Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jills of Jack Hill Part 2: BIG DOLL HOUSE, COFFY, SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, SORCERESS, BIG BIRD CAGE, FOXY BROWN



At last, the color portion of my promised Hill oeuvre, celebrating the mountain of Hills now available on Blu-ray, framing the golden question of whether Hill "gets" women or just loves them - whatever the difference is, and if a single filmography can answer it. Thanks to great work of the mighty Arrow video, and Scorpion releasing; most everything Hill did is on Blu-ray or at least DVD (see part one of this series, the Hill black and white era). Next to the great JC, he's the premiere Hawksian of the drive-in era. Cherish him.

The following have always been in print and written about quite a bit, largely due (I think) to Quentin Tarantino and Pam Grier, so just a quick pass through of their pros and cons as I have mixed feelings about them.

PART II: THE GRIER YEARS
THE BIG DOLL HOUSE
 (1971) **1/2

Made during the Philippines boom' - when Corman's New World youth brigade (Hill, Hellman, etc.) was cranking 'em out fast and cheap in the land of the waxy frond, BIG DOLL finds Jack Hill gamely updating of the Women in Prison genre, shoring off the gang deb's big hair, switchblades and adding erotic nudity, lesbian amor (as opposed to just suggesting it via some lip-smacking bull-dyke guards), horniness, political upheaval, nymphomania, opiate withdrawal, sisterhood, corruption, systemic sadism (The infamous Stanford Experiment was conducted the same year), xenophobia (racism) and existential ennui, using the foreign locale to emphasize the powerless terror any sensible American has being caught in the gears of a corrupt, brutal third-world regime. If that wasn't enough for you: Hill stock character actor Sid Haig shows up in a sombrero. Wherever Hill is there, so too the Haig. It is written.

The cast is a veritable All-Stars of New World hottie talent, not only introducing Pam Grier (as the lesbian one) but delivering unto us Judy Brown (as the new kid); Pat GIRLFRIENDS Woodell (as the guerrilla); Roberta Collins (as the tough blonde); and Brooke Mills (as the strung-out junkie). They'd all be playing nurses, strippers, thieves, or feminists all through the New World 70s drive-in canon. Here they race cockroaches, fight in the mud, shower, and get it on,while the sadistic head guard (Kathryn Loder, left) conducts nightly torture sessions for the pleasure of the mysterious Colonel Mendoza. Eventually the girls escape, and all hell breaks loose as they race to join the rebels, machine guns blazing a path through the jungles. Despite the copious grime and systemic abuse, Hill keeps a nice pro-feminist stance, though the final shot is a downer for sure.

Pros: some cathartic violence during the escape; star wattage; Grier's dynamite song "99 Years."

Cons; The Philippines never look good on film to me -- that vegetation just feels claustrophobically damp, the vegetation waxy and a thin sheen of sweat over everyone and everything, flat gray-white sky outdoor days both hot humid and oppressive even out of doors, with ugly buildings and the ghosts of horrible Japanese soldiers still haunting bullet-ridden ruins, and so forth. Still, *** because for what and where it is, it's damned solid.

THE BIG BIRD CAGE
(1972) **1/2

The Doll House was such a hit that Hill and Grier had to go back to the Philippines and crank out another, this one's got more comedy, more rebels, and a bigger budget (a whole summer camp-style compound was erected and then burnt to the ground, eventually searing e'en the celluloid). Now the showers and catfights are outdoors on muddy sloping hills, and there's even more of a revolutionary angle as Grier's boyfriend is rebel leader Sid Haig, and the plan is to get his boys girlfriends by liberating the camp and leading the ladies to the freedom of the deep jungle. That's all fine, but the real selling point is the the amazingly slender-hipped huge-haired mega-babe Anitra Ford as a free-spirited nymphomaniac named Tory, whose bedding of important political figures has landed her 'on ice' and becomes Grier's sparring/bonding partner. The gurards are mincing gay stereotypes (chosen to not get entangled with the girls) and warden Zappa (Andy Centera) is a high-strung nutcase. I dug this the first time I saw it with my socialist rebel Argentine espouse; didn't like it the second, alone and disheveled. Can't wait for the third, or can I?


Pros: Grier and Ford are both dynamite with their bad attitudes and skimpy prison attire (Ford may have the best mid-riff in the history of the genre) and Hill is much more about escape, sisterhood, am machine gunning your way to freedom than he is about seeing women tortured (though there's plenty of that too - alas). Grier and Ford are a great team, and--even though he's rocking a misplaced accent--Haig's the man.

Cons: It's a personal thing, but I find the sweaty Filipino foliage claustrophobic. The gay mincing guards (the film's most dated element) are much too flouncy, and there's a wearying amount of suffering and abuse prior to the revolt. Me, I like ten pounds of vengeance to an ounce of provocation, not vice versa.

COFFY
(1973) - ***

Grier rocketed to stardom as the queen of blaxploitation films with this big cult hit-- capably stepping out from her ensemble work in the Philippine prisons and into the big leagues. She's a hardworking nurse out to avenge her smack-addicted 11-year-old sister by waging a one-woman war on Los Angeles' drug/prostitution racket after her cop friend Carter (William Elliott) is beaten up for not being crooked. First step: go undercover as a high-class Jamaican prostitute for King George (Robert Doqui), a super mack-daddy pimp with big-time heroin connections. Grier's bathing suit is divine, her cape diviner, her accent hilarious, and King George as a cape too. What's up with capes? Who cares, we love it. Soon old King George is being dragged from behind an Oldsmobile by Arab henchman Sid Haig while Coffy swims up further and further up the sleazy heroin dealing/prostitution pipeline looking for Mr. Big. If it all starts to get too grimy and Diane Arbus-style ugly/heroin despairing, Diane's real-life husband, Allan, shows up as a sleazy sheik! MASH fans are bound to be pleasantly unnerved by the sight of their beloved shrink Sidney laying back on a bed trying to be sensual while beckoning Coffy unto him saying, "come here, I'm going to hurt you." (or is it "not going to hurt you"? You decide). Booker Bradshaw is Coffy's tall, dark, and handsome politician boyfriend, whose slick-ass roadster is so low he has to step down to get into it; and likes to hang out at a groovy bar that you know's got class because of the fire pit. Through it all, Grier keeps her character tough and glamorous like hammered-down nail polish, hard candy shell, warm, sensitive center, even when wielding a sawed-off shotgun.

It's temporarily good to be the 'King'

Cons:
 The Olive Blu-ray is barebones and in its widescreen HD reveals something not as immediately apparent on VHS, just how cheap this movie is, something the full screen VHS I used to have obscured. Here we can see the far edges of the cheap plywood sets in mid-warp/decay from the swampy heat, every surface has that sad under construction look. The bars and apartments have an airless, sweaty claustrophobia. As for the actors, their wigs appear crooked and misshapen, their make-up runny; it's like a giant basement of freaks; even the outdoor scenes have an existentially oppressed vibe. And just because he's a pimp doesn't really mean King George (above left) deserves to be betrayed and dragged around behind a car like Angelo in WILD BUNCH. Or the fellow stable whores deserve to be all cut up or otherwise abused so Coffy can get her vengeance.

Pros: In the end, though, none of that shit matters, because that score by Roy Ayers is so damned funky, so tight, so on point, and sounds so full and badass in the Blu-ray digital that if you watch this with the stereo connected, you'll be blown clear of all tawdry visuals. And despite the bad wig factor, the actors are sublime: Grier, especially, is in a class by herself. And, more tellingly, the tawdry atmosphere works to make all the junky longing for release perfectly understandable. Hill can't convey the way an arm full of opiates can make a heaven of ghetto hell, but he sure has a handle on the look and feel of withdrawal. The whole COFFY mise-en-scene seems as if its an aesthetic reflection of a crucifixion cruise, i.e. the endless slog through pain and despair that is hustling on the street, so desperate without opiates in your system you'll sell your soul for a moment's respite.

courtesy Art of the Title


FOXY BROWN
(1974) - **

Paid homage to by directors from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino, this is the title Pam Grier is known for/by even though it's COFFY they're thinking of. Here's a similar plot, but a disproportioned amount of abuse vs. payback makes it tough to love by those of us who like it better the other way. Here Grier's Foxy is a tougher, more jaded and bitter version of her Coffy character, it's as if all her killing from the previous film only made it worse. Drugs and gang violence have so destroyed her neighborhood that when her undercover cop boyfriend (Terry Cotter) is gunned down in the middle of the afternoon and no one comes forward as a witness. Her skittery junky brother (Antonio "Teddy Bear" Fargas) might know, though (he gets his drugs from there), and--uniting with a local "neighborhood action" group--Foxy goes undercover as a call girl for the neighborhood's drug czar/madame played by the charisma-deprived Kathryn Loder, to get the goods on the whole operation. Way too much screen time is spent watching Loder sadistically abuse her girls and dote on her pretty boy gigolo and not nearly enough watching Grier kick the shit out of people.

Eventually she travels as far as the poppy fields of the Philippines (where else?) in her quest, but all she finds is more rape, forced heroin injections (which is how, in all these movies, they get them hooked and so dependent on their supplier-pimps) and barely enough revenge. Highlights include a lesbian bar brawl and Foxy's sexual belittling of an old white judge, but even that goes sour when the girl she encouraged to participate (Sally-Ann Stroud) winds up tortured and murdered after Foxy leaves. How emblematic of America's involvement in third world power struggles! 

Pros: A great lengthy rattletrap scene of Foxy shaking down a junky lesbian, who's afraid her dyke girlfriend is going to come home from work and find her with another woman, a clear influence on "The Bonnie Situation" in PULP FICTION (which had Grier in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Bonnie); the insane afros and gorgeous-slick outfits Grier wears throughout, the crazily colored opening credits, which feature Grier boogying down in all sorts of super-sexy outfits to the Willie Hutch theme. Best of all, of course that Hutch funk score. As with Coffy's Roy Ayers score, worth the price of admission all by itself.

Cons: Unrelenting urban blight, sexual abuse, and aesthetic degradation. Foxy seems to think turning tricks, getting shot up, raped, harassed, shot at, and leaving the people who help her to be tortured or killed, is small price to pay for --what, does she get anything for her troubles? SPOILER ALERT: She doesn't even kill the evil Loder, as if her endless ugly egotistical sadism--which by then has grown as soul-crushingly wearisome as that of Alan Ormsby in CHILDREN SHOUDLDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGs or Michael Gambon's Peter Grant-ish thug in THE COOK, THE THIEF, THE WIFE AND HER LOVER--is so foul it's not enough just to shoot her. So, what instead? She gives him her lover's nuts in a jar? I couldn't watch another blaxploitation movie for years after that. This was Hill's last in the subgenre anyway. Urgh! It's been almost 20 years, and I'm still mad.


PART 3: Centaur and SORCERESS

He'd break out from Corman's wing a bit next to form Centaur Releasing with John Prizer and two quick punchy films in the female ensemble vein, one would rake in a small fortune, the next would lose it. After a lengthy hiatus he went back to Corman (eight years later) for one more film, would fight a bit with him on it, and then that would be it. Well, how else do you graduate from the Corman school unless it's to fight with him about some creative issue and off you trundle, most likely into the abyss? Sadly, times changing and Hill's disinclination to work in direct-to-video or TV led to him doing just zero more films after that. He's still around though! Never say never.

THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS 
(1974) - ***

Following the tried-true three girls at work-and-play ensemble formula, this brings Hill's cunning mix of sexy feminism, cathartic violence, deadpan wit and covert liberal politics to bear in a sexy comedy-drama form. Radical journalism major Kate (Jo Johnston) goes undercover to expose outdated mores and institutionalized sexism within the college's football cheerleading team, but instead she finds she these girls are cool, and it's her wild-eyed radical underground newspaper editor boyfriend Ross (Ric Carrott) who's the rapey dick. Besides, the handsome quarterback Buck is played by Ron Hajek, his teeth white and straight enough he's worth stealing from the bitchy, manipulative cheerleader squad captain Mary Ann (Colleen Camp). Sulky Ross takes out his anger by publishing Kate's expose (after she tried to scrap it - realizing, as do most of us viewers ready to trash this film as a puerile snickering douche fest, that looks can be deceiving), thus turning the team against her, and then later inviting his sicko friends over to "break in" the virgin cheerleader (the doe-eyed Rainbeaux Smith). Mary Ann's dad, the dean of the school, is meanwhile embroiled in a plot to "fix" the big game, along with the coach, and a black professor (Jason Sommers) who is having an affair with another cheerleader (Rosanne Keaton, one of Playboy's first black centerfolds).

Pros: Hill keeps the action flowing in surprising ways. I'll confess I have a low skeeve threshold when rapey jocks start snickering and egging each other on like so many dickweeds needing their graves spit on even in supposedly benign sex comedies (like the odious misogyny benchmark PORKY'S). So I like that here the jocks are sensitive and serious and the radical underground journalist is the rapey swine. (Hill reports that a Texas audience one burst out of the seats applauding when the jock beats up Ross- so did I!)

Cons: I liked it the first time I saw it, and kind of fell for Johnston in those shorts. Now, a decade or so later, she just terrifies me--those eyes seem wild and unhinged, the mouth grinding as if from a line of badly-cut coke snorted fifteen years ago but still lodged behind her eyeballs. And I should know, I've been there. Am I just talking about myself? I guess that's what they call 'maturity.' I know it goes without mentioning in a more enlightened era, but what sticks out now isn't that there's a black main character --there were more than a few at the time (as in 1970s' BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) but that it's a reminder of the miscegenation taboo: that no black woman and white man or vice versa can ever be attracted to each other in these movies, so if you're black woman at a predominately white school, there will be one or two black men showing up, and you'll be bound to have an affair with one or both. As a kid in the 70s I wondered if that was just some instinctual thing. Now of course I know the truth --racist southern distribution mores. Nowadays, though it actually seems conspicuous: there are three black people in the cast, one is a homewrecker, one a no-good dual-level cheater, and the other a knife-wielding maniac and they're all, so to speak, in bed together.

The main thing I can't stand about it all though, is the Scott Joplin rag underscoring the big climactic brawl at the warehouse. It's aged... not well, and hangs anachronistically around all through New World nurse and AIP's beach party catalogues so I'm sorry Hill had to lug it with him.



Pros: The black professor has a ferocious tough-as-shit black wife (Mae Mercer), who drops in on our terrified cheerleader in the film's most surprising powerful scene--if you've ever been verbally threatened by your lovers' spouse--either by knife-point or just over the phone--then you too will get a queasy pit of your stomach thrill. I've been on all sides of that equation and let me tell you, Hill gets it right, and that actress wife is a powerhouse - never losing our sympathy even as we're terrified to the point of shitting our pants. Rainbeaux Smith was pregnant at the time (as we learn in the Arrow Blu-ray's generous extras) but you'd never know it, except that she's awesomely stacked and glows with a mix of doll innocence and angel sublime grace. like how Hill doesn't even bother with the big climactic game at the end, nor even deign to mask the terrible emulsion damage and faded color on his stock footage (is there even a single football?)


SWITCHBLADE SISTERS
(1975) Dir. Jack Hill
****

SPIDER BABY's my favorite Hill but this is the second, a complex but highly re-watchable tale of feminism and short-shorts. Doll-faced, sweet voiced, crazy-eyed Robbie Lee, is Lace, leader of the gang, the 'Dagger Debs.' New girl in town Maggie (Joanne Nail) is the newcomer, and not adverse to whipping her chain belt and/or grabbing a switchblade to defend herself at the burger place. Lace's one-eyed Iago, Patch (Monica Gale), sees the writing on the wall re: her beta status. Lace just thinks Patch is jealous of Maggie's cool gutsy charm, but ole Patch is right; the sparks between Lace's boyfriend, the Daggers' leader, Dom (Ashner Brauner, doing a great Ralph Meeker impression), and Maggie are real enough, even breaking into her room to rape her can't change that, nor Lace getting pregnant, to which he snorts and tosses her cash for an abortion.

Pros: a big roller rink massacre; an attack coordinated with a feminist black militant coalition, with machine guns and a badass armored Cadillac, the heavenly blonde Daryl Hannah jawline of Janice Karman as Bunny; the badass 70s funk score, great hair.  --Hill gives us all that and more. See it when you're super furious at the world or just strung out with the shakes because your dealer never showed, and bask in the cathartic powers of the fabulous legs of Joanne Nail, the way Robbie Lee's eyes widen and dilate, then contract into a glowing glaze when she talks. And savor Nail's final rant to the fat cop, her face streaked with blood, eyes wide and maniacal, it's a shocking Cagney-by-way-of Lorre raving mad closing monologue (maybe my favorite ending in all schlock cinema). Joanne Nail would be back all right... in the fascinating 70s all-purpose drive-in capstone, THE VISITOR! (1979) Not much else, alas. (Fuller review here).


SORCERESS
(1982) Dir. Jack Hill
***

Wild-eyed sorcerer Traigon (Roberto "the Mexican Martin Holden Wiener" Ballesteros) needs to sacrifice his firstborn child to his crazy Reptile goddess to keep his magic strong, but his hot young wife has twin girls and won't tell him which one came first. If he gets the order wrong, he's screwed. A wild-haired noble wizard strides forth to zap Traigon into a 20 year-long period of oblivion, but too late to save the mom from Traigon's swordy pique. Naturally, the wizard brings the twin girls to a farmer off in the wild to raise in secret (disguised as boys), imbues them with latent magical abilities and drops back in, Merlin-style, twenty years later. By then the girls have grown into beautiful Playboy playmate twins, Lynette and Leigh Harris, who don't even know how hot they are or that they're girls. Traigon comes back too, of course, and resumes the hunt. His guards scour the land, and assault and murder the farmer family while the twins are out fishing or duck hunting or something. Vengeance is sworn with the help of a hearty viking Baldar (Bruno 'the Mexican shorter John Goodman' Rey) and his horny satyr (who baas like a sheep). During a remarkably large scale market town square scene they meet up with Roberto (The Mexican taller Roger Daltrey) Nelson as lusty roustabout Erlick and the four of them launch a market wide donnybrook against a mob of angry cheated gamblers after Erlick and angry guards after the twins, who do a pretty good job as a kind of tag team bo staff whirligig. Ensuing are hair raising escapes, magical spells, god-wars, apes with druggy fruits (if you'll forgive the expression), twin-connection remote orgasms, and undead warriors culled from their crypts.


Long unavailable in any format, SORCERESS has just enough of Hill's dry Hawksian wit to stand apart from other sword and sorcery "epics" of the 'shot in Mexico or Argentina' New World post-CONAN era. The script is serviceable, the monsters are hilarious. The injury slight, the humor always well inside the boundary between dry deadpan wit (ala Big Trouble in Little China) and self-aware camp (ala Not of this Earth).

Pros: One of the lead guards has a crazy helmet that seems lifted from the 1936 FLASH GORDON. There's also a genuinely spooky crypt scene where the vertical dead in rows of alcoves slowly shamble to life out of the darkness. Baldar's a great wingman ("that's Erlick all right" he says watching the other twin writhe by the fire). The Scorpion Blu-ray that just came out and is gorgeous. The girls is hot and the grimoire stocked. What can go wrong? Can you do less?

Cons: It's sad to learn this was Hill's last movie, mainly because he got in an "enough is enough" spat with Corman over the editing. Why couldn't Hill have just let Corman cut the movie up? Corman's judgement has always been--to my mind--pretty solid. Why did he have to raise a ruckus which caused a falling out resulting in Hill needing to look elsewhere to make his movies and resulting in..... no more movies? To all out detriment and loss.

But I understand, I ain't the same anymore either. Age and experience brings wisdom at the expense of exuberance. And ET was coming along to make decadent deadpan larks like this -- too dirty and weird for the young kids and too cheap for the adults-- left to lurch along with the 16-20 year-old males at the video rental store and even they could be confused. There were many more films in this style for New World to come, and a good number of them are pretty great, I think (like the first two Deathstalker movies), full of the wondrously paradoxical Corman mix of feminist empowerment and bared breasts, knowing wit and thunderous idiocy we crave when relaxing in a late Saturday afternoon or early-early Sunday morning stupor. Sorceress's release year 1982 was a high point for A-list sci-fi and horror/adventure and amidst that year's B-list, SORCERESS is-- finally, thanks to Scorpion's gorgeous Blu-ray (replete with detailed extras)--made eternal. The twins are real (in all senses); the little ape monster masks have facial movements; the satyr leads a charge of real sheep at the climax; and the effects are all of the charming 'painted on the celluloid' variety. CGI was still ten years away; the tactile earthy effort of it all--its solid mythic arc and florid array of weridness--floats past its limits


CONCLUSION

So in short, to answer my question from part 1, does Jack Hill 'get' women, the answer is clear: fuck you for asking. He has a high opinion of women, though, and knows they're strong enough that they can take it and dish out out. The question is, can I handle it? My liberal arts feminist agenda brainwashing struggles to process all the abuse not in some chivalrous sanctimonious way, but with the same "I'll get even" resolve as I'd take, say, Deliverance or Pulp Fiction. It's an important question. And with Hill there's no doubt that's the way he looks at it: his female characters, even the most marginal of them, are capable and resolved and seldom cringe or cower, unless it's a ruse to get the man swaggering and pants-less so the butterfly knife can yield its bloody toll. His women, are in a sense, self-reliant. A man may come to their rescue but they'll do the same in return some other reel. It's a kind of second wave feminism (i.e. from when it was called "women's lib") that may be just a little intimidating to the third wave eat-and-have-cakers of modern film studies. Screw anyone who says bad things about the Hill oeuvre! Sorry of the masculine-hostile verb!


Oh shit I'm becoming the very critic I was just critiquing, like being beaten into a coma by my own copy of Sexual Personae. Actually, I never did read anything bad about the Hill oeuvre. Unless I wrote it about Foxy Brown. Still, I haven't watched Foxy since that bad experience in '99. Why would I? I'll just watch Switchblade Sisters for the dozenth time, or The Lady in Red... The era is full of badass women who 'tag ya back' in ways unthinkable in today's noxious clime.

So hurrah for Jack Hill, and his whole canon being now available, most of them with commentary by himself and Elijah Drenner, or in Switchblade, (if you have the Rolling Thunder DVD) Quentin Tarantino. Let the games of spider begin... forever. I am ready, mostly.
---

PS, Beware a movie with Linda Blair directed by the semi-odious Jim Wynorski--also called Sorceressfrom 1987-- it sounds awful, though I do love that he just reused a title on which he already had credit (the 'original' story of Sorcreress). Had he forgotten? Does he just love that word? Jim, if you're listening, you're a dog, sir. A dog! PS - Loved Deathstalker 2!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dipsomaniac Amore: FALSTAFF (aka CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT)


We fans of Welles and of Macbeth dreamt long and loudly of one day seeing a CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT Criterion Blu-ray. Orson Welles' culling of Falstaff bits from several Shakespeare plays, put in a larger English history (circa early 1400s) context via Hollinshed's Chronicles, it was damned hard to appreciate on the old grey dupes that for decades were our only option - and tough to find. The one critic who'd seen it on the big screen assured us it was a masterpiece. But if saw clips or dupes we couldn't get past things like the terrible dubbing, annoying music, muddy transfer, and a pace too rapid and over-edited for our attention to rest upon. It looked from this vantage as if Welles had been editing it over and over to please himself until the only way to full appreciate it was to have edited it, to be so familiar with its rhythms and the story. Enough forgotten words and slang phrases were used that you needed subtitles and a period English dictionary to unscramble it). That you could one day know enough of what was going on in the story to relax and focus on the arrestingly grotesque woodcut- expressionistic deep focus frames, discordant distorted perspective gags, and ramshackle post-slapstick was but a dream of more patient scholars. Certainly the cast seemed to get it, laughing uproariously at every little movement of old Jack Falstaff, played by the big man, Orson, as large as a house. Disconcerting, in a way, to see Welles so ballooned, as if he might bust or drop a sandbag out of his purse and float away.

I tried to watch the whole thing once or twice, but gave up decreeing, I'd wait for the Criterion. Maybe if the full scope and glory of the cinematography could be appreciated, this mountains of icy qualms would unto flattened puddles melt. Well, the Criterion has come. No more excuses. Dive in! Sure it's taken me months to get to it, and to find at last the right mindset for it's odious savors sweet.

To figure out where amidst the din we may plant our flag of comprehension and bemusement, or for other reasons, I relapsed over Xmas. Yea, for other reasons. So I pray thee --judge me not.

I'd learned from my last relapse (1998), watching an old tape of Welles' Macbeth (1948) that Orson ranting under gloomy painted skies as old Bill Shakespeare fit a lost weekend bender quite well. Shakespeare's language comes into delirious focus and the world's weight of guilt and dread for the coming work week find a perfect mirror in Macbeth's ghostly floating dagger. I still have the pages of almost illegible hand-written notes to the effect from that lost week to the effect it was the ideal relapse play, the fall from sober workaday Eden and into the opiate-womb where three meals a day and a job as Thane of Cawdor are as unattainable as even getting up off your knees to add ice to your highball. (see: Hallowed be thy Shakes: Three Macbeths). Into that morass, Welles' deep booming voice, his mastery of Shakespeare's poetry, came a-rolling like a harmonizing deep bass chord. All that emotion the alcohol loosened, coupled to the dread one might feel alone on a rudderless raft being swept out to sea and looking back at the receding shore (knowing the only way back to sobriety is acute alcohol withdrawal, which can be fatal without hospitalization and/or benzos of one's own), becomes so sublimely coordinated when entraining to Welles, his thunderous oratory filling the sail of Shakespeare's words like a westerly gale into the canvas sail of one's no longer-becalmed heart, that a whole new plateau of ecstasy emerges - not on the horizon as some shimmering mirage but as one's current fix. Watching as Welles staggered around the Republic cowboy sets, the feeling of guilt and remorse as my life up to that point seemed to dissolve in tatters behind me like a Cawdor pennant in the gore and discarded branches of Birnam Wood on the fields of Dunsinane. The full measure of Welles' resonant voice and the poetry of the dialogue cohering across moody Expressionist compositions that made all of Scotland feel like one gloomy haunted house; the marching figures with their tall flags and hanging corpses; ghosts and Welles staggering around in his papier-mâché crown and furs like some drunken glorious fool at a masquerade while the court in attendance eye him with concern and suspicion the way my own friend coterie was eyeing me and preparing for another intervention.

So this time, after 19 years of not drinking... wine...  later, after running through my usual suspects (including, because it was on TCM, High Society which stuck in my head like a broken record), I found Chimes and remembering how Macbeth had so grounded me in its repeatable coil of brilliance, I did hope Chimes might at last make sense. 

And all was well for the first 2/3 - that warm bath of Welles + Shakespeare claimed me as if some night-tripping fairy plucking me from my pet bed pillow and dropping me into his hearth-warmed amniotic purse. For to comprehend why Shakespeare is easier to appreciate when drunk is to need to first be drunk oneself. I remember as a kid a German translator friend of my dad's told me once that all Europeans have a drink before a language class for this very reason; it's a bit like running a stuck jar lid under hot water. Staggering into my 8:30 AM French class still drunk from the night before back in my freshman year of college, hiding my stamp-covered hand from the disproving teacher as I once again displayed my lack of studying, I realized alcohol alone may not have been enough. I got a D-, but at least I scared the shit (or "merde") out of her. Vive la France! (un petit mort aussi).


But that was because I didn't study or really care (language was required), but when just dealing with Shakespeare's semi-olde, pun-filled English poetry, it's close enough to our own the loosening of the deeply-whetted brain's linear grip enables a kind of twisty tongue-tripping free-fall that his eloquence catches in mid-air and swings around as if a glowing orange between two high-wire acrobats, and Welles' resonant voice reaches into the bones and harmonizes them like so many low note xylophone bars.

That's good because all the while Chimes is harmonizing and filling thy sails, you're still out on that raft with no paddle being sucked out to the open ocean without a soul around to notice (if you're lucky enough to live alone), realizing you really need to jump off the raft and start swimming towards shore before it's too late to even try- but you're tired and the current is against you, and sharks and the undertow and you'll jump in a minute you're just trying to get ready; and then, presto, it's too late. The shore is just a thin black line against the sun setting in the west (you think). Then you can't remember which way the shore is at all.

When you wake up and it's 6 o-clock on your VCR you can't tell if its AM or PM by the thin gray light outside. If it's AM you're fucked - the liquor store wont be open for hours. If its PM on a weekday you're fucked, as you forgot to call in sick to work... again. You'd try to call now, or sit up, or make coffee, but just turning the channel to the weather/time is hard enough you get the dry heaves without finishing the rest of your warm foamy highball. The more you keep drinking the worse the recovery is going to be.

The convulsions of withdrawal, the sheer human misery awaiting you is going to immense but while you're drinking - ooh lah lah, hallucinations and sheer ecstasy, laughing with joy as Hal and Falstaff trade off on their impressions of Gielgud's dry air oratory as the king. His officers hammer from without like Monday morning's rail-thin skeleton, phone calls from concerned co-workers that go straight to voice-mail. Away to the wars, they probably say. Being unable to even the find the phone, you declare pacifism to the empty air. This must be what heroin addiction is like you think; you're floating in delirious freedom. To go from such degradation and misery of not being able to stand up without retching, to such narcotized bliss is worth all the suffering. The swimmer pushing off from the bottom swims faster upwards, enough to breach the water like a porpoise. Hitting "bottom" is just the Phoenician sailor corpse's word for "a whole new worrrrld."

So... hit play. It's only 6PM on a Saturday. You have all the time in the world to get straight. Feeling good enough to mix another drink, to steady your wobbly raft as it were, you sit down with newly-minted drink for Chimes of Midnight. Ah yes, it barely matters that you've seen it three times in a row now, because you forgot those times, aside from that it now feels warmly familiar.

This is because really, in a sense, like the demon in the whiskey that unites with the demon in your soul, it's the ultimate bad influence friend both diegetic and meta-ly. Sir John Falstaff has got to go, but what are the options? Go home? Though Sir John is a poster child for charm and wit in the service of base dissolution, John Gielgud's sober King is such a square and so ignobly come to crown that his road there carries its own sort of Macbathean guilt -- considering the bad boy behavior of his princely son as the shimmering accusatory finger of his own private Banquo ghost. He'd rather wish that some night tripping fairy would go into the past and trade louche Harry with noble Hotspur than try to understand his own culpable odium in the equation.

That's why, for all its robust glory and rich language, Chimes is really a kind of Adam Sandler movie. Half the film is just compilations of elaborate insults, pranks, bad boy behavior, and real job shirking, and then---finally and with much trumpetfare--kicking the jonesers, townies and mooches out of your life. The sun shines and the clouds part. Adam Sandler grows up, gets a job and a nice girl; Hal gets a crown; you get "some help." Master Shallow goes back to his own ruddy taverns to boast of knowing the man who knew you when, and then they forget you - for more naive and hitherto-sheltered freshmen are coming into town every fall.

RECEPTION

It might have been pitched like that and done well at the box office--the violence of the battle and the lusty sex of the tavern with Jeanne Moreau's Doll Tearsheet played up, but instead, alas, Falstaff AKA Chimes at Midnight was paradoxically too old-fashioned and too sophomoric-- for swingin' '66. It proved yet another of Welles' art house flops, the equivalent of Oscar Jaffe's canceled Joan of Arc. The art crowd were flocking to see stuff like Blow-Up and Repulsion. A Shakespeare film starring a grotesquely fat windbag, with loads of overdubbing and complicated history, overlapping ornate dialogue that would be difficult enough to understand if read, let alone spaken in a rush over rapidfire grotesqueries and complexly interwoven fields of bawdy, profound, and historically-specific action.

The first row is an array of successful art films from 1965-66 (for releases traveled slowly across country in a few prints) one might see in a row displayed before the local art house cinema.  Looking at the top row and imagining seeing all those posters in a row outside the theater, any promoter can see the subliminal issue why the lower row wouldn't fill many seats. Falstaff is the tubby brainiac nerd no one wants to invite to the prom. Seeing it instead of, say, Persona is like admitting your some wobbling bookish unlaid square with elbow patches on your tweed jacket and ink stains on your fingers from years of note-taking and running from the giddy, druggy thrill of svelte or buxom babes in shimmering mod clothes frugging to the latest psych rock jam or grooving down at the coffee shop to some bongo and guitar folk poetry until the (acid was still legal) drugs kick in. In other words, you're stuck home babysitting your portly step brother instead of running amok with the hot mess blondes of your inner clique. Oh! How wrong they were/are!
As you can see, there's no Janet Leigh or Rita Hayworth to put on the poster. No Edie or Catherine Deneuve or Jane Fonda or Raquel Welch. There's no 'sizzle' the way concurrent releases of similar length and film stock, like Fellini's La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 had.  Audiences would line up for Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg or Sophia Loren, and if they got a little art with their cleavage, hey, sounds great but they didn't have to admit that was why they came - like being able to say you read Playboy for the articles. Not to say it's always needed but (to paraphrase Lorelei Lee) my goodness, doesn't it help?

All Chimes could promise was Welles deep into his fake noses and rotund grotesquery and some passing glances at Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet. A few wives on the opposing side (like Hotspur's lady, played by Marina Vlady), whores and seamstresses in the rafters else (one or two--being hot--I'd faith see further, but never do), we come to rely on the random shots of Moreau's face for beauty. She is so intoxicating--her every strand of wild hair brilliantly captured in Edmond Richard's dusky Haxan-ish photography; her face wreathed in spiderweb lines like a cracked painting--that she seems to pull out some doting delight from deep within Sir John's sack-and-gout plagued corpulence. One shudders to think the abysmal state of his 'bait and tackle' after this long and bulbous life --though Shakespeare's bawdy double entendres on STDs, cleanliness of drawers, and full chamber pots ("empty the jason")--makes sure we do.

For a long time this was the only picture we could find of Chimes at Midnight
and it raised a lot of questions as to the age/relationship here, especially since, when I saw it first,
Welles' was in the news for allegedly bathing Pia Zadora (who was having her
Bardot-80s / Brooke Shields-70s x Zsa Zsa Gabor 60s / Charro- 70s  moment) in Butterfly (1982)
But great as she is, it's not enough nouvelle vague sizzle, nor is there the kind of violence or psychedelic "Euro" progressive mind-bending that was just getting started. Instead of some kind of Ennio Morricone experimental there's a merry olde score by Francesco Lavagnino, that's far too repetitive and jaunty in its main theme, as if he was so enthralled with Nino Rota's work on La Dolce Vita (1960) he forgot to bring in an actual mood of his own.

On the other hand, there's that battle scene, justly celebrated, which Lavagnino scores with wordless female chanting and military drums, so that it becomes an ominous liturgy heralding the giallo eeriness to come in following years. Falling deservedly at the top of cinema's best battle scenes (fitting perfectly between Potemkin's and Duck Soup's), the sequence is a whirlwind of Eisensteinian movement-based editing: horse's stabbed, clangs of metal on metal, bodies in armor falling, charging lances and waving morning stars, waves of soldiers riding in and archers letting fly, from organized symbolic nationality and cavalry card shuffling to pain and muddy brawl-- as if starting out a Riefenstahl equestrian Olympiad montage and ending a muddy massive post-game on-field soccer riot. With its rapid-fire abstract shots there's almost no gore, just a gradual erosion of imagery--there's not even any judgment or polemic - just a real-time example of how men like to get dirty and deadly. It's also a master class is making a hundred extras seem like thousands, and of staging battle without condemnation or celebration but something far nobler-- an in-between recognition of war's necessity for man's esteem and to sate a the eternal masculine need to aggress, and a sad realizing of mortal frailty. In other words, it's not a head-shaking "what a waste" dove polemic or a chest-thumping hawk call, but something far nobler, for it's a nobility achieved through mud, crying widows, and grievous wounds. Only Conan and Patton have maybe come close since.

And naturally, I most adore that--after the field is won-- Falstaff turns his section of the fray into a massive tailgate by pulling his rotund girth up to a big keg on the field of victory, and pouring out a measure of sherri-sack, chilling around it with a coterie of the unkempt countrymen he pricked earlier. This being clearly a modus operandi for battles he's experienced before, declaring his love of sherri-sack for having such an ability to thicken the blood and he would otherwise be a coward, for it makes the brain "apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of fiery, nimble shapes, which delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue... becomes excellent wit." Adding, that sobriety thins men's blood which is why Hotspur fell, and that "if I had a thousand sons, I would make them foreswear thin potations and addict themselves... to sack!" At that point of course, being drunk and feeling guilty, thou mayest cheer. In Falstaff's sanctioned view, your addiction is a noble endeavor to make any Fagin-esque father proud.


That's the rub of the nutshell: we all wish it could go on forever, but war/the bender must end. A wild free-for-all, it's over in a flash, followed by months of recovery and doctor probing. Drinking speeds up time and the hang-over slows it, so eventually--as in The Lost Weekend--the only 'conscious' part of drinking is the pain of withdrawal, as that's the only thing we remember, the only time we're painfully, horribly conscious, aware of time's passage, plagued by saucy doubts and fears. The joy of the plentiful glass may have been quite wondrous, but our takeaway is but a dim blur, a black space on the tape, by shame and dread's grips book-ended. We only have the evidence we must have a blast, left around like cryptic clues--the vacuum cleaner roaring the hours away, inches from our head on the carpet (true story), or the stove left on, a pot of pasta reduced to scorched resin, a smoldering cigarette consuming half the couch, or merely the patient DVD menu, black bruises and missing or bent eyeglasses, the bodies of the moaning wounded like unfinished meals left to rot at table 'til the stench stops on its own accord. Sooner or later, the bodies and the empties must be cleared from the field for the next big show; the booze gone, the wounded too messed up to even call downstairs for delivery, or for an ambulance.

Me, I could only quietly convulse on the floor, as Sinatra's slightly buzzed-flat reading of the line "She got pinched in the Ass- / tor Bar" from "Yes, Indeedy" kept repeating over and over in my head like a skipped record. That part was not fun. I'll never be able to watch High Society again. That is my grievous battle scar. I have the shimmering soundstage poolside Apollonian temple to lovely Grace Kelly (who seems rail-thin) and the big central foyer outside "Carousel" in another TCM picture from the height of my cups, Logan's Run, blurred together like a fusion of the mall (where I spent my formative years' depression) and the hospital (where I'd be shortly). I can't watch that one again either.


But old Jack Falstaff, as with Macbeth before him in 1998, him I can still abide. Getting past the first chunk is hardest, for it plunges in and doesn't endear us to anyone: the voices seem mismatched, the words a muddle, and Hal and Poins laugh and cavort through and around interwoven camea movements with such hearty dubbed relish at Falstaff's cumbersome knavery before we even see him, that we're automatically alienated and thinking we made a mistake - after all, that far drunk it's no easy thing getting up, finding a disc, opening the machine, taking the current one out and putting the new one in, all without falling over, smashing the tray, breaking or dropping or losing either disc, and putting the old one away before it's scratched. The whole operation requires a finesse ill-served by a bender. We're putting a lot of hope on old Jack Falstaff, but before he even has a chance to stir from his mountainous slumber, Poins and Hal are rolling around on the ground, laughing both with him and at him, planning all sorts of teasing jests and bringing up older ones, that they--at least-find side-splitting, but leave a bad taste in our mouths (Hal being royalty who thinks he's being a rebel by robbing from the middle class).


At the same time we're thrown into the political intrigue with Henry's father King Henry VI, who's sort of held onto a temporary king appointment and left the rightful ruler (by his brothers' decree - or something) rotting in some faraway French jail, refusing to pay the ransom. In this sense, Welles keeps our alliance divided -- we actually do like Hotspur more than Hal on some level, as he at least has a young wife he loves and a sense of fun in honor rather than reveling in juvenile vulgarity. The best Hal can do as far as restoring honor to his name is the kind of half-hearted declaration of the prodigal son, who promises to straighten up after his dad bails him out on his second offense. And is this not the claim made by addicts and slumming socialites, that this rough company is an example of the sun permitting "the base, contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world," so that when he pleases can shine be "all the more wondered at"? For if "all the year were playing holiday to sport would be as tedious as work" (and therefore vice versa). Hotspur, clearly, finds time for both on and has grown a far healthier landscape. Harry's not wrong to want some night-tripping fairy to proclaim which whelp is rightfully his own. And it's Hal's killing of Harry in the duel that makes this truth all the more painful.

"The day is wasted if you're not" - La Greco
VALUABLE ONLY WHEN LOST
But really, the most offensive thing, perhaps, is that Falstaff is supposed to be so endearing that makes his going too far painful, like when he takes credit for the death of Hotspur and since he's part of Hal's base company it doesn't matter if the king even believes him. He's gone too far - and if not now to suffer, soon will. My favorite Welles characters--Quinlan, Macbeth, Harry Lime, Will Varner aren't supposed to be o'er lovable. They aren't kept in the company of guffaws and loving looks, so we can suddenly take them as our own. In fact it's only at the moment of his profound realization that his thing with Hal is kaput, that he's out in the cold and that he deserves it and it's the way of the world, and he wouldn't fit in anyway and Hal's doing him a favor, and so forth - that Welles' Falstaff actually seems to become warmly human - it's a powerful, haunting moment and Welles carries it sublimely. It's one of those so far out-of-character moments that major stars perform in films, that are all the more valuable for their rarity--Cary Grant's breakdown before the child services director in Pennies from Heaven, Robert Redford at the end of The Way We Were. If we get this far in, we're already hooked of course. We've figured out Welles' unique rhythm and can comfortably let the words we don't know slide clear away.

Each new viewing then becomes all the clearer and the Criterion commentary track by James Naremore is good at keeping the historical background front and center rather than getting too lost in production history (which comes out more in the great extras). This is essential for understanding as is (I found this very useful), the English subtitles, since so many of the words are forgotten slang anyway (which most adaptations would subtly modernize) and so casually tossed off. Also, the more we watch the less the dubbing aspect becomes noticeable. Especially as the film goes on it seems to all but disappear as a problem. In short, if ever a disc was worth owning and studying and watching obsessively while drunk, this is it. Welles' Macbeth for your first big relapse; Falstaff for your last.

my alternative poster (so it seems almost nouvelle vague noir)

The last, for we have heard the chimes, man. All things must end - and if we're lucky they end in an Ativan IV and Librium dispensed by beautiful young nurses in powder blue scrubs bathed in the nighttime glow of their mobile medicine tray computer screens like shimmering valkyrie. Let no man stand alone in that dark and dingy hour. With no Welles art thy cups abused but though his mud-and-blood besotted gravity swallows up thy trapped trapped unwary shoes, in his boozy expressionistic poetry art thou art lifted, shoeless... through.

1. NOTES:
 Bright Lights -'Welles plays Macbeth like someone just waking up in the drunk tank after a three-day blackout. .."
1. Corman imported so many of these and one wonders just how much his genius with marketing had to do with the entirety of the art house movement. Sex sells the first ticket and art keeps the word of mouth high. 

SEE ALSO:
Shrooms, for Remembrance: Mel Gibson's HAMLET (1990) in Psychedelic Context

Friday, June 09, 2017

This is the (Dead) Girl: CASTING JONBENET, MULHOLLAND DR.




If you have Netflix and three-ish hours on your hands, why not bow your cowboy mouth down below your skies-are-not-cloudy and ride along in the buggy with "the Cowboy" to a double-feature shivaree fit to bust a low-hangin' cumulonimbus: the Netflix-produced meta-crime-mentary CASTING JONBENET (2017) and Lynch's recently-upgraded post-affect-noir, MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)?  Cowgirl pageant darlings cast and into the coffin cradled; non-starter starlets on the Hollywood bungalow bed, dead --sometimes there's a buggy, all right.

Like that ALL ABOUT EVE chick bowing to herself in the mirrors while cradling Eve Harrington's theater guild award (left) in an infinite cascade of cinematic split-subject no hay banda hauntologic dead media mimesis reality vs. fantasmatic / feminine split psyche, this proposed double feature combo would scare the glasses right off that young kid in the morgue in PERSONA. If a real spooked identity crisis uneasiness happens while you're within this three-hour tour through the tumblin' tumbleweeds, just click your heels five times, and whisper the word "silencio" as you draw a functional pentagram with a sacrificial dagger upon the flesh floor. You may not know hear his rustlin', but the devil will come.. already came... and you're long, long dead, waking never from the dream of cinema. As the fella said, sometimes you eat the bar, sometimes the bar eats you. 


A Netflix original directed by young Australian fox auteur Kitty Green, CASTING JONBENET is a true story, on both levels, and even beyond. Rather than just recreate the infamous events, Green kept the interviews and auditions for the main parts of "Lifetime"-style movie about the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case. Using local actors recruited from the Ramsey family's Colorado hometown who knew the people involved, the story unfolds: the weirdly specific three-page suicide note written on the family's stationary, the discovery of JonBenet's body in an anteroom of the cellar; the unconvincing grief displayed by the mother--did she kill her daughter in a fit of rage? By all accounts, JonBenet was a brat at times, forced into the child pageant circuit by a failed beauty queen mom, etc. The mystery of her involvement is profoundly reproduced during montage of auditions re-enacting her initial phone call to the police: with a script in one hand, the phone in the other, the actresses carefully modulating the tremor or anxiety and desperation in her voice as they read from the script. Green trusts us to unpack the massive electric charge inherent in watching an actress auditioning by performing the mother's real life phone call, the mother's call herself being possibly a performance, one that didn't entirely convince the outraged nation she wasn't guilty or complicit in her daughter's death. The mission of the actress then is to not either be too convincing nor too false in her performance, and seeing more than one actress try it is to realize an even broader canvas, the mutability of the truth along a mythological axis. Even if we've never heard the actual Ramsey phone call we know the 'type,' and the child kidnapping/murder is a tabloid boilerplate fastened with adamantine bolts to the mediated public consciousness.

Kitty/ Kitty/ Kitty Green

Casual viewers may be confused by the layers, but the interviews with the auditioned actors and non-acting locals delves deep into issues such as how to play a someone who keeps their cards so close to the vest you yourself don't know what the cards are. So these actors don't know anymore than we do: was the father molesting her at night? Did mom know and is helping her cover it up; or is it that JonBenet's then-nine year-old older brother killed her, as older brothers occasionally try to do if jealous or neglected, and the parents are covering it up by making it look like a kidnapping so they don't lose their son too?

The cast interviewed is fairly evenly divided between suspecting the mother, father, and brother as either guilty or in collusion and NOT, as some thought initially, the mall Santa the mom tries to finger or the skeevy pederast John Mark Karr who confesses to the murder but who's proven to be nowhere near the scene (the actor cast in this role--Dixon White (below)--gives the creepiest most memorable performance in some time; hearing how he prepares, entering this guy's mindset is to realize the true fearlessness of method acting, to essentially access one's inner creepy pedophile sociopath just for an audition is something I'd never in a million years do, but this guy plunges in and the film buckles a little bit under his intense stare once he goes into character.)


Cagily, Green never shows any actual footage of the family or their testimonies and press conferences, that might drag the documentary too far over the line into the land of reality --allowing us to judge the actors more on basis of their ability to deliver impressions rather than intensity or--far more valuable--the complexity to allow for doubt -to be a good actor as a character who is not as good an actor. It becomes Brechtian in constantly bringing us back to the surface, only for the whodunnit aspect to lure our attention back to analytical mode, and again back into conjecture and the dawning of myth. Like Kabuki theater, the events become mutable and irrevocably abstract by heightening their artificiality. By the time we get to the weird, not entirely successful, all-in climax, we're left amazed that we ever had a concrete sense of reality at all, with so much acting and mask-wearing in our weird, kinky world, we realize we're on a sinking ship and the only thing keeping us afloat is a movie about hot air balloons. We cling to its sticky strings even knowing we shall not be lifted, because the mark it leaves in the end tells us something new about death. Scenes of the actress cast as JonBenet enduring endless make-up proddings, painful hair extension inserts and flowers and cowboy hat pinned to her scalp, in order to essentially play a dead girl in a coffin carry a morose but powerful charge that heightens the reality the only such double-artificiality can bring.


By contrast, the much-hyped NEON DEMON tried to deliver it with its obsession with models playing dead but it couldn't shake its overly familiar misogyny and dead-horse-beating message about the shallow vanity of the modeling industry. CASTING JONBENET, on the other hand, goes far deeper than cultural critique, which is why it belongs in the same double feature as another Netflix must, MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Lynch's masterpiece was originally supposed to be a TV series, but the network passed on it, so the pilot was melded with new footage to 'close it' (there was a similar thing done with the pilot of TWIN PEAKS, for markets where it was shown theatrically - see here). If you can find this addition footage ending you can see a midnight call bring Cooper to the boiler room and a confrontation with Bob himself, here in a weird human form, hence killable --followed by a telling "25 Years Later" Black Lodge coda that's remarkably prescient to the new series, albeit unsatisfying as a whole. When this MULHOLLAND DRIVE came out we figured it would be more of the same, and it kind of is, to a point --Robert Forster's homicide detective gets only a single scene, as does (thankfully for I find him a most unsightly character), the dreamer in the Winkie's (his name I refuse to disclose) and the sleazy hitman guy also seems like he was to have a more involved arc. But, the deep end the film went down, with the tiny elderly tourists trickling from the monster's paper bag and so forth, brought the events full circle and tightened the noose so fast we were left breathless; no one was quite ready for the reflexive meltdown critique of Hollywood and the psyche of the actress, this ALL ABOUT ACID PERSONA meta-miracle. With each passing year it gets more relevant, daisy-younger. In the recent BBC Culture poll of the 100 greatest films of the new century, it comes in at #1. 

Even if you have the old DVD, it's worth seeing on Netflix for the HD restoration with glowing flesh colors and a much greater depth of field to the many surreal shots of nighttime LA. Lynch's LA ain't yer La-la Land; it's deeper --it's the LA of dreams where once you get off that plane, take your first script to hand, you're never quire sure what reality is, or if it's even still there. When someone says "Cut" while you're sitting in a restaurant do you automatically stop eating and look around for your director, only to slowly realize you really ARE just in a restaurant and whoever shouted it probably shuffling cards? This idea was explored more in-depth for Lynch's follow-up, INLAND EMPIRE.


Performance is always a reliable subtext for art cinema: it instantly layers the meaning--and the more you let the seams show, the artsier (not sloppier!) you're being. Instead of an actor playing a role you have an actor playing an actor playing a role and somehow all those quadruple negatives become a super positive, achieving a level of truth impossible even in the relatively artifice-free realm of mundane daily life. If you're in the hands of an post-Brechtian like Charlie Kaufman you may even have an actor playing an actor playing an actor playing another actor, so many layers that the actor himself winds up trapped inside them and it becomes just that two headed coin of narcissism and insecurity. Kaufman's sexually frustrated self-conscious prick schtick has been a stone drag ever since we all first tried to like ADAPTATION. But for regular Joes like David Lynch, performance has a more fixed singular function - and if there's sex to be had, it's had and not all this 'piece of shit at the center of the universe' moping. Lynch meditates - his ego is "right-sized." For him, the pretty young ingenue is essentially a split character, not an object for self-laceration or fear/desire, but an anima - beyond duality - the dual lipstick pair-bond narcissistic template addends an Apollonian ideal as old as western culture itself. ("No woman should have a memory," notes Lord Illingworth in An Ideal Husband. "Memory in a woman is the beginning of dowdiness.")

We never see, for example, Laura Palmer doing charity work but we hear all the raves from the elderly lives she touched via Meals on Wheels, reading to the blind, etc. (and romance with doe-eyed 'good' biker, James) are the opposite of the bad girl self, whom follow the thread of her drug use, her running with the bad crowd (wild-eyed Bobby, Leo) and eventually the trauma that caused the split (her incestuous Bob-possessed father coming to her bed "since she was seven"). We can well imagine the Kaufman avatars being amongst the dysfunctional rubes simmering with desire for Laura on one side of that divide or other, trapped in the mind of a powerless infant unable to speak to a hot girl without spitting up on his bib, fuming with unspoken jealousy while she goes out on the porch to talk with some guy in a leather jacket who just pulled up in his Harley. Lynch's idea of these druggy parties at remote cabins has the surreal prepubescent nightmare current to them -- drugs and sex mixed in the mind of someone who's experienced neither, depicted in a hyper-surreal nightmare fashion, what McGowan calls Lynch's fantasmatic dimension. 

To study the making of films in Hollywood (and the world) and the on-set drama that goes on, is to be faced with tales of these jealous infants left behind; viewers/husbands/lovers fuming in the sidelines as their ideal gets it on in full nude scenes with some despicable monster she or he barely knows while eight gaffers heavy breathe behind the kliegs. In that torrid audition scene in Mason Adams' office (it made Watts a star) we have the makings of a master thesis on the proximity of acting and prostitution. As I wrote in 03: prostitution is itself "acting" as in to not just engage in sex for money but also (presumably) to seem to enjoy it. Indeed, a prostitute may actually enjoy herself during the contracted sexual act as long as she pretends it's pretend enjoyment (if she is seen to be too into it, he may expect his money back - who's servicing who?) Within her domain (the boudoir), the prostitute may be--more so than outside in the 'real' world-- completely "herself," - she may be experiencing that moment of complete subsumption into character which is at the heart of good acting. When "cut" rings out (or whatever the mutually agreed-upon safe word happens to be), she can resume the waking dream of societal expectations. (In DRIVE we have no inkling of Betty's capacity to get super quiet-erotic at the audition - does she?)



Of course that can lead to a kind of karmic celluloid looping (the actor who plays the same role onstage the same way, for a three-year Broadway run) that's escapable only if the script is deviated from, without warning, like Camilla's journey  in the beginning of MULHOLLAND DRIVE ("we don't stop here" - as if they've made the journey a thousand times - and they have, more or less beginning and ending the film with it). The crash that forces us to wonder if it's the hit taken out by Diane against Camilla, or if there's a more sinister reason besides the treacherous curves and idiot teens combination of the titular drive. The deviation that sends Camilla down the hill to Aunty Em's house can be read as both the deal with the devil/mob hit that her ex-lover-cum-rival Diane took out on her (she's taken out of the car at gunpoint but then whatever was planned is interrupted by the crazy kids/concussion) and her own deal / deliverance - escape into a new identity.

We think we want to find out who we really are, to chase down the clues, but we don't, really. For in finding out we also realize our entire life is merely a distraction, an elaborate puppet show for the kids, to distract them from their real surroundings ---the dirty trick their parents played on them, leaving them chained to time's abattoir assembly line like sacrifices to some sawmill Molloch, left with barely enough time to repeat the dirty trick on the next generation, and if we're artists, to maybe sew together some new puppets. The search for the meaning of the self always leads to the morgue; the trail of who post-accident Rita ends with their discovery of Diane Selwyn's dead body, a bit like Candice Hilligoss if she saw her own body being recovered from the river even in the Salt Lake Samara she fled to; or Jimmy the sax man in the surf at the shocking conclusion of Jess Franco's VENUS IN FURS.

The Ingenue/Mistress to the Mob

Just as in Lynch the women are all the aspects of the same woman who is an aspect of a single psyche (the collective unconscious celluloid through Lynch's projector), so too the dark chthonic 'devouring father' is as aspect of that woman; if say, Betty/Diane is the unconscious ego the male conscious ego (i.e. Lynch's dream other) then the unconscious's ego in turn has an inner male, a dark force of conspicuous enjoyment, the terrible father (ala Mr. Big in LOST HIGHWAY, and Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET), the one who separates the child from his mother, and who 'enjoys' all the women and pleasures while the boys sulk and bide their time; in MULHOLLAND he's a very shadowy nebulous figure in a wheelchair behind thick glass (the locked door to the ulterior basement of the unconscious mind, i.e the basement's basement) who sends his own agents and provocateurs out into the workaday world to inflict his seemingly unknowable bidding (we're never permitted to learn why he is so insistent that Camilla Rhodes is "the girl.")

The mob, linked on some obscene fantasmatic level to the 'cowboy' (both a deep river 'big fish' childhood totem and Howard Hughes) of course have-long time Hollywood tentacles in the casting industry, ala THE GODFATHER's Tom getting godson Johnny Fontaine into Jack Woltz's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY-ish prestige pic (Theroux's frozen bank accounts the equivalent of finding Khartoum's severed head under your sheets). Camilla Rhodes (alternately Laura Ann Haring and Melissa George) connection with them remains a mystery. It almost seems like they're doing it more for the benefit of procuring the hit from Diane Selwyn, to drive her to a deal with the devil, i.e. just as god creates war for the foxhole's power to wrest prayer from atheists, so too the devil creates surplus enjoyment to wrest souls from grace. Or that famous line from Kafka's Before the Law: the gate was here solely for you, and now I'm going to close it.

THE META LYNCH-IN 
(A Sleepy Viewer is the Most Awake)

One of the most sublime fusions of venue, screening time and film occurred for me seeing MD in a now long-gone family-owned cinema on 1st Ave UES, at the midnight showing opening weekend, the place was rundown but still clinging to the trappings of some long-since fallen into disrepair prefab maroon upgrade it got in the 80s. Operated by a large extended Indian family, the men in turbans and flowing saris mixed with jeans and sandals; the grandmother with her long braid of white hair ran the ticket booth; the children frolicking silently in the shadows around the snack bar, run by the mom, her long braid beaming black, the red dot in the center of hr forehead--gave the vibe an international vibe without going overboard. There was no Indian cooking smells or incense, just the usual popcorn but that was briefly overwhelmed by a stinking drunk homeless woman of enormous size who'd somehow gotten in and camped out a middle aisle seat. She was eventually loudly ejected by the older Indian lady no less, who  shooed her out with a broom, to our muted cheers in the approx. time of the Winkie's episode; later, right around the time they were climbing into Diane Selwyn's apartment, I went to bathroom, which was right around the dead of night and when the picture was starting to get super weird and somewhat boring enough to put me half asleep --it was a long mystical journey underneath the theater, past various detours, piles of old chairs, puddles, and closed-off partitions until I came to the men's bathroom that looked like it belonged to a much older theater a block away, and old Indian man I can only assume was the grandfather was sweeping up, but making no noise his aura blazing there in the dark like a whole different kind of lantern, yet he barely moved.

There was something quite reassuring about all this combined with the film; it made it seem like we were all sleeping over at their inn during some New Delhi storm; it made sense. I fell asleep halfway through the (around the time Naomi climbs in the window of the dead girl); and yet was somehow still following events; it became clearer actually, I even remarked to myself--the way one will when they realize they're asleep yet still self-aware--that through some weird force I was dreaming while watching- third eye-open and trained on the screen; it like watching a movie in 3D and finally realizing I was wearing the glasses backwards. The theater was one of the old type where the ceiling was low and the slope downwards small or almost nonexistent and the projector beam seemed to shoot right over head, the light making a visible beam in the air where a tall man would have blocked a lower portion of the screen; also we could hear the loud whirr of the projector in the quieter passages, or which there were a lot - considering the post-modern meta cinema qualities of the film, that all fit is so perfectly. I know I myself was falling asleep to that soothing projector whirr, the blue light it cast especially matching the Club Silencio and when Rita -- sings her a capella "Llorando" and the pair of lovers cry from her passion, I could hear sobbing too in our own theater, as if our natural defenses had been lowered by the comination of being sleepy at a midnight show, the hour and the quiet nature of the film and the whirr of the projector all lowering our big city defenses so we had no ability to shut out the torrent of emotion the song + the response of thse two women (after their steamy hook-up) engendered.

When we all were released after the film it felt like we'd all had a marvelous weird dream together - bonded; and outside was this weird warm mist. Everyone else on the NYC street was gone - the streets were dead empty - odd for NYC even on a weeknight no matter how late it was. And we all parted from each other hesitantly, almost like we would say goodbye to people we knew; we walked together as long as possible, barely speaking - the magic of the film following us home. As if to up the weirdness, I read a Voice piece (that I can't find) mentioning the magic of their own screening and--from the description--the same theater, maybe even the same showing.

I mention all this for a reason - to show the way meta can make the rest of the world - the world you're avoiding by seeing this film, the world you're escaping, come into deeper focus - so deep it resembles a dream and you realize reality is way more of an escape than we knew - we just weren't seeing it correctly. I later found an article (I think in The Voice) that described this same experience, the author was clearly at the same showing, but I can't find it.

any similarities to a TV screen strictly sublimacidental (my guess is a formative sexual-musical moment in Lynch's life occurred in front of a 50s-early 60s TV set, when some facsimile of this group came on Ed Sullivan or Bandstand or whatever
Lynch's films can engender the sort that sometimes requires a little boredom to appreciate, the stillness of images, the playing of expectations, works to put us into a state of active contemplation, the sort Lynch is familiar with, having a background in art, still photography, experimental shorts, etc. I've only ever encountered that kind of meta-aesthetic arrest a few times before, the most profound was in a room created by Bill Viola for a Guggenheim video/art exhibit and the most contemplative a rainy night showing of GOODBYE DRAGON INN (4)  at the Quad. After all, boredom isn't made by reality but by the limitations of language and iconography, the metonymic delimitation by which things cease to be complicated and are reduced to a few easily categorizable elements. Good metatexuality opens the real back up from its stifling layers of notation. The initial boredom is like the breakwater for the restless egoic conscience; finding nothing to engage it, it fumes and fusses like an infant, and gradually subsides to allow the subconscious to edge forward and help the onscreen image obtain an extra dream-like dimension. In other words, it's slow so we fall half-asleep, and the film we're half-watching and the half-asleep dream we're having click into a larger aesthetic horizon.

AUDITION AS VOYEURISTIC ILLUMINATI SEX RITUAL 

In seeing Naomi Watts get all sexy in her audition we realize the extent to which her whole wide-eyed newcomer schtick as Betty has been a pose - as if poured into a mold as old as Vaudeville (the "Gotta dance!" Gene Kelly in SINGING IN THE RAIN. Her ability to shift from wide-eyed newbie to sultry libertine made Naomi Watts a star (in the 'real' world); in the film she performs for a crowded room that includes cheery old wholesome seniors like Mason Adams, and an older soap star doing his best Clark Gable impression. Not expecting Watts/Betty to become so... open and sexual--we feel the intensity of her actually hooking up with  us - it's like she's seducing the whole room into a collective swoon. This is the miracle of Bertolt Brecht - the more the seams show the more endearing; if we can bring real acting power to bear in these artificial situations they wrest us free from the rut of narrative immersion.

This audition scene is hot enough to give wood to the dead, but it's also very odd-what is the difference between this kind of focused sexual heat, turned on and off in the moment, with an escalation of lines (and an imaginary knife), but performance veering very close to targeted seduction, she could very easily plunge down a rating into the seedy world of X-rated movies and then, who knows, bumming scabby cigarettes from gross scumbags before getting it on with them (presumably) in the back of a van in exchange for--presumably--money for crack and the promise to keep her eyes open for any new girls that might come staggering down from the Hills.

We can perhaps understand more about MULHOLLAND if viewed as a sequel to LOST HIGHWAY, the "hers", BLACK SWAN  / to LOST's "his", WRESTLER. LOST saw a man (Bill Pullman) literally split in two along his Moebius strip tape splice. The Barry Gifford murder mystery noir plot he's embroiled in finds him jailed for murdering his brunette wife--something he has no memory of doing but which is on tape--but then transforming into his younger alternate incarnation, Pete (Balthazar Getty). Betty similarly becomes Diane Selwyn, that hardbitten mediocre talent who brings her cute giriflriend on an audition and finds herself eclipsed. Soon the director has signed her lover, Camilla to a contract and she becomes a young mob ingenue (maybe one of their daughters or mistresses?) or devil's subject (she sold her soul for the part, and the mobsters and cowboy act as agents to fulfill her dreams before they claim her soul).

There's even a Midge, so speak, Diane's ex-lover (presumably?) moved out as a kind of Midge / Anne Hayworth type - the also-ran still in the peripherals making a weary to-do of coming by to get the last of her stuff - in effect positing Diane in the attraction change of the endless upwards spiraling triangle of desire, everyone chased by an old lover who still wants to be in the picture even as a friend or peripheral and the one who's recently thrown us over and we stalk or try to avoid or drink at; who we cry while masturbating to, and eventually put a hit on, sign a deal with the devil so to speak, the way Bill Pullman did with Robert Blake's devil man (below), who can be two places at once.


From a paranoid mind control Illuminati angle we can also connect the steamy audition Betty nails for a room full of people to the striptease Alice is forced to do at gunpoint for Mr. Eddy and his contingent in the LOST HIGHWAY flashback. The split subject then is explained through the elaborate mind control rituals, of which the connection between both HIGHWAY and DRIVE audition scenes connecting to conspiracy theories about Monarch 7 (1) or the collective subconscious and its tendency to arrange its repressed libidinal desires around pentagrams and black candles in some hidden room of one's parents' basement - with parents, grandparents, strange carnally-attuned neighbors with pointy glasses (like Nicki [Michele Hicks] below as the assistant to the casting director). Note the odd, knowing, carnal, paranoia-engendering gazes into camera below.

Ready to bring you "over the rainbow" (2)
The genius of the Illuminati/CIA/reptilian sex slave mind control basement ritual conspiracy theory is that it so suspiciously reflect/matches our primal unconscious dread/desire matrix, the basement as collective subconscious repository for every forbidden desire since the dawn of one's separation anxiety as an infant. In fact, this conspiracy theory in particular matches exactly parameters of the deeply buried subconscious incestuous impulse (as buried as Cronos under the bowels of the Earth). This might be intentional on the Illuminati's side of things, as it makes those under its power sound crazy when they try to report it (a kind of ur-gaslighting), and also creates split personality through the trauma; the idea being one is already a split personality as soon as they begin to repress base id impulses (locking in the basement the side of you who considers potty training and social mores to be an infringement on its ego-made rebellious incestuous polymorphously perverse freedom). This split of the self makes us effective assassins if exploited for such things, but also makes actors of us all, in more ways that we'll ever consciously know. Lynch knows, though. He's caught the big fishes.
------
PSYCHE FLOOR PLAN
Second Floor
(Controlled by the Flow of True Events)
Abstract thinking / super-ego / higher reasoning / artistic /: TRUTH OF (FILMED) EVENT
Laundry chute to basement--> creative function /  film (i.e. hearing down from the depths and translating to narrative for the upper floors
steps - transitional - performance/ duty / expression, from effort to finished film.

First Floor
(Controlled by the Ego)
Waking Consciousness: (pay checks / paint brush cleaning  / disclaimers / jail-time)

POINT OF SEMI-CONSCIOUSNESS

steps down - transitional from awake to asleep'

THE BARRIER DOOR
--
BASEMENT
(controlled by the Anima)
Incestuous desire or childhood repressed fantasized sexuality depository (imagined spanking/ child is being beaten/ desire for neighbors, fellow classmates, friends, etc.)
Ulterior door/ barricade: Cover memory / split personality
crawlspace
SECOND BARRIER
Laundry Chute 2
(Whatever lies beyond our conscious/unconscious' control/will)
Ulterior basement
(controlled by the Anima's Animus OR Illuminati/Reptillians)
Any actual (real physical space-time) incest / abuse -TRUTH OF (Traumatic) EVENT (repression depository for memories of actual incest, satanic abduction) 

By the above Lynchian hierarchy of consciousness we can pinpoint the problem with False Memory Syndrome - actual horrors endured are hidden below the sub basement level of merely repressed libidinal desires and fears, colored through lenses upon lenses warps upon warps etc.  The traumatic real event from the basement (Mrs. Bates' actual withered skeleton in the dress) reaches up like a hand through the sock pocket of repressed unconscious desires (the frock and wig and Norman's mind), the hand reaching up through the laundry chute to kill women who arouse him (there's no lock on any of the doors between the floors of the psychotic, schizophrenic, or--alas--bad tripper). The falseness of some recovered memories under hypnosis involves reverse-direction sock puppeteering that doesn't go far enough down, mistaking the sub/libidinal fantasy basement for the ulterior basement of actual truth. During the 80s Satanic panic it took the feds actually going down there and physically digging where all the bodies were supposed to be, under the foundation to where the ulterior rooms are, to realize there was nothing substantial there; the police were believing in empty sock puppets. 

For Lynch, a figure like the cowboy is a herald from one floor of consciousness to another, a sock puppet sent up from coming from the lower basement, the agent of his own dark undersoul; the conveyer of actions dictated by the unseen monsters of power (seen here in big dark empty rooms --with nervous supplicants speaking to them from behind clear glass walls, a metaphor for the divider between unconscious and conscious, the way ideas and decisions are passed across a slot in the wall from the depths of psyche into action or art). The levels of heavy power invested in these characters is impossible to understand until one translates their meaning across three spectrum - the meta outer spectrum (the blue-haired 'ultimate viewer / voyeur' at Club Silencio; the inner viewer (Camera POV) and innermost (character 'identification'); that a childhood icon (a popular plastic toy) like a cowboy to deliver these ultimatums is no accident: he's outmoded but recognizable, an ageless archetype as fitting in its proud anachronism as Sam Elliot in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. 





Similarly JONBENET the film operates with multiple layers - with the innermost core being the mystery of 'whodunnit' the unknown story that no one could successfully descramble and so has fostered endless speculation; the outer--the narrative recreation; and the outermost - the casting and personal interviews - the telling difference which separates this from fiction of MULHOLLAND DRIVE is that the truth has a habit of doubling back around on itself while fiction tends to just reverberate out into the wilderness, the difference between bloating in a bathtub and dissolving in the ocean. So here the actors auditioning for the roles turn out to be friends and neighbors of the Ramseys, each with their own piece of the mosaic as precious yet macabre as a handkerchief with some of Dillinger's blood. 

In Lynch's film, of course, there's no real blood, and all the handkerchief's have the same initials. The guy in the wheelchair is really one aspect of the same self that includes the cowboy, the mobsters, and both women; the fictive world of the film is as a universe exploded from the same ball of psyche. On the other hand, saying it's all one man's psyche, and the various archetypes within that psyche's unconscious, doesn't mean its cast of voices is smaller than the Ramsey case's 'real' people cast. Events are rooted in time, relationships of cause and effect mutable only in the varying vantage points from which they are witnessed and remembered or performed, as if some endlessly variable mythic template (the way, say Pagans perform the roles of sun and moon during solstice). The world soul and the individual psyche are linked in ways that are beyond limitless. The brain might look like a ball of gray oatmeal but it's bigger than all the oceans combined and, if you try and get too close, will take a broken shard of mirror and fuck you up real pretty. But in the end, you will understand the most important truth--that there was nothing to understand at all.



FURTHER:
NOTES:
1. I'd rather not go down this lane, as I'm as susceptible to hot button outrage and paranoia as the next man, and reading this stuff disturbs me. The result of getting too far into it is clear via the ridiculousness of armed civilians crashing the Bohemian Grove or Pizza Gate. Regardless of if it's true or not I personally can't believe it, for my own peace of mind, but the very hot button of it all is what fascinates me, the way our paranoid collective subconscious so mirrors the reports of actual programming that one can only assume it's intentional - either they imitate our dreams or our dreams imitate them. 
2. Read the copious conspiracy theories Monarch 7 program's use of the Wizard of Oz as a hypnotic/programming tool (as seen in EYES WIDE SHUT)
4. Read my work-assigned synopsis/review here ("course description" at bottom)
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