sublime poetry and mythic realness is served, reminding us that before TV we stared hypnotized into the nighttime fire while stories were spun by elders, the radio, or our own imaginations. Without a nonstop barrage of images saturating the sponge of our brain, our imaginations were vivid, ready to fill in the blanks so we could be watching our own dreams while awake.  Extreme-hunger-spiked paraedolia met the flicker of the fire, not unlike the flicker of a strip of film through the projector (with the shutter blacking out the transitional moments) creating the illusion of movement. Calling movies the flicks is no idle association with fire. 

We don't realize it, perhaps, but bad films can bring us back to that, they strip away the illusory dross to get down to archetypal performative basics. They remind us that CGI and 3D are the bane of our imagination. Our unconscious archetypal energies, from which we are cut off from communicating directly with by waking consciousness, want desperately to reach us - and they always do so with images. Images are their flesh and blood, their voice and echo. Like Harpo doing his charades bit to get across some urgent plot point, they rely on 'sounds like' anagrams, and projection. These days it's only when we're insane, sleep-deprived, tripping, or enlightened, that the veil parts. The dream maker tendrils finally break up through the locked cellar door and go twisting out all over our tight-ship dinner party, clutching and coiling, breaking plates, and carrying on. My they are an unruly bunch! 

But mostly, we only occasionally get a note or a postcard passed up through the floorboards. And then, since the unconscious can watch what we watch, we get a pure jolt of ecstatic delight when an archeytpal elelment below wants us to know they relate to something enough to project themselves onto it. Thus my heart soars every time I see George Barrows' post-swig shiver while they pass the bottle around in Mesa of Lost Women, or the strange nocturnal dance in Cat Women of the Moon, or Tor Johnson rising from the tomb in Plan Nine; or the titular Astounding She Monster jumping through Robert Clarke's cabin window like a big bodystocking-clad she cat; or Lou Ferigno and and Circe riding a rock-propelled chariot past the moon in the 1985 Cannon/Cozzi masterpiece Hercules, because all the elements are there. Arguine its unconvincing is like arguing against a Tarot reading for having dogeared cards. The reading is even more potent for the aging process... any sage projecting itself up onto a passing Yoda T-shirt knows that...

  Something about these peak weird moments in the cheap, wild, meta-enriched films really speaks to a deep well in my soul, reflecting the cheap look of my b&w dreams. When these oasis moments happen, it's like finding a well-stocked bar on a seemingly deserted island. 

Anyway, all that is the long way around to saying woe is he who comes to "Manos" The Hands of Fate (the quotation marks are part of the title), for such priceless whiskey womb moments. Do so and your happy place GPS might lead you all the way around the world rather than admit there is no "there" there. But it's so almost perfect that finding something to love within it becomes a challenge to every outsider film fan. It's a maze that promises all sorts of gifts, but leads you only to fever dream dead ends. 

Maybe you know the fever dream I mean: where you hear a snatch of some song you heard in passing or while watching TV in your bed, and it just repeats over and over on a loop in your brain (2). You will get that with the score of "Manos" which means that if--even with that score--you can enjoy "Manos," you can enjoy hell itself. That means, to you, heaven is right here on earth. 

But know ye this: the enlightened one asks for the dirtiest jobs, lives the most spartan of lives, gives up the endless chase for nirvana, even the pursuit of gettin' wasted, or living "the fine life, baby" as Snoop Dogg would say in those Corona ads. In doing so, pleasure chases him. Pain runs from him. Pain is scared, it has no power anymore. Free of all judgement, recused from the bench, such a man is to be feared only by fear itself. For him All is connection and bliss. He moves beyond duality. At last he is the one hand clapping. He is the noise of the tree falling in the woods when no ears are around. 

"Manos" can deliver the final blow to the door betwixt duality and its transcendence, all you gotta do is walk on through the wall, headfirst. 


PS - SORRY FOR THE EXTREME LENGTH OF THIS PIECE. I HAVE BEEN WORKING ON IT FOR TOO LONG (and actually it used to be twice as long with a long preamble about surrealist art and the joy of paredolia and campfire stories as a kind of mental TV. - Some other time). As always, I'd suggest just scrolling around, reading any paragraph that starts interestingly, and stopping when it starts to get all Joycean. ) I'm working on it.

People like Ed Wood are revered today because they put their heart and soul into their cheap-ass outsider films, and you can tell that they're weird people trying to make a normal, quality best film they can, but their fractured sense of reality shows through every armor chink. Ed proved he was perfectly capable of making a boring 'normal' if cheap B-movie, where the mise-en-scene could be threadbare without drawing attention to itself (as in Jail-Bait) but it was when he tried to make big personal statements while moving into horror to both help out and exploit Bela Lugosi that his imagination took wing, leaving his ability far in the dust and earning his place in the cult pantheon, making him the saint of all outsider or 'folk-art' filmmakers.

But when normal people make films that are intentionally trying to be weird or bad, it's only ever 'quirky' in that blando calrissian tradition. 

"Manos" is a little different from both. Its director is a normal person but he isn't trying to be weird. He isn't trying period.  First/last-time director, full-time Texas fertilizer salesman Hal Warren barely achieves the rudiments of what a feature film should be--but he won the bet he made with fellow Texan and renowned screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (it probably went along the lines of: " Making a film is easy, Stirling, slinging fertilizer is way harder." / "If it's so easy, Hal, I bet you can't make one!" / "Yer on!"). In the end, Warren proves himself a master of slinging fertilizer, no matter what he does. 

Yessir, Hal Warren shows just how easy it can't be.

Being contemptuous of shit-slinging is one thing, but does contempt for the craft of filmmaking alone make a film interesting or rewarding? It depends, I guess, on who you invite over for your "beer and pizza night" to watch it. That's apparently the best way to enjoy "Manos" --with buds, brews, and pizzas, according to the comments on imdb. If you're sober and alone though, "Manos" is perfect for being tripped out on SSRIs, at 4 AM, alone, in the dark. Wondering if life in the simulation is really like this movie - a kind of fly in amber trap in which all movement circles back to itself. 

What Warren hath wrought is as a God making a world in one night, only to later realize it doesn't revolve, and therefor has no gravity, so all the shit on it is just floating away. And mighty glad of it it is. 

On the seventh day, Hal rested. 

Looks like he rested the first six days, too.  

Wake up, Hal! 

But despite that whiskey womb happy place GPS pointing us far from "Manos'" reach as we can get, there just might be a happy place gold mine in this thar abyss. 

As Teleport City says, "When you dedicate a portion of your life to the pursuit of obscure cinema existing beyond the limits of mainstream film, a movie like "Manos" is both exactly what you’ve been looking for as well as the ultimate instrument of your destruction." Bill Gordon at Worst Movies Ever Made summed up its (lack of) appeal thus: "Give it any amount of stars you wish, or don’t give any (...) they are all accurate."

Manos" lives on the tape splice of the bad movie Möbius strip, a zone where infinite plentitude and absolute absence connect. With "Manos," emptiness at last has a mirror to behold itself, 

If you stare back at yourself through the mirror long enough, zooming right into your own pupils, you just may realize that, when the black of your pupils zooms in on the blackness of their reflection for long enough, you're gazing into two empty black holes through which you can peak into the abyss of non-being. Such is "Manos," an empty void, with some nice 16mm color photography now that it's been restored for Blu-ray.

The plot could not be simpler or more familiar: a family road trip gone awry. The difference: the car is lost in the empty scrubland of nowhere Texas instead of the usual Jason woods or Eyes-hilled desert. It seems easy and yet impossible to get lost out there, but with dad at the wheel, anything's not only possible but inevitable. His MILF wife riding shotgun; daughter  (the only good actor) in the backseat, oblivious to the mounting tension, distracted continually by her doll and puppy They're driving around in circles, not thinking to ask directions from the cops they pass, or the couple making out by the side of the road. They eventually find a hand-made sign that points the way to a lodge where dad hopes they can stay the night. A sinister, obviously chemically impaired confederate uniform-sporting goatish caretaker named Torgo stands in front of the door (we never really see the building behind him), squinting and staggering under the magic hour glow. He tells them-- in a kind of drunken hiccup-style--and like all the voices, dubbed in after the fact, that they can't come in. The owner won't like it and they're closed. But the dad, afraid of driving under all that afternoon sun, bullies his way in. 

Things are pretty weird in the lodge. It's not even a lodge. There is a room with a couch and a big wet painting and a small ratty bedroom--replete with double bed against a wall and a footlocker for furnishing--leading to a small ratty kitchen--replete with small ratty sink--leading to a giant back porch--replete with floodlights and yard spreading off into the open desert). After the wife pleads and nags for an hour or so and the child's dog is mysteriously killed (off camera), dad finally decides to leave. But they never do get to leave. Somehow, the car won't start. Or something. The dad can't fix it, nor make decent life decisions (at least he's armed, not that it will do much good). Though Torgo is apparently hobbled and suffering from St. Vitus's Dance, the hale and hearty dad keeps insisting the poor guy bring their bags in, then out, in, then out. It's pretty funny to imagine would it would be like if some random family barged into your small house and demanded you load and unload their luggage while complaining every minute about your furnishings. 

And then, out back, night falls and... the 'Master' awakens. He's a pale ectomorph whose only masterful quality is a fierce stare and thick black eyebrows. He does a lot of standing, spreading out his crazy 'red hand on a black background' cape/shawl a lot--rightly proud of it. A thick black smoke, rising from a small fire pit at his feet, surrounds him, as if he's outlined in black sharpie drawn onto each frame. "Manos," he screeches, "must be served." 

Just to be 'clear,' though he is the "Master" he serves "Manos." But what or who "Manos" is never does get explained. The difference between them seems uncertain from scene to scene. We do know this cult likes hand sculptures. And hand symbolism. Did you know manos means 'hands'? So the title translated is: "Hands: Hand of Fate?"

As the film spins on, Torgo has taken a shine to the wife after watching her undress in the mirror (down to her slip), and asks the Master if he can keep her for himself. But the Master wants her to join his own harem of undead-style brides, all of them wearing wayyy too much cheap make-up, and these iill-fitting diaphanous gowns. Most of the time, they're rolling around in the sand in endless catfights while the Master sits there, vexed... but obviously used to it. 

Needless to say, things don't end well.

They didn't begin well either. 

Still, all the elements for a schlectesklassisch are there: the fractured pacing, the dream logic, the loopy editing; the canned post-sync dialogue seemingly beamed in from beyond the grave; the dead space before and after the lines (which should have been snipped off by an editor rather than someone who only knows how to tape strips of film together); the unhinged performances, the almost passive-aggressively threadbare sets. The actor who plays the dad. Oh wait, that's Hal himself! A real hack of all trades.


But there is one very important element for successful bad film bliss missing though: a good score. Post-sync sound cheapjack movies like "Manos" usually have royalty-free music playing almost nonstop to help excuse the lack of dialogue and sound effects. BUT for that not to suck (in a genuinely bad way) we need either the right (or totally wrong) kind of music-such as that ominous, bombastic library music used for Astounding She-Monster, Plan Nine, and Beast of Yucca Flats)- and/or totally crocked narration (Criswell being the ultimate example). Warren waives both of these easily procured things, perhaps afraid of their power. He post-syncs the dialogue fairly well for such a cheap suit production...

But then, for music, we're treated to the magical lite jazz of Russ Huddleson and Robert Smith, Jr. (Soundtrack available on Spotify!) a duet of modern piano and flute (or sometimes alto sax) that is the height of mood-killer.  Jazz is perfectly fine in its way, even elevator jazz like this, but no, no, no, not here. Imagine if Kenny G. did the score for Suspiria or Halloween! Think, Hal Warren! Think what "Manos" could have meant to the world had you pumped it up with low- end ominous dread or pounding bombast! Even those piano mashes and frenzied Spanish guitar moments in Mesa of Lost Women and Jail Bait would have been perfect. 

Hal, come clean: did you just grab the closest, most royalty-free-looking stock jazz album from your grandma's attic?

Actually, the music is fine... for awhile. It casts a nice languid, slightly melancholy, almost romantic summer's idyll kind of mood when the family is just driving around, but then, when the menace should be building, ye olde flute keeps going. Songs and riffs repeat as if Warren merely started the record over again, utterly unaware it's permissible to actually edit to the music rather than just using it as wallpaper. Did he think that was cheating? As it is, the space between tracks on the album occur right in the middle of suspenseful actions, it doesn't bother old Hal. 

But us? Oh yeah. Just try to hear the whole movie all the way through in one sitting and that recurring, melodic little refrain will drive you nuts. It repeats and repeats, goes away and comes back again, pausing only so Hal can flip the record over, and eventually grows so irritating it will make you either surrender to it or go totally insane. Things like that are what keep me disengaged from so many of those 1960s black-and-white nudist and softcore Wishman style movies touted by Something Weird / Vinegar Syndrome / AFGA. If the library music the editor uses is good, like the robust Germanic jazz of Horror of Spider Island, or the retro-futurist loungecore or Nude on the Moon, it's something to cherish in the bad/weird movie desert island collection, the 'falling asleep or coming down from panic' section. If it's bad, like the royalty-free Phillip Sousa marches and Joplin ragtime traditionals in things like The Monster of Camp Sunshine, it gets alarmingly tedious.

And yet. With some effort, can a happy place still be found in the hands of "Manos", lite jazz flute be damned? Or celebrated? Can we make a heaven out of muzak hell? 


Maybe. But succumbing to the anti-charms of "Manos" requires an embrace of that eerie feeling of when you feel a banal dream slowly turns into a nightmare the harder you try to wake up and you realize you're catching the flu. You're trapped in some restaurant foyer, waiting for your parents to pick you up, but they never come. Eventually you get stuck to the floor, time stops. Resistance to the miasma just gets you more and more stuck, like a mammoth in a tar pit, or Miriam Hopkins stuck in a bootlegger's shack in The Story of Temple Drake

Actually you should see them both as a double feature as they're alike in weird refractive ways. While Drake is about a terrified rich girl trapped in a bootlegger's disheveled farmhouse in the middle of a swamp, unable to get a lift or walk thanks to the lateness of the hour, the pouring rain, and her date's drunken stupor; in "Manos" we have a mom trapped at a 'lodge' (i.e. three dog-eared rooms) in the middle of the Texas scrub, by the late afternoon sun and her husband's dim bulb thinking. Instead of the pull of dangerous roughie sexuality that is Jack La Rue's hooded eyes, it's the angular jet black eyebrows and furious glaring of Tom Neyman and his big black dog, enveloped by black smoke from a small fire pit.  Instead of a well-meaning idiot man child handyman getting shot trying (and failing) to protect Temple Drake from being raped, in "Manos" we have an idiot man child having his hand burnt off for molesting the wives and ogling the mom. Instead of the Trigger bringing the in-shock Temple back with him and setting her up in a brothel, here we have the Master enfolding the wife and even daughter into his harem of sleeping undead. Instead of a solid eerie pre-code drama about deep south class prejudice and sexual violence, we have a shitty mid-60s 'horror' film endeavoring to be about the danger of letting your husband make important decisions. Both movies show how a probably smart, sexually alive, good, sexy woman might wind up trapped in no-exit patriarchal purgatory thanks to a dysfunctional male companion, become unsuccessfully protected by a useless idiot man-child handyman, and bent to the will of an unsavory dark-haired stranger with piercing eyes looking to expand his stable, so to speak. It's like a procession of male dysfunction, from the merely weak, to the mentally disabled, to the truly villainous. 

Another saving grace of some other bad movies: charmingly bankrupt art direction. Outdoing them all to the point of absurdity are the weird random set decorations in "Manos," so spartan and run-down they become like a passive aggressive jab by or at the director (who, by all accounts, was an incompetent tyrant - but hey, it's for art). There are some cool "manos" sculptures and a painting of The Master and his dog that looks like it's still wet; there's a single empty beer bottle; a yard of rope hanging on the wall; a random white gown hung up like a curtain; a ratty trunk; a shitty couch; a small twin bed in the corner. We spend a lot of time looking at "all" these things, since nothing else is going on. We get to know them pretty well. It's not the kind of place anyone in their right mind would want to stay in. But what can you do? It's still light outside so dad is afraid to keep driving. And it's not like mom ever even tries to take over. Well, she could demand the keys and drive away with the child.... but not her. She's too conditioned by the mores of the day.

Yes, "Manos" slides you a stealth-feminist critique of bland nuclear family patriarchy, maybe right in under Warren's own nose. Despite its worst efforts, a sub-basement subtext is there for the digging. While still in the car Margaret (Diane Adelson - who is quite lovely and well-photographed --left) keeps insisting they don't stay, but it falls on husband's deaf ears: 

Torgo: "You can't stay"
Mike: Well Torgo, are we coming in or not!?
Margaret: Mike! I don't want to stay here!
Torgo: You can't come in."
Mike: Well, Torgo? In or out?
Margaret: Mike!

Is that how you sell fertilizer, Hal? 
I imagine the patented Hall Warren sales pitch goes something like this: 

Hal: So what do ya think, I send over six bags of this fertilizer to start with?
Store owner: I don't think so, our shelves are already stocked.
Hal: Well, do we have a deal or not? The six?
Store Owner: I said NO.
Hal: Make up your mind, do I leave the six bags or not?
Store owner: Get out of here!
Hal: I have other places to be so please let me know about the six. I have them right here.
Store owner: Get out!
Hal: Come on, just make up your mind. You won't regret it.
Store owner: Ugh, fine! Just leave them and go.
Hal: OK, come get them out of my car. 

There's a nice meta-parallel between Margaret's sense of futility--unable to prevent her own looming doom due to gender codes that require him to do the decision-making--mirrored in the anxiety an actress like Adelson might feel being in a film with a director like Warren. Here she is, finally landing a starring role in a film, only to discover it's being directed by an artistically-challenged 'idiot manchild' incompetent, who's sooner or later going to ask hwe to take her dress off. Whatever performance you turn in, his wrongheaded judgments are going to ensure your name is forever blighted (or, more usually, forgotten) as the film is either booed off the screen or shelved. Tainted by its bad rep, you'll never work again, or you will be back where you started, unknown.

Young married women of the era would find this same trap at home: totally dependent on some man to provide money and lodging from now until the end of time; a man she maybe barely knows, as it turns out, once the flower of love and sexual attraction begins to fade. (The moral codes of the day being what they were, you had to buy before you could try). Adelson, perhaps unknowingly, seems to tap into this frustration, she uses her actorly misgivings to convey the sense of "too-late" realization that her keen sense of danger--her feminine instinct--will always be dismissed as nonsense by the logical, blinders-on men around her. 

Meanwhile dad is struggling in his own gender straitjacket--the awful responsibility of calling all the shots producing judgement-impairing stress--almost as much as she is from having none. He's conditioned to ignore her intuition and she's conditioned to only try and influence her husband's decisions, rather than taking the direct action herself, seizing the reins of her own destiny (i.e. leaving dad at the lodge if he so badly wants to stay and driving away without him). 

Thus the subtext: adherence to outmoded gender norms expose the entire family to cult machinations. He's obligated to take charge whether he knows what to do or not; she's obligated to never take charge even though she does. She only has an "I told you so" locked and loaded in her heart by way of protection when the shit inevitably flies through the fan; but is it all the man's fault for being wishy-washy or hers for not being more assertive?

Blame their parents' parents' parents' parents'! They should have done more rebelling! 

Considering the era this movie was made in, we can hardly be surprised at how much the patriarchy is creaking and groaning with the pressure that will soon explode it from within. Movies like The Cracker Factory and An Unmarried Woman were still a decade away, but their nucleus had been forming and throwing the horrors of this gender slavery into sharp relief/ 

This Temple Drake nightmare, this "the guy who brought you is passed out or otherwise unable to accurately assess the looming danger to your honor' sense of dread, the forlorn gender-specific nightmare endangerment that opens up the broken heteronormative pair bond to outside influences and makes these movies 'scary' on at least some horror movie level. So to escape the situation her husband has put her in, she has to change masters, so to speak. She latches onto the first strong male or group that comes along that offers security, and that's usually either the church, a cult, a commune or a pyramid scheme (and really, what's the difference?).  It's all MANOS. 

Aside from Adelson, feminist subtext continues into the date rapey accusations of the Master re: Torgo's presumable molesting of the Master's brides during the day while they are asleep / immobilized; ("The women remember everything you say to them, Torgo. And they remember everything you do to them."). 

Of course we only ever see them sleeping at night, which makes the 'dream logic' or 'inconsistency' even more palpable, since they presumably are awake at night but sleep in the day. (The whole movie goes down basically from dusk to dawn in a single nigh--at least that's in its favor). On the other hand, it's less spooky to imagine them all immobilized like dead statues all through the afternoon Texas sun, (what do the neighbors think? It's like if Karloff in The Black Cat kept all his dead wife trophy cases out by the mailbox) it makes sense on a tactile if not logical level that we only ever see them sleeping at night.  

As for the brides of Manos, there is at least some unity going on with their embracing of new female blood--the argument being whether to kill the child or prep her for a life as a (hopefully future only) bride of the Master. They all agree the man should die. There is an "us" with the wives that speaks of a common consensus ("jealousy is not part of us.") On that level, at least, there is a strong matriarchal current. At most the "Master" seems rather fey kind of shrieking totem, a mix of Franklin Pangborn,  Nick Cave, Tom Skerritt if he was playing the dept. store clerk on the Jack Benny Show (and drunk), and Lux Interior (from The Cramps).


All that aside, there isn't anything compelling going on in "Manos": The Hands of Fate. There isn't a whole lot going on, period. And maybe that lack of things going on is, in the end, what is, in fact, going on. Like "the Black Lodge" in Twin Peaks, this Manos "lodge" is allegedly somewhere in a dirt road maze of Texas scrubland, probably where a nuclear test ripped a hole in the membrane that separates dream and reality. There is no sign-in desk here, no food or drink service, no keys, hallways, or more than one ratty looking twin bed. The expansive luxury of the columned back porch and its weird Giacometti ash tray-kind / brazier kind of thing for an open flame make a pointed and surreal contrast with the impoverished rooms of the lodge itself, as if a Gone with the Wind slave shack had the Tara's wraparound veranda.  

Once it's so dark out it's time to wake, the Master (Tom Neyman) with his thick black eyebrows, groovy black mustache, pale skin, thin frame and ultra-groovy "Manos" cape/robe/gown/ outfit " must be served"!  With toxic-looking black smoke enshrouding him, he lets loose with a lot of spontaneous praying and orating in the name of Manos.  The black smoke is interesting as it's so dark it becomes like black magic marker rectangular halo, obscuring his pale face and those jet red fingers from us like he's being "X"-ed out with a black crayon by a frenzied ADD toddler. It accentuates his uncanny stare straight into--and through-- the camera, as if he's about to call you by name through the veil of time and meta-textual distance. In the one moment we know is supposed to be funny, his dozen wives awake and immediately start bickering about whether or not to kill both the man and the child or just the man, and of course to indoctrinate the wife as one of them of if there are already enough wives for the coven all while he sits on the slab, looking down at them balefully, used to it, like having a nagging wife x 12, am I right, fellas?

"Manos" may not be much but it is good for when you are really high or otherwise out of it, if you want to be totally confused and a little amused, made aware of the mechanics of film narrative now that they are not being obeyed. The usual signifier chains are disrupted, the cinematic language reduced to a cosmic slur pitched somewhere between the mescaline high notes of nightmare logic (part Bunuel / part Fulci) and the agape jaw/droopy eyelid/post-sync Remeron cushion lows (part Doris Wishman / part Coleman Francis). Actors stand around before going into action, as if waiting for a cue that never comes; 60s period photography (appreciable thanks to a recent upgrade) captures a nostalgia for your parent's (or grandparent's) home movies, vacations in purgatory; occasional bouts of intentional humor (the bickering, brawling brides, rolling around forever on white sand as swirling alto sax plays); constant surreal bits (the back and forth of the luggage); strange dead-end reaction shots, all cohere to get you past the first soothing, then irritating score, and the long driving scenes, pointless go-nowhere cuts. Nothing really connects or makes sense, but then again, neither do a lot of things in life, bro. Actions are repeated over and over as if the director is saying "again! again" to the actor without stopping the camera (the way directors sometimes do to save time, repeating a line or action inside a single take, planning to only use the best one and cut the rest out, but sometimes --as in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, keeping the repetitions). It's as if Warren shot ninety minutes of film and used it all, letting intentional and accidental comedic incompetency occur naturally.  Since it's all post-synced it doesn't seem to matter as much. People make some some movement or say something as if presuming--not unreasonably perhaps-- the ends of their shot will be scissored, as they would be in normal hands. So we get moments of stillness before or after movements, the actor all but looking at the camera man after the action and waiting to hear 'cut.' 

The only natural performance comes from the little daughter, who at least seems genuinely into her doggy and then her little doll. The rest of them seem like aliens from some drug-drenched cosmic waiting room, the kind of dead in-between zone that used to haunt my dreams when I had a bad fever as a child. Trapped in loops, groped by demonic giant mental patients and creepy old women while the parents dismissed my fears as nonsense. The actors feel trapped too, perhaps hoping, reel after reel, for something in the script to come along and give them a cue as to what to do with their hands (of fate) until it's finally time to go home.

Special mention too to Reynolds, who was allegedly on acid throughout the shoot (this was 1966 when it was still quasi-legal). He seems legitimately out of it, but at least that's a direction. That's a choice. He reminds me of when I had the DTs, back in 2016, shaking and moving with a kind of panicky wobble to the ER or the liquor store, as if every time one of his feet left the ground his body tensed as if he was about to fly upwards or blow away. When he lands on the ground again he has to begin the whole process of re-balancing. Dude. Whether suffering from either alcoholic, opiate or methamphetamine withdrawal, or all three at once, Reynolds definitely has 'the look.' The legend goes his character was supposed to be half-goat at one point, so he put braces on his legs to give him a goat-like walk. Warren never asked him to do that, nor bothered to tell him the goat idea was nixed. In some scenes he even shows up with drawn-on angry eyebrows (upper left), ala, an angry goat. What a character! In voice and manner he seems to be doing an impression of Dennis Weaver's "night man" in Touch of Evil crossed with Walter Brennan's rummy in To Have and Have Not. 

I guess, in the end, we're all Torgos here, all the nightman for a party we can only paw ineffectually at the window while shivering outside. We can only endeavor to not have someone draw devilish eyebrows on us before someone burns off one of our hands and we exeunt into the desert night--an endeavor Reynolds' Torgo has clearly failed at. But that's OK Torgo, nothing to get hung about. 

Poor Torgo is doomed for many reasons, but the most egregious sin, where he crosses the Torgo line even to us, his champions, is when it's revealed he's been molesting the wives while they sleep. Manos decrees his wives "Keel! Keel!" him, a long overdue revenge. This consists of kind of grabbing him around the shoulders and fake slapping him around 100 times. Not even worn out by his slapping, he finally has his hand held over the fire until it becomes a crispy skeleton hand, then he staggers out in the desert. Presumably never to return. But the Master doesn't need to worry, as he shouts to no one in particular, "I am permanent! Manos has made me permanent!"


Over too quickly yet seeming to last years, "Manos" has earned its wings in the long haul as some rare artifact both uncanny and tediously banal at the same time. And on a personal level, that sense of being trapped in the amber of strange nothing jibs perfectly with nightmares I remember from childhood, wherein my parents would leave me in a restaurant foyer, me unable to get through the revolving door, and being stuck waiting for them for years and years, in total isolation, to the point even an evil witch moving slowly towards me across the empty restaurant, was a welcome reprieve from the nothingness. Now that there's a nicely restored print with good colors, giving it all a home movie, Lana del Rey video vibe, there's a nice Lana Del Rey-ish tone of lost America, of an America that only ever existed in memory, in postcards, and in movies - and maybe not even then - the America of Ghosts. 


Take for example the side plot with a harassed couple necking in a convertible, presumably nearby, hidden in the emptiness of the scrubland. The only car present besides the cops and the families. They just want to park and make out, no one around for miles and miles, but the cops have nothing better to do than drive all over a series of winding desert dirt paths in the middle of nowhere just to repeatedly harass them. Who was there to complain? A committee of jackrabbits? At least the cops don't even care that they've been drinking. How did the cops even find them? If there's nothing going out out there, why are the cops even patrolling? And just how did the cops know the family car had its tail light out, since it's the middle of the day? 

You can ask these questions, but just like that fever dream, you're not going to get answers. Nothing adds up in the equation of the unconscious. It's there for its there-ness. 

But even in dreams, alcohol and drugs can provide relief. The lovers have a pint of something or other, and--a big credit in my book--when they drink they wince and shiver like one does when actually drinking liquor straight from the bottle (but one seldom sees in films, Barrows' shiver in Mesa of Lost Women accepted).  It's the sole moment of warmth, of recognizable humanity, outside of the puppy-girl relationship - doomed as it is. 


Regardless of where you fall on the bad film lover matrix, Manos's strange mix of inconsistent logic and deep-rooted malaise keep it intriguing, revealing in their absence, the million common sense decisions most of us don't even notice have been made in the finishing of a feature film. Every edit, every line reading, every sound effect, every prop is off. The painting isn't even dry. And it's kinda weak.k The vintage metal hand sculptures are actually cool, they use one for a fire out on the back veranda, a kind of giant brazier/ash tray/sculpture, lit ablaze with a burning kinda Giacometti-esque man in the dead center, like a giant hardened slag icicle in reverse. Props to that... prop. But the rest is a bit like that random piece of rope on the wall, or the shirt. Why? This isn't a matter of Lynchian 'big fish' surrealism; this is a matter of incompetence and obliviousness finding grace in the randomness of life. 

Hal Warren probably lifted the hackneyed 'twist' at the end from a stray copy DC's House of Secrets, sure. H  had no idea how to stretch it out to feature length, granted. But like someone who needs fertilizer but doesn't know it, Warren won't get his foot out of your inner door. Determined to win his bet, to send Sterling Siliphant sailing home in shame, he came up with an economical solution to get to the needed minute count. Never say action. Never say cut. Just let it run and see if the actors realize it and decide to begin the scene rather than standing around waiting for direction. You can see the "oh are you filming now? Okay, I knew that," passing across every actor's face. That's fine.  Keep all the dead moments before or after an action in the final cut. It's good enough for Warhol, it's good enough for Texas. 

Manos writer-director-star Harold P. Warren may be guilty of a lot of things, but cheating with 'day-for-night' exposure tricks? Sometimes. Not even the script knows what time it is when the family first pulls up in front of the "lodge" (which we never see the front of). In the shots of Torgo swaying indecisively there in the doorway, decked out like a Confederate officer ghost haunting a Salvation Army, it's clearly twilight: the setting sun beams in his eyes, turning his face a healthy orange. Thus the needing to stay there rather than driving in circles makes some kind of sense. But in reverse shots of the family it's clearly mid-afternoon. A smart no-budget filmmaker gets around these types of issues by shooting mostly in-doors or by just moving the camera around in a single take, or just being real fast. Despite the ridiculous convention that it's too late to keep driving and they need to stop for the night even though it's clearly the middle of the afternoon, night does eventually come and to his credit it's real night, an inky all-consuming blackness that looks great in the new HD remastering. 

And unlike Grefé's core competency with Tartu, Warren's Manos never exhibits for a moment anything that feels remotely conventional or coherent. It glides like an eagle straight through the sliding door of its own set of limitations, sending a whirl of glass and feathers through the ratty living room of conceptual art, blinding and tickling half the gathered throng. Come to it naked of expectations, alone, and thou wilt be astonished, mildly amused, maybe even relaxed. And Manos will be pleased you finally shuckered loose from your snarky robot "friends." He'l be served either way, but he hates humor, and rightly. 

Damn, he's gonna run out of columns.


2. On a tragic note, Reynolds killed himself a month after filming this, I hope not because of some weird acid-fueled voice in his head told him to. He should have tried alcohol first! That's what worked for me, for awhile. And in 1966 Prozac was still 22 years away. God knows how many poor souls that drug's saved. God bless you, Pfizer, god bless you, Eli Lilly. 

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